The Girl Next Door

Becky readjusted her glasses as she read the papers. Another murder. A single girl strangled to death. The same red scarf. She sipped her coffee nervously as she read the whole news article in detail. The city was becoming a menace for single women like her. Her toast lay untouched on the table.

That’s getting cold you know, Eddie, the portly cafe owner remarked, as he walked past her to serve another customer. Becky was his regular for breakfast and dinner. And really was fond of the “kid” as he called her.

Becky rushed off from the cafe. She didn’t want to be late for work. She always took off her glasses when she stepped out on the road. She didn’t know why she did it. But that’s how it always was. She walked briskly towards her office.

The travel agency she worked in had 4 others working alongside her. In these days of Internet and self-bookings, business had been understandably slow. There were always fears of them shutting down. But then Mr Smith was a large hearted kind man. He would keep things going as long as he could. Becky knew how much he cared for each one of them.

As she sat on her chair she kept the folded newspaper on the table in front of her. As her laptop was coming on her glasses were back and she quickly checked herself on her mobile phone camera, pouting just once to check her lipstick. She smiled to herself as she admired the new shade she was wearing. It was time to begin work.

Becky’s routine hardly saw any change. Every day just seemed like the previous day, with the next day promising to be just the same. She wound up work around 7 and walked right back to the cafe for her regular dinner…black coffee and a couple of chicken sandwiches, before she walked back home. The entire journey from her office to the cafe and then to her single room apartment took her around 18 minutes. With another 15 thrown in for her dinner. She was usually in bed by 8.30, watching television.

The next few days went the same way.

And then again she read of yet another murder. Her coffee went down faster as her eyes followed the gory news of yet another similar murder in the newspaper. Eddie knew her toast would be uneaten again. He sighed as he walked past her engrossed in her paper.

It’s alright Ma, I’m only reading, Becky laughed out loud, making her colleagues look up at her from their work. It was unusual to hear a raised voice from her. They looked at each other and smiled as they heard Becky chat animatedly on her phone.

My mother thinks I am the next victim of his killer, she laughed at her colleagues, as she hung up. She thinks every single girl in this city is doomed, she said, her eyes twinkling. Her colleagues too laughed. But she’s right. You do need to be careful you know, Andrew said. Becky knew Andy had a thing for her. She smiled and went back to doing her job.

There were cops all over office. There were at least 5 of them in that small area. Some asking questions, others looking around the space for clues and fingerprints. Andy was a good man. Happily married. He had no enemies. Mt Smith sighed as he handed some documents to the cops.

Becky sat on her seat. Transfixed. She couldn’t believe the murders had come so close to her. Till now she had read about the victims as unknown people. This time it was different. It was not a single woman. But a married man instead. And someone known to her. Becky couldn’t even sip on her coffee that morning. These murders are really killing your appetite I see, Eddie growled as her breakfast lay untouched.

Mr Smith decided to close the office early that day. He was too shaken up by the events as were all the others in the office. I’m glad his wife never knew of his affection for you, Marjorie winked at Becky, trying to make light of the heavy atmosphere that pervaded in the office. Becky smiled back meekly, as she took off her glasses to walk out of the office.

She didn’t go to the cafe that evening. It was too early for dinner and she never liked anything to go out of routine. She went to the park nearby instead and sat on an empty bench. She watched the children play in the park and the sounds of their laughter seemed like a balm to her troubled mind. She smiled to herself as she watched them, feeling a sense of calm she thought she had lost. As the evening sun went down, she decided to walk towards the cafe for dinner.

I’ll have the pie instead, she told a surprised Eddie. And warm it nicely please. And get me a glass of warm milk tonight Eddie.

Eddie kept her revised menu dinner on her table, his surprise writ large all over his face. It was the first time in the last 2 years Becky was doing something outside her routine. I hope you’re ok, he whispered to himself as he left her table.

Becky looked at her in her mirror in the apartment. The new lipstick shade was something she had never used before. It had been a gift from Andrew. It’s for you my darling, were his last words as he embraced and pulled her closer to kiss her on the mouth in that lovely alley away from their office. He couldn’t say a word after that as Becky had rendered him speechless. First with her passionate kiss and then the cold steel knife that pierced him from the back. She loved the look of shock on his face as he struggled and fell face up in alley. Blood splurged out of his mouth as his eyes remained open and unfocused as his body went lifeless.

Becky didn’t want to waste a red scarf in him. She wanted to break the chain she had started a couple of years ago. A single woman who had ruined her mother’s life by taking her father away from his wife and daughter. All single women were the same Becky had reasoned. They must be done away with. Her mother being in the institution amused her at some level. Every-time she spoke to her she felt that she instead of her mother or maybe alongside her mother should also be there. Don’t worry Ma I’m fine, she’d told her Ma the night she ‘met’ Andrew on the alley. This one is for dad, she thought to herself. These married men, she shook her head as she smiled at herself in her mirror.

Becky opened her cupboard to throw Andrew’s purse which she had taken from him. She opened a drawer in the cupboard to keep it along with a few brand new red scarves that lay there. So much more work to do she sighed to herself as she closed the cupboard shut.

The next morning Becky sipped on her black coffee alternating her sips with a bite from her multigrain toast. Eddie was happy to see her eat without any “newspaper distraction”. That’s a good girl, he whispered to himself as he watched her eat properly, after a long time.

Becky took off her glasses as she walked towards her office. There seemed to be an extra spring in her step that morning.

The cops were clueless about the “single-woman killer”…now a married man had been added to the list. They had no way of even connecting the victims with one another. They continued their baffled investigation without making any headway, as life went on…

Copyright (c) Pratik Majumdar, 2021. Any article, story, write-up cannot be reproduced in its entirety or in part, without permission. URL links can be used instead.

The Lovers

Susan lay awake on her bed. She looked at his sleeping body with love and pity. Love because as a husband he’d always been exemplary. Pity because she knew he wouldn’t be her husband for longer. She couldn’t carry on the facade any longer. It was their 5th anniversary and they’d just made love. True to his nature he was fast asleep within minutes but Susan lay awake. Wide awake.

It all started 6 months ago with a phone call.

Susan couldn’t believe the voice she was hearing at the other end of the phone. She had last spoken to James five years ago. It had been their last meeting. She had broken his heart and walked out of his life and into the life of John, her to be husband. James had cried begged pleaded with her to give her one more chance. He would never cheat again with her. But Susan had made her mind up. Once a cheat always a cheat were her last words to James. All those memories came flooding back to her as she heard his voice that day.

Eventually she met him. At their old jaunt The Coffee Place. I could never forget you Susan, he said as he clasped her hands tightly. She always loved his firm grip. It was the sign of a confident and honest man she always felt. He looked into her eyes and she could see all the love he still carried for her. She set me up Susan she set me up, he pleaded. I tried to tell you but you were too hurt too angry to even listen. Yes I was drunk but she came on to me and forced herself on me. And recorded it on her phone as well. Why would I Susan. Why? His tears fell on their entwined hands as he broke down.

She looked at him and sighed. She had wasted five years of her life with John. She had married out of anger. Out of spite for James. And now she regretted it. Not that John was ever a bad husband. In fact he never gave her any reason to complain. Loved her with all his heart. But try as much as she did, she could never forget James and love John. It was her first love that always remained embedded deep inside her. So many times James’ face came to her mind when she made love to her husband. She too had not forgotten him.

I want to get out of this marriage she cried to him. Please help me James. He loved the way she held his hands, all the while looking him right in the eyes.

It was a cold November evening when they hatched the plan. James would fire blanks at John and the latter’s weak heart would give away. It would be the perfect murder. Never could be proven as murder. Just look like a simple heart attack. It was just brilliant. Susan and James kissed passionately after they agreed on the final plan. I can’t wait to be with you darling he told her, as they embraced.

The shots were fired. James stood transfixed as he saw John’s body slump to the floor, blood oozing from his mouth. The gun seemed stuck to his hand as his eyes followed John’s falling body. He stared at the lifeless body lying in front of him in a pool of blood. His mind went blank.

The cops had a field day. They’d never had it so easy. Susan’s ex lover had killed her loving husband in a fit of jealous rage. The hapless devoted widow was left mourning her loving husband. All of James’ explanations and clarifications fell on deaf ears. It was an open and shut case.

Susan took off her veil after the memorial service. She was tired, emotionally and physically drained. She felt a hand on her shoulders as she sat on the dining table. It was Mark, her husband’s younger brother. She looked at him with a smile and then stroked his hand, kissing it a couple of times.

We did it darling. We did it. It took us five years but we did it. No one between us now and all the money is ours, Susan’s voice trembled with quiet excitement as she spoke.

I planted the girl on James so you could break up with him for a valid reason. John always liked you, the sneaky bastard. Didn’t care if his brother liked you too. Always thought his money would buy you. So I played him. And played him well. And you my dear what a wonderful act you put up for five years. Mark was all praise for Susan.

And your master stroke was to find James and bring him back in the scene. That was simply brilliant, Susan said, paying back the compliment to Mark.

She got up and both of them hugged. Mark placed his lips on Susan’s.

The message from the solicitor confirming the transfer of the property deed and other of John’s possessions in Susan’s name, lay unread as the lovers continued kissing each other passionately.

Copyright (c) Pratik Majumdar, 2021. Any article, story, write-up cannot be reproduced in its entirety or in part, without permission. URL links can be used instead.

Marshmallows

Dec 31 1990: The three of them sat on the steps of Garware, the new supermarket that had opened in South Bombay recently. One was 19 about to turn 20 in January and the other two were already there a few months ahead. The three young men sat on the steps that night, which seemed lonely for them whilst the rest of the city rejoiced in bringing in the new year.

“We’re such losers. Nowhere to go nothing to do on New Year’s Eve”, said one of them, the light-eyed curly haired one.

“We could go for the college party at Madh Island you know, we were invited after all”, the guy with Afro said, almost defensively.

“At least you guys got invited. I got nothing”, the tallest and youngest of them sighed.

The Afro-haired guy took out a packet of marshmallows from the plastic bag of Garware’s. That had been their mighty purchase on 31st night. Unlike other guys of their age, they didn’t even smoke or drink. He tore open the plastic pack to reveal those gorgeous multi-coloured cubes of heaven. They all looked at the marshmallows admiringly.

“We’re such losers”, the light-eyed guy repeated his statement again as he helped himself to a pink marshmallow.

“I’ve never had one in my life before”, the youngest said, as he helped himself to a light green one.

The Afro haired guy watched the other two put the cubes in their mouth amusedly. He didn’t like sweets. He and the light eyed guy burst out laughing as they saw their youngest friend make a strange face. Both of them held their stomachs as they guffawed away on the steps of the supermarket watching their buddy express his dislike for marshmallows facially.

The three friends laughed for much longer that 31st night as the distant sounds and lights of fireworks brought in the new year.

******

Thirty years went by just like that. Time, it seems, travels on two planes. On one plane the journey is a slow, languid one where it seems to struggle to move ahead.

And on the other, it just whizzes past before one realises it.

******

Dec 31, 2020: the Afro haired guy…now with a more decent hairstyle (thankfully) speed-dialled his younger friend. It was 11.58 and he wanted to wish him first. They were both married now and strangely alone yet again, with their wives and children out of town.

“Feels strange to be a bachelor once again Na”, they kept saying to each other over the last few days.

The holiday season could get awfully lonely at times.

Their light-eyed friend was a happy bachelor and sometimes they envied him. He would take off to Spain or France or Italy at the drop of a hat. Most of his New Years were spent there. This year because of the pandemic he too was alone at home.

He was added on the con-call.

“Hey man it’s just like yesterday all over again”

“Yes the three of us all alone on a New Year’s Eve with nowhere to go”

“We’re such losers…even now”

“Actually we’re not,” said the light-eyed guy. “Everyone is in the same boat as us this year. The only difference being maybe they don’t have the memories of the last thirty years that we have”

“Welcome to the club”, they ribbed their youngest friend, who was going to turn 50 in January.

The three friends chatted away the night from their respective rooms. The lights and sounds of the New Year felt like before.

Ella

The audio file on his phone remained unopened. He stared at it for a while not knowing whether he should open it or not.

It had just been weeks since they’d met and it was at a frightening pace they hit it off. The connection seemed immediate and fascinating. He had never ever connected with anyone the way it seemed with her.

Happily married is an oft misused phrase. In reality it describes perhaps. a certain state of limbo where there are no obvious or major hiccups in a relationship of two individuals. Happiness hardly plays any role in the scheme of things. He had been married for nearly two decades and was blissfully suspended in the same state.

Till he met her.

To most of his friends and colleagues he seemed like the happiest person to be around. His cheerful optimism more often than not rubbed off on people near him. He always had a smile and a helping hand. If ever there was a problem, he seemed to have the solutions. What most people didn’t know was the effort it took from him to clear each and every hurdle life placed in front of his journey. He almost always kept his ego and his happiness aside as he went about life trying to bring happiness to all around him.

He met her at a Christmas party at a common friend’s place. Although there were a lot of people there that day, the chances of bumping into anyone he didn’t know were slim given that they were almost all from his church. But there she was.

My sister goes to the same church she said when he asked her.

I don’t go to church

This one you mean right?

No. I don’t go to church. Any church.

Really?

Yes. I simply don’t believing in bargaining with anyone for my happiness peace or success. I know I’ll get my share anyway. Whether I pray or not

He didn’t know how to answer that, as he stared into her eyes, fascinated by how brown and sparkling they were.

She smiled warmly as she caught him staring at her. Like what you see she winked and laughed at his embarrassment at being found out.

They exchanged numbers and the next few days frantic messages and conversations flowed. Everything from religious beliefs to moral standings, renaissance literature to beat poetry, Ella Fitzgerald to Taylor Swift were discussed. And debated. He soon found out she loved to argue, or “discuss” as she’d like to put it, on almost everything. And invariably she did not seem to go with the conventional flow of things on almost anything. At times he felt she was deliberately provocative just needling him to get into a debate. Soon he realised that’s who she was.

You think we should meet again? Or will you be gaping at me like last time? I am sure you must’ve seen my DP at least a hundred times by now, she loved teasing him and stumping him for words.

So you love flattering yourself I know, but you know what? Let’s meet and let’s find out if I still do gape or whether I am “over you”. His quick and sharp reply took her by surprise but she also enjoyed it.

Challenge accepted she typed back, in a hurry, as she smiled

The coffee shop was unusually empty. Despite the pandemic, he would see it mostly filled up. It was a favourite jaunt for young people who really had stopped bothering too much about the situation and were meeting openly. To see just a couple of other tables occupied on a lazy weekend surprised him. He waited for her at a corner table by the window. He stared at the beautiful view of the sea from the window from time to time. But mainly his eyes were at the entrance waiting for her to arrive.

Ok so she’s not the punctual types. That’s a bummer. He thought to himself. He was “extra hyper” as his wife always said, about time. He would rather reach an hour earlier than be late by even fifteen minutes. But then that’s who he was.

And surely she wasn’t.

He sipped on his espresso, his third of the morning as his impatience grew. He was not used to waiting for anyone this long. It had been well over an hour of the decided time to meet. He felt peckish and ordered a cream roll for himself. Maybe my hunger is angering me, he reasoned to himself.

His messages to her did not seem to be reaching her. Maybe she’s in the underground making her way here, he kept trying to justify her absence.

Eventually he left the coffee shop after a couple of hours. He felt angry and disappointed. He was really excited about meeting her again and if the truth be told she had initiated it. So he saw no reason why she stood him up. He was seething more at the fact that she seemed to have received and read his messages but not bothered to reply. Or show up.

He was sitting alone by his window listening to an old Ella Fitzgerald record. His wife and son were out of town for a couple of weeks and he enjoyed being all by himself for a change. Ella on a Saturday evening, as he sipped his single malt seemed like a perfect day. Except for the morning disappointment. That seemed to have affected his mood. Maybe a tad more than he would have liked it to.

The beep of a new message was perfectly timed. Just as Ella finished Dream a Little Dream of Me and was about to begin Wonderful World. The hiss and crackle of the old vinyl was drowned by the phone beep.

The audio file on his phone was there. He stared at it for a while not knowing whether he should open it or not.

For reasons unknown to him, he got up and out on his headphone before he pressed play on the audio file.

The gentle strums of the ukelele took him by surprise…and then came the golden voice…

“Don’t know much about geography

Don’t know much trigonometry

Don’t know much about algebra

Don’t know what a slide rule is for

But I do know one and one is two

And if this one could be with you

What a wonderful world this would be”

The evening sun painted a gorgeous orange brush over deep blue sky, as her song seemed to seep in his soul like a painter’s brush into a glass of water.

He wasn’t listening to Ella anymore that evening.

Copyright (c) Pratik Majumdar, 2020. Any article, story, write-up cannot be reproduced in its entirety or in part, without permission. URL links can be used instead.

Fever…

Her fever came suddenly. It started with an intense headache, followed by nausea. By night her body was burning with fever and intense pain in her joints.

He called the doctor.

There seemed to be nothing wrong with her apart from a racing pulse. The doctor gave her paracetamol and asked for a few routine blood tests. It’s mostly dengue I feel, given the intense shivering while the fever comes he said.

Should we get a covid test done too, the husband asked, worriedly. The doc shook his head. I’ve tested her chest, seems clear and I felt no congestion he replied. Looks like dengue to me.

He sat by her bedside applying cold wipes on her forehead as and when he felt her fever rising. The wipes would arrest the temperature for while but after a while it would shoot up again.

She complained of intense bodyache and joint pains and nausea. Take me to the hospital she begged him.

By midnight her condition was such he had no choice but to take her to the hospital. The hospital was the last place he wanted to go in the current situation but there didn’t seem to be any other alternative left. He wore his double mask, face shield and gloves as he drove her to the hospital that night.

Over the next two days her condition worsened. The fever ran high. There was an inexplicable hair loss which the doctors couldn’t figure out and gradually her senses seemed to lessen rapidly. Looks like she’s slipping into a coma the baffled doctors told him.

All blood test results had come negative including dengue.

He stayed at home and stopped visiting the hospital. The doctors told him not to come. The situation wasn’t conducive to regular visits they told him. Moreover she was in coma so it was pointless anyway for him to risk his own life visiting her now.

He stayed awake at home. Night after night. Every ring of the telephone quickened his heartbeat as he expected the worst.

She pulled on for a fortnight before finally losing her battle. It was around 5 in the evening when the call came from the hospital. The death was officially certified as Mystery Fever.

A week later he sat alone at home looking at their wedding photograph. She looked so radiant as a bride. He remembered her smiling face as he held the photograph in his shaking hands. He took one last look at it before putting it away in the carton containing her other things. Her clothes, her perfumes, her make up, her books, her music. He was throwing everything away. He wished he could throw her memories away too but he knew they would stay with him forever. But these things had to go.

And also the Advanced Chemistry Handbook. She had gifted it to him on one of their anniversaries. Because of his love for chemistry. It was there that he had read about Thallium poisoning. It was undetectable and there was no known antidote. And the only way it could be traced was by a process known as flame atomic absorption spectroscopy. And he knew most people in his town had never even heard of it. He made sure he placed the handbook right at the bottom of the carton.

Keep the tea ready, I’ll be back in an hour disposing these boxes off, he shouted to her younger sister who was in their bedroom resting.

She came to the door, smiled at him and blew a kiss as he began to shift the cartons in his car.

Copyright (c) Pratik Majumdar, 2020. Any article, story, write-up cannot be reproduced in its entirety or in part, without permission. URL links can be used instead.

Sea Link

David Bowie’s Hero

God Only Knows by The Beach Boys

A solo holiday at a Dharamshala resort

Weekend in Goa with my wife

Leo Messi hattrick vs Real

Virat’s century at Perth

Their answers were fluent and poles apart from one another’s.

As the two of them sat by the sea that late night they seemed to have found a connect in their disconnected lives. The Mumbai sea-link formed an unlikely backdrop to the serendipitous meeting of two strangers.

He was a 30 something freelancer working with various IT firms in the city. He knew he was pushing the age limit for his ultimate ambition…to have his own dream App come out. But he didn’t think of failure. With his wife and 3-year old at home he couldn’t afford to

She dreaded approaching 30. Two broken relationships and endless job hopping had been her only remarkable achievements in life. Away from her family in Kolkata she found sanctuary in her one room PG dig in Bandra. Her job at the mall paid her bills. She secretly wrote poems.

A technical glitch brought them together that night. Inexplicably both had the same taxi assigned to them for different locations. They wondered how the same car could take them to Bandra and Powai at the same time. The car went to neither. Instead dropped them off by the sea and whisked off before they could finish their curses.

Just one of those nights, he smiled as he looked at her and sat on the concrete slab by the sea. The night breeze swept her hair across her face making her look beautiful.

Yes the last thing I needed to round off a lousy week she sighed, moving the hair off her face with her slender fingers. She too sat down next to him.

Strangely it didn’t feel strange for either of them as the conversation flowed on.

Bad week eh he asked looking into her hazel eyes directly as he spoke.

She liked people who looked her in the eye as they spoke. She nodded a yes. A soft smile flashed across her lips. Maybe for the first time that week.

Business has been slow and the store I work in has been threatening to trim since a while now. And I feel the axe might just come any day now she sighed, as her shoulder slumped as she removed her hand bag from her shoulder and kept it by her side.

I don’t even have a job he laughed. I keep hoping to get a next assignment soon but things are bad yes. He understood how she felt, since he juggled his uncertainty at job on a regular basis.

They both decided to book their cabs again hoping they’d get separate ones to take them to their respective homes.

Kajal will throw a fit again. She’ll be sure I’m out boozing with my friends on a Friday evening. Maybe that’s better for her to think than knowing I’m sitting with an attractive girl by the sea at this hour he smiled as he looked straight in her eyes again.

Oh thanks she smiled back, looking him back in his eyes. She found his honesty disarming and sweet.

Favourite song? Dream Holiday? Best sporting moment?

They asked and answered each other’s questions like old friends. Theirs was a connection that was unprecedented and rare.

Two unknown people bumping into each other in a bustling city one lonely night by the sea was stuff they had read or seen in movies. But this connection was so real and yet magical.

They both felt a sense of calm which they hadn’t in a long time. Relaxed.

He answered a phone call which interrupted their conversation, as he whispered “Kajal” to her with a smile.

No I promise I’m not drunk he answered on the phone, as he flashed that same charming smile at her. She found it adorable.

Her taxi arrived before his. She got in the car and waved him a goodbye. She kept looking at him as her car started moving and suddenly said I’m Aditi by the way. Her words echoed in the quiet night as he saw her taxi fade away in the darkness. He went back to sit and wait for his taxi to arrive. He saw she had left her hand bag there, in her hurry.

He picked it up and smiled as he opened it , hoping to find an address or a phone number.

The sea link looked bright and lit up that late night.

Copyright (c) Pratik Majumdar, 2020. Any article, story, write-up cannot be reproduced in its entirety or in part, without permission. URL links can be used instead.

Henry

The square was bustling with the weekend crowd. Families were out to enjoy a rare sunny day. After a few days of incessant rain, the sun was finally out and it was a weekend. Everyone was making the most of it. She sat patiently on a seat in the city centre, surrounded by a bunch of shopping bags. She felt tired as she’d had a hectic week at work. But they had promised the kids a fun weekend. The drive to the city centre from their small town was a good hour and a few minutes. And she had driven all the way because he said he was too tired to drive. “I’ll look after the kids once we reach the city” he promised. She sat watching people all around her, as her husband had taken the kids for ice cream and games nearby.

 Amidst the regular noise of the bustling square a faint tune drifted towards her. At first she couldn’t place it but the familiarity of it got her attention. She tried to figure out where it came from.

 At one corner of the square was an old record store which had closed down. Retail music was as good as dead in the age of digital downloads. The tune seemed to be coming from there. As she looked in that direction she could see the stem of a guitar and a bony hand playing it. She was intrigued and picked up her shopping bags walking towards the guitar player. As she came closer, she found another empty seat and sat down with her bags, listening to the familiar tune. Because she was closer she could hear that not just the tune, but even the voice sounded very familiar. She got up from her seat to go and take a look.

 He looked well over 50. His unkempt long hair was mostly white just like his flowing beard. His skin was pale and sagging and his lips were heavily tobacco stained. His blue denim shirt and faded jeans seemed to complement his face almost perfectly. And it was then that her eyes went down on his shoes. Those blue and white keds with the laces tied in that distinctly odd fashion. Almost instinctively she looked up at his face again. Those deep steel grey eyes which already seemed to hide some unknown sadness so well. Those eyes…

 It was him !!!

 She couldn’t believe the man she was seeing in front of her. He seemed to have aged way beyond his years. As always he seemed lost in his music, oblivious to her presence or anyone else’s for that matter. From time to time he shut his eyes whilst singing… just like the old days.

 As she stood staring at him, transfixed, an era of memories swept through her. Of times they spent together, moments they shared together, a life they had lived together.

 “I want to travel the world and sing. Just me and my guitar. And you”. She felt he added the last line just to appease her.

 “And what about my job” as always, she was amused at his ideas being completely impractical.

 “You have your laptop don’t you. How will your work get affected” he seemed so convinced and so blissfully unaware of the unfeasibility of his “simple plan”. 

“Yeah right” she realised how difficult it was to discuss these things with him

 She couldn’t help but feel sad for the way he had become. The last time she had seen him was at a pub where he was playing. He seemed ill at ease trying to cater to the demands of the audience playing the popular tunes of the day. She knew how uncomfortable and angry it made him. Being asked or instructed to sing something. He always sang from his heart. And that’s what he wanted to do. She wasn’t still married at that time but was engaged all the same. She didn’t feel comfortable walking up to him and saying hi. She was relieved he too hadn’t noticed her.

 Now after so many years seeing him in that city square jolted her at some level. Her eyes swelled up as she stood there listening to him sing one song after another.

 Her thoughts were broken by a gentle tap on her shoulder and a simultaneous hug from behind. Her husband and kids were back.

 “Mama let’s go home now we’re tired”

 “No mama we’re not tired it’s just that he wants to go home and play his new Xbox game”

 “Mama I’m really tired you know…”

 She wasn’t really paying attention to what her children were saying as she put her head on her husband’s shoulder listening to the “old man” sing.

 “He’s good isn’t he? Hey he’s even selling some of his own CDs. Why don’t we get one”; her husband said, almost as if he read her mind.

 The younger of the two boys took the crisp note from his father and went across to hand it to the man in exchange of a CD. The old man looked surprised, handed the CD and ran his hands over the young boys face in a moment of gratefulness. She made sure she was away from his sight and he could only see her husband and mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ to him in appreciation.

 As they headed homeward she requested her husband to drive. He wasn’t thrilled but eventually agreed to sit on the driver’s seat. The children bantered with each other on the back seat as she had her head resting on the side window humming an old tune, the CD clutched in her hands.

Copyright (c) Pratik Majumdar, 2020. Any article, story, write-up cannot be reproduced in its entirety or in part, without permission. URL links can be used instead.

The Letter

My Dear Ashim,

This letter might come as a surprise to you, especially in today’s age of emails whatsapp and phone calls. But more so, maybe, because it is from me. After like what…23 years? But then I aways think of you and me as a thing of the past, of glory days and happier times, of honest ways and a simpler life. When words inked on paper left their imprint deeper than borrowed quotes on whatsapp.

If you still continuing to read this then let me begin by saying I am fine. No I am not on my deathbed, lamenting my life, romanticising our past and seeking closure at the fag end of my journey. Nothing so dramatic. At least not from me…you always know that…right? As I sat by my window this morning, after sending off my kids to school and the bigger one to office, I looked out and saw a beautiful pink lily had bloomed on one of my balcony garden pots…seeing that somehow brought your memories up. I remembered you and your youthful smile which never failed to charm. I don’t know why I thought of you seeing that beautiful flower in my garden, but then the heart has its own stupid reasons I guess. Anyway, how are you?

Can you believe that I have a college going daughter now? It still feels like the other day when I stepped into college, feeling all lost in a big city like Bombay. Being a small town girl it was my first visit to the big city and the prestigious St Xaviers College at that. Could I have been more wide-eyed!! Perhaps not as much as when I saw you for the first time…sitting in the canteen with your bunch of cheap-cigarette smoking friends. I still remember the yellow checked shirt and your faded blue jeans. You played the guitar so well, though the accent was more on style than substance. You were trying to impress the girls around you, no? I for one was impressed…

I remember all the tricks I had up my sleeves to get your attention all the while making sure my desperation to get to know you didn’t show. I think my hard-to-get, touch-me-not attitude made you look at me differently from all the other floozies who were forever hovering around the rich Mr Sinha’s only son. I was never like them and God how much I hated them. Yamini Kapoor and her posh-but-fake south Bombay accent or the annoying Jaya Sehgal and her condescending attitude to anything or anyone that even remotely seemed “a commy” to her. They were the types to hand around you and make trips to Studio 29 with you. I always wondered why an intelligent guy would want to hang around with their likes. But you did.

I remember coming close to you for the first time during our annual drama festival. I couldn’t believe my luck when I realized you were playing Troilus to my Cressida. But even harder than playing the part of Cressida, was playing the part of the girl who was cool. It was the hardest act for me when you were around me. What a hit our play turned out to be eventually despite you messing up crucial lines in the climax. Do you remember losing your cool at the fumbling prompter, Nakul? How he kept messing up giving you the right cues at the right time? I had a tough time controlling my laughter on stage. But we rocked it eventually, didn’t we !!!

I remember the first time you called me. My landlady Mrs Gomes wasn’t very happy allowing us PG girls (as she used to call us) getting phone calls from strange boys at odd hours on her telephone. Although the instrument was placed on the common hallway and we were made to pay for every call we made, she insisted it was her phone and those phone calls weren’t always welcome. I remembered how I was controlling my rapidly beating heart hearing your voice on the other end, trying to sound calm and composed as I replied to you, all the while turning around and checking whether Mrs Gomes was eavesdropping or not. Those were such beautiful days Ashim. Feel like yesterday.

I remember dragging you to Kyanis for our first date. You were convinced I was a commie weren’t you? Although you never admitted it, that was how you felt about me right? You could never see yourself, son of a privileged father from high society mingling with a distinctly left-minded oddball who came from “some Godforsaken small town”. If you can be honest today, you will admit that’s how you felt at that time…didn’t you?

But then you fell in love with the mawa cake and the chicken patties and watermelon juice at Kyanis. And me…It took you longer to realize it perhaps, but I knew earlier. Girls always do…wink wink

Do you remember our first kiss? It was in the dark of the Metro cinema, where we went more to make out than see the Hungarian film, you claimed you were “dying to see”…be honest now Ashim…you hardly saw the film or let me see it for that matter. Till date the thrill of that first kiss is something I remember like real. And no one has bettered that moment. Doubt anyone ever will. I miss you…

But what about our fights and arguments Ashim? It’s amazing how despite our attraction and love (or whatever it was) we had such different views on almost everything in life. Tell me Ashim, do you still believe in the virtues of capitalism today, the way you used to back in those days? I remember our heated discussions when you dissed Howard Roarke for the more “realistic” Peter Keating. I couldn’t believe you said that then. I always felt I would ask you the same question years later. Do you still that way Ashim?

Is this letter getting too long for you to read? You always had the attention span of a humming bird you dodo. Its lunchtime I’ve just finished sending off packed lunch for my husband at work and the kids at school. I am munching on a chicken sandwich and washing it down with an espresso as I continue writing. I almost feel as if I am sitting in front of you and talking…like we used to, sitting opposite each other at Kyanis, munching those cheese sandwiches. I could die for one of those sandwiches right now

Eventually I think things had to end, isn’t it? We were always the “burning out” type rather than the “fade-aways”, weren’t we? We were too different from each other to last together, too independent to curb each other and way too head strong to make peace with each other. Neither of us could put on a fake mask of compromise and carry on for the sake of this elusive thing called love. What is love? I still don’t know till date Ashim? Do you? Is it what I feel for Sanjay? If that is love then what is it that I felt for you? Because those two are worlds apart.

I hear from some of our old friends that you and Maansi are happily settled. Brief snippets about your son Arjun also come to me from Yamini (ok I confess I am friends with her now) whose son is in the same class as him. Sometimes I feel like picking up the phone and hearing your voice. Maybe I will feel the same kind of excitement I did at Mrs Gomes’ hallway. And then I ask myself, do I still want to feel those things? Do I want to feel anything at all?

Anyway, enough of my ramblings…if you haven’t fallen asleep as yet, do send me a note…I want a writing…and NOT a whatsapp message of phone call….do you understand dodo? A HAND WRITTEN NOTE.

Stay well Ashim, keep that smile and breathe…

Just remembered these lines by Emily Dickinson

I measure every grief I meet

With narrow probing eyes

I wonder if it weighs like mine

Or has an Easier size

Love,

Radhika.

The letter lay on a polished mahagony table, alongside a few bills and flyers, on the 21st floor apartment of a swanky highrise in South Bombay. Thankfully, some people still receive and read paper bills, so the chances of the letter going unnoticed and unread are slim…

Copyright (c) Pratik Majumdar, 2020. Any article, story, write-up cannot be reproduced in its entirety or in part, without permission. URL links can be used instead.

Idle Cinema Musings #4

MY TOP 5 BOLLYWOOD BOOKS (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)
1.       DON’T DISTURB THE DEAD – THE STORY OF THE RAMSAY BROTHERS (AUTHOR: SHAMYA DASGUPTA)

2.       FUNKY BOLLWOOD – THE WILD WORLD OF 1970S INDIAN ACTION CINEMA  (AUTHOR: TODD STADTMAN)

3.       PARVEEN BABI – A LIFE (AUTHOR: KARISHMA UPADHYAY)

4.       RD BURMAN – THE MAN, THE MUSIC (AUTHORS: ANIRUDHA BHATTACHARYA, BALAJI VITTAL)

5.       40 RETAKES – BOLLYWOOD CLASSICS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED (AUTHOR: AVIJIT GHOSH) 

Popular Hindi cinema or Bollywood as it is now commonly known as, has seen a splurge of books in the recent years. After having been starved for good books on hindi cinema, fans are now spoilt for choice, as almost every month or two there are new books out on the shelves, waiting to be picked up. Publication houses have successfully managed to tap an area that was waiting to be discovered. The huge interest in Bollywood in India (and amongst the NRI crowd too) has finally been acknowledged and is now being milked to the hilt. It is but natural that this demand has led to huge quantities of Bollywood related literature and trivia, anecdotes and reminisces, interviews and reviews flooding the market. Not all of it is worthwhile to be honest Actually a large number of these books are quite low both on quality as well as information (Wikipedia and hearsay seem to be the most common sources).However there are a few books that stand out from this deluge of Bolly-books, that deserve special attention and mention. They need to be cherished and appreciated. Here are my top 5 books from the hundreds I have read so far. These are not in any particular order, but are indeed my personal top five books on hindi cinema…at least as of now…until something even better comes along:


DON’T DISTURB THE DEAD – A STORY OF THE RAMSAY BROTHERS (SHAMYA DASGUPTA)
Eve since I read about the arrival of this book, in an article in India Today magazine, I was waiting with unbridled joy and nervous anticipation. Rarely had I been so keen to get a hold of a book, as I was with this one. After all The Ramsay Brothers were amongst my favourite Bollywood people and I always felt they had been treated shabbily by critics and film lovers alike. They had created a very specific niche for themselves in hindi cinema, and I for one thought it was high time that it was recognized. Shamya Dasgupta’s book did just that…and more !!!
Right from the fascinating cover (what more iconic than the gruesome Saamri from Purana Mandir, the Ramsay’s biggest commercial success) Dasgupta gets it all right. He charts the beginnings of the famous brothers, starting with the father. The story of the fabulous brothers is told simply but with the necessary and relevant details. Interesting anecdotes, personal recalls from the brothers, and some fine analysis of their work, makes this book enjoyable and riveting at every point.
There is an underlying honesty throughout the book. Not even once does Dasgupta try to elevate the brothers as great filmmakers or anything even close to that. And there is a disarming honesty by the men themselves, as they speak about their work. And what eventually comes across is their love and passion for cinema and the firm belief in their kind of cinema. And that is infectious. Once I finished the book (in 2 straight nights) I picked up all the available dvds and immersed myself to indeed “disturb the dead”…what a fascinating journey that turned out to be. Thank you Ramsay Brothers. Thank you Shamya Dasgupta.


FUNKY BOLLYWOOD – THE WILD WORLD OF 1970S INDIAN ACTION CINEMA  (TODD STADTMAN)
If there ever was a true labour of love then this is got to be it. It was serendipitous to stumble across this book on a rare search in Amazon. It was exactly the kind of book I was looking for and for it to fall right on to my lap was more than a blessing. Todd Stadtman takes us through the heady 1970s Bollywood, discussing, analyzing and introducing to us some absolute gems. If anyone was waiting for Bollywood to step out of its (tired and clichéd) stereotypes, Stadtman surely must have been listening. He picks and chooses some absolute gems and the way he goes about them, only goes to bring out his true love and passion for Indian cinema. Talking about the likes of KSR Doss, Brij and Manmohan Desai, Todd Stadtman reveals to us what a lot of Indian fans did not know or truly appreciate till then. He calls Dharmendra, the action hero, “genetically bred” for this kind of cinema…and one knows one has a classic in their hands. The book is studded with some lovely pictures and amazingly apt (and funny) descriptions. The list of films chosen is superb and yes this is a book which even talks of bit players like Shetty, Mac Mohan et all…bit players yes….but oh so crucial for the history of that period of hindi cinema.
Putting it simply….THIS BOOK IS A GEM !!!


PARVEEN BABI – A LIFE (KARISHMA UPDHYAY)
This is another book I was very keen to pick up. Simply because so little has been known to most of us about this enigmatic actress who lived a troubled life and died a lonely death. I started reading this book with a fair amount of circumspect, because I had never heard of the author before or her connection with the late Ms Babi. But by the end of the night (I started reading it one evening) I had finished more than half of the book. It was simply unputdownable. The journey of a simple, sprightly girl from Junagadh to the topsy-turvy world of hindi cinema, searching for her own self in the Bombay of the 1970s is a fascinating one, lined with tragedy and sorrow. Parveen Babi’s is the classic sad case of a life wasted simply because no cared enough to get her treated. She practically died untreated of an ailment she was seriously suffering from.
Had this been a work of fiction, it would have been a definitive depiction of urban alienation and human disconnect. But unfortunately, this was real life and hence an unbearable tragedy. Moving, telling, pathetic at times, but always riveting. One of the best written books on hindi cinema I have ever read.


RD BURMAN – THE MAN, THE MUSIC (ANIRUDH BHATTACHARYA AND BALAJI VITTAL)
Two things make it difficult for me to talk about this book objectively. The subject matter and the author. The former being perhaps my single most favourite personality connected to hindi film music and the latter being a very good personal friend. But then what is life without such wonderful challenges?
Even if it is coming from me, make no mistake, this IS a magnificent book. Never before has RD Burman been so well humanized. A far cry from the mythical memoirs we have been subject to (not just on Rd but most film celebrities), RD Burman The Man The Music is an in-depth analysis of the music of the man and the man behind the music. Written with an abundance of knowledge, a whole lot of empathy and tremendous passion, this book is not merely a book on Pancham, but a book on music of that period of hindi cinema, with RD at its helm. In an age where were used to (and almost expect) people talking about topics they’re not qualified to talk about, the authors come across as pleasant exceptions, with their knowledge and passion on everything they speak about here. Myths are broken with solid facts and musical analysis is qualitative and not just hollow hyperboles. It was most obvious thing to listen to RD Burman whilst reading this book, but what it did gloriously was, that it made us appreciate more, the work of the maestro. Every song I heard after reading this book, I appreciated more. I understood more. I loved more (if that was ever possible)

40 RETAKES – BOLLYWOOD CLASSICS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED (AVIJIT GHOSH)
Now this is a true hidden gem. Not much was known about this book, at least I had never heard of it before or read any review about it, when I happened to see it amongst a plethora of Bollywood books during an Amazon search with the keyword Bollywood. I still don’t remember what made me pick this book up at the time I did, but whatever be the reason then, I am now convinced this was a happy accident.
From the time I picked this book up I knew I had a winner in my hands. For an avid fan like me, it was always difficult to find 40 films which I had not seen before or heard about. And moreover lists are always a dicey area to tread upon, given their inevitable subjectivity. Despite that, I was hooked. For starters, it did have movies I had not cared about much (some, I confess, I hadn’t even heard about). But once I went through this book, it made me hunt for these films and watch them and more often than not, I was not disappointed. Even some film from the list which I had heard of (and even seen before), I revisited with a fresher and different outlook. There is nothing more appealing and joyous for a movie lover to be exposed to new cinema not seen by him/her before. This book did just that for me. Exposed me to a bunch of films I had missed out or ignored (inexplicably) before. Thank you Avijit Ghosh for doing that.

Copyright (c) Pratik Majumdar, 2020. Any article, story, write-up cannot be reproduced in its entirety or in part, without permission. URL links can be used instead.

The bench in the park

She felt a tinge of sadness as she disconnected her mobile phone. She went about her work in the bookstore without showing too much of how she was really feeling. On the bus ride back home in the evening, she leaned on the glass pane of the window seat and it came back to her again. Somehow throughout the whole day she had managed to keep her feelings at bay because of her work. Now, alone, on her way back home, it all kept coming back to her.

She was really looking forward to their visit. She had planned a lovely time with them when they came over and had also got her leave sanctioned for a week. And then this morning her sister told her about their plans for a trip abroad during the holidays. She missed having a family and her sister and her family was the only one she had. More than her sister and her husband she missed the kids. Whenever they came over, she would spend hours with them. Taking them to her book shop and letting them play there, taking them out for ice creams and pastries, movies and picnics. She felt alive when she was with them.

The phone call had suddenly downed her mood.

She took a half-eaten sandwich from the fridge and had it along with her espresso, absent-mindedly sitting on the empty dining table. After her frugal dinner, she sat with her John Donne for a while before settling in her quilt. Her eyes remained open for a long time that night after the lights were shut off.

She woke up at her usual time the next morning and went for her jog. As always, Carole King played on her earphones as she went past the usual faces in the park, before settling down on her bench. She sipped on her fresh-lime water from her sipper, when suddenly she saw him. At first she could not place him, but on closer look she realized, it was him… after so many years. She was seeing him after over two decades.

Memories flashed across, from the time she saw him. She remembered some of her happier days in life, her college days and those carefree days of freedom. There was so much to look forward to in life back in those days, she smiled throughout the day, even when she was at work. She wished she had gone up to him and spoken, but then again that was just not her. She hesitated, wondering if he would even remember her or not. Despite fact that they were close once upon a time, she wasn’t sure whether he still thought of her or not. But she felt an unknown surge of happiness that whole day.

She kept thinking of him that night, as she devoured her Chinese take away and even whilst reading her customary Donne at night, she found her mind wandering off to his thoughts. She wondered if it had been a one-off or whether she would see him again the next day.

 She had rarely jogged with as much enthusiasm and hope as she did the next morning. She looked at each and every face that crossed her in the park just to spot him. But he wasn’t there amongst the people who crossed her while she was jogging. But as she went and sat on her bench she found him sitting on the bench close by. Exactly on the same spot where she had seen him yesterday. She felt a sense of relief mixed with happiness as she stared at him. He had aged but gracefully so. His wavy hair had thinned considerably, his sideburns had generous grey in them, giving him that distinguished look. His light blue eyes still seemed as deep and penetrative as they seemed to her in their younger days. He was as lanky as he was before, although she suspected he had developed a slight paunch with age. She found that cute. She felt embarrassed as she realized she smiling to herself as she shamelessly stared at him.

The next few days seemed to follow one another exactly in the same routine. Every morning she saw him and felt happy enough to have a smile plastered on her face the whole day, but never confident enough to step up to him and meet him like the old friend he was. Somehow she felt happy in this little set-up fate had created for her. Just seeing him every morning, felt good enough for her. She found herself humming on the bus, most evenings. She slept better too.

It was a Sunday that morning, and she usually didn’t go for a jog on that day. But for whatever reasons on that particular day, she went. To her disappointment, she didn’t see him there. She felt sad at not seeing him there but then rationalized to herself that maybe like her, he too came to the park only on weekdays. And hopefully she would see him the next day. But then on Monday she didn’t see him. She waited a little longer than usual on her bench, just in case he was late, but there was no sign of him. A young couple came and sat on bench after a while, much to her irritation. She wished they would go away leaving the bench vacant for him to come and sit. But they sat there holding hands and cuddling up, much to her annoyance.

She did not see him the next couple of days.

Her mood which had been significantly lifted for over a week now, felt crushed all over again. She seemed unmindful at work and the whole day felt like a drag. She kept wondering what could have happened to him. Maybe he was in town for a little while and had gone back to where he came from, she wondered to herself sadly. She regretted at not going up to him and speaking. She would have felt bad had he not recognised her, but surely not as bad as she was feeling now. Despite not going up to him and talking, she felt a lot less lonely ever since had spotted him on that park bench, regularly seeing him since then. Her loneliness engulfed all over again now. Days were a drag and the evenings felt more miserable, as she ate her dinner and read for a bit before having long sleepless hours at night.

She went to the park the next day and jogged like always. The faces were a blur to her again like before. The bench next to hers was vacant as it used to be, before thjose few days when she felt sunshine and happiness. She sipped on her lime water and was about to get up when her mobile phone buzzed. She picked it up to read a short message, from an unknown number:

It took me a while to get hold of your number. Wonder if you remember me after all these years. If you do, turn around and look…

She kept staring at her handset, as her hands trembled ever so slightly. She kept looking at the message, transfixed. She did not know whether she should turn around or not. After what seemed like ages, she turned around…

Copyright (c) Pratik Majumdar, 2020. Any article, story, write-up cannot be reproduced in its entirety or in part, without permission. URL links can be used instead.