​The demoralised and demonetised desi millennial

I am a millennial. One of the loathsome, entitled, rebels born in the ‘90s. And in the Indian context, I’m the most conniving, self-indulgent adult-kid (one who’s not allowed to make decisions but is expected to decide and not be taken seriously all the same) who knows not to respect people, let alone money. According to my parents’ generation, I know not money’s worth. 

Thanks to PM Modi’s decision to make Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes illegal tender for all transactions, today, I’m demonetised. The same as every other Aditya, Kavitha, and Aarthi (excuse the Indian cliché of Tom, Dick, and Harry). 

As we raid our boss’s piggy bank for coins to have the ceremonial evening chai, little do we notice the underlying nervousness in each others’ laughter. Laughter that acknowledges the absence of big money- anything between Rs 10 and Rs 100- and that which also acknowledges the possibility of an empty wallet tomorrow.

Chatting and giggling, just like yesterday, I stand in a long queue for some money. Yesterday proved to be unlucky. Today, I still hope and as do the two friends who stand along with me almost penniless. We got lucky.

Today, I have Rs 2,110 at hand. But I cross the road hoping to be able to take my usual bus, for the ticket costs me Rs 13. The new and crisp magenta 2,000 note is merely a security blanket; the 100 a luxury as much as the 10. I miss the bus and it’s time for the next hope. 

Now, I hope the share-auto wala has change for the last green note of 100 bucks I hold dearly and managed to keep for five days without spending. As I hesitantly part with it at my destination, he grins and hands me the change. Phew! 80 bucks should be good enough for the next few days.

For an adult-kid who doesn’t even have herself a postpaid cell connection, this is the most amount of cash I’ve ever held in my wallet till date. Two thousand rupees: it slowly sinks in as I hold on tight to my bag. 

What value does this money hold? I can’t buy a glass of tea with it for the poor roadside teashop will not have change to supply. Even if he is kind enough, what does it hold for him? How’d he use it? Maybe for a wholesale transaction?

Entitled, you say? 

Words left unsaid stay with us forever

​I’d just finished the work my boss had assigned me to. 

“I terribly miss you, sir… the newsroom isn’t the same without you in it now. Nobody yells at me anymore,” I said. He smiled and said, “Shall I ask your new boss to yell at you?”

“Oh, she does yell, sir. It’s just much different from what you used to do. And now, with her, it has been two editors who’s used the swear ‘fuck’ at me.” I break into a wide sheepish grin. He’s still just smiling.

I miss his dark bearded face and twinkling eyes, and a cabin that smells of stale cigarette breath. How can I tell him that? How can I tell him that without sounding like a crazy person?

I accompany a colleague on her cigarette breaks although I don’t smoke myself. I stand ten feet away from her lest the smoke go into my nose and choke me. But I go. Not because I want to watch her puffing out rings of smoke from the ice burst, but because her smoking spot is right behind his cabin. 

As I stand there, ten feet away from her, I sneak a peek into the cabin through the blinds. There’s one crooked blind that provides a vision into his world. A world of stale cigarette breaths, newsroom talks, book discussions, yelling, and loads of editing. 

“I don’t want to stay here anymore, sir. I want to leave this organisation. I started applying for jobs in January when I completed one year here. You came and you showed me what it meant to be a professional, to learn something, and work round the clock with not the slightest remorse,” I said.

“I got an offer from another company, sir. I wanted to go, it’s what I always wanted- to leave. But you were teaching me- all of us- and I was finally learning something after having wasted one whole year here. I wanted that. I declined their job offer,” I said.

“They called me again after a months time, you know? Mr M was shifted to the other edition from there by then…they called and offered me a job again. You were making me write, finally. After all those months of not doing anything, I was writing. I was surprised I remembered to write. You showed me how you edited copies. You had gotten inside my head. ‘is this how Ram sir would write a copy?’ I ask myself every single time I write.” I said.

He sat there smiling. As always. He smiles at me, his tall Lanky figure somehow uncomfortably seated at the desk with big notebooks acting as ladders for the desktop. I never understood what that mysterious smile meant. 

“Why did you leave, sir? She’s good, of course. How can she not be! You chose her. But why did you leave? It’s unfair, sir. I’m sure you have your reasons and I probably am too immature to know or understand the reasons. But you left, sir,” I said, softly sobbing. 

He sat there smiling. I missed how his silver gray hair looked when he was engrossed in work. He’d never know. I’d got out of the shower, softly sobbing. Warm tears run down my cold damp face. He’d never know the conversations I have in my head. He’d never know because these words will stay with me forever. 

The memories of a present long gone

​As I read about the ceasefire violations along the LoC, militant infiltration, army retaliation, thoughts ran wild. I had just finished reading Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer. 

The average Kasmiri days are filled with events of civilians getting killed, pellet wounds. The ‘heaven on earth’ where normalcy is crippled and loses all meaning with curfewed days and nights, where tomorrow is uncertain, and the normalcy kids know of consists of soldiers, AK-47s, grenades, India- Kashmir- Pakistan, stories of loss, stories of sadness, and points of no return.

As I think about all this, I remember this photograph taken at the Madras War Cemetery. 

Where strife is a mere memory that you don’t even relate to, the graveyard of soldiers young and old becomes a place of selfies and chatter, where war knows no other meaning than being a monument of the past long gone. 

Most of the Kashmir deaths- not only the soldiers- might never get justified. Most will remain a mystery. Most without a burial or a cremation, let alone a memorial.

Nungambakkam at night: Has Swathi changed it all for us suburban commuters?

It was 9 pm and Nungambakkam railway station was in its normal Friday night torpor of tired commuters going home, shop-keepers checking the clock and the lighting in power save mode.

Only, this was not any other day. Earlier in the morning, this station had hit the national headlines for the gruesome murder of a 24-year-old Infosys employee, Swathi S. As I walked up to the spot where she had fallen after being hacked down by a helmeted man, I looked around to get a sense of that moment when a horror is committed amidst a placid sea of impassive faces.

But Platform 2 was back to its business of arriving and departing. The beggars were still begging, the shops were still open and functioning, people were boarding and alighting. At the spot where Swathi had lain, the cold concrete had been washed clean of the blood that had flown for two hours. There was no barricade to momentarily commemorate the spot, not even a deferential muffling of voices. Those who didn’t know, trod over the spot, eyes trained only on the incoming 9.20.

Had this been the scene too when the man cut her down and bystanders reportedly halted their stride for an instant and hurried on with their lives? Earlier that morning, I had got down at the station from the incoming 6.08 am, perhaps 20 minutes before the killing, and gone on to capture the horror on my news website. But had I been there 20 minutes later would I have done anything different?

The ones who knew this was the spot, huddled far from it and spoke in hushed tones to friends or strangers about the lack of CCTVs, the absence of Railway Police personnel and alas what had become of Chennai.

I’m a regular at Nungambakkam. I’ve been suburban commuter for seven years. Had I seen her, maybe texting by that pillar, or chatting with a colleague? Had she brushed past me sometime? Had I shared a seat with her?

In the trains going into the suburban night on Friday, the talk was obviously about Swathi, branching off into relationships, stress, family values, etc.

But how could this have happened at Nungambakkam? In my seven years as a commuter, I had taken the last train back home with just about four or five people in the carriage, but never a thought about safety. There had been a murder over on that foot-over bridge, but a 11 pm ride was never filled with dreaded prospect.

Has Swathi changed all that?

Chapter Ceylon

Heads up: Only for those who enjoy rambles. Quite long, indeed.

Months of planning. It all started as a crazy idea. Deeps’ wish of wanting to make a foreign trip before turning 26. She asked me and in a fit of excitement, I say yes. She asked Amoolya, and pfft… being the wanderlust that she is, we would’ve been surprised had she told no. Gopika was interested too, but given that she didn’t have a passport yet, we had to give her time to get  her passport ready.

The most viable, cheapest, closer home, not burning multiple holes in poor journalist pockets— Ceylon or as it is contemporarily known, Sri Lanka. The birthday is on Feb 10 and the idea is to spend the birthday there. We start planning 6 months in advance! Yes, crazy, I know!

It all began by checking the flight ticket rates. (You should keep in mind we are actually poor journalists who barely make ends meet.) 7777 to and fro? You gotta be kiddin’ me! But no, that was the flying charge to this charming island nation. Did we grab the offer? No. We hadn’t put down the ‘p’ of planning, let alone book tickets that are non-refundable.

Here come the notepads. Jot down all crazy ideas. Pick out craziest of ’em all. That’s what we’ll do in SL, we decide. We set on places to visit in a span of days. Contacted tourist guides, package tours, etc. but in vain. Who wants to do mere paperwork for three travellers who have made their own plans? Nobody. Nevertheless, no hope lost.

Plan circuits, cheap accommodations, food researches (2 veggies, you see!), commute confusions, public transport researches, shopping, the list is endless.

But enough with the planning, what say? Let’s fast forward a bit. We booked the hostels with good deals, went on shopping sprees, got our tickets, and decided on a on-arrival visa. All set to go.

We arrive at the Chennai International Airport the night we’re to leave, past security checks, travel questions, packed idlis for dinner (quite the Indian-ness, yes.), chit-chatting away to glory, and the time comes when they finally announce boarding! Yay… We’re at the gates and we don’t see any sign of people boarding any flight whatsoever. It’s almost time. Is the flight delayed? Unable to find out as screens are running ads too. We decide to sit down and have some chocolates when my phone rings. The caller is asking for passengers Roshni, Deepthi, and Amoolya to board. Panic. Then we hear a security personnel on his walkie-talkie, “Passengers spotted. I repeat, passengers Roshni, Deepthi, and Amoolya have been spotted. They are on the way to the gate now.” Then there’s another man in a Spicejet uniform to escort us to the flight. In case you didn’t catch the drift, we were at the wrong gates. This is embarrassing, you’d think! Wait till you hear the rest of it. We were the only people on the air-bus, and the entire crew was waiting outside the flight for our arrival. At least we weren’t late. We board the flight and we have about a hundred pair of eyes on us as we walk down the aisle to our seats. Now, that is embarrassing! Anyway…

We arrive in Colombo in about an hour and a half enjoying the night lights of the city departed and the city arrived.

Part I: Colombo, History overloaded.

Sticky. Hot. Humid. Sultry. Sweaty. Those describe the Colombo atmosphere. We stayed in Colombo City Hostel (a dorm), which is in the center of the city (in the Prime Minister’s neighbourhood!) fit right into our budget. A clean and neat place with interesting fellow travellers in-house.

Colourful (special mention to the BobMarley one) tuk-tuks, awesome food (special mention to veg kothu), view of the calming sea, fancy bakery in Pettah— where we managed to go thrice during our stay in Colombo and once on our way back stop in Pettah before the flight— Ceylon tea, you ask for a bun and they’ll get you a bun platter; you talk in Tamil, they ask “neenga Uttar Pradesh ah? (Are you from Uttar Pradesh?)” and you burst out laughing!

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The innocence, the kindness, the attachment that stems from the mere linguistic commonality…you can’t put a price tag on it.

Moving on to the most privileged part of the trip— meeting Mr PK Balachandran, Foreign Correspondent with TNIE. This was the most looked forward, yet the most uncertain. Uncertain because a person of his stature and experience making time for three amateur misfits seemed quite far fetched! Having lunch with him, sharing space with him and spending time was great honour. He won us all over with such charm and chivalry, and the most captivating of all, his wartime stories (must say, quite the bedtime story for a journalist)! His accounts of the Eelam War, the culture of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims of the land paint quite a picture that even time can’t erase from one’s memory. Wartime reportage, the constant uncertainty, and the adrenaline could be inexplicable! Scribbling bits and pieces of this complex piece of history didn’t do justice— neither to history itself nor to the person narrating it.

And thus, an eventful South Indian lunch in Ceylon with a wartime journalist came to an end. Hearts and stomachs full, mind still longs for more stories… We will meet you again, PKB sir.

The Ganga Ramaiah Temple, Dutch hospital, shopping, wandering the streets, walk along the President’s house, Galle Face Green, kites, and the sea marked our second day in Colombo.

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The following night, after having our definition of a fancy dinner comprising of salads, fries, and sandwiches, we secretly pack the only available dessert. A jaggery pudding was about to become Deeps’ birthday. All set for a humble midnight celebration. Two gifts, a pudding, and loads of love. A birthday party in Lanka ensued.

Part II: Galle, To each her own.

The journey of three hungry souls begins. We took Steve Jobs’ mantra quite literally!

Three sleep deprived hungry souls occupy three window seats on what’s going to be an uncomfortable yet unforgettable journey. Few hours of sleep, few biscuit packets emptied, few perverted men fended off. A beautiful view of sea on the right and railways on the left mended the unsettled heads. Beaches never cease to give hope.

Arrive Galle! Got off right outside the rustic Galle railway station. A vibrant tuk-tuk takes us to the ever more vibrant Galle Center Home! “Free Wi-Fi” was all that we wanted to hear…calling parents, Instagram-ing photos, updating friends just to make sure they get a teensy bit jealous.

We shower our stickiness away and set off to the Galle Fort. A bad lunch couldn’t dampen our spirits even after it being the first morsel of food! We split up and went different directions to explore the fort by ourselves promising to meet at the same spot for sunset. Mind you, we have no means of reaching one another!

However, we did meet for sunset after hours of exploring and successfully not at all running into each other. With a load of pictures to show each other, there we sat on the
fort wall. Taking in the crimsons, oranges, and golds thrown at us by the sun. Feet dangling to the sea, the waves softly bouncing off the wall beneath us. The Lankan hues reflecting off the sea and us reflecting on our own thoughts. To sum this experience, I’d like to borrow what someone told me once: Nature loves symmetry.

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A sumptuous dinner of pineapples and black tea later, we sit in our own cozy corners to jot down the memories of the day. You know you’re unbelievably close to someone when you can share comfortable silence with them. That’s exactly what we were.

Day two in Galle begins with a healthy breakfast of bread, jam, and bananas. An eventful day lay ahead of us and we had no idea. Snorkelling, me? Who’d have thought? I can’t even swim. Of course, I didn’t take any extra clothes along.

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The train journey to Hikkaduwa was one of the most beautiful. Beautiful is quite an understatement. With huge windows that can fit a person whole, the green views, huts and small settlements along the railway lines were nothing short of picturesque. We arrive at the beach!

Thanks to these wonderful ladies in my life, I snorkelled. I saw the sea world. Corals, fish, turtles. Colours whose names I don’t know. Touching a tortoise as large as life itself, a touch-me-not coral that shies away, schools of multicoloured neon fish, rocks eroded with time, and remembering the breathing pattern amid all this. This is what surrealism must look like.

An instructor who wanted to give me the experience, friends who pushed me to it, I’ve sure done some good karma to deserve this.

All the ocean time got us hungry. In search of food we go. Some lunch and we’re set to return to the cute room we had. Siesta. A missed sunset. Fruity dinner again.

Oh, how can I forget! We met two wonderful women from Taiwan. Language is never a barrier if you want to befriend someone. We spoke to them, broke bread, shared experiences. Turned out they loved India!

Part III: Nuwara Eliya, Tea’s own country.

What followed was one of the most tedious of journeys in Lanka so far. Rickety (red bus!) bus ride for more than ten hours is not how we imagined spending our time! Nevertheless, we made the best of the worst thrown at us, just like a bunch of seasoned sailors. Bread and jam, music, sleep, scenic views every now and then made up for all the sticky, movement-restricted, leg-cramping, bumpy drive uphill.IMG_20160214_204333.jpg

Yes, uphill! Nuwara Eliya is a hill country. Respite. Respite from the heat and from the humidity. Most of all, the excitement was of a new experience. Who am I kidding, we were excited about TEA.

Sprawling tea estates on all sides, hairpin bends that smell like freshly cut tea leaves, the cold thin air stinging the nostrils, and an attractive larger-than-life ‘Mackwoods’ sign that bore absolutely no semblance to the ‘Hollywood’ sign *wink wink*.

We reached our home-stay late afternoon and were greeted by the humble, warmest family who live there. Happy with our room, the super soft quilts, and the availability of fried rice and dosa for lunch, we changed, hogged, and went to bed promising ourselves to be up in time for the sunset. We did oversleep ( I’d like to blame the warm fluffy fleecy quilts), but managed to catch the last rays of the setting sun. We walked downhill to the lake, got a hot cup of tea to enjoy on the cold dewy evening and walked back up.

The ultimate bliss was the home cooked traditional rice and curry. We were enjoying the restaurant ones so far that we didn’t know how heavenly the homemade dishes were! The cottage owner’s sister whipped up rice, dhal, papad, salad, and a couple more accompaniments. We ate like we hadn’t seen food for days at end. The cherry on top was the hot cup of Ceylon tea. Hmm…this is what happiness is made of.

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We also met two beautiful ladies (our age. We’re all 23-24, FYI.) from UK who stayed in the room next door! Sharing experiences, knowledge about cricket, their travel to India, Amoolya’s adventures in Birmingham…we sure knew how to keep our conversations going till we felt sleepy. When it was time to retire for the day (back to the soft quilts!), we thought why not invite the ladies to join us on our tea estate tour the next morning. Too bad they had other plans.

Setting off in a car, our first stop was at the railway station to book our tickets to Colombo for the next day. We missed the last available tickets and went on to explore the tea gardens. Spiraling up the hills, stopping for an occasional view-point picture, we met an interesting man who was en route Kandy by foot! Wishing we could be like him some day, we carried on until we reached the Mackwoods whose signs have been daunting us all along.

A patient guide who explained the tea making process, a complimentary cup of Mackwood, a tempted purchase of chocolate cake, and three happy bobbing heads sipping black tea, eating cake, and grinning.

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Some luxury tea shopping followed as each of us got ourselves a piece of the expensive Mackwood tea to cherish back home.

Then we went to the most beautiful quaint little colonial post office we have ever seen. The bright red exterior and the rustic interior sent a tingle of history down the spine. Soon enough, we indulged ourselves in some serious postcard picking. Names of friends floating in our heads, wanting to keep the good ones to ourselves, we finalised on a few that according to us gave the inherent Ceylon-ness.

Tea shopping again! You must be bored at this point…so I’ll just rush through with it. Our driver found us a tea shop where we could buy some authentic tea for such a steal. We filled out quite a few plastic bags and emptied quite big bucks from the wallet.

Sending the car back to the cottage with all our goodies, we set out on a walk in the town-like settlement that has developed around the post office. A few more minor shopping here and there of small Lankan things, we returned on a tuk-tuk.

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The evening was one of the most awaited. Cycle rides down hill! We all set out before sunset, went to the lake, circled the road around for a bit, and finally put ourselves down along with our cycles on what we felt was the best spot! Chit chatting till the dew got through our pants, we made our way uphill riding to the cottage huffing and puffing for breath.

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The next morning, we took a bus back to Colombo. Loitered around Colombo like a bunch of locals, and retired at the airport. Content. Solemnly swore to return to get a glimpse of the many more missed places.

La fin.

“Times are changing, and people too”

Somehow found comfort in this quote, irrespective the situation. You’re positive, the quote calls for a reality check. You’re negative, the quote calls for a little pep talk. And like all things, there’s a grey area, the in-between, the funzone for chaos.
Somewhere in those six words lies an inexplicable mixture of hope and pain. Both at once. Quite intriguing, yes.
This has been the go-to piece of advice for quite some time now. Now, more than ever.
Nobody can be without any people connection. It’s a means of survival…to be surrounded by people. There’s no point mulling over lost relationships of any kind, for that’s not going to change facts. Times are changing. Anything bad is bound to go away. People? Pfft. If times can change, why can’t people! That’s nothing worthy of worrying. It’s all going to change and good things are just around the corner.
Nobody can live without people connections. It’s a means of survival…to be surrounded by people. A great feeling indeed, to have someone who has your best interests in mind. But beware, for times change. There’s no point getting carried away with just about anything. When times can change, why not people? Stay cautious. You never know what’s lurking around the corner!
Nobody can live alone. Everyone needs at least one person to hang around. After all, it’s a means of survival! Then why do we feel like our heart is ripped out when one person changes? People are people. You know they keep changing. Bollocks! No. That doesn’t help at all. How does it become acceptable just because of the fact that they change? It doesn’t. It’s unacceptable. You look for closure. Anything to the situation becomes bearable. Confrontation? Yes. Fight? Mostly. Yelling match? Maybe. Outright begging? Sometimes. Something ought to give closure. You’ve sought all plausible explanation. Nothing works? “Times are changing, and people too.” There, comfortable?

The thing about death

Is death a part of life? Should we embrace it? Does it heal with time? I don’t know yet.
All I know is that when a person dies, they leave a hole in their shape in your heart. In your life. A hole that you cannot possibly fit anyone else in. A hole that doesn’t suit anyone but that person. You can never prepare yourself for this because you never know the depth of this hole. You’ll never understand how much a person meant to you until this strikes.

The sight of your parent talking to their deceased parent and welling up. Your sibling who’s close to the grandparent crying uncontrollably.

Moving their little things around feel heavy.

What was once an active body now sits in a freezer box. Visitors huddle around the box. It’s a ritual to talk good about people when they’re gone. To a place where they’re no longer accessible.

It’s confounding how the sad story when told each time someone visits, turns into a routine. The sadness goes down degree by degree with each passing narration. Sad, religious gatherings turn into streaks of laughter. Then into peals, and slowly into riots.
Their absence doesn’t hit you till you’re alone at home and you realise you don’t have to do the things you do for them.

More than the person, the memories of things he did live longer.

The small things starting from where they sit to the bed they slept on, from how they never turned off the faucet to how their voice sounded.

The hole can never be filled. You can only try.