I haven’t been here in Florida long enough to know the vagaries of the weather, but March is clicking along with a lingering overtone that this is probably the last time I will be able to use the words “lovely” and “sunny” to refer to the same morning. In a couple of months it’ll just be that muggy, humid heat that makes the outdoors unbearable. And with spring break drawing to a close it is certain to be a while before I can walk down to Lake Alice again and plonk myself by the water for no reason.
There’s something very odd about the first time you visit Lake Alice. The turtles seem too large and the ‘gators too small, the trees seem to grow right out of the water and there’s this creepy tingling feeling that something’s going to crawl out of the water and sneak right up on you. But soon you get used to it. And on a spring day it’s a beautiful place to visit. All nice and quiet with the cool wind blowing; it’s quite a large lake with a few islands sprinkled around. And you can see the turtles swimming aimlessly about, getting right up to the bank before swerving away at the last minute. And there’s always an alligator or two floating aimlessly about with fish swimming around it and ibises pottering around the shore like some obsessive gardener in a weedy flowerbed. In places the water and the shore blend seamlessly under the reeds and willows of the swamp, at others they stand starkly apart, tense and abrupt. Of course the customary egrets and cormorants and herons hang around, never in any real hurry. And butterflies and nondescript brown thinglets flit around in the foliage. I’m not sure if there are too many flowers around but the forest seems real enough, and dense too. It’s pristine, and beautiful; you could imagine sitting there forever.
Yet I cannot bring myself to do it. I cannot bring myself to love the place. For all its beauty, it seems unreal, like a face without a name, cold and distant, more tolerant than welcoming, foreboding perhaps, and even uncaring. It’s beautiful, but completely foreign, familiar enough to recognize, yet not friendly. It’s like some vague acquaintance, who greets you with alacrity but at once turns taciturn. Someone you approach with a smile and hang awkwardly around before that vague sullen disgust of an overstayed welcome settles on you and you leave. Maybe next time I’ll just nod curtly and be on my way.
Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find he had transformed into a monstrous vermin.
Adulthood has a way of arriving like the rising tide. First the gurgling ripples, heady with joy as they tickle the toes. Then the torpid puddle around the ankles, always there or there about, never noticed, until it so rudely ebbs away leaving nothing but sand in the toes and the memories on soaked jeans. Then the waves arriving in earnest, up around the thighs and yes, it’s a little further in that your mom or dad would approve of, but you’re growing up now aren’t you, so you laugh and stay, to feel the First Little Corruption power brought. And then before you know it, there you are, waist deep in the sea and every now and again, the ocean throws you this way or that, leaning on you like some inglorious drunk, as you struggle to stay on your feet, under its brute strength. And then you usually trudge back to the beach, for there are some things that must not be tempted except, now that isn’t an option and all that’s left is for you to jump in and try to swim to Japan.
Growing up is the realization, at once comic and tragic, of how woefully out of place you are in what was once home. What you once thought was home. What was yours and familiar and loved because it was so familiar – now drifts wanly like some watery streak of raw pink on a grey metamorphosis, tepid like some inadequate adjective, lingering on with the bitter aftertaste of a metaphor pushed too far. Congratulations, you have grown up. Gregor Samsa lives.
[Charlie’s Note: A little mood music. “Tobacco Road” by Lou Rawls, 1963]
‘Cause I was born in a dump
My mama died and my daddy got drunk
He left me here to die or grow
In the middle of Tobacco Road
I grew up in a rusty shack
All I owned was hangin’ on my back
The Lord knows, how I loathe
This place called, Tobacco Road
But it’s a home, yeah
The only life I’ll ever know
And the Lord knows, I loathe
Tobacco Road, yeah
I’m gonna leave and get a job
With the help and the grace from above
Save my money and get rich I know
And bring it back to Tobacco Road
Bring dynamite and a crane
Blow it up and start all over again
And I’ll build a town, I’ll be proud to show
And keep the name, Tobacco Road
‘Cause it’s a home, yeah, yeah
The only life I’ll ever know
And despise you called you filthy but I love it
But I love you because you’re my home
Hey, Tobacco Road, Tobacco Road
Now you’re dirty and you’re filthy
I’m gonna get me some dynamite
And I’ll bring me a crane
And then blow it up
I’ll tear down and start out all over again
Tobacco Road, Tobacco Road
And I love you, yeah
Because you’re my home
But you’re dirty and you’re filthy
I’m gonna blow you up
I’m gonna tear you down
And I’ll build me a town
That I will be proud to show
But I’ll keep the name
I’m gonna keep the name
I’m gonna keep the name
A Tobacco Road, a Tobacco Road
Tobacco Road, road, road, road
I’m talkin’ ’bout
Tobacco Road, road, oh yeah
[ Charlie’s note: I loved working on this piece. It’s the first serious piece of non fiction I’ve put up on this space. “Young Men’s Tales” is an essay on some famous characters from English novels by Indian authors.
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD the pdf of the essay.
Hope you enjoy the change from all the usual stuff I post! :)]
[Charlie’s Note: I did not write this. Well, not entirely anyway.]
‘British Raj’ time like waiters with white uniforms and red kamarpattas and white pagdi. The place has no pretensions of the usual ‘coffee places’. Unlike your usual CCD this one is totally Indian, with it’s blue walls and ceiling fans and wooden tables and benches to sit on.
The people in here I see are over forty, except perhaps the two hippie-ish firangs I see sitting on the booth parallel to me.
There’s a Parsi couple in the corner with their amused non-Parsi friends sitting opposite them. “Oh, no! M.G. Road is in that direction!”. Clearly, the non-Parsis are non-Bangaloreans too. They look amused, strangely, which is stupid. M.G. Road was in fact in ‘that’ direction.
The firang couple; the guy’s blond with matted shoulder length hair, wearing knee length shorts and a kurta-ish shirt, golden print on white, which opens in the front, and a white tee(or a baniyan) inside. The girl, sitting opposite him, looks like another one of those hippies you see in Goa, bright multi-coloured sundress with spaghetti straps and numerous other bands showing on her shoulders.
This place, I’ve heard serves one of the best filter coffees, so I order one and then continue looking around.
Fork and knife uncle.
Open doorway arch that has a wooden board ‘No Admission’ above it.
Lady sitting in the corner, suave black shirt and jeans and a prim haircut, on observation I realized also was wearing a bindi. Ironic.
Open wires held together with yellow insulation tape and customary large switchboard with approximately fifteen switches.
Huge mirror, 5ftx2ft on the wall. Serves no apparent purpose.
In utterly metropolitan Bangalore, this Indian, maybe even slightly British-Indian place is amusing.
The cap of his pen was blue. Its nib was stained blue with the ink. One of the files on his desk was blue, as was the colour of the lettering on his calendar. His computer didn’t count in this game. There were one, two, three, four blue books in his shelf. And he bent over to look through the glass top of his table, his eyes level with their surface. No, that was more green than blue. Damn it, it was never blue enough! The blue on the label of the manufacturer on the side of the couch, he declared proudly! Yes, that was a good one.
It was a wretched time, the wait between appointments. He always squirmed around so impatiently as he waited. He had broadly two kinds of patients – one who were rich and just needed reassuring that their fears were baseless and that their symptoms were a result of boredom and a bad lunch and the other, who were rich and needed convincing that their health could not really be bought for any sum of money. Yes, the heart was a cruel bitch of an organ and he had dealt with that bitch every day of his life for the past three decades. His last patient had been a rather cooperative specimen of the first kind and now he had another forty minutes to kill before the next arrived. So out came the colour game.
Appa had taught him that game many years ago. The gum bottle was blue. His shirt was blue. That plastic cover was blue. They usually played with blue, sometimes with yellow, but never with red. The post office was full of red things. The letterbox, the sealing wax, the pencils, the pens, red uniforms, red embroidery on khaki uniforms, red chillies in the lunch box, the red thread dangling around the peon’s neck, red paan spit on the wall….
Appa had first taught him the game many years ago when Amma had gone back to her parents’ house when she was pregnant. Both she and the baby had died at childbirth. But it didn’t matter, that was too long ago to be painful any more.
Krishnan would go to the post office with his father after school and sit there on the rickety table talking to his father and the peon and the guard and the shopkeeper across the street and the shopkeeper next door and the one next door to him. Appa was always in a hurry, always working. In the morning he’d be in a hurry doing the whole bath-temple-coffee-tiffin routine before sending him to school and climbing on that jangling arrangement of metal and riding to the crumbling two room post office with its perennial smell of glue, mouldy paper and candlewax. Oh yes, the logo of the Indian Post was red.
Appa was always doing something there. Nobody could really say what, but he was always doing something and never really had time to stop and talk. But he listened vaguely, little ripples from the constant stream of his son’s chatter lazily slipping into his mind, for want it seemed of an alternate destination.
Sometimes, he rode around the village with his father, handing off people’s mail. Some got blue inland letters (yes, those were blue too), some got yellow postcards. Sometimes someone received a big bundle and Krishnan would scream out to the entire street as they rode up to the recipient’s house. And everyone would gather around to watch, and they would remain there till the parcel had been seen and passed around and commented on by everyone. And Krishnan and his father would spend the next hour or so talking to them all too.
It had been a rather unusual childhood. Appa’s job with the postal services had seen him spending his entire childhood hopping across the little villages and temple towns across southern Tamil Nadu. He never really had and lasting friends, and he wasn’t too keen on family, they all looked at him with a sad sympathy that he really rather didn’t have. And teachers and priests and everyone else came and went with every new hop. Ironic, that a man who spent his entire adult life working for the only means of organized communication in that part of the world had managed to distance himself and his family from all lasting relationships. Every couple of years it was a different village. Some near the sea, some near the hills, all surrounded by paddy fields and all swelteringly hot! Krishnan played cricket with everyone and went to the temple with everyone and talked and laughed to everyone but in the end, he turned around and walked back home.
All these villages were built the same way, temple in the middle, Brahmin families in the streets around it and everyone else in the outer streets, with the paddy fields beyond. He was a Brahmin by birth, yes, but he lived in the little quarter provided by the Government. Usually, it was in a dubious plot just near the entrance of the village, that everyone knew, but nobody associated with. It was neither here nor there. It just existed on the horizons of everyone’s lives, but was never in focus.
And he’d wander in to the temple and through the market and everyone would know him but in a year they’d all be replaced with a different set of faces. Eventually, he left this lifestyle to become a doctor and a very good one and he lived now, in London.
There was a knock on the door and another fat, rich white woman walked. Aah, and her dress was blue.
He was good with his patients, they loved him, and he felt nothing for them.