Recently at a party of some sort, I was asked if I had a favorite café or bar in the city. A sort of real-life Central Perk, so to speak, where my friends and I would hang out over coffee after work and indulge in that ever-elusive light hearted banter. A place where the bartender would know you by name and call out your drink before you could ask for it. It was, I was told, one of those several little signs that make you a New Yorker – as opposed to the throngs of wide-eyed tourists milling around outside wearing too much make-up and I heart NY t-shirts, always wanting to get in.
What can I say, I fail miserably in this little test. A few months back, when the Afghan chap who runs the coffee cart outside my office smiled and gave me a New Year’s card, I convinced myself I had formed one of those wordless New York relationships which you keep hearing so much about. He disappeared last month though, and the new coffee chap who took his place smiles indiscriminately at everyone so I’m never quite sure. Besides, he is white and wears a baseball cap – which you will agree doesn’t really have the same pseudo-melancholy-romantic edge which Yusuf Arakzai of the trimmed beard and wild eyes from Helmand brought to that coffee cart.
I don’t particularly mind the tourists either, although I am told it is another of those kosher things to do when you are a New Yorker. I run into scores of them every day, while passing through Times Square on my walk back from work. I keep my stern face on, so no one asks me to take their photographs but I am sure I am in countless picture albums on computers in every country across the world; one in a multitude of faces in the background while the main protagonists are busy pouting and flashing the V sign. It gives me an odd sense of satisfaction, that.
Times Square itself, I have gradually learnt through conversations in fashionably inconspicuous bars in the East Village, is supposed to be some sort of a tourist trap hell, whose gaudy lights and commercialism undermine the beating heart of the city. I try my best to dislike the place, but the lights are seductive – often I gawk at them while walking back from work leading people to think that I am, horror of all horrors, a tourist. I am then stopped and offered comedy club tickets or elevator rides up the Empire State building. To be fair, these road side salesmen aren’t really the best judges of touristocity. They once cornered M, even when she was carrying her Brooklyn-hipster yellow handbag which no tourist could possibly own.
Commercialism has its own little charms, though. Last week, on one of my famous walks back from work, I saw an animated conversation between a Latin American girl and a person in a Spongebob Squarepants outfit. The girl had squealed when she saw old Sponge bobbing around Times Square- she was apparently a big fan- and had rushed to get her photo taken with him. She didn’t, however, have a dollar bill for the tip bag which was being held out suggestively- would Mr. Squarepants have change for a 20? At this point, the top half of the outfit came off and a wizened Chinese lady emerged with a wad of dollar bills in her hand. I invite any Times Square haters reading this to Beat That.
Back to the party; No, I told the chap with a mildly apologetic smile. No favorite café, no bar where I can flop down after work and mutter ‘the usual’ under my breath. I still stare at the skyscrapers and blink at the lights and get confused on the subway. I’m working on the whole New Yorker thing though. Last Saturday, M and I spent the afternoon lounging around Bryant Park quietly reading our books in the sun– instead of stuffing ourselves with rava dosas in Saravana Bhavan. I felt I had crossed a milestone.
For three months every year through high school, all I would think about was the Columban Open Quiz. It would invariably dawn on me while I baked in the long trip back home in the school bus and an urgent tiny knot would form deep inside. I was always dreadfully early, of course. It would be another few weeks of fretting before the official invitation would arrive- a bland little letter addressed to the principal of my school asking for participants for the annual St. Columba’s quiz competition. And could she please put up the enclosed poster on the school notice board?
After being tossed around on random desks for another week, the letter would eventually find its way to me and that knot would become a little tighter. The Columban Open was, after all, the biggest event of that incestuous circle that made up Delhi school quizzing. It wasn’t the prize money; in fact, there wasn’t even a trophy – just an outsized cardboard cheque for a few thousand rupees. And besides, there were other flashier quizzes around, throwing around pots of gold with Derek O’Brien bounding around the stage. It wasn’t particularly the quality of questions either, though the Columban was never terrible. Almost any St. Stephens 2nd year student worth his Fabindia kurta could put together a better quiz – with the obligatory generous sprinkling of Douglas Adams, Asterix and Quentin Tarantino, guaranteed to warm the hearts of a bunch of too-cool-by-half high school teenagers.
What the Columban had, however, was that rare, fuzzy warmth which I can only best describe as a sense of institution. It was the kind that seeped into all the little things that stayed behind long after the quiz was done and dusted. It turned up in the prayer before the written qualifiers, led by Brother Coelho in that irritating over-kind manner peculiar to Brothers. Or the ritual disqualification of teams with vaguely blasphemous team names, there were always some ‘Few Ultimately Cool Kids’. We took it all in as wide-eyed amateurs the first time (1998, was there really such a year?) – the casual meetings between old friends and deadly enemies in the lawns outside, each silently revising the Ultimate Trivia handbook. In later years we would be appropriately blasé, tie undone, jaunty hands in jaunty pockets, quietly condescending towards the newbies – as cool as bunch of people who had mugged up the capital of Sierra Leone could possibly be. All this of course, till we trooped into that enormous hall, found our chairs with the prelim sheets lying face down and started behaving like petulant 5-year olds again.
Teams that qualified into the finals came back on Saturday evening, parents in tow. It was a long lazy affair, like a test match at Lord’s – 25 rounds, something like 200 questions, with a samosa and sandwiches break in between. The mood was set by the quizmaster, Francis Groser, a wrinkled Anglo-Indian-from-Calcutta uncle who I now think looked a lot like the Dalai Lama. He would grin constantly, even when we acted obnoxious and would invariably break into a small jig when playing one of his old favorites in the audio round. (I refer to, of course, the slight hip twist with one leg off the ground which all wrinkled Anglo-Indian-from-Calcutta uncles come pre-packaged with.) By the time we turned up for the last of my Columbans in 2001, we had all come to know old Groser rather well. The previous night, we would have read up on Norse myth because Groser was known to ask at least one question on Asgard or the Valkyries or some such. He, in turn, would introduce us to the audience as one of the old-timers. We would beam away to no one in particular.
I won the Columban only once, as a fifteen year old. I cried silently, slightly embarrassed at myself, as the last question passed around while my older, wiser team-mates exchanged handshakes. I remember it distinctly, as if it happened yesterday while my other more grown-up half was busy doing banker stuff. It’s a point of reference really, a moment I hold against all others as a challenge to move me to tears of joy once again. Of course, as I now realize, it was never the moment that did it – it was the fifteen-year old me. And I’ve grown inexorably older…
My IIT-JEE rank was ok, I guess. The number had finally showed up on the computer screen around 9 am that morning – resolving itself pixel by painful pixel after many hours of getting the crummy dial up connection to work. A quick page refresh (to remove any lingering doubts of mysterious computer network errors showing fanciful numbers) and my parents were letting off entirely uncharacteristic whoops of joy. (I now suspect they would have whooped even if my rank had been a few thousands lower). Now that I think about it, I can’t seem to decide if I was excited or not. I guess I had vague expectations of something slightly better, but I also readily agreed that it could have been much worse. It was, like I said, ok.
With my decent-but-not-quite rank, I was scheduled to go in on the second day of counseling. I have faint recollections of landing up at the hall feeling remarkably light, happily gazing at random trees as we stood in line outside the gate. This was, of course, no time for clueless, light-hearted tree-gazing. By the time I left the building – I had been booked for four years in the newly-converted IIT at Roorkee without knowing the first damned thing about the place.
First impressions weren’t particularly encouraging either. Some of my old Roorkee readers would remember the unbelievably chaotic registration process back in 2002. Hostel rooms were first come first serve, so if you wanted a reasonable room with not so god-awful views and some decent distance from the toilets, you needed to start lining up at 6am, pick the registration slip and run to the hostel to stake claim – all this without as much as a samosa and chai break in Alpahar. The main building wasn’t yet the nice regal British Raj structure you could put up pictures of in Facebook- it was streaky yellow and flaky and the clock on the dome would show some random time. Besides, the profs were snarly, the quizzing was bad and the NCC boots bit. All a bit depressing, really.
In a month, I was back in Delhi for the weekend, meeting up with my friends from school. It would be a large group and someone would invariably just slip it in as a joke, ‘Roorkee is not really an IIT, you know’, in that terrible comic serious way I could never make out. I would laugh along, of course. Back in Roorkee, more doubt. Maybe Mechanical at IIT Delhi was better after all. Dammit, what was I thinking during counseling?
It was all a bit petty, as you would imagine – but at eighteen, the lack of suitably with-it coffee shops is enough to make you feel vaguely disenfranchised. Or for that matter, the annual India Today rankings, where Roorkee would almost invariably slot in neatly below all the other IITs- causing many weeks of heartburn to all concerned.
I would like to believe that I grew out of it over the course of the year, piece by piece – perhaps watching the Ganges flow by on one weekend, or finding the one professor who made sense during Signals class. But all I can remember is the one night I came hurtling down the hill on my bicycle after a particularly late cramming session – wind blowing through my hair, the moon shining between the trees – when it finally dawned on me.
The Roorkee-is-not-an-IIT taunts never really stopped. At IIMA they were a bit more civil, carefully putting adequate qualifiers but always meaning the same thing. I would put on the same limp smile, of course- I never quite worked out the right way to wiggle out of situations like that. But at least I was ok inside my head.
I wrote my first short story when I was eleven. It was supposed to be this nonsensical, humorous, Wodehousian piece which had sly references to all my pet peeves interspersed with about two hundred private jokes which, I convinced myself in my feverish adolescent brain, only a select few would understand.
I spent weeks sprawled out on the drawing room floor filling in pages torn out of my father’s diary with my scrawly handwriting, crossing out entire paragraphs in the morning after sleepless nights spent worrying about a particular turn of phrase. When it was finally done, I stapled the sheets together ceremoniously and re-read it about sixteen times, always chucking softly at my terrible cleverness, forever making some small adjustments on the way inspired by the latest Blandings novel I had borrowed from the library.
It was Children’s Day or something and Ruskin Bond was visiting our school. They had decided to present him with a sample of the school’s incipient talent; a book was being made containing pieces contributed by the young writers of seventh grade. I duly turned in my illegible scrawl along with everyone else in the class, privately smug that Radhika Ma’am couldn’t possibly understand the subtlety of my humour sandwiched between treatises on My Summer Vacation and India: Unity in Diversity. Even more privately, I desperately hoped she would like it.
She did. She called me to her desk the next morning and asked me to write the whole thing out again. In better handwriting, please. Preferably typed out in Times New Roman, size 10 – they wanted to maintain uniformity in the collection. I remember being very surprised; standing at the edge of that desk with piles of notebooks blocking my view, incredulity tinged with joy. Ma’am, please don’t make me type the whole thing out and then tell me the story didn’t make it. She assured me that wouldn’t be the case. Make sure you submit the final draft by Friday. She made it sound rather mechanical, as if my story was just one of the many that got selected and it wasn’t really that big a deal. Maybe it wasn’t, really.
That evening, my father turned over the computer to me and gave me some quick tips on handling Word. Soon I had propped up the sheaf of notes on a convenient pile of books, my eyes peeled to the screen, brow knitted in concentration and finger poised in mid air as I searched for the damn letter on the labyrinthine keyboard.
They put my story right at the beginning of the collection. There it was, Number 1 in the table of contents – ‘A Scottish Tragedy’, a name arrived at after hours of brainstorming and one positively dripping with irony and delicate wit. Even if Bond simply rustled through the book, there was a high probability the very first story would still catch his eye. He would read on, ensconced in his favorite rocking chair on his mountainside house in Mussoorie, giggling quietly at the right parts, jowls swaying against his kind face till the gentle twist at the end would crack a smile on his face. And he would saunter in to the living room pick his phone up and call the principal of my school. ‘Who is this kid, this uhm… Keerthi Raghavan? Can I talk to him?’
We filed into the Audio Visual Hall where Bond was being welcomed by the Head Girl. He looked exactly like the photographs on the jackets of his books. Portly, smiling and utterly underdressed in an old T shirt and slacks. I remember noticing he was wearing grey Power sneakers, a strict no-no in my school already given over to the two thousand rupee Nikes and Reeboks. The Principal made some generic speech and proceeded to give him a potted plant in appreciation of his coming here. They had abandoned the traditional bouquet of flowers – the eco-club had campaigned rather fiercely for this. I sat in the third last row of the auditorium, watching intently as the Head of the English Dept handed over the collection, all nicely bound in that red cardboard they bound all the library books in. He wouldn’t flip through it immediately; instead it looked like he was putting it in his bag or something. He couldn’t possibly be expected to start reading it at once, of course. It would be quite rude. Besides, the Head Girl was already calling him to give a speech.
From what I remember, he seemed to talk a lot about ghosts. He told some three stories, all vaguely ghostly, and inevitably to do with chowkidars and unlit bylanes in Mussoorie. It wasn’t very interesting, the speech. To be fair, I wasn’t paying much attention either. All my thoughts were on the book deal I would soon be signing with Harper Collins, the youngest writer on their list, glowing reviews by Ruskin Bond on the back cover of my book.
I spent around three weeks waiting for a phone call of some sort. In six months, the hard disk on my computer had crashed taking with it the sole digital copy of my flight of fancy. I rediscovered the crazy scrawl a full seven years later, in my 2nd year of engineering in a fit of spring cleaning induced by my mother – six yellowing sheets hidden away at the bottom of my drawer. I have them with me even now, neatly filed away in a corner of my cupboard in New York. I take them out every now and then and spend the next half hour smiling to myself.
It’s been many months since I last posted, and a lot of things have happened in the meantime. I now live in New York, work most of the day for 5 days a week and pass weekends in a kind of stupefied haze of Hindi movies and Saravana Bhavan and innumerable trips to Home Depot till its Monday morning again. And though I make it sound terrible in my typical sort of way, it’s not so bad after all. I walk the fifteen minutes to work most days, and the few times I take the subway, there’s this old jazz band in Grand Central station playing quietly with their heads bowed and eyes closed.
I don’t travel too much anymore, which is a sort of a loss really. My lasting memory of Roorkee will always be the 5 hour bus journeys, staring out of rickety old buses, reading all the crazy signs on the highway announcing the best milk cakes made this side of Muzaffarnagar. Ahmedabad will forever be the squishing of 5 people on the back seat of an autorickshaw and the interminable waits at the airports for flights to Delhi. Cab rides here are disappointingly short, cab drivers monosyllabic, subway windows deathly dark.
M and I did a short trip to Washington DC last month, in the absence of anything worthwhile to do over the long weekend. It was, quite unexpectedly, great fun primarily because we spent much of the day roaming around the city as a part of a guided tour perched on these things. They had a name for every Segway as well, printed discreetly behind the handlebars. Mine was called ‘Buffness’ and I immediately set about living up to the name by contriving to fall off what is supposed to an eminently stable device.
M insists I write about the looks of wonder on the faces of passersby as we whizzed past. I admit there were looks, wondrous perhaps. I saw at least one little boy tugging on his mother’s arm screaming ‘I want one’, and a few old men wanted to know how much these little things cost. M met a wise-assish college sort who suggested she was a part of some exclusive crime-fighting team. All rather rewarding, as you might imagine.
It’s already been a year since I graduated from Ahmedabad. The junior batch had their convocation last week and Facebook was littered with their proud photographs. It doesn’t seem so long back, or perhaps it is New York that is hustling me along. For some reason, time almost stood still in Azad Bhawan, Roorkee. I would read The Hindu from page to page propping up my head on the mess table, nibbling at the terrible breakfast and unbuttered bread and it would still be 9 am. We didn’t get The Hindu in Ahmedabad and the breakfast was miles better but it was still 9 am when I finally folded the newspaper and contemplated the rest of my day.
9 am comes terribly early in New York, I live with the dull discomfort of not having time to read The Hindu over breakfast.
And dammit, I really should write more often.