Discover more from It All Burned and Was Light
A Day Comes, and a Day Goes
Vignettes from Thailand.
Up in the air.
The clouds. The sky. Turning at angles strapped to my seat.
How long has it been? Once I settled in Delhi five years back, I baked myself like a skeleton in a wall (that is a reference to pivotal scenes in Madhuri Dixit starrer 1991 film ‘100 days’). Having worked distasteful jobs at distasteful places through most of my twenties, through a stroke of luck I was finally somewhere I didn’t feel completely alienated. I was working at Ministry of Coal and Railways, a place I cherished, even respected, and I didn’t want to leave. This would change later, of course, but at the time I liked this city. The work was demanding and warranted my constant engagement, and I didn’t complain. I had nowhere to go, so I went nowhere.
Now, all those years drifting behind me like wind, out of a job, and in possession of limitless time and limited savings, at an inflection point in my life, I am seated by the window looking out the Air Asia flight to Bangkok.
Daybreak. Bangkok airport.
I am glued to the floor-to-ceiling glass panel, peering outside. The view is spectacular. Deep blue sky stretches for miles over airport buildings, idle airplanes and extended perimeter. Long dark streaks of cloud mottle the sky, giving the whole thing an appearance of a cosmic ink blot test for a subject to recognize shapes. Do I see anything? Causality, or chaos; I am not sure which.
This is a two hours layover before the flight to Phuket. Obviously, I brought a book — Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ — to keep me engaged. I have been salivating over the prospect of reading this book for a long long time. It features among the greatest novels in world literature. The premise is simple enough: a young desperate law student, Raskolnikov, living in abject poverty in St. Petersburg, Russia, murders a pawn shop owner. It is not a whodunnit murder mystery; Raskolnikov’s crime is clear. Dostoevsky, in this seminal work, examines in great detail the rationalizations his protagonist has concocted for the execution of this heinous act, the moral dilemmas he wrestles, and searing guilt he suffers after he has committed the murder. This is exactly my kind of book: a story that lets me live inside a character’s heads — hear him think, see him act. This is a facility accessible only in pages of fiction; in real life, human mind is a black box, its mysteries, its motivations, evident to no one but itself.
Yet people find comfort in human relationships, don’t we? People form friendships, fall in love, get married, go to vacations with relatives, share meals with neighbors in their homes, and attend office parties with colleagues: all human relationships are navigated based on a degree of belief that we know someone; and we believe that — and honestly, want to believe that — because there is comfort in the assumption of predictability. Life’s affairs are manageable on a predictable terrain. You want to believe that while you are asleep, your wife (or your husband) won’t suffocate you; your best friend will come and rescue you in the middle of the night if you got into an accident; your parents will always love and support you; your insurance agent won’t defraud you; your doctor will not overprescribe your medication to line his own pockets through commission from pharma companies; your mailman will not intentionally misplace your letters; your son’s private tutor will not sell him marijuana — you believe all that. May be you are right — about the broad contours of people’s behavior. Maybe the give-and-take social entrepreneurship has worked well for you. Maybe you have ironed out the existential creases believing that past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior (until it isn’t as every screaming headline in the local newspaper attests, but let’s keep cynicism at bay for now). I suppose that most people don’t lose any sleep as long as the wheels of their utilitarian apple cart don’t come off. Still, the basic enigma remains: Is it possible to truly know anybody else? What goes on in their heads? What is it like living in their skin?
The existentialists have answered it: there is self, and there is other, existing in the same existential plain as self, yet distant, different, and alien from self, locked in a struggle with the self in making the world its own, defining it and living in it. Sartre went on to say: “Hell is other people”. To repack the whole argument: it could very well be that the most authentic human interaction is buying a pack of cigarettes from a thrift store clerk who accepts the cash without looking up and says: “Next”.
I have a habit of reading ‘Foreword’, ‘Preface’, and ‘Editor’s Note’ — anything which can supply information about the writer and his (her) work — before diving into the actual text. I like to know what the writer’s personal life was like, how he grew up, the events that shaped his creative journey, and the ideas which coalesced into the work I hold in my hands.
I feel kinship with one of my favorite literary heroes, Holden Caulfield, in this desire to have a more intimate bond with the author.
What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.
- The Catcher in the Rye
I have come across the argument that art should be seen as independent and separate from the artist, standing on its own merits. I don’t think that, not when it comes to literature. In a medium as intimate as writing, the process of creation, whether in fiction or non-fiction, is informed richly and crucially by the lived experiences of the writer, his worldview, his interior life. Franz Kafka grew up in the shadow of his overbearing father, and was riddled with feelings of inadequacy and crippling self-doubt. Sylvia Plath suffered from chronic depression her whole adult life, and made multiple suicide attempts until finally she succeeded putting her head in the gas oven at age thirty. Kurt Vonnegut fought in World War 2 as an American serviceman, and was captured and imprisoned at Dresden, where he later survived the bombing by Allied Forces, hiding in the basement of a slaughterhouse. Philip K Dick was a habitual substance abuser, and was prone to paranoia and hallucinations; he wrote a great many of his books while high on LSD and psychedelics. Charles Bukowski had a rough childhood as he was frequently abused by his father, and found his refuge in books (and later, alcohol) as an escape from pain and brutality of life. Dostoevsky was sentenced to death by firing squad for being part of a literary group which discussed books critical of Tsarist Russia; his sentence was commuted at the last moment, and he was sent into exile to a Siberian labor camp. Did these events have anything to do with the works these writers produced? Categorically, yes. Does learning about these events affect the reading of their works for me? I don’t know. I feel a surge of empathy.
It is getting darker outside. Black clouds have spun from the edge of the sky and spiraled around a diminishing center, blotting all light.
The boarding has started. I watch the passengers tugging their luggage filing into columns like ants.
Sunset Beach Resort, Phuket.
I have been driven from the Airport to the hotel where I shall be staying. On my way, the streets and the houses reminded me of Goa. I guess all coastal towns have a similar natural aesthetic. In the hotel lobby next to Reception, there is dining area. I eat breakfast and head to my room to catch some sleep.
It is evening. I put my passport and wallet in a satchel, sling it on my back, grab my phone, and leave the hotel. True to its name, Sunset Beach Resort is indeed right next to the beach. Exiting through hotel’s main gate, I can see the ocean barely three hundred meters beyond the road and the low boundary wall which runs alongside it.
The air is cool. There is no sun in the sky. Everything is grey and shimmery.
I cross the road and look over the wall to figure out a way to the beach. On the other side the ground is at a considerably lower elevation with boulders scattered. Since I do not wish to risk breaking a leg or both, I walk along the road to find a passage to the beach. On the roadside the food stalls are queued as far as eyes can see, selling what appears to be a variety of meat prepared in a variety of ways. Some of the shops have listed the menu items and prices but they are all displayed in Thai, and I can’t distinguish anything. The oppressive stench of meat wafts along and I don’t want to hang around.
Milling along, finally, I spot an opening on the side which leads to a stone stairway descending on to the beach. Exhilaration.
It is like being inside an elevator shooting up from the ground floor to the hundred-and-fifth floor in an instant. Then, it falls just as rapidly to the sixtieth floor. Then stays there for a while.
The ocean is utterly calm. There are no waves. I walk on the brown grainy sand in my shoes. The shoreline is strewn with stones and rocks, grey, black, and yellow. Along the horizon there is an explosion of white clouds like thick fumes erupting from a volcano. Into the distance islands swell from the surface of water.
Pictures. Pictures. Snap. Snap.
Where are the people? There is hardly anybody in proximity. I see a man seated on a stone bench smoking.
As I continue to walk, the rocks get larger in size. Soon enough, I see rock formation in the shape of a grey hill jutting deep into seawater.
Do you feel like climbing?
I want to stand on top of this hill and see this ocean world from there. It seems doable. I look for the path of least resistance — as I have done through life. Upon closer inspection, the foot of the hill consists of craggy rocks, half immersed in water, and juxtaposed, which makes it difficult to get a good foothold on this terrain. I figure larger the rocks underneath my feat steadier the climb should be for me. I hop and lean and bend and crouch; using all four limbs for balance until finally I get past the low elevation and on to the larger rocks which have more even surface. Water has entered my shoes and they feels soggy now. My shoes are made for sprint, not seaside rock climbing; they don’t have spikes which may have provided a good grip, and I am afraid of slipping on the wet surfaces. I hate injuries. These rocks have smooth cold surfaces, and with one foot after another, and luck, gradually, I am near the top.
I get my view. A clear line divides the water and the sky; the water in the color of aquamarine, and as calm as though in a reservoir; the sky turning a hue of orange. I look around a while. Then I begin to worry that I should climb down before the light starts to fade. Descent is slower, but more surefooted than the ascent was. At the foot of the hill, I have to cross a hundred rocks with coarse ugly mouths just ready to sink their teeth in me for any transgression. I am careful, yet at one spot I crouch and seek balance with my right hand among the craggy rocks, and as I raise myself I feel a sharp sting. One of the crags has nicked my forefinger across the middle and there is blood glowing red on my palm.
I shall live. That is what heroes do.
I continue on my way as before. The sandy beach, which until now ran in a thin strip along the shore marred by rocks, now opens into an unencumbered large area. There are plenty of people here, locals and tourists. Some are fishing, some taking pictures. A family with parents and two children is building sandcastles. A white couple is posing for pictures as a professional photographer is busy capturing them in all their choreographed glory. A street vendor is selling coconut water.
I grope in my satchel, find my wallet, and give him a fifty. He grabs his machete, slices the top off the shell, and drops a straw in it. Then he passes it to me.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“India big big country,” he says throwing his arms wide, suddenly animated. “Thailand a baby. A small baby.” He brings his palms close to form a sphere.
I sip from the straw and I find the taste sweeter than usual. It is amazing. My feet feel cold from the water soaked shoes, but little I can do about it.
A Thai kid is hooking a live worm to his fishing line, a fishing rod held steady between his thighs clasped together. The long slender creature squiggles between his fingers. Near him lies a container full of live worms submerged in water. With the worm secured to the hook, he is ready to cast his line. He joins other kids, their fishing rods raised like flagpoles, as they wait patiently for the stupid fish to take the bait, a Zen-like tranquility to their brooding faces.
Roaming through the streets of Phuket feels like roaming through any street anywhere. People. Shops. Crossroads. Rustle and bustle. I should be experiencing ‘Culture Shock’, except it is not so much a shock, as an amusing recognition of novelty. People speak Thai, and they can barely understand English — even the ones I expected to be more fluent, like hotel receptionists, cab drivers or airport staff. But happily, the names of shops, hotels, bars, clubs do appear in English. The bikes and cars appear distinct visually — fancier, futuristic. But, other than that, you still have to enter shops through doors, you still have to pay for stuff you bought, and you still have to walk your way out. Gravity still works.
India is such a diverse land that if you have lived and traveled in different states for more than a decade, as I have, nothing really fazes you. As long as money talks, that is. And boy! Does money talk here? And why should I be surprised? Money talks everywhere.
I have now seen an antique shop, a comic book shop, and an apparel store. Then, I take a turn to Bangla Street, the heart of night life in Phuket, located at Patong Beach.
Bangla Street has a crowd of pedestrians walking in every direction. It is lined on both sides with nightclubs and bars: so many nightclubs and bars that each one of them has their agents fielded outside soliciting and cajoling guests with offers. Moreover, there are bar dancers, women clad in bras and thongs, dancing around a pole on top of the counters, acting as a draw. I have barely walked ten feet, and I have been accosted with a dozen menus. I let myself be whisked by one of the agents, because I do wish to get a drink. In the dazzling neon lights and thrumming music at the bar, I spot a few guests inside and I grab a seat around a large table.
From the ‘Cocktails’ section I point my finger at ‘Long Island Iced Tea’ to the server, and watch the revelers frolicking in the streets. There are all sorts of people. Singles, couples, friends, families; it is disconcerting to see children though, at a place like this. I like the taste of my drink. I watch the dancers and relax, try to listen to the music.
Oh, my God, I feel it in the air
Telephone wires above are sizzlin' like a snare
Honey, I'm on fire, I feel it everywhere
Nothin' scares me anymore
(One, two, three, four)
I love Lana Del Rey. When I first come across a song I really like, I find the artist or the band that created it, and I figure I would probably like their other songs as well, since I liked this one song, but that doesn’t happen often; their other songs usually are shit. It is, of course, a matter of personal taste, but I am generally disappointed. Not with Lana. Many years ago, I listened to the song ‘Video Games’, and I never heard anything like it before — or frankly since. The lyrics captured a memory so vivid, so alive with passion, foreboding, and loss that I was fascinated. It was somebody’s nostalgia, yet it felt as though it was my own. And Del Rey’s gorgeous voice, stirring with sensuousness, vulnerability, and melancholy made this song a tour de force.
Then I went on to listen to ‘Blue Jeans’, and ‘Born to Die’, and ‘Summertime Sadness’, and ‘West Coast’, and ‘Ride’, and ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’, and ‘Brooklyn Baby’, and ‘White Mustang’, and on and on, each song a wistful cinematic story in its own right.
An older white couple, likely in their fifties, suddenly gets playful. The woman, wearing a coral top and white shorts, has short grey hair, a pouchy weathered face, and a stocky built. Apparently, she wants to climb on top of the large table and dance at the steel pole like the girls swinging at the front counter. An admirable desire. The man, bulging around the middle and sporting a Nike cap, t-shirt and cargo pants, helpfully supports her behind, as she manages to step on a barstool, and leaps overboard onto the table. Then she starts her own show: she grabs the gleaming metal bar and spins around it, her face glowing in electric green lights, then she sways her hips as the man cheers and claps. She doesn’t try too hard to spiral upward and downward along the pole, but she seems to be having hell of a time; what she lacks in athleticism, she makes up in exuberance.
Then she climbs down and they leave.
I have ordered one ‘Sex on the Beach’. I am slightly tipsy and I feel like laughing for no reason.
A lean middle-aged white man, in a green vest and khaki shorts, wearing square rimmed glasses, enters the bar with a broad genial smile, waving hello to everybody; he’s likely a regular. Taking a seat at the side of a table, he is accosted by one of the girls at the bar, eager to take his order. He leisurely peruses the menu, laughing and gesturing to the girl playfully. His expressions are animated, and he seems happy. In no time, he is served, and raises his drink in a toast to other patrons. I raise my glass and smile as he smiles back. I am almost finished. I rise to leave, and as I pass by his table, I have an urge to talk to him. I lean and say “Hello”. But the music is so damn loud, he doesn’t hear me. As he notices me standing behind him, he seems surprised; he probably didn’t see me coming over. He puts his drinks down, and waves his outstretched hands like windshield wiper to indicate “No”. Does he think I am trying to sell him something?
Feeling hopeless that nothing can be communicated here except the most rudimentary necessities, I take out my smartphone, quickly type a note on my glowing screen, and turn the device to face his square rimmed glasses:
“You look like Martin Sheen from ‘The West Wing’.”
I do not wait to see the comprehension dawn on him. I am so embarrassed I want to jump into Chao Phraya river.
On a boat. Middle of the Andaman Sea.
I have boarded a vessel at Sea Angel pier which is supposed to take me to Phi-Phi Island. It is early morning. Sun is nowhere to be seen, and the sky is chockfull of snow white clouds. In the distance dark green hills stretch across the horizon. The cabin area inside the boat looks surprisingly similar to that of an airplane, except it is also a lot wider; seats are arranged in two-five-two configuration and there is plenty of room in the aisles. A large television boarded on the front wall is playing ‘Ant-Man’.
To my delight, unlike an airplane, it is possible to exit the cabin and go to any part of the boat. I walk out through the cabin door, and climb a small flight of stairs to the backside of the boat right above the propellers. The churn caused by the propellers leaves a turbulent trail of froth and foam. I can’t tell how fast this boat is going, but there is no trace of the shore visible now. The water glistens in the color teal. The stern of the boat has cushions placed along the wall. A white man is smoking cigarette on one side; I sit on the other side, facing the water. Other people are flocking to the stern as well, taking pictures in a zillion configurations to be posted for the viewing pleasure of everyone on Instagram and Facebook and WhatsApp and Snapchat, attesting that they were on a boat having fun. Do you even exist if you do not collect and publish evidence of your existence relentlessly? Show us, or it didn’t happen. Also, you get our validation and applause, may be. Well, my friend here, exhaling curls of smoke, doesn’t give a shit. He stares into the space, where white crests of waves retreat from the speeding vessel, existing here and now, a Zen-like placidity to his demeanor. Can I sit and just watch the ocean? It is fucking impossible; my mind is constantly whirring with anxiety, fear, hate, regret, guilt, anger, lust — ambiguous and fluid and sharp — enough to put me in a low grade depression. The funny thing is that if I try to be in this moment and watch the ocean, in my head I would be watching myself watch the ocean. It would be a performance, a theatre. It should be possible to have a lock on the moment, not sliding backward into the past or forward into the future, but I keep sliding. It is tiresome to try to stop, it is futile.
This is not new. I turn to arts and literature to find a deeper insight into my own mind, to figure out whether other human beings perhaps mirror the same disquiet, to find empathy, to not feel alone, and that is how long ago I stumbled upon a screenwriting lecture given by Charlie Kaufman. And this is what he said:
As I move through time, things change. I change, the world changes, the way the world sees me changes. I age, I fail, I succeed, I am lost. I have a moment of calm. The remnants of who I have been, however, hover, embarrass me, depress me, make me wistful. The inkling of who I will be depresses me, makes me hopeful, scares me, and embarrasses me. And here I stand at this crossroads, always embarrassed, wistful, depressed, angry, longing, looking back, looking forward.
I have a moment of calm.
The vessel slows down as it has reached the Phi Phi Island. It is being maneuvered into position in order to dock at the pier. The guide, speaking on amplifier, asks the passengers to be back at the pier before 3 PM which is four hours from now. As I disembark over the wooden planks, I spot dozens of other boats lodged at the pier, a parking lot on water.
There is nothing to do. Walking through the streets, looking at hotels and shops, and inevitably (given this is an island) I find myself at another beach. The sun is shining splendidly on the golden sand. The water is a breathtaking color of turquoise from the sandy beach to the horizon. I have never seen ocean in this color except in films. This is stunning. I am wearing a t-shirt of the same color as the water coincidentally, which is, I don’t know, not meaningful, but nice. I take off my shoes, roll my trackpants up to the knees, and feel the gentle waves snuggle my feet. Oh my God! I feel happy.
After a while, I decide to sit on the side and watch the people: walking on the beach, swimming in the water, rowing boats with oars. A cat with mottled black and orange fur approaches me. It has fierce yellow eyes and dark vertical pupils. What is a cat doing on the beach? I suppose the same thing humans do. Finding nothing of interest, its tail raised, the cat moves on.
Do you want to row boat?
I was just on a boat.
But this one will be rowed by you.
I look around for the man minding the rowboats, amble over to him, and ask him the rate:
"For how long?"
"As long as you want upto one hour"
He helps me ease into a life jacket, all the straps taut, all the buckles latched. Then he steadies one of the rowboats at the water’s edge. He gestures me to step on it and sit down on the rowing seat, with my feet on the footrest. He hands me a double paddle oar to row, and pushes the boat into the water. The boat bobs up and down and I feel a little hazy. The last time I rowed was as part of a team building exercise during the second week at my first job in Bangalore. We built a raft using barrels, logs, ropes and nails, then we sat on sides steering it with oars; it actually worked and we sailed across a river stream. We did a whole bunch of silly little tasks supposed to make us bond with each other, which I don’t care to enumerate. I quit that job four months later. So much for the team building. I made a lousy excuse while I quit; I told them I wanted to prepare full time from Civil Services at Delhi. I never cared about that; the fact was I hated the place, the work, and the people. And everyday I was there, I kept thinking of running into one of the glass walls, and crashing on the pavement five floors down, splattering my innards.
The boat hovers over the dreamy glittering water, slowly edging away. I am not even sure if I am going forward or sideways. When we were children, my sisters and I used to craft paper boats, especially during the rains. As we sailed them in the rainwater pooled in the courtyard of our house, we would catch a big ant and place it gently on the boat — because a boat requires a sailor. We would even provide the creature with a spine of wood snapped from a broomstick for it to use as an oar. What does an ant know about navigating a boat? I am beginning to find out. My daft efforts to navigate this contraption prove disorienting. I should have taken a jet ski instead of this primitive device. If I am not able to turn it around, I might get swept away to North Korea.
Night, Hotel Room, Sunset Beach Resort.
On the crimson tiles of the balcony, separated from the room interior with a sliding glass door, a white cat with dark black eyes and black tail is rolling on its back, its paws lifted up in the air, its head turned towards me. The television has hundreds of channels, but only a few in English. I have scrolled past the entire menu, and I have to settle either on ‘BBC World’ or ‘DW News’. ‘Al Jazeera English’ has visuals, but no sound. ‘Al Jazeera Arabic’ has visuals and sounds both. The cat standing on alert now, its tail curled, taps on the glass. I notice a light blue collar around its neck, adorned with pattern of multicolored hearts, a keychain with a miniature globe dangling from it.
I take off my clothes and head to the bathroom. Under the soft pale lights, I stand before the mirror on the cold marble floor. My thumb habitually traces the fleck of unhealed cut on the forefinger, still tender to the touch. A curtain hanging on a long metal bar conceals a white porcelain tub. I pull the curtain aside and turn the faucet on for maximum flow. Cold water jets in, and swirls in the hollow of the tub. The droning voices from the television now garbled into an indistinct digital hum.
The tub is now full to the brim. I step into the water and lay on my back, careful not to knock my head on the hard porcelain. And then I just let go, my limbs suspended in the water as though weightless. The buoyant force on a submerged body is equal to the weight of fluid displaced by the body. Archimedes. Eureka. F is equal to ρ x g x V. I close my eyes, and lower myself into the tub; every inch of me is completely submerged in water except for nostrils, so that I can breathe. Is this how it feels to a fetus inside the womb? Just blackness and suspension. I have no memory of being a fetus, obviously, but I have no memory of being a baby either. I look at my pictures as a baby, and I have no recollection of being this swaddled lump of flesh with a round hairless head and inquisitive dark eyes. Who are you, baby? There are no associated memories — words, smells, tastes, touches — that I can recall as an infant. The earliest memory I have is from the time when I was a toddler; I must be three or four years old — the details are grainy — and I have a head and arms and legs and torso, but I have no face, and I stumble from one room to another room — that’s it. The memories thereafter are more defined, inked, animated, still contextually and narratively disconnected, like clips salvaged from a longer footage, itself irretrievably lost in the biological chaos of growing up. I see myself playing with other kids in a grassy field one rainy morning; I see myself sitting in principle’s office with my father; I see myself shopping colored pencils with my mother; I see myself crying at a barber’s shop; I see myself looking at earthworms on the moist ground; I see myself standing in a bucket filled with warm water, splashing.
I don’t know how much time has passed when I emerge back into the room. There is no sign of the cat in the balcony. The people in the TV talk about important things.
Thank you, Michael, for that update on State Department’s response to Ukraine’s demand for long range missiles. Pleasure to have you as always. I wish I could put my tongue in your mouth right now.
Thank you, Tracy. We are going to see Zelensky pressing Biden for more advanced weapons in the coming days. I would love to get you out of that white dress. See me after the show, won’t you?
Walking Street, Pattaya
As though the theme of hedonism was not quite screaming from the sight of the revelers and merry makers at go-go bars, discos and restaurants, a mascot performer swaggers in the middle of the street, walking on comically long legs and wearing a full body costume of a skeleton, complete with a skull featuring empty eye sockets, golden horns protruding on top, and a grinning, toothy jaw. Revel before death takes you away. Death erases all differentials, doesn’t it? Wealth, status, smart decisions, planning, scheming, conniving — every nonsense. The great equalizer. People flock to the mascot and extend their hands to get a picture with him shaking his hands, but he turns them away.
It starts to rain. Tiny raindrops patter the cobbled street, and I look for refuge at the neon lit lobby of a club. The staff member, in a maroon uniform, stands behind a wooden podium and presents me with the drinks menu, then he starts speaking in Hindi — “Sir, you don’t have to buy anything. There is no entry fee. You can sit and check it out if you like”. I look at the logo on top of the menu — ‘Jannat Club’. This is not surprising at all. A lot of establishments are owned and run by Indians here. I am led by another staff member through a dimly lit corridor into a large hall with an elevated frontstage illuminated with kaleidoscopic lights; small gleaming round tables and barstools are arranged through the area below. I have been assigned a seat at a table far into the back marked by a square metal plate, embossed ‘47’, standing on a small wooden plank.
My server is ‘Mukesh’, wearing a yellow apron over a black full sleeved shirt and black trousers, his name flashing on an LED lit badge. Fancy. He is a thin man of medium height with a clean square face and neatly parted hair. He brings me the menu to peruse. I ask him his recommendation in cocktails. He, like a good salesman, points to the most expensive item in the list. I consider the choices for a moment. Then, I order a dry martini. He jots down my order in a notepad, and waddles away. The hall gradually starts to fill in. A coterie of male and female dancers appears on stage in traditional Punjabi garbs and dance boisterously to a Punjabi song. It goes on a while. Then, the dancers exit through the backdoors, and a new set of dancers, dressed in more casual clothing replace them.
A Bollywood number plays and they dance.
Neeli neeli ankhe meri main kya karu
Gore gore gal mere main kya karu
Hoth mere lal lal main kya karu
Kaale kaale baal mere main kya karu
I find myself culturally shocked, certainly now. Mukesh has fetched my drink and stands ready at my disposal.
“Sir, where are you from?” He asks in Hindi.
“I am from Delhi.”
“Can you speak Bhojpuri?”
“What? I can. But how could you tell?”
“I sensed from the way you talk.”
“I can, but at home we generally speak the standard Hindi. Where are you from?”
“Wow. You are from Myanmar. How did you get there? ”
“Haman ka purvaj log Myanmar ma bas gaylin ja” he switches to Bhojpuri. My ancestors migrated to Myanmar.
It takes me a second to appreciate what is happening: In Thailand a man hailing from Myanmar is speaking to me in Bhojpuri, a dialect spoken in Easter Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
“Amazing. Like that film ‘Rangoon’ in which Indian soldiers fought on the side of the British in Myanmar?” I make the only connection I can1.
He nods. ‘Rangoon' is a film directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. It features the talents of two of the finest actors of their generation, Shahid Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut, and wastes it in tangle of a story. I watched the film solely on the strength of the song ‘Ye Ishq Hai’ and its accompanying music video: it has beautiful lyrics composed by Gulzar, and gorgeous cinematography, besides featuring Shahid and Kangana in various mating positions — in a field, on top of a hill, in the mud, in the sand.
Tanhayi dhunta hai
Parchhaayi bunta hai
Resham si nazron ko
Aankhon se sunta hai
Yeh ishq hai..
It is one of those songs that you remember when you heard it first, and then kept playing for days; afterwards it stays like a bookmark in your memory.
“So why are you not in Myanmar?”
“I can manage good earning here which I send back to my family.”
“Many people from my village work here. Yeh bhi wahin se hain.” She is also from there. He points to his left.
I spot a woman from the service staff standing at the next table, sporting a crimson bindi, a streak of sindoor above the forehead at the parting of hair in the middle, and wearing identical uniform as Mukesh, her round face curling a smile.
She folds her hands and says, “Namaste Sir. Kaise hain?” How are you, sir?
“Namaste Pramila ji” I smile at her. These LEDs are cool.
I order another martini and Mukesh disappears in the crowd.
Million dollar smile meri.
sab ye kehte hai
Are upar se niche tak
mujhko dekha karte hain
It can’t be that long since I have been sitting here, but it is beginning to feel stuffy as more people crowd in. Four women, presumably locals, have joined the table beside me, and to my surprise, they are quickly served with spirits in such variegated colors and quantities, and such mind spinning designs of the containers — tall glasses, flasks, decanters, bottles — that their table looks like an elaborate chemistry set.
Party girls don't get hurt
Can't feel anything, when will I learn?
I push it down, I push it down
One, two, three, one, two, three, drink
I sing the song in my head. I need a buzz. Mukesh is back with my drink.
I can’t curb my curiosity.
“Are these girls guests?” I tilt my head in the direction of the table next to me.
“No. These girls are for pick up. They come here everyday”
“Aaah.” I twirl my phone on the table. “And who is paying for the obscene quantity of alcohol?”
“The club covers all their expenses. From the back here all the way to the front,” Mukesh turns his head to the stage and continues, “all the girls are for pickup. Russians are in the front. You can talk to any of them. We have to arrange for their drinks because they attract a lot of customers.”
A honeytrap. Well. Is it really a trap when they want to be trapped?
People shuffle about between the tables. The dancers on the stage dance. Then, a server I have not seen yet leans towards me and says, “Sir, there are too many people. You will have to adjust one more person.”
I look for Mukesh as I want to pretend being offended and express a mild variety of protest, but he is nowhere to be seen. Reluctantly, I yield half of the table to an unseen arrival.
The girls at the table beside me seem to be having a good time, drinking and swaying to the cadence of music. That is when my phone drops to the floor and slides under their table. Just as I begin to think how I am going to bend under the table with four women standing around it, the prettiest one with her back to me picks it up, and looks around for the hapless owner.
I wave to her, then smile, and mouth “it’s mine”. My lousy phone is back where it belongs.
“Thank you.” She is incredibly pretty, with a heart shaped face, sparkling eyes, wavy shoulder length hair, and radiant white skin. She is wearing a black dress, complimented with golden earrings and a turquoise necklace. I don’t want to go all Holden Caulfield about her and get an attack of conscience regarding what she does and why she does it. It is a way of making a living, and that is all it is. That is what I tell myself.
The arrival at my table is a man in his late twenties, with brown hair, a moustache and stubble covering half his face, wearing a printed half sleeved shirt and grey shorts. He is pleasant looking, friendly. I glance at him and give him a wave with my fingers.
“Jagah nahi hai inke paas,” he says. They have no place to seat me. His accent makes me think of Kashmiris speaking a mix of Urdu and Hindi.
“No problem. This place was deserted when I came here,” I answer in Hindi.
“It will fill even further. This is a very popular place among Indians and Pakistanis. Where are you from?”
“I am from Delhi. You?”
+92. Pakistan. Oh my God.
“How is our brotherly nation doing?” I ask in jest.
“Oh, we are fucked,” he sighs.
“So I hear,” I laugh.
Pakistan has been teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Nationwide political unrest involving Imran Khan’s arrest. A mounting economic crisis with dwindling currency value and vanishing Forex Reserve. Food shortage leading to skyrocketing inflation and pandemonium at distribution centers. Terror attacks at mosques and military establishments. Devastating floods. As far as Indian news media is concerned, Pakistan is the most important nation to cover, and covered in shit it is.
“How is Karachi?” I ask interestedly.
“Karachi is fine. I have not been to Karachi for six months now. But I will be going there soon.”
“I have a business of export. So I travel around.”
“What do you export?”
I gulp down my alcohol. Garlic. Imagine a thing like that taking you out and about.
“When are elections? Who will you be voting for?” I have so many questions.
“Not when, if. Elections will be held if the army wants them held,” he chafes, “and even then, those motherfuckers will rig them. They have ruined the entire country.”
“I see.” I wasn’t expecting to hear such bile directed towards army from a Pakistani. Army is supposedly the only beloved and credible institution in Pakistan.
“How come are you here?” he asks.
“Me! I don’t know. I am fleeing from all things. Anywhere on the map could’ve worked. Antarctica was so expensive I would have had to sell my undergarments. And I was hoping to save Egypt for New Year. I don’t know. I just am here,” I blabber.
“You look like a friend I have at Pakistan Military Academy at Abbottabad,” he says looking at me.
“I do!!” I am obviously surprised. Stunning. A doppelganger, all the way in a soldier’s uniform in Pakistan.
“Yes, I’ll show you. Just give me a minute.” He lights up his phone and flicks the screen with his thumb.
Two older white women are fidgeting behind our table. One of them catches my eye and waves her hand. I smile and wave back.
“Here it is,” he says and turns his screen towards me.
A young man standing in full military gear appears in the rectangular frame. He stands on what seems to be a hill overlooking a valley below, wearing a camouflage-patterned uniform and combat boots. In one hand, he holds a helmet, and in the other, a rifle, looking happy. Is this me? I don’t know. He has a clean shaven face and nice hair and a broad smile. People see similarity if they want to see it. I hope he lives though. I hope he rises through the ranks, stays lean, and doesn’t see any action.
“May be,” I tell him ambiguously to not disappoint him with sincerity.
He seems to have spotted the two women behind us as well. He rises from his seat and leaves to talk to them.
I imagine a rapid dialogue commence behind my ears. A few minutes pass. He is back.
“Two thousand for a throw is her ask.”
“And she has a friend, so she wants to figure if you are interested too.”
I laugh and look at the women again. “I like their team spirit, but I shall pass.”
As we talk, the two women approach our table. The one who waved at me gets all playful and strokes my hair. She has blonde hair, charcoal black eyes, and a face sparkling with glitter. Then she practically shoves my skull in her bosom.
“Come, we’ll have fun,” she says in an accent which makes me think she is not a native English speaker.
“You can go. I am okay, honestly,” I turn to him. I suddenly get very self conscious.
“Okay. My name is Asif Hamza. I shall be back soon,” he winks.
“Where are you taking her, back to your hotel?”
“No. The men’s room.”
Screwing a hooker in the men’s room. We might be inside a B movie.
“My name is Anurag Sharma. I shall await your mutual climax”
And so the company departs.
Anurag Sharma was my Quantitative Aptitude teacher whom I met as I was preparing for Common Aptitude Test in Mumbai about a decade ago. He was tall, dark, and handsome, and very funny, and moreover, he was my friend. Time went by and we lost contact. I have no idea where he is. Strangely, I haven’t thought of him for years until this sparkling moment of subterfuge and innuendo. Until this sparkling moment of subterfuge and innuendo, I didn’t even think I knew anybody by that name.
The table is cleared. The girls at the next table are still chattering and drinking. She meets my gaze again.
Can you fuck me with feelings?
Coral Island, Pattaya
It is a beautiful sunny morning. I stand smiling ear to ear in a queue of people waiting for their turn for parasailing. I am about to fly. I have already donned the safety jacket and the harness with the help of a staff member of the parasailing service. The harness will later be connected to the parasail, basically a parachute canopy towed by a motorboat with a long towrope.
Before me stand about a dozen people in the hot sun looking up at the sky tracking the trajectory of the soaring sails. A small woman with black hair seemingly oblivious to the line etiquette, tries to cut in ahead of me. Indian, of course. Her hands painted in reddish brown mehndi tell me she is newly wed. She joins a fat balding man in a flannel shirt, apparently her husband, utterly oblivious to people standing behind her in the line. A female staff member from the company rushes over to me and pleads, “They are a couple. They requested. Please consider.” “Oh there is no problem,” I reassure her. I would not stand between a man and his wife. She thanks me and leaves. Before a minute could pass, another woman barges in and proceeds to join the two, a relative perhaps. I suppose the whole marriage party would like to be together. I am just beginning to get red hot around the ears. The stupidity here is overwhelming. The parasails will fly just one person at a time; they will not be flying together anyways. So why do all these assholes have to stick together? Again, like a divine answer, the lady from the staff appears, gets past me, and says to the intruder, “I have already requested him once to allow her. You can’t cut in. He will not agree.” The husband argues with her — I can’t hear the words — since he obviously feels like the lord of the seas, Poseidon, next to his wife. Eventually, lady from the staff navigates the woman to the back of the line. Justice has been restored to the universe.
I try to center on the good things.
It doesn’t take long before everybody ahead of me has been dispatched into the air. I walk on to a large square platform, covered with leathery rug, facing the sea. The sun is so hot that the support staff have their faces completely hidden with towels, caps, and sunglasses. They latch the harness I am wearing onto the parasail laid out on the platform. Then the parasail is connected to the towrope whose other end is tied to the motorboat standing in water waiting. I am excited and slightly nervous. “Run to the water,” somebody says. Run to the water. What if I fall into the water? Before another thought springs in my brain, somebody pushes my shoulder with force and cries, “Run!”. So I spring into motion. My feet tapping the flat surface below, one foot and then another, and before I can drop another foot, I am lifted off the ground. Whoa!
It is incredible. I am holding on to the straps of my harness as I soar through the air like a giant happy insect. I can spot the boat below powering ahead, stewarding the parasails. The world spins and turns: the water sparkling cobalt in the sun, the coastline with shanties and buildings, the magnificent cerulean sky. The wind sweeps past me, thrillingly, majestically. To quote Charlie from the Stephen Chbosky’s ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’: “And in this moment, I swear we are infinite.”
Right now, in this moment, I swear I am infinite too.
Hotel Le Fenix, Sukhumvit, Bangkok
In the driveway of the hotel a small child and his father fool around. They wrestle each other, moving in circles, the father playfully grasping and the child wriggling free. Laughter and the sound of shuffling feet.
I drag my trolley bag to the reception on the first floor. A slender bespectacled woman behind the reception desk asks me for my id, checks the details on her computer, and tells me I am early for the check-in. I shall have to wait for about two hours. The waiting area opposite the reception desk, overlooking the street below, is nice looking and comfortable enough, and I settle in on a crimson upholstered sofa beside other people and close my eyes. A two dimensional blackness. The vehicles passing through the street honk and make their way for somewhere. What am I doing? I feel fat. I can feel the rings of meat expanding around my waist. My face has bloated like a balloon. It is not a good look. I have not gone running in so long. I shall have to run like a maniac once i get home in order to shed all this fat. I have not written anything in so long either. What’s my excuse? I didn’t bring my laptop to keep the weight of the handbag under seven kilograms which was the max permissible. But I could have brought pen and paper, couldn’t I? And even before that I haven’t written much. I understand a lack of talent, but a lack of effort? That’s just grating, infuriating. All I have done with my time is sleeping, whenever I can. I want to die knowing I lacked talent, not that I didn’t make the effort. I want to feel light and sharp. Instead I feel stupid, dull, inexpressive, useless, crappy and irritable. Fat.
No matter. I can’t start running right here in this waiting area. Can I?
I open my eyes and draw the trolley bag close and put it on the table, then slide my fingers across the chain to locate the zippers, and pull them all the way along the track to open the bag. The book lays right on top where I placed it for such situations when my soul wants to abandon my body. What are you up to, Raskolnikov? Raskolnikov has committed the gruesome murder which he planned for about a month. The causes of his actions are unclear. Was it money that he wanted? Was it hatred that he felt for the world which became centered on one person who seemed vile enough to be deserving of his wrath? Was it change that he sought, even if it came about with violent and extreme means, which would jolt his poverty stricken and hopeless existence in unexpected ways? Before he committed the murder, he was repeatedly mortified by his own scheming and plotting; he felt sickened by the depravity of his future actions, but he couldn’t get rid his mid of these thoughts which dominated him. It was as though an idea like a virus had got hold of his brain and wouldn’t let go. An obsession. May be the justifications grew out later; they were the offshoots than the roots. Right up to the point of killing his victim, Raskolnikov was teetering on the edge; at times it seemed he might abandon the whole endeavor, set himself free, but he didn’t. He really went through with it. And now he is physically sick, alternating in and out of consciousness, engulfed in a tornado of confusion, torn into two halves: half shocked with the goriness of his actions and half unhinged with terror that he might be caught. ‘Crime and Punishment’ is a brilliant study in criminal psychology. I have not read anything like it; a character study of a man becoming a criminal. I have a feeling that once finished with this novel, I shall have to read it again.
7.30, evening, room
It is a small room, small enough that it almost feels cramped. There is barely any space to walk about. A large television set sits on top of a cabinet at the center of the wall facing the bed. A glass wall stands opposite to the doorway, looking over a commercial area: string of shops on both sides of a large space filled with columns of parked cars, bustling in and out. Beyond that, across the street, stands a three storey building made of glass panels, each floor divided into five equally sized square rooms, allocated to different shops. There is a pizza place, I can spot; another is a tattoo shop; a massage parlor; may be a liquor store. Farther in the distance, lights from skyscrapers reach into the velvety sky like jeweled fingers.
The lights in my room are turned off. It is beautiful and quiet. I sit at the soft carpeted floor, knees drawn up to my chest, encircled by my arms.
It’s my birthday.
Time is creaking by. Memories from the past year flood my head. Exactly a year ago was my last day at work — I timed it so. I couldn’t have gone on living that drudgery for one more day. Do I finally feel liberated? I certainly don’t miss that part of my life; shit, shower, shirt, shoes. I lost my grandmother this year. She was one of the two people I truly loved since childhood, and now they are both dead. I couldn’t even attend her funeral because I was caught in a tsunami of events I had no control over. I don’t handle death well. I don’t grieve properly; all that screaming and wailing, seems absurd and unnatural to me. I have never been able to tear up for I know death is inevitable and fair; at the same time I admit it could be powerfully cathartic, if I could cry, instead of carrying that ‘dead’ weight for years. This is me with one foot in the past and another in the future. I feel like talking to someone.
In the glowing soft light of my phone, I scroll the contact list, from top to down, and down to top — an ever shrinking list as people fall into disuse and relationships succumb to disrepair.
Why does this neediness exist?
I call S. After several rings, he doesn’t pick up. After a minute a message flashes on my phone’s screen.
I am down with terrible viral fever. Is everything alright there?
I picture him lying in a pool of vomit.
Everything is fine. Rest and recover. I press send.
Zero for one.
Then I call G. She picks up.
Hello? I say tentatively.
Hello. There is something different about her voice, it is not the usual.
Hey. Ah, it’s.. it’s my birthday and I couldn’t think of anybody else to talk to.
I almost blurt out.
So you called coz you couldn’t think of anybody else to talk to! Happy birthday.
I regret the phrasing.
Yeah, I wanted to talk to you. How are you?
I am fine. Was just working from home. Where are you?
Somewhere outside India.
Hmm. Well, go celebrate. Go shopping. Go to a good restaurant.
Is every feeling reducible to a set of actions? I drag a long silence. I have nothing to say.
I .. Birthdays feel so strange. I don’t know..
You know Saurabh, you can make even normal days worse. That is really your problem.
Her voice suddenly sharp. I flinch. An axe might have broken the frozen ice within me.
I force a laugh. Every muscle in my jaw feels stiff as though held together with wires.
I shall make note of that.
I have to go. Happy birthday again.
My head reclining on the side of the bed, I sit there on the floor and watch the distant glow of lights for a long time.
Safari Park, Bangkok
A large colony of pelicans frolics in water; gigantic land turtles munch on chopped vegetables; a Bengal tiger lazes in the sun; a black bushy bear sleeps on a rock; parakeet with bright red and blue plumage perch on tree branches. I am following a battalion of school children in uniforms, walking in pairs, holding the hand of their partner, their tiny bags slung on their backs. I want to talk to them, but I can’t speak a word of their language. We stop by the pens of the animals one after another, press our noses against the fence to locate them, and click pictures. Oh look, flamingos.
It is about one o’clock in the afternoon. We shall get prebooked lunch at our designated seats at the food court inside the park. So that is where we are headed.
I am seated at a rectangular table opposite a middle aged North Indian couple. “The dolphin show here was not that impressive. Having seen the same in Singapore, it doesn’t feel novel,” the man drones. The woman continues to eat pensively as though she heard nothing. On the table to the right, on my opposite side, sits a newly wed couple, apparent from the dark red mehndi painted in the woman’s hands and a thousand glass bangles covering her arms right upto elbows, clanging as she is shoving spoonful of curry in her husband’s mouth, mouthing the words, “lijiye na, aapne to kuchh liya hi nahi.” The husband is a thin man with a gaunt face, a goatee, and eyes that appear so large —probably because he is so thin — they could pop out of their sockets at any moment. The wife pushing spoon in this man’s face is small, visibly young, and eager to roleplay. She has a long black hair, round face, and a cheerful visage through which the gap between her front teeth stands out as she talks. “Munh ponchh dun aapka?” she offers a napkin to her husband. An image of a mouse wearing a lot of bangles in its forelegs and squeaking conjures in my head.
The man sitting in front of me has moved on to other areas of interest. “Noida is now better than Delhi. It is far superior now. Look at the roads, the amenities, the cleanliness. If somebody is visiting India, they should come straight to Noida, and skip Delhi altogether. There is nothing in Delhi except dirt.”
A balloon of enthusiasm inflates inside me, and I yank my tongue from uttering, “I live in Noida too,” as I watch the woman eat deliberately, stoically.
France 24 and BBC World News have been broadcasting images of Hamas attack on Israel. Israel has been besieged with a barrage of missiles which its famed ‘Iron Dome’, missile intercepting system, was too overwhelmed to handle. Hamas militants stormed into Israeli towns, massacring men, women and children. Thousands of people have reportedly been killed. Even the revelers at a music festival weren’t spared. Hundreds of civilians have been taken hostage and taken into Gaza.
It is interesting to read the reactions pouring in from other countries. China is ‘deeply concerned’ and calls on all parties to ‘remain calm and exercise restraint’. France ‘condemns the terrorist attacks’. Germany ‘condemns these attacks by Hamas and stands by Israel’. UK supports ‘Israel’s right to defend itself’. Iran ‘congratulates the Palestinian fighters’ and stands by them. Saudi Arabia calls for an ‘immediate cessation of violence’. UAE calls for the exercise of ‘maximum restraint and an immediate ceasefire’. United States ‘stands firmly with the government and people of Israel’. Russia calls the conflict "a clear example of the failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East".
Countries act remarkably similar to people: they act in their self interest, align with friends to guard against foes, and nurse old prejudices and complexes for a long time. Even in the pithy responses above, one can understand the geopolitical alignments and the advancement of the agendas of the respective countries.
Skinned carcass of an alligator hangs by its limbs on a steel frame at a sea food shop in the street. It still has its leathery green skin intact at the end of its legs. Such a visceral sight. The vendor, a small man in an apron, accosts me to try some of the ‘delicacy’. I am fascinated by the macabre, but I can’t put it in my mouth.
Khao San Road, lined with bars, nightclubs, street food stalls, and shops on both sides, buzzes with revelers for miles. Live music is being played at one of the clubs with a lot of people in attendance.
Sing out sing out, the silence only eats us from the inside up
I meant no harm but I only get to say these words too late
Wake up wake up, dreaming only leads to more and more nightmares
Snap out of it you said it in a way that showed you really cared
And the singer is singing it nicely too. Colorful lights flash from all directions at his face. I grab a seat at the food stall on the opposite side of the road and make an order for a bowl of noodles. This is my last night here in this country. Do I want to buy something? I don’t know, I have got everything I need. Souvenirs. That is the name for a thing one doesn’t really need, but one buys to remember a particular location or experience. I liked really sleek looking backpacks at a shop, but, sadly, I don’t need traveling accessory, as I recently purchased great looking trolley bags before coming on this trip. I also visited a gemstones shop only to realize I am not too excited about shiny stones. I am also not high on marijuana, figuratively and literally, which sells in open and in abundance at the shops painted with catchphrase ‘Let’s Get Baked’ underneath a sloth hovering among clouds, its eyes closed, looking wickedly happy.
Suddenly, I realize I have not looked up at the sky at night all this while I have been here. So I do. There are no stars. Just a grey and violet ceiling of darkness.
The story of migration of people from India to Myanmar and back from Myanmar to India is complex with many twists and turns, not to be surmised by a bad movie. I didn’t know anything about it. Following links could be helpful to understand the topic.