Being back in WCC

College is one of the most important milestones in one’s career trajectory- it is your first taste of the “real” world.

College was a very, very forgettable experience for me. Never fitting in. Too afraid to stand out. When blending in was suffocating, I could not wait to get out.

I have noticed boys are more forgiving. Girls can be mean bitches. And when you are in a women’s college; one misstep is all it takes to land yourself in the bottom of the pit, gasping for air.

I visited WCC last week, it was an official visit, from work. Walking into campus caused memories to rise up my throat like bile. The smell of the pine trees, the clearly demarcated cohorts of students. The race up the stairs of the science block, the pungent smell of the laboratories.

And then I spy the girl dressed like an oddball- she is wearing a thin t-shirt and the wrong bra. Her hair is not conditioned; her eyebrows have not been shaped ever. A classmate would eventually show her how using eyeliner would do wonders to her face, yet another would offer her some strawberry lip balm, which would prompt her to buy some of her own. She walks by herself, yawning, because she spent all night unsuccessfully trying to finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. She is contemplating if she should skip her Human Genetics class to read what happens next.

Me.

Sometimes I wish college had not been so bad. But then I am grateful I had a chance to make all those mistakes before I hit those (they progressively became more troubled) 20’s. And I got wiser in the process.

WCC taught me that it was futile to change things you cannot- and it is wiser to channelize energies in other productive ways.

She gave me teachers I could look up to. And examples of girls I would never want to turn into.

WCC taught me how mere words had the power to crumble a person to dust.  It taught me that a pack of women can get more vicious than one made up of wolves. And that it is not necessary at all to be a part of one.

She taught me that letting go was key to being happy. There was nothing to be gained by holding on to angst. And time heals, makes you wiser, and gives you a chance to prove yourself- to yourself, again.

WCC gave me a total of 2 friendships that I will carry to my grave. One of these two fine ladies is kept busy by motherhood. The other, I watched La La Land with today, giggling like mad caps, and eventually lapsing into melancholic silence as the movie concluded.

WCC taught me how transient every detail of life is. Our definitions of success have changed, our dreams are different today, as are our priorities compared to what they were ten years ago.

And when friends I have today reminisce about their college lives, I withdraw into my little shell- not different from the one I used to habit in college. I have a little smile and nod my head, clenching my drink tighter.

Then I catch my reflection’s eye on the mirror, and she gives me a reassuring smile. Undeniably, WCC’s made me what I am today, you’ve got to give her that.

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All in a day’s work

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Indigo welcomes you to Flight 6E 188…”

I shut my eyes and succeed in blocking the stewardess’ face from my head but do not succeed in keeping the automated voice out. I twist my torso and find a comfortable position, and let the voice wash over me. It must have been the quickest I fell asleep in a while and even in my state of slumber, I am surprised.

From a distant universe, a faint voice asks to be excused. My heart beats faster as this intrusion in my dreamless state of being is not very different from the feeling elicited when finger nails scratch a black board. It also reminds me of the times when my room mate would grind her teeth in her sleep and how the sound would make me bite my pillow and taste the cotton, and how I would pray for the sound to stop- I’d do anything, Lord, please just make it stop.

I open one eye to see a very pretty stewardess, with a tentative finger inches away from my shoulder, and a heavyset man with an apologetic face, gesturing that his seat was next to mine. I wordlessly get up, make way, and seat myself back. My new found neighbour makes himself comfortable, and just as I struggle to go back to sleep, his elbow invades my seat space and jabs my ribs.

“Ow- excuse me!”

He is overcome by a fit of loud and piercing cough. I turn my back to him with serpentine flexibility, preparing to drool on the back rest when another passenger seeks my neighbour’s attention.

I delegate one eye and one ear to understand the source of conflict.

Words are exchanged. The pretty stewardess arrives again and my belief in God is reaffirmed. My neighbour misread his seat, and is guided to the right seat. I get up, make way and seat myself, again.

I relegate thirst that is gnawing at my neck to the back of my head and beg sleep to give me another chance. Between the taunts of the sun that is shining too bright and the air conditioning that is too cold, I fitfully dream of UV rays, of snowmen and of me touching the sun.

I am awoken by the aroma of expensive food served to corporate flyers and am momentarily distracted by the clouds. I gulp some water down and shut my eyes but my neck and knees hurt now. I swallow a groan and unsuccessfully try to ignore the crew that is now persuading the passengers to try the on-board gifting options and requesting that they throw the waste in the garbage bag that would be brought along. I yawn about ten times in less than a minute and my jaws start to hurt too, now.

I refuse to look at my watch, but the way my insides flip as we lose altitude tells me sleep time is over. I sulk as the wheels hit the ground and we are lifted a few inches from our seats. As soon as I switch my phone on, N calls.

“I couldn’t sleep as well as I did last time” I mumble to N. In response, he makes the right sounds- concerned and apologetic.

I walk out and book a cab. “Mount road, newspaper office” I tell the driver.

My day has just begun.

What are you wearing today?*

*This is a script that I had submitted for the Short and Sweet Festival- Chennai this year. It was shortlisted and performed at the Alliance Francaise de Madras on 9th and 10th July 2016. It won the audience vote play of the day on 10th July. It had a brilliant director and cast to carry it off- and was one of the highlights of my 2016 🙂

Cast

Vedha

Suraj

Vikram

Tara

Scene 1

(A railing, against which leans a beautiful, traditionally dressed woman, Vedha, facing the audience. She is curvaceous, and is in her early 30’s. She is wearing a neat, cotton saree, pleated. Her hair is braided, with a string of flowers pinned to her long hair. She looks like she has just returned from the temple, she has sindoor in her forehead. Her mangalsutra is prominent.)

Vedha: Well, here we are. Another evening. (Sighs deeply, looking bored. Tuts) I do not know which is worse. A philander for a husband, who is never home because of his “business trips”? Or all those pitiful words from people who actually know about these “business trips”?

(Walks to the other end of the railing)

Don’t get me wrong- I have stopped caring. I used to be the kind of woman who worked really hard to keep my man in my bed- it is just unfortunate that the man I am married to gets bored easily.

(Draws her braid in front and plays with her hair)

But, what would you do in my place? Get a job? Return to your parents? I gave all those a thought. Believe me, I have been thinking about this for years now. This- this is comfortable. Because now, we have an agreement. For a generous allowance, I let him be. He feels an allowance is more economical than an alimony, anyway. (Smirks) ‘Being Married’ is a tag we both need. For the world. For our families. The only irony here is that my husband can get away with what he does. And I sit here in front of you as the devoted wife. Because I choose to. But I am BORED. Oh, you have no idea how bored I get.

(A rubber ball flies into the flat. The woman picks it up)

Vedha: (Smirks) And so, I amuse myself.

(Suraj,not more than 20 years of age, runs up to the woman, sheepishly puts his hand out for the ball. She hands it to him with a smile.)

Suraj: Marubadiyum anna veetley illeya? /Brother is not home again?

Vedha: Ille pa, Delhi poirukaaru/ No, he has gone to Delhi

Suraj: Seri.. Thanks-nga/ Ok, thank you

(Suraj exits the stage)

Vedha: This poor boy has a thing for me. And you know how these boys are. Why don’t I show you?

Scene 2

(Steps out of the stage. Railing is removed, and a park bench is placed, with Suraj and Vikram playing with the small tennis ball. Both are in their late teens. Vedha is by one corner of the stage, watching them)

Vikram: Dude, you got to grow up. I mean, she IS quite something, but find someone your age man!

Suraj: But I feel sad for her. She’s always alone. And look at her- I mean, what sort of husband would leave somebody like THIS alone all the time!

Vikram: That is true. But I have decided, dude, Kalyanam nu senja ivangala maadhri oru ponnu-a paathu pannanum/ If I ever get married, I will get married to someone like her.

(A girl, Tara walks into the stage. She is wearing a short, fitting dress, has a visible tattoo and is dressed to kill)

Suraj: Oye! Look at you- all dressed up!

Tara: Haha, thanks! It is my friend’s birthday. We are going dancing tonight. Ok I got to go, friends are waiting.

(Tara Hurries away)

Vikram: Why does she need to wear such clothes? And have you seen those weird boys who drop her back home? Never gets dropped off by the same boy. It is always someone new.

Suraj: I don’t know about the boys but if my sister wore something like that, I wouldn’t let her step out of the house! How difficult would it be to rip it off her, I say?

Vikram: Vidu Machan/ Leave it bro, I am sure she is used to that by now. Come let’s leave. It is getting late.

Suraj: Ok just once, throw the ball into her house! I’ll tell her bye and come.

Vikram: Addangmatteya!/ You are incorrigible! (Throws ball. Both jog and exit the stage)

Scene 3

(Vedha walks from the side of the stage to the centre while the railing is being moved back onto the stage. Park benches are removed and a comfortable chair, centre table, and a flower vase are kept adjacent to the railing)

Vedha: Now I know for a fact that that poor girl just enjoys dancing, and dressing up, like any girl her age. You need to just look at a girl’s eyes to know all about her. This girl is one innocent thing. My eyes, on the other hand- they will tell you a story you wouldn’t ever imagine. And here comes the ball again.

(Ball flies in, Vedha catches it, as if she was expecting it. Suraj walks in, looking sheepish)

Suraj: So sorry, again! (Stretches his arm out for the ball)

Vedha: (playfully swats his hand and laughs sultrily) No ball for you. Can you help me with something? My husband is also not home.. I don’t know who to ask..

Suraj: Oh sure! Anything for you!

Vedha: Why don’t you come in.. (Walks ahead, talking loudly, into the living room) So I have a new phone.. I don’t know how I should move contacts from my old phone to the new phone..Here why don’t you sit here, I’ll get you the phone..

(Vedha exits stage. Suraj makes himself comfortable, looks stunned at his luck, and waits. Vedha re-enters, with her saree pleats undone, carrying both phones. She walks to Suraj, hands over both phones and sits beside him, edging close to him. Suraj springs up, perspiring)

Vedha: Ene pa?/ What happened? Come sit down with me.

(Taps the seat next to her. Suraj warily sits down)

Vedha: (mockingly) Did I scare you?

(giggles. Combs Suraj’s hair with her fingers and runs a finger down his cheek. Stands up and un-pins the string of jasmine in her hair and places it on the centre table. Removes her bangles, one at a time, and places them on the table, smiling at Suraj)

Suraj: (Bolts up) Akka, sorry akka, I don’t know how to do this! (Drops both phones on the table and dashes out, exits the stage)

Vedha: (Laughs loudly) I was betting he would stay longer!

(Suraj climbs down to the audience, Vikram meets him by climbing down from the other wing)

Suraj: Machan You WON’T BELIEVE WHAT JUST HAPPENED!!

Vikram: What happened? She called you inside and tried to do this eh? (Holds Suraj’s face with both palms and brings it close to his)

Suraj: (Wrests himself free) YES! That’s what she tried to do!

Vikram: (Slaps Suraj hard) Mahalakshmi maadri irukaanga! Avangala pathiya ippadi pesure? Poi vaaya kaluvu! (She is like a goddess, and you speak of her like this? Go wash your mouth!)

(Vikram walks away. A stunned Suraj follows him. Vedha is on stage, watching all this standing by the railing)

Vedha: (Laughs) How ironic, don’t you think? In a world that judges you by the clothes you wear and the way you look, women like me- Rule! (Bad-ass smirk)

***Curtain Down***

Once Upon a Fort (Part 2)

Many years passed. The king had conquered many a kingdom, yet retained the fort as his capital city. Sometimes, when he was not attending to his noble duties, he would walk around the fort, proud of how impenetrable it was. And he would think of the architect, and the last conversation they had had.

The clarity of that memory always surprised him.

The men had returned from their surreptitious swim and were being dried by the King’s men. The king was elated with the architect’s handiwork, and ordered his men away after they had clothed them in fresh, dry robes.

“Why water?”, the King had questioned the architect as he stood tall and proud.

“It is a personal touch that I give to every structure I construct. My palaces have elaborate water fountains and water falls within the rooms. I had constructed fish tanks that doubled as seats in chambers of princesses. This is the first time I attempted an escape route within the water source of the fort, sir”

“But why water?”

“I would prefer not to say sir. It is a sad history”

The king’s piercing stare gave the architect no choice.

“When I was no more than a boy, I had the misfortune of watching my father drown. I remember how his flailing arms stopped..and how he sank a little..and then rose, and started floating away. I detested water then, for all that it took away from me-My childhood and my family”

The king gave the architect a few moments to compose himself. His cheek twitched to check the tears that threatened to flow down them.

“After that, however”, he continued, “Everything that I create with water, I create as an offering to my father. Hence, water.”

The King felt a sense of unease that he could not place. He let it pass, offering the architect a pouch of some of the finest diamonds, granting him leave.

“I will call for you soon, and you will build the rest of my palaces, young man”, said the king.

The architect bowed low, and in a sweeping whirl of robes, left.

Neither the King nor his men heard of the architect again, despite repeated invitations. The King’s men always came back with the same response- “He was never seen after building the fort on the hill”.

The King commissioned many architects, yet none of them matched the missing one in skill. Eventually, the king resigned to the fact that the architect had probably died, and he was doomed to mediocre craftsmen the rest of his life.

***

Eventually the kingdom fell into hard times. Known for the precious wealth that the fort housed, it was soon eyed by many powerful kings who ceaselessly tried to capture it. The impenetrable fort stayed true to its name, until the Kings of the North laid siege to it for a continual period of seven months.

The rains were delayed and the fort was running short of supplies. The Mughal army was far too huge to vanquish, and the King’s vassals had refused help. The Maratha sympathizers were finally coming around, but the Kingdom’s patience was wearing thin.

Late one evening, the King walked along the dimly lit hallway to meet with his commanders. It was a meeting that was called to identify who would ride to the Maratha kingdom to bring the Peshwa army to the fort. As his eyes swept the gathering, he noticed one conspicuous commander missing- his trusted aide Mir Alam. As his own commanders shuffled among themselves, refusing to look him in the eye, the cry of a war horn broke the stillness on the night.

“The fort has been breached! We have been betrayed!”

As the remaining commanders sprang to action, the King decided that his last hope was to ride to the Maratha kingdom himself, to seek help. He would re-capture his fort from the Mughals when they least expected it!

Sheathing his sword, the King marched into the mayhem that his fort had transformed into. In the chaos, nobody noticed the lean figure dive head long into the lake. Hands felt the familiar stones, and purposefully reached the granite slab. The king had memorized the location of the slab over the years, knowing he would not have time to search for it when the day came.

He pushed aside the slab and climbed onto the tunnel, and walked into the darkness, now infested with creatures he cared little about. As he walked, he heard the gurgle of water rise up behind him, as quickly as his panic.

The king broke into a run, arms outstretched, until he felt boulders, carefully placed, covering his path. There was no way around them, or through them- and there was no way that they were there by coincidence.

As the King stood, with his back to the boulders, the force of the water rising near his feet causing him to lose balance, he felt the familiar feel of his life flashing in front of his eyes.

He watched himself commit his first murder for the sake of the kingdom- that was not even his then. His cousin, a weakling, was the king then. He remembered how the thin figure wept when the king had come for him. It was a coup, for the sake of a kingdom that would have been swallowed by the neighbouring kings otherwise.

As the water rose, the king wondered if this was how his had cousin felt, watching death come for him. The king shut his eyes, and as the water filled his lungs, he remembered how his cousin’s cheek had twitched as he wept.

As the King, with a burst of energy at the treachery, thrashed against the water with a roar that bubbled away, his darkening vision conjured the image of the architect, bowing low, hiding a smile.

Once upon a Fort (Part 1)

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The Architect rose as the King entered the empty tent that was erected for visitors, inside the fort. Though the Architect had constructed special reception centers decorated with frescos, the King had decided against entertaining guests there until he deemed fit.  The Architect’s own camp was almost empty. His men had started leaving the camp some days ago, slowly, one group after the other, looking forward to, and at the same time despising the long journey back to their homes and their wives.

“I am pleased with your design and construction of the fortress, Architect!”

“I am honoured, Majesty”, the Architect murmured, bowing low to the king.

“The Chief Minister and General take care of these things. However, I hear that you insistently requested to speak with me?”

“Yes, Majesty”

“I care very little for such impudence, young man. What is it?”

The Architect lifted his averted eyes, a quiet smile played around his mouth. “I waited many days to meet you. Because what I want to share with you cannot be spoken, only shown. And what I show must be for your eyes only, else it would be futile.”

Intrigued, the King sat himself down on the diwan.

“Go on”

“I have built fortresses for many a Southern King. Their mighty armies do not discount their fears- and those are rightful fears. In most cases, the enemy lies within, not beyond, for the greatest of kings have been murdered, not in the battlefield but in their beds.”

A shadow crossed the King’s impassive face.

“What is your point?”

“The value of a Kingdom is measured by the life that beats in its King’s chest.”

The King gave the briefest of nods, which caused his body guards to exit the tent.

“I have created two escape routes for you from within this fortress, and it is my duty to show these to you, before I leave. They are for your use, should your life be in peril, because of an unfaithful friend or a greater foe, which is very unlikely under your powerful reign” said the Architect.

The King’s eyes gleamed.

“You will show them to me now”img-20160902-wa0011

*********

“I am delighted with your work, young man!” the King exclaimed, as the Architect showed him the second escape route. He removed a large diamond studded ring from his forefinger and handed it to the Architect, “I want you to keep this, and you will construct every fort that I commission from today!”

“You are very generous, Majesty” the Architect bowed low again.

The Architect and the King were now by the well, within the fort. It was large, empty and deep, with stone steps leading to the bottom.

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“I see you have timed the construction well. The rains approach and the well will fill in a few days”

“Yes, and the well is at considerable distance from the third darwaza and I have given it watch guards, should anybody try to poison the source of water for the fortress.”

The Architect took a step closer to the King. Before the Architect knew it, the King had unsheathed his sword.

The Architect’s passive face betrayed no emotion.

“Lord, here is the last route you should take, should all else fail”

The King was taken aback.

“There is one more?”

“Yes, Lord. My men know the escapes I showed you. They created those. These are not mere escapes. These are two entry points into the castle as well, hidden though they are. My men are trustworthy, but are men after all. But this last one- this one was designed by me. And the man who laboured for this particular route sleeps beneath the floor of the well. I killed him with my own hands and buried him”

The King’s sharp, kohl lined eyes looked at the Architect’s own with appreciation.

“Lead me to it”

The men climbed down the steps to the floor of the well. The Architect felt the blocks of stone with his hands, one at a time, as he walked around the perimeter. He gestured to the King when he found the right rock. When the King touched it, the ingenuity amazed him- it was cold granite, unlike the other warm, sun soaked stones, yet it looked pale brown like the others.

The Architect effortlessly pushed the rock inside a few inches until he heard a click, and then he moved it to the right. There were discreet abrasions that enabled him to claw his fingers and pull or move the rock.

The men lunged themselves up. The King saw steep steps leading into the darkness above.

“There are 162 such steps. They lead into the palace of your concubines, by the river”

“The last place a King would expect to be found during war”

“Where arrangements can be made should there be need for escape” concluded the Architect

“What about the water from the well? Would it not rise?”

“It will rise, but it will not beyond the seventh step.” They had reached the seventh step where the wall had provision to hold a flame-torch, a bowl of oil and some matches.

The men walked through the tunnel, and after a few minutes they could smell and hear the river. The Architect released a trap door and saw the King’s triumphant face in the sliver of sunlight that entered the tunnel.

“We will return now” announced the King, and the Architect shut the trap door enveloping them both in darkness once again.

**********

(To be Continued)

X

*Attempt to complete the A-Z Challenge 2016

The variable that one seeks. Have you ever experienced the thrill that ran through your body when you discovered what X was?

Wired weirdly, I seek X every day.

On some days, it is the look of absolute shock on the sales woman’s face when I loudly ask for a pack of condoms, struggling to keep my face straight and nonchalant.

On other days, it is attempting to make the fellow shopper drop his goods as I ask for a pregnancy test in my loudest voice.

This weekend, it was smiling widely at every stranger who stared at me, as I stepped into a pub wearing a silk saree.

On all instances, I welcome that stab of pleasure that warms me from my toes as I broke set norms and stereotypes.

After all, what do you expect-I’m an XX.

W-Warangal Fort

*Failed attempt to complete the A-Z Challenge 2016

In the middle of a sweltering state is a treasure trove of history- that is Warangal for you.

At 150 kms away from Hyderabad is this (once) glorious capital. It was later rampaged by Muslim invaders and all that remain now are ruins.

Warangal was first ruled by the Yadavas, and was later by the Kakatiya Dynasty. The kingdom flourished under the latter. To give you an idea about how prosperous the kingdom was, and how advanced these kings were back in the 12 th century, I’m describing the fort for you.

The Warangal fort was built in the centre of three concentric levels of fortifications. The first exterior defence was a wall, this had a diameter of 2.5 kms. There was a deep trench in front of this wall that had to be filled with dirt or mud before it could be surmounted. This surrounded a moat, the width of which was around 150 feet. Invaders would have to swim across this, keeping an eye out for the crocodiles. Finally there was a wall made of stone. This wall was around 1.2 kms in diameter, and the fort, which also served as the capital city was located within this embankment.

Such an impenetrable fort was eyed by the sultanate of Delhi and was laid siege during the rule of King Pratapa Rudra II. After 6 months of constant battle, both parties agreed to a truce.  Pratapa Rudra could retain his kingship and land, and in reparation he had to surrender all the wealth his dynasty had accumulated over all these years. When the Sultanate general left Warangal, it is said that he carried the loot on the backs of 2000 camels, back to Delhi.

2000 camels. Somewhere on the back of one of those camels was the controversial Koh-i-noor diamond, which now glints from the British Queen Mother’s crown.

But our story does not stop there. Pratapa Rudra was asked to pay an annual tribute to the Sultanate which he failed to, twice.. The first time he failed, he was warned with an army on the doors of his capital. The second time he failed- (Reading about him, I am pretty certain it was his insubordination that caused this) a bigger army, led by Mohammed bin Tughlaq, by now well-versed with the workings of the fort and its battlements, forced its way into the capital. Every structure that had any religious symbolism on it (in this case-almost all structures) was destroyed. The four gateways- unique looking and free standing now, were spared because they were adorned with neutral figures. This archway is now the symbol of the Telegana tourism department, and a visitor will see replicas of these in the main streets of Hyderabad. Pratapa Rudra was taken captive, and was being transported to Delhi when he killed himself in the banks of the river Godavari en route.

Enough of History, though.

Warangal, an unsung little town, took my breath away. The fort stands ruined, but the air weighs heavy with pride. If you stood there and listened hard, they would tell you tales of a dynasty that did not need a king at one juncture- Queen Rudramadevi, who ruled before Pratapa Rudra II, could have taught us a thing or two about empowerment. The winds would sing praises about a king who refused to succumb to men of another land, and inevitably lost his life in the process. And if you listen carefully, you might also hear a stifled wail- at how unfair the past and the present have been. It is truly unfortunate that we decided to visit a city so glorious because we had nothing else to do- and not because it was spoken about with reverence, or given the respect it deserves.