Monday, June 11, 2007

There Be PJs Here

In which the insanity resumes with a PJ

Captain John Foster of Her Majesty's 21st Engineering Regiment was a troubled man. Newly arrived in the tropics, all manners of ailments beset him. The moment he had stepped off the decks of the P&O steamer in Bombay, this vile country with its heat, sweat, crowds and insects seemed to have begun executing a personal vendetta.

When the regiment was posted to Bangalore, the old timers heaved a sigh of relief. There would be polo, and pig-sticking, and chances of being transferred to fight the Jezails or the Dogras were remote. Besides, the weather would be blessedly English.

Unfortunately for Capt. Foster, his woes did not end. Directly he had arrived in the cantonment, and some enterprising colonel had discovered his special talent for earthworks. Foster was assigned a team of coolies and told to get busy and start building the embankment for the new railway station.

Now they were almost done. Most of the embankment was complete and there remained one last bit where the surface needed leveling. They had to be done by sunset, and the evening shadows were beginning to gather around them. Those strange tropical birds were creating pandemonium in the fig trees, and Foster was beginning to feel the need of a bath and a sundowner at the club.

The problem was that the labourer in charge of this last bit was insanely slow. He would shuffle off to pit from where they were digging, root around listlessly for a bit, and come back with a pitiful basket of earth. No amount of staring or fulminating seemed to make a difference. Perhaps he didn't understand the urgency.

Perhaps he didn't understand English. Shortly after this thought occurred, Foster began to cast about for ways to make his point. Foster was rather taken with his own linguistic abilities. In Bombay, he'd managed to pick up a smidgen of Marathi and Hindi, and he could confidently venture into the fleshpots.

But this was a completely new language, and he hadn't (yet) found an opportunity to test his skills. The time had come. What was that fellow's name again? Ah... He wandered over to the pit. The coolie appeared to be poking at the ground with a shovel, apparently he was trying to tickle Mother Earth.

"Hey! Krishna! Nee begane burrow!!", said Capt. Foster.

Curiously enough, an eminent Haridasa was taking his evening constitutional close at hand.

Ah. That is so much better than senti claptrap. A few other points. This last Saturday, in Hussain Sagar, we saw coots, purple swamphens, black-winged stilts (or so we think), and pheasant-tailed jacanas. Do the rains have anything to do with this? Lots of baby birds as well, blundering around the reed bed.

[Aside: There must be a song to the tune of mere pyaar ka ras zaraa chakhna from Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan, which we can create with "jacana", no?

apne poonch ko thoda oopar rakhna
oh jacana! oh jacana!!
mere paas waali machhli ko chakhna
oh jacana! oh jacana!!

Scope are there, we feel.]

Ah well. Vijay Cavale's excellent IndiaBirds as usual has much better pictures of said coots, swamphens, stilts, and makhnas.

Another point to be noted is that as of this morning, we are utterly thrilled to report the return of the Jedi.

What do you call a medium-sized, colourful, passerine bird with a bladder control problem?


Har har de har.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Empty House

In which Ludwig watches Meryl Streep leave home in Out of Africa (again), becomes mawkish, and is reminded of his own house shutting day, aeons ago

Emptying a home and locking it up is the real estate equivalent of systematically shutting down a life support system. As it shuts down, it dies. An empty house is quiet in a way that is different from an inhabited one.

A "living" house, even when it is locked up during a weekend or a vacation, is merely asleep. An empty house on the other hand silent in a more final and irreversible way, a horrible, mute tragedy in of itself. This curious fact lodged itself somewhere in the recesses of my mind one May afternoon in 2004, as I prepared to lock up 32 Clarendon Ave, Cambridge MA for the last time.

The last few days had passed in a blur - of giving away furniture, packing, the movers, hasty goodbyes in oft frequented haunts (Grendel's Den!), a final Red Sox game (we lost!). And the million mundane things that are attendant when you shut shop and uproot yourself from a place that at some unspecifiable point had slid across that ineffable line which divides "house" and "home".

In the middle of the hubbub, I hadn't had occasion to stop and think about what it would mean to perform the last rites of a home.

It was inevitable really, and I should have seen it coming. The signs were all there. When D moved to Philadelphia in that corpse-like winter of no warmth or feeling, that was surely the beginning of the end. P and I ended up trying to search for a roommate but our hearts weren't in it. I think subconsciously we were happier splitting the exorbitant rent between the two of us and going through the motions, rather than actually doing something sensible about our financial situation.

D took some of the spark out of the house. Without her critical eye roaming over the premises, there was no way P and I were going to bother about such quaint practices as vacuuming, mopping and cooking. Exeunt Marcus Aurelius, enter Goths.

When the Berkeley thing came through, another nail was duly driven in. After seven years of mucking around in Massachusetts, the time had come for a drastic change of longitude. It must've made P's job hunting that much less of a chore and perhaps even given it a nudge in a more fruitful direction.

So that was that, we were leaving. What I didn't realize was that during the last couple of years, something inside me had leaked into the house. As we cleaned up, we kept finding the flotsam and jetsam of life. A Wachusett mountain ski lift ticket in a dusty corner, a hat that had been the star attraction at Halloween last year, utility bills even. All were consigned to garbage bags.

And in some ways the house had seeped into us. The memory of a creaky step near the landing, the delicious crispness of the winter air as you slid open the door to the back porch, the goofy ducks on the wallpaper, the couch that was in a "just so" position, the tuneless piano too heavy for the landlady to have taken with her. Homes have memories, clinging to unlikely nooks and corners like lint. When you turn off a home, the memories die. This is what I learned.

P's movers had crated all our stuff into a truck and driven away. The next day, P himself took the morning flight to San Francisco. "It's an odd feeling...farewell. There's some envy in it." It was only when I stepped back into the shell that it all hit me.

The only trace left that we'd ever existed was a lovely, filthy sleeping bag from my Amherst days that I was going to shortly abandon, and a rickety two-in-one to keep me company that night, also slated for abandonment. My backpacks lay near the door, eager to head out, not even looking like they belonged any more.

Memory seems to have been merciful and completely erased that last evening and night, but the next day is still there, all luminous and limpid and asking to be remembered.

The landlady was supposed to show up in the morning and collect the keys. So I waited in the empty house. Sat on the couch and watched the slivers of light bleeding in through the blinds as they made their way across the carpeting. I waited. There were still chores to be done. The kitchen faucet, having discovered that the rest of the place was like a tomb, took this opportunity to drip loudly into the sink. This needed to be screwed shut. And I waited. Somewhere upstairs, blinds clattered and rustled as a summer breeze blew in through an open window. This needed to be closed. And I waited. The stupid radio went on and on unbearably about the weather and Fleetwood Mac and Bob's Fucking Discount Furniture Store, "Come On Down!!!" This needed turning off. And I waited.

It was horrible. There was only one set of keys dangling from the key hanger, a pair of worn shoes nobody needed any longer in the closet. The whole tableau screamed sadness and endings.

It was late afternoon before the landlady called and said she wouldn't be able to make it that day and that I should simply leave the keys on the kitchen counter and let the door lock. One last obsessive compulsive stagger around the three floors, the "one last check to make sure everything is OK". Nothing really registered; it was merely the death rattle of an era.

I lugged the smug looking rucksack and backpack out and pulled the door shut. The click of the bolt sliding had "...all the qualities of the perfect observation. It was brief, unambiguous, and annihilating." And just like that, we didn't live in 32 Clarendon Ave any more.

I hefted my bags, stepped onto the street and started towards Mass Ave, terrified to turn back. The sun-dappled leaves on the trees on the sidewalk twitched farewell. The neighbor’s kids were throwing a ball around in their backyard. Their cries and the thwack of ball against glove filtered in between the houses. It was a beautiful New England evening.