Friday, January 13, 2006

Thee conversations and an encounter (Part 1)

The Conversation.

Not special - and, because of this, memory deserts me, about when this was - in any way apart from the my being there after a long time, I spent what seemed like an(other) endless day at NMML. Probably reached a little before lunch and left by 4pm, feeling unproductive, confused and directionless :-( Thinking, "another day, and another set of wrong choices of what to read, what to think, and what to write."

Which is when a long set of events was set into motion, by the re-emergence of a nagging pain in my left foot. (Confess. You're here, and while the presence of these details might seem bizarre, backgrounds are often of the mundane. What's writing without the build(ing)-up?)

"Do you know if there's a cobbler nearby?" I asked the guard posted at the gate...

Anyone (excepting the kids who visit the planetarium - which has probably played the same show for twenty years now) who's been to Teen Moorti House has been past this guard. Maybe they too, like me, wonder whether they would ever be questioned about why they are walking in, so enthusiastic (this was, after all, once a Prime Ministerial residence), or so determined (about what to read), or worried (for work always remains in the inbox) or seemingly carefree, into a place that today contains the city's most prestigious library, and is located bang in the heart of high-security Delhi. This is the part of the city where there are more trees than people in the streets, and armed men are posted in groups of three or more, every few hundred yards. If you look suspicious (as I'm assured by friends of regularly looking), you will be noticed immediately, by people who form the iron hand of the Indian state.

The tragedy in this guard's employment/condition is of being obliged to stand up straight and salute to people who pass through the gates in important looking cars. People he does not know, people who obviously don't care about him, don't know when his shift begins or ends. People he might not really care about, except in terms of performing his job/duties. Maybe.

He directed me to a gate, less than a hundred meters away. It was one of those small side entrances, which people at the top (the politicians, bureaucrats, military men, analysts and intellectuals) try to hide (from) - gates that lead to quarters where lower level staff (
or, in the words of someone I met over an extremely drunk conversation a week and a half ago, "the help") are housed. Spaces and places that are ignored and considered embarrassments. Slums that lie less than two minutes walking distance from the most opulent government flats, and their often omnipotent occupants.

Having seen it from buses, and cycled past it often, I'd always been curious about what lay inside. One of the reasons for this curiousity - before I begin to be accussed of a self-righteous narcissism - is the absolutely disgusting condition of the food
(grains of rice so coarse and thick that they might have been steamed maggots had they not been moving) served at the canteen attached to the aforementioned library Visible from the main road are a handful of shops, whose names or contents my rapidly deteriorating eyesight :-( cannot distinguish. Maybe, I think each time I pass the gate, amongst that gaggle of shops lies a small dhaba that dishes out tandoori roti and dal fry.

Strangely, the curiousity would remain, after this episode/encounter.

Reaching the cobbler, and while he gave the offending sandal a preliminary examination, I was offered something for my bare(d) foot, by an old(er) man. I didn't particularly notice him, and mumbled a barely audible 'thanks.' He didn't seem like he was there for anything very pressing, and while innocuous, he was - going by appearances - someone who had probably let let himself slide. With sunken cheeks, grime on his jacket and a week old stubble, he even gave of a mild hint (or maybe it was just me, imagining things after a long day (mentally) at the library) of cheap rum.

(Or maybe it was just me, desiring such drinks, after a long day at the library.)

[It's great to embellish my memory of this man, because as I sat listening to what he said, on that winter afternoon a few days ago, I couldn't help wondering if this was how I'd turn out, in thirty to forty years from now: emaciated, unshaved, and reeking of alcohol. Manic and desperate, making people stop and listen. For someone.]

After some inconsequential talk (including asking what I was doing in the general area), he suddenly said, "you don't look from around here." "Meaning?" "You look mohammedan."

That's a first. I've been told I look like I'm from Bengal, Maharashtra; even that I'd fit right in, in Colombia... but never (yet) 'mohammedan'. He went on to confess that he was a shayar (would the simple 'poet' be an apt rendition/translation of the word?) and that, with my permission (the cobbler was relegated to the status of a human prop, by this time) he'd like to say a few lines on zaroorat (a subtle combination of desires, necessities and aspirations.) I'd love to have the entirety of what he recited for me, but not having the trusty voice recorder, the words seem lost forever. From what I remember, the verse wove a narrative of love and feeling, labour and hardships, family and tenderness, and a general accumulative, existential realization of one's place in the world.

As I left, he said that his one true love was writing, and if I ever needed anything written, asking the cobbler where baba was would hasten my search.

Funny... there's a dissertation to be submitted, by end-July...

[Watch out for the next episode of this exciting three part mini-series!]


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