Renaissance

“When do we do it?”, asked Abhi

“Yesterday”, said Paul

“8 pm then”

Abhi looked over his shoulder as he worked the wire cutter, jumping when a pair of headlights passed by. Paul leaned on the wall next to him and spoke on the phone for everyone to see. They were inside in five minutes.

They shone a flashlight down numerous corridors. Paul paused and thought for a second, then turned left.
“Will you know it when you see it?”, asked Abhi

“I’ll know my own work”

As it turned out, he didn’t. They opened door after door. Every room had identical paintings. 

“If we can’t spot the real ones, how can anyone?” Paul asked.

“But what’s the point? They can’t mark it up and sell if its not unique”

“They can if the buyers don’t care”

Abhi was quiet for a while.

“So all we made was printing plates for a new currency”, he said.

“Yes, to wash away old sins”

“Plan B?”

Paul looked back at the familiar canvases. “Plan B,” he said after a few seconds.

“Do you want to take one of each? Just in case?”

“That’s like a firing squad using blanks. Doesn’t mean anything”

“It does to the people in the firing squad”

“Not to the guy who got shot”

Abhi nodded, and uncapped the plastic petrol can.

“I always liked fireworks. That’s that”

Godzilla beat up King Kong, then both of them beat up Mechazilla

I recently updated my social media bios and website about me section to include the word writer. It is a term I’ve used for myself on and off since 2008, mostly off. I was very proud of myself for doing just enough writing to earn that tag again.

I re-joined a writing club, now conveniently on zoom so that I don’t need to get off my ass. I bought a copy of Stephen King’s book on writing. Every weekend, I debate the finer points of writing with my new and old buddies. Today we spoke about one-act plays, a few weeks back, prose poetry. We have arguments about when to show and when to tell, and whether show don’t tell is a cliché in itself, waiting to be violated by bolder souls.

I have a movie review I need to finish, a novel I’m pretending to write, and a spreadsheet to track my daily word count. Instead of all that, I sat down to watch Godzilla vs. Kong, after several beers. If you’re wondering what the movie is about, there is something wrong with you. If you’re still asking that question, the title of this post should do. If you’re complaining about spoilers, fuck you.

The right question is, why is the plot of this movie the title of this blog post.

In the movie, the earth is hollow. And inside that hollow earth, at the earth’s core, you have mountains, trees, and most charmingly, sunlight. Kong’s ancestors had a nice ax, which did not pass on to Kong because they did not write a will, as is expected from giant titans who ruled the earth as apex sweet predators. As soon as Kong finds the ax, he also finds a nice charging point for it. Yes, the ax can be charged before use as a club to hit other monsters. Why, you ask? How else will you see it in the dark during chaotic battle scenes?

Show, don’t tell, we writers and wannabe writers say. This is why the movie makers cryptically called it Godzilla vs. Kong. It is cryptic for two reasons. One, it doesn’t say King Kong, leaving you very confused about the identity of the giant monkey, as confused as Lois Lane whenever Superman wore glasses. Two, it leaves out the amazing twist at the end, when Godzilla and Kong team up to fight Mechazilla, a millennial Kaiju who clearly spends too much time sexting and staring at screens.

The world-building is incredibly deep. You literally have to drill till the earth’s core to get to the titan monster world. The characters are amazingly layered, like the tiny tribal girl who taught King Kong sign language so he can keep whining about going home.

The story is so rich and nuanced, it felt like someone hit me on the head with my bookshelf, and then with each book, and then shoved my kindle down my throat.

I bought a copy of atomic habits to help with my writing habit, but Godzilla has atomic breath. Atomic breath made $ 96 million in profit. I googled “what can you buy for 100 million” and saw that you could buy Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of the Artist Without Beard’, at its adjusted 2011 price tag of $98.5 million.

It was Van Gogh’s last painting, a self-portrait he gifted to his 70-year-old mother on her birthday to reassure her he was ok, shortly before he killed himself.

Van Gogh was an idiot. He should have made colors explode till they drowned out technique and made him money. Then he wouldn’t have died penniless and his mother would have known he was alright without a sad selfie.

Artwork Title: Self Portrait Without Beard - Artist Name: Vincent van Gogh
Looks a little weird at first but grows on you
Godzilla vs. Kong: A functional morphologist uses science to pick a winner
Looks great when drunk

Afghanistan

Afghanis scrambling to board the C-17 undercarriage of the US Air Force at the Kabul airport Monday | Twitter screengrab
U.S.A signing off | Twitter video screengrab

I had a minor epiphany today, after examining how we all reacted to the news of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. I have recently been staying away from pointless arguments (for a time period so short that it is unmeasurable) but found myself in several today. To summarize, these are the different arguments I encountered or put across.

  1. America bad, Taliban meh
  2. Taliban bad. America bad, all bad
  3. Afghanistan sad, but Muslims bad
  4. All bad, you bad, I bad

Remarkably, this went on for hours. I am now realizing how pointless, simplistic, and black and white these arguments were, on an extremely complicated topic. There are some very real, tangible, non-bullshit questions here:

  1. Was the U.S justified in going to war after 9/11?
  2. Did the U.S plant the seed for the Taliban many years ago?
  3. Was the occupation justified if it kept the Taliban out for 20 years, and freedom for women?
  4. Did the U.S commit worse excesses during the two-decade war?
  5. If the U.S had to leave, was this the best way to leave?
  6. Why didn’t the Afghan army and government put up more of a fight?
  7. Was there another way to bring peace and modernity to Afghanistan?
  8. Is democracy ill-suited to some parts of the world?

As you noticed, the questions are bigger than the answers we proposed and fought over. Many of these questions might not have good answers, or at least answers that we can find today. But the questions are rather terrifying.

They are too big and affect the lives of too many people to be unanswerable. That’s scarier than the Taliban, at least when you are thousands of kilometers away.

Naturally, when faced with such big questions, we freeze up, then unfreeze to go after a recognizable bogey. All across social media, people are talking about the real problem, which might be Americans, liberals, oil wars, Muslims. It varies quite a bit, but the hallmark is that it is a recognizable problem, which is very comforting.

Like scared children, we pick up toy swords and duel each other till we feel better. Conflicts between nations are too big for us to comprehend, especially when they develop into such absurd caricatures. I was shocked by the image of an aircraft bearing the name of the most powerful country in the world taking off while surrounded by desperate Afghans running after it. How do you process something like that? How do you feel safe, or believe in things that help you sleep at night?

When we play with our toy swords, we can pretend the pen is mightier than the sword. Or a keyboard.

We can tell ourselves it will be different this time, as the people are the same.

Nattil Evideya

A dull evening, with worries dipped in whiskey and clouds shrouded in rain, I rummaged in my cupboard for a change of clothes and found something familiar. A T-shirt I picked up at a stall at Soul Sante, in a world before the virus. A black tee with white stenciled letters, written in a style that is hard to make out quickly as Malayalam, printing out two words unmistakable to every Malayali stuck in lands across the sea or ghats.

‘Nattil Evideya’.

Words that light up many unsure eyes, new to foreign lands. If you are a Malayali, or mallu as if we are known in the lands that knew us first for our porn, you know what they mean. For the others, you probably heard this, or will if you listen closely when two mallus meet for the first time.

It translates to ‘Where are you in the homeland?.’ Like all translations, it’s a crude approximation. In Malayalam, it’s an easier, shorter, very obvious question. In Malayalam, veedu is your house, and nadu is your land, and it often means nearly the same thing.

A typical tongue twist would have made it ‘Nattil Evidunna’, which means “which part of the homeland are you from?” But I have never heard anyone ask that. The question is always ‘where are you?’ as if they know a part of you is still there.

For the many haters of our land, this question simply proves that no one can stay in Kerala because of a lack of jobs. I don’t want to argue with that because there’s some truth in it. Pravasi Malayali (migrant) is a term that is so mainstream that we have ministries for them, or us to be precise.

But I think the phenomenon predates the current lack of jobs, albeit at a smaller scale. Kerala is oddly shaped, a long, narrow slice of the coast. There is no point in Kerala that is farther than 120 km from the sea. Countless generations lived with their backs to the ghats and their eyes on the open seas. Of course we sailed out. It must have been hard not to.

Continue reading “Nattil Evideya”

Simile

Siddharth stared at the blank page, the usual existential crisis brewing in his mind. He pressed a key, then hit delete. He typed a sentence quickly, and then banged on the keyboard in frustration and filled the screen with gibberish before hitting delete again.

He got up in frustration and paced around his tiny room with difficulty. ‘Why bother?” he thought. The only writing gig he ever got was re-writing children’s physics experiments for some guy to put on his website without triggering plagiarism detectors. The only story he ever published was in the Kudumba Yogam publication that ran twice a year for his esteemed family. It was sandwiched between the ‘Best Students Appreciation Page’ and the obituary section, which got more readership than his piece. The only two people who did read his piece called his mom to say they thought he was commenting on some members of the family. He was, but he didn’t do a good job if they only suspected he was making fun of them.

He fell into his creaky bed and lay there staring at the ceiling for a while. It wasn’t all bad, he told himself. A while back, he had discovered that Kethan Biggot’s latest novel had pretty much the exact plot of a story he had posted online and forgotten about. He had written the first chapter and given it up. Kethan did a whole novel out of the same idea and signed book copies to fawning fans. It was a bitter-sweet memory that gave him some confidence about his ideas, although not his ability to finish things.

He motivated himself with that thought and got up again. He grabbed a bottle of old monk from under his bed and poured some room temperature Thums Up into it. He took a few swigs and sat down to write a story again. It was an allegorical tale about a gated apartment society that got cut off from civilization. By 3 AM, he was pretty proud of himself for completing two chapters. He hesitated before posting it on his blog. Maybe he should have held off and submitted to some publications after a few rounds of editing. But he was too proud of his new story and too jaded in life to wait. Maybe Wanderlust3423 would read it. She had liked his last two posts, and her picture was cute, so the thought excited his drunken, lonely mind. He went to bed and dreamt of wandering around pristine beaches with her as she frolicked around in a bikini and asked him to recite poetry.

A few months later, he had forgotten about the story. He got on a crowded bus, ideas for multiple stories with beautiful beginnings bouncing around his head as he headed to work. He balanced his weight on one leg and stood next to a guy who kept looking up from his phone to see if it was his stop. Sid watched him closely, meaning to grab his seat when he made a definitive move. The guy was watching something on YouTube. Sid was pleasantly surprised to see Kethan Biggot on the screen. The guy noticed Sid staring at his phone and apologetically started to plug his earphones in. “No no,” Sid said, “I’d like to see it too.” The guy smiled and held the phone at a better angle for Sid as he glanced outside again.

The interviewer was asking Kethan about his new creative venture, a TV show.

“Kethan, so far you have written books that got adapted to movies. What made you write for a TV show directly?” the interviewer asked.

“Well, I started this story intending to make it a book, but soon realized that it would simply work better on a visual medium. It was right about then that Bedflix called up asking if I had any original ideas for a TV show and I said hell yes!” Ketan said.

“Amazing. Can you tell us a little about the premise?”

“I can tell you just a bit. The synopsis will be released soon anyway. So the idea is, after a new pandemic rages across the city, an apartment complex gets completely cut off from the rest of civilization…”

Sid’s eyes widened. The bus and everyone on it faded out till only Kethan’s face and voice were left. He spoke about the psychological conflicts the characters would go through and hinted at how there would be influences of game theory in the story. “Have you heard of prisoner’s dilemma?” Kethan asked the interviewer smugly and refused to say more.

There was a commotion as Sid tried to yank the guy’s phone out of his hand when he tried to get down at his stop. He got roughed up a bit by the crowd but didn’t even notice. He ran the rest of the way to his PG after he got kicked out. He burst into his room and fired up WordPress on his laptop. He scrolled through his old posts and the few likes and comments he had got. He started noting down posts Wanderlust3423 had liked or commented on. He started seeing a pattern. An idea here, a theme there. He scrolled till he found the first post she had engaged with. He was stunned to see it was the same unfinished story that was so similar to Kethan Biggot’s third blockbuster book.

His head reeled. He found his old monk bottle and drained it. ‘This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening,’ he thought.

He debated with himself if he should tell somebody. But who would he tell? He had a sudden idea and sat down again. He clicked on the username Wanderlust3423 and found a bare-bones blog page with a contact form.

His hand shook and he felt a chill down his spine. Rage, fear, and sorrow rocked his body. He quickly typed one sentence “Have you been stealing my stories?” and hovered the cursor over the submit button.

‘Should I do it? Was this real? Was this a coincidence?’, he thought.

He paced the whole night, sitting down every half an hour or so and getting up again. Finally at 4 AM, after another bottle of old monk, he clicked submit.

He passed out cold till afternoon. He spent the evening puking his guts out and ate some cup noodles for dinner. He passed out again.

The sun rose. A knock on the door woke him up. He pulled himself together quickly, put a shirt on, and opened the door. The postman held out a registered letter and asked “Are you Siddharth?”.

He held his aching head with one hand and stared at the envelope. He ripped off the end and shook a sheet of white paper out. There was an official-looking seal at the bottom with the name of a legal firm.

The subject line said ‘Notice of impending legal action against Siddharth Rao for plagiarism of Kethan Biggot’s books’

Sid puked again.

Alive

I sat next to the hospital bed with my head bowed and watched my friend breathe. The once mighty chest rose and fell with a meekness he never showed in life. And yet, the monitors with the squiggly lines and the beeps said he was alive. Was this life? I remembered how he had behaved when someone tried to mug him. I was there, but a few seconds into the intended mugging, you couldn’t understand who was mugging who. The only explanation he gave later was “When life comes at you with a knife, you go at it with a pickax”. I smiled at the memory, but mourned the present. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

I pulled the cables. I turned off the monitors and knocked over the IV drip. His eyes fluttered open and looked at me, even as his body shook and struggled. But his eyes stayed fixed on me, till it glazed over in the end. Eyes that had remained closed for the past two weeks, reopened to see the end. I kept looking back, even as they rushed in and dragged me away. They would not believe it and I did not say it, but I knew what I saw in his eyes. They saw him die helpless, unassisted. I saw him die just as he had lived, just as he had wanted- defiant.

An ultra short story I wrote in 2016 and rescued from a now defunct websiteeuthanasia

Words worth

A picture is worth a thousand words

Said an ad-man counting money

We forgot why

Coz he didn’t say it with pictures

So we flocked to the gram

From the tyranny of words

Words that shaped the world

And ended empires

Words that made us weep

With joy, with grief, with life

Are refugees now

In a world of colour

Posing for screenshots

And asking how much

A picture of a thousand words is worth


Note: They told me no one reads blogs any more. You have to do Instagram. I realized it does work well, and helps me write poetry which I had assumed I couldn’t. But had to write how I felt about the whole thing

Why do we put silence on a pedestal?

Indian mother looking outraged and dad looking like he wants to beat you
Exhibit A: When you’re young and want to speak your mind in India

If you were asked to choose who is better – a person who stays quiet and keeps their opinions to themselves or a person who is vocal about their opinions, I bet most of you would select the former. Staying quiet = being good has been drilled into our heads since childhood. Don’t talk back, don’t question your elders. After all that quiet time you would think we would be a nation of good listeners but our most viewed TV anchor is a man named Arnab Goswami, so what exactly is going on?

Truth is, we do like it under certain strict conditions. You are allowed to have opinions. You’re just not supposed to let anyone know what they are until you are above a certain age, or you get rich or famous. The rules are kind of like the ones governing underwear use. It’s OK to wear them as long as you don’t let anyone else see them. Unless you wear khaki shorts, in which case you exhibit it in public events and get called a patriot. If you’re young and unproven, you have no choice but to swallow your opinions and dream of a day when you too can wear your underwear outside your trousers and your heart on your sleeves, like a Desi superman.

Govinda in Superman costume.
Exhibit B: When you’re all grown up and ready to express yourself
Continue reading “Why do we put silence on a pedestal?”

A place to play the fool

The Fool, Tarot, Card, Magic, Fortune, Divination

Buying a domain for your blog is very much like getting your first business card. It’s like that photo Will Smith takes in The Pursuit of Happyness. The one where he’s standing in front of all the handheld scanner machines he has to sell with a big hopeful grin.

The rest of the movie however looks like this.

You burst out onto the world wide web with a song on your lips, ready to share your life-changing ideas and middle-of-the-night philosophical discoveries with a waiting, appreciative world. And then you realize 10 people including your mom read the last 3 things you wrote.

Continue reading “A place to play the fool”

On my watch

I was there when you took your first breath.

I was there when you took your first fall, with a bandage and lollipop, and courage to try again.

I was there when you paced outside, helping to bring a part of you to life.

I was there at death’s door, keeping it shut a moment more.

And yet, you called my gifts poison, while others sold you water.

You thanked your Gods when I saved you, and raged at me when they failed you.

Do you deserve me, and do I deserve you?


Dedicated to doctors around the world