Monday, November 28, 2011

Unfinished Business

Sundaram sat in the backseat and looked outside his car window. The city had changed so much in the last twenty years. He had come to India on business for the first time in many years. He had a nostalgic feeling looking at some of the landmarks that still stood the test of time among the more modern coffee shops, retail stores and fast food joints.

The two elephant statues by the side of the stairs at Annanagar club reminded him of the day when his school bus had a minor accident with a truck right in front of it. You generally don't forget the moment when you learn your first swear word. The Tower park was another regular place where he spent countless hours with friends.

The car was now past the Annanagar Roundtana. Sundaram noticed the store and asked the driver to stop the car.
* * *
“Anbu, the farewell is just a week away. We need to get gifts for our school teachers,” said Sundaram.

“Yeah, I know. We are going to a movie this weekend. Are you coming?” asked Anbu.

“Which movie and who else is coming?”

“Ram, Kumar, Ashok and I are planning to see Kishen Kanhaiya!”

Sundaram thought about it for a second. He had seen the Shilpa Shirodkar's stills in Filmfare and wanted to go. Although the practical problem of convincing his mother to get money for the tickets remained, he said yes.

* * *

The gang walked out of the Melody theatre after watching Anil Kapoor's double-act in the movie. They got into a bus. Along the way they were cracking jokes about movie clich├ęs and voluptuous Bollywood women among other things. They got down at the Gemini stop.

“Lets go to Landmark. Maybe we can get the cards there?”

“What is our budget?”

“Part of the money is going into decorations and other event arrangements. I think we have 200 rupees give or take for buying the Thank You cards.”

“Thank You cards are a good idea, but can we gift something useful? Like a pen or something...”

“That is a good suggestion.”

They spent the next one hour at Landmark looking for Thank You cards and didn't find anything that met their budgetary constraints. The pens were even more expensive and they finally walked out without buying anything from the store. The store assistants probably heaved a sigh of relief upon their departure as they were getting antsy about these punks ruffling through the display copies of Filmfare, Debonair, India Today and other magazines.

The job was now delegated to Ram and Sundaram as the friends split up on their way home.

* * *

It was a small stationery shop. There was a person at the counter and another man at the cash register. Books, pens, ink, cellophane tape, scissors, glue and other items adorned the shelves. Sundaram and Ram walked in.

“We are looking for pens...” said Ram.

The assistant at the counter showed regular fountain pens. Ram looked at Sundaram who was shaking his head in disagreement.

“Can we get something better? We need twenty five of them!” said Sundaram.

The man sitting at the cash register walked towards them.

“Why don't you get #210, #302 and the Parkers?” He directed the assistant.

He must be the owner of the store thought Sundaram.

The assistant climbed up on a stool and returned back with half a dozen boxes with different kinds of pens.

“These are seventeen rupees a piece. These are twenty...” The shopkeeper explained about the writing instruments.

Ram looked at Sundaram. They both did the math mentally. There was no way to fit any of that in their budget.

He looked at the shopkeeper with the corner of his eye without making eye contact to ensure that he wasn't looking at them. He then lifted the box of cheap fountain pens to check the price as he was too embarassed to ask. Luckily, another customer walked into the store and the assistant walked away to help them. The owner was still with them. Ram pushed the boxes away from him and looked up at the shopkeeper. That is when he noticed. The shopkeeper was blind.

Ram pulled Sundaram aside and whispered into his ear.

“The man is blind!”

Sundaram was shocked. He looked at the man. His eyes were transfixed on an imaginary point behind them. He was blind indeed.

“I don't think we can buy any of these pens. They are all outside our budget! Let us end this embarrassment right now and get out!” said Ram.

“Okay. Let me handle the exit strategy...” said Sundaram and turned to the shopkeeper.

“We need something nicer! None of this stuff impresses us. Do you have anything better?”

The man paused for a second. “No, this is all we have. I am sorry.”

“Alright, thanks. We don't need them!”

Sundaram and Ram walked out.

“God! That was embarrassing...”
* * *

The place looked very different. But Sundaram knew that he was at the right place. He got out of his car and walked in. The store looked much brighter and spacious now.

“Can I help you sir?” asked the shopkeeper.

“Yes. I would like to get twenty five pens please. The best ones you've got!” said Sundaram.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Odds

Prakash looked at his watch. It has been more than forty minutes since the scheduled departure time for his flight. There was no sign of the aircraft leaving the departure gate. The cabin was getting warmer. The flight attendants were busy handing out water bottles to the passengers who were getting increasingly impatient.

The PA system came alive with the captain making an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for this morning's delay. Our ground staff have been attending to a technical snag trying to get this aircraft flying and have been unsuccessful. We have a standby aircraft and our staff will assist you in getting you boarded soon. Once again, we apologize for the inconvenience.”

The passengers got up murmuring and lined up to get off the plane.

Prakash was concerned about missing his connection flight to London from Mumbai. He was on his way to attend a due diligence meeting with a potential acquisition target that his company was considering.

* * * 
The flight touched down at Mumbai airport almost an hour and half delayed from what Prakash had planned. As soon as he got out, he headed towards the shuttle bus service to get to the international terminal. There was a small queue waiting there for the shuttle. Prakash was getting nervous about making his flight as he reckoned he would reach there less than thirty minutes prior to the departure of his London flight.

The agonizing wait was finally over as the passengers boarded the shuttle bus.

* * * 
Prakash got down from the shuttle at the international terminal and sprinted to the check-in counter. He was surprised that the check-in counters were all empty with no one at the desks except at one where a supervisor was finishing up her shift. He ran to that counter before she could get away.

“Hi, I am on the flight to London...”

“Sorry sir, boarding is closed! I can help you get on the next flight that leaves late tonight...”

“Look, my incoming flight from Chennai got delayed. It is very important that I get on that flight to London to attend a business meeting. There is still twenty-five minutes to departure. Can you do something?”

“No sir, I can't!”

Prakash was getting angry. But, he also realized that the only person in the entire world who could help him get on that plane was the lady in front of him.

“Please! Can you at least check if there is a possibility? I would be very grateful...”

The lady looked at him for a second of hesitation and then picked up the phone.

“I am going to check with the gate. If they have still not closed the gate, we can try...”

“Thank you!"

Prakash let a sigh of relief.

“Okay. The last few passengers are boarding the flight. I am going to upgrade your economy ticket to business class. You may have to run in order to make it before they close the door. Here's your boarding pass. Have a pleasant flight!”

“Thank you! You are a lifesaver...”

Prakash picked up his hand luggage and ran towards security. He thanked his stars for packing light without any check-in bags. The security lines were also empty. He breezed through it and ran towards the gate hoping to make it on time.

He finally reached the gate. The last three elderly passengers were boarding the plane.

‘Thank God for old people!’

Prakash finally was relieved. He stood at the end of the line wiping the sweat off his face.

A few minutes later, he was well settled in his seat smiling at the flight attendant who was serving him a welcome drink.

* * * 

The television channels were running the news about the crash non-stop. A red bulletin in the bottom of the screen announced a toll-free number that relatives could call to inquire status. The nation was shocked and sadness filled the air.

No one expected any survivors from the crash. So, it was indeed a miracle that one person out of the four hundred plus passengers on that fateful flight lived to tell the tale.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


The alarm sounded signaling the end of the hour. The watch tower had a change of guard. Superintendent Jackson had tightened the security protocols after the riot that broke out two days ago. One guard had been killed in the violence. Some said Jackson was pissed at the thought of such an atrocious incident under his watch. There were others who had a conspiracy theory that Jackson staged the whole thing to get rid of the guy for reasons unknown without having to face a departmental inquiry from the Bureau.

Jackson was a short and stout man with his balding forehead. One would mistake him for a store-clerk or a restaurant waiter except that the nasty scar that ran down his right cheek was evidence of a much darker character. He cut his teeth as a gunnery sergeant in the wars and joined law enforcement after leaving active service. He specifically asked for a job within the Bureau of Prisons and was granted it without much difficulty thanks to his war credentials. Now, he runs the Lunar Penitentiary Colony where the worst offenders are shipped off from the Earth to lead life sentences. Jackson ran a tight ship and held an enviable record. No one has ever managed to escape from his prison, yet.

* * *
Jeff Rhodes a.k.a. Prisoner #3092 at the Lunar Penitentiary Colony, lay on his bed in his cell with palms locked behind his shaved head and looking up through the glass ceiling. Beyond that reinforced unbreakable glass ceiling were stars, distant galaxies and dark space that seemed to extend to eternity. Somewhere, definitely outside the small viewport that the ceiling in his confinement cell offered him, a beautiful blue marble called Planet Earth was spinning around. Jeff Rhodes dreamed about it all the time. If everything were to go as per his plan, he would be on his way to the Earth in less than twenty four hours only happy to leave this godforsaken place.

He turned to his side and caught a figure in the shadows, standing by the gate and staring at him. He could make out the unmistakable contours of Jackson in the darkness, standing there almost like a wax statute. Jeff closed his eyes and mentally started running through the sequence of his escape plan for the tenth time. He didn't know when the tiredness took over his body and when he fell asleep.

* * *
Blaring alarms. Flashing lights. Prisoners lining up for a roll-call. Jeff avoided eye contact with Jackson and the other guards. He sat alone during breakfast, looking up occasionally to count the number of guards on duty. He knew that one of the guards was on special leave and had left for Earth last week due to the untimely death of his wife. Jeff had taken care of killing another guard during the riots last week. The reinforcements sent by the Bureau were enroute and would take two more days to reach the moon base. Meanwhile, Jackson's short-staffed crew would make mistakes. Jeff was counting on it. He hoped that no one would notice him slipping away after breakfast when the prisoners are sent back to their cells.

* * *
The alarm went off and the prisoners got up from their seats and filed into two lines. One of the guards signaled them to move towards the cell block. The prisoners in their orange jumpsuits started walking. Jeff had carefully picked his breakfast table so that he would be towards the end of the line with just a couple of men behind him with the rear guards following them. The prisoners had to navigate two sharp turns and Jeff was planning to slip away between those two turns and hide in a wall recess he had identified. The challenge was to do it without the knowledge of the other prisoners and the rear guards.

The leading prisoners made the first turn to the right. Jeff coughed and stopped temporarily as the rear guards looked up. He avoided meeting them in the eye and let the two other prisoners who were behind him to pass and took the last position in the line. The guards didn't notice and seemed to be relaxed and engaged in trivial banter. He was now just a few steps away from the first turn himself.  Jeff made the turn and quickened his pace. Small beads of sweat formed on his head and ran down over the dragon tattooed on his neck. The rear guards were invisible and were at least ten steps behind him. Another four seconds... and he would reach the wall recess.

As soon as he got there, Jeff deftly moved sideways and cramped himself into the small space offered by the wall recess and hid in the darkness. He could hear the footsteps of guards. Jeff was acutely aware of all his senses and time seemed to slow down as he waited with bated breath. He could see the rear guards passing by. He waited there for a minute and then tiptoed his way to the transportation bay. He reached the door. There was not much time left. There will be a check done after all the prisoners get into their respective cells and his escape would be discovered. He had to be on his way before that.

He took out the key from his pocket... the key that he had taken from the dead guard during the riots. He opened the transportation bay door. He had almost made it. A few seconds away from freedom. He could sense it.

A steel casket ready for dispatch lay in the center of the dimly lit room. The casket held the dead body of the guard he had killed. It was destined to leave for the Earth in the next robotic cargo freighter out of the Lunar Penitentiary Colony. Jeff thanked the broadminded designers of the steel casket for making it large enough to fit two bodies. Of course, he didn't know or care that it was designed that way for saving costs.

He could see the cargo freighter's lights blinking a short distance away as it approached for docking. He quickly got into the casket, by the side of the embalmed corpse and closed it shut. Once the freighter undocks, he would be free to get out of the casket. Every casket had an unlock provision from the inside in case someone was accidentally shut in. He was willing to endure this minor ordeal with the corpse until the freighter was on its way. 

The pod bay doors opened and the freighter completed its docking maneuver. The casket moved into the freighter and the doors closed. A few seconds later the freighter undocked and glided away from the Lunar Penitentiary Colony. 

* * *
Superintendent Jackson finished typing his report on the strange happenings that week.


Monday, November 7, 2011


Selvam sat in his classroom looking out the widow. Two sparrows sitting on a branch of the mango tree in the playground were chirping playfully. The teacher was reading a passage from the Social Studies textbook. Nothing that happened around him interested Selvam. He was preoccupied with something that demanded his entire creative faculties. So, the sparrows and Social Studies had to wait.

The past two hours he had been thinking about what excuse he would give this time for not finishing his Tamil homework. Ms. Malini was a tough teacher and very adept at detecting lies. He remembered how Sudhakar goofed up a few days ago.

“Why didn't you finish your homework?” asked Ms. Malini.

“I was out of station this weekend,” said Sudhakar.

“Where did you go?”


“...and you returned over the weekend? In just one day?”


“How did you go? Did you fly?”

“No. We went in my uncle's motorbike! It is a Bullet... very fast!”

Selvam hit his forehead with his palm. ‘The idiot doesn't even know how to lie... This is not going to be good!’

Ms. Malini rolled her eyes and grabbed Sudhakar by his ears. “So, you and your uncle made a trip to Bombay from Madras in his bike and returned in one day!”

The bell rang and Selvam came back to his senses.

‘There is not enough time. It is mathematics class now followed by recess and Ms. Malini will be here for the Tamil class! Think Selvam... think!’

‘Should I say that I lost my homework notebook? No, I have used that excuse already! She would only get mad that I am repeating the same stupid excuse... What if I say that I left my notebook at home? Selvam, come up with something original and believable... Some other idiot would give that excuse today! Should I say that my younger brother must have got my notebook mixed up with his by mistake? Nope... too dangerous! What if she asks me to go to his class and collect it? Oh the perils of having your sibling study in the same school...’

Ms. Jaya, the mathematics teacher was explaining mean, median, mode. Lies, damn lies and statistics!

Selvam's mind was grasping at straws helplessly as he drowned in the river of rejected ideas. I am doomed...

The vice-principal walked into the class and Ms. Jaya stopped her lesson. The two of them walked out of the classroom and discussed something softly. Ms. Jaya returned a minute later. She closed her textbook and asked all the children to gather their belongings and assemble in a single file, in the corridor outside the classroom.

“Children, we are closing the school now as we have received news that the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been shot dead by her bodyguards. Public transport in the city is stopped. No buses are plying. We will be taking you to your homes in groups...” She continued explaining the logistics.

Selvam was not paying attention to any of that. The sparrows were still there on the tree branch, chirping merrily.

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