Wednesday, September 17, 2008


The most positive thing one could say about the annual elocution competitions at my school was that they were consistently strange. Reduced to basics, it was a gathering of unfortunate sods bound by honour and loyalty to their house colours, parroting texts ranging from the 16th to the 21st century, tested by a crowd which could go from expectant to bored to hostile within the space of a single speech. Like all expositions, it was also an expose – of one’s memory, of pitch and timbre, and more revealingly, of one’s origins and ambitions. And if you think you can’t get all this from a stuttering 16 year old’s reciting ‘To be or not to be’ then you haven’t tried to fill the vastness of Spence Hall with a voice that hasn’t broken yet, you haven’t seen the fear in the eyes of a contestant when that slow hand clap begins, the one where the contestant forgets his lines and the audience tests his will to ever set foot on that stage again.

And then there were those moments which no one will ever forget. Like how every year someone would take a crack at Rebecca, but never quite match up to Gautam Bajaj’s original performance, authentic, sneering, spitting out the lines ‘You think I loved Rebecca? I HATED her”. There was the inspired and oft-repeated choice of The Odessa File by Fredrick Forsyth as speech material. There was Rana Pahwa doing a note-perfect Rex Harrison with ‘Let a woman in your life’. There was Udayan who had the temerity to read out, amidst all that Shakespeare and Shaw, a self-composition. And most memorable of all was that afternoon when we first heard the words boomalay boomalay boomalay boom…

The Congo’, a 1914 poem by Vachel Lindsay, is set in colonial Africa and is a sort of tribal chant in both form and spirit. The fact that Lindsay wrote his poems to be spoken out loud brings the material thrillingly close to the arena of rapping. I would have loved to see Public Enemy go at it, 'Tusk' by Fleetwood Mac playing in the background. Or maybe just the guy who recited it on that fateful day. I forgot who he was, but he went at it like a crazy preacher.

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table

‘Huh’ went his audience. At least it didn’t sound British.


‘Ah’ went everyone. Now it made sense.

‘Death is an Elephant
Torch-eyed and horrible
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies
BOOM, kill the Arabs
BOOM, kill the white men’

‘Boom’ responded his audience. In one of those moments that came rarely on that hallowed stage, speaker and spoken to were both flying.

‘Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you. Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you. Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you’ he ended. There was nothing left to say.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


'...aur sadkein thi sab mere baap ki
Aur main tha, tu thi aur thi dilli bas'

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Part III: Every office has a quiet guy

He finally reached home. The taxi asked for extra because of the traffic they had fought their way through, the fact that it was evening and the part of town they were in would yield him no more passengers for the day, and because that little bit extra didn't really make a difference to him now, did it? He in turn paid the man without arguing because he saw it as buying some peace for himself, and one didn't get many opportunities to buy peace these days.

He reached home, mumbled a hello to whoever was sitting or not sitting in the living room, and headed for the bathroom. He locked the door behind him and stood there for a while, staring at his shoes. A strange light-headedness overtook him and he wondered whether it had anything to do with the fact that he hadn’t eaten anything since he had heard the news. Finally, he gathered enough courage to look up. And like that, he was transfixed.

The advantage of looking at your own reflection is that you know exactly where your flaws lie. It gives you the chance to pretend you can’t see them. So he ignored the unruly hair. He noticed the beginnings of a double chin but rationalized it by saying it gave him an air of gravity. He saw instead a pair of brown eyes, which seduced but did not threaten. He smiled, and was struck by how minimal the movement of his lips was, and how it genrated so much quiet warmth. He took off his shirt. He realised he had put on weight, but it could have been worse. His arms were just the right length - they complemented his height without reaching ape-like proportions; he also knew they made him look thinner but couldn’t explain why.

And like that, he was done with kidding himself. He had become his own fan club. Suddenly he was looking at his shoes again. Words came to him like echoes in a dream sequence from some low-budget movie. You’re fine, nothing’s wrong with you, you’re normal.


He took off all his clothes. Looked around for an object sharp enough to cause pain, and finally picked up the comb. He then took a deep breath and raised his head. He took a hard look at his unremarkable eyes, his ungainly form. Pressed the comb to his chest so that the points dug into his skin and made him grit his teeth, and started repeating the same line over and over until it became a mantra, a string of words whose powers of sustenance seem to derive more from repetition than from the intrinsic healing power of the words themselves.
“There’s no design, your flaws are fine. There’s no design, your flaws are fine. There’s no design, your flaws are fine…”