Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Shillong Tale

I’m rocking from side to side like a passenger in a train. Someone is shaking me awake. Opening my eyes just a third, I see a blurry face poring over me - Aleya's, the girl with wide-set eyes and curly hair I think I just met somewhere I cannot quite ascertain right away.

“Sorry to wake you up,” she says softly.

I manage to open my eyes fully, and sit up in my chair. “I’m sorry, what time is it?”

I hear strange, loud noises from outside.

“Two.”

Two am? Holy cow!

”You look uncomfortable in the chair. You are talking in your sleep. You need to sleep on a bed.”

 My head is heavier than a bowling ball. I have to go home and crawl into my bed. I stagger unsteadily towards the door.

“Take it easy. There’s a storm outside. You’d rather stay here,” a male voice cuts into my head.

Ray Norgrum, in a holiday sweater and slacks, is picking up empty glasses from the coffee table. We are inside his immaculate living room with a vintage bookcase, a mantel with scented candles and framed photographs, and a poster of a green valley on the opposite wall. A log fire is crackling in the stone fireplace.

By now, my head is clearing up. I’m still not completely awake yet, but I can piece together what had happened. There was a party, yes - a few hours ago, I waited in the dark along with Ray’s many other friends preparing to spring the biggest surprise of his life. And then? I cannot recall much.  Ray’s stupefied expression at the sight of us leaping out of our hiding places, blank, dancing, blank, blank, and shots of some kind of strong alcohol.

The awful noise outside must be the storm – howling, and rattling. I look through the window behind me. Dark and grey, swirling winds, and showering snow. There is no question I’m trapped here - alone with Ray and Aleya.  Awkward, to say the least.

“I’m sorry, I should have left earlier,” I say.

“Don’t apologize! We love your company – awake or snoring!” Aleya laughs, brushing her curls back.

“C’mon,” I smile, “you two should be enjoying the evening without my presence!”

Silence. Oh boy!

Aleya speaks first (mildly amused): “You think we are seeing each other?”

Ray smiles, flashing his white chiseled teeth. “Buddy, she is also stuck here. She drank too much, and just passed out.”

I look at Aleya again who is sealing the open bottles on the dining table. She is delicately pretty with lustrous dark skin and pixie curls. Heck, she looks sober to me. I don’t believe them for a moment.

“I really must go!” I hurry to the door and yank it open. Whoosh! The wind almost sweeps me off my feet. The party decorations tear off from the walls, a wine bottle spins and smashes to the floor.

“Shut the door!” Ray pleads urgently.

I close the door, and turn around red-faced. Aleya is already down on the floor to clear up the mess. I drop down on one knee to help her out only to sense a huge rip - my pants tear in the back, ripped asunder from stretching the leg! My night cannot get any worse. I hop back up again and flop on the nearest chair taking great care not to display my back side.

Aleya, who watched my comically strange behavior without questioning, clears her throat.

“Whatever gave you the idea about Ray and me?” She says, looking menacing with giant shards in her hands.

 “I heard you two were classmates in Calcutta.”

“Yes. But we never really got to know each other till the last year. He was an introvert. Always studying.”

“And she was always hanging out with her Bengali circle.” Ray says, sweeping the floor.

Aleya waves her hand - “Besides, Ray’s heart is in Shillong. There is a girl. Isn't that right, Ray?”

“Don’t believe her!” he adds, dumping the trash, “My heart is in Shillong! But not for a girl.”

“Ray!” Aleya exclaims. “The girl from your neighborhood!”

“If you are talking about Isa, it is over. I ran into her at my father’s funeral.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s engaged to someone. It’s inappropriate to think of her now as anyone but a friend.”

“I’m sorry – but what happened?” Aleya asks.

“Oh I’m fine. It is a long story. I will spare you the details.”

“But we have the whole night! I’m dying to hear it!” Aleya is pleading.

There are also two bottles of good wine, and some Turkish delight.  

Ray sits down with his glass. The alcohol is working on him. He is normally humble and reserved, but I can sense he is pondering Aleya’s request. He pinches his thin lower lip with his thumb and forefinger, and smiles leaning forward:

Only if we take turns.”

Aleya throws up her hands. “Hey, I’m a bore. I don’t have any stories.”

Neither do I.

“Then, forget it!” Ray says, leaning back.

Aleya ponders for a moment. “No, wait! I don’t have a story, but I will tell you a secret.”

“That is a deal! What about you?” he asks me.

I fidget, but give in – for another little secret.

Aleya claps: “Excellent! Let me get the drinks.”

Aleya picks up our wine glasses. She pours red wine for Ray. She winks at me - and fills our glasses slyly with grape cider. 

Ray is resting his head on his arm, as he looks far away. “When I close my eyes at night, I hear the market, the sound of closing shutters, and the rickshaws dragging empty wood pallets on the road. It is tiring. This job,” he says, “and my education – are not the normal trajectory. Where I grew up, a career in Engineering was unheard of.”

He describes Shillong, a Northeastern city, up in the rippling green Khasi hills, surrounded by lakes and waterfalls. It is the town in the poster hanging on his wall. But that’s Shillong from the outside, he says.

“I grew up within, at the bazaar living with the sounds of the mill grinding the flour, the din of bargaining, the odors of roasting meat and fish. The seasonal rains soaked the stalls, created puddles all over, and flooded the open gutters. The winters are cold and desolate with rolling mists and the smell of kerosene heaters.

“My father ran the family bakery at the bazaar. My great-grand-uncle started it as a modest little general store. Over the decades, it turned into a bakery and my father grew it bigger than ever as a catering place for festivals and weddings. We had a little shed in the backyard that was our factory, Pa sometimes would let me watch while he prepared cupcakes himself. He was a meticulous baker, experimenting and recording in his green-covered folder. I remember he used to smile easily in those days.

“But, suddenly my mother died in a road accident. I was just thirteen, my uncles and aunts helped take care of me. My father went into a shock, business suffered until the day he snapped out of it when I brought in my yearly school report. I had topped my class head over shoulders. He read it quietly and looked me straight with his piercing grey eyes.“

At this point, Ray jumps up to swipe a Karakul cap from the bookcase. He puts it on and changes voice like a switch went off - it is a rough, abrasive voice:

“Raymond, you got cent per cent in Math! No one in our family ever got more than 50%! When you grow up, you shouldn't be a baker like me. You should be a gentleman with a fine salary.”

“He got back into work more devoted than ever – to save as much money as he can. He sent me off frequently to my aunt’s little flat where I could study in relative peace.”

Ray pauses his story again, doffing the cap, to pour himself another glass of wine.

“That’s where I met Isa who lived in the same block. She was a skylark, very active in the local festivals, singing and dancing with troupes. I got to know their family slowly over the years. Her father became Pa’s friend and supplier. We’d go for picnics to the lake shore. In one of those trips, Isa and I went on a long hike to get know each other better. That was the turning point in our … er… friendship.”

Aleya smiled: “I bet a lot went on in the turning point!”

Ray winked. “My father wasn't thrilled that he had to send a small search party to find us. When we returned home, he confronted me – I told him it was nothing serious. He didn't buy it.”

Ray wears the cap again and speaks in his father’s voice:

“Raymond! Do you want to be a great engineer - or a stupid lover?”

“Not fair. You could be both,” Aleya said.

“You really have to understand,” Ray says, running a hand through his dark thin hair, “We are a family of bakers, wedding singers, and ticket agents. My father dropped out when he was only sixteen. He could read, write and do basic math. With that legacy, he really didn't know what it takes to be an Engineer. He thought any distraction could derail my plans."

“What did you think of her – a distraction?”

“Then? Not me. She was a great girl. Except, she wasn't quite the one.”

“Why?”

Ray scratches his head. “Now, remember I was just a young teen there, my head filled with crazy notions. She wasn't really pretty like the heroines from movies. I couldn't get past the mole.”

“The mole?”

“Yes, she had a mole on her right cheek. It was repulsive. The more I got to know her, the bigger it seemed to become. You wouldn't understand.”

Aleya crosses her arms: “Oh, I understand! The specter of the mole - sure. You thought you were going out with a mole, not a girl. That’s stupid, you know!”

Ray doesn't answer as he pauses to roll up the blinds. The window glass is frozen and near opaque. I suddenly notice a thick, green-covered binder in the bookcase. I wonder if it was the same one his father had kept for decades.

“The blizzard is slowing down,” he says, peering with his face against the pane. 

 “Well, then get on with the story!” Aleya says impatiently.

“A year later,” he says, still looking outside, “I got into Jadavpur University, in their Computer Science program. My father was ecstatic, of course, as his dreams were coming true. Isa was also cool about it.”

“Jadavpur - that's where you two met?” I ask Aleya.

“Yes,” Aleya says, and smiles wryly, “I had no idea he left a girl behind. I learnt about her only when he was leaving for America.”

 “I didn't leave her. I went back whenever I could. But the distance was making her jumpy, she thought I was slipping away from our so-called relationship. See, that was really the problem. She assumed there was something permanent going on. I did not.”

 “You were misleading her!”

 “Not intentionally. In the third summer, I really wanted to end this before it got any deeper. When I got down at the bus station, I saw her waiting at the gates looking entirely different. She had changed into a young woman. She was very pretty.”

“What about the mole?” Aleya asks, deliberately stressing the last word.

“It shrunk … almost invisible. I was seeing the girl, not the mole. She looked like a heroine from the movies.  And there she was – waiting just for me.”

I stand up to clap as Ray takes a bow. Aleya stares at us with clear contempt. Outside, there is a sound like a crack. Probably a tree branch breaking under the weight of snow. Ray downs rest of the wine in his glass, and excuses himself to the bathroom.

I notice a particular photograph on the mantel. It is of his father – a tall light-skinned man in his fifties with white sideburns, pursed lips, and stern grey eyes that belie hardship and pain.

“Hey, look at this,” says Aleya, pointing to the next picture of a group of scrawny teens in a clearing among trees on a lush green hill. Ray is easily recognizable, sitting astride on a blanket. A cherubic girl is next to him lying flat on her stomach. The mole on her cheek is unmistakable. Her face is childlike and flushed.

 Ray saunters back in, walking a bit unsteady. I can tell he is buzzed. He fills his glass again.

“When she looked so beautiful at the station,” he continues, “I changed my mind. I wanted her for life. But first - I had to talk my father about another matter – America.”

“Yeah, Ray cracked the GREs. He was really obsessed about American colleges,” Aleya says.

“I asked him about going to America on a scholarship. I thought he would be mad, but it was just the opposite.”

The Karakul cap went back on his head and his voice changed again:

Raymond, you should go to America whether you get a scholarship or not! I will make it happen.”

“Father loved the idea, but I didn’t want to tell Isa yet, but she got wind of it anyway.”

“What did she think?”

“Funny, she was strangely indifferent. Her only comment?  We were like two planets in separate orbits. Suddenly, she didn’t seem to care that much. Isa had joined the local college, moved around in a new company of high-spirited friends, participated in dance shows, and could not fathom a life outside Shillong.“

“Let me get this straight,” Aleya says, “Now you wanted to commit, and she did not. The tables turned on you.”

Ray sits down, his voice softening.

“I think I should have spent more time with her on that trip. But there was an emergency at home. One night, I was helping Pa with his accounts. He asked me to pass him the pen. I tossed it over, and it landed right next to him on the cushion. He kept on looking at me.

Raymond, didn’t you hear me? Please pass me the pen!”

Ray falls silent. Aleya seems to understand, but I don’t get it.

“My father,” he says at length, “was losing sight. He couldn’t spot a pen flying right at him in a dimly lit room."

He sighs: "I took him to the doctor the very next day. A specialist told us he had a genetic defect in his eye that leads to degenerative night blindness.”

Again, he pauses to look outside. The world is clearing up. The worst of the storm is over.

“I insisted on staying back in Shillong, but my father would have none of it. He was extra cheerful. The only thing that mattered to him was to find a manager for his accounts.”

“Bless his soul!” Aleya says.

“I have to ask you,” I interrupt pointing to the bookcase, “is that green binder the one your father was using?”

Ray nods, and retrieves it. He put it on the table, unties the string, and opens the flaps.

“After my finals, I was back in Shillong helping Pa when I received the letter.”

“What letter?”

He doesn't say, just beckons Aleya closer to whisper something in her ear. Her eyes widen, and she grins. Then he looks at me with wide eyes.

“We will make this special. We are going to enact this for you, buddy. Give us a few minutes to get ready and then all you have to do is clap twice.”

He takes out two letters – gives her one and keeps the other. He  also scribbles some notes on a post-it note, and attaches it to her letter. They both exit to opposite rooms - Ray to the bathroom  on the left, and Aleya to the bedroom on the right.

I wait for what seemed a long enough pause, and clap twice.

Aleya appears from the bedroom door. She is wearing the Karakul cap now, with a letter in her hand.

Raymond, RAYMOND! Where are you? I have to talk to you.”

Ray emerges out from the bathroom, also carrying a letter in his hand.

“Pa! Where are YOU? I need to talk to you too.”

“Oh there you are! You go first, Raymond. What is it?”

 “Pa, I got scholarship from America. I got into the University of Colorado. No tuition fees. Financial aid. I’m just so happy.”

“Congratulations, Raymond! I’m so happy for you!”

“Pa, what did you want to talk about?”

Aleya reads from the post-it note on her letter.
“I found a manager for our business. I just wrote his offer letter. so don’t you worry about my night blindness.”


“That’s how,” Ray says, perspiration on his brow, “I embarked on this life.”

Aleya takes off the cap, “Just before the farewell party, wasn't it? I remember you just returned from Shillong. You mentioned to us that you probably lost a girl forever as you were going off to America.”

“What happened to your father?” I ask.

“The new manager he hired was a thug. He exploited my father’s increasing blindness. Stole money, hired gang members to force him to sell the bakery for a pittance. My father couldn't deal with the stress I think, because he died from a heart attack. No one knew ... not me, not my aunts and uncles.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

Ray ruffles his hair, with a rueful smile.       
                                    
“It could have been different. Entirely different – only if our conversation that day played out in just a different way.”

“What was that?”

“Let us enact it again.”

This time, he says - I am going to be his father and Aleya the observer. He gives me the letter and leads me to the room.

I sit in the bedroom wearing the Karakul cap, holding the faded envelope without an address, and the post-it note with my lines.

A few moments later, Aleya claps twice.

I come out and yell:

“Raymond, RAYMOND! Where are you? I have to talk to you.”

Ray bolts out of the bathroom: “Pa! Where are YOU? I need to talk to you too.”

“Oh there you are! You go first, Raymond. What is it?”

“No, you go first, Pa! I insist!” 

That is the difference. His father talks first. For a moment, I hesitate, but Ray nods at the letter in my hand.  I open it. Written in shaky handwriting over ruled thin paper, with ink smudges here and there.

“Dear Raymond: I have told you all my life to grow your wings and chase your dreams. But, today, I come begging to you to stay back in Shillong. My blindness is getting worse, I cannot run this store. I cannot even manage my life properly. You are the manager I need. My boy, it breaks my heart to ask you  – ” I stop reading. This is too private, I really cannot go on.

I’m speechless, Pa,” Ray says, still in character. “I want to be your manager right here and stay in this town. In fact, Pa, I was just going to tell you that I didn't get the admission anyway – “, Ray crumples his admission letter, tossing it on the table, as he leaps across to hug me.

It is too uncomfortable, but sensing his emotional state, I try not to squirm.

"You're lying to your father,"says Aleya, "but why?"

"Because he'd change his mind if he knew I got the scholarship," Ray says. "Remember, he actually did in real life. He lied that he had found a manager as soon as he heard I got a scholarship."

"You better sit down, you are exhausted," I lead him to the chair.

“I could have had a different life,” Ray says softly, “I could have stayed back in Shillong. Taught at the local Engineering college. Not for Shillong. Not for Isa. Just for Pa, and the Bakery. All I had to do - let him talk first.’

It is only after the funeral when he found the letter in the folder – he really knew the whole story. 

Ray sits down with a shrug. “I'm tired. This is my home now. I really enjoy this life. I shouldn't complain, should I? I should never look back, of what use is regret?"

“That’s quite a story!” I say.

“Yes,” Ray says. “Now, it is your turn. Out with the secrets.”

“You go first,” says Aleya to me.

I get up. This ain't easy, but I have to keep my end of the deal. I turn around slowly and moon them. A little show and tell - I hear the laughter and hoots behind me.

“Well, what is your secret?” Ray asks Aleya.

She looks at me at first with an inscrutable expression. Then, she takes in a deep breath to address Ray.

“Ray, you thought I was too drunk to go back home. But I was only drinking cider the whole night. I was pretending to be drunk so everyone else left your house.”

She looks at me apologetically.

I fucking jinxed the plan! Oh no! I must leave. Right Now!

Ray says something to her, she replies,but I'm not listening. He is moving towards her. I pick up my coat and keys. I slowly open the door, and ease myself out as noiselessly as I can. Through the slit of the closing door, I see their faces drawing closer together.

The door clicks just as they kiss.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Irrational Scientist

The train sped across the one of the worst mountain passes in the world through a torrential monsoon downpour. Water was dousing my face through the broken window. I groaned, my stomach growled from indigestion, and my head throbbed from allergies. On the other side, the dark-haired scientist dozed like a baby oblivious to the world outside, lost in his dreams again. As the train lurched violently from side to side, I glimpsed the deep ravine below us and shut my eyes.

It was sixteen years ago, in my twenties, an age too young to take on an irrational quest like this. I should have been back in Colorado. I should have been home in the Rockies. Capturing the colors of the Fall. Blithely dancing in some Irish bar. Enjoying a ball game from the bleachers with a beer in hand. I cannot believe I volunteered for this crazy trip. 

The train whistled and plunged down a steep, terrifying descent. 



Just two days earlier, on an overcast Sunday afternoon in Colorado, Mark Shamass left a little post-it note on my front door. It was one of his strange habits – leaving funny quotes or lines from his new favorite poem or just an aphorism of philosophy. With a PhD from Maryland, Mark was continuing his post-doc in physical cosmology doing endless hours in 'shapeless research' as he would call it. He struck me as one who always searched for scientific answers for big questions. He wasn’t really interested in religion or God, but he was just so obsessed about the roots of our existence. He told me that his mind sometimes would do a loopy dance: Who am I? Is this real? Where do we go from here? So on and so forth until he snapped out of it, he said, by pinching his eyebrows forcibly until he could focus on the only rational explanation– that in a life that is lived only once, he’ll never get any wiser.

He was always the scientist and a darn good one (as I garnered from his awards). His lucid explanations of cosmological phenomena never failed to fascinate us even if it were in an Irish bar where we should really be dancing drunk instead of discussing origins of the universe.

The note this time was different - there were just three words scrawled in charcoal: Please help me!  

This was peculiar - Mark wasn’t a taker, he was a giver. He was capable of giving, and giving gave him fulfillment. Heck, I’m the taker! I thought everyone knew I have nothing to give, I was completely undependable. What does he need from me? I rapped on his door.

A few grunts from the other side, pattering of feet, and the door flung open.

“You are early! I still haven’t finished the final sketch.”

I barely heard his words, staring at the scene beyond him. Papers strewn around, unwashed mugs, cushions tossed on the floor, clothes dangling on chairs, and him – what a ghastly sight! Unshaven, frizzy hair like Doc Brown’s, and a charcoal pencil spinning in his fingers like a neutron star. This really can’t be Mark – the meticulously organized Mark I know who’s so orderly he even checks and aligns his furniture every week with a laser pointer.

“What the … ?” I whispered.

Mark dived after a sheet of paper lying on the table as books slithered off the surface to the floor.

“Well, let us get you started. You recognize this?” he asked me.

A lightly shaded sketch of an object - “I can’t say. Some ancient musical instrument?”

“Or a sacred Hindu artifact. The sketch is missing some details, I just can’t recall too well.”

“Where did you see this?”

"In my head!"  He said. He saw it in a dream the previous night – for the third or fourth time in his life. He was just eleven years old camping in the Sierras the first time it came to him as a vivid dream and he woke up thinking it was an enigma. Now, he said, he knows it is a calling.

“Mark, you should write the sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind!”

“Cut me the BS. Wait till I’m finished with the final sketch. Sit down, sorry for the mess. I’m not me today.”

As he scratched furiously on his pad, I studied the drawing in my hand. The object was angular with cross bars like frets. Hadn't seen anything like it before.

Mark finished his second sketch and thrust it under my nose. There was an entire scene here: a clean-shaven man palming the object naked as a new-born day, squatting on flat grass while behind him rose a rocky hill somewhat obscured by clouds. His face was inscrutable covered in white ash.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“Me,” he said soberly.

“Eh?”

That is me! He repeated. A Sadhu perhaps– an ascetic. I used to carry that object all the time.

“But I don’t understand … “

“Baddy, this will sound crazy, but I cannot explain what I’m going through.” He paused. "I just intrinsically feel that’s me in my previous birth!"

I regarded him with sudden sympathy. He was losing it, the poor sop. Dismantling right before me, there he was – frizzy hair, wide-eyed, talking about memories from a previous life. Surely, his strange family were to blame - he told me once that they were Jewish-Catholic parents who constantly changed religious beliefs like they changed wardrobe in their quest to find “meaning” – whatever it was. They implanted this disquiet in him - of attempting to learn more than we can (or should) ever know. This apple, after all, didn’t fall far from the tree.

“Mark, do you really think you were a bald Indian hermit in your previous life?”

“Yes. In fact, I remember my name. It is Aa-cha-ria! Did I get it right?”

“Think so. Acharya? It is a name, all right, and it means teacher.”

“Yes, I was probably a spiritual guru of some sort.”

“I’m sure you were. Great stuff, you probably remember your pet monkey too. Listen, I should be going. Just don’t take all this too seriously. How about a pub crawl tonight?”

He ignored my advice. “Wait, do you see any clues in the sketch? There are details in the background. I don’t think it is very accurate … it’s hard to recall visions from dreams.”

I glanced at the picture again and shook my head. “None. Listen, think about your fiancé. You are getting married next year, for god’s sake! This isn’t the time …“

“Save me the lecture! Just help me – I really need to know where this place is.”

I noticed suddenly the odd-shaped rocky cliff in the background.  There were carvings in it like caves, I had seen it before. Where the hell…  Yes! It was in a tourism brochure online.

“Hey, where is your PC?”

Didn’t take me long to locate the brochure online. It was an old Buddhist site in Western India dating back to 2nd century BC with cave structures carved out of huge rocky cliffs.

I turned to Mark cautiously. “Mark, that hill there looks a bit like a Buddhist site called Pitalkhora.  I am not even sure about that. Now, you may have recalled this from any reading you have been doing on India or Buddhism …”

He jumped from the chair. “Show me a picture.”

After minutes of studying it with his palms on his cheeks, he exclaimed: “That’s it! That’s the place right there! We’re going there tomorrow!”

“WHAT?”

“Baddie, I need your guidance there. Never been to India. Please! I need to understand why I get this recurring dream about this object and that bald man. I’m going nuts. I will pay for your expenses, help me!”

I politely refused. I shouldn't encourage this insanity any further, besides I was getting a headache. Adios, scientist!

I went back to my apartment, and dozed off my headache. In my dreams, I saw a huge stampede of weed-smoking sadhus and monks covered in white ash. I could see a rocky hill in the distance, and just as I was approaching it, I woke up with a jolt. The phone was ringing off the hook.

It was Jen – Mark’s fiancé who lived in New York at that time. She had an unusual request for me - using psychology in reverse.

We had an argument, he is stubborn! He needs to get this out of his system. Listen, when I’m walking down the aisle with Marko, I want him to be my Marko. Not a monastic called Aa-Choo-Yeah with a crazy object in his hands. Take him to India, prove him wrong! Demystify him, and bring me back my real hubby! Please!

All right, one favor won't kill me. Two days later, we were on a plane to India.


After a petrifying twenty minutes, the train at last exited the old Kasara Ghat, and eased into a rhythmic roll while the people around us started getting up. When I spied the station around the circular bend, I flicked some monsoon drops on Mark's face.

“Wake up! We’re here. Chalisgaon.”

Eyelids fluttered open, situation sank in, and he pushed his hair back and grinned. “Chalice-gown! So soon? Whoa! Boy, we are here! Isn’t this exciting?”

I looked at him coldly. “No, Mark. Speak for yourself. C’mon, we have to catch a bus. We still have thirty km to go to the Buddhist site.”

It was still pouring hard when we bravely jumped on the open platform, crouched in the rain, and swung right to join the crowd heading to the exit stairways. There was construction going on everywhere.

Someone behind us was yelling: “Mr. FOREIGNER!”

I looked over my shoulder to see a man weaving through the crowds towards us dressed in a wet blazer and khaki trousers, and flashing a giant smile at Mark.

“Uh-oh, classic huckster,” I warned Mark, “his bootlicking gene is kicking at the mere sight of your white skin. Refuse whatever it is he is peddling.”

As he approached us, he opened an umbrella in his hand, and hustled us into its shelter. He was a thin man with crinkling eyes, wispy mustache, and a prominent overbite.

“Mr. Foreigner, my name is Jakob, sir. Jakob with a K.  Are you coming for Spirituality with Love? Do you have HIV papers? If you don’t have papers, I can get them for you. I have a test kit in a Maruti van outside.”

“What in the world are you talking about?” I asked him in wonder.

He was taken aback. “You’re not here for Spirituality with Love, Mr. Foreigners? You better be. It is a conference for sex. Hot women and men – MTV kind – from all over. Russians, Portugese, Americans, they are all here for sex. Lots of it inspired by the sculptures in the nearby Ellora caves. Continuous! All you need are the location, HIV papers and the password.”

His voice dropped to a whisper. “I know the location. It is a guest house very close to the Ellora caves just an hour from here. I can get you the HIV papers. I also know the password – it is an old Sanskrit phrase from Kama Sutra.”

Mark said, “I’m sorry, Jakob. We are not interested.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” I protested, “Wait just a minute. Mark, are you sure? Maybe we should hang around with Jakob and go with him to that technical conference. Show them the sketch. Maybe there is someone in that network who can tell you what it is.”

Mark shook his head, tugging me fiercely towards the exit, leaving Jakob frozen behind scratching his head. As we got off the stairway and reached the bus stop, Jakob came running behind us.

“WAIT! Sir, please keep this umbrella, you will be really wet and cold. You can return it on your way back.”

Mark was puzzled. “But you are drenched. Why don’t you use it yourself?”

Jakob flashed the boat-shaped smile again, and shrugged his shoulders. “I'm ok. Your bus, sir!” he pointed behind us.

“Thank you, but you should keep it. We will learn how to manage just like you,” said Mark, patting him on the shoulder.

The last leg took us through four km of wildnerness to the remotest parts of the state. Luckily, the rain had stopped before we arrived at the entrance where a small crowd was gathered. Near the gate, I noticed an ash-covered Sadhu dressed only in a loin cloth leaning unsteadily against a basalt rock wall near the bridge. When we approached the gate, he surprised us by introducing himself in soft English as Abhaya, a Nashik sadhu who dropped out of college twenty years ago to become a follower of the great Swami Mahapatra. He offered to guide us through the caves for twenty rupees. He said he’d do it for free, but he hasn’t had a morsel in over a day.

Astonished, we insisted on a meal before the tour. We sat down at a little tree-café (a mobile van café with chairs and a little portable stove) where we ate chapatis. Abhaya ate with a deliberate composure and he talked along.

“You came all the way from America. Is it only to see the Buddhist Chaityas or do you have something else in mind?”

Mark showed him the sketch.

He studied the drawing as he rolled a piece between his dancing jaws. “It looks familiar. Ancient, that much I can tell. But not more, I’m afraid.”

He looked at us sharply:  “But I know someone who knows the answers!”

“Who?”

“Swami-ji! You are in luck. The Swami-ji visits the Chaityas every day in the rainy season. In an hour, he will appear at the big Anjan tree where you can perform pada pooja and ask him about anything – it does not matter, he will answer if he can. Now,” he said getting up, “let’s tour the Chaityas and the Viharas.”

We just had enough time to tour the crumbling, magnificent Chaityas, the prayer halls, reeling from structural damage over the ages. The main Chaitya hall was sprawling and impressive, but the stupas were bare, in ruins. The Viharas (rooms of the monastery) varied from the simple to the intricate. The sadhu couldn’t tell us whether this was due to a difference in economy class or just a different era altogether. He shrugged his shoulders: “Who cares now? You ask too many questions!”

I nudged Mark. “Any memories? Of a childhood strolling through these caves? Do you remember your little Vihara bedroom?”

Mark ignored the sarcasm. He squatted silently on the floor in one corner and studied the cave intently with his palms on his cheeks.

“This is ancient. Too ancient, isn't this too ancient?” he said and shook his head.

“Well, what did you expect? C'mon, it is time to meet the Swami.”

Time to get all the answers.


The great ascetic-swami seemed to come out of nowhere as he headed a procession of followers into a nearby hill. He was the only one apparently who could embrace Buddhist principles in a unique interpretation that did not conflict with Vedanta philosophy. A slightly heavyset man with long matty hair knotted in the back, he sat down under a big tree and caught Abhaya’s facial contortions.  I had suddenly noticed miming was a form of communication here – Abhaya was miming ‘ATTENTION’ without even using his hands, just showing excruciating pain in his face. The Swami gestured him closer and they both had a whispered conversation during which the Swami frequently looked at Mark and shook his head. After Abhaya withdrew, the Swami smiled at us and pointed to the front row with only one person ahead (who was there presumably to show us how it is done).

As soon as we stood in our place, the teenage follower in front suddenly dived at the Swami’s feet. Like a gecko, he turned still again as held them in his hands for what seemed like an eternity. Then, to my great shock, he vigorously began to kiss and lick the Swami’s feet with long swipes of his wet tongue. After three minutes of slathering, Abhaya motioned to us:

“It’s now your turn for Pada Pooja.”

I trembled. Pada Pooja means literally 'feet worship.' I cannot dive on this man’s feet and lick them! I can’t even touch them now that the other guy has salivated all over them. But I just cannot turn around and leave ...

As I hesitated, Mark pushed me aside and fell at the Swami’s feet doing everything the teenager did and more, quietly and without qualms. I sighed in relief and dumped my flowers at the Swami's feet.

“What can I do for you?” The Swami asked in Marathi with his problem-solving smile. His voice was distant as if it came from an echo chamber.

Mark fished the sketch from his pocket.

“Can you tell us what this object is, Swami-ji?” he implored.

Swami Mahapatra stared at it for a few moments and spoke in Marathi.

“If I’m not mistaken,” he said through Abhaya’s translation, “this is the Pali mantha.”

 He whispered into Abhaya’s ear and nodded his head.

“You can go now.”

Mark couldn’t wait until we were out of earshot. “What the hell is the Pali mantha?”

“Well, your quest is over, my friend. We will see it shortly. Wait here.”

Abhaya climbed three rock steps to an overhang where a young Buddhist monk was washing his face. He spoke quietly which caused the monk to laugh and dive into his bag at his feet. He pulled out an object and gave it to Abhaya.

Mark began to move forward. “I need to see it,” he whispered urgently.

Abhaya met us halfway down on on a narrow step. He stretched out his arm and opened his fist. In it lay a triangular shaped object with a single fret. It looked much like the letter A, but the fret was curved.

Mark picked it up and twirled it in his fingers, studying its surface with his tips. I couldn’t see his face, he hid it in the shadows of the wall.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It is a Buddhist tea stirrer,” said Abhaya. “The Pali mantha it is called. Some use it for stirring tea, others use it to scratch an itchy area. I hope no one used it as both! You can keep it. The monk said he has many.”

Mark finally turned around. He wore a look of slight disappointment. This wasn't the answer he was looking for. 

On the way back to Chalisgaon, Mark’s continued silence was annoying me.

“So, you saw it. You don’t really understand it. Maybe it looks familiar. But it is over. It is time to go home. At least, you found it. You should be happy. It is a tea stirrer, when you were a kid, you probably saw someone peddling it in a mall, you had recurring dreams about it and you erroneously concluded that in your previous life you were a monastic hermit who grows vegetables in his own poop. C’mon, get over it!”

Mark shook his head again. "Too small!" he said.

We got down from the bus just to learn the return train was cancelled. Our only option was to take the next bus to Mumbai if we didn’t want to miss the flight. As we waited, we heard a familiar yell: “Mr. FOREIGNER!”

Startled, I turned around. It was our dear friend Jakob weaving his way through the crowd displaying his giant smile.

“How was your trip, sir?” he asked.

“Thankfully short!” I said.

“You shouldn’t leave today, sir. There is so much to see here in Chalisgaon. I could take you around. It is a developing place. Look at all the construction going on.”

“What is that?” I asked him, pointing to a new building. It had a very peculiar architecture.

“That is going to be a museum, sir.”

I suddenly felt a cold grip on my arm. Mark was staring ahead. He raised his finger and pointed it at a hoarding on the building. A giant hording we missed all day.

The hair on my neck began to raise. Painted on the right corner was the very same object. I looked down at the sketch in Mark's trembling hands. Identical!

“Jakob,” Mark asked in a strained voice, pointing to it. “What is that?”

“That is the Yasti Yantra, sir.”

“What the hell is a Yasti Yantra?” I asked.

“It is an instrument, sir. Made by the greatest Hindu scientist who ever lived - Bhaskara II. The same man who conceived calculus five hundred years before the Europeans who are credited for it.”

“What is it used for?”

“To measure the angles and distances between objects. Bhaskara II used it for astronomical calculations. He was the director of astronomy at Ujjain University. But he lived right here for most of his life. They say near Patnadevi a place very close to Pitalkhora caves that you just visited this afternoon.”

Oh shit! He was an astronomer too?

Mark asked him: “Why is he called Bhaskara II? Is his father also famous?”

“Oh no, sir. Bhaskara I was many centuries before Bhaskara II. It is just to avoid confusion. In fact, some call him Bhaskara II. Others call him by his given names.”

“And what is that?”

“Bhaskara Acharya, sir.

Mark straightened up. Acharya, isn’t it?

I touched his arm lightly: “Mark, the bus is coming.”

Mark smiled and his eyes shined. You better go, Baddy. I’m home. Don’t you worry about me!

“But, your fiancé … “

“She will understand. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to buy a ticket to Ujjain. I have some unfinished business there. Thank you, Jakob. You are an amazing man!”


Ten hours later, I was glad to be on the plane heading back to Colorado. I wish Mark had returned with me, but there is nothing I can do if he believes he is the new Bhaskara III or Acharya II. He seemed happy, maybe Jen will still hold on or maybe she will move on. I couldn’t care less.

I was going back home.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Some Things Never Change





I don't really like childhood reunions. You are in for a few jolts - the world changes substantially in twenty years . It is not the same class anymore, none of the bonhomie pervades, none of that alluring mystery remains. Just a few years ago, I had been to a big college reunion where I was eagerly looking out for the the girl who had been the most beautiful- and unattainable - in our entire college, only to realize with a rude shock that the garrulous woman sitting next to me (wearing an enormous seaweed of a sari) is her current self. This was not a party of energetic young men and women with wings on their shoulders, dreams in their eyes, and funky music in their minds. This was a gathering of potbellied sofa spuds, men in various stages of baldness and women draped in curtains whose only conversation topic is how to convert the 401(k) plan into an IRA.

Since then, I have passed on many reunions. Until old homey LJ bugged me with his "one-for-the-ages" dish (he is tenacious as a leech.) He actually lives in Bangalore, but his trip to visit his in-laws overlapped with mine. It was just going to be me and him.

C'mon, you owe this one, he tweeted, for all that crazy stuff we did together. Ok, yes - once upon a time, we were thick as thieves. We learnt how to pick 3-lever locks to break into abandoned houses. We launched a home-made rocket (with a louse we named Nit Armstrong) for outer space, but a technical flaw sent it into the neighbor's bathroom instead. LJ charmed the young ladies off their feet (while I kicked around on the sidelines), melting them with his unblinking gaze. His ogling was brash and shameless, with such intensity that opened his own tear ducts, and yet, girls thought he was nothing but a puppy dog.

That was once upon a time, twenty years ago: a bygone era. Now, with kids and a shopping to-do list stuffed into my right pocket (darn it, I find a new list in my pocket every time I step out these days), no time for nostalgic reminiscences, especially when they are not particularly sweet from my point-of-view. Yet, I agreed, just because of LJ's personality. He was an interesting, unpredictable guy. It was going to be fun, for sure.

Here I wait for LJ, dodging the flies swarming from the streetlights. A Ford pulls up at the curb, the passenger door opened, and I see the stupid grin.

Immaculate dress - check. Saucer-like eyes - check. Bachchan swagger - check.

"Baddie!" he exclaims, pumping my arm. "All those years in America haven't changed you a bit."

Drops voice. "You still look like a hobo, bro."

Bullying humor - check.

We pulled up seats at The Jolly Den - redone with bright colors, now it looks like some children's nursery, where over a plate of samosas and tea, LJ chuckled  (like he just pulled a fast one on the rest of the world).

"We were rotten," he said, "the entire gang."

"Speak for yourself!"

"Now, don't be moralistic. Remember the paan shop owned by that one-eyed jack? You pinched some pricy Diwali stock from the side he couldn't see. That was cruel, bro. Worth over fifty rupees back then. Big money for him. "

Damn it, true. But I also remembered that LJ was the one who instigated it. I did the actual crime, but he lit up all the stolen firecrackers later while I sat in my room suffering the pangs of remorse.

"Yeah, we were rotten." I agreed, but LJ had stopped listening suddenly. He was looking past me. Tears formed in his eyes. I carefully followed his gaze behind me - a couple of chirpy young ladies had just sat down at a table - and I heard LJ draw in a big slurp.

"LJ, WTF! You still ogling at young ladies?"

He snapped back to reality. "Sorry, of course, I don't do that any more. I got kids now. Maybe it is this get together, you know - a momentary relapse. "

"You're incorrigible! Remember, you ogled the Punjabi girl whats-her-name who lived behind your house?"

LJ's eyes lit up. "Varsha. Oh yeah, that pretty girl! It was a two-way street. She was ogling me too."

"No, she didn't. You stared at her till you psyched her out. Then her burly dad came into the balcony and stared at us till he psyched us out."

"Damn it, Varsha and I had something there but we were living too close ... I didn't want scandals, never took the next logical step. Speaking of the neighborhood, do you want to come with me to check out my house? I have the keys. Let us have a nice old nostalgic walk."

The check arrived. I exaggeratedly began to pat my pockets looking for my wallet (try this - it sometimes produces desirable rewards).

LJ chuckled. "No sweat, man. You get it next time." He threw a thousand rupees on the table and got up to leave.

"Aren't you going to wait for the change?"

LJ smiled. "You Americans are all cheap bastards! C'mon, let us walk. I will tell the driver to wait at the stand."

***

From the main street, we took the byway that led into the little community of our yesteryears. Barely recognizable, the road was riddled with potholes and blotches of mud, and luminescent tall weeds lined up either side like green curtains. The only habitable light from the few occupied houses suddenly went out. The rolling power outage hit up just as we strode up to the gate, darn the timing. LJ wished he had brought along the driver's flashlight along. Even in the darkness, however, I could still clearly make out the outline of the old mulberry tree in his side yard. It was the only scenery that hadn't changed after all these years.

He opened the broken gate complaining about the caretaker slacking off. He took out the key, but found the door was already open. He swiveled around looking worried. 

"Hey, this door is supposed to be locked!" 

"Maybe the caretaker forgot."

"I'm not sure. Listen, can you come inside with me? Two is better than one if someone is lurking inside."

I suddenly felt a chill. Followed by a deep sense of regret. What the hell am I doing here? I'm living happily in US and now I get into this f-ed up nostalgic trip. What if we open the door and I get killed? This is plain insanity!

"Listen, LJ, all this nostalgia is sweet, but I need to get going. Why don't you just lock it up and let's scram."

"C'mon, don't be chicken. I need your help."

LJ grabbed my shoulder and pushed me inside. I could barely see anything. He flung open the windows. There was just a chair and a mattress inside. The floor was dusty and the wall was kind of sticky.

"Shh..." he whispered. 

I heard it too. A scratching sound from the back. 

"C'mon, let us try the corridor."

The "corridor" is a narrow closed porch at the back of the house with a wooden lattice grill. We used to hang out there sometimes after school on the pretext of doing joint homework, but really eyeballing girls. LJ peered through the grill while I shut my eyes and rapidly prayed to multiple gods in alphabetical order.

"It is just a cat," he said, and shooed it away. He stared at the house abutting his backyard. 

"Hey, that is Varsha's house," he whistled. 

It was barely visible. I recollected her father staring down at us from the balcony. Suddenly, a light flashed upon us waving from face to face.

"Who's there?" a woman's voice yelled from the other side.

LJ blinked. "V... Varsha, is it you?"

The light stopped moving, and settled squarely on LJ's face. There was a long pause.

"My God! LJ, what are you doing here?"

The hair on my neck stood up.

"No shit, it is Varsha!" LJ whispered, and shouted: "I came to check out my house."

She shouted back: "Come on over to my place, through the backyard." 

LJ flung open the backdoor and flew through the backyard like a gazelle. I followed him hesitantly. We rustled through the bushes separating the yards, and emerged on the other side guided by her flashlight. 

The dark shape behind the flashlight said: "Come inside, I have a couple of lights."

We followed her inside the house, tumbling into illumination. She turned around, and in the straw light from the battery-powered lamps, I finally glimpsed the person behind the voice. She was not the lithe girl any more, only carrying a passing resemblance that I could barely discern. 

But, the woman exuded a magnetic presence. Perhaps a little overweight, but jauntily agile. She was tall, dusky, with beautiful skin. The most striking feature were those narrow eyes, they had that intrinsic smartness of a person usually associated with a healthy sense of humor and an intrepid sense of risk. 

I have seen many pretty faces whose eyes, unfortunately, are continuously telegraphing their mental incapacity. Hers was not one of them.

It was the first time I had ever been in this place. I was a bit apprehensive that her burly father would show up to kick our butts. But when I saw a picture of him on the wall, I breathed a sigh of relief. The picture was garlanded.

Just then her maid walked in. An old woman who regarded us instantly with burning hostility.

"M'am, is someone bothering you?" 

"No, not at all. They are neighbors and old friends. Care for some tea, you two?" she asked us.

I was about to refuse, but LJ quickly said yes. He winked at me.

"Rani, can you make some tea for our guests?" Rani went out and almost immediately emerged with our teas. The beverage was as cold as her attitude. 

"I have to take off, m'am," she said, "If you are going to stay here tonight, shall I send someone for company?" 

"No, thanks, Rani. You can go. I will be fine." The maid left. It was just Varsha and us.

Varsha was in town to sell off the house. Her husband was a businessman working in Dubai, and she had a six-year-old son. Halfway through our conversation, I began to realize she had no idea who I was - and it didn't seem to matter to either of them. I was a bit annoyed. It was getting late in any case, and I stood up to leave. LJ leaned over and whispered something inaudible in her ear. She laughed heartily. I waved goodbye, and we returned through the same route via the thorny bushes.

"That was fun," I said, "now, can you drop me on your way back home?"

LJ paused and scratched his head. "Listen, why don't you take the car? The driver will drop you off. I'm going to stay here tonight."

The full import of his statement hit me like a cold jet stream.

"LJ, you are going to spend the night in this godforsaken place, while your family lives just a few miles from here?"

LJ fidgeted. "Listen,  I have to take this thing between Varsha and me to its logical conclusion. I'm getting a chance again. After all these years! Who'd have imagined that? It is god-sent! I don't know what's going to happen or not happen tonight, I don't even want to speculate. But - she is there, and I'm here and there is only empty air between us. That's just awesome!"

He gave the stupid shit-eating grin. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have to call my in-laws and tell them I ain't coming tonight. The driver will take you home. If you have to shop for groceries, he will be happy to take you there too. See you, buddy!"

I walked off alone down the byway. At the end of the road, I turned around and watched the houses. The faint light from Varsha's house went out just as the Ford pulled up next to me.


***

I slipped into the passenger's seat. "Driver, please make a left on the main road." 

He turned at the intersection, and got into a traffic jam behind open trucks. The shop was just on the other side of the road, a flickering light showed that it was still open. I told the driver I was getting out to cross the road on foot. I jumped over the median and noticed, even in the dim light, little had changed over the years. 

"What do you want?" the man behind the counter asked me in a slightly tremulous voice. 

"How much for a betel nut packet?" I asked.

"Two rupees," he said, tearing out one sachet from a long column hanging off a hook. I took out a thousand rupee note from my purse. I passed it into his hand.

"Keep the change," I said. 

He grabbed my hand. "Sir! What is this?" he said. His face was a bit gaunt with white hair now, but the glass eye was still in the right socket, and, like the old mulberry tree, he seemed like another thing that never changes with time.

He peered into my face. "I know you! You are the Professor's son!

"I have to go," I gently disengaged my hand. The Ford had already made a U-turn and was waiting for me, I got into the passenger's seat. The one-eyed jack was clutching the note, his face was incomprehensible.

"What happened, sir?" asked the driver.

I exhaled. "Just repaying an old debt. Now, take me to any place where I can taste and feel America. To a McDonald's or a Pizza hut. To a place that has electricity and WiFi."

"Yes, sir." 

The driver sped me past the darkness shrouding this side of the city. He zipped across the beach road towards Novotel, a five-star hotel looming over the water where I heard foreigners lounge in their swim wear, discuss career trajectories, and the stock market slides.

Sometimes it strikes me that we'd all prefer first world problems to third world pleasures. 




































Saturday, December 22, 2012

Just for an Ipad


Which Shakespearean tragedy is set in Scotland?

My eyes lit up, synapses inside my brain set off like mini-firecrackers.  Finally, a question within my range.

‘I know. Hamlet!’

‘Wrong again. It is Macbeth. You are hopeless!’

She chucked the trivia book in my direction, and collapsed on the chair with a sigh.

‘I cannot depend on you, I have to do this all by myself,’ she proclaimed.

‘Well, let us see you try, genius,’ I opened the book to a random page. ‘Who invented the flush toilet?’

She hesitated, before dropping into a French accent: ‘Toilet? Jean-luc Toilet?’

‘No, but impressed by the way you delivered a totally random guess. The answer: a 16th century guy called John Harrington.’

She threw up her hands in the air. ‘What are we going to do? We have zero chance of winning the contest.’

‘Why are you so obsessed about this quiz?’

‘It is humiliating. Five holiday quizzes and not a single win! We got to end the drought! We must win the grand prize tomorrow. Do you know it is an iPad?’

‘Something we don’t need.  You already have the touchscreen tablet I got for your birthday.’

She held up the Maylong from the table. ‘This? You mean this $79 cutting board? This is not a touchscreen, it is a stabscreen! I need a pedicure everytime I try to use this.’

‘It is a resistive touch screen, that is the future of technology.’

‘Resistive? Yes, it is resistive! And you bought this thing at Walgreens? What kind of a dork buys a computer at a pharmacy?’

Before I could retort, the doorbell rang.

‘If I had bought you an IPad, I wouldn’t have taken you to the Opera. It is either-or.’

‘All we need to do is find out a way to win the grand prize tomorrow.’

‘Keep dreaming. We need an act of God to win this quiz.’ I said, as I opened the front door.

Brandon, my neighbor across the street and the autocratic community President, rocked on the balls of his feet with thumbs hooked in the pockets. I knew he was going to hit me with a charge.

‘Hey, what’s up?’ I quivered.

‘Your trash cans. Still outside in the street at noon. I pulled them into your side gate,’ he drawled. Ok, so I left my trash outside for collection last night.

‘Thanks. I was going to get to them today.’

‘Trash is picked up at dawn. You have to abide by the 3-hour rule - get your ugly bins off the street by morning eight,’ he said. He flipped out his dreaded notebook and scribbled:  

‘I’m noting this down as an advisory, all right. Don’t let this escalate. We don’t want a special board exigency session to address this. ’

‘Ok, officer, is that it?’

‘No, actually not. May I come in? I have a favor to ask.’

He stepped in and my wife greeted him.

‘I changed the locks to my house yesterday,’ he announced.

‘Did you get locked out?’ I asked.

‘No, I just change it every year,  you can never be too sure. Now, I want to leave this spare key with you folks.You can easily tell it is my key because my name is engraved in the keychain, you see that?’

‘You certainly think of everything,’ I said looking at the monstrous keychain with his name engraved in pink lettering. He handed the key to my wife.

 ‘So are you and Elaine going to be here for the holiday party?’ she asked.

‘Of course. After all, I’m the President. And, without me, who’s going to run the quiz?’

‘Are you running the quiz?’

‘You bet. In fact, I just finished making it. You better prepare well, because you know my breadth – I’m going to ask all over the place. American Civil war, Hollywood, Geography, Science … you name it!’

I waved goodbye, shut the door, and turned around to find the spouse in a hypnotic trance.

‘Hey, what’s the matter?’

She smiled beatifically. ‘Who mentioned that we need an act of God to win this quiz?’

‘Eh?’

‘God is kind. Brandon is the quizmaster.’

‘So?’

‘And the key to his house is in our hands. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’

‘No, but I’m thinking jail.’

She leaped on the sofa chair, and peered through the blinds. ‘We don’t have a moment to lose. Brandon just opened his garage. He is going out somewhere. I know Elaine is not back until tomorrow. This is our chance.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘Not me. You are going there. Someone reliable has to watch out for his return. You are going to slip into his house, and find the quiz.’

‘Are you crazy? That is a criminal offence called breaking in.’

‘It is not breaking in. You are using his key.’

‘He didn’t give us the key to barge into his house. He gave it to us for safekeeping.’

She suddenly yelled. ‘Brandon is leaving. Go right now. Go! Go! Go!’

I was being propelled into this. No choice.

‘Cell phone –charged and ringer off,’ she threw it across.

‘Cap.’  Installed it on my head.

‘Ok, here is the plan … he is backing out his SUV right now. It will take him twenty minutes even for even the shortest trip to the nearest store. When I signal, you put on your cap, cross the street …’

I strode across with my cap low down on my head.

Pick up the newspaper on the porch, stuff it in your coat pocket.  
With one stoop, I lifted it and crammed it in the pocket.

Unlock, step in, and close the door. 
Whew! The tensest part.

Now, you have exactly four minutes inside the house. 
I triggered the stopwatch on my chronograph.

Head upstairs to his study. Search the desk. You are looking for a file with two or three stapled copies lying neatly away from the rest of the mess.
The study was strewn with papers all over the place. Just as she guessed, there was one blue file on a shelf above the printer. I opened it and found two copies of the quiz. I quickly took pictures of all the pages, and slipped my phone into my pant pocket.

Head back out through the front door …
Wait! I noticed a neat set of yellow files organized by names. The thickest file carried my name. I pulled it out and glanced through it. It is an FBI-style almanac of transgressions:

Feb 17th:  Noisy Music.
April 3rd: Suffocating cooking odors.
July 9th:  Clothes (including underwear) hung out on the fence to dry.
Dec 24th: Trash cans left on the curbside.
,.,

So the bugger records all his notes into this file! 

Suddenly, I heard a whirring sound. The garage door! He is BACK. Only two minutes on the stopwatch. Oh my God!

I headed towards the stairs, but the kitchen door squeaked. Darn it! I darted into a bedroom looking for a place to hide. I heard his step on the stair. I crammed into a sliding door closet. Just then, my phone vibrated. I pulled it out of my pocket.

Text: He’s back. Where r u?

I froze. Brandon entered the room. He was breathing heavily and I heard the rustle of clothing. Suddenly, the closet door slid from the other side, and he tossed some clothes into a hamper. It closed again, and he seemed to have gone out to the bathroom because I heard running water.

I called her while trying to squat down, and whispered: ‘Why is he back so soon? You said I had 20 minutes.’

‘Well, he took the car to check his mailbox which is only 100 yards away. Never would have guessed that. Where are you?’

‘I’m in his goddamn closet. Ouch!’

‘What happened?’

‘I just knocked my head on some woman’s shoes.’

‘I always wondered where Elaine gets her shoes. Can you read the labels please?’

‘WHAT! Do you realize that I’m inside his closet? Get me out of here!’

‘All right, calm down! You will be safe. Where is Brandon in relation to your position?’

Just then I heard a humming sound. I peaked out of the closet into the bathroom.  Brandon had one leg up on the counter.

‘Oh no,’ I groaned. ‘Listen, Brandon is right now in my line of sight wearing nothing but a sarong and hairdrying his butt. I can’t take this any more. Extricate me!’

‘Ok, I’m coming.  When you hear met at the door, wait a bit and then get out.’

A few moments later, the doorbell chimed. I heard Brandon dress up quickly and take the stairs.

I sneaked down the stairs. I could see Brandon from the front window, he was outside on my porch helping with the holiday lights. Good, he cannot see me geting out. I opened the door quietly, stepped out and closed the door. She caught my eye and jerked her head in the direction of the road.

‘Oh crap!’ I just remembered something. To her horror, I unlocked the door again and got back in. Taking the stairs two at a time, I found the yellow FBI file still on the desk. What a dead giveaway! I quickly stuffed it back in its place, but not before yanking a good number of pages out.

When I came out again, Brandon was up on the ladder installing a snowflake.

Head straight to the playground, and read the newspaper.

I was still reading it when she finally came around in the car to pick me up.

*  *  *  * 

Name the great mathematician who died in a duel at the age of twenty.

The defending champions were stumped, this was clearly beyond their prowess. Brandon looked to us.

No hesitation: ‘Evariste Galois.’ 

‘Right again. Now, this is the last question to you. Where were the first sho…’

I eagerly interrupted him: ‘The first shots of the Civil war were fired on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter!’

Brandon looked puzzled. ‘I haven’t even finished the question. But you are right. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a new winner. Team Integrity!’

‘Did you really have to call ourselves Team Integrity?’ I whispered, but she was too busy accepting the IPad3.

Later on in the party, I observed Brandon looking forlorn.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked him.

‘You know, Elaine said she was at her parents' in the East Bay last Friday.’

‘Right.’

‘But, look what I found in her closet on the floor.’

He showed me two Opera tickes: ‘What was she doing at the Opera in San Jose? Who was she with?’

Gulp.