Saturday, July 30, 2011

Technicolour Life

I was in my second year of college at Xavier's when my brother Rolfred was diagnosed with cancer. Mamma had handed me a bunch of reports when I came home from college one damp July evening. I leafed through them, fearing the worst. Finally, I asked Mamma what the doctors had said, and she told me that Rolfy had the disease.

When Rolfy came home from work that evening, he told me over dinner that things were a little fucked up but there was not much to worry about. He'd start treatment soon, and there was a good chance that they'd be able to get rid of the damn thing. Mamma didn't say anything. She just sat at the table, mixing her rice and curry, casting glances at the two of us every once in a while.

Over the next few weeks, both Mamma and Rolfy took turns at pretending everything was okay. Some days when Rolfy was really weak after the chemo, he talked about giving up, about the practical consequences of his not being around. Like how his bike was to go to his pal Gavin because he was the only fucker in all of Bandra who would ride the damn thing like it was supposed to be ridden. When Rolfy started saying these things, Mamma would bring in the little stool from the kitchen, and sit by the bed that Rolfy and I shared (in those days, Mamma slept on the couch in the living room), and ask him to quit being so dramatic, that the doctors ("cancer specialists, men") had told her his treatment was progressing well.

Other times, Mamma would break down all of a sudden, when she was chopping onions for dinner, and more frequently, in the middle of mass at St. Andrews. Rolfy never came to church, but he heard about these episodes from Gavin, who in those days was making eyes at some choir chick. When Mamma and I would get home from church, Rolfy would give her a tighter hug than usual.

I had developed some sort of a passion for photography. And also for this girl from Pali Village. Her name was Marisca and she was studying English at Xavier's. She had a soft, rounded mouth, almost like a fish, and she smiled with her eyes. She wore a little silver stud in her nose, which made the slightly hooked thing even more distinct. We would take the train from Bandra station to VT to get to college. She was the intellectual type, and while we travelled, she was always reading something or the other, hardly noticing when I made eyes at her as Bombay sped past us (or did we speed past Bombay?) on the Harbour line, beyond the grilled windows.

Sometime in October, I saw a poster advertising a photography contest on the college notice board. The contest was being sponsored by a camera manufacturer, and there was an expensive camera to be won, something that the professionals used and which I obviously couldn't afford. The theme was "Techincolour Life" and they wanted a less than hundred words description to accompany the photograph.

I remember I spent the next couple of weeks with my second-hand Kodak slung around my neck, taking shots, mostly outdoors. I told Rolfy about the contest, in an attempt to make conversation, but he only grunted and continued puffing on his smoke. It was during this period that Marisca and I really got talking. While I would be taking pictures from the floorboard as the train would slow down as it pulled into stations, she 'd be leaning against the cheap sunmica-topped partition in the compartment, looking outside, taking the world in with those big, brown eyes of hers.

Once she had started taking me in with those big, brown eyes, I took her home. Mamma seemed to take a liking to her immediately, but Rolfy was unimpressed. I was not surprised because I knew Marsica was not Rolfy's kind of chick. ("Why are you chasing these reading types, men? They think too much, men. Makes it harder to get into their pants.")

Meanwhile, Rolfy was not getting any better. At night, he would cough violently and it was not uncommon for me to see reddish-brown droplets on the sheets the next morning. He would shuffle to the bathroom, and make loud noises as he gargled, battling blood with municipal tap water, an unequal battle if ever there was one. Hobbling back to bed, clutching his side, he would sit down, breathing heavily for a few minutes. After lying down, he would toss and turn until he descended into the restless sleep of a man who has not known what it is to wear his heart on his sleeve. I would lie absolutely still for a while, and when I was sure he had dozed off, my body would relax, free from the strain of pretending to be asleep, and I would drift off to sleep myself. My mind would not relax, though, for the contemplation of mortality does not make the distinction between waking and sleeping.

Marisca had begun to come over a lot more, and it seemed as if Rolfy was getting used to having her around. Sometimes, Marisca would make dinner for all of us, and Rolfy was considerably less crabby after having some of her chicken soup. After Mamma had gone to bed, the three of us would sit watching TV and talking till Rolfy would tell me that it was time to drop Marisca home.

He was only three years elder to me, but we had never really bonded while growing up. Now, Rolfy and I were talking to each other more than we had in years. In my head, I would try to rationalize this change that had come over Rolfy. A part of me wanted to think that it had nothing to do with Marisca. It would have happened even if she hadn't come into our lives (and, more importantly, our home). It was the kind of change that comes over a man who has grasped the finality of his time on earth. But to think that this was the sole reason for Rolfy's bridge-building exercise made me even more despondent, and afraid of things to come.

One day, after college, Marisca and I got into a taxi to go to Marine Drive. On the promenade opposite the Air India building, I started taking pictures. I dropped off my rolls of film at Almeida's Photo Studio on Hill Road on the way home. The next day, I laid out the photographs on the floor in the cramped living room. Choosing was much easier than I thought. The Arabian Sea in the background, its ripples turned golden-yellow by the setting Bombay sun. Marisca in the foreground, looking away, as if contemplating the Backbay, the heart and yet the end of this bitch-city, strands of hair strewn across her forehead, flush of pink in her cheeks, her jaw firmly set. A chaatwaala stand in the frame: the bursting red of tomato, sunshine yellow of the sev.

Now, I'm no poet so I remember that I struggled with the words I would use to describe the photograph. Rolfy saw me at work, impatiently tapping my pencil on the table as I tried to conjure up something that would do justice to the image. He walked over to me, picked up the photograph, stared at it for an uncharacteristically long time, then put it down. Looking at me, he said, "It's beautiful, Aaron." Lightly tapping me on my shoulder, he hobbled out of the living room.

I saw Rolfy for the last time on the day before he died. Marsica and I were sitting by his bed in the hospital, hand in hand. He was so weak that he could hardly speak. He tried to, but Marisca put a finger on her lips, to indicate that he must not exert. Just as we were leaving, he pointed at the two of us and offered a thumbs up sign. It was then that I realized that Rolfy had learnt to smile with his eyes.

My entry did not win the contest. About a month after Rolfy had gone, Mamma handed me an envelope she said Rolfy had left for me. I opened it to find one of those lined pages that seemed to be torn out of a college notebook. Sitting on the bed that I once shared with him, I read what my brother Rolfred Coutinho had written in his cursive scrawl,

Green (with envy, when another woman pays him a compliment), pink (look how the colour rushes into her cheeks!), yellow (when she had jaundice, of course), almond brown (her eyes, oh, her eyes, are they the colour of lies?), silver (subtle treasure on that hook nose, underground manna for this believing miner), white (expertly concealed), golden (the colour of warmth, and also destruction in daylight).

Technicolour is my strife, technicolour is my life.

Friday, July 22, 2011


In Goa: palm fronds, hashish, melancholy,

a boutique in a village, where I sold clothes,

for a few rupees with which I bought seeds,

seeds I carried with me to Pondicherry,

to plant in the little garden, in the mansion,

with its columns on Rue Romain Rolland,

where I decided to go to Istanbul, someday,

so that I can sit by the Bosphorus, where else,

sipping Coke and swallowing kebabs, reading,

who else but Pamuk, wrapped in my huzun,

while actually thinking of London: grey, grey,

London, from where I would send postcards,

of pictures I will take like a tourist, grinning,

in that blue and white town of volcanic seas,

Santorini, to friends who have become acquaintances,

while I befriended those with whom I become acquainted,

like the Pakistani farmer with a law degree,

Daniyal, with whom I had tripe in Rome,

the city of Caesars, two of whom were poisoned by love,

love of the woman who was poisoned by an asp,

in the land of rivers and kings, which has so much,

yet nothing in common with Mexico,

a country I lost searching for a woman,

not unlike that queen, a seductress,

a Juanita who filled me like the Gulf,

and then parched me like the Sonoran,

a landscape of considerable ambiguity,

like my soul, choosing between the cliched and sublime,

mostly picking the cliched, like that time when I left,

left to go to Rishikesh looking for God,

then finding and losing him again,

in the eyes and ears of many women,

who taught me, somewhere in the middle,

of the desire and its resistance,

rising and ebbing like distance and proximity,

that there is no solace in sight, no home I can go to,

nothing as grand as happiness and sorrow,

only life itself.

A Gallon of Butterbeer Productions: #2

Note: This is a little excerpt from a short story I'm currently pretending to write. It's called "Technicolour Life", and is about a young man who wants to make a film in black and white. Given my track record, the story may never be completed, so I'm putting this bit up here.

Green (with envy, when another woman pays me a compliment), pink (look how the colour rushes into her cheeks!), yellow (when she had jaundice, of course), almond brown (her eyes, oh, her eyes, are they the colour of lies?), silver (subtle treasure on that hook nose, underground manna for this believing miner), white (expertly concealed when I'm reading her my poetry), golden (the colour of warmth, and also destruction in daylight).

Technicolour is my strife, technicolour is my life.

Friday, July 15, 2011



Hark! The hooves, like the rumble of thunder,

The cries of battle, of loot and plunder,

Breakaways they were, strong of mind,

Strong of mind, rebels of a savage kind.


Onward they rushed, like the currents of the Tiber,

Here they were, past the treacherous Khyber,

Tire they did not, they rode the night,

They rode the night, yes, as a matter of right.


The guardians of the frontier, the Pathans of yore,

Of their valour and courage, there were tales and lore,

Tonight the custodians were not ready for the fight,

Not ready for this fight, not till the dawn of light.


The Greeks rode their steeds into the camp,

Where the Pathans reposed, like shadows from lamps,

The mountains echoed the piercing screams,

The pool of death stirred, as if woken from its dreams.


Shahid, the Witness, lay still in his tent,

Shahid, the Matyr, whom Allah had sent,

Young he was, just two decade and two,

Just two decade and two, yet his heart was true.


Of women and wine Shahid had no use,

Yet a poet he was, words were his muse,

They scoffed at his verse, those ferocious Pathans,

Those ferocious Pathans, who said he could never be a Khan.


Shahid, the Chosen, he woke with a start,

His gleaming talwar, he pulled out of scabbard,

Shahid, the Brave, into the fray he ran,

Into the fray he ran, and boy turned to man.


His sword was a flash, like lightning in rain,

With the silver at his side, Shahid knew no pain,

Greek blood was shed, four score and four,

Four score and four, yet Shahid knew there were more.


Alas! There came a bolt from the blue,

A dagger in Shahid's back, wait, there were two,

Shahid, the Saviour, vanquished by traitors,

Vanquished by traitors, those bearded betrayers.


The battle raged on, from the skies watched Thor,

Shahid, the Victor, had already won them the war,

They spoke of him later, of the legend of Allah's Carrier,

The legend of Allah's Carrier, of Shahid, the Poet-Warrior.