Myself, Other People

Marina Memories

So we arrived at the apartment at about 8 PM, after a long drive back from Vegas and through bad traffic. “Tired?”, I asked. “A little”, she said. “Hungry too, but let’s explore.” It was a little chilly outside, so we put on our jackets and I led the way.

(Not before the book tour, and the cat tour. The cats were a little bemused by this new visitor who crooned at them enthusiastically, but they coped. Except Elvis, whose default reaction is set to Distrust With Extreme Prejudice, and who scampered into his True Mistress’s room and locked himself in. Um, no, he did not lock himself in, that was just a figure of speech. Elvis The Scaredy Cat just refused to greet the new arrival until he was sure she did not intend bodily harm.

The book tour made an impact, the right kind, except for the unopened boxes. “You have too many books.” Don’t I know it.)

So we headed out, and I gave her a tour of the Marina behind my apartment, brightly-lit and welcoming as always. We passed the boats lapping gently in the water, and I pointed out the amusing names some of them had. One was called Mon Cherie.  “That’s not right”, she said. “It’s bad grammar.” “Sure”, I chuckled. “Maybe you should go correct it.” I showed her my favorite boat, one named Tooth Ferry. “Sometimes, in the evening, you can hear a pig squealing in the distance”, I said. “Or at least I thought it was a pig, but then I realized that it was probably a seal.” She had begun to laugh, but the mention of seals piqued her interest, and more so when I mentioned that we could probably go kayaking one day of the week.

We did not go kayaking, but we got to see seals. That is a different story.

By the time we reached the other end, it was clear that we were losing the hunger game. “I know just the place for dinner”, I said. “It’s a fifteen minute walk.” We doubled back, and there were joggers running by, and people with pets. “So people in LA do walk”, she exclaimed. “I thought it was only cars and more cars.” “Not necessarily”, I said. “I don’t have a car yet. And this is Marina del Rey, not Los Angeles.” “Same difference.” She had the happy grin I recognized, the kind of grin I usually have when I am walking through the Marina by myself. The only difference was the lack of a soundtrack in my ears, but the company more than made up for that.

When the lady at the front desk of the Cheesecake Factory asked us if we wanted to sit outside, facing the water, we looked at each other, a little hesitant about sitting in the cold. “We have the heater turned up, don’t worry”, the girl smiled. Outside it was, then, facing the beach and the distant lights. By the time the drinks arrived, both of us were grinning at each other, happily munching on the bread that in our hunger tasted like the Greatest Bread Ever Baked. When we waited, I told her about the cute waitress who once served me there last year. “Hi, my name is Penny”, she had said. And I looked up at her, looked down at my menu, and hoped she did not realize I was trying to conceal my grin. “Oh, it’s fine”, Penny from the Cheesecake Factory grinned. “I get that all the time. Just don’t knock on your table three times when calling my name, and I won’t throw a plate at you.” It was probably rehearsed, but I collapsed with laughter. Penny wasn’t there this time, but Micah made us feel comfortable. The food, when it arrived, was delicious. She could not finish her’s, as I knew she wouldn’t – dang American portions. I bulldozed through mine with the rugged pace of a Terminator model T-1000. I ate every slice, sipped every drop, and I knew I would be back.

“Are you ready to walk some more?”, I asked. She was, or so she said.

By the time we got to Venice pier, we had decided that ice-cream for dessert was out of the question, tantalizing as the Creamery looked. Thankfully, last-minute moral dilemmas were avoided by the closed sign on the door. Besides, it was too cold for ice-cream – the wind whistled in our ears and tickled our necks. As we got nearer, the sound of the waves drowned out the music from the bars nearby. “We could drop in at the Whaler later”, I said. “Uh huh”, she said, with a huge grin on her face, all her attention focused on the ocean. I had a feeling the Whaler wasn’t going to be part of the night.

The pier glowed bright and welcoming, with a row of lamps leading inward. I hadn’t been there in a while – I preferred to walk there in the afternoon, where the warm sunshine tamed some of  the sea breeze, and when it was teeming with the strange variety of visitors that Venice Beach was known for.

“How much further does this go?”, she asked. All we could hear was the rushing of the waves below us, and the lights on the beach turned smaller and smaller. The lamp posts that marked our way just showed us the path, but a few meters beyond lay the darkness of the ocean. For a second, I thought of what would happen if there was a power-cut just then, if we would see anything but black, and keep walking until we plopped into the ocean. I stifled a mental giggle, and thoughtfully did not say anything aloud.

When we got to the end of the pier, we found out we were gatecrashing a quaint little soiree. A couple slow-danced in the middle of the circle, oblivious to our presence. The guy sang softly and the girl hummed along to a few phrases. “Is that… German?” I whispered. “Spanish”, she whispered back. Somehow it felt necessary to whisper, and disrespectful to interfere with their mood by declaring our presence. From time to time, they laughed together, full-throated laughter that merged with the whooshing of the waves and made us smile to ourselves.

Confession: the ocean at night always reminds me of this Buz Sawyer story that I read as a kid. It was just that the colors in the cheap Indrajal reprint were very evocative, and the story itself, about a seagull’s egg and Buz’s down-on-his-luck brother and his family was poignant enough to be the main point of association in my mind for an evening stroll by the sea.

After sometime, the song died away, the lovers bid their adieu, and exited stage right. We stayed. We sat on a solitary bench that faced the darkness, and though our jackets felt paper-thin against the wind, after sometime the cold bothered us no longer, and the bench felt more comfortable than it should have. We looked up at the stars twinkling through the parts of the sky that were free of clouds, and at the city lights shimmering behind us. Every now and then, a plane hummed above,  drowning out the constant, reassuring ocean roar with its own banshee scream. That and the distant sirens in the city reminded us that the world existed beyond that well-lit circle, that time and our ears had not really frozen.

We sat there for a long time. Silent. Happy.

Myself, Other People

Flicker: Someone else

Her name is not that important. Though it was a beautiful, uncommon name, I will grant you that. To this day, when someone says the name out loud, it’s she who comes to mind, and not the flower.

I know what you’re thinking, right now. You think this is a story of unrequited love. Of half-forgotten crushes and missed opportunities. It isn’t.

We were in school together. The same class, and for a few years, the same section, even. We never really talked to each other. We were at that awkward age where if you showed too much of an interest in a member of the opposite sex, people would giggle. Maybe somebody would come up with a story of how the two of you were seen together in the playground (the back-field, we called it), and the giggles would become whispers, and maybe a teacher would notice. So no, we did our own thing, and acknowledged each other’s presence with smiles in the morning, the same polite neutral smiles that was extended to everyone you were not best friends with, in class. Maybe we even sat in the same group during tiffin break, sometimes. I do not remember.

What I do remember was the day I really, really noticed her. It was the day she sang. It was a free period, and the teacher called her to the front of the class to sing. Not her specifically, she just asked for a volunteer, anyone who could come and sing a song for all of us. I think we were all a little surprised that she stood up and walked to the front, with none of the usual squeamishness one would expect from such an exercise.

You may wonder if I am making up these details, considering that its been more than fifteen years, but trust me, I remember it all. I even remember her making eye contact with me as she walked by, and that I looked around to see if anyone had noticed.

So she sang. The song wasn’t spectacular – just another love song of the eighties, something about a girl waiting for a guy and the guy asking her not to love him so much. But her voice was. It somehow got the right inflections, the pitch-perfect emotion that song needed. I remember that it was very very quiet when she sang, and she did not look at anyone in particular, even though all of us held our breath and stared at her. I remember the loud applause at the end of it, and the smile on her face as she walked back to her seat. All of us knew (if you leave aside the fact that we were all 15-year olds who did not really know that much about music), and most of us agreed, when we talked about it later on, that it was Her Song. She had made it hers, that afternoon.

She went on to sing on stage, for school events. They tried to get her to sing that song again, but she wouldn’t. The only time she did was on a class picnic because we asked her to. We sang other songs, that evening, but we felt so happy that she sang that song again. I even threw caution to the wind, went sat down next to her in the bus when we were coming back, and told her how much I liked her voice. She smiled and said something nice in return; I don’t remember what exactly.

This Sunday I was among friends, and we were talking about songs from our childhood. At one point, we began to Youtube those old relics, and by a peculiar daisy-chain of links and melody associations, that song began to play. There was that brief, exultant rush of blood to the head, that slightly off-kilter feeling when you wonder how long it’s been since you heard that tune, and when melodies and sounds bring back a rush of memories buried under real-world concerns.

The song that played onscreen, the one that I hummed along with, was the somewhat-cheesy, slightly mispronounced original that we all know. The song that played in my mind was your song, M. Yours alone.

(She died, or so I heard. Two years after we left school.)

Life, Myself, Other People


A and I were in opposite rooms, on the ground floor of our hostel. “Phok”, he used to scream at various points of the day. I remember him poking his head into my room, more than a little irritated because I would crank up my Frontech speakers a little too loud in the night. “Volume kam karr bey”, he would say, rotating his fingers in the air like he were waving an imaginary knife at me.  I would turn to the computer, reach out and lower the volume – Winamp allowed you to do so by pressing the down key, which was the coolest thing ever. He would slam the door, and the moment he was back in his room, I would press the up key again, repeatedly. And he would scream, from his room – “oh phok you man.” Every evening after an exam, he would be in front of the ladies’ hostel waiting for the lady who hung around with him for two years of college life, and he would grin at me as I would pass by on my bicycle. “How was it?” – I would ask at first, or if I had my earphones on, just throw an enquiring nod at him, more out of practice than genuine curiosity. And he would put his thumb and forefinger together –  in that time-honored gesture you don’t ever use in front of your parents, or anyone that knows your parents – and say “Phok ho gayaa, man.”

There was R, who had the saddest face in the world. I would see him in the canteen, or as he was coming back from class, looking vacantly to the ground, or just pass him by as I would head to my daily dose of tea just outside the campus. And the morose look on his face would make me feel bad about enjoying the evening. Not that he was sad, far from it. He had a deadpan way of being sarcastic, and would sometimes giggle to himself for a second or two, and then his face would revert to that same sad expression. He was the only person who could make you feel bad about cracking a joke. We used to have competitions in his room;  he would prop his pillow against the wall, and calmly sit on his bed, crossing his legs. And we tried to make him laugh. He would listen to whatever we had to say, look at whatever we were doing, but refuse to smile.

Another A. He was a games fanatic, and the pinnacle of his gaming career, in college at least, was to sit for an Age of Empires session for 26 hours straight. Not on a network, not with anyone else, just him hunched over his computer in his room, blinking and squinting through his glasses at the screen, asking me to go get him a bread-omelet when I could. And the day I finished the extended demo of Half-life, which was also the day I resolved to stop playing demos of games – it was gut-wrenching to wait for a few more months before I could continue the adrenaline rush – I ran to his room downstairs and handed him the CD. He patiently waited through the credits sequence, because Half-life takes some time to get you in the thick of the action, and chuckled at the scientists’ nattering to each other. And then yelled very loudly and fell off his chair, when the first head-crab jumped towards him on the screen. “This is why I do not play first-person games, man”, he told me later, holding a wet handkerchief to the back of his head. “I get into them too much.”

There was K, much, much elder to me, but in the same batch and in the same room as I was, assigned together by the strange and random procedure that the college authorities followed every year. He didn’t know much English, but I knew his mother-tongue, so we bonded as room-mates, him and I. He made a mean chicken curry, and he also scratched his balls too often, which made eating his chicken curry a highly dubious affair. But hey, if you’ve had panipuri in India, such minor details do not bother you. He was into poetry, and would recite lyrical passages in a lilting voice that made me appreciate his language much, much more. He left the room after a month, because a former classmate from the same village asked him, and he was too good-natured to refuse.

J, whose idea of consoling me after a particularly messy break-up was to ask me, bemusedly – “Why didn’t you sleep with her? She would have never left!” And later, he cried on my shoulder, sitting in a darkened corridor in the academic building, when his girlfriend back in his hometown, who was supposed to wait for just two years more before he came back and married her, left him for his best friend. We fell out later, each sticking to specific ideals, not seeing each other eye to eye anymore. I met him once again afterwards, a few years after we left college, where the only thing he asked me was – “Are you still the same bastard you were in college?” I smiled, and didn’t say anything.

Too many of you. Too many names, too many faces, and I remember very specific things about you. I might even forget your names in a few years, and your faces might begin to blur into each other. I know that I will not meet any of you in the foreseeable future. I am not sure I want to, because the things I remember about you are so lucid, so representative of who you were to me that it would be a pity to lose those specific memories to some new, unforeseen trait you’ve developed in the last eight years. ( Yes, it’s really been that long, isn’t it strange? ) I am not even sure I really give a shit about how you are right now, and I doubt if you do about me because hey, let’s face it, we did not really have much in common beyond the fraternal feeling of staying on the same campus for four years. Hell, maybe we never really liked each other.

But yes, you are there, a part of you, versions of you from a decade ago, you are there in my thoughts, flickering into existence at the most unforeseen moments. What would we talk about if we meet again? Awkward conversation starters, maybe, a shared memory of someone else, a question about what we have been up to. And there would be a hasty exchange of numbers, and I would in all likelihood delete it by next month. It’s all good, don’t worry. I am good, and I know you are too.