9 Oct 2015


There’s a waiter at Kerala Hotel, tallish, fair, thick of moustache, forever not so much rubbing as lovingly caressing his considerable belly.

Greets me with the broadest smile of acknowledgement, even if he’s in the middle of taking an order, almost as though he’s been expecting me.

Slows down ever so slightly on his way to place his order, rolls off the day’s specials, rounds them off with a “what will it be today?”, and he’s off.

Comes tearing back from the kitchen holding up four, sometimes five, fingers in the air- one for each day since my last visit. “Decided?” Almost a challenge.

I ask him what’s good. He chooses from a variety of digressions. “You smell like a bar!” “Should’ve seen the group of girls here for lunch!”   

I say I’ll have dosa with prawn curry, or parotta and beef roast. “Good choice,” he says, “why do we make anything else?” Ambles away, hurt.

Mid-meal, he wants me to know there’s someone traveling to Kerala the next day. Do I need to send anything home?

There’s another gentleman making his way here from Kerala if I’d like anything sent this side? Pickle? Chips? One can never have too many chips.

He goes to great lengths to establish these friendly mules as men of great character, as though I might be in the business of gold or spices.

And if the Samaritan happens to be a woman: “do I need say anything else?” This is said with a pointed shrug of the shoulders; checkmate.

I brought this up one day –the hushed tones and the declarations of faith- and he told me, “you shouldn’t just let anybody into your home”.

I tell him today I’m having trouble finding a flatmate. “A Malayalee would be best,” he says, almost to himself, “I know just the guy.”

He affects one last roguish grin at a young woman sat across the room –“Used to be a nun. Now training to be a nurse.”- and turns to me.

“I’ll let you know about the boy,” he says, and hands me the bill, “you’re on Whatsapp?”

Nicest Nepalese man I know.  

25 Jun 2015


It's your special day,
and I am
at best,
an unpleasant memory.

So I remembered,
then reminded
myself to put away,
all the wonderful things I wish for you,
and bought myself a little something
to help me Forget.

17 Feb 2015

Tuesdays With Fatboy

To say Fatboy has a penchant for drama is like saying Hrithik Roshan is not crazy about defeat. He actively pursues opportunities for unleashing said histrionic tendencies too, which is why I hadn't been looking forward to Fatboy's impending visit. But he seems pensive somehow, almost distracted. "You want to tell me about your hand, bro?" I ask, finally.

Fatboy looks down absently. His thumb is in a cast that appears to have been modelled on one of those foam fingers you see American sports fans waving at whatever they call that game that's actually just cricket in baseball jerseys. "Oh this," he says, "Tinder-thumb." Like that's a totally real thing. I suppress the urge to comment that it's only his right hand that seems to have been affected.

Miley Cyrus famously raising awareness about Tinder-thumb. 
"I heard you quit your job," I try again. "Oh that, yeah," he scratches his chin, "I have an idea for an app. Look, you want to talk about what happened or not?" Here comes the pain. "There's nothing to talk about bro," I say, "she and I went out, we broke up, and you and I are not talking about it." Fatboy crosses his legs and assumes position. "I mean, she could have broken up with me in person," I say. Fatboy nods encouragingly. "She says she's been writing me this email to explain everything," I continue, "she'd never have just stopped answering my calls otherwise. Or texts. Or the door."

I watch Fatboy as he shifts in his seat. Something is up with the guy, and it's not my love life. "Not that," he says, "what I texted you about." He's kidding. There's no way in hell... He raises a hand, presumably to stop my train of thought but it just looks like his thumb is giving me a giant go-ahead. "I understand your moral reservation, I do," he says, "which is why I think you should start small. Among an intimate circle of friends, perhaps? Maybe you could even start with just me." The bastard. "You want me to send you nudes of my ex?" I ask, just to make sure. He nods sagely, and departs to the loo.

I flip through the pictures on my phone. She and I, at Monkey Bar. The three of us, that night we ended up at HUDCO park after some gig or the other. How long does it take to type a bloody email, anyway? Picture after picture, grotesquely shiny tableaux of what never was. I hover over one particularly fond memory, and hit 'Share'. Seconds later, a "whoop" emanates from the loo that can only be the guttural liberation of forbidden lust. Revenge porn. This is my lowest moment, yet.  

Fatboy steps out of the loo and buckles his belt pointedly, Tinder-thumb and all. "You did the right thing," he says. I shrug off the hand he places on my shoulder and take a sip of my beer: "You liked that did you, Tinderella?" Fatboy bows theatrically. "Congratulations," I say, "you're the first man to jerk off to a picture of my butt."

Icy Highs's Video Reco: #DefeatDefeat (Hrithik Roashan)
Hrithik Roshan hates defeat so much he will defeat it. 

14 Jan 2015


I look around, and pause again to take them all in, as I have done numerous times on this trip. We're all here, the original gang of four, chilling like it's 1999, like numerous summer vacations spent lounging under rubber trees in our paternal home playing made-up games and swapping made-up stories of bravado and discovery. We don't have to fib about body hair or school yard heroics any more; the pube-counter has been abandoned years ago, and we're not as fascinated by Bruce Lee movies or Steven Segal fight sequences as we used to be. Of course, not having to fib and doing it anyway are two different things- the playground may have changed but the games remain the same.

We're alike in ways only brothers can be: the dip of our shoulders, the chicken legs, the predilection for deep-fried-anything, mouths arched in permanent readiness for a good laugh. We like to have a good time, and we're good people who like to believe we're good people. My brothers have all brought women with them- life partners in various stages of permanence. They point out more distinguishing features of the group: the eagerness to be liked, the lack of get-up-and-go, the mishmash of good intentions and inertia. But they say this with affection, with almost-motherly indulgence, and we are perhaps more pleased than we should be.
Back in the long-ago, when we were still children, we used to have this tradition of prolonging every game of Donkey till the last possible second. Come end of summer, we'd all go our different ways from our grandparents' home, driven away to the closest railway station or airport by some accommodating relative or the other. This meant picking up the deck of cards from our usual spot on the veranda and carrying the hand in play all the way up to the top of the slope where the ancestral Ambassador car lay in wait, honking impatiently, glinting ominously in the sun. The end has come early, abruptly, this holiday. We're still splashing about in the little creek we found; still waiting for another joint to be rolled. We're still upholding tradition, still playing till we absolutely have to leave, till the taxi turns up, because it's the only way we know to deal with parting. But we're trying out a new game. It's called "Waiting For Grandma To Die".

Thank God she fell ill-er last night, when we had already moved to Agonda Beach blessed with signals our phones can intercept and a secure 3G line over which tickets can be booked at the last minute. Thank God she didn't steal away in the middle of the night when we were still on wind-swept, grid-less Cola Beach, chosen painstakingly to liberate us from emails and Whatsapp and con-calls, if only for a couple of nights. Because when you reach a certain age, when the pube-counter makes way for the grey-counter or the baldness quotient, it's all you can do to assuage the guilt of not-being-reachable. The grandparents who were always in touch somehow throughout our childhood with promises of kappa-irachi and Alphonsa mangoes the next time we visit would never forgive us if we didn't show up to say goodbye because we had no network.

7 Apr 2014

Something Corporate

When I first watched Cinema Paradiso as a ten year old boy, this much was clear: much like the chosen savior of a clan here, a princess there in the many martial arts movies that populated my VHS collection, I would have to save Cinema. Not in terms of making good cinema or acting in one, but in the presentation. It probably says something about me that even at that age, I was more enamored by Alfredo the projectionist's love for cinema than by the six year old Toto's sense of adventure; Alfredo's contentment in worshiping the art and making it accessible to as wide an audience as possible as opposed to Toto's ambitious experiments with his home movie camera.      

Consequently, it was never enough for me to just watch a film. I had to experience the journey. And because Alfredo waged his war against censorship and a philistine government in post-World War II Italy while I lived in comfortably middle class, culturally vibrant 90s Trivandrum, I would often have to create my own excitement: I would accompany our driver on his designated Friday evening trip to the cinema hall to score us tickets for the latest blockbuster. My father's secretary would have called ahead to make the reservations, but I'd make believe we were on a race against time: the fate of all pop culture lay in the automated arms of the next traffic signal. And once at the ticket stall, getting pushed and pulled along by the suffocating long lines of Trivandrum's ardent film-goers, or better still, jumping headfirst into a crowd of Mohanlal fans getting lathi-charged by policemen, I could finally feel like I was part of a movement.

In time, I would make my peace with the fact that cinema, at least in Kerala, was in no grave danger I could rescue it from, but until well past high school, I would draw umpteen models of what my Archie comics-inspired drive-in cinema would like and plot impromptu screenings of If Lucy Fell projected on the walls of my house for the benefit of our neighbor, an American-returned girl who was a couple of years older than me and hopelessly out of sorts with the world and was also named Lucy. So while growing up perhaps took the romance out of cinema, cinema certainly put the romance in me- a sense of right and wrong, of some imagined utopia in which bureaucrats and their minions alike could escape from the tedium of real life for a while and roll up their sleeves and laugh heartily at Jagathy's mishaps or shed copious tears at the fate of star-crossed lovers on screen.

Fast forward to thirteen years later:

I'm raging. I'm hemorrhaging internally from all the rage because PVR Cinemas in Cochin has just short-changed me. Despite the fact that it's in a mall and everybody dresses like they're at a club, I'm here because tickets only cost an almost-reasonable hundred bucks, and thanks to the juggernaut-like growth of multiplexes, the grand tradition of independent cinema houses is in its last days. The last ones standing survive on regional blockbusters and sheer will power; they're certainly not going to screen Noah in 3D. Besides, PVR offers unlimited refills on Pepsi and we happen to be in ownership of a bottle of rum that will no doubt be consumed furtively and in full over the course of the movie with generous helpings of Pepsi. I'm not even drinking, but it feels like a victory.

Till this moron stepped up to the Pepsi counter a few seconds ago.
"What do you mean "no more re-fills"?", I say, "It says "unlimited re-fills" on the sign behind your head!"
"Yes, but the sign made a mistake," he tells me, "no re-fill today."
"The sign made a...Look, the movie's going to start in a minute; I don't have time for this nonsense."
"Sir, I will have to ask you to watch your language."
"Ok I was out of line. Please top up my drink like your sign promises you will, so I can go watch my movie."
"What? Why? Look, is there someone else I can talk to?"
"Sir, if you continue to behave in this fashion, I will be forced to call the manager."
"Why do you talk like a textbook? But yes, that'd be great. Please call your manager."
"That was not an empty threat, sir. I will call my manager."
"Yes, please call your manager. You understand he's not also my manager, right?"
"I'm warning you: The manager will not be pleased to be interrupted in the middle of dinner."
"Oh great. Your manager's at home while he lets you robots run the show here? Fine, call him."
"No, the manager is eating his dinner at the food court on the next floor."

At this point, my friend tells me the movie is only a couple of seconds from starting. "This is not over," I tell the Pepsi guy as I turn to leave, "I'll be back." "I look forward to it," he replies, "perhaps next time, I can introduce you to our loyalty programs."

Icy Highs's Music Recco : Asaf Avidan- One day we'll be old 



16 Mar 2014

I Fought The Law (And The Law Won)

Usually at this hour, we'd be bouncing over by-roads and ghosting through residential lanes. Not today though. Today, I'm sober- and consequently, the designated driver- so we're taking the high road, both moral and physical. I'm quite looking forward to being stopped by one of the many policemen stationed on Cochin's roads to stop drunk drivers. It's not everyday I get to drive away from a cop without considerably lightening my wallet.

The guys have been drinking all evening, and are just as excited as I am. I encourage them to act as riotously as they please; for a change, we have the law on our side. We haven't been on MG Road five minutes when predictably, a couple of cops wave us down. I slow down, pull over to the side, and watch one of them approach my car in the mirror. He clocks the number plate, and visibly brightens up. I can't wait to wipe the grin off his face. I've been waiting for this moment for so long. 

I roll down my window and smile. The cop looks right through me, and inside the car: the usual suspects. By now, one of us would usually have stepped out of the car, muttering apologies and dropping names, pressing a five hundred rupee note into his palm. I can see he's a little shaken by our apparent stoicism. "Have you been drinking?" he asks. I want to answer calmly, gracefully, but my hand goes up like a first-bencher in school with all the answers. "I haven't been drinking, " I announce. "Suck-up," says one of the guys in the back and I admit to myself that he's probably right. A night without drink, and my inner nerd is in full swing. 

"You won't mind a breathalyzer test then," he says and gestures to the cop behind us. "Not at all," I say and struggle to keep the class-monitor out of my voice. I watch the other cop in the mirror; I haven't dealt with him before. He has a slow, meaningful gait, an almost-strut, and somehow inspires flashes of that old terror of the law in my mind as he plants heavy feet wide apart and comes to a standstill outside my window. He has some kind of apparatus strapped to his crotch, with a tube-like contraption sticking out of it like a surprised penis. "Blow it," he orders, and the guys cheer, despite themselves, like hypnotized Heartlanders at a Salman Khan movie.        

"I don't think you understand," I say, "I haven't been drinking. You can put that thing away now." The guys are really getting into the flow of things. "Blow it! Blow it!", they chant. "If you haven't been drinking, you won't have a problem," says the cop, "blow." Now sexual innuendos aside, I have a genuine problem with intimacy hygiene. Drunk driving is policed so comprehensively in Cochin that even by the most conservative of estimates, that apparatus must have kissed at least fifty mouths tonight. I can't even shake hands with strangers. There's no way that thing is going anywhere near my mouth. 

"You know what," I say, "I have been drinking. I'm really sorry, and I'll just pay whatever-"
But the guys have other plans. This is their moment too. "BLOW IT! BLOW IT!" they chant. "What are you waiting for?" yells one, "show them!" The old Us versus Them. I've been a man long enough to know that you can't back down in an Us versus Them situation. It's just not an option. I reach in the general direction of the apparatus and wipe its head clean. 

"Do it already!" mutters the first cop. So headlights in my eyes, the guys chanting pornographic war cries in my ears, I lower my face onto the cop's crotch and blow. Passing, less anarchic cars honk in approval. I think I can taste vomit, smell cigarettes and alcohol. I pull back and come up for air just as I realize the cop's hand is actually stroking my head in approval. The guys cheer and applaud. I don't wait for the policeman to check the meter. I roll up my window and drive straight home to wash my mouth clean of the sweet taste of victory.           

Icy Highs's Music Recco: The Drunken Whaler- Copilot

5 Mar 2014

Bringing Up Uncle

I’ve always taken my uncling responsibilities seriously. Even before my little nephew was born, this much was clear to me: growing up, I didn’t have an elder male figure I could depend on to bail me out of trouble, or even to show me the ropes to basic adult stuff like shaving in a hurry or sleeping with women without falling in love with them, and this sort of deprival lasts a lifetime.  I would not let my nephew grow up a fuzzy-chinned romantic fool.

My approach to uncling my little niece however, is a little different. Having played easily manipulated filler middle sibling to the estrogen sandwich with extra cheese and evil that was my two sisters all through my blunder years, I was trained early on –despite the lack of formal education- to be terrified of all women under legal drinking age. It doesn’t help that my niece is the spitting image of her mother at the same age. What little niece wants, little niece gets.   

Having said that, I’m quite fond of this gig I have going as the niblings’ only maternal uncle, and the unofficial “fun uncle” by a mile. As my sis never tires of pointing out, mine is a kingdom founded entirely on the great institution of the uncle-in-transit. I’ve never lived in the same city, or even the same state as the niblings till I moved recently to Cochin, so I’ve never had to unplug the X-box just as the nephew was approaching his top score or take a U-turn and head right back into the city after a long day at work because I forgot to pick up glitter pens for the niece’s ‘art’ project. I come bearing gifts, and when I’m visiting no household item can not be converted into a plaything.  

So when my sister announced recently that she and her husband would be out of town for a  night, I jumped at the chance to re-write a little history. When Fun Uncle was on the throne, the niblings would look back and remember, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. Not only would the fun never set on his empire, but the subjects would also eat their five greens with relish, shower without complaint and scoot off to bed in orderly fashion at quarter to ten. It was only a matter of a few hours before I would be inducted into the pantheon of all time greats- Uncles Bun, Charlie and …err.. Kracker.    

The first evening, a Sunday, passed uneventfully enough. I reached their place around five with a party-planner’s diary worth of things-to-do only to find that the agenda had not just been set, but that it was cast in stone: a trip to Donut Factory, followed by a visit to Crossword bookstore, both conveniently located almost across the road from each other in Panampilly Nagar where they stay. Fair enough, I thought, especially since my own game plan would have taken us on a criss-cross road trip across the heart and whatever soul is left of commerce-heavy Cochin.

The outdoor seating arrangement at Donut Factory did however tear a significant hole in my comfort zone. My nephew, who takes great pleasure in reading out- and consequently inquiring as to the meaning of- just about any road/shop/other sign he can find, pointed a questioning finger at the poster behind us: “A hole looks better on a donut than on your  lungs”. The words were accompanied by a picture of the universal circle around a cigarette with a line running across it. “It means you shouldn’t smoke,” I said, “because smoking pokes holes in your chest.” “But shouldn’t that be your choice?” he asked immediately, with all the privileged disdain for authority of his particular breed of Cochin’s private school populace.  

If they can sell cigarettes, and tax cigarettes, then of course it should be your choice, I wanted to tell him. Screw choice, smoking is just awesome, I wanted to say. But one look at his comically revolutionary face, and a quick flashback of him running circles around me in his Messi jersey as I lunged about gasping for breath during our impromptu football game a few minutes earlier, and I turned into my dad. “You’re seven,” I barked, “you have no choice.”

My niece plays games of a subtler kind. At Crossword bookstore a little later, after explaining to me the literary merits of the many numerous diaries maintained by a kid whodescribes himself as “wimpy” with a sense of irony I suspected was lost on her, she asked me: “So how much can I spend?” I quickly scanned the price tags on the shelf in front of me, and said: “you can both pick up a book each.” “No” she declared, “tell me how much we can spend, that’s what we always do.” As I tried to remember if I even understood the concept of spending power at her age, she added, “our other uncle always lets us spend five hundred each.” I nodded in the affirmative, and prayed to all the Gods I’d heard of that she didn’t grow up to be a politician or a banker.    

Of course the real test came the morning after. My niece woke me up at six to make her a poster for her campaign; she was running for Class Monitor and her pitch was “I will increase lunch hour by one hour”. “More glitter, dude,” she sighed exasperatedly every time she walked past in various stages of undress until the maid finally scooped her up and stationed her under the shower. I think she actually flicked my ear one time, but that may also have been my brain exploding. Only when the early morning wind did a little jig around my face as she waved goodbye from her bus did I fully realize the absurdity of the Goldingesque nightmare I had woken up to.       

My nephew had courteously decided to exit his royal chambers when I returned, at least physically if not in spirit. I walked in on the sight of the maid flying spoon-aeroplanes of sliced idlis into his open mouth as he stood in front of the television, his hand operating the video game console out of sheer muscular memory even as his head drooped to one side, his eyes tighter shut than Kerala’s shops on a hartal. The kid was half-naked and asleep on his feet as a middle-aged woman spoon-fed him breakfast, as the streets of some ghetto or the other rose up in flames on the TV screen to electronic punk rock! The world hadn’t witnessed such decadence since the Romans.
His eyes remained shut as I helped the maid plant one of his legs after the other into freshly ironed shorts, tucked in his shirt, converted the signature quiff of his hair into a side parting just to spite him a little and deposited him on the bus next to a cute girl who looked around his age. I made my way back to the flat in a daze. I must have dozed off on the couch because the next thing I knew, the phone was ringing in the vague vicinity of my ear. It was my sister. “You okay?” she asked. “Oh I really hope I can’t have kids,” I told her. “We’ll be back before noon,” she laughed. “You should,” I said, “they grow up so fast.”  

Icy Highs's Music Recco: Four Times and Once After - The Superfuzz/ Indigo Children

This piece was originally published in Helter Skelter magazine on 03-03-14