Archive for April, 2006

Sundays then and Now

Sunday, April 2nd, 2006

ON SUNDAY MORNINGS, in our colony, fathers would wash their cars. My father owned no car, but I would sit at the window and watch men doing simple menialthings with care and pleasure. The hosing down of the car, the wiping dry, the washing of the tyres, and the periodic stepping back, head cocked to one side, to scrutinise one’s handiwork. Those days, long before the Maruti 800, no one sold their cars to upgrade. The vehicles were family members,and the Sunday morning bath was a ritual of love. Timewas set aside on the one free day of the week to clearly convey one’s affection to the four-wheeled pet.

I have owned various cars over the past 14 years, but have almost never washed one myself.There has always been someone to keep it clean for a monthly fee. I would hate to spend even hal fan hour on a Sunday morning tending to a car, nor have I ever bonded with any of the vehicles I have driven the way I remember my neighbours doing. Those were much simpler days; the pulls and pressures on life could, well, be planned for much better. And as a result, our adult Sundays are quite differentfrom those of our childhood. Of course, they remain equally precious, but not in the same way.

If some of my most pleasant childhood memories are about winter Sundays in Kolkata spent at the Eden Gardens watching cricket, today I would not dream of heading anywhere near Feroze Shah Kotla even if Sehwag is starting the day on 87 not out. At the Eden, with the dew drying, the pitch would ease out between lunch and tea, and a comfortablequiet would descendonthe stadium, broken only bythe crack of the ball hitting the bat. The hapless bowlers toiled on, but the mildly hazy sunlight and the breeze blowingin from the river would lull the audience into a cosy torpor. Just the way it happens to me on Sunday afternoons today,watching DVDs that make no demands on one’s analytical powers.

In my teens in Mumbai, Sundays would be about traveling from thesuburbs to Regal or Eros to watch the latest Hollywood release. The Sunday Indian Express (then called Sunday Standard) would carry fairly large ads of American films. I would religiously cut them out and paste them in my scrapbook. One memorable Sunday afternoon, three of us, all 15 or so years old, kept walking from cinema hall to cinema hall,trying to sneak in to watch any of three adults-only films—The Exorcist, The Omen and The Day of the Jackal. Rebuffed by insensitive ticket-checkers repeatedly, we finally managed to find a way into Sterling theatre through a back door and watched The Omen. We were heroes in school for aweek or sofor this feat, till someone else did something even more paean-worthy.

Today, I would shudder to think of doing anything adventurous on a Sunday. First of all, it takes a crane to get me out of bed in the morning. It’s about 11 o’ clock by the time I have managed to extricate myself from the heap of Sunday papers on my bed and get ready to face the world on my own terms, that is, as a couch potato.  By noon, I am fit enough to take my daughter out for our weekly bonding session; that is,we go to the mall and buy stuff for her, a lot of which she may not even be particularly interested in. Havingthus cunningly assuaged my guilt at having seen her awake only twice in the past six days, I revert to couch potato-hood.

For me, the Sunday siesta has become increasinglyimportant over the years, and that’s about the only time in the week that my cellphone is switched off. The only couple of hours of the week when, in my own utterly mundane way, the world is renounced. Ah, the world. We lead our lives on the run, skidding from deadline to deadline, trying to cope and sometimes even managing to. We increasingly define ourselves—andare defined by—our careers, and on weekdays,the other roles that we need to embody become bit parts in a chaotic play.

On Sundays, the chief protagonist retires, andall the walk-on roles get to speak their lines, perhaps even soliloquies, get their place inthe—I’m sorry, this is unavoidable—sun. On Sundays, we can be us. I can be just I, you can be just you, thumbing our noses at all the demands the worldcould be plotting to  makeon us. You can go rock-climbing; I can spend the day in the bathtub.You can fight your way through the malls and spenda month’s earnings; I can play soccer with the neighbourhood kids. To each his own Sunday. Who gives a damn what other people do on a Sunday? A Sunday is the most personal day of the week, the day for our little secret yearnings. How we spend our Sundays is an affirmation that we haven’t sold out totally. It’s a day of hope. Remember that nursery rhyme? On Saturday night/ Shall be all my care/ To powder my locks/ And curl my hair./ On Sunday morning/My love will come in/ When he will marry me/ With a gold ring.

I am sure he did.

(Irfan murder) case seemed open and shut, obviously, I was wrong

Saturday, April 1st, 2006

Just another piece of news on the ticker this afternoon. “A city court has acquitted five persons, accused of abducting and killing cartoonist Irfan Hussain seven years ago, for want of evidence.” Just another piece of news. Except that Irfan was my friend and colleague. If he had not been murdered that day, he would have had dinner at my home the next day. I was one of the first persons to reach the spot where his body lay. I was one of the prosecution witnesses in the trial of his murderers.

I remember a deputy commissioner of police chuckling, telling my (and Irfan’s) editor that there was no foul play involved in Irfan’s disappearance, that quite possibly he had run away with a woman.

Half an hour later, a police team had located Irfan. His body lay five feet down a slope by a road, at the spot where he had been killed, within shouting distance of a police post. The police had taken five days to find the body.

I remember following the truck carrying his body to the morgue, and then waiting for hours for a doctor to come do the autopsy. I remember the doctor refusing to come, because it was Saturday and it was past his duty hours. I remember Irfan’s body lying there on the courtyard of the morgue for hours, because till the doctor agreed, no one would carry the body in. It lay there for three hours.

According to the police, as soon as they were informed that Irfan had not returned home, and had been last heard of (on a phone call to his wife) from near the Delhi-UP border, they had flashed the number and description of Irfan’s car to the border checkposts of all north Indian states. The murderers drove the car with impunity through three states to reach Kashmir, where they sold it.

Irfan had bought the stereo he had in his car from me, a few months before he was killed. So I was called one day to a room in the Karkamdooma courts to identify the recovered music system, to state that yes, this was the one from Irfan’s car. I still remember the magistrate’s bored churlishness: “Haan, ye stereo tumhara hai?” A couple of years after that, I was called to give evidence at the trial.

As the accused entered the courtroom, they bowed their heads and smiled at the officer who had investigated the case. “The buggers have put on weight in these three years they have spent in jail,” muttered the policeman to me.

Their lawyer was an unshaven man still smelling of the excesses of the night before. Instead of trying to prove that I was lying about the stereo, he spent 15 minutes insisting that I had never made the statement that it was my stereo, that my signature on the affidavit was false. It was cooked up because I couldn’t recall the number of the room where I had met the magistrate, or the name of the magistrate.

Finally the judge intervened: “Try some other angle. This won’t work.” He had no other angle.

It seemed like an open-and-shut case to me. Obviously I was wrong.

But at every stage, ever since Irfan said good night to me and left office on that day seven years ago, I seem to have been wrong about every expectation I have had from the Indian State. Either five murderers have been set free, or five innocent men have spent six years in jail. Irfan could have done some really barbed cartoons on this whole sorry saga.