Monday, July 31, 2006

Your room - a short story

And then there was your room. The building was like any of the ghastly buildings that children draw at school, a rectangle with square holes. But no child could have colored the building the way it was, a dirty creamy yellow with streaks and streaks of grey. It was a building amongst many such buildings on a narrow road, a government subsidized block. The buildings had no names, only numbers, and the rooms had numbers like A-2/27/101. The postman who did the rounds there, was certainly increasing his brainpower with all the number crunching he did.

All kinds of people lived in those buildings. Clerks who took the local train from Goregaon to Churchgate everyday, because they worked at the Mantralay, and came back home with chickoos, bought near the bus-stop outside the station, dangling in thin polythene bags. Lawyers who loitered outside Bandra Court, in their faded black coats, smelling of sweat, peering into every rickshaw that stopped, for potential customers worth 100-200 rupees. Salesmen who left every morning, looking important, having pumped themselves up with self-confidence, and came back every evening morose and depressed, calculating for the umpteenth number of time, how much commission they had made that day, and knowing it was not quite enough. And struggling actors, who woke up after the last pressure cooker whistle of the morning had blown in the block, and sauntered to the dairy in their crumpled pajamas for a quarter liter of milk, and meeting one of their kind, stopped to have tea and samosas, before they went back to their rooms to finish their morning ablutions and step out, all bright and energetic and certain they were handsome and talented and going to be successful one day. And there was you.

I had to duck underneath three very low stairwells to reach your building at the end of the block, on the corner of the road, after which there were better buildings and more trees. Your neighbor, a sharp-eyed woman, always on the landing, cleaning rice or wheat, or sweeping out her room’s dust towards the stairs, looked at me with sharp eyes, as I rung the bell. You’d open the door, give her a cursory nod of acknowledgement, and I’d be inside your room.

Your room was quiet, and the lime-green curtains were always drawn, so that you never noticed the peeling paint, and it was cool after the heat of the afternoon in the rickshaw. You had a lamp with a faux leather shade, which was quite swanky, and a couple of easy chairs, which smelt of you. Your bed was narrow, and you had changed the sheet because I was coming, and it was clean and faded, and very soft against our skins. Your landlady had left a withered rose shrub in the ledge outside your window, when she gave the room to you. It had become quite plump and glossy under your care. Once, you had shredded several tight, white buds on the sheet when I came, and I could have laughed, but when the petals were crushed by our warm skins, it was divine, and brought tears to my eyes.

Once my husband came with me to the room. I had called you, with cold desperation, and you were prepared. It was nothing, we were house hunting, but his voice filled up the room, and he opened the bathroom and peered inside, and jumped around from one corner of the small room, to another, while you and me sat quietly, looking at him. The room was filled with little gifts from me, a book, a bottle of shampoo, a small rug, and once or twice, he tossed his head, because his mind was asking him to look at something, that would tell him something, but he tossed his head, and filled up his mind with his voice. I did not look at you too much, in case he saw what he was trying hard not to, but I need not have been afraid.

You were quite calm, and shut the door behind you, walking up to the gate with us. My husband ducked the stairwells as easily as I did, but you had to bend quite a bit, and it was just one of those things that life hits you with in the stomach. Because I did not want to go with my husband then, I wanted to say bye to him, and come back to the room with you. Instead, I sat down meekly behind him on the Kinetic Honda, and listened to his voice going on and on, as he would not say a quick bye to you, and you, too kept encouraging him to talk on. Once, you even touched me, and I trembled, but you pretended it was inadvertent, and I put an arm around my husband’s waist, and we drove off, and I did not even look at you, standing at the gate, looking at us go.

The next time I came to your room, I was afraid it would still be filled up with his voice, but it wasn’t, and there was only us. My husband and I did not find a room in your block, because we were Muslims, and for once, I was not angry with that, but relieved. I did not want to live too close to you, because there were many things about my life and my husband I did not want you to know, and because there were many things in yours which I could not bear to see. Your friends coming and going, and cooking in your house, and all of you watching the football match together, for instance, because I could never be a part of that, and I’d always feel why couldn’t I be? And maybe your other women, because there were, or may have been, I knew, but never asked.

But then, even distance did not remain a guarantee against my wanting to be closer to you. Once, we talked of a woman we both liked, and you asked me whether we should invite her one afternoon. I said yes, but I meant no, because I was jealous, and then, I knew, it would not work. Then, even when you were on top of me, I did not look at you, and even when I was on top of you, I shut my eyes. Instead, we came and came, and the tears just streamed down my cheeks. I did not open my eyes, because I knew that what you saw there would make your eyes cold and frightened, and that would hurt too much. It would wipe out all the afternoons we had spent in your room, and I’d be left with nothing. Better to take those afternoons with me, and so I walked away, as quietly as I had come.

For a few days you called, and once you even tried to talk to me on the phone the secret things we used to say to each other, but I pretended there were other people around me, and I was busy, and you knew or thought you knew that I had moved on. Then, I was desperate for your body, and called you once, but this time, you sounded distant, and I thought I heard a woman’s voice in the back. Maybe, the same woman, we had wanted to invite one day to your room, on one of our afternoons together. Twice or thrice, I walked down that narrow road, crammed with buildings, thinking maybe I’d see you, maybe I’d see you with the woman, and then, at least I’d know. I needed to know. But I only saw the sharp-eyed woman, your neighbor, who gave me a reluctant puckered-up smile. And for days, I tore up that smile into many pieces and put it together again and again, wondering what knowledge it held. And I did not dare to walk down that road again.

It is strange now that I don’t see you so much any more, but I still see your room, quiet, the whitewash peeling, the faux leather lampshade, the two easy chairs, and your narrow bed. Sometimes, when my husband is on top of me with his drunken breath, and making all those noises that he must, I shut my eyes and your room, B-2/38/301, is one of the places I go to, for a little quiet.

© Batul Mukhtiar

Friday, July 28, 2006

the table

My dining table is in a perpetual state of transmogrification, much like the crew on Davie Jone's ship, The Flying Dutchman. Though I clean up every couple of days, within minutes, it's gleaming surface attracts not only dust, but all kinds of odds and ends.

Today, for example, there's
a picture frame which Vivek took off the wall, to put up his half-done painting,
the mini-DV camera,
two Beta tapes, and 20 odd CDs all marked "Lilkee this-that-and-the other",
some coins,
my wallet,
Vivek's wallet,
visiting cards of people I regrettably, am never going to remember or call, just dump in a shoebox, which I must clean up one of these days,
10 books and 3 music CDs from the British Council library,
my cheque book which seems to throw out money from the bank faster than I can put it in,
our all-purpose pink and black patchwork bag which has seen better days and been mended atleast 12 times - much like me,
my new Hidesign handbag - an atrocious expense,
and some grubby bits of bills, which I valiantly collect, in the hope that the accounts of the film will sort themselves out miraculously.

No wonder we never eat at the table.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

there is no honey in the devil's larder

Recently I read Jim Crace's collection of short, short stories, 'The Devil's Larder'. The cover is sensuos, a pair of red lips pouting, overflowing with blueish black berries, a smudge of purply red on the chin, is it the juice of the berries or blood, a stray berry falling from the mouth.

The stories are quirky, philosophical, dark, funny, sweetly sombre, unpredictable as short stories should be. They all revolve around food, and the characters who live in them are as different and strange as the varieties of food available in our world. Utterly, utterly delicious.

One blog I love reading for a collection of similarly enticing stories is

The stories take off from a photo, and it's interesting to see how different people weave their tales around one photo.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


So, it seems I cannot access my blog, "unknown zone" but can post on it. If this post goes through, this is one more strange way of things happening in this strange world.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

say cheese!

The computer crashed, I picked up the pieces, and as we'd had only two more days of work, and now have to work for another eight days, perhaps, plus have lost eight days in trying to sort out, what's wrong, I grit my teeth and smile.

Rahul, who is not a computer engineer, but an editor and a teacher, and knows more about the Mac and Final Cut Pro than anyone in the universe, Ok, actually, anyone in my universe, and certainly more than the official Apple guys in Mumbai, is not in a very fix-it mood, and potters around, gritting his teeth and smiling, because like the Mac, and like all well-designed, logical beings, he's moody.

Judith, his friend from Austria, who's here on holiday, waits for us to sort out all our problems, so she can make use of the first sunny day in Mumbai in a week, and walk outside, away from the computer, for God's sake, but makes conversation with me, and since 99% of my already limited mind is with my Mac, my conversation is inane to say the least, and I start off by asking her inane questions like, "how long you been here?, is it your first time? what you do?", luckily biting my tongue before I blurt out, "do you like it here?"

What is any tourist meant to say to that, "No, I hate it, actually, it stinks, there are rats everywhere, people are shitting on the roads, it's too crowded, my stomach's heaving"?, but no, they can get their back at you, with "I love the people, the colors, the way always everyone is always smiling" and you think, hmm, smiling yes, but pity no one can hear the "chk, chk, chk" grinding of their teeth, above the cacaphony, as they go around with the pieces, wooing Mr.Fix-it.

Friday, July 07, 2006


In Somalia, the Islamists have decided to kill anyone who does not say their prayers five times a day. A new Islamic law has been discovered that says that an individual who does not pray has to be killed.

We grew up believing in an Islam where prayer and fasting were an individual's choice. We were taught that if we prayed because we were forced to, or to please someone else, Allah did not "count our prayers". If we fasted when we were ill or against our wishes, Allah did not "count our fasts".

Our family remained a gathering of individuals with their own degree of religiosity, and remain so to this day. Our parents may have liked us to be stricter in religious observance, but it was always "to each his or her own", as each one of us is supposed to be "accountable for our own deeds" on Judgement Day.

I am not a practicing Muslim. I walk around in jeans, and my mother and sister accompany me in their 'ridas'. I'm a certain candidate for the gallows. But it is this growing fundamentalism everywhere, that makes me want to remember and publish the fact that I am Muslim, and that there are many other Muslims like me. Many, many other Muslims, and perhaps it's time to reclaim Islam from the fundamentalists.

For another view of Islam, read my translation Islam means

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

What I was doing when ....

....... I was not blogging, working on my film, cooking, reading.

And what Dhanno was doing then .......

Saturday, July 01, 2006

my football match

While the football fever is on, I remember the day we had to shoot the football match for "Lilkee". For days, I'd been trying to pass on the responsibility to someone else, Vivek maybe, an assistant director, the kids, and hoping they'd bite. I'd also tried wistful sighing, reminding everyone that on a commercial film set, the match would be looked after by an action choreographer, and I may not even have landed up on the location. We would also have had at least two days to shoot the match, more raw stock, and professional child artistes, who knew how to play football.

But this is a low-budget film, and I have no choice but to land up on location, and face the unit, all men, who look at me knowing I know nothing of football, nor anything about shooting the game. Twenty or more children, from the apartment block we are shooting, are at their morning best, creating a din, which makes it even harder for me to assume or pretend control. They kick around the ball, and go from one end of the garden to the other, and behave as if they've never played football before. The pathetic attempts I've made at a shot breakdown, curl up limply in my sweaty, terrified hands.

We have two hours to finish the shoot. Vivek's getting impatient, we are all yelling at each other to no effect, my assistant director goes off into silence nursing a cold. I go off to the loo, and have a secret cry, sure that everyone finds me ridiculous. I come back on location to find Aiman crying as well, for no real reason except she can feel my desperation.

I wonder why I ever wrote that football match into the script. We bung through the two hours, in a sort of stoic frenzied way. And trust to the editor to cover up the "absence" of the director.

I watch Germany and Argentina play for the World Cup, look at the tight circle of cameras around them, and keep thinking of how I could have handled my own football match better. I'm looking at the TV, but don't see Argentina make a goal.

Sometimes, you are so busy scratching your own backside, you miss the moment.

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