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Lost in Translation

The doctor was awakened by the sharp official rap of military knuckles on his door. He drew aside the goose-down comforter, flicked a switch on, put on his spectacles which were lying on the bedside table and looked at the wall clock. It smiled back to him at 2 a.m. There were four quick knocks on the door.
He put on his overcoat, wrapped it tightly around himself with one hand and proceeded to open the door just a crack, in a bid to keep the whistling cold out.
“The general wishes to see you in the interrogation room, sir,” a young soldier shouted over the roar of the wind as he saluted the doctor.
The doctor acknowledged him with a stiff nod and went back in to get dressed.
In ten minutes he was walking across the snow-laden courtyard to the shack at the far end of the compound as the snow came down hard. He was in his winter uniform, his sparse hair was neatly combed back and he carried a leather briefcase – worn by use – in his right hand.
He knocked and entered the log shack.
A single, incandescent bulb hung steady from a rafter at the other end and cast a large bright circle of light. In it was a young boy in civilian clothes, supported on either side by two young, well-built soldiers. The kid’s head hung limp over his chest; as if the neck were not there to support it, and his long brown hair fell over his forehead and eyes. There was a deep gash on his right cheek and the fresh blood shone bright as it caught the light and trickled out. Dry blood clung to his cracked lips and a dark patch on the side of his grey trousers spoke of a bullet wound.
“Good morning, Dr. Shepherd.”
“Good morning, General,” the doctor replied officially. He set his briefcase down on the table and proceeded to open it.
“That won’t be necessary doctor, you’re only here as an interpreter. German kid,” the general said as if it explained all, and he walked around behind the kid. The doctor looked at the boy. He needed urgent medical care.
“Ask him what he was doing sneaking around the camp.”
The doctor did as he was told in a soft, comforting voice and the boy, on finally hearing some German, opened his tired, heavy eyes and looked at the doctor through his hair. The doctor, bent down, leaned over and brushed the hair off his eyes.
“Ich bin kein Soldat,” the boy whispered with difficulty.
“What did he say?”
“Says he’s not a soldier,” the doctor said.
“Ich bin nur ein Pfortner”
“Says he’s only a porter.”
“He’s a bloody, lying spy,” the General screamed. “Ask him where he’s come from and whom he’s reporting to.”
The doctor spoke to the kid.
“Ich bin ein Portier mit der Deutsch Armee. Ich war auf der Flucht vor dem deutschen Lager und wurde von meinen eigenen Landsleuten erschossen.”
“What did he say?” the general asked impatiently.
“He says he was a porter with the German army and that he was shot by his own countrymen while he was running away from the camp a few hours earlier.”
“That’s a lie, sir.” It was the big burly soldier who stood supporting the German kid that spoke. “I saw him slouching around outside the camp and I shot him, sir, I did.”
“I know you did, I know you did. And I also know the kid’s a bloody liar,” the general said.
There was a long silence, as the general walked over to his armchair and sat down. He put his feet up on the table. One first. Then the other. He pulled out a small leather pouch and poured some tobacco out onto his palm. He ground it with his thumb as he stared intently at the kid. He then put the powder in his pipe and lit it, breathing in deeply and puffing out a satisfied cloud of thick white smoke.
“You could have missed you know.”
It was the doctor who spoke. The general, and both soldiers looked at him. The doctor however looked directly at the tall, well-built soldier. The soldier glared back at him silently. The doctor outranked him. “You could have missed. It’s dark outside and the kid could have fallen down to the ground afraid, and covered his head, anticipating further fire.”
Then, turning to the general, “Let me check the wound and treat it, sir. I’ll know if it’s a fresh wound or if it’s several hours old like the kid claims.”
“There’ll be no need for that doctor,” the general said matter-of-factly. “Like I said, you’re only here as an interpreter.”
“But…”
“Enough doctor. ”
At this point, the kid mumbled something and the doctor leaned over close to better hear what he was saying. He then reached into the boy’s coat pocket and pulled out a soggy, letter.
“What did he say, again,” the general asked.
“He says his father was killed by enemy fire in his village and that he was going back home to be with his mother who is all alone now. That’s the letter his mother sent him,” the doctor said, looking at the paper.
The general burst out laughing. “Nice little stories they weave the bastards.” Then turning to the hefty solider he barked, “Show the boy how we treat lying bastards around here.”
The soldier let the kid’s arm go, and without warning, lifting his rifle up in a high arc, he brought the butt down with crashing force on the boy’s foot. The thud, the crushing of bones and the anguished scream of agony tore through the silent night.
The doctor, shut his eyes.
The general blew out a puff of white smoke as he shifted the pipe from one side of the mouth to the other.
A mangled mess of flesh and blood and powdered bones was all that was left of the boy’s foot. He fell to the ground in unbearable pain, half unconscious, but the soldier took his position again and held him up.
“Ask him now, if he’s still a porter,” the general told the doctor.
The doctor didn’t move. “Do it now,” the general snapped. The doctor followed the order, but the boy was panting, and suffering and lacked the energy to utter any word.
On the general’s nod, the soldier let go off the boy again and once again lifted his rifle up over his head. Sensing the impending crash, the boy mustered all his energy and spoke a few feeble words in a hoarse, rasping whisper, which the doctor could just barely hear.
“Ich lüge nicht… Ich weiß gar nichts… Ich gehe nach Hause, zu Hause, heim zu meiner Mutter…”
The doctor stared back at the kid. He swallowed the lump that hurt in his throat and whispered softly back, “verzeihen Sie mir, mein Sohn. (Forgive me, son.)”
The kid looked back at him uncomprehendingly.
“Well?” the general asked.
The doctor stood up, “Sir, the kid says that he was sent by Commander Hause to spy on our camp and report back on how many men and what kind of artillery we had.”
The general stood up triumphantly and unholstered his revolver. “I knew it. I knew it the bastard was lying. They train them well these Germans, don’t they doctor?”
“Yes sir, they do,” the doctor replied plainly and courteously. Then he continued, “Will that be all, sir?”
“Yes Dr. Shepherd, that will be all. Thank you.”
The doctor stepped out into the wind and the snow. He heard a laughter, a shot and a soft thud, as he shut the door behind him. He put on his cap and stood there for a second before proceeding.

“I’m not lying. I don’t know anything. I am going home, home, home to my mother…”

The doctor walked back in the chilly night. He carried his briefcase in one gloved hand. In the other – bare – he felt the warmth of a crumpled letter soaked in young blood.

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Chennai. For years it was synonymous with the rust-coloured, clock-towered Central Station, a transit point on journeys to and fro from Pondicherry. A comma, a semi-colon at most, that you paused at for a while but never really cared enough to give a thought to. It was that hustle-bustle of a big city quite alien to the quiet of the five-street Pondicherry that was home.

But in the past two years, Chennai grew into much much more, and all seemingly at once, or at least in quick succession. It was college at ACJ, work at The Hindu and home at Ramaniyam Gallery. In an ironic reversal of roles, home at Pondy became the transit point as I returned there like a homing pigeon on practically every day off in the week, even if it was only to spend a few hours.
In two years, that must be give or take100 trips on the Pondy-Chennai ECR. Freaking 32,000 km. Name any hour of the day or night and chances are I’ve traveled at that time either one way or the other. At times it was six hours of traveling for fewer hours home.

Come to think of it, they could make a film, “Down on the Ground” about my journeys on the ECR. It’s a pity Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation and PRTC don’t have a miles program. If they did, by now I’d have given George Clooney a run for his money while holding a platinum privilege card guaranteeing lifelong free travel on the ECR.

Anyway, in the beginning it was always getting to Pondy that felt like homecoming, until slowly, that feeling extended to Thiruvanmiyur, Ramaniyam Gallery, and Apartment 5B. Whichever way the bus was headed on the ECR, it felt I was always going home, and that was comforting to say the least.

There’s something quite liberating about living alone, in a place that feels like and you’d love to call home. To be in charge, in control of things. To be the one making the rules of what’s allowed, what’s not, and to be responsible and sensible enough to know the difference. To be the host. To cook, to sweep, to do the dishes. To shop for vegetables and groceries. To dance like no one’s watching, to sing like no one’s hearing, to sleep when the hell it pleased you, and more so to wake up like the day was all yours.

But all that’s a closed chapter now. And for now at least, in a strange way, Chennai seems more home than Pondy. I know it’s only a passing feeling, because while I’ve learned to live away from Pondy like I never thought possible, it is still too much part of me to be replaced by any other city.

I guess it’s just one of those days when you feel warm inside about being nostalgic and sad in a happy sort of way. To look back on two years spent in a city that went about its way, and let you go about yours without making too much of a fuss. A city that grew on you and developed into words and sentences from the punctuation mark it once was.
Words and sentences that might perhaps fade inconspicuously into pages, without ever fully getting erased. Coming up every now and then, like bittersweet thoughts that resurface quite inexplicably when you are idling, thinking of nothing in particular, staring at the ceiling fan go round, or looking blankly at the fleeting scenery on a long road trip.

Be it the little girl who walked in the evening with her grandfather by the Thiruvanmiyur beach and waved with subdued excitement every time I crossed her as I trained for the marathon or the peanuts man who kept my cone of hot, boiled peanuts ready at 6 p.m. for me to munch on during the short walk to the MRTS station, or just sitting on the water tank of the tallest building in the area and watching the 21st century go busily about its business far below to the right, while to the left, the white surf lazily came and went on the black Bay.

Home is where the heart is all right, but right now that’s all over the place. I never thought I’d feel this way, but I’ll miss Chennai… I’ll miss Apartment 5B and all that it represented… And even though I’m homeward bound, I guess I’ll miss my home.

 

Necessity is the mother of invention they say and the trickle-down effect of the global financial crisis has forced people to come up with innovative ideas to make that extra buck.

Not to be left behind, The Tourism Ministry has launched a new flagship initiative – Election Tourism – to woo tourists from abroad. “Come witness the great Indian tamasha,” is the tagline of this new campaign that has received hot response so far.

There are several packages up for grabs. As part of a package, tourists can accompany politicians on their campaigns as they prepare for the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for April and May 2009. Continue Reading »

 

 

Martin Luther King III and Kamal Haasan

Martin Luther King III and Kamal Haasan

Poetry and music; India and America, Martin Luther King and Gandhiji, Western and Classical – The Living Dream concert organised by the US Consulate General – Chennai, wove all of these seemingly disconnected strands into a tapestry of hope and peace.

 

The event held last Wednesday night at the Venkata Subba Rao  Concert Hall, was arranged to honour Martin Luther King III – son of Martin Luther King, Jr – on his visit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his father’s prilgrimage to India in 1959. His father was here to meet the Gandhi family and learn about his methods of non-violence so that he could employ them in the Civil Rights movements back home. Continue Reading »

Warning: Long Post

 

Timekeepers note down the results at Certitude

Timekeepers note down the results at Certitude

The banner along the route of the Auroville half marathon said I had seven more kilometres to go to the finish line.  The body cried, “stop,” the mind said “go” and I was proverbially caught between a rock and a hard place and felt what a rope probably feels during a tug-of-war. What confused me even more was the identity-crisis. Who was the real ‘me’, the body or the mind? I was tempted to think it was the body. 

 

As I learned at the end, the real “me” turned out to be … but wait, we’ll get to the end when we get there. Let’s start at the very beginning; it’s a very good place to start.  Continue Reading »

 

Gingee, December 8, 2008: 16:54.13. That is what the digital display of the watch said and no, it didn’t mean 4:54 P.M. This was the duration – approximately 17 hours – for the annual 73 km walk from Pondicherry to Gingee Fort undertaken by students, ex-students, and faculty and sports instructors of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education at Pondicherry. We began at 1:30 P.M on ‘just another lazy Sunday afternoon’, and reached Gingee Fort on Monday morning at around 6:30, having walked through the night!

Early on, it seems like a cake-walk

Early on, it seems like a cake-walk

This Gingee walk is neither a pilgrimage nor is it a walk or a campaign for an espoused cause, it is a walk to test one’s mental and physical endurance by doing something challenging. Those who think that the whole concept is freaking crazy, are right too because when it comes to this walk the hendiatris is ‘Challenging, Freaking, Crazy’ much like ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ is for the Olympics. I asked my cousin to join me in this endeavour and he said, “2000 years of evolution of the wheel, the motor and mechanised transport have not taken place for me to take part in this prehistoric walk! If I want to get from Pondy to Gingee I’ll take the bus.” Continue Reading »

 

CHENNAI, Dec 2: Chennai was treated to some uplifting music when Shankar Mahadevan, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Sivamani, Selva Ganesh, and U.Srinivas performed at the University of Madras auditorium as part of the Heart Beat Concert organised by the Times of India. 

Before the programme the audience stood up and observed a minute’s silence in memory of those who suffered the terrorist strikes in Mumbai last week. The concert was also dedicated by the musicians to a common friend and colleague, sound engineer H. Sridhar, who passed away in the city on Monday.

Sivamani, Selva Ganesh, U. Srinivas, Shankar Mahadevan and Ustad Zakir Hussain

From left to right: Sivamani, Selva Ganesh, U. Srinivas, Shankar Mahadevan and Ustad Zakir Hussain

 The concert opened with a Ganesh stuti by Shankar Mahadevan (vocal)  accompanied by U.Srinivas (mandolin). The piece began with a short alaap before its tempo rose steadily as Mahadevan and Srinivas performed an intricate jugalbandi. As they neared the climax, they were joined by Ustad Zakir Hussain (tabla), Sivamani (drums, percussion), and Selva Ganesh (kanjira). It was as if two underground streams were rushing side by side, flirting with one another, joining here, splitting there until they finally merged and erupted forth from the ground in a fountain of crescendo that ended abruptly leaving nothing but echoes – and a spellbound audience drenched to the bone with music.    Continue Reading »