3.06.2016

Fernweh

The rain has been lashing out in a ceaseless torrent, with gusts deforming umbrellas and wailing though gaps in windows. The room is dark, save a little lantern with a beautifully calm flame inside. I am writing.

It is a quiet night, yet all my senses are being pandered to. The pen, setting thoughts down in cursive, is scratching the paper with just the right amount of force, and my fingers delight in being rewarded thus after spending most of their waking hours at the computer. My nose starts to smell the subtle smell of metal on top of the lantern heating up, and the freshly laundered pillows are yet to give up their scent.

The rain quietens down, and picks back up after a brief lull. A few cars hiss past on the road below.

It's a deeply personal, nostalgia-inducing moment.

Nostalgia, of course, is cheap when you're away from home and is worsened whilst advancing well into adulthood: dispatching places, friends and feelings at a disconcertingly fast pace. It's the same nostalgia that swiftly evokes memories of mango showers, of temple bells and champa incense, of simpler times, spicier food and fewer milestones passed. It is, however, also the curious form of nostalgia that does not hesitate to infuse these memories with tinges of fantasy, and a longing for a time filled with large bookshelves, of hand-written letters and of soft classical music being provided an interlude by a passing steam train.

It is the same rain that makes me take a long look outside the window at work and blissfully let the mind travel swiftly to Sengottai or Subrahmanya Road. The same rain that does not waste an opportunity to remind me of monsoon in the western ghats, of rainy afternoons in first year of college or a shared auto ride after a long evening. More recently, of the spectacular afternoon thunderstorms that were a staple of hot Atlanta summers, bringing with them the cooler evening and the subtle fragrance of Mognolia. It's the rain that pitter-patters off Berkeley's Eucalyptus grove to rush in with memories of crisp Saturday mornings in a rain washed Bangalore, where eucalyptus-scented rain and the Nalinakanthi raga united over Brooke Bond tea.

The rain continues furiously outside, and I try to explain the visceral feeling of peace I get, of some things finally being in order. Perhaps it finally lays to rest the discomfort that started a few months after having moved to drought-stricken California, of not having had a single rainy day in months. It is going to smell and feel good tomorrow morning, a proper rain-washed morning indeed. Perhaps a walk through UC Berkeley campus is in order, followed by some excellent Eggs Benedict.

I've given up trying to find a reason for why the rain continues to be such a central character in my life. Now I just long for it, and let my heart flutter at the anticipation when the skies darken.



2.15.2016

Quiet flows the Vltava

The boy stood surveying the pink summer dawn breaking over the city. Drunken shouts and dismembered voices from the last of the late night revellers were fading away, and only the chirping of birds and the gentle roar of the Vltava remained over Prague’s old town.
















St. Christopher, St. Francis Xavier, St. Joseph. The lamentation of Christ. 
Soon, the statues would be subject to the gaze of thousands of summer holidayers visiting Praha tramping up and down the historical bridge a hundred times a day. Thankfully, there was some time before all that would resume.



For now, he had the city to himself - every step on the cobblestones felt as if he was in conversation with the thousand year old character that was part and parcel of his life since birth. He took a left turn, entering one the many smaller, twisting walkways around the Náměstí Republiky. How wide they looked, he mused, in the absence of people.



The clock inside Kosta Boda showed a quarter past six - plenty of time to take a longer route to the shop. Past the fancy restaurants, past the lamp post he had driven his bicycle into five years ago, past what would be chairs and tables and posh cutlery once it was noon.

"If I hear that you've been pottering about that scoundrel’s premises again, by God I'll skin you alive!" The argument from last night rang in his ears.

He found his fingers feeling the wound on his arm from last night. His stepfather's keyring, flung at him with undisguised wrath. "Upto no good that's what he is! The conniving sonofabitch. Just because the courts declared him innocent I refuse to call my brother’s murderer anything else to his vile face. And now he has the audacity to talk to my son.”

Stepfather's rum-filled breath came out in heavy instalments - two smoker's lungs working overtime inside that frail, flailing body.

"You're not to step into that tower from tomorrow, hear me? *cough* That bloody wretch."

Hohlenstein was not a wretch, he thought, though stepfather must have called him a thousand names by now. To him, however, Hohlenstein was one of the wisest men he had ever met in Praha. It wasn't too long ago, he reminisced, that his mother had taken him to Národní třída where she introduced him to the man, whom she called an old friend. Hohlenstein had taken a liking for the young lad, and before long the boy saw in him a teacher, mentor and a friend. Hohlenstein worked during the day in the tower guarding the eastern side of the Karlův Most (or Charles Bridge, as it was known to others). There would be times the boy got an evening off work and would head up to the tower, watching Hohlenstein work away at restoring some old metal sculptures that had fallen prey to the elements. Bent over, brow wrinkled in concentration, the man would brush, polish, and rub the little figures till they shone. In the end, they would go back to their regular places, at the window of the little room on the top of the tower, or fixed along the turrets. He firmly refused any form of generosity from anyone watching him. But he would take the trouble to enlighten the curious tourist or two about his purpose. "I'm the only one who is left in charge of this tower by day, and although it is not part of my job to take care of its inanimate inhabitants, I certainly feel it is my duty to. Without me, they would erode and eventually fall apart. I am their preserver.”


The boy rounded a corner. Pigeons. The only things outnumbering humans at this time of the day. He watched as a flock heckled and pecked at one, evidently an outsider to their pack. It eventually got driven away, ruffled and flapping its wings for dear life.

Hohlenstein had another of those theories of his about life and death, which he explained once when they were taking a stroll along the river bank. The universe was an egg, he proposed. It was the same being that inhabited every living thing in it. And it was learning, through the thoughts, actions and repercussions executed by and experienced by each of them, some greater lesson. This bank of worldly experiences was going to be distilled in to serve as wisdom for the next step of where it was headed.



"Which is why we instinctively feel it is wrong to harm someone else in that process. To end life, to commit murder. It’s also why doing a good deed to help someone along in life feels good, and is seen as good. It increases the number of paths they can take in life, in the subconscious quest to harvest knowledge and experiences. So you see, we are all in a noble quest." He paused, noticing the gleam of comprehension shine in the lad's eyes.

"Now now.." he had continued, turning to face him. "Of course, this is all just my theory. I don't know if that's indeed what life is all about, but I like the fact that it explains things in a way that is neither hateful, nor excluding what we consider morally good and bad". 

It would stay with him for a very long time.



Business had started early at the shop, with the usual stock of customers - tourists stopping by before heading to the old town square, enticed by the syrupy sweet smell wafting forth from within. He took his place beside the others behind the counter and started rolling the warm fluffy Trdelníks in sprinklings of cinnamon, sugar and vanilla. It was a brisk day for business, and he could see that the astronomical clock was going to have more than a few admirers today for its hourly chiming.




Things slowed down towards late afternoon, and by evening a massive thunderstorm was threatening the skies. The scare of his stepfather's last outburst had dwindled and the boy felt a sudden longing to watch the thunderstorm from the top of the tower. There wouldn't be any tourists, and Hohlenstein wouldn't close the place till much later in the evening, so they could probably have a nice long chat watching the wind bring in the clouds. He ran up as fast as his feet could take him. Hohlenstein wasn't in his usual perch, but sat outside on the lookout balcony crouched over one of the sections of the wooden parapet facing the bridge. He removed two of the planks and loosened the others around them.

He looked up at the boy as if he had been expecting him. "A rather sinister day, isn't it?".

"I like watching the storm".

Hohlenstein grinned widely, and finished loosening the column. "So do I. I'll finish this later tomorrow. Sit down". He went in and came out with two cups of tea.



They sipped the tea in silence, lost in their own thoughts. The sun had set, but the lights on the bridge were yet to come on. Rain started falling in sparse but very heavy droplets. This was probably the darkest hour of the day. People scurried across the stone, a blurry assortment of shapes and colour. A few boats gleamed over the water, and across the river the Prague Castle and its walls shone brilliantly in the deepening dusk. Behind them, the sky was growing darker by the minute, and distant lights were starting to come on. It was as if light itself was in suspension for a few minutes during the twilight hour.



“AND HERE YOU ARE AGAIN!”. His stepfather’s inebriated voice broke him out of his reverie. The cup went tumbling over the wall onto the bridge below. He wheeled around just in time to see that Hohlenstein was no longer with him. Stepfather, however, expected him around.

"Where is he? The coward. Show your face you swine!" Cursing in Czech, he swung around to face the boy. “Zkurvysyn. I know he’s here. Where is he?”

Trembling and rooted to the spot, the lad answered, "Here. Look around you."

"Don't you dare talk to your father like that!" thundered the man. The smell of rum filled the air. His hat had fallen off, leaving a shock of untidy black hair tumbling over his face. Two bloodshot eyes shone through it dangerously. Breathing heavily, sniffing around like a wild beast, the man looked around furiously. Then he stopped.

"Well, if I can't make him appear on his own, I know just what will." He turned to the boy, and the lad saw absolute, raving madness in his eyes.

"He certainly cannot bear the thought of you tumbling down past these steep walls now can he? Can he now?", he announced to the room and started lunging across to where the lad stood.

The boy panicked. Stepfather has turned into a beast, he thought. He's not human anymore. Not an animal, for he knew even the wildest of them could be pacified. No, he thought as he stumbled away wildly across the balcony, stopping under the low wooden beams of the roof. The man's not either of the two. Behind him, his attacker roared. 

A loud crack startled him. He turned just in time to see the drunk man disappear over the parapet with a yell. A dull thump, followed by a splash, far far below. Heart pounding, he ran across to where the wooden structure had given away. The exact support-beam Hohlenstein had been working on readjusting. Cautiously, he peered over where the stone masonry threw itself steeply down the sides of the tower to the start of the bridge below. He must have fallen onto that stone statue, hitting his chest or head against it before splashing into the river. There was no chance anyone could survive that. The impact would have killed him before he hit the water.

Below him, the lights started coming on.

******

Ten thousand miles away, the evening's Mango shower had weakened into a slow drizzle, reducing itself to a soft commotion on jack fruit leaves. An oil lamp lit up the verandah in flickering hues of yellow. Leaning against the stone pillar with the grandchild on her lap, Ammooma let her voice drone on on the last lines of her story as Unnikkuttan slowly drifted off to sleep. "... Neither during the day nor during night, but at twilight; neither on the ground nor on the sky… by no weapon nor by any living creation of Brahma, thus fulfilling the boon granted to Hiranyakashipu."

Unnikkuttan had begun to snore gently.

"...And that mone, is the story of Praha-lad".



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The post is the outcome of a combination of:
1. Yours truly's attempt to bring back (what we call) the Shenoy artform
2. A result of feeling pleased with converting some of my photos from that lovely city to monochrome.
3. Wanting to squeeze in a lot of subtle mythological references whilst spinning one's own variations of popular tales.
4. A stubborn resolve to get some writing done.