Is Cambodia Worth Losing Two Legs For?

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The lady at the next table raised her voice, breaking the murmur of conversation in her group. “Listen! I must tell you something.”

You’d think she was speaking Hindi, from the speed of her speech, the manner of speaking, her accent, and inflexions — but the words were all English. Anyway, her insistence hushed her three companions, all male.

“I know, like, a lady in our complex. She has a husband, you know, and a child. She was fine, like. Then suddenly she developed aching in her legs and after waiting for a long time she decided to see the docs.”

It was hard to tell her words in the din of the cafe. Also, I was trying to stay focused on Coetzee, who I was reading.

“She was losing control over her legs. After so many days they diagnosed what was wrong. She’d been infected by a dog tick in Cambodia, and … “

“Dog tick?” One of the men interrupted.

“Dog, tick,” she affirmed. “Dog tick. Now the problem was, like, they didn’t know the cure. They’d studied this thing in college, but they didn’t know the treatment. Now both her legs are amputated.”

Her companions fell silent, but I had a question I couldn’t ask: These days, doctors consult with peers across the globe in real time over the Net. Couldn’t they gather the information they needed? And, at any rate, wasn’t it impressive how they traced the cause to a dog tick? In Cambodia?

Breathing deep, I let it pass. And remembered the few weeks I spent in Cambodia, ten years ago.


An essay by Amitav Ghosh took me there: Dancing in Cambodia. It tells the story of the Khmer Rouge, starting the narrative with a Cambodian troupe of dancers who performed in France and won, among thousands of French people, the attention of the great Rodin, who followed them from Paris to Marseilles and painted them. Later, in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge would decimate art and culture and all intellectual effort in the nation. The essay pushed me to travel to the place forthwith. My primary destination was the school Tuol Sleng from Amitav's story, which is now maintained as a Torture Museum, but I extended the travel to Siem Reap, the Cardamom Mountains, and Sihanoukville.


During the short reign of the Khmer Rouge, some 15,000 young and old prisoners passed through the horrors of Tuol Sleng, en route to certain death.

The school was a few minutes’ walk from my riverside hotel in Phnom Penh, reached through malodorous streets — Rue Pasteur, Sihanouk Boulevard, Monivong Boulevard, Norodom Boulevard — quite like the streets in small-town India. The school was plain — a staid missionary-style school, typical of Asia. In bare classrooms stripped of desks and benches and equipped with cheap metal cots, every conceivable excess man can devise for man was performed. Lesser prisoners built their own tiny mini-cells within the classrooms. It was not difficult to imagine the doings that happened there — here was a place that revealed the cruel face of mankind — a place that could crush the toughest. I went out and sat a half-hour on a bench in the schoolyard and watched sparrows flitting about in the heavy, tainted silence.


I spent the following week in Siem Reap, experiencing a different, older history of Cambodia, spending daytime in wonder among the ruins of the magnificent wats in a setting nestled among grand equatorial trees. Although the jungle that had enveloped this wonder has been cleared, giant trees still gripped large parts of the structures with talon-like roots.

In the evenings the air of Siem Reap town was insufferable, worse even than in Phnom Penh, from bad gasoline sold street-side in bottles and used by all classes of vehicles. I wore an ineffective surgical mask to hold off poisoned air. Toward the end of the week, returning to the hotel after a spicy Indian meal at Kamasutra on Pub Street, unable to breathe once without searing my chest, I cried out loud in anger, again and again.


I cleared my lungs in the Cardamom Mountains in the following week, feasting on pine-scented air in a cottage by a large, tranquil pond. I read Thoreau in the week. The resort where I stayed was almost entirely taken over by a missionary team from the US, their Khmer recruits, and many children. After raining bombs long and hard on these luckless people, these people from faraway nations were engaged in harvesting beautiful Khmer souls. One morning, I shared my table with the lead evangelist. He was young and friendly and very fresh-faced. “Join us for a prayer meeting?” he asked me, and smiled when I said, “Let me try.”


After the mountains I spent lazy hours on the boat in the sun off Sihanoukville, watching raptors swoop right before our vessel and pick off supple fish from the waters. There was peace all round that brought out a sigh now and then, but neither mountain nor water cheered me. It didn’t help that each evening after dinner I had to fend off taxi drivers determined to carry me off to a massage house. “Sexy massage. You want boy or girl?” I’d been four weeks in a land too steeped in tragedy.

On the eve of departure, I stayed in the pompous, and positively un-homey Hotel Cambodiana, for supper and a few hours’ sleep. I couldn’t sleep that much. A text message arrived in the small hours, telling me I had lost my father.


This story should’ve been about another person’s grief. I cannot help but wonder if, for that lady, Cambodia was worth losing two legs for.

But He Didn't Have a Couch

Photo by CurvaBezier/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by CurvaBezier/iStock / Getty Images

It was a small room in a small clinic, and I'd come in from the rain. The only window was to my left, and it let in no air, didn't send air out either. The man before me and I sat inhaling one another’s exhalations.

I was on the seventh day on antidepressants, prescribed by a psychiatrist a week ago. They’d set off a raging in my head, and returned me to insomnia that I’ve known only when very young. “Also, you need to see a clinical psychologist,” the psychiatrist had added: “He won’t advise you, but he'll help patch gaps in your thinking.” That order had been given me in a bright room with air conditioning, which I was now obeying, arriving in this sauna, where the lighting was as dim as my worldview at the moment.

“It’s a pity nobody told you about clinical psychologists all these years,” the man said. “Your problems would’ve been solved long ago.”

I nodded so much as to intimate acknowledgement without agreement. You’d understand I was not in a believing state of mind.

“You may need some pharmacological treatment. Please take it. But I can also cure you,” he said. “First, I don’t want you to think you’re depressed. You are not depressed. You're facing inertia. That's all."

I considered the rapid diagnosis. And how he was speaking in earnest, and how much. His enthusiasm had me wondering if I was the kind of patient clinical psychologists pine for. Still, wasn't he speaking more than was my right as the patient? It was then that I remembered movies I've seen, and cartoons in The New Yorker and Punch and such, in which the shrink does nearly no speaking. That's the patient's prerogative. And, looking about the air-locked room, I wondered, Where is the couch, where I should've been reclining, from which I should’ve speaking up to the dark? Shouldn't this man be back of me, on a side and pensive, pen and pad in hand?

"I get people of all ages," he was saying in the meantime. “With all complaints. I get men asking to increase the urge. I get men asking to reduce the urge. Just the other day, I got a 77-year-old man who can't do anything, but he's got too much urge. His wife had given him a hiding. He'd gone and done something to the maid. Now he’s asking, Doctor do something for me.”

(Was that a Freudian spot in our interaction, devised to provoke response? If yes, I'm curious to know how he interpreted the holy blank face I held out to him. Into which pigeonhole did I go?)

"As regards you, you're in inertia. You’re not at your potential. We can take care of it."

How so fantastic. To prove himself, he told me about a businessman who came to him at another hospital where he was working — a high-end hospital that caters to non-resident Indians.

"He had a factory in Malaysia. Doing about 300 crores. 'I should be happy, Doctor,’ he told me, ‘because I make so much money. Still, I'm not happy.' So I said, 'Who told you 300 crores is a lot of money? Just before you a patient met me who is doing 10,000 crores. Here. In India.'

"After that patient left, I forgot him. He came back after three years. 'Remember me, Doctor?' he asked me. I said, 'No.' How can I remember all patients? Then he told me about our last meeting. 'Now I have two more factories, Doctor. One in Dubai, one in Brazil. I spend ten days every month in each place, and now I'm really content. My revenues are up two times.'"

“We must ask you the same thing,” he said, bending forward. “Are you running at full potential?”

"I want to write, Doctor," I said. "I wish to be a writer."

"We can make you a writer also," he said, leaning back in his chair.

A flush of warmth shot across my being, of a kind I'd experienced long years ago when I'd first gone out with my wife — before we were married — when our foreheads had knocked one another's on the bumpy bus ride. On Route 11 in Mysore, from college to NR Mohalla. Electric images of books and newspaper features with my name on top swam before my eyes — but only for a moment. Soon as they came, the sweet visions vaporised.

“How shall we take this forward?” I asked him. He proposed an aggressive and immediate schedule. “Think about your convenience and get back,” he said.


"How did it go?" my wife wanted to know when I got home.

"Great," I said. “Learned guy. He's a PhD."

My wife arched high her brow, puckered her lips, and nodded in appreciation.

"But he didn't have a couch," I said.

Sense and the City

Photo by naumoid/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by naumoid/iStock / Getty Images

Last night’s rain was rough and lasted hours. Spirited thunder and lightning accompanied it, forcing us awake, keeping us awake. We heard the distribution transformer down the street explode twice. The power went out with the first blast, and we were surprised that the transformer had meat left to blow up a second time. This morning, I stepped out a half-hour late for my walk, at 5:30, because snakes are a real threat in the neighbourhood and I didn’t want to step on one unwittingly, on wet streets with no streetlights.

Yesterday’s red patches of the large and juicy spathodea had been washed away by flooding brought on by the downpour. The streets looked almost like their cousins in better-managed countries. A good start to the day.

But the air has turned greyer than the sky. The punishing rain has softened the streets, and constant traffic has skinned the asphalt and ground it to gravelly powder and dust for wheels to whisk into the air, all day long. You’re all right if you are in a car. It must be terrible for motorcyclists. As regards pedestrians, Bangalore stopped respecting them a long time ago.

Such are the sights and sounds of my city these days and, on top of them, it is a time of festivals of all faiths, and some party or the other are setting off firecrackers every evening. They’re also taking out colourful processions (with Bollywood and Sandalwood music) on streets that have no room for a lone pedestrian. I should be happy for them who are rejoicing: There’s invigorated bhajan and āzān, delivered over loudspeakers, early morning and late nights. And I am religious myself. Whatever the faith, God is being worshipped. But to be honest these amplified affirmations of devotion are a bother, even if they’re musical, and I’d rather they performed their rituals in their homes as I do in mine.

In such a state of mind, I was browsing on my Mac just now, and an Osho video caught my attention, in which he preaches, If small things are bothering you then your attitude is the problem. Accept everything, he says, and you will observe your breathing, without needing to force yourself to watch it, and then you will experience deep relaxation. Accept all that you see and all that you hear. And, he says, you must note the smells, and surrender to them also.

I have enjoyed occasional sermons of this compelling speaker on video. He has the eyes and the composure and the delivery (and the flowing white beard) to lock you in and believe every word he says. With quiet force, the man argues that smell has been repressed for centuries and therein lie the reasons for the misery of man.

Whereas I, I’ve always believed that smell is quite rightly ignored.

To inhale Bangalore and to accept it, to correct my attitude. O, Osho, who was never born and who never died! Who only visited planet Earth for a time. I’ll heed you through this week and sniff at our city in this gloomy season. Please, may I suffer no side effects.

The Airplane Was Red

Illustrative Image: Photo by s96serg/iStock / Getty Images

Illustrative Image: Photo by s96serg/iStock / Getty Images

It was a red plane.

It was flying low that typical tropical summer day. It was vacation time, and schools were shut for summer after the year's final examinations. We were playing marbles, or perhaps we were spinning tops — I don’t remember — when we heard the drone overhead and looked up.

"It's coming down," somebody observed, and without any delay, we gathered up our game and put it in our pockets and started after the plane. We didn’t think to check the truth in the observation, the trajectory, or anything at all. We were ten-year-olds, wired at that age to leap with the impulse.

So we ran after the shiny thing above us, tracing its flight path on the rock-strewn ground below. We ran two hours, or perhaps three, it's hard to tell after all these years. We ran and ran, and we kept running in its general direction even after it disappeared from sight.

I do not think we even hoped to get to that thing. We'd seen something, and we were chasing after it. That's it.

The town of my childhood was very small. If there were sneakers in the world those days, our stores didn’t know of them. We got by with a pair of cheap black-leather shoes for school, and flip flops for all other times. We might’ve been wearing flip-flops that day we pursued the plane, but it is more likely our feet were bare, but that was all right because our feet were calloused enough from rough and restless daily use on rock and thorn and mud and gravel and concrete.

Our path went cross-country, of course.

And we came upon the plane. It didn't occur to us that day how improbable a thing had happened. Coming upon it, in a sudden flat clearing, we stopped and steadied our breathing and walked up a respectable distance to it, and considered our find. It seemed new, I remember, and was glossy like candy in the red parts — the fuselage, the tail. The rest of it was steel-grey, and it shone in those parts as well. It stood there all by itself, nobody inside it, none outside. No pilot. No bystanders. There was no sign of a village, or a lone dwelling in any direction around us — only a rough terrain full of stones and thorny shrubs and other scrubby greens. Not arable land, thinking back on the scene now. I cannot recall why, but a fear came over us, and we turned back, having spent no more than a few minutes before this first plane that we'd seen in our lives.

It took us the entire afternoon to cover the distance we'd run on the out trip. We were tired, and we weren’t running on the return.

Near the limits of the town, on a familiar street, we came upon a vendor of ice-candy. We had just-about enough coins to buy one of those sticky orangey things for each of us. They smeared their colour around our mouths, and we reached home looking like monkeys of a type. A new fear was now upon us: We'd all missed lunch, and we'd have been missed in our homes. There was explaining to do and beatings to take, by hands of those who loved us most, who’d have been anxious all day on our account.

Folks who know my town, which still doesn't have an airport, won't believe this story that I find implausible myself. Why was a plane parked on that scrubland with no one — not even the pilot — anywhere near it? But I can hazard a guess now: The airplane had developed a snag while flying, the pilot had made an emergency landing, and he'd gone looking for help and a phone.

Anyway, this happened. Really.

A Day in Malnad to Clear the Head

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Depression in the Bay has brought a week of rain to Malnad, about five inches of it, taking the rainfall so far in the year to thirty-eight inches. Two-thirds of the monsoon season is now past. There will not be the historical average of ninety inches of rain this year, like last year and the year before. But the coffee plantations of Malnad have adjusted to the lack, it seems. All signs suggest a healthy crop at year’s end, provided nothing goes wrong in the time left, such as, for instance, rains from the Bay during cherry-picking.

So we didn’t worry for coffee, or for pepper, during this weekend's visit to the thota. We relaxed to the din of the birds that lasts through breakfast. (During which time the birds complete their morning-meal, and fly out to their different day jobs leaving behind an ocean of silence.) But by afternoon the cloudiness got me, boxing me in, in the vast, hilly sprawl of the place. In the evenings the cicada hemmed us in with their racket, though they were fewer this time than usual, as though their scouts had arrived ahead of the army of them, to test if the rain was for real.

And the elephants compacted the place even more. This was the first time the elephants had arrived on the plantation the same time as us, but they didn’t come over to the bungalow. They’ve been camping around our home lately, on the grassy clearing there, but this time they stayed out at their old lodging on a patch of jungle on the northeastern edge of our property.

“Don’t go out before 9:00. Don’t stay out after 6:00.” That was Basavanna’s caution to us as we were turning south at Ballupet en route our estate. That’s the precaution he takes himself, in his place next to ours.

So I sat and finished the novel I’d brought along. And, my wife and I took in the view and the feel of the place from within the bungalow, delighting in the pepper vines that are shooting up on the replanted coffee patch back of the house. A chill crept in from the crevices that the vermin use; the drizzle outside was constant, and the breeze with it; mist covered the distant hills and the tops of the areca palms along the stream which is our eastern boundary.

We did go out during the day, giving due respect to the northeast corner. I looked for the top of the elephant over the coffee and searched for its legs in the hollows below the high robusta plants. I sniffed at the clean air for the reputed stink of the wild elephant. All through, I maintained the bravest face I could and told my wife thrice or four times that we should foremost be calm if the beast should come up.

“We should turn around and walk away. But without haste. If we show agitation, the thing will think it should engage.”

My wife nodded as if to agree, but I could tell from thirty years with her that in the nooks of her mind she had plans of her own that she'd more likely follow, pulling me along as well.

I was happy to be returning to Bangalore, and I nearly said so in the car on the highway. But I checked myself when, in that very moment, my wife sank in her seat and sighed and said, “Just one day in the place and my head clears up completely.”

Incredible India

A blue public bus has passed thrice before me, bearing across its side a large-lettered legend: "Begging is a Punishable Offence." On the right end of it are the cupped wrinkled hands of the beggar. On the left, there’s the face of the Chief Minister grinning his brightest, as if in triumph at passing such daring legislation.

This is a politician whose secular intentions satisfy the liberal in me. He is also a socialist of a type and has been cool toward business and industry through the four years of his Chief Ministership. As regards me, I work in the avionics industry, and I’ve been vexed at a lingering opportunity not grabbed with both hands — to our general detriment.

So, now in this moment, I draw deep a sip of cold-brewed iced-coffee and close my eyes a moment and feel my emotions dissolve and disappear.

The bus takes a long time each time to negotiate the roundabout I'm facing. There's not enough width on the streets, and cars and motorcycles swarm around the bus, and the big long thing appears like a lizard bobbing among small and big ants of many hues.

I’m sitting in Starbucks, looking out, with the *Enchantress of Florence” in hand and jazz in my ears. The book is set in Agra and Florence and Turkey and Samarkand and shows off how Rushdie can weave an enchanting story using just those touristic places and the lands and the seas and the times that bind them. I've been in three of those locations, Samarkand not yet in my plans, but I haven't been able to get Florence and Agra and Istanbul into a decent blog post even.

(Rushdie is so expert he can word-paint with astounding brilliance Akbar the Great, but hush! To recognise greatness in Akbar is sacrilege these days.)

I should’ve been in Krakow this week, walking the streets and admiring the architecture and learning on site its near and long history. Instead, here I am at our local Starbucks, where I'm counting the rounds a commuter bus has been making and watching during pauses from reading Rushdie the Barista Cafe across the street, and the tree that conceals a half of it. A man is offering earnest prayers to the trunk of the tree. I say amen.

And I sip my coffee for which, when I stood in line, I had to tell off three men in whites who tried to jump ahead of me. But they were all right. They went to the back without making a noise, though each of them was burly, and clearly from the wealthy builder class, or the political — separations which when they exist, are thin and faint.

I had bought the tickets, made the hotel reservation, picked my seats on the plane for all sectors, but forty-eight hours before departure for Krakow a gloom came over me, black like the season’s clouds hanging overhead. In minutes I cancelled all reservations and leaned forward and settled in the pose of Rodin's Thinker, seeing grey, thinking nothing.

I haven’t missed the recurrent news of protests against tourists in Europe. In Venice, the voice of pain of the diminishing, 55000-strong populace is smothered under a daily deluge of tourist numbers multiples its size. Echoes of the protest are ringing out in Barcelona, and in Majorca, and in Rome where the mayor has asked visitors to leave his fountains alone.

Until now, visitors sought the fountains to relive cinematic moments, to rub some star dust on themselves. But folks need water, any water, across Europe this summer, because a heat wave is roiling the continent — so the news goes. Even Poland, where I was going, wasn’t exempt from Lucifer. Settling into schadenfreude, exclaiming how fortuitous I didn’t go, I checked the weather in Krakow: 26ºC daytime;16ºC nighttime; no rain in the week. The cloud over my head came down an increment.

But the protests have gotten me thinking. Now that everybody is travelling, is the cool thing to stay home? Home needn't be my residence in Bangalore. It could mean this Incredible India which I can cover by car, in long and short trips over time.

The Europeans could learn from us. We have monuments as old as theirs, and great and minor rivers, and mountains and valleys of flowers, and music and yoga and Bollywood and yes, oh yes, our touted culture and hospitality. And yet we keep tourists from abroad to a minimum. With such little effort. Ask the European who's been here already, I say.

Can you write a decent blog post staying put at home? I feel my clouds descending another notch.

Behind me, the three men in whites whom I’d told off at the counter are talking big-time politics. The second-most powerful man in India, and perhaps the feistiest, has been in town three days. These men, who are from the northern part of my state, are critiquing that leader in the lyrical Kannada of their region, in their diction that I love. I should’ve been accommodating toward them at the counter, I tell myself, and start warming toward home and note that the blue bus has arrived the fourth time.

Begging is banished, I see again. How nice. Where have those wrinkly joined hands gone now? I ask, rising to leave. Coffee is good at Starbucks, but I must go home for rice and sambar.

Only Ten Crores

Photo by triloks/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by triloks/iStock / Getty Images

Nights on the way home, nearing journey's end, we leave the main street and turn into Sadashivanagar — to enjoy for a short stretch a little less traffic. On this length live the actor-brothers Puneeth and Raghavendra, in adjacent identical cubic palaces. Several political leaders own private residences on this street, such as a recent foreign minister of India. And then there are the homes that hide that belong to the big, big industrialists.

Early last week we’d gone up one block in Sadashivanagar when we hit a police cordon. We were forced to turn right, back to the highway.

“What’s up?” I asked Mahesh, my driver. He gathers all the news during his downtime through the day.

“There’s a raid at Shivakumar’s house. By Income Tax people.”

Shivakumar is a top minister in the state government. He lives on this street that I favor. Entry to it was blocked the next night as well.

And the day after, I was in the area in the afternoon, needing to see my dentist on the edge of Sadashivanagar. The dentist has no parking and, being without a driver for the day, I had to struggle for space, circling, again and again, the cordon that covered three or several blocks around Shivakumar’s house. Hunting on the periphery, I found an opening by the Chroma electronics store. I drove in parked my car among a posse of police cars.

At the yellow barricade manned by the police end to end, I asked, “Can I leave my car there?”

“No.”

“I need to go to the dentist.”

“Where?”

“There.”

“Park there, then,” the policeman I was talking to said, waving toward a far distance.

“No room there. I’ve been going round and round twenty minutes.”

He considered me, my gray hair, and the hardcover book in my hand. On my part, I studied his burnt face, beaten by daily duty beneath the sun. Sweat glistened on it. Rain from the night before had left the day sultry.

He signaled okay to another cop.

The Police were camped at every intersection, sprawled and baking in red plastic chairs in the middle of the road and on the sidewalks. The thickest concentration of them was before Shivakumar’s house. Media persons milled about their OB vans. In Shivakumar’s compound, there were men in fatigues holding mean-looking guns. For all the numbers of men and women of action — the police, the press, the super-police, the minister's fans — there was no action. Boredom ruled. An IT raid is exciting in name only, the action itself being slow, tedious, bureaucratic.

Young broadcasters sat on the sidewalks and leaned back on compound walls. They seemed the most affected by the ennui of the thing. Shivakumar’s followers sat about in groups, in conversation among themselves — their faces showed concern, anger even, but there was no danger in the air.


The evening news reported the cash found. Seven crores, some said. Ten crores, others claimed. Barely a million and a half dollars! That’s no compliment to Shivakumar.


Because Shivakumar has a reputation. A big reputation. My grasp of its details is hazy, though. That’s because I belong to the legion that’s more glued to Donald Trump and his potential nemeses. So bitten am I by the Trump bug, I’m more focused on how he'll handle Jong-un than I am on our giant neighbor rapping a paw on a sore spot near India’s shoulder. At Doklam. Am I ashamed? Yes. Will I do something about it? I have only the addict’s weak answer.

Also, Shivakumar has a story. The ever-inspiring rags-to-riches story. The story of a farmer's son who started out with five acres of land and created wealth enough to be ranked among the richest in India. And he built himself a matching career in politics, reaching within grasp of Chief Ministership. His business success is significant for me; it points to what I could've done, but didn't.

I haven’t met Shivakumar ever, but I remember this: While driving past his house once, I had to pause a moment. Shivakumar had gotten out of his car and was crossing the street to his gate. He glanced at me, a smile playing on his lips. His face shone with the sheen of the powerful. His politico's whites were bright and stiff with starch. He seemed to be reaching out, to engage, and I'd liked him that moment. It was another face of his in the newspapers this week, with sag and pouches and stubble and fatigue on it.

So there, this was the big local news this week, close to where I live. It provoked no emotion in me. Now on the weekend, the police and the press and the strongman's fans have left. The barricades are folded and stacked helter-skelter by Shivakumar’s gates and by the gates of his neighbors. A new sight competes with the scene of last week: across Sadashivanagar billboards and posters and banners have sprung, announcing the birthday of Parameshwar, president of Shivakumar’s Congress Party. I'm adjusting to their glare.

The Fault, You See, Is In My Chakras

Photo by Alpha-C/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Alpha-C/iStock / Getty Images

“Please come … for my sake,” my wife said, and I went.

She had told in advance the lady who runs the yoga-meditation-reiki classes that I’ve been down — down a long time because I want to shift to a writing life, but I can't find a way to break clean from business and get into full-time writing. The lady had assured Sujaya she had the solution. She’d find which of my chakras had turned weak, and she’d stoke them, contactless, just as in surgery these days. With that my depression would go, and I’d move on to doing just my stuff with cheer and confidence.

“I’ll scan you first, sir,” the lady said, rocking on her haunches on a low, wide cane chair and settling into a perfect vertical — on a cane throne, actually, by the size of it. All around us were terra cotta heads of Buddhas of various visages: Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Indian. There was also a poster of Kali with the out-and-fiery tongue. “Breathe deeply now, sir, or otherwise imagine you’re sitting under a waterfall.” She spoke in Kannada in a sing-song, every syllable dripping deference. Her neck followed her every inflection with a dancer’s dexterity.

She meant the dry, serene, sheltered back of the fall, but you’ve guessed that. I chose to watch my breath. In that otherwise pleasant room which had the car and tuk-tuk and truck and bus invading it all the time with their sound, the multitude of Buddhas, and a Durga, and the glowing face of my instructress, none of them were helping me to turn inward. An excess of Buddhas don’t aid concentration, I realized, they subtract in proportion to their number.

As regards her, her energetic face had liquefied and re-formed itself to an enviable calm. It pushed me to close my eyes and try every little trick I’ve picked up over the years to check thought and watch breathing. Chiefly, I chanted my mantra, as best I could, slipping often and wondering if entering the waterfall wasn't a better idea.

She took a very long time. I came to several stops in my effort and waited for her to call the end, but she kept going, scanning me.

“I see a lot of creativity, sir.”

She'd come out of whatever she'd been doing. Her already bright white eyes were shining now, and darting at my wife and me and back at my wife. “You want to write, no? If you start now something big will happen in just a few years.”

A silence broke out and held.

“You must be feeling a little bit better now, no?”

“With just a scan?” I didn’t speak that out, of course.

She wasn’t very young, but she had the teen’s fresh face with its excess of energy. Her thick hair sprang stiff from her head, in a nice way, like it had been treated to a mild shock. I pondered her assessment. She’d snapped me out of whatever she’d gotten me into, pushed me back into doubt and the dark. She searched my face, revealing on her own a frank hunger for results. But there soon overflowed on it the same disappointment that she read on mine. I felt guilty a little, for having infected her with my condition.

“We’ll do the chakras, madam,” she said, looking at my wife for permission to start the procedure on me. She took me into another room in the apartment.

A male assistant waited for me there. My shirt had to go, and I had to lie supine. The man put cold stones on my bare torso, sort of like the wet probes you wear for ECG. I had to chant om out loud now, on and on. The man joined me as well, with an om that had no oomph in it. After a while, I heard the lady join also, and she was very good at it, of course. We went on with the om, and finally, we stopped, and the lady asked me to stay supine and not open my eyes; she switched on some music; everybody left, abandoning me to the melody of a shrill flute. Scenes of glades and nubile women and Krishna came to mind — composed as in the ISKON posters — and, I was soon asleep, as you've guessed.

When it was all over, and we'd gathered where we’d first sat, she didn’t ask me questions anymore. “You’re 60% better already, sir,” she told me. "Please come back in two weeks, and we’ll finish the rest." Her eyes and voice failed to give strength to her otherwise firm words.

She came out to the elevator to send us off.

“You can’t call her a fraud,” my wife said, miffed with my judgment of someone who’d been doing such a good job with her chakras. (Though, I must tell you, her chakras are of the robust Gowda variety.) Even as I searched for words of reparation, she bounced back. “There’s more to her, Shashi. She can do regression!”

“What’s that?” I said.

“Regression. That’s what she calls it. She can take you to your past lives. She can stop here and there so you may look around.”

“Oh,” I said.

“You should go through it. At least as a writer!”

My wife is always right. No, really.

Happy Birthday, Anna!

Photo by NexTser/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by NexTser/iStock / Getty Images

Last week, Bangalore was called upon to celebrate — willy nilly — two birthdays: that of Mr. Suresh, who is a member of the legislative council; and Mr. Kharge, recently a minister in the union cabinet, now the leader of our modest opposition in parliament.

Posters and big and small and colossal billboards appeared up at the start of the week in all public spaces. I'm not sure all the spaces were paid for. The posters were designed after the fashion that has evolved these recent years. The birthday boys (Suresh is about 35, it seems; Kharge turned 75) are featured in the middle. Round their picture is a garland of heads of their party bosses, the big boss's head is bigger than the smaller boss's head and so on, and through tracing the size and location of the heads you gain a complete understanding the party hierarchy. Reading between the heads, you can tell who's in favor and who's not. There are other heads on the posters, of sidekicks, and again the biggest head belongs to the closest sidekick, the right-hand man, and the next in size to the … you get the picture.

Happy birthday, anna! The posters gush in garish color. Anna means elder brother, but you could also think of him as Big Brother.

I pass Kharge’s house often. It is on the way to my coffee. He lives in Delhi, being a national leader, but his home is here in Bangalore. Last week, the billboards and posters were prolific in his neighborhood. They had blinded other houses in the area, and since the ceremonies were held on the street, for a time traffic was closed off as well. You should be rich to live in Kharge-anna’s neighborhood. Being rich, and needing to hold on to your wealth, you will allow with good grace the erection of the hideous, humongous, loud and colorful affairs before your house. You may say no, of course, but that will hurt anna, who will wonder why you won’t consider him your buddy. If the wound is deep, his devotees might call on you and offer the hand of friendship.

We are not invited to the party. The posters are for our kind information only, to note, by the number of them, how powerful one anna is over another at the moment. For instance, Mr. Parameswar is the boss of the Karnataka State Congress Party. His birthday posters ornamented the streets a few days before Kharge-anna’s. But Parameswar-anna's posters were fewer.

This celebration of birthdays in this fashion is a recent phenomenon, it is something that started a few years ago. It is taking interesting turns. For example: If you are politically inclined, and if you have access to some money, you embed yourself in the public psyche by printing your own posters, adding the faces of a few of your friends for form, add images of the biggies in the party you choose to chase and pay someone to paste the posters across town. That's it. Do it!

It also helps the politician assert himself, and grow his head, and dislodge other heads on party posters when they appear next. As in the case of Suresh-anna, whose grandmother, uncle and other relatives were all legislators, and Suresh-anna was miffed last time when he was put in a contest for his party's nomination in the assembly by-elections. His posters were so numerous and so widely deployed last week, his party better take him seriously — especially when the next assembly elections come upon them.

And so, we the commoners endure the visual feast that our leaders treat us to in this honest and very public display of their rat race. You turn your face from one poster, another smiles at you, or frowns; you turn again, and a face that could well cause trauma in a child bores into you. In this city in which you could see an explosion of flowers on treetops in any season, this instead is what greets you these days.

The biggest presence in my psyche these days is my two-year-old grandson. I can't tell his inclination for politics yet — but he loves birthdays. Last month, when my own birthday happened, he came visiting with his parents. “We brought a cake for you,” he said. “I’ll cut it."

Soon my grandson will ask me who these people are, whose faces always adorn our streets and walls and buildings and lamp posts and traffic islands and pedestrian bridges. I must tell him, and I must also inform him their great deeds that allow them to usurp space that belongs to all. You mustn’t lie to children, of course, so I’m doing mental workouts to build the most pleasing narrative I can.

This post won't make the cut, I know.

Back and Blue in Bangalore

I’m in Bangalore now, and in this moment at Cafe Noir on the terrace at UB City. I'm drinking their vegan espresso — a shot of espresso with steamed soya.

The guys at the next table are venture capitalists, talking millions and millions of dollars, and of monies lost, and monies that fetched 3x and 2x and 5x returns. Across their small square gray table they're trading — in loud voices -— assessments of business outlook in India and China and America and Europe. They are waiting for another person to join them. Their present task is to offer an exit for a chap in one of their investments, and they've asked him to come at 6:30. It is 5:45 now. "You think he'll take 25?" one asks the other, and they conclude, "He should be fine with 22." That man must be small in their scheme: The two have spoken of a fund of 750 million dollars, a single investment of 360 crore rupees, a startup that’s rocketed to 4000 crores. One of them is a desi American, the other is a Mumbaikar come down for the meeting. The American has stretched his legs, and has manspread one leg into the space beneath my table. He has begun to stamp its heel on the wooden floor. I turn and look at him a moment. A decent man, he seems. His accent suggests he's a born-in-the-USA American.

The numbers begin to get bigger, in the meantime. They're leaning into the future now, looking to invest in every promising sector. These aren't the one percent. They're of the higher, rarer field — the point-one-percent bracket, I bet.

The American isn't stopping stamping his heel. On my part, I’ve stopped writing; I'm reading Don Delillo. Cosmopolis. I cannot concentrate anymore, so I throw a repeat glance at the American who doesn't return it, but I see him sense my eyes. He rests his jiggling feet, and his shaking leg.

"Let's go to my office," the Mumbaikar says. He's read my annoyance. So their office is here in UB City. They rise. And they hold their chairs on top and, instead of tucking them into the tables, they drop them. They are light chairs, and the vibration of their limbs has greater effect than their thud on the floor. My peripheral vision informs me that the American is looking at me. My peripheral attention tells me he's spoiling for an exchange of hostility. I won't play.

Now there's silence, although Cafe Noir is busy in the evenings. My Kindle has my eyes all for itself, but it has almost nothing of my mind, and a good few minutes pass before I resume concentrated reading. But I still have those rich men in mind. Should I have been forgiving a bit? Should I have loosened my grouch as they left?


Such forgiveness I received yesterday at the PVR Cineplex in Forum Mall.

Some ten minutes of the movie were left when the ringing began and I gave a start. Tring! Tring! But I'd switched my phone to silent right after I'd taken my seat. After I’d silenced it, putting my phone in my pocket, I'd looked about to see if the others were doing the same.

The ads and previews were running. I had young people on either side of me, their faces lit by their phones even as they chatted with their buddies. The ones next to me held their devices at a sly slant, but the glare from them got my side-vision all the same. I glanced left and right but none noticed my bristling face. Will they silence their phones and pocket them, or no?

And now my own phone was ringing. No, no, not the phone, I realized in a moment. It was my iWatch that was letting off a high soft ring. I fumbled, tap-tapping on the red on the watch face, and it felt like it rang a hundred times until it obeyed my insistent rapping. My face tingling, I gave furtive looks to either side and checked the rows of heads front of me. Not one stirred from watching the action before them. I’d upset no one.

I reckon some three persons in ten are depressive in my part of the world. But across the rows that I could see that were in earshot, it seemed that everybody was ready enough to ignore a minor annoyance.

The movie was Baby Driver, which had non-stop music vying with the musical noise of speeding motorcars — in Surround Sound. I must tell Sujaya about these people, I thought. It had been she on the phone, I'd stolen off to the movie without telling her, and in the movie hall I'd cut her call.


The book I’ll read next is This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, by Daphne Merkin. What’s my lot, I must embrace.