Friday, 19 April 2019

An Ancient Cryptic Society's Meet

Note: Basic understanding of how cryptic crossword clues work is desirable to understand this story

Circa CE 30
Running commentary of a meeting of The Cryptic Society (adapted into English)
Location: A Crypt
Time: Evening

A dozen members troop in, one by one. One of them is holding a bag. Each makes an entry into the attendance book. After they are done, it looks like this*:

1. Domesticated animal sits next to the queen (5)
2. Sweet preservative and egg sandwich, for starters (5)
3. Prohibit the endless spinning of wool around Middle East (11)

4. Jerusalem's chaotic, in absence of rule (5)5.
5. Move - adjust endlessly (5)
6. Wander hither and tither (6)

7. Son, I'm worried (5)
8. Greek letter's border (6)
9. Had duets composed (8)

10. Hydrogen atoms spin around (6)
11. For starters, terrible toothache hurts Englishman in mouth (7)
12. Trojan horse turned, ejecting roaster (4)


Author's Note: Rules for writing cryptic clues were still evolving and none of these had any definition. Arthur Wynne was yet to design a crossword grid to hold answers to the clues . Readers interested in solving cryptic clues are advised to take a pause here and solve their entries.

* Remember, these people saw well ahead of their times, and somehow used terms not yet in currency in those days.


The last entrant into the hall takes a look at the attendance register. As he goes through each entry, he smiles. He muses aloud, "Maybe we can interlock the answers so that they cross each other ...".

He writes below the dozen entries: "That's correct. HE's universally admired by leaders (6)"

Twelve persons are already sitting along one side of a long table. They rise as he approaches... He bids them to sit down. He sits in the middle of them, half a dozen on each side of him. He looks at the man with the bag and says cryptically "The sack is beginning to bulge with silver ..."

Supper is served. He says, "Now that we have sat down to sup, could someone please pass the salt across?" The man with the bag passes over the salt container and it topples over spilling some of the contents on the table. No words are exchanged. No one gets cross with him.  The cross performs its role a little later ...

At the end of the meal, their leader gets up and says, "I shall be going away on Friday, but will return on Sunday."

Author's Note: People have speculated as to why all of them are sitting on the same side of the table in this famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci.  The answer is quite simple, really. The diners were sitting just like people sit at long tables at most Indian festive or religious meals. The other side of the table was the pathway for use of the people serving the food.  On second thoughts, if  some people were sitting facing away from the painter's perspective, you would not be able to identify the dramatis personae in the painting, which would have made it a bit odd, to say the least. After all, 13 is an odd number ...


Ancient prospective cruciverbalists' fixation is an event that preceded crucifixion.


Solutions: (* indicates anagram of letters preceding the sign)

1. Domesticated animal sits next to the queen (5) PETER (PET ER)
2. Sweet preservative and egg sandwich, for starters (5) JAMES (JAM Egg Sandwich)
3. Prohibit the endless spinning of wool around Middle East (11) BARTHOLOMEW (BAR THe WOOL* around ME)

4. Jerusalem's chaotic, in absence of rule (5) JAMES (JERUSALEM-RULE)*
5. Move - adjust endlessly (5) JUDAS (ADJUSt)*
6. Wander hither and tither (6) ANDREW (WANDER)*

7. Son, I'm worried (5) SIMON (SON I'M)*
8. Greek letter's border (6) PHILIP (PHI LIP)
9. Had duets composed (8) THADDEUS (HAD DUETS)*

10. Hydrogen atoms spin around (6)THOMAS (H ATOMS)*
11. For starters, terrible toothache hurts Englishman in mouth (7) MATTHEW (Terrible Toothache Hurts Englishman in MAW)
12. Trojan horse turned, ejecting roaster (4) JOHN (TROJAN HORSE - ROASTER)*

and finally



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Wednesday, 20 March 2019

मैं होली क्यूँ नहीं खेलता - Why I don't play Holi

आज सुबह माशूक़ा मेरे घर मुझसे मिलने आयी,
वह प्यार से  बोली, "होली है, जान,  मुझे रंग लगाओ
मेरे माथे पर थोड़ा नीला और गालों पर हरा लगाओ" ,
मैं रंग पहचानने मेँ अक्षम हूँ वह शायद भूल गयी,
फिर आइना उसने देखा और लाल पीली हो गयी !

Today morning my beloved came home to meet me,
She said lovingly, "It's Holi, dear, apply colour to me,
Put some blue on my forehead and some green on my cheeks,
But she seems to have forgotten that I am colour blind,
She then saw the mirror and became red and yellow*.

* That is the literal translation. In idiomatic Hindi, becoming red and yellow is to become very angry.

Friday, 8 March 2019

A Day Amidst the Canidae

Like any other day, I got up at 5. After spending an hour on household chores, I laced up my walking shoes at 6 and went for my first 'short' walk of the day. I went around the block twice. It took, like every other day, around 20 minutes and I covered around 2 kilometres. This was just my usual 'warm up' walk in preparation for the 'long' walk. I usually walk alone, for I am a lone wolf and do not prefer to be burdened with conversation during my walks.

The 'long' walk usually lasts a minimum of one hour and sometimes two or more hours. The daily one-hour walk is in a small wood near my house and does not involve much gradient. The two-hour walk, once a month, is more of a trek at a nearby forest. It involves walking up some mild as well as steep slopes and also scrambling up some rocks. It is much more strenuous, especially in the hot summer months. Considerable sweating is involved in this trek, necessitating carrying some drinking water to replenish the loss of fluid.

I prepared myself for the trek. I packed my backpack with a few essentials. A bottle of fresh drinking water, a roll of crepe bandage, a pain relieving spray, and a collapsible alpine stick. I had to take these along as I am prone to missing my footing and twisting my ankle on gravelly and uneven surfaces. If I twisted my ankle, I would need to follow the RICE routine for recuperation, but though rest and ice would have to wait till I got home, I could apply compression immediately with the crepe bandage. Exercise, of course, would have to wait, though getting back to my car would expose me to some of it. The stick would help me hobble along. And my pack also contained a trophy Swiss Army knife which had never been used for any real purpose.


It is an unfortunate truth that our people dump garbage. No, I am not talking of the trekkers in the forest. They are quite eco-conscious and carry their garbage to designated bins placed at the gate of the forest. Some even carry garbage all the way home. I refer to the house-holders living on the periphery of the forest. Many a time they senselessly dump their garbage at the edge of the forest. This includes not only plastic and glass but also contains food scraps, which attract the local mongrels.  

There are a few packs of dogs in the forest and each pack has demarcated its 'home' territory. They guard this territory fiercely from other packs which may sometimes make adventurous forays into their territory.  But this does not deter them from raiding other packs' territories. It is generally a free for all, as the alpha male of a pack leads the raiding party from the front, armed only with sharp fangs and nails. 

Sometimes two packs confront each other and make threatening growling noises at each other and try to out-stare the opponents. This may or may not develop into a melee. Sometimes, one or both packs call off the staring match and slink away with their tails tucked between their legs. I don't blame them. It's a dog-eat-dog world, anyway.

As these dogs usually hang out near garbage dumps, they do not bother trekkers unless one walks into the dump. But,  as the house-holders were becoming more aware and had started using the city's garbage clearance services, the dumps were running short of edible scraps. This dearth had caused the affected packs to foray out of their territory and venture into other parts of the forest looking for small creatures to fill their bellies.

The dogs had, of late, probably got tired of the same items being on the menu regularly. An enterprising pack had decided to try something new. Recently, there had been reports of some trekkers being attacked and bitten by these dogs. Groups of trekkers had approached the forest authorities with a request to round up packs that had become feral. They had advised the forest department to seek the assistance of the city municipal corporation's dog squad for necessary help. But nothing had happened as the animal rights lobby had approached the court for a stay and got one.


Court orders, however, do not apply to animals, and little did these dogs know or care about such matters. Lack of food in the belly can lead a creature to desperation, and today they had decided to taste a trekker. As I turned a bend in the path into a clearing in a secluded part of the forest, I saw several dogs lounging about fifteen metres ahead of me..As I slowed down, they got up and gave a low howl. That was an indication to another part of the pack which had hung out among the trees. On hearing the signal, they trooped into the clearing a few metres behind me. It was clear to me that I was their target today. 

No human being can face a pack of a dozen dogs, especially if they have not eaten for a few days. The whole of me was desirable, of course; but if not feasible, at least a few large chunks of my arms and legs would be welcome, I supposed. I tried using my stick to shoo away the dogs as they closed in upon me. I made threatening noises, which I hoped would dissuade them. But the rough circle around me in the clearing  got progressively smaller and smaller as they kept just outside the swinging arc of my stick. 

The leader of the pack, an alpha male, was getting restless. As I was turning with the stick to shoo a couple of dogs which had got uncomfortably close to me, my back was momentarily facing the leader and he pounced upon me.

My tough and thick jeans afforded me some protection as he tried to take a bite. He did bite through the denim, but just managed to graze my calf before he fell back.  Something came over me in that moment of desperation. 

I turned round and grabbed the dog in my bare arms. My talons drove into his sides as I lifted him up and sank my fangs into him. The other dogs cowered and backed off. They had seen the change that I had gone through. They had heard the lupine howl that I had let out when bitten and seen my face turn into a snout and my bare hands develop thick fur. I broke off a chunk of the dog's side and wolfed it down. I am sure they must have seen the ferociousness in my eyes as they backed off from the clearing. They knew they had to elect a new leader.

I was left with the carcass of a rather well fed dog on my hands. It was obvious that the leader always got a lion's share of the takings, for his other pack-mates were definitely scrawny by comparison. Well, now that I had a few kilos of a freshly slain dog, it was a shame to let it go waste. 

As my body returned back to its human form, I took out my Swiss Army knife and tried to hack off a few pieces of meat. I was very unsuccessful in this enterprise. So, I used my teeth, though not as sharp as a wolf's, to good effect and cut off a few choice pieces of the meat and wrapped it in the paper bag which was holding my trail food. The left over carcass would be eaten by some scavenger.


I will use the  pieces in my bag to prepare some Boshintang, which will no doubt delight my date for the night, So-young, a young lady from Seoul. I sincerely hope to click with her. She has admitted that she admires men who are lone wolves and chart their way distinct from the pack. We plan to have dinner on the terrace and it can get a bit cold in the night. A light woolen sweater seems to be in order. I am sure she will like this wolf in sheep's clothing. On the contrary, she might feed me most of the soup, as I understand Koreans believe it makes a guy more virile ...


Thursday, 14 February 2019

The Day it Snowed in Ooty

It was in January 2019, that I visited a hospice in Ooty. It also gave me an opportunity to try out my new car. A group of us had raised some funds for the hospice which took care of old people and we thought we would hand over our little contribution in person. Our employer had added a handsome amount to the collection and our Regional Manager was travelling with us to deliver the cheque. The weekend before Pongal was approaching and Ooty would be crowded, as people would swarm there in droves. The roads from Coimbatore and Mysore would be clogged too. So we decided to go a few days early to avoid the weekend rush.

When we passed Mettupalayam and started driving towards Coonoor, we felt a perceptible drop in temperature. That was quite normal and usual when we left the plains and started ascending the hills. The increase in elevation and dense forest cover, not doubt, had a role to play. But I had never felt so cold on that route earlier. I had to roll up my windows to avoid shivering. I suspected the light woolens we were wearing might not be sufficient for the night ahead of us.

We were discussing the modalities of presenting the money. I got an idea and said, "Why don't we hand it over to their oldest resident? After all, it is an old age home."

The boss, hugged his jacket a little tighter and nodded approvingly, adding, "That's a nice t-t-touch!"
Mr. Chatterjee's teeth were chattering due to the frigid temperature.


It was at the hospice that I met Stella Urquhart. She was introduced as an Anglo-Indian and as the oldest inmate, the person designated by the hospice to received the cheque. I found her to be of sharp intellect, though frail in structure. No one knew her correct age, as there were no birth certificates in those days,. Nor did the local church records have any mention of her. But she was definitely the oldest person in the hospice. The fact was attested by none other than the second oldest person in the hospice, a person who did have some record of her own birth. This lady, who was 99 as per church records, had on several occasions mentioned that Stella had taught her English in her teens as a private tutor. This conclusively proved Stella was older that the second oldest. But no one knew her real age.

When I asked her, over dinner, whether she had been to Scotland, which was obviously the source of her surname, she said, "My late husband Sean, had taken me to Drumnadrochit once. We had stayed for a week and walked along the shores of the loch every day. I like the place but was disappointed for I did not get an audience with our legendary neighbour Nessie. I wish I had seen her. But what I miss most about Scotland is the snow. How I wish it snowed in Ooty!"

Someone remarked, "I have never heard of snowing in south India. Wish it had snowed during Christmas!"

Stella responded, "The newspapers mentioned that it had snowed in Munnar just a couple of days back!"

"May your dream of snow in Ooty come true," I said, and asked her out of curiosity, "How do you spend your time? Which newspapers do you read?"

Her reply was quite perceptive: "I read Wodehouse. Nothing can beat him for humour. I get several newspapers, but they are quite biased these days and are always promoting or debunking some point of view based on their political leanings."

She continued, "I read all news with a pinch of salt because they exaggerate so much. Politicians 'slam' and 'mock' each other, and call each other names on a daily basis. The courts 'pass strictures' daily, though nobody cares about it or bothers to follow its rulings."

Then to my delight, she confided, "It is for the crossword puzzles that I ask for the papers, not for the news. I really enjoy them.They give me a lot of pleasure everyday." 

I bent my head towards her conspiratorially and confided, "I too am into crosswords."

"Which setter do you like most?", I asked.

She replied, "I specially like Gridman in The Hindu. He has a wonderful way with words."

I said, "I have had the pleasure of meeting Gridman a few times and have enjoyed every minute of our interaction."

She requested, "I would like to meet him too. Since I don't travel out of Ooty, could you please try to bring him here some day?"

I replied, "I certainly will. Though he is over 70, he still travels quite a bit. I am sure he would love to meet you."

"Sounds like an interesting young man," she observed.

She said that she had heard that I was interested in music and that I played music on my mobile phone too. She asked me to play something. I pulled out my phone and played a few bars of 'Auld Lang Syne'.  The eyes of the old lady with Scots lineage became moist, as she murmured her thanks.

As we retired for the night, I resolved to spend some more time with Stella and find out what kept her so sharp at an age when most had memory and reasoning issues. It was a very cold night and the fireplaces in the rooms definitely contributed to our comfort.


When we gathered for breakfast the next morning, we were informed of the incredulous thing that had happened during the night. It had snowed in Ooty. A thin blanket of white was visible on the lawn. It was the topic of discussion at the breakfast table and we recollected the previous night's conversation.

Stella was excited. "Your good wishes have worked," she told me.

She continued, "But this is too little to be enjoyed. It used to snow heavily in Mussoorie when I used to stay there. Himalayan hill stations are something quite different."

Our boss, who claimed to have slept in due to the extra-ordinarily cold weather turned up at the breakfast table. I knew his excuse was fake. He  always rose late and often snoozed in his cabin. 

He was also a person with quixotic logic. Seeing the snow, he asked, "How come it is getting colder in Ooty than ever before if the world is going through global warming?"

Stella had a ready answer. She theorized, "This must be due to eruption of Anak Krakatau in the Sunda straits near Sumatra last month. The ashes from the eruption must have created a dust cloud leading to drop in temperature to its west." She smilingly added an obiter dictum - "Both Sunda and Sumatra start with my initials, SU!"

The boss was unconvinced. He said, "That's in Indonesia, isn't it? It's probably too far away to matter."

Stella struck to her theory and explained, "Volcanic eruptions in Indonesia have caused tsunamis and other climatic disturbances in India several times earlier too. Nothing is too far for cataclysmic natural events."

The boss argued, "But has it ever snowed in South India because of that?"

Stella patiently explained, "A couple of years back, some newspapers reported that it had snowed in Madras two centuries back as a result of the dust clouds, formed by eruption of Mount Tambora, which traveled towards India.'

The boss pulled out his tablet and browsed online to cross verify this statement. He rebutted, saying, "It says here that temperatures did go down below zero in Madras in 1815 and lakes froze, but it was unconfirmed if the reports of snow were true."

Stella, not to be beaten, hammered in the last nail in the argument, saying, "I don't know where online sources get their information from. They just tend to quote each other or cite unnamed sources. But, Mister, I assure you that it did snow. And I can give you the source of my information unlike your untrustworthy media. My mum was twenty at that time and she told me that it did snow in Madras in the last week of April, 1815. Are you telling me she was a liar, young man?"

I got busy trying to compute Stella's age. Even if she had been born twenty years later, she would be 170 – definitely more than 150!

The boss too had independently performed a similar computation and with an incredulous look, had asked, "I don't get it. Then you must be over ...?" He did not complete the sentence.

She continued, "My younger brother Douglas McDonnell was serving in the army during the Mutiny and later settled down in Darjeeling after  buying a tea estate called Hogmanay. I have letters from him, which I have not disclosed till date, which can convince you. I am sure you can also verify the dates from the land documents in Darjeeling if you wanted to."

"Do you want to carbon date me?", she asked, arching an eyebrow. 

I wrote "CL+? Date?"  on a paper napkin and pushed it to her. She reached for the little sling bag that always hung by her side, pulled out a pen, wrote something on the paper and returned it with a conspiratorial wink. The paper now read "CL+?" "EVER". It also had a heart drawn in red, accompanied by a smiley and a few Xs, and followed by the words "Will you be my Valentine this year?"

I smiled back at the young lady and nodded, wondering whether the red colour was from a pen or a lipstick.


Post Script:
Today's the date of our date. It is also her favourite author's death anniversary. I am at the hospice in Ooty. I am shattered to see Stella lying. I gaze upon the young lady lying  in repose, a serene smile on her face. She has gone to Sean during the night. As my hand placed the red rosebud that I had carried for her across her chest, I was sure that she must have seen, if she could see through her closed eyelids, a silhouette of Nessie. And thus fulfilled another of her wishes* ...

* I am not sure if her wish of snow in Ooty was really fulfilled.  "It might have just been frost, after all," naysayers may say, adding, "Everyone knows it does not snow in Ooty," but any doubts that may arise may be scotched on the authority of a lady with Scots blood in her..


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Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Somewhere on the Western Front

It was in the dark of a cold night in December that the enemy attacked. They came over the sand dunes in large numbers and were supported by several tanks. The defending troops were small in number and the weapons they had were no match for the strength of the attack. Reinforcements and air support were not forthcoming – at least till the morning*. They were given the option of strategic withdrawal, but the CO decided to stay put. His men too welcomed his decision and hoped they would last the night. It turned out to be a long, long night.

It was nothing like the Battle of Thermopylae, where a force of a few thousand, facing a much larger attacking army, defended a narrow pass. Here the canvass was much wider than a narrow pass; the sands stretched in every direction. There was no bottleneck to hold the invaders and the invaders were in armoured vehicles.

Subedar Major Janjua was mortally wounded in the first few minutes of the attack on their outpost, and fell into a shell crater. Though he was old, weary and injured,  he was determined to do his best. He slowly dragged himself over the edge of the crater and crawled to his billet. He pulled out his PIAT** and three  expired bombs. He planned to outflank the tanks and get behind them. He skirted to the right where a jeep mounted RCL*** had got stuck and its crew were struggling to move it. He lent a shoulder and helped to move it out of a crater in the sand.

He then crawled slowly and painfully between a couple of approaching tanks, dragging his PIAT. Once he was past them, he turned around till he faced the rear of the tank. He loaded a bomb into his PIAT, took careful aim and shot at a tank. His aim was as true as ever despite his age and injury. He was taking a chance as both the weapon and the ammo were decades old.The expired bomb worked as if it was new. It easily penetrated the tank's armour. The tank burst into flames, further fuelled by the extra fuel and explosives it was carrying.

The tank's crew did not know what hit them or from which direction they were shot at as they did not survive the attack. Neither was he noticed by other tanks which were facing to their front and engaging his unit. Even if they had, he was too low on the ground to be hit by their main gun even at its lowest position. The RCL crew aiming for an adjacent tank were surprised as they seemed to have got two tanks with one shot. They presumed that a mortar shell had destroyed the other tank.

He changed his angle of shot to the right and got one more tank in a similar manner. He then turned left and repeated the process. He had ensured that the three tanks had turned into blazing infernos.

He had no more ammo for the PIAT and was fully drained of energy. His role in the battle was over.

* The planes did arrive the next morning and destroyed the tanks still functional at that time in what the pilots called 'a turkey shoot', resulting in victory in the battle, but if the army had withdrawn in the face of the enemy, the tanks would not be sitting ducks. They would have advanced and dispersed, making it more difficult.

** Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank: A portable anti-tank weapon of WW2 vintage, forerunner of the bazooka. More details here

*** Recoilless rifle. More details here


The Subedar Major had joined the British Indian Army as a rookie a year before the second World War had ended. He had been underage and, like many others, had reported his year of birth wrongly by a couple of years to circumvent that. His large build strengthened the illusion of being of recruitable age. Adding to his credentials as a potential soldier was the fact that his community, the Janjuas had been designated as a 'martial race' by the British. Janjuas were Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs by religion and soldiers by profession. There were no birth certificates in those days and the recruiting officers, tasked to enlist large numbers, were only too keen to get sturdy and willing men. They did not mind overlooking some minor details, which anyhow were not verifiable. They took him on and after a short training course, sent him to the front.

In that one year during WW2, Janjua had been trained and assigned to use a PIAT.  Most PIATs were operated by a team of two soldiers, one assisting the other in loading the gun. Lot of men shorter than him had difficulty in cocking the gun. But the tall and well built young man was quite comfortable handling it alone. He had a reputation of deftly loading, cocking and firing with an unerring aim. Each platoon had one PIAT and Janjua was fondly called the Paltan ka PIAT* by the other men.

In due time the war ended and the British Indian army was partitioned. PIATs went out of service, but Janjua retained his trusty weapon as a souvenir. He also had a few rounds of the HEAT** for it, well past their official expiry date. He had risen through the ranks, become a Junior Commissioned Officer – a Naib Subedar at first and finally, a Subedar Major.

* Platoon's PIAT

* High Explosive Anti-Tank warhead. More details here

The defenders held through till the reinforcements arrived. When the battle was over and a quick count taken, the 2-IC noticed that the armour of three tanks had been penetrated from the rear side. He was sure that none of his men had got to the rear of the tanks. At the most, they had got to their flanks. And then, his driver pointed out that the size of the hole in the armour was inconsistent with the ammunition used by the mortars of the RCL.

When he reported this to his CO, the superior officer was puzzled. The CO was also informed by the RCL crew that Janjua had helped them to move their jeep and that it seemed more than once that they had destroyed two targets by firing just one round.

The CO said, "Soon after the tanks attacked, I saw Janjua being mortally hit and fall into a crater. I jumped in and checked his pulse. He was dead and there was nothing I could do for him. His body must still be in there How could he have assisted you, when he was beyond all help himself? It must have been someone else."

Janjua's body was found in one of the nearby craters, as described by the CO. Adding to the puzzle was the fact that neither the PIAT nor his three souvenir shells were found among his personal effects when they were being packed to be despatched to his family. However, when the area was being cleared later, the weapon was found a few hundred yards away from crater that his body was found in. How it had moved to that location was a matter of conjecture and discussion at the mess.

Though he was listed in the casualties of the battle, Janjua's post-mortem activities remain unacknowledged till date, except in the whispered lore of his unit. It was clear that both expired bombs and expired soldiers sometimes worked after their official expiry dates. It was probably how he would have wanted it to be. He wasn't after medals and citations. He was the quintessential unknown and un-thanked soldier who did his best for his unit, army and country. Nothing else mattered to him.

Subedar Major Janjua had never read the poem; but it was clear from his actions that he had endorsed these words from Thomas Babbington Macaulay's poem Horatius:

"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods."

He had only taken them several steps beyond death. He had followed the thought in letter and in spirit.


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Sunday, 9 December 2018

The Crucifix Teleportation

I was engaged in what has been called the second oldest profession in the world. I and my partner were wet, and grappling with our paraphernalia in the middle of the night in this dark and secluded place. Two torches, crowbars, ropes and backpacks were all we had. Grave robbing did not require sophisticated equipment: a nose for locating possibly rich graves, believing your hunches and a bit of hard work was all it took. Both of us understood that it was a grave crime. But while we knew the wrong we were committing, we could no longer resist its lure. It permitted us to live in Fontainhas, the aristocratic quarter of Panaji.

We were in the cemetery near Merces near Panaji and had broken into a family crypt. The crypt was made of locally popular laterite slabs and was covered with years of moss growth. The ancient lock had posed no difficulty to break, as it had been weakened by years of rust.

The place reeked of feni. We were loaded with it. A little raw spirit helps to keep up your spirits if you have to deal with spirits, though many people would not agree with our definition of little.

My partner, Alvito Braganza, owned a bar and always had loads of stock. His clientèle was small, as most locals preferred to own their own bar rather than patronise another. He was his own best customer in terms of consumption, not sales. None of his neighbours knew what he really did for a living – they thought he ran a late night bar successfully, came home in the wee hours of the morning and slept through till lunch, in the extended susegaad * spirit. If at all we Goans learnt something from the Portuguese, it was concept of socegado*.

 * Being laid back, carefree and least concerned with the world at large, especially during work or siesta


Of the three graves in the crypt, two were very simple and one was very ornate. Obviously, our first choice was the highly decorated one which had the legend Abbé José Custódio de Faria. We knew this name, better known as Abbé Faria, was the stuff of legend in Goa and elsewhere. It is celebrated folklore that this priest was beset with stage fear, when faced with the prospect of addressing an august audience. Noticing his discomfiture, his father had urged the young Abbé with the now famous disdain in KonkaNi: Hi sogli baji; cator re baji (these are all vegetables, cut the vegetables). And the father had created an orator out of the padre in the process. The Abbé was further reputed to be a pioneer of hypnotism.

Alvito and I, who had been schoolmates, had read Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo in school and heard of the riches to which Edmond Dantès had been guided by a monk Abbé Faria. We had a hunch that the story was not fiction after all. But his grave had never been found – till now. Alvito recommended that we open that grave first. But being a god fearing person, I felt the violation of the grave of a man of cloth would invite divine retribution. With great difficulty, I was able to persuade my partner to look at the other two graves.

Of the two remaining graves, one had the name Senhora Mercy D’Sa on it and while the other one bore the cryptic letters ED. We decided ‘Ladies first’, more out of the hope that a lady’s grave would contain more jewellery than a man’s, than out of chivalry. Chivalry is not a quality grave robbers possess – at least when pursuing their profession.

Just when we had opened her grave, after an hour of hard labour, our last torch gave out. I used the light of the torch facility of my mobile phone to look into the grave. I could only see one item of jewellery in that grave- an ornate crucifix. With the mobile clutched in my left hand, I reached out with my right hand for the cross. As soon as I touched it, I felt as if I had been hit on the head. My last thoughts as I passed out were that either a rival grave robber, who must have tailed us to our find, had hit me or Alvito had decided to foreclose our partnership.

When I came to, I found myself still inside the crypt. I had a little blood on my forehead where I must have hurt myself as I fell. I saw only two graves in the crypt, that of the priest and the lady. The other grave seemed to have disappeared. I was stunned when I realised that I had been transported into another time when the person in the third grave was yet to be interred. I went outside the crypt into a rainy day and looked at the Povitra Khuris, as the Sacred Cross was locally called, in the daylight. It was exquisitely designed. It was made out of gold with a translucent figure of the crucified Jesus. I weakly found my way to the nearest house, with my mobile and the crucifix in my hands.


It was a stately house in the style popular with the gentry of Estado da India of the colonial period and probably belonged to the family which owned the crypt. I knocked on the door and told the doorman that I required help since I had fallen down in the wet graveyard and was bleeding. I was taken to meet an old gentleman in the garb of a fidalgo of the times. He bade me to join him for dinner in a large chandelier lit dining room with a high ceiling. He was inquisitive about the mobile in my hands. I explained the use of the gadget, but could not demonstrate it for two reasons: there was no service provider in those times and there was no other phone anywhere on the planet.

The table had been laid with exquisite crockery and cutlery emblazoned with a coat of arms and the initials ED. Putting two and two together, I conjectured that my host was none other than Edmond Dantès. However, I kept my silence as it was too premature to ask a personal question. The dinner was a long winded affair consisting of signature dishes and vintage wine and we unwound over it. When I felt that I had established enough rapport, I made my gambit: “I am Desmond D'Souza. You must be Edmond Dantès, the Count of Monte Cristo. It looks like Dumas did not tell your complete story. He refrained from letting us know where you finally went.”

“Some stories are better left incomplete,” he said, a momentary flash of lightning lighting up his face unexpectedly and catching him off guard, the expression on his face confirming the truth of my conjecture. It was indeed the Count of Monte Cristo that I was dining with.

He too was good at putting two and two together and having now been convinced that I was from another time and age, did not contradict me. He went on to reveal his story over the wine.

He had hidden his trail well. He had not left with Haydée as indicated by Dumas, but with Mercédès as his wife. Haydée had accompanied them as their daughter but had died at sea on their voyage to Goa. He explained that he had learnt the knowledge of restorative potions and powders from the Abbé and put them to good use many times in the past. He had even used the knowledge to fake the death of Mercédès to get her body loaded on to his escape ship. “Having fully satiated my desire for revenge,” he continued, “I turned to constructive work. We had this house built and named it after Mercedes. That is how this settlement here came to be known as Mercedes.” It must have later got corrupted to Merces, I thought.

“I first paid my homage to the Abbé by building an ornate cenotaph on which I had the name of the Abbé inscribed, and which I used as a repository for my riches,” he continued.

Mercédès had taken on the nearest phonetic equivalent name Mercy D’Sa and he had taken the name Eduardo D’Sa. Mercédès had died due to the ubiquitous mosquito infecting her with malaria and had been buried with her favourite cross in her hands. He had given instructions to a few trusted servants that his grave should bear just his initials, when the time came for him to be buried in the crypt.

“Tonight, I have mixed a powder with your drink to put you to sleep and send you back to where you belong,” he said. “Put the crucifix back with her,” he ordered, with his hypnotic gaze over me, “and do not violate the Abbé’s grave. Ignoring my instructions can prove to be extremely dangerous.”

“Your secret is safe with me”, I said, “at least for a couple of centuries, when you will be beyond harm. The world deserves to know the truth about you.” And then I passed out.


When I came to, I was back in the crypt with my mobile and cross in hand. The crypt had three graves once again. I put the cross back into her grave as ordered by the Count. As I eased the covering stone back into place, my mobile phone started ringing. There was no number, only the words ‘Merci, Des!’ flashing in the display. I thought that the Count was a gentleman, probably clairvoyant, a quick learner and now even tech savvy, though I confess I do not know how he did it without a phone or network. He must have had some influence in the Akashic circles.

Alvito, who had still been in a drunken stupor when I got back, woke up. He questioned me on my sudden disappearance. On hearing that the Abbé’s grave was the Count’s storehouse of wealth, he aggressively demanded that we open it up. When I declined to do so, reminding him of the Count’s parting words, he set upon me. It wasn't probably the place to be cryptic, but I had a grave crisis on my hands. After the end of the fight, I left the crypt. For the first time in my career, I had left back something in the crypt instead of taking something away. When I had entered it there were two bodies in it, now there were three. I had graduated from one crime to another and the partnership had ended. My mobile flashed with another thanksgiving message from the Count for saving the Abbé’s grave from desecration. I thought it was time to retire from the profession.


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Friday, 9 November 2018

A Fork in the Forest Path

He clearly remembered the place and time he had come across the blue bottle which gave him the power to 'manage' things. Not a genie in a blue bottle. The blue bottle was a Portuguese man o' war. As you might have expected, it was in the erstwhile Portuguese colony of Goa, a part of Estado da India. It was not a warship as one might be mislead to believe. It was a marine creature;  Physalia physalis or the Portuguese man-of-war otherwise known as the blue bottle. It was as mesmerizing as it was dangerous. A bright blue coloured creature with a sting that was over 10 metres long. It had got stranded on the Velsao beach when the tide had receded. He found it lying in the sand when he was taking his evening walk.

He knew that it was venomous and knew touching it was out of question. He did not want to be stung and nurse the extreme inconvenience for days. But he thought it would be a nice addition to the aquarium in his living room. He was not sure of the effect it would have on the other residents of the fish tank - a couple of angel fish and a small family of sword-tails. He went to the shack on the beach which was the only source of food and drink to the few tourists who visited Velsao. Velsao beach is one of those seaside wonders, as opposed to 'popular' crowded beaches like Calangute, where lifeguards outnumber the number of bathers.The proprietrix was an old friend of the family and he requested her for a container.

She gave him an empty bottle of Skyy Vodka left behind by a customer. Incidentally, it was a blue bottle. But he refused. He explained that he wanted a container with a wider mouth, like a can, but without sharp edges. She fished around and got him an appropriate tin. He took it and thanked her for it. Then he went back to the beautiful creature. He looked around for an appropriate instrument to handle the creature and found a twig of flotsam that had washed ashore. He had to take care that his skin did not come in contact with it. He gingerly pushed the stick under the polyp, when he heard a voice. "Wait, what do you plan to do with me? Are you planning to put me in a fish-tank?"

He jumped back in surprise. A talking marine creature, that too seemingly aware of his thoughts, was not an everyday occurrence. He mumbled, "How did you know that?", not feeling a bit silly on talking to it. After all it seemed capable of reading his mind. But he did feel violated.

"That is non-consequential," it replied. It seemed to have a good vocabulary too. It continued, "That's not what I want you to do." A bit rich, he felt. It was now instructing him. "I want you to throw me back into the sea. I don't want to spend my life in a fish tank," it added. It was now bossing over him, he felt. He thought he could reason it out. He asked, "You will look nice in my fish tank. Why should I throw you back? What's in it for me?"

"Well, I would like to continue living in the sea, not in a fish tank. Let's make a deal," it offered. "Tell me more," he insisted. "What would you say, if I could bestow the power of managing things to happen in the way you desire them to happen?"

"That sounds fabulous, if possible. How do I trust you?", he asked.

"Try it out for yourself," it countered. "Tell me what you desire."

"Well, I was contemplating on having king-fish for dinner, but was not able to go the fish market," he said. "Can you get me a king-fish right now?"

"Certainly. But I will only grant you the power to make things happen. You will have to do some little thing to actualise it."

"Tell me how," he asked.

"Any wish that you make when you are scratching your chin will come true," it said.

"Any wish?," he questioned.

"Except one thing. But I can't tell you about the exception. You will know it when it fails to happen. Every other thing will happen as you wish," it explained. "Try it out now."

"I want a king-fish now," he said, scratching his chin. A true-blue Goan. Fish, the first thing that came to mind.

All of a sudden, a live squirming king-fish materialised on the sand.

"You can go home and cook it after you throw me back. If you don't throw me back, it will disappear," he was warned.

It teased him, "If you had thought it out a bit you could have done better and asked for a dish of king-fish balchão accompanied by a plate of boiled rice. It would have saved you cooking. Think well before you make a wish. Now throw me back into the sea!"

He threw the creature back into the sea and picked up the fish. He took it home. That evening, he sat on the balcão, the balcony of his house, and kept the fish in a earthen dish on the table. He wished for fish balchão, while scratching his chin. The king fish remained unchanged. Disappointed, he picked up the fish and walked into the kitchen, hoping to prepare the dish himself.

As he passed the dining table, he noticed a casserole lying on it. He opened it and the strong smell of fish balchão wafted into his nostrils. He was delighted. He tasted it. It was delicious, but it was made from shark, not king-fish. He decided he had to be more clear when enunciating his wishes.

He decided he had to think through what he did in case he did not want to attract attention. He realised that though since he had no magic lamp, no one could rob him of it. At least, he was safe on that front. But life would become unbearable and he would lose his privacy,  if he became famous. So, he decided to use the power for simple things. Though he could have got along without doing a job, he decided to continue working.


He was working as a techie in a small software firm in Goa and as many techies in India do, he decided to move to Bangalore. Writing any code was child's play for him. Though he was quite proficient technically, debugging was a mere matter of scratching his chin. He, however, refrained from letting his chin write the whole code, for he was not sure where it would lead him. He liked to be in control, but did not mind a little help in sorting out issues.

He also liked to play pranks and his chin helped immensely in that field. He had 'magic fingers', as his friends called his abilities. An elevator stuck between floors required just a touch of a button to get it going. A vehicle that would not start required just his hand at the ignition. Anything was possible as long as it was accompanied by the scratching of the chin. It got him a lot of popularity. Very few knew that the malfunctions they had encountered had happened at his bidding too.

He never materialised anything in public view as it would give the game away. But he was not hesitant to add a few currency notes away from prying eyes in the safety of his pocket. He was a little hesitant to do this initially, as he was not sure if the money was real or fake. He checked it out with a banker and found that it was not counterfeit. But he was not sure if a duplicate note bearing the same number existed elsewhere. He was not sure too if the money was disappearing from some other person's holdings, and that bothered him a little. On the other hand, demonetisation had not bothered him at all. It was no skin off his chin.

And then he saw her at an offsite arranged by his office. She was Chinese and was sitting at an adjacent table. He observed her keenly and found her charming. He wished to talk to her and to know her better. They had a couple of chats during the day and he was very impressed with every aspect of her. He wished to take the acquaintance to another level. So he engineered her transfer to his team. He also got her allotted a place where he could constantly keep an eye (actually both) on her.   He was not worried about distraction from work as work would be completed whether he worked or not. He could actually have transfixed a CCTV camera on her and got the feed to his monitor, without lifting a finger. Okay, I admit I was leading with my chin on this one;  he actually did need to lift a finger to scratch the chin.

Over the next few weeks he had the opportunity to squeeze in a few chinwags with her.The more he interacted with her, the more infatuated he became. He wanted to propose to her but in a more romantic environment, and not in the office. He planned his next move. He organised a trek for his team on a weekend.  He hoped that it would give him the required opportunity. Or else he would see that one arose.

The trek was at the Turahalli reserved forest off Kanakapura Road. It was a small forest, extending to just under six hundred acres. At one time it was mentioned on a board that the public were prohibited in the park. But that sign no longer existed. On any given morning, a few dozen trekkers could be found in the forest. There were no wild animals in the park, though it was rumoured that security cameras set up at a nearby real-estate development had captured images of a leopard or two. Now only an assortment of birds and minor animals were found there.

It was not a very tough trek but involved a bit of scrambling over rocks for those interested in doing so. Belying her petite build, she was quite nimble and climbed quite fast.  The sun was blazing when they were the first two persons to summit. She was a bit exhausted and said, "I wish I had brought an umbrella. There's no shade here."

He reached into his backpack and pulled out an umbrella for her. She was surprised and said, that bag looks too small to have had an umbrella in it. Are you some kind of magician?"

He smiled and answered, "Sort of... Ask for anything and you shall have it". 

"I would love to have a suanmeitang," she said, adding, "I don't think it is easily available in  Bangalore."

He reached into his backpack again and produced a chilled bottle of it.  She was awestruck and her eyes widened in amazement.  She was absolutely sure that it had not been in the bag when she had checked it.

He decided it was the right time to pitch his proposal. He said, "I can get you anything you want! I will ensure that all your needs are fulfilled."

"Will you marry me?", he awkwardly finished and nervously scratched his chin, wishing for a positive response from her.

"I can't do that," she replied, "I am in love with Jimmy Ching and we are getting married next month."

His world came crashing down around him as he realised that the only exception to his chin's abilities was the consent of a woman. That had to come from her and could not be the subject of any magical power. He felt he had lost everything in the world. All that he had till now and could have in future meant nothing without her presence in his life.

As they came to a fork in the path, she took one path and he turned into the other. He decided to make one last wish ...

Click here if you think he took the right path

Click here if you think he took the left path


The Right Path

A few steps from the fork, he scratched his chin and made his final wish.

All of a sudden, there was some sound in the shrubbery nearby. "Was it the rustling of a Russel's viper?", he wondered. Then, a menacing growl was heard as the predator lunged at its prey.


The other trekkers discovered that they were one person short when they regrouped for leaving the forest, so they doubled back. An hour later they found a badly mauled corpse on the path. Looking around they saw tiger-like pug marks on the muddy patch in the path. They were sure there were no tigers in that forest. Suspecting murder and the pug marks to be a prank by the assailant to throw investigators off track, they called the police.

The post-mortem revealed that death had occurred due to stabbing by large fangs. The Forest Department categorically said that there were no tigers in that forest, nor were there any reports of any tigers missing. They took a cast of the pug marks. The Chief Conservator of Forests made it clear that the size of the fang injuries and the size of the pug marks was much larger than any known tiger. An amateur wildlife enthusiast managed to get a cast of the pug marks and suspected that it was similar to the pug marks of the Smilodon populator found earlier in Argentine. But the sabre-toothed tiger, as it is better known has been extinct for long.

Had he taken his revenge on her for rejecting his proposal? Or, was it something else altogether. Let us take a couple of steps back on the path ...

He had continued walking after separating from her at the fork. He felt he was being followed by someone. Had she come back, he wondered? He looked back. She was not to be seen on the path.Just after he had crossed a patch of soft mud, his stalker burst out from the shrubbery and launched itself on him. He was defenseless against it. He had not even tried.

Did our protagonist make a wish to be killed in an attack by a sabre-toothed tiger? Was it the right thing to do? After all, he had taken the right path... Or, had he?

The Left Path

A few steps from the fork, he scratched his chin and made his final wish.

And instantaneously, the clock wound back and he was back on Velsao beach trying to push the flotsam twig under the marine creature, when he heard a voice. "Wait, what do you plan to do with me? Are you planning to put me in a fish-tank?"

He pretended not to hear it and maneuvered the creature into the container. He took it home and put it into his fish-tank. It lived in the tank till it died of natural causes. It continued to attempt to talk to him, but he ignored it. He did not want its bountiful help. For, he had the left the future behind. After all, he had taken the left path... Or, had he?

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Monday, 15 October 2018

The Predator

His name was Ajeet Chakravarti and he was one of the best Scrabble players in the country. He had a way with the tiles - both on the rack and on the board. He just had to give one little glance and words formed themselves in his mind. And not just any words. His mind analysed the value of the tiles and their positional value on the board to maximise his score after taking into account the doubling and tripling of letter and word scores. It automatically considered the bonus of using all the letters on his rack in the same turn and also thought of where he could tempt his opponent to give him a bonanza on the next score. But there were many others as good or better than him. And he did not like to lose.
He was Ajeet (invincible and not defeatable, in Sanskrit) and Chakravarti (emperor in the same language). How could he lose? At Scrabble or anything else ...

His Scrabble skills were well known in the fraternity but few knew that he was also a predator. He went for the brainy kind of victims. He preyed on them through engaging them on their skill of Scrabble. He lured them by playing a mediocre game and letting them win a few times with a very narrow margin once in a while. He was also very jovial and kept them well wined and dined, so that their senses were lulled into complacence. And then, when they least expected it, he struck. All his victims were from the Scrabble crowd, but the fear of ridicule kept his victims silent.

Once he had them eating out of his hand, he usually invited them home to see his custom-made
Scrabble board.  They usually took the bait willingly. And it was a splendid board. He had made it himself out of rose and teak wood. He had meticulously carved the designs and the text in the bonus squares. Each tile was hand-carved from ivory and the letters and letter values were painted in jet black in bold Roman font.  Though it was truly an artistic masterpiece there was something more to the board.

The back of his opponent's tile rack had a digital display. A strategically placed camera in one of the light fittings captured the image of the tiles on the opponent's rack on a real-time basis and sent it to a computer under the table. The computer ran optical character recognition software on the image and sent it to the display. So he knew what exactly his opponent had in stock. But that was not all.

Another camera captured the image from his rack and sent the same to the computer for identifying the tiles on his rack, though these were not sent to a display. His rack, of course, did not have a display behind it. A third camera kept track of real-time position of tiles on the board. All the data was analysed by a complicated but efficient program on the computer, which worked out his best options. He could see these options on the same display by just raising his eyes from the board when it was his turn to play. He was not taking any chances. He had to ensure he won.  There was no way he could lose at this board. But he still lost.

The losses were intentional. He lost or at least kept the score fairly even for the first few games. All the while, he kept his victim well supplied with alcohol - laced with a drug. When he sensed that the victim was losing inhibition, he proposed a game of Strip Scrabble. An entertaining offbeat variant he explained where, when one person used all tiles on the rack in one go, the other had to discard a piece of clothing. The computer ensured his superiority. It never stopped with the victim discarding the final piece. It always went beyond it - with or without consent.


He never played at the national level as he did not want to attract attention to himself. The state level pool of players provided him enough prey and that too on his home turf. He first saw Mahi at the State-level Scrabble championships.  He had not seen her at earlier championships.  He looked at the list of competitors, mentally ticking off all female ones as "Done". One name was new -  Mahi Date. That was her full name. Probably a Chitpawan Maharashtrian, he thought. Quite a few of them had grey-green eyes, which were rare in India. But he could not see here eyes. For reasons best known to her, she was wearing a veil. It added an aura of mystery to her. It piqued his interest and added to his appreciation of the rest of her. 

He played the round robin games in the championship defeating all the seven others, except her. He let her win. She had won all her games. The elimination games against others were won by him and her and they ended up pitted against each other in the final. This time he played a ping-pong scoring game. He just surpassed her score every time by a small tantalizing margin which she easily made up on her turn. He let her win in the end. He had identified his next victim.

She was crowned the State Champion and he hosted a party feting her victory. Somewhere during the evening he mentioned his unique Scrabble board. Though she was still veiled, he sensed her curiosity as evidenced by her further conversation. Ajeet had not only lost the game, but for the first time he had lost his heart. Her silvery voice pleasing to his ears.  He had not seen her face yet. And for the first time, he wanted to see her eyes. But old habits die hard...


His modus operandi remained the same. And they were down to their last bit of clothing. His boxers and her veil. The veil still tantalizingly stood between him and the face. He was still not sure of the colour of the eyes. He had enquired about the veil and she had said, "Some secrets should  be saved for the last."

It was his turn now and he was ready with his coup-de-grace. He played his winning move and said, "Now I want to remove your veil."

"Me too,: she joined in.

He bent across the board and disrobed her face. And shrank back in horror. The eyes were grey-green as he had expected. But they were ensconced in the sockets of her skull without the protection of eyelids. There was no flesh on the bone and she had a deathly grin on her face..

And just before he went into paralysis, the last thing he heard say was, "Times Up! I am sure your have figured out that Mahi Date is an anagram of 'I am Death'. But death is an easy release for your kind. You shall live on and suffer for what you have done in the past. I shall come for you when your punishment is completed. In the meantime, I have to attend to several more predators."


I got this story from Ajeet himself. His massive attack of paralysis after the event had left him unable to do even the simplest things. It was with great difficulty that he narrated the above events, as he could not speak clearly. He gave me the story tile by tile and that took quite a lot of time.

I did not know of what to do with his story. I did meet Mahi several times during the next one month and we played games at the club. She was still wearing a veil. I asked her about it and the time she wore it for the competition. She said, "I was suffering from a skin condition and had to keep my face protected from the sun. When I went indoors, I thought I would retain the veil to spare my competitors from being un-nerved by my patchy and unsightly face."

Over the days, in spite of Ajeet's tale, I was getting attracted to her even though I had not seen her face. I am the type of guy who gets turned on by women with high IQ. One evening after I won a game, she tilted her head in a characteristic way and asked me appraisingly. "How about on a date tonight?" I punningly replied, "A date with Miss Date is definitely welcome. In fact, I was hoping you would ask."

She asked in a husky voice, "Your place or mine?"

Rather direct, I felt, but I was smitten too and beyond redemption. "Mine", I replied,. "We can have dinner at my place. I have something unique for you."


After we reached home, I re-steamed the string-hoppers from the fridge and served it with a bean curry flavoured with Szechuan peppers, to the accompaniment of kokum sherbet, which she found delightful.

I asked her, "I was feeling that this might be the right time to remove your veil."

"Me too," she replied. I braced myself for the worst, as she proceeded to remove it. "Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men," as The Shadow says. Those grey-green eyes were delightfully attractive. They were framed by eyelids sporting long lashes and accompanied by eyebrows which gave me a questioning look.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Beautiful," I stuttered. Everything was splendid.  And then, her pretty lips opened to reveal her pearly teeth as she asked me if she could stay over.

The next morning the face was still there and I am still fit and fine enough to type out this story. Maybe Ajeet had had hallucinations, or maybe Schezuan peppers were an antidote. Or, maybe (I flatter myself here), Miss Date "Death" could not resist me.  I convinced myself it was the last option that was true.

Or maybe, I was one of the few who hadn't invited the wrath of the #MeToo movement ... or maybe, Mahi had been possessed for some time ...


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Monday, 10 September 2018

The Flight

I was excited and scared. The reason? I was excited because I was flying. That too for the first time ever. Well, most first time fliers are scared, many of you will agree. You will nod understandingly, recollecting your first flight in an aircraft. The inertia of the mind to accept that a heavier-than-air object can fly and stay aloft will be readily appreciated by you. Well, that too was accurate in this case. I was heavier-than-many-things. Birds, in spite of the much talked of hollow bones, are heavier-than-air, as are many other things. They get their lift from flapping wings and soar because of aerodynamic structures and large wing areas. In fact, it’s rather difficult to find many things lighter than air. He is lighter than air – I cannot think of any other thing other than Helium right now.

I had been in aircraft before. I had flown across continents and oceans. I had sat in small aircraft where every seat is an aisle seat and a window seat. I had sat in very small aircraft, where there were no aisles and one had one’s own doorway and unhindered view through the cockpit windscreen. On the other hand, I had travelled in wide-bodies luxury air-planes which had in-flight entertainment systems, and wining and dining services. These helped you tide over the miseries of being in a seat slightly bigger than an infant’s car seat. Sitting and rubbing elbows with a belligerent individual staking claim to be the world’s largest producer of natural gas was a torture one had to bear. But, as I said earlier, this was the first time I was flying. There was no pilot. No one to announce technical delays, turbulence or engine flame-out, or to bring you down to earth safely. You nod again – this time a little less understandingly.

You think I am flying solo! I had no clearance from ATC, nor any parachute or emergency breathing equipment on hand.

My apologies for making leading you to think the way you did. I wasn’t lying. Let me reword my first few sentences for your benefit. “I was excited and scared. The reason? I was exited because I was flying.” Now you nod again, as you understand the import of one italicised letter. Yes, I was flying. And it is an exhilarating and scary experience, when you know you can fly. It unleashes you from the drag of gravity at your feet. There is no height to which you cannot ascend, you feel. The sky, is the limit. But then, the sky doesn’t exist. Just like the horizon, it is one of those fake things our hyper-active minds have made up and transferred to other humans for ease of communicating our ideas.

Okay, I concede. This is the first time I was flying. I did not know if I have any operational limitations or absolute ceiling, as aeronautical engineers call it. To further baffle such engineers, I had no idea of what provided the thrust and lift to my flying. I wasn’t even flapping my arms. Real reason I was scared in spite of such extraordinary buoyancy and pure joy? I had no idea of how to land without turning into puree. And I did realise that I would have to land at least to consume water and food. Flying was dehydrating. And I did not know how to hunt edible prey on the wing.

That’s when I felt as if someone had clasped my hand. I turned to look. But there was no one. It was getting scarier by the minute. Was this actually the end game of the roulette called life? Was I about to cash in my chips? It was getting scarier by the minute. Then I heard a disembodied voice.

Don’t worry,” it said.

A moment later another flyer materialised next to me. And baby-sat me through the mechanics of my maiden flight. This flier seemed to not only be skilled at flying, but also at de-materialisation and re-materialisation. Now that I know the identity of this Master, it’s time I learnt those skills too.

I can only tell you the call-sign of the skilled flier, which I had immediately assigned to him as soon as I had recognised him. I had called him that for nearly as long as I had known him. “Tiger”. Some of you might have a penchant for remembering nicknames. Tipu Sultan, MAK Pataudi, AAK Niazi, ET Woods or JH Shroff, you enquire? None of the above.


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Saturday, 18 August 2018


When my life's hourglass runs out of sand,
She's the only one who will hold my hand.

She may wear a crown and a pretty gown,
But won't turn my hourglass upside down.

She may smile a bit, or just remain mum,
But I shall know when my time has come.

Her eyes will be shining very very bright,
That I shall surrender to her without a fight.

Then I shall succumb to her deadly charms,
As she enfolds me in her embracing arms.

I realized, as into her clasp I sank and sank,
That she is the only one on whom I can bank,

From the time I heard of her, I surely knew,
She is the only consort who's eternally true.

Others may cry and some others may weep,
As I bid adieu - it's time for my eternal sleep.

Copyright notice: The contents of this blog may not be used in any form without the express written consent of the blog owner, who may be contacted at

An Ancient Cryptic Society's Meet

Note: Basic understanding of how cryptic crossword clues work is desirable to understand this story Circa CE 30 Jerusalem Running comme...