ज़िन्दगी

ग़म के नशे में भी हँसता है..
इस दौड़ती-बदलती ज़िन्दगी में इंसान
रोने को भी तरसता है .

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The Banquet Hall

I submitted this story for “Write India – Season 2”, a short story contest by Times of India. Every month, a bestselling author gives a prompt, using which you have to write a story of about 1500-3000 words. The given paragraph can be used anywhere in the story, but it must not be altered. The following was the promt and rules by Manu Joseph:

He is looking for a girl, who does not know he exists, or the story that has brought him here. He has no reasons to be discreet but still he has to be careful. He is standing near the doorway and surveying the golden banquet hall, which is filled with refined bodies in saris and jackets, and beautiful young women with straight hair who never make facial expressions. But they will, soon. Any moment now.

RULES BY THE AUTHOR

1. All events in the story must adhere to natural physical laws as known today.
2. There can be animal characters in your story but you cannot show them as talking unless the story is essentially about the discovery of a talking animal. Nor can your story imagine an animal’s train of thought.
3. You should not use the word ‘suddenly’ more than once.
4. You should not use the exclamation mark.

 

THE BANQUET HALL

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George lives in a world that worships beauty, power and wealth instead of a good heart, clean mind and compassion. There is nothing he can’t have at his feet within the minute he expresses desire for it. Being born into a royal family has its share of perks, and as the outside world saw it, he is known to have it all. But this life is a little strange, and this world is a little strange. The richest and most powerful people in the world are envied by every person who knows of their existence. Yet, these people crave for the simplest of things in life.

At 28, George has everything under control. Life is sorted, money-wise, fame-wise, and hotness-wise. Well, being filthy rich is the answer to everything physically satisfying in today’s world. Girls would flock around him wherever he went. He could summon Miss Universe and she would happily make love to him. Who would possibly in their right minds say no to a member of London’s royal family? But the tall, solemn, handsome young man was a gentle soul within. Born under the zodiac of the crab, the moonchild was a dreamer and an ocean of emotions existed in the depths of his heart and soul. He wanted to find his one true love, the woman who would look through him, calm down the fire within him, the burning emotions that rob him of sleep, the passion that only a woman who truly understands him could share… unlike the women he had met till now. Women, throwing themselves at him, drunk and enchanted by the name he carried. Women, who only saw him, and not the person he was. Women who wanted his last name; but not his heart. Women, who would strip his body naked, but not his soul. Women, blinded by power and wealth.

He had met enough women in his social circle to understand that he wouldn’t find what he was looking for within the life his family had built for him. High society gatherings, tea with the Ministers, dinners with film stars, and yet he couldn’t find her. This life built around newspaper articles and media flashes had started to suffocate him to no end. Even a vacation on a private beach, rather a private island, couldn’t bring his mind the peace he longed for. The more he understood himself, the more he knew what he wanted in life. A woman to share his life with. But not one of those he has known all his life.

It has been a week since he met Guru Shankar Narayan, at his own request. George had succeeded in keeping this part of his life private, and thus the local media doesn’t know that the he is an ardent follower of Indian philosophies and mythology. He is not unknown to the fact that his ancestors had spent years in this foreign land invading and robbing it. He grew up listening to these stories which were always told with a biased point of view, but this was enough to give him a glimpse of India and thus began his fascination for this country that he could so deeply feel a connection to. But his ideas, interests and desires were highly private. Not a soul knew that he secretly read the Ramayana, and watched videos of Indian Gurus and their teachings. He had not even visited India yet, worrying that the media might start questioning the same and headlines about the younger generation of the royal family, curiously touring India might cook up stories back home. He thus considered it wise to stay away from controversies and explored the culture and history from his bedroom.

But off late, George hadn’t been keeping well, and found himself mentally bothered with something. He needed advice, but not the kind of advice you seek from a friend. He needed guidance. Spiritual guidance to be more exact. After many a sleepless nights and mental struggles as to where to seek what his heart desired, he finally decided to ‘talk’ to someone who might help. And when it came to spiritual guidance, he could think of none other than Guru Shankar Narayan, whom he had been following over the internet since a few years now. And thus he called his private secretary and asked him to arrange a meeting with the Guru.

It was a bright sunny morning, and the Guru arrived at 10 am sharp. As he was being led to the gardens where breakfast and tea had been arranged, he could see the figure of a tall man suited in black, pacing up and down anxiously at the far end of the garden. The secretary pointed towards George, and indicated the Guru to take a seat. Observing him lost in his thoughts, Shankar Narayan thought it fit not to call out to him, but rather wait for him to notice him. But George was deep in thought, and it wasn’t until his phone rang, that he broke his walk of meditation and noticed the Guru sitting at the tea table. Leaving the phone unanswered, he jogged towards him and touched his feet. A royal touching someone’s feet, was a rare sight that immediately changed the expression on the strict faces of the bodyguards in black, standing right behind them.

“Give me your blessings, Guru ji,” he said as he touched his feet and the Guru raised his hand and gave him his blessings. Then, taking a seat facing the Guru, he took a deep breath and looked straight at his face for the first time now.

Shankar Narayan, a man in his late 50s, looked too young to be a Guru. Defying the clichéd image of a man with a long white beard and wrinkled skin, Shankar Narayan was a young-looking hippie turned Guru. Dressed in a plain white kurta-pyjama, his face had peace written all over it, and his hair gave away his slow ageing- a mix of white and black, giving him a rather dashing, handsome look. If you passed him by in the street, you’d think he was like any other passerby, as lost in life as any other person on the street. But those who knew him, would immediately fall at his feet and beg for his blessings.

Shankar Narayan, as he was now known, and named by his followers, was born into a lower middle class family in the North of India. At the age of 5, when he had just started to learn the alphabet, he could recite entire verses of the Vedas and by the age of 10, he could quote the Bhagavad Geeta quite aptly, giving explanations in the local language. He was known to have been blessed with an inner vision and an in-depth spiritual knowledge. By the age of 20, people were visiting him to seek help with their daily troubles. He was known for looking at a person’s face, and pointing out exactly what was troubling him. By the age of 25, he was giving lectures to the local public about proper conduct and the struggles of the human life. At 30, he decided to go into deep meditation in Mount Kailash and nobody heard from him for 5 years. But when he returned to his village, they say, he had turned into a miraculous man. The fruit of five years of his meditation was thus that he could now envision the future in images. Many have claimed to have found the solutions to their problems after consulting him.

Shankar Narayan was not a God. He was a healer. A helper, who wanted to comfort his fellow human beings. And so, as his fame and technology grew side by side, he soon became a popular figure on video platforms and people were writing about him everywhere. It is thus not surprising that someone abroad, who was so curious about India, started following the Guru so closely.

Guru ji, I have been your follower since years now. I have heard about your guidance which is sought by millions around the world. I consider myself lucky that you agreed to visit me, and bless me with your company,” he said.

“I know, son. And I also know what you seek. Your impatience and longing shows on your face quite clearly. I can help you understand your path to what you’re looking for, but only if you do as I say without any questions,” the Guru said.

“Of course, Guru ji. I would follow your words without any questions. Lead me to my destiny, please.”

“So listen carefully, George; and for a few moments, forget that you were born into this family. Because you do not belong here. I know what your heart longs for, and what you keep from the world. And the one you seek – who will complete you and quench your thirst for love and knowledge- she belongs there as well. You have to go find her, she who does not know of your existence. Who is far from the materialistic pleasures of life. Who sees the soul, and not the body. Who is far different from all the women you’ve known. You will not meet her in the life you lead here. You have to find her, seek her, and meditate on her. Pack your bags and forget this existence for some time. If you have the courage to follow your heart’s desires, don’t be afraid to spill your secrets. Travel the length and breadth of the land your heart longs to see. Take your men along, if you wish to protect yourself. But I tell you, you need none. The Lord is with you. Open your arms to every chance life offers you. Don’t say no to the call of destiny, and you will find what you’re looking for.”

George was blown away by the Guru’s words. He questioned himself as to why he had been stopping himself from visiting the country he longed to see- only out of fear of being gossiped about? Why did it not occur to him that his destiny could be written in his own desires?

But now, he had all his answers, and now, there was no looking back. And destiny is such that it makes its way to us. We just need to be prepared. The occasion that was coming his way, might have been declined by him, had the Guru not inspired him to embrace his desires and be open to opportunities. And thus, as it was destined, a wedding invitation arrived the next morning, for his friend Robert.

Robert told him about the wedding of his brother’s friend to an Indian woman, for which he was invited next week. Sipping his scotch, Robert handed out the wedding invitation to George, with an uninterested look on his face.

“Look at this. A wedding invitation I received this morning. Would you believe it if I say that I’ve never even met the bride or the groom? India seems like quite an interesting country. They send wedding invitations to people who don’t even know of their existence.”

“Whose wedding invitation is this?,” George asked, as he read the name ‘To Mr. Robert Mathews’ at the back of the envelope.

“My dear brother Antony’s friend Jacob. He is getting married to someone in India. In Jaee-poor. Anyway, I don’t have the time to attend weddings all the way in India. I don’t even know why they sent me an invite,” said Robert.

“Do you mind if I go in your place?” asked George.

“I guess they’ll let anyone attend the wedding. You don’t even need this card or my name,” he laughed out loud.

“But I’ll take the card anyway,” he said, and slipped it in the inside pocket of his coat.

“What? Wasn’t that supposed to be a joke? You’re not serious, are you? You want to attend some random wedding in India?” Robert puzzled him, and looked at his face with intense seriousness.

“Yes, Robert. I want to. It’s very important for me. I’ll tell you later. I have to go now,” said George, and off he went to inform him secretary about the sudden change of plans the next coming week.

A week full of mental conflicts and worrying about his image in public, passed too slowly. George was deep in his thoughts all the time, and wondered if this was really the right thing to do. What would people think back home when they would learn that he was attending a wedding in India, for which he hadn’t even been invited? A hundred different questions popped up in his mind, and he was ready to give up any moment. But he would then remember the sleepless night, and the voice inside his heart, which longed for something he knew he could never find in this life he was born into. And so the days passed by, and his desires overcame his fears.

As the plane landed in New Delhi, his heart started beating normally. His heart, which was racing ever since he took the decision to come to India, was finally beating fine. He felt the calm before the storm of emotions that would take over his life this evening. Somewhere, getting dressed for someone’s wedding, she too would be feeling the calm before the storm. She would be getting dressed for her lover to see her for the first time. But she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know that her life was going to change tonight. She doesn’t know that what she was seeking unknowingly, was seeking her all along, and has finally found his way to her.

He is looking for a girl, who does not know he exists, or the story that has brought him here. He has no reasons to be discreet but still he has to be careful. He is standing near the doorway and surveying the golden banquet hall, which is filled with refined bodies in saris and jackets, and beautiful young women with straight hair who never make facial expressions. But they will, soon. Any moment now.

Virtual Friend

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Dear virtual friend,
Meeting you was destined by the internet Gods.
In this world brought together by social media sites,
we found ourselves scrolling through each other’s profile;
late into the night, when the alarm clock was set for 7 in the morning,
but sleep was nowhere in sight.
Gone are the days our grandmothers recalled:
when a stamped letter brought news of her lover’s wellbeing.
Now our phones ping more often,
and they match the rhythm of our heartbeats.

You, more a mystery than a friend,
who I found on twitter, facebook, or Instagram,
We even stalked our linkedins, pinterest and quora.. damn!
Our lives painted out there with HTML,
brought to us by HTTPs,
Photos, videos and memories..
And we thought we knew each other.

On sleepless nights when you lay awake,
to make my insomnia your own,
I thought to myself if this was a new face of love..
If we were Romeo and Juliet, connected through phones..
Well, you couldn’t come running to my balcony,
because you didn’t know where I lived.
But you would keep your phone next to your heart,
Because for you, that’s where I exist.

You, my virtual friend,
were the therapist I might have needed,
if we hadn’t found each other.
We had no baggage, no tag, no status to update,
without a care for a third one to overhear,
we turned into guiding angels.
Angels who were messed up in their heads,
but made complete sense over texts.
We were angels who guided each other through the day,
with a good morning, an afternoon chat,
and a long conversation at the end of the day.
we have no regrets, we have no questions to answer,
We laughed for a while, and made each other smile;
we lent a helping text.

You, my virtual friend,
were a dream not turned into reality.
You were a dream that I dreamt for a long time,
but hey, not all of them come true!
And no, we have no tears to shed, for our story without an end.
Some dreams are beautiful because they remain untouched
by this real life we don’t comprehend.

खुशी के नकाब |

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Photo credits : @hyzir on instagram.

जचते हैं खुशी के नकाब इस पीढ़ी को..
ये आँसू छुपाते हैं हसी से,
और गमों को धूएं में उड़ाते हैं.
जचते हैं ये ज़िंदगी के झूठे जशन
इन्न नकाबों के रंगीन बाज़ार में.

मगर छुपते नहीं कुछ ज़ख़्म आसानी से..
किसिके प्यार की अधूरी कहानी के..
आँखों पर पट्टी बाँधे कौन चल पाता है ?
ये आँखें जो छुपाई नहीं जाती,
ये आँखें सब बयाँ कर जाती हैं.
कौन किसके गम में रोया,
और किसने जागते रातें काटी हैं..

 

A Summer Weekend : Cannes/Monaco/Island of Sainte Marguerite

 

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During the 18th century when the British upper class was holidaying and chilling under the warm skies of the French Riviera, they couldn’t have imagined that in the 21st century, these spots would turn into holiday hubs, and people would fly in from all over the world, every day, every hour, crowding these beaches along the Mediterranean. The Cote d’Azur, known in English as the French Riviera, is definitely one of the most popular summer holiday destinations of our times. With the Cannes Film Festival pretty much endorsing it every year, tourists are buzzing around all year long. One among them, I finally booked myself in for a southern delight this summer.

Almost the peak of summer, I flew in to Nice on the first weekend of August. Although summer was at its peak in Paris too, but the sun in the South has its own feels. So I landed in Nice, and took the bus to the center from the airport, and took in the sight of people walking their dogs and running along the Promenade des Anglais. The first thing that really struck me was the architecture, which was nothing like what I’d seen before in France. Of course I wasn’t used to seeing house with huge balconies and terraces, because my home city in France, i.e., Paris is known for its almost non existing balconies. Which has its own charm, but let’s not get to that. Nice, on the other hand, was very, very different from Paris. I just couldn’t stop staring at the pretty houses, sometimes painted bright yellows and pinks, looking onto the beach.

But Nice wasn’t the place I was staying the night. I was somehow more excited about visiting towns other than Nice, mostly because I didn’t want to go to super hyped places. But yeah I know Cannes and Monaco aren’t less hyped either. But after a small walk around Nice, I headed straight to the station and boarded the train to Monaco. A cheap ticket, a short ride, but amazing views of seaside towns as the train passed along the French Riviera, towards Italy. Pretty much every small stretch of sand was packed with people. Somewhere hidden on tiny hills were houses, mansion rather, looking like a bird’s nest far from the hustle and bustle of the city ; looking out on to the bright blue Mediterranean, a perfect escape from the world so full of life and troubles. But like dreams, these houses passed out of sight, and soon the train entered the Gare Monaco Ville.

Of course, I should have known that this was another touristy little place. A small country, surrounded by France and the Mediterranean. Monte Carlo- a town straight out of a Hollywood movie set. With its yatch-lined harbor, the belle-epoque casino, and streets filled with high-end fashion boutiques, I did feel for a moment that I was in the wrong place. Monte Carlo is for the rich. But these days you don’t need to be rich to travel. SO, I was pretty happy not spending euros and euros like a typical tourist, but taking in the sights and observing a new place with keen eyes of a traveler. Not concentrating much on spending lavishly, I concentrated on walking around. But the most crazy (in a nice way) thing about this place was that most of it was hilly, and quite interestingly there were public lifts to take help you climb up! It took me 20 minutes to figure out where my airbnb was – even though it was just on the street next to the station where I got off! I thought I was pretty good with maps, but a new realization is that map skills work differently for hilly towns!

Well, I didn’t do much in Monaco except walking around in the old town, in narrow streets, admiring the architecture, window shopping brands that I had never even heard of, climbing till the highest point of the town for an amazing view, and visiting the entrance hall of the casion of Monte Carlo (You can’t go in to gamble unless you’re suited and booted and look rich enough). Drinks and dinner by the harbour, ofcourse, and that was the end of my time in Moncao. Next afternoon, I boarded a train to Cannes, and eager for a day at the beach!

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Post Office in Monaco.

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A view of Monaco.

Cannes, though still a rich people city, had its own charm. Much different from Monaco, Cannes was all about the beach life. I got off further away from the central station, and walked alllll the way from Cannes La Bocca to the hotel, along the beach. Pretty exhausted by the time I reached the hotel, but the beach had to be done. So poof! I was at the beach in no time! What I noticed there was that from where I had started walking, the beaches were pretty empty, but reaching closer to the center, it was a bazar! The beaches at the center seemed no fun – it was just tooooo packed! There was literally no place to sit. These are the beaches of La Croisette. So if you go to Cannes, avoid these touristy beaches and walk further away from the town, where it’s much nicer and peaceful for a beach day.

That night, dinner was not touristy at all. Having taken some local advice from a friend from Cannes, I went to dine at a very fancy place, where apparently only the locals go. Situated in the heart of the touristy area, in a narrow street next to lanes full of exotic restaurants, this little restaurant, if you don’t know about it, you might never find. Its pretty much a local secret in the heart of the buzzing touristy quartier and is quite rightly called “Le Jardin Secret” – The Secret Garden. At the entrance, it doesn’t even seem like a restaurant. You go in, and you ask for a table, and then they take you in to the garden, which is decorated with candles, lights, and hippy stuff. A beautiful place to spend a summer evening, with French food and wine. And that was the end of day one in Cannes. But the next day was going to be the best adventure of this trip!

South of France

At a beach in Cannes.

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Another one.

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View from the hotel room.

I was pretty convinced that all these towns along the Mediterranean are super touristy and with no peace and calm. I wanted to go somewhere quieter. I still hadn’t found a beach where I could just relax, away from the crowds. And then – an island happened. I have this habit of checking google maps all the time to see what is around. Before the trip, when I was looking at Cannes in Google maps, I saw an island pretty close to it. I wondered if one could actually go there. So when I reached the hotel, I made it a point to ask the reception about this island. And turns out – we can go there! Now this island is not an island where people live. So pretty much an island-island! It used to be inhabited during Roman times, and was captured by the Spanish at some point and then recaptured by the French. During the 17th century, the fortress prison which still exists on the island was constructed and it was the home to many famous prisoners including the mysterious prisoner called the Man in the Iron Mask, who has been mentioned in the works of famous French writers like Voltaire and Dumas. The prison was shut down in the 20th century. Today, most of the island is a reserved forest with tiny rocky bays, umbrella pines and ancient eucalyptus forests. And of course, beaches all around! Although most of the beaches are rocky, there is a long stretch of sand beach too. But what makes it even more exciting is that you can pick any small stretch of rocky beach and make it your own private beach for the day!

How to get there? Well, there’s a ferry from the Vieux-Port of Cannes to this island every 1-2 hours from the morning till the evening. A 15-minute ferry ride. But the last one back to Cannes is around 6 in the evening, so if you don’t manage to get back, you’re stuck on the island and you sleep under the stars. Although the rides go pretty full during the summer, the island still seems deserted when you’re walking in the forest. The island is almost 3 kms in length and 900 metres across. So you’re not running into people when you’re walking in the forest. But occasionally you see families setting up picnics, someone reading in peace, and people setting up their own private beach parties on tiny rocky bays. This was definitely one of the most unique places I’ve been to till now, and I couldn’t help but think of Kaho na pyaar hai while settling down on my own private bay. I walked quite a lot during the day spent on this island, but it was impossible to cover the whole island in one day. Not knowing what was next, it was pretty exciting to take random narrow paths, and so often, there was the road-not-taken moment in the forest. I also ended up finding a cemetery of soldiers, and that was really, really spooky. But as the hours passed, the challenge was to make it in time for the last ferry, which I managed and made it back in time for the last evening in Cannes.

fkks

On the island – Read the signs!!!

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One edge of the island .

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Thats me 🙂

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On my private rocky bay , chilling in peace.

The next morning, the last morning before the flight back, I went to the terrace of the Radisson Blu, which has an amaaaaazing view of Cannes and the Mediterranean. Followed by a quick visit to the Palais des festivals where the Cannes film festival takes place every year.

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Rooftop of the Radisson Blu.

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But, well, the island being the highlight of my trip to the South of France, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I hadn’t discovered it on Google maps. Thank Google for that!

. From Bones to Dust .

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From bones to dust,
into thin air;
Your pain dissolved.
Your existence;
into thin air.
You who laughed once,
and cried for life.
For life,
and sunny days together.
Days that never came..
that would now never come.
You who turned from bones to dust.
Your existence,
a beautiful dream for us.
A dream dreamt at dawn;
Half asleep,
begging the hour to hold on.
Nearing the end
Of an autumn song.
But when winter comes,
nights are long.
And they who loved,
and laughed once,
turn from bones to dust.
For the world,
their memories rust.
But for hearts that broke :
Stardust.