Falling between the stools
to occupy the chair
There indeed is something in the air. It is an ominous beginning to something else that I can always sense fairly accurate, even if it occurs a few kilometres away from where my current coordinates are. When it happens, my neurotic radar never fails me and beeps binary signals diligently to my cerebrum, putting me instantly at the general alarm mode, if not curved protectively into the foetal position. The alarm signals are mostly of this pattern - someone or a motley group somewhere is clustering and pulling up with single minded determination, a few planks of partially moth-eaten wood or back to back locked machine-cut plywood boards, arranging them in a hurry to fabricate a makeshift platform. They are aided and abetted by a few others of their ilk who spread a thick dusty carpet over the rough terrain while the rest of the gang are busy arranging a row of faded black and grey tinted plastic chairs, right at the centre of the stage.
Having accomplished these strenuous chores with practiced ease, they take a deep breath and look back for a moment at what they were working on, with an expression of content befitting master creators, written large on their faces. They then proceed to install a microphone with all dedication due, at the left hand corner of the dais, with or without a podium ensconcing that electronic marvel, a weapon of mass oppression.
The very sight of all these makes me tremble like having come into accidental contact with a high tension cable (don’t try it ever). The shivering makes my frail frame oscillate with a sinuous trail, if I factor-in the remote possibility of someone from that sinister mob inviting me to come up, rather occupy the stage, and yes indeed, to speak.
Not that I am suffering from chronic Glossophobia which is the fear of public speaking and not the aversion to glossy fashion journals, as I once thought. Also, I am not claustrophobic or am suffering from a mutated form of vertigo of bonsai proportions. The problem lies with sitting bolt upright on the stage waiting for my turn to be lead to the electronic amplifier.
It is a real bizarre sensation, I tell you. That is, to mention in the most polite, parliamentary (you should be joking) manner. I have had undergone this experience quite a few times. Every time I was drilling deep into it, I invariably ended up with my mind switching over temporarily to another frequency, not a hertz more or a hertz less, yet right enough to imagine I have become in a Kafkaesque manner of speaking, the far end corner of the dusty carpet on the dais or the advertisement banner in the background for the unique blended asafoetida whose manufacturer is the main sponsor of the event. Else I imagine, as a matter of variety, that I have morphed into one of those weary ceiling fans in the auditorium wiping away a wave of satiated asafoetida smeared oral outbursts or squeals with same attributes, sneaking from the other end of the alimentary canal, being the ‘take-away’ from leisurely Sunday lunches of the mostly reluctant audience drawn by social, family or peer group compulsion, waiting for the proceedings to commence and end fast.
Having entered into this mental frame, I look at the audience, certainly not with disdain but with a vacant look. That middle aged lady - I am sure she has dyed this morning her hair jet black - is sniffing a smile but continues staring at me. Something is seriously wrong at my end, I guess. Is it that I have left the comb stuck on my prematurely greying pate while leaving home or that I am wearing my pair of bifocals with one of the lenses having slipped out, making it look like a dreaded monocle in the process?
Shall I run my hand across my head and then quickly all over my face to conduct a status check to establish my worst fears are unfounded? And while doing so, if those down below induced by the henna dyed lady raise their heads in unison, what would they think of my mental equilibrium? Do I feel like sneezing? Can I sneeze with one nostril momentarily covered with my hand kerchief? Well, it is not my hand kerchief actually but my wife’s, in arresting pink with a lot of tiny flowers printed all over.
Do I look every nanometer a reverse coordinated, comb wearing, sneezing weird zombie, inclined to minimalist cross dressing? And what is happening to my ‘co-condemned’ - one of the to-be speakers sharing the dais with me? He yawns as if he is about to fall into a deep sleep. May I break into a sympathetic yawn myself wishing him a tiny neat siesta? I withdraw my gaze from him instantaneously as yawning could be infectious.
And what is happening to the dignitary at the far end corner of the dais? He or she would have rushed here in a hurry, finishing an asafoetida laced lunch and in the process would have left at home the handkerchief or the infant to be nursed or the traditional brass pot filled with cardamom spiced hot water for drinking. With good Samaritans dime a dozen with one more coming as a free gift permeating the scene everywhere on government declared holidays, the forgotten article or life form would have duly been picked up, brought to the venue and would have commenced its journey from the other corner of the stage, with a request to pass it on ultimately to whomever that belongs to. And it is right now in my hands, while I am still a part of the door mat, mentally.
That precisely is why I am mortally afraid to stir out of my two bed room, east facing apartment even if my neurotic radar catches all the wrong signals and issues a red flag warning about an impending calamity of the magnitude discussed.
But every rule has an exception. The invitation may arrive but not exactly addressed to me. My close friend once was requested to address an august audience, other attributes of them unknown then. Being someone genuinely interested in social causes, he was keen on utilizing the opportunity optimally to showcase his prowess at soap box oratory.
‘Why don’t you come along with me? I find it somewhat odd to go all alone to address such an informed gathering on a sweltering dog day in May’.
He pleaded with me earnestly that I had no alternative than to accompany him forthwith.
Without losing further time we took a rickety bus to the suburbia and after a bumpy ride through a series of villages interspaced with small towns and town extensions, reached the place where he was to speak. It appeared that was the day when the weekly market gathered there in the vast open expanse, off the bus station. Those enter the market and those others leaving, most all the while chewing tobacco and chattering incessantly with raised voices, created the perfect ambience for the proposed gathering at sylvan surroundings.
‘Our meeting is to be conducted at the Flag Post’, my friend disclosed with delight expecting to meet a huge wave of captive audience any time then. All the friendly souls when not chatting or spitting out chewed tobacco came forward to guide us to the Flat Post, where we reached in no time.
It was a small area with a slight gradient to the left of the highway, where the road takes a turn to the bus station. Six (or was it seven) bamboo poles were standing bolt upright there, each with a flag of a political party fluttering on the top. There was a large wooden table laid at the Flag Post. No one was found in the vicinity.
After a few minutes, a head popped up from under the table. It belonged to the organizer of the meeting. He welcomed us heartily and took from the under belly of the table, a tiny mike with a built-in speaker.
‘My in-laws are based in Singapore. They gifted this to me when they were here last year for the annual village temple festival. As you see, this is the state of art communication system with low power consumption and longest voice throw’.
With obvious self importance being tech-savvy, he inserted the batteries into the mike, and wielded it like a trophy, with his head held high.
‘Respected ladies and gentlemen, the one in yellow shirt, that lady in a green colored saree, the venerable old woman carrying a basket coming out of the market chewing a leaf of tobacco, the two young men cycling towards east.. Please come here and listen. Your life will be changed for ever. People of wisdom have come from the city to meet you and speak to you’, he announced.
Having done so, he handed the microphone over to my friend like the conductor of a symphony orchestra passing on the baton to his lead violinist, albeit temporarily.
‘Please commence your speech’, he bowed his head with a request to my friend.
Half a dozen boys all below the age of ten and returning from the school and a few elderly gentlemen with no particular avocation to attend to obligingly formed the audience soon. My friend, though looking bewildered for a second having addressed no gathering of this proportion and composition before, lifted the megaphone gingerly while another mega phone was thrust into my hand.
Please repeat all the important portions of his lecture for the benefit of the audience; repeated hearing will make them remember what is being discussed here’, hissed the organizer like a bull snake in heat.
And so, it went on. My friend was speaking about the importance of small savings and I was faithfully echoing his sentiments with a well measured time lag.
For the next seven years and a half, I had had repeated nightmares of myself being the deputy of a rat poison salesman active in village fares crying hoarse selling our ware, with the offer of a free gift - a sturdy stainless steel spoon, only if you purchase two pouches of the wonderful rodent killer.
I have to admit that it is an experience of quite another kind if one happens to be the organizer of a meeting. Once, in a weak moment, I gave my nod to be the general secretary of a literary association in my home town. And I was immediately delegated the task of inviting a well known writer specializing in ancient epics, to address a discerning group of literary fans, on behalf of the club.
The writer seemed to know like the palm of his hand the topology, crop pattern, industrial and business activity, anthropology and social mapping of my small town and its environment. He enquired whether it is true that sturdy coir ropes are mass produced there and are available at a fair price, which he could even quote unto the second digit after the decimal point.
I answered in the affirmative and added with a tinge of pride in my voice that we supply hanging ropes to almost all the prisons across the country.
‘No, not that stuff for me. I need a lighter version to haul water from the well, strong enough not to snap even after a couple of months of intense use’.
With a heavy heart I gave up my desire to listen to his scholarly dissection of the epics and went in search of the right type of rope like a hangman armed with details of the one he is going to bid farewell. When I entered the meeting venue with the rope neatly folded and tucked under my arm, the writer was at his rhetorical best. He was quoting verse after verse from all versions of Ramayana about how Lord Rama lifted the formidable bow Siva Dhanusu as if it was a toy for the tiny tots and then broke it with a slight twist of his little finger. His hands were the amplifiers of his body language. They in perfect synch with his eloquence were kept steady along with an uplift chin, all creating an image of the brave Rama holding a gigantic bow to break.
The moment the speaker’s eyes fell on me, his hands started moving up and down frantically. But Rama did not bend the bow with such elementary gestures of kinetic motion.
And it dawned on me rather a tad late that the last part of his action on the stage was a private performance, exclusive for my benefit. He was enquiring whether my Mission Rope was accomplished without any hitch.
When I nodded in the affirmative, the meeting also came to a close with Rama happily marrying Sita and the writer extending his arm not to greet them but to receive the coir rope for hauling pails of water from a deep well somewhere on the surface of the earth.
Last year I attended a meeting held a couple of days after Deepavali, a popular Hindu festival celebrated throughout India. The meeting was held for the release of a poetry anthology. As speaker after speaker continued singing hosannas to the poet, a petite young lady, a team of busy attendants were serving in paper plates Deepavali sweets and a savoury item, ‘kaara bhoondhi’, made of fried lentil flour seasoned with pepper and hot chillies. One of these enthusiastic youngsters ascended the dais as well with a paper plate full of kaara bhoondhi which he magnanimously offered to the speaker at the podium.
‘Shall I continue my tryst with poetry till it tapers to its own conclusion or shall I begin a new rendezvous with this delicacy on the paper plate leaving poetry to fend for itself and the poets to fund themselves their anthologies in print?’ I guessed this could be the semi-existential debate the speaker was having at that very moment in his mind.
Poor guy, after much hesitation, he continued with his shower of praise for the beautiful poems, forsaking the pleasure of the paper plate. Not me! I would gladly have quit my literary pursuit and commenced munching a handful of delicious boondhi.
Anyone can indulge in poetry any time. How many opportunities one gets in one’s entire life time with a paper plate of mouth watering eatables offered lovingly, on or off stage, in lieu of a pursuit of literature?