BOOK EXCERPT

‘My heart’s in my mouth whenever I get to the scene where she seduces her brother-in-law.’

An excerpt from a novel about an actress’s son stumbling into adolescence.

His mother acted in plays. He carried that knowledge like a wound. He was afraid to nurse it lest others noticed. But pain swirled around it, and flies buzzed. Everybody thought it was wrong of his mother to leave the home every evening, delicately dressed and fragrant.

Evenings spent in the glare and noise of rehearsals, shows on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays in the local theatre halls. Bright-lit evenings and the warm, perfumed smell of greenrooms and the rowdy energy of men and women whose limbs swam in the lilt of music. It created bitterness at home, great dark swathes of it.

They tried to hide the wound but it spilled over everywhere. His grandmother, his Mummum, never mentioned it; she nursed it in silence. His aunt Rupa muttered about it, grating words inside her mouth.

He remembered the men who used to dash into their house when he was little.

They were men who smelled of wild grass and cigarette-smoke, with stubble on their cheeks that hurt when they kissed him. ‘Uri Uri Bahbah!’ They would whistle. They would tickle him and swing him in the air; he would see the blue sky below him and the bannister of the balcony above and shriek in fear. But they never stayed long.

Sometimes they just crowded the landing of the staircase, thickening the air with smoke and song and strange cuss words while waiting for his mother to come out, dressed and ready for her rehearsal. Inside the house, the maids lowered their voices to a whisper and a cloud fell across Rupa’s face. Sometimes Rupa’s maid answered the door and called Ori’s mother: ‘Didi, your babus are here.’ Ori hated the way she said it. He wanted to run out of the house, leave with his mother, with the wild and smoky men.

But these days, his mother left the house alone. Sometimes, a car came to pick her up, but no one ever stepped out of it.

The smell of violence always floated in the air.

Back when he was seven or eight, he remembered an old man who sometimes came to see his grandmother. Mr Tarafdar, a retired barrister who had worked with his grandfather. Even in his late seventies, he had the manner of the stern English magistrates you saw in movies. Ori’s grandmother never forgot to cover her head with the end of her sari, pulling it low over her forehead, like a shy newly-wed before a stranger.

‘I’ve never really cared for plays, Manashi,’ Mr Tarafdar had said one evening in his rich voice that filled up the room. ‘But my daughter and son-in-law dragged me off to see Bar-Badhu at Rangmahal, and what can I tell you? Your bouma, Garima, she is magic on stage. Pure magic, that’s what she is.’

Bar-Badhu was a funny play where a man and a woman pretended to be married; apparently the woman did this for money, play wife to men who needed to look like they were married. Garima was such a natural, such a genius in the role of the fake wife, so full of tears and laughter and domestic bliss, that you forgot that you were watching a play inside a play. The old man had sipped at his tea noisily as he spoke, his aged eyes dreamy, and Ori’s heart had swelled with so much pride that it hurt.

But moments after Mr Tarafdar left the house, a hiss of words between Rupa and his grandmother struck a slap on his cheeks. The barrister was such a dirty old man, they said. Ori had stared at his grandmother’s stricken face, the sari-anchal slipping of her head, and he heard Rupa chew out bitter words against the shameless Mr Tarafdar. Slowly, Ori’s anger had swelled – against the old barrister who had watched his mother on stage, and then, against his mother. Great, fuming burst of fury that had made his eyes well up.

It was wrong of her to pretend to be someone else’s wife.

They hated it, his aunt and his grandmother. Sometimes the maids giggled with strange, star-struck eyes. He remembered the photograph that had appeared once in a newspaper, a close-up shot of his mother’s face and that of another man, looking at each other with a strange kind of fear in their eyes. White and intense, the faces did not seem fully human. But it was a picture from a play he had seen her rehearse, where she was married to a young and handsome landowner, a rich zamindar who drank whisky all the time and lost his estate.

The spotlight and the make-up had made their faces scary. Everyone at home hated the picture, throwing away the day’s newspaper like it was touched with disease; he had seen the maids pick up the rubbished page, smooth out the creases, gaze at the photograph with a shine in their eyes, whisper to each other.

~~~


Some evenings, he tagged along with his mother to her rehearsals, full of anxious actors and musicians.

Fidgety, nervous people who pinched his cheeks and ruffled his hair and then forgot about him. All except the hairdresser Pallabi, who shadowed his mother wherever she went and seemed to secretly wait for him to arrive. She smiled and sometimes winked at him but never said anything. Ori liked her but he did not like it when she winked; he always turned his face away.

Quickly, he became invisible again, free to wander along the corridors outside or stay inside to see young actors try to get jealous or sad. Or to read a book he’d brought along. He could follow the rehearsed lines far better than most would imagine, and the most intense scenes, repeated endlessly, took on strange colours in his mind. But he rarely spoke to anyone, and the actors, too, forgot about him and got on with their rehearsal.

Every time his mother came back from a rehearsal with Ori in tow, a hushed silence fell at home.

As if everyone was holding their breath. And then the questions began to trickle out, voices dropping so low that they were mere whispers. Where did his mother go for the rehearsal? Which part of the city?

Did you see a lot of men there? Were they young like your Baba, or old men with no hair?

Sometimes their words burnt a hole through his heart.

One night after dinner as he was sitting on his grandmother’s bed and talking to her, his aunt, Rupa, had walked into the room to take care of her last chores for the evening. A woman from the neighbourhood walked in with her, a friend of the family whose raspy voice often echoed throughout the house. As the two women pottered around the room tidying up stray ends, Ori’s grandmother fell into silence.

‘Ori?’ Rupa asked. ‘How was the rehearsal this evening?’  He didn’t know what to say.

‘That play is a classic,’ Rupa chattered on, pouring water into his grandmother’s glass and covering it for the night with a small porcelain saucer. Everybody agreed that Rupa was the working nerve centre of the house.

She was the widow of Ori’s uncle, his father’s only brother, a man with weak lungs who had died when Ori was a toddler. Rupa was a dark and angular woman with a face nobody glanced at a second time in this family of beautiful, fair-skinned people. Briskly, she would go around the house making sure none of the maids shirked their duties or filched a chipped coin lying forgotten under the bed.

Her fingertips understood money; she worked all day counting crisp notes and shiny coins behind an iron cage in the local branch of the State Bank. No maid in this house could get away fooling her about change due back from the shopkeepers.

Her voice tightened whenever she spoke about Ori’s mother.

‘But it has only one female character,’ her friend said absently, her bangles clinking against each other. ‘Perfect for an amateur group in a corporate house.’

‘Naturally they had to hire a professional actress.’ Rupa said as she arranged the old woman’s night-time pills on a little dish. ‘No woman in the office would act. And certainly not in such a role.’

Ori’s grandmother looked out of the window. She was the most beautiful old woman Ori had seen. A marble statue in widow’s white. She looked lonely. Gazing at her deep-wrinkled hands, Ori’s heart ached with love.

She was an ancient, regal woman, his Mummum, clean and fragrant with a fresh-mint smell. She loved to read and tell stories, loved to recite hymns in Sanskrit in her trembling old-woman voice.

Rupa shot a glance at Ori. ‘Garima is the only woman in that play, isn’t she?’

Ori wanted his grandmother to look inside, say something. Urgently.

‘I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read the novel.’ Rupa’s friend said dreamily. ‘My heart’s in my mouth whenever I get to the scene where she seduces her brother-in-law.’ She paused, holding her breath. ‘A boy half her age.’

The night air breezed through the window. The old woman’s jaws tightened.

Rupa left the room with her friend. But the air would not thaw. Slowly, Mummum turned to him, her ancient eyes unblinking. ‘What was your mother wearing today?’ she asked.

Bewildered, he still knew better than to tell the truth: that his mother, the only woman that evening in a loud group of men, had ditched her staid cotton sari to put on a skin-hugging salwar for the rehearsals. Got to live the character and move free, she had said.

Sweat thickened on the bridge of his nose. He grimaced, worrying his glasses would slip off. For a moment, he was silent.

‘Why?’ suddenly, he had turned to stare at her. ‘She was wearing a sari. The cotton one the colour of pista.’

Excerpted with permission from The Firebird, Saikat Majumdar, Hachette India.

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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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