By Neel Anil Panicker

Places of worship are attractive to eternal optimists.

It took all of three weeks and an ardous personal pilgrimage which extended to all of ten temples, eight mosques, six gurudwaras, three churches, and a couple of Parsi temples and even the odd Jewish synagogue for Raghav to come to this realization.

The woman in front is still standing steady and upright like the Rock of Gibralter; her body posture not once slackening. Positioned immediately behind her, Raghav would occasionally catch her turning around and scanning the sea of humanity that snaked behind them, as long as the Nile.

Looking at her cadaverous frame draped in a much used and abused initially off-white but now a dirt-yellow cheap cotton saree; her heavily lined mouse like face scarred with more crisscrossed lines than would show up on a map of the most congested bylanes of Chandni Chowk, and at her eyes__ eyes that were sunk so deep into their sockets that they reminded him of the ever faulty still    overworked elevator in his office building that everybody feared could any moment give way and disappear into the abyss __, Raghav guessed that it had been quite some time since she had entered the hallowed club of septuagenarians.

As the harsh rays of the afternoon sun bore down, refusing to show the slightest of mercies on the human congregation below, and scorched the earth with vengeful rage, much like a mythical dragon spewing fire and brimstones on helpless earthlings, the woman squinted her eyes and scanned the crowd again and again, occasionally dipping her lips into the fast diminishing plastic bottle of water, which Raghav suspected, and rightly so, was contaminated to the core.

In her other hand she held a small wicker bowl, which contained kumkum, a garland of marigold flowers, incense sticks, petals of some yellow coloured flowers whose origin Raghav was unable to decipher, a string of red and yellow threads,  and a very tiny-sized bottle full to its neck with castor oil.

The line moves at a pace so slack that were, Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth, here, he would die__if not of exhaustion caused by sheer ennui.

All of a sudden there is a wave of murmur and some pushing and jostling. The resultant effect: the  line moved, albeit barely, though not more than a quarter of an inch.

It was then that he noticed it. Her legs. The woman had no legs! It was just a stump___both her legs, or where they once stood.

She was handicapped from knee down; the wooden contraption fitted onto where her legs once were.

And when she walked, even those bare few inches, it made a creaking noise, and he saw, looking over from where he was, her eyes squinting and her lips constricting as a near agonizing gasp of sheer pain escaped her wafer thin lips as they bit into non-existent teeth.

No legs, no teeth, pushing well into her seventies, old and emaciated, almost at the last leg of her life, and  there she is___ standing upright, gaze unflinching, eyes full of devotion, and a heart still filled with hope and optimism, bearing all with a smile and innocence. In queue since morning, without food for the past four hours and may be more.

And all this hardship and pain only so that she just as countless others who stood patiently braving the elements gets to pay obeisance to her lord, her Ganpati, Lord Vinayaka, the much loved, much worshipped, elephant head God__the God of all good beginnings as also the God who helped mankind tide over all bad happenings.


Watching this deep symbiotic relationship of trust and faith between man and God, Raghav suddenly came to the brute realisation how much of a misfit he was.

Like a bolt of lightning the epiphanic moment him numbed his senses. All of a sudden he felt dizzy. The giddiness continued for some more time and he felt as if his legs were giving way, getting lighter and lighter.

He thought he was about to blank out.

He had to do something and do it fast. Or else, he feared the earth on which he was standing would open up and pull him inside its bowels any moment.

He had to find his inner soul, his peace, his sanity__if he had any hope of survival.

Cursing himself, he turned his back and walked away from the line of worshippers.

Neither this place, the most hallowed Siddhi Vinayaka Temple in the heart of Mumbai__the financial heart beat of India___nor any other place of God anywhere was a place for pessimists like him.


(Chapter 24 of continuing novella A FAIR AFFAIR)


A Pilgrim’s Progress- Around Haji Ali Dargah

By Neel Anil Panicker

Raghav felt a tug and turned around to find sickly fingers pulling at the edges of his shirt sleeves.

The free hand, twiggy to the bones, were clutching a half broken yellowed plastic bowl with more holes in it than the dirty pock marked bylanes through which he had come.
The girl, nee, a child, looked as if she had breathed in all, barely at that, no more than six summers; her cadaverous, bare boned frame, wasted and emaciated, and her skinny legs shone through what looked like a mere apology of an ultra short and faded, much worn and torn, thrice stitched dress of uncertain antecedents.

Image result for haji ali dargah

Seated on the rickety wooden bench outside Hameed’s Lajawab Kabab, Raghav sipped into his cup of tea. At that instant, the sun fought its way through sky high walls and landed on her bare legged feet illuminating whitish red perforations on skin that had long gone diseased. And when the rays bounced upwards to hit her face, Raghav was all of a sudden struck by the magnitude of callousness on display by an increasingly self serving world that cared two hoots about the sheer pain and agony of childhoods such as hers gone awry.

Setting aside his cup on the bench beside him he called for the waiter.
Later he watched as the little girl smilingly dunk her disease-ridden fingers into the plate of vegetable biryani, ravenously emptying its contents into a fully stretched mouth. The heart wrenching spectacle once again reminded Professor Rags of how cruel life was, and more acutely, how cruel had man allowed it to remain.

‘What man and what society would allow children as young and vulnerable as this one in a near relic of a skirt that barely covered her frail frame to beg’, he pondered to himself.

It was then that he was reminded of a typically expected of but still an utterly opprobrious, sexist comment of a professional politician who recently had wondered aloud if short skirts were not the reason why young girls were raped and molested in this great land of our ours.

‘If hurling heartless comments were an Olympic sport, then this one would certainly bag a medal, if not surely the gold, ‘ Rags chuckled with more than a trace of sardonic humour.

He fervently hoped somebody would walk up to the politico concerned and pull his ears and shout into it that in this country that he avers to represent, women of all categories get raped including girls who shun skirts and wear other ‘respectable’ and ‘socially sanctioned’ attire; girls who wear skirts out of choice; as also girls like this little one who wear them out of compulsion.
Still shaking his head at the irony of it all, he turned around and walked through the narrow bylanes, his steps guided by the sound of the brackish sea waves as also by the sight of the white washed minarets ahead of him that shone bright and resplendent in the mid-August afternoon blue skies.

In no time he joined the ever burgeoning milieu of the faithful all of whom edging forward at breakneck speeds muck like huge armies of ants racing down a hill; men, women, and children pushing, pulling, shoving, edging, nudging, thrusting, bursting, and when required, even kicking their way through the byzantine pathways that led to their destination, the grand Haji Ali Dargah__that majestic islandic patch of faith that beckoned one and all; a tantalizingly towering beacon of hope for both the believers__who come in hordes to wish for the fulfillment of their wishes__ and, the non-believers__who come to figure out what exactly is it in life that was worth wishing for.

As delirious sounds of Allah o Akbar escaped the parched lips of the pilgrims and resonated and reverberated over the arched dome to finally become one with the hot mid afternoon air that blew in from the Arabian Sea, Raghav knew he had come inches close to the sanctum sanctorum.

All of a suddenly the crowd ahead of him broke ranks and raced through as the imposing façade of the world famous mausoleum slowly loomed into vision; a grand mid-fifteenth century monument that was built in memory of a rich man; his chequered life a saga of great riches and magical realism and then much later, mystical atonement and redemption.

As the sea rumbled and grumbled all around him, Raghav joined the multitude and entered, his head bowed down, into the over 600-year-old Sufi saint’s shrine, his mind alive and buzzing with a plethora of questions, answers to all of which he hoped would be revealed to him here.

( chapter 22 of continuing novella A Fair Affair)

By Neel Anil Panicker
“You ask me to condemn the attacks? You ask me to call these people terrorists? I ask you what proof do you have that they are the attackers? And further, I question, how could you be so sure that these attackers, as is your clam, are in fact the attackers and not instead the attacked?”
A gasp of shock escaped the lips of the assembled gathering. The pall of silence that followed thereafter lasted long__long enough for even the liveried attendants who were moving around dishing the choicest of delicacies to stop and wonder at the sudden eerie stillness that had taken over the atmosphere.
Having lost his bearings, albeit momentarily, the reporter from Global Now gathered herself, and thrust the mike deeper into the man’s face.
“But Sir, how can you so openly support an act of terror”?
The cameramen moved in for the kill, panning their lenses closer.
The angular pockmarked face of arguably the second most powerful in Pakistan today was in its crosshairs.
Blood shot eyes pierced through from under a deeply furrowed forehead and a scalp unadorned by human hairs; eyes that were a dark mahogany, some sort of a strange hybrid of deep mushroom red meets stale blood orientation; eyes that forever seemed downed and drowned in an abyss of whisky, presumably, but then quite plausibly, Premium Chivas Regal, the very high end at that.
“You call it acts of terror. We call them acts of self defence. One nation’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”, the booming alcohol scarred voice of the Defence Minister of Pakistan reverberated all around the cavernous hall.
“And these people, these who you call terrorists, don’t have even have a nation that they can call their own”, he added, his voice booming, and for sure, being caught by global air waves.
Before the stunned young reporter could counter that volley, the security apparatus around the august figure stepped in.
The impromptu presser held on the sidelines of the SAARC SUMMIT was over.
Seconds later, the bespectacled Pathani suit wearing dignitary scampered out, amply and ably ringed in by his fearsome security apparatus, which besides the ubiquitous but enviable entourage included among others several starred military generals, and over six foot tall thick set and mustachioed men__men in black coats who preferred to hide behind the darkest of dark Ray Ban glasses even though it was well over five hours after the sun had bid goodbye.
Alas! the sun never ever seemed to come down on this evil men in black who were past masters at committing black deeds.
The assemblage of journalists including the head honchos of world renowned television and print media outlets plus the usual assortment of hangers on simple gaped, a few of them clearly in shock, some in sheer awe, others plain incredulous while a few with expressions that only just about concealed their angst at this crude display of political chicanery and bestial cruelty that had gained global currency in the past few years.
They watched in horror as the three tiered self-serving ring of hot shot politicos, members of the higher echelons of army and bureaucracy slipped through the entrance to the tunnel, the camera capturing not just their fading silhouettes but also their rambunctious full throated laughter as they disappeared into the dungeon; the exclusive entry by invitation secretive chamber from where they played out their political shenanigans, diabolically plotting plans, charting strategies and then putting their nefarious designs into devilish, deathly actions.


By Neel Anil Panicker

The girl stepped off the pavement. With measured steps she made her way past the rush hour crowd of morning office goers mindful not to bump into anyone barring, of course, the not so infrequent brushing against the shoulders by male species of all ilk, the opportune act immediately followed by a quick mumble of an apology  ‘sorry’, or even the audacious ‘sorry ma’am’, invariably followed by a sheepish, impish smile.

Not that she minded that too much.

To her it was all par for the course.

For all girls, that is.

It came with the territory.

Especially for one as beautiful as she.

A straight gait, thick flowing luxuriant jet black hair that swayed seductively from side to side as she walked sanguinely carrying a lithe and voluptuous frame, employing her endlessly long as the great Nile legs to good effect__legs that looked as if it were born and bred in a high end gym.

She breezed through three impromptu traffic intersections; at the last, stopping just in time, to allow a speeding monster SUV with tinted glasses to pass by. And then, as if she spotting something, made a mad dash, sprinting past the everyday humdrum hustle and bustle of life.

Within seconds she reached her destination_ the entrance of ‘Delights_ the cafe with a heart’.

Her arms locked into his and she gave him the full benefit of her luscious lips. The delectable spectacle lasted a good two minutes much to the amusement of awe struck onlookers among whom included suited and booted and crested young and old executives besides other similarly affected, infected and afflicted specimens of the male variety who gaped, gawked, and then vigorously nodded their heads in appreciation, which soon after turned morphed into exasperation.

Or, was that frustration?

Why? And at what?  Or more appropriately, for what?


As the two lovers walked, arms entwined, hands claspe, and hearts united, Raghav watched it all from the skies, high above four floors, from a barren broken down window of the hospital building that was his temporary abode for the past one week.

His eyes stalked them through the betel stained glass windows as the two moonstruck love birds once again locked eyes and lips and arms, each guiding the other as the two ambled past near empty tables; their bodies, so young and frothing with desire, as it swayed back and forth in synchronous fashion like little baby-white dahlias teasing and whispering sweet nothings to one another come springtime.


Can life be this idyllic?  Can two people be ever so happy with one another?  Is it possible, this love and its wanton display? But more importantly, is this sustainable?

And then the question: if so, for how long? Does love come with an expiry period as with all other perishable commodities.

Is it then,  a much hyped dystopian mirage that people, at least  some of them, consider an Utopian fantasy__ simply aspirational, and thereby possibly achievable?

A plethora of such questions bombarded Rags frail brains.

It didn’t leave him even much after he had stubbed out the Wills Filter Kings cigarette (his third of the day and inhaled much against the kindly doctor’s advice; ‘You must stay away from alcohol and cigarettes completely if you are looking for a quick recovery’ were his stern warnings) into the apology of an ashtray that rested on the stool beside his bed that overlooked the busy street below.


Yes, life can be this idyllic. It had been so for him once though long back in time. Or that was what he had thought so when he married Archana and came to Mumbai two decades ago. True, initially, at least the first couple of years, they were happy.

Life, back then, with his newly minted bride, was all about going on long walks by the beach, even holding hands, at times eating out in far off exotic restaurants, attending music concerts, catching the weekend blockbusters either in classy single screen theaters, or when not in the mood for any external outing, in the comfy air conditioned comfort of sweet home.

All was great but then, he recalled, things started deteriorating.

First, it started with the usual everyday bickering that are pretty much a part and parcel of any couple trying to come to terms with the fact that a child of their own, of their own blood, may not come to fruition.

Soon the as the frustrations piled up so did increase the frequency of the fights, nonsensical all, at first over trivial issues such as tea not being served in a steel glass or over whose turn it would be to fetch groceries or milk or the monthly provisions and also whether rice with sambhar would be ideal for the entire month or should there be a change of menu every other day, and if so should it be vegetarian or the occasional non vegetarian.


Raghhav, being the meek one, couldn’t keep pace with the fast turning acerbic nature of the bickerings which in the next few years soon turned into full blown verbal spats.

Busy as he was with increasing work pressures what with the University adopting the dictum ‘perform or perish, Raghav, too entrapped by all this unforeseen official rigmaroles, failed to see that the once beautiful woman he had married and loved to distraction had slowly but surely turned into a psychosomatic nut, a raging bull, a hot virago with the loosest of tongues from which escaped the choicest of street filthy invectives.

The past two decades had been a hellish existence and as he sat alone, all forlorn, and virtually discarded and uncared for by all_known and unknown, near and dear as well as far and wide__, Raghav, the once kindly professor of humanities wondered how long would the cruel hands of fate play along with his life that had turned all so inhuman.

Wiping off nonexistent tears he picked up the remote and witched on the television set.

The small 14 inch black and white screen came alive with grainy images of Kashmir.

‘When, why and how did beauty end up this ugly?’, he wondered.


( chapter 21 of  ongoing novella A FAIR AFFAIR)


neelwritesblog/afairaffair/profrags/fridayfiction/promptchallenge #33-favoritefood

Professor Rags  

By Neel Anil Panicker

Fifty-year-old Raghav never plugged for long ones. His name for one__ Professor Raghav Harendra Acharya, when stretched to the full.

He had no found glory in that. It sounded too professorial, for one. Besides, it sounded a little divine, he had thought. Years back and when fresh out of University after bagging a Masters in Philosophy and within days of joining work as a young Assistant Professor in a privately financed, semi-aided Kolhapur college, he had dispensed off with the ‘non-necessities’ as he was wont to call it.

Henceforth, to the world at large he was simply Professor Raghav.

Eight years later, when he had landed in Mumbai, after having bagged a teaching post in a very reputed South Mumbai college, he very conveniently abridged his name further and was now known among everyone_- his students and colleagues__ as just Professor Rags. Short and bratty, as he would have liked it.

Twenty five years later he was ready to cut short another feature of his life_ his wife, Anita. The one with the loud voice and even louder tastes and all the attendant hateful concomitants that come bag and baggage with such characters.

Unlike most other husbands who hated their wives, it was not an ailment that he had picked up over prolonged years of living under the same roof.

He knew she was the wrong one from day one of his marriage to her. He had tried to reason with his inner self. True, she may be loud mouthed, he had said to himself. Very rightly, she might not have possessed the finesse and grace that would instill confidence in him to go forward and introduce her to his colleagues; to take her along to exclusive high brow intellectual seminars and conferences where men and women dine and wine and discuss exotic topics such as the debilitating effects of global warming on the wondrous white water lilies or even the impending demise of the blue winged Siberian cranes. All that and a bit more__ she was just unsuited for him as a wife; the two of them polar opposites and as so ably and aptly reminded of by his dear author the great Mark Twain, ‘East Is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet’.

But meet they did, and that was how Geetanjali came into their lives. Their child, his baby, his girl, his very own Gitu.

As he cradled her in his arms, fed her and watched her watch the world through those lovely brown eyes and later, when she would wave at him, her little fingers swaying back and forth in a crazily haphazard way as she smiled that adorable smile only she could and waved him goodbye, blowing delectable flying kisses as she peeped out from her windows of her school bus , he knew finally that he needn’t check the Oxford English Dictionary to find out what it meant when they said nirvana; thanks to his one and only child he had attained divine bliss.

But then life happens when one is busy making plans. A sudden bout of unexplained cough, a few random urine and blood tests and a couple of visits to the doctor followed by a little over a month of hospitalization was all it took for the cruel hands of fate to snatch his ‘princess’ away from their lives. A small hitherto undetected hole in the heart was the apologetic explanation proffered by the benevolent doctors. The tragedy punched a hole in his heart and extricated in one blow all the happiness that lay within. It forced him further into his own inner sanctorum where he was forced to make peace with dark demons who gave him company burning away his whatever remained of his life as horrendous days stretched gave to debilitating nights.

They say tragedies bring people together. In his case, it turned out the opposite. Anita, who always had shown a propensity for all things godly, took the death of her only child as a ruse to lock herself  in her room, and explore the wonders of the nether world.

Within days of the death the once quiet house turned into a veritable jungle inhabited by strange beings as an unending stream of strange black robed men and women of uncertain origins and dubious vintage, their shabby appearances further accentuated by their shaggy long beards, wild unkept hairs, and deep vermillion lined foreheads laid siege as if they enjoyed proprietorial rights not just over his house but also his wife.

And so they would be there when he stepped out in the morning to the University as also when he trooped in exhausted and depleted after a full day in classrooms lecturing his wards on the profound influence of Freudian psychology on modern day liberalism and feminism.

There was no wife to meet him with a glass of water and later with a cup of hot coffee; no daughter to rush to him yelling ‘Appa, Appa’ and locking her nimble arms all around his shoulders.

The once beautiful voices had stilled; instead, all he could see was a closed door and from within the sound of rising chants and cymbals as strange animal-like noises periodically interspersed with loud ear-splitting esoteric chants__the decibel levels rising and falling with each cadence__rent the air threatening to split the ear drums of all within its distance. As days passed into weeks and soon into months and there was no let up in such activities the kindly professor tried more than a couple of times to gently steer his wife away from the deep cesspool that she had so obviously fallen into but all he got in reply was a stern look from her: a look that said, ‘this is my life, just lay off’.

That was the final straw in their relationship. If that’s what she wanted, so be it. ‘ You do your thing, I will do mine’, he resolved to himself.

Post this unsaid laying down of rules, Professor Raghav became a free man just he had resigned himself to the chilling fact that his too had become a free woman__both free and absolutely at liberty to do what each wanted.

But initially a peculiar problem arose. Raghav was free, and that meant free to do anything, but then he realized to his chagrin that he didn’t know what to do with his free time.

At the stage in life at which he was, he didn’t have any friends to call his own. Life had dealt a bad card pretty early in life, ensuring that the only company he could ever have were the world of books, thick dust books and later tomes of research material as he spent first his teens and later his entire youth trying to stitch together a decent life for himself and his family__first studying for his graduation and much later for his masters and post doctoral research.

With marriage to Anita and soon after with the birth of his dear Gitu, he thought he had finally attained bliss. But then fate had other plans.

As the decibel levels rose from within the four walls of his house and strange noxious smells flared up his nostrils, Raghav scurried out of his house__ a man who was ostensibly free but squarely clueless about how to utilize this new found freedom.


(Chapter 19 of ongoing Novella “ A Fair Affair”)