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

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)


By Neel Anil Panicker

In street parlance, four o’ clock, late in the afternoon in a Mumbai bar, is known as the pregnant hour. It’s a stillborn hour when an eerie emptiness pervades all over semi-dark cubicles, an hour when waiters languidly idle upto to half broken glass cupboards seeking coloured bottles which they then wipe clean off all non-existent dust particles, as they, with practiced nonchalance (that can come only from long years of waiting tables), hold them against the fast fading strobes of sunlight that have the temerity to wade through thick dark curtains spread out over small windows, intended to separate the word of Baqcchus lovers from the not so blessed.

bar scene

As the clock above his head chimed five times, Aman extricated his head from the front desk cum cash counter that for this hour had metamorphosed into a teeny weenie resting place, a small, darkened dungeon, not big enough for him to stretch himself to full length, but then comfortable enough for him to fold his spindly legs within its cavernous folds, park his small head, close his eyes, and make himself invisible for one full hour to the world.

Aman rubbed and then prized his eyes open. As he craned his neck out towards the nondescript street and looked across to the road ahead, he was blinded by the harsh rays of a still resplendent sun. Involuntarily, his hands went up to shield his eyes, and it was then that he felt a sudden crushing pain in his head. His hands reached up and cupped his forehead as he felt a blindingly nerve raking ache ram through his brains like a 150 mile hurricane that was sweeping through the American coastline.
Frantically, he searched around and his hands found the drawer and from it a strip of paracetamol. He stripped off two tablets and gobbled it with little help from the glass container; something he nowadays kept close to him, to deal with such exigencies.

However, this particular exigency, he recalled, as he felt the soporific effects of the medicine take over, was because of the dream__ the maddening dream that he had just now woken up from.

His eyes were riveted on the ceiling above him. The false façade was well past its expiry date. It needed repairing, or maybe even a new false ceiling.

‘I need to ask Bhushan to call in someone’, he reminded himself for the umpteenth time this past one month.

He harangued himself for entrusting such an ‘ important task’ to ‘ that fool’ as he turned his gaze away from the roof.

‘God, he was going lazy, or old, or was it something else,’ he reminiscenced.

And then he recalled__the dream. It happened last night. As usual, he had so very unwillingly tripped home and one again given dinner a miss. It is better to sleep hungry than to eat the dirt that she dished, was his reasoning.

Tired to the bones, he had them ambled over to his side of the bed, careful not to touch her, even  accidentally.

He heard her breathing, loud and obnoxious and the sensory distaste that followed saw him turn over to the extreme corner, his back now safe and miles away from her.

Seconds later sleep had taken over and then he was consumed by the maddening darkness of dreadful dreams.

A room, quite like the one he lived in… curtains, deep mauve like the ones in his room, and to its left a steel cupboard and the Allwyn refrigerator and just above it a framed photograph of Lord Ganesha,  the half man, half elephant god. 

And the bed, a double bed, teakwood and arched at the head with intricate carvings at its foot and a man on it. The man is asleep, in deep slumber, and then… a woman… with fire spewing bulging eyes, an axe in her hands… and then a loud shriek as the axe falls on the man… and in one stroke the head severed from the torso… and the maddening gleam in the woman’s eyes as she, astride him, now bends down and drinks the dripping blood off the man’s chest …”

Aman had woken up terribly shaken, his hands shaking and palms all sweaty as copious sweat trickled down his spine reaching down to his innards.

He had slowly opened his eyes and looked around. The room was the same and the curtains were the same; same too were the fridge and frames monochromatic photo of the good god.

Everything was the same, just like it had been in the dream, the torturous blood curdling dream that he had just now experienced.

And then, a dark foreboding thought consumed him. Reluctantly and very frighteningly his gaze turned right, towards the woman who was sleeping, sharing his room, his bed, his life.

His eyes caught her strong, oval face, the muscles all taut and challenging, lips compressed and forming into a slow all knowing smile, full of smug and cunning; and then he let out a heinous scream minus any sound as her face, his wife’s changed contours and morphed into a she-devil; the very woman who had moments ago so brutally killed a man in his sleep.

Aman clutched his chest with both his hands as a massive surge of pain, with its epicentre around  his heart, lunged forward and dangerously percolated to other parts of his being much like an unbridled Tsunami rams through vast swathes of landscape threatening to reduce to pulp all that stood in its way.

He held on to dear life for God knows how long but when, once sanity was restored and he able to think clearly, a sickening and frighteningly dreadful reality hit him like the sheer harshness of a particularly unrelenting hot summer day.

‘That she-devil with the axe who did the brutal hacking was his wife Shefali, the betrayer, and the man who she killed was none other he, her husband, Aman.’

She had turned betrayer in the dream. What’s stopping her from turning betrayer in real life.

The very thought saw his pulse rates shoot up once again.

By the time he went to sleep, he had made a resolution: In this sordid and morbid act of betrayal he had no other choice but to ensure that the axe would fall, but this time, unlike in the dream, not on him but on Shefali, his betrayer and wife.


(Chapter 18 of continuing novella  A FAIR AFFAIR )