Tuesday, September 27, 2011


One question that has been in the minds of most of us: Why are gas prices so high? There is also another thing that has puzzled me quite often: Why are they so different? Yesterday evening we were almost out of gas (me and my car) when I started from office. I checked the gas station nearby and it read $3.89 per gallon. I remembered seeing $3.79 somewhere near my house, so I kept driving. I was about to fill my gas at that station when my iPhone informed me that 4 miles away, gas was $3.72. I live in Chicago suburbs and Gas Buddy tells me that fuel costs $4.09 in downtown. So within a radius of about 15 miles I was able to see 4 different prices for fuel. And we are just getting started here. If you look at US national averages: Gas costs around $3.9 on average in the West Coast, Mid West comes close with $3.7, Utah/Colarado being in the center come in at about $3.5  whereas if you go down South to Texas, gas is relatively cheap at $3.1. Now that is a $1 differential for just 1 gallon and it is fairly significant. And within regions too the prices fluctuate as much or more over the year. I wanted to make sense of all this and was going crazy. So I decided to catch Professor Eisenkleiftovich again and pick his brain on this topic.

Me: Professor. Why are you looking so dejected?

Prof: Err… Did you hear that a few neutrinos have outpaced the speed of light by 60-billionth of a second? I never imagined Einstein could be proved wrong.

Me: But Prof: That could just be a false alarm. There have been quite a few of them before.

Prof: Hmm.. you are right. And I hope so too. Otherwise I will have to revisit and redo all my research again as they all have the theory of relativity as the foundation stone. Either way, an interesting space to follow! You tell me kiddo. What are you upto?

Me: These fuel prices have been intriguing me for a while now. I have always thought that they are based mostly on the price of crude oil but I don’t believe that theory supports the fact that different regions in a country have different gas prices. Could you shed some light on this?

Prof: Sure. You have the common misconception that most people have. To be precise, today you are just 65% correct when you say fuel prices swing exactly with prices of crude oil. There is more to it.  Gas is just like any other consumer product and there is a supply chain that sets the price of the product. Here is the entire pie which tells you where each dollar you spend on gas goes:
    Crude oil                      :    68 cents
  Taxes                            :    14 cents
  Refining                        :    10 cents
  Distribution/Marketing  :    8 cents

Me: Hmm…. That is interesting to know. But still it doesn’t solve my confusion about global price fluctuations and regional differences in fuel costs.

Prof: Patience, my boy. Let me take up your global confusion (err..fluctuation) first. As you see the biggest slice is still crude oil and its price is controlled by the classic supply and demand principle. Demand here is straightforward: World Economic Growth. It is driven by the increase in the number of people who drive! Developing nations like China and India have an expanding middle class who are likely to use more gasoline over time. And don’t forget the US which has a whopping 86,000 miles of interstate highways and consumes 178 million gallons of gasoline each day. Which is precisely why you will be surprised to note that US imports around 11 million barrels of oil and petroleum products per week and still happens to be the 3rd largest producer of crude oil!

Me: Whoaa… I didn’t know that. No wonder the Strategic Petroleum reserve is a big thing. But my heart goes out for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Anyways, what is the supply side story?

Prof: Hmm… ever heard of OPEC. It is the single largest entity impacting the world's oil supplies: The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a consortium of 13 countries: Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Venezuela. Together, these 13 nations are responsible for 40 percent of the world's oil production and hold the majority of the world's oil reserves. They have the switch to control crude oil prices. When OPEC wants to raise the price of crude oil, it simply reduces production. This causes gasoline prices to jump because of the short supply as well as the possibility of future reductions. When oil production dips, gas companies get nervous. The mere threat of oil reductions can raise gas prices.

And apart from that, world events like military conflicts in oil zones, weather calamities like hurricanes in offshore drilling patterns and seasonality (summer for example where people drive more) can also cause fuel prices to shoot up.

Me: Now I get this completely. But what about the local piece? Why do gas prices vary from state to state?

Prof: There a few reasons, but taxes probably are the biggest factor. Distance from oil refineries can affect prices too. That is why places that are closer to the Gulf of Mexico enjoy lower prices due to low transportation costs. Hence the $3 in Texas compared to a $4 in San Diego.  And then there is regulation that differs across different states. California has stricter cleaner burning fuel requirements while Mid West has the use of ethanol requirement. That explains the higher fuel prices in these regions relative to the rest of US. And last but not least, local competition among gas stations can also drive price down within a region.

And to bust the last myth: most people think that gas stations make a good cut due to fuel price fluctuations. Remember that 8% of the pie is split between distribution, marketing and the gas station. And then there is competition. So now you can see that they typically just add a few cents per gallon (max a dime)!

Me: Wow… that was good stuff. I feel a lot more educated and oil-savvy. Thank you for enlightening me in such an entertaining way. Good luck on your Einstein bet though. You think he will once again stand the test of time (and light)?

Prof: Of course I do. I would go ALL-IN on that one! I don’t want to rewrite all my theories, for Christ sake!


Saturday, September 24, 2011


Harish came back home after his daily afternoon walk. He had gotten a box of Dairy Milk Eclairs, his grand-daughter’s favorite. He said a “hi” to his wife and went directly to the kitchen. He quickly made 2 cups of fresh ginger tea and took them out to the balcony. He looked at his beautiful wife who was sitting on his table in the living room, smiling radiantly at him. Harish and Saraswati have had 35 glorious years of togetherness in complete bliss. Every evening Harish would make 2 cups of her favorite ginger tea and then they would sit in the balcony on their easy-chairs and spend an hour reliving their fond memories of the day and engaging in sweet nothings.

2 years had gone by since the day she broke their promise of dying together. Harish had never imagined a life without her. He didn’t want to. So every single day, Harish would make 2 cups of tea and sit in the balcony looking at her photo and would talk to her gleaming eyes and tell her how empty his life had become. Everyday Harish’s reminiscence of his beautiful past with Saraswati reminded of his wretched present. “How could you leave me alone?”, he would lament.

Today he was looking back at his day and all he could see was vacuum. His son and his daughter-in-law were busy in their own lives and had no time for an old man.  He also had silently resigned to a life of non-existence. He found it easier to believe that they had a lot of love for him but didn’t express it enough. He was content with the fact there was always Saraswati smiling at him from the photo and the skies. The only thing he now looked forward to was his cute little grand daughter. Everyday she would hug him and kiss him before she ran off to school. Then he would wait for her to come back and repeat that ceremony. Sadly for him today, even that didn’t happen. Radhika had ran away to school oblivious of his presence. He felt she was growing up!

He was feeling very restless today. He could not read the newspaper because his glasses were old and overdue for replacement. “Dad, please manage for a couple of weeks. I am quite busy now. Will get you new ones after my business trip late next week”, his son Raghav had reluctantly agreed to do him a favor. Harish felt a lost opportunity to kill 2 hours of his dying life. Complete emptiness was driving him crazy and it made him even more nostalgic about Saraswati. He felt a deep urge to read her letters to him when they had fallen in love. He went to the store room (he no longer had a room for himself) and started digging through the dust. After an hour long excavation, he found nothing. His heart missed a beat. “Did they throw it away”, he sulked.

He came back with a heavy heart and resigned to his loneliness when his grand-daughter came running in. She seemed happy to be back from school. She gave him a smile on the way. That was an oasis in his day at the desert. She freshened up and then came back to him. She was hiding something with her hands behind the back. She came close to Harish and gave him a pack of freshly roasted groundnuts she had gotten from the roadside. Harish loved groundnuts ever since he was a small boy. His heart smiled. That was enough happiness for a week!

But then she had much more. “Grandpaa.. I have got a book for you. And since Dad is not getting you your glasses, I will read it for you. Listen carefully okay..”, she went on. Harish was looking at her like a small child when she started reading Saraswati’s first letter to him. His joy knew no bounds. Happiness had bid him goodbye at his wife’s demise. But today Radhika had brought it home with her. She had taken all the letters and made it into a beautiful book. 

Harish hugged her tight. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. He couldn’t find words. He didn’t have to.  At that moment Harish saw Saraswati in the gleaming eyes of his grand daughter. He realized that she had not gone anywhere! 

     - A short story by Raj.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Diwali is just round the corner. But this year the festive season has been preceded by a rather long fasting season. Anna Hazare is the talk of the town. Everyone under the sun is performing his or her own “Anna”tomy of corruption and what should and should not be done. TV channels and media can’t have enough of the man. Having an opinion about Anna Hazare (and not necessarily about corruption) is the latest fashion trend in IndiaHazare is at the same time a “youth icon” who has revolutionized a whole nation as well as a sanctimonious right-wing tyrant so cloaked in his own virtue that he believes he is above the law. Some people talk about the silent war he has been waging for the last 2 decades against corruption in Maharashtra while others joke about his sudden claim to fame as a household name today. Some people feel empowered and are out on the streets. Others feel threatened and lambast his hooligan ways.

Our politicians may not be good at creating good business models but they are extremely good at copying a successful strategy and rehashing it to death. So they have already pirated Anna’s weapon (which was instead re-invented from Gandhi) and are coming up with their own personal marketing strategies. So post Anna phenomenon, we are witnessing a plethora of wannabe fasts (read “spectacles”) by BJP (spearheaded by none other than Mr.Narendra Modi) and Congress. Now I can understand that Congress went into the fast because Modi did so. But I don’t get why Modi is fasting and that too for 3 days. Well, no cake for his birthday at least!

And media as usual is having field day after field day covering every such event to its most intricate detail comparing and contrasting them with star-studded debate panels. That is all about these popular fests.. sorry fasts. Now I want to direct your attention to a woman who has been fasting for the last 10 years and we have barely noticed her. She is “Irom Sharmila”, the world’s longest hunger striker, who has completed 10 years of fasting against human rights abuses in Manipur and is determined to continue until death.

Irom Sharmila has been on a hunger strike since November 2, 2000 seeking the Government of India to repeal the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which has been the cause for violence and grave injustice in Manipur and other parts of North-East India. The event that triggered this innocent girl to give up food forever (until now) was the “Malom Massacre” where 10 civilians (which included a 62 year old woman and an 18 year old Child bravery award winner) were killed while waiting at a bus stop by the Assam rifles in an encounter with militants.

Manipur is a state of turmoil, where violence has been implanted forever by continuing insurgency and a draconian state. Insurgents largely made of criminal gangs have been demanding autonomy from India while authorities have made the state as militarized as Kashmir. This gave rise to the AFSPA, a legislation to give police a license to kill as well as complete immunity from prosecution. The AFSPA allows the army to use force, shoot or arrest anyone without warrant on the mere suspicion that someone has committed or was about to commit a cognizable offence. The Act also prohibits any legal or judicial proceeding against army personnel without the sanction of the Central Government. Now as every autocratic law has its causalities, this one also has resulted in plenty of extra-judicial executions, rape and torture of innocents.

All this has led to a decade long struggle by a determined woman who has waited patiently and painfully for the nation to hear her voice. Three days after she began her strike, she was arrested by the police and charged with an "attempt to commit suicide" and then kept alive in custody through the use of “nasogastric intubation” or force-feeding. Since then, Irom Sharmila has been regularly released and re-arrested every year and has been force-fed through a nasal drip for a decade by the authorities. She spends her time in solitary confinement in a hospital ward (read “jail”) reading and writing poetry and hoping against hope that her fast unto death would end before her death and not in her death. Her determination is such that she hasn’t met her mother in all these 10 years and her mother says she will meet Sharmila after the demand is met. If this doesn’t move us to tears then God help us!      

She has been fighting death every day for the last 10 years and her fight has largely gone unnoticed while Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption became a “Second Freedom Struggle” for many in this nation. What is the difference between the fights of Anna and Sharmila? In simple terms it can be compared to the public response to India winning the Cricket World Cup as opposed to India winning the Hockey World Cup. It has nothing to do with the people leading the fight. Their motives are compelling, intentions strong and determination is rock solid. But what about the followers? While Anna has the whole nation behind him, few people in this country (and more people abroad) are familiar with Sharmila and her 10 year hunger strike. For the Indian urban middle class, Anna’s movement is a convenient bandwagon to jump on. For the Indian media, the geo-political insignificance of the North-East doesn’t translate to enough TRPs. And one fasting woman is not going to wake the Government up from its eternal slumber!

One of the reasons Irom Sharmila has gone so unnoticed is that the issue she is fighting for does not connect or resonate with the people of India whereas corruption instantly makes every citizen in India see red. We don’t care if a few innocent people were killed in the corner state of Manipur. But we all complain about the 50 rupees we have to pay to the traffic constable and how that is such a heinous crime and should be weeded out of our society. To me, Irom Sharmila’s cause is not as popular but is much more potent. I am not saying we shouldn’t fight corruption. All I am saying that this is an even bigger and nobler cause. It is a matter of life and death! (Literally) And all she needs is a bit of selfless support from us. I am sure it is not too hard to just raise a voice for her!

It is real irony that a man who is accused of being spectator to one of India’s greatest mass homicides is celebrating his birthday with a sham of a fast whereas a poor woman who is fasting for the last 10 years is constantly arrested on charges of attempted suicide. I don’t care about the former but I sincerely hope that the latter comes to an end sometime soon!

Friday, September 16, 2011


It has been 3 years since the 2008 Financial earthquake hit us and recovery still seems to be a long winding road ahead. We have seen a lot of European economies go bust. The American economy has been limping along, unemployment still hurts and houses are available in the flea market. So I decided to understand this better. And luckily I ran into Professor Eisenkleiftovich, the genius, who agreed to give me interesting insights to help me decode this monster.

Me: Professor, I have heard a lot about this Credit Crisis and the devastation it caused around the world. But I never completely understood it. Could you shed some light?

Prof: Sure, my boy. It is going to be a long night. Where do you want to start? By the way, did you know that holiday homes in Europe are currently selling for as low as $200K. Guess you should get one of those!

Me: Well, I am just $190K short. Prof, let us come to the topic at hand. As far as I know, the economy was fairly stable after the Great Depression in 1930s for a long time. But then over the last 2 decades, we have seen a lot of crises from which we haven’t recovered yet! Why is that?

Prof: Hmm..True. These crises were all caused by an out of control industry which was allowed to become a monster starting from the 1980s!

Me: I don’t get that. So what happened in the 1980s?

Prof: De-Regulation! Let me start simple here. There are 2 types of banks: 1) Savings & Loan Banks which lend you money in return for promises (that you make your loan payments) 2) Investment banks that give you promises (of higher returns) in return for money. Now for a long time, regulation managed to keep these 2 entities separate. Investment banks were private and the owners put in a lot of their own money as part of the investments and monitored the returns very closely. But it all changed too soon.

Me: Ohh.. So what did de-regulation do?

Prof: Well, first things first, investment banks went public and started investing with stock holder money. Savings and loan banks were also deregulated and they made riskier investments with depositor money.

Me: Sounds like recipe for trouble!

Prof: No, not yet. We are just getting warmed up. This was the period which saw the rise of one of the most influential groups in American politics: financial lobbyists. In a span of 30 years, Wall Street has taken over Washington and the de-regulation they pioneered is feeding on our economy. Here is a fun fact: In 1972, Morgan Stanley had 110 employees, 1 office and $12M in capital. Today, it has over 50,000 employees, offices around the world and several Billion dollars in capital.

Me: So Professor, why didn’t anyone oppose this de-regulation?

Prof: Oh, yes. Lots of people did. But the lobbyists were so powerful that any attempt at regulation was promptly suppressed. The US economy and political system was dominated by 5 Investment banks (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Merill Lynch, Bear Stearns) and 2 Financial Conglomerates (Citi and JP Morgan) who were all powerful and ushered in the era of de-regulation.

Me: Okay, got that. So what do you think led to the Credit Crisis of 2008? Wasn’t it called the Sub Prime Mortgage meltdown?

Prof: Aha… now we are getting into a very important discussion. Are you ready to hear about the true “Weapons of Mass Destruction”?

Me: Of course. I am all ears. What are they?

Prof: Derivatives, of course. They are such fancy toys to play with. But for you to understand the crisis completely, I need to tell you about mortgage loans, CDOs and CDSs which combined to create what I call: “The ticking time-bomb”.


Prof: Ha Ha! Let me start with the “Securitization food chain”. It is a nexus of Home buyers, Money Lenders, Investment banks and poor unassuming investors. Owning a house has long been the “American” dream and the use of tricky lending programs to lend money to people with “weak” or limited credit history started the sub-prime mortgage crisis. This first started a housing boom wherein even people who could have qualified for a traditional loan fell to the aggressive mortgage sharks who promised simple loans at supposedly rock bottom rates without explaining the stricter repayment terms and higher interest rates towards the latter half.

 Me: Okay, hang on. If you lend money to people with poor credit, the risk of repayment is so obvious. Why would they do that?

Prof: That is where CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) rein their ugly head in. These lenders would have been worried about the borrower’s credit status if they were to collect the money from them. But they instead sold those loans to investment banks which created a complex creature called CDO. Basically they combined different types of loans like student loans, credit card loans and mortgages and packaged them into a CDO. These banks then sold these CDOs to investors who had no clue what they were getting into. Oh, by the way, these banks paid Rating Agencies to evaluate these CDOs and these agencies were happy to provide them with excellent ratings.

Me: Oh.. that is a vicious circle. And I can see it continued to fuel the housing boom for a while before the free fall.

Prof: Yes. The investment banks went crazy and borrowed heavily to buy more loans and created more CDOs. And to further entice investors, AIG came with another genius: CDSs (Credit Default Swaps). Now in plain English, this is insurance for the investors against CDOs if they went bad.

Me: Well, that seems like it solves part of the problem, isn’t it?

Prof: No, it was exactly the other way around. This increased trouble exponentially. Now there were 2 kinds of people who bought these swaps. One: the regular investor who had the CDO. Two: The speculator who bought these swaps to bet against the CDO which he didn’t own.

Me: Okay. But I still don’t see how it multiplies the problem!

Prof: Well, first of all you are allowing someone to buy insurance for something they don’t own. Now imagine how many insurances it could create for 1 single home. And take a moment to think about the chaos that could ensue if that house burns down.

Me: Hmmm… I see what you are saying. In this case, people weren’t able to repay the loan; the CDO failed resulting in a cascade of losses.

Prof: You seem to be getting into your element here. Further more, these swaps were unregulated too and no money was put down to cover the losses. Instead huge bonuses were paid out in AIG. Eventually the bubble exploded, triggered a chain reaction and things went into a downward spiral. The whole system started falling like a pack of cards. And the rest is history. But what pains me is that still no strict regulation has been enforced. Washington still functions as a Wall Street Government. The lobbyist nexus still runs very deep with economists and even some reputed scholars supporting these financial instruments through their academic and literary works. On the other hand, if you see, at least Europe did take a lot of measures to tighten the screws on their financial system. Wish we can take a leaf out of their book. Let us hope for the best. Before I go, let me leave you with a parting thought! And I am going to be philosophical about it. 

Real Engineers build bridges.
Financial Engineers build dreams.
When dreams turned out to be nightmares, other people paid for it!

Good night!

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Sushant was in a hurry. In less than 2 days his life was about to change forever. He wasn’t completely ready for this. But he knew he would never be. He had always believed that arranged marriage was not his thing. How foolish can people be! Attack the girl’s house with an army of relatives, bond over stupid jokes, eat samosas, let the guy and girl talk for 5 minutes (this is optional!), match star, sun and moon signs, drink tea and sentence the guy and girl for a lifetime of togetherness! Madness! He was going to find a girl, fall head over heels for her and do all that stuff which happens in a Shah Rukh Khan movie.

Well, soon his myth was about to be broken. A few months ago, his fate was decided over a plate of samosas and a hot cup of tea. He would have preferred vodka! That was until he saw Deepika. She was very pretty and had a beautiful smile. And luckily he got his 5 minutes with her. He found her extremely sweet to talk to. Their thoughts and interests were similar and their ideologies matched. Sushant was pleasantly surprised and surprisingly confused when his mom confirmed his silence as a “yes” and the rest is history: more samosas! In the next few months, Sushant and Deepika chatted a lot. Deepika was everything that Sushant wanted his girl to be: smart, beautiful, intelligent, affectionate! But she was not exactly fun. She was not Smriti!     

Sushant had met Smriti in a guitar class. When Sushant had told her that he was surprised to see her as he did not know many girls who play guitar, she said that she was there because she had a crush on the instructor. Two months later, Sushant could not hide his embarrassment when he realized that it was her dad. But by then they had become very good friends and slowly he was falling for her. They used to spend hours together and every day with her would leave him wanting for more. She took him to parts of Calcutta which he did not know even existed. They would go have tea at a shady restaurant, eat ice-cream in the middle of the night, take the bus without a clue of where to go, wait for the rain and go out on his bike! It was so uncharacteristic of Sushant who wore a rain coat in anticipation of the rain and also had his umbrella handy, just in case!

She showed him a new life and he framed every moment of it. It was beautiful with her. She was the most fun loving person he had known. But the worlds they wanted to inhabit were totally different. He wanted everthing to be certain in their lives while she wanted to explore the world. She wanted to go to Europe to learn Spanish and French, do travel writing in Tibet and then come back and do theatre in India. Sushant just wanted to get married and start a family. And for that he wanted Smriti to give up the one thing he loved in her the most. Smriti was too free spirited to comply! She left his life more empty than it ever was. Work became his pain killer as he spent sleepless nights cranking up lines of code for the new start up he and his friends had started. The success at work slowly filled in the vacuum she had left behind and helped him come out of the world she had created for him. 

Sushant was terribly late for his own marriage. Whose idea was it to have the wedding in a god forsaken village! Sushant had never heard of Bemisaalpur before. So he thought that it was a joke when Deepika’s father had mentioned about having the wedding there. A business meeting with a very important client in Bangalore had ensured that he could only be there just a day before his wedding. He rented a car at Calcutta airport and sped it as fast as he could. “Deepika is going to kill me”, he thought. He stopped on his way at a tea stall to find out driving directions. The tea was out of the world. It was so stimulating. “Did he add cocaine”, he wondered.  

He switched on the radio. DJ Arif was enchanting a girl who had called in just to be charmed by his sweet voice. He also played a song for her. It was Smriti’s favorite channel. His thoughts hit the rewind button again to one of her innumerous pranks which made him fall for her. It was their “virtual radio date”. Both of them were driving home when Smriti made him listen to “Radio Masti”. Then she called up D J Arif and requested their favorite song and dedicated it to “Mr.Dumbo” as she called him. He could not get Smriti out of his mind. There was still a part inside him that longed for her. He had thought of calling her many times but had decided against it. “What is the point”, he thought!

He was lost in his thoughts when he saw a woman right in the middle of the road. He hit the brakes hard to avoid running her over. He got out and yelled at her. She asked him if she could drop her at her house. It was getting dark and he did not want to leave her there. He agreed and they were on their way. She was silent throughout. He asked her a few questions and got nothing but silence. After 5 minutes suddenly she asked him to stop. She got out and started walking. It was in the middle of nowhere. Sushant saw the forest on his right and a graveyard on his left. The woman silently walked into the graveyard. He followed her for a few steps but was terrified when he entered the graveyard. She was not to be seen anymore. Dumbstruck he returned to the car. “That was so creepy”, he thought. He wanted to talk to someone to lighten himself.  He called Deepika. She didn’t answer!

He badly needed a drink after that grave episode. The road was so deserted that there was nothing but dense forests on either side. “Where the hell am I”, wondered Sushant. “Play some damn song man!”, a voice screamed . Sushant hit the brakes in sheer panic. “Why on earth did you stop the car, you idiot?”, a man with a long beard and a mole on his cheek popped up from the back seat. Sushant pinched himself. “What the hell?”, he thought. “Drive the car as fast as you can. I will get down in the next town”, the man threatened. Yeah.. right.. I haven’t seen a single shop for the past 3 hours! He wants to go to a town.” Sushant knew he didn’t have much of chance against a knife. So he cursed his luck and hit the gas again. “Play some good music man. Hit Radio Masti! My favorite!”, the man groaned. “Sure! You want me to call DJ Arif for you”, yelled Sushant.

Radio Masti had brought out the musician inside the man as he was singing along though completely out of tune. Sushant was saying his prayers imploring God that he needed no more adventures tonight. His prayer was interrupted by a jeep that came out of nowhere from the jungle and stopped Sushant’s car. A police officer stepped out with a couple of constables. “Ahaa.. Banwari… gotyaa… you seem to have a new accomplice here”, the policeman was very pleased by his late night catch. Sushant had not dreamt of visiting a police station in his life. But today had been all about strange people and places! Banwari seemed to be happy to be back to his home. Sushant was shit scared. The run up to his wedding was not coming along so well!

“Inspector Sir. I am not his accomplice. I am getting married day after tomorrow. I have to be in Bemisalpur tomorrow. Please let me go!”, he pleaded. “My boy. You can’t get away so easily. If you are in a hurry to get married, ask your fiancé to come here. Ha ha ha.. Who are you getting married to, by the way?”. The policeman was settling down with his tea. “I am getting married to Mr.Bhushan Haldar’s daughter, Deepika.”, stuttered Sushant. “Hmm.. Bhushan. I have heard of him. His father was the sarpanch of Bemisaalpur. But why should I believe you?”. The policeman was having a ball. At that very moment a man came rushing in. “Sir. Please help me. Please. My wife is missing from today morning. Here is her photo. Please find her Sir”, the man was crying. Sushant’s heart skipped a beat when he saw the photo. It was the same lady who had disappeared into the graveyard. Sushant’s head was spinning. “What is this place?”, he shuddered. He realized that he had to get out of here before he is involved into this case as well! The policeman calmed the other guy and asked him to provide a statement to the constable.

Sushant rose with a start. “I can prove it Sir. Can I make a call to Bhushan uncle?”, he pleaded. The policeman nodded. Sushant dialed the number in a mad frenzy. The phone rang and rang. Sushant was in full panic mode. He called Deepika. No answer. The policeman was growing suspicious. Finally Sushant’s brain cells had an aha moment. He pulled out his bag and took out the wedding card and the engagement album. The policeman was convinced and offered him a reluctant apology. Sushant made a dash to his car. He had to get out of this place. He called Deepika again. No answer. “This is so weird!”, he wondered.

He drove as fast as he could. After 3 hours he saw a small village and stopped at a tea stall. The tea was refreshing. His heart was still racing. “What a day it has been”, he wondered. The good news was that he was just 2 hours away now. “Excuse me Sir”, a man touched his shoulder. “Could you please give me a lift…”, the young man started when Sushant cut him short. “No. I am not giving any lift. I am in a hurry.”, Sushant could not hide his panic. “I am sorry to bother you Sir. But I got stuck here. You can see my car there. I got a flat tire. I have to go to a wedding in Bemisaalpur. Please help me Sir.”, the young man sounded sincere. “Whose wedding are you going to?”, inquired Sushant. “I am going to my ex-girlfriend’s wedding. Her name is Deepika. By the way, I am Naresh. Nice to meet you.” Sushant wanted to say that it was not so nice to meet him. But offered him the lift instead. “This is the last nail in the coffin. She never told me she had an ex”, Sushant was fuming.

Together (ex and current) they started the final stretch. Sushant turned to his only solace: Radio Masti. Arif had taken leave and Angela was hosting her show now. She was about to play a song when she was interrupted by another anchor who had a flash announcement. “Just hours ago, there has been a grave incident in the Haldar bungalow in Bemisaalpur.” Sushant and Naresh looked at each other. “Altaf, the famous drug dealer in the area has been arrested in the Haldar premise by police officials. He had earlier stormed into the house with a gun and …”, the radio went dead. Sushant froze. He could piece it together now. That was why neither Mr.Bhushan nor Deepika were picking up the phone. What had happened to all of them? What did Altaf do? A thousand questions blazed through his mind. “Altaf had a long lasting enmity with the Haldar household”, noted Naresh. “Just get there as fast as you can. I hope nothing untoward has happened.” Sushant had lost all hope. The whole world was coming apart for him!

After a mad dash they reached the bungalow. Sushant ran out of the car with Naresh closely behind him. 3 girls who seemed to be Deepika’s friends were sitting outside wiping their tears. “What happened? Somebody please tell me!”, Sushant pleaded. “That thug Altaf. He came in.. he came in.. he was looking for Bhushan uncle.. Deepika came rushing outside.. and.. and he killed Deepika.”, she was sobbing. Sushant went pale. His heart was about to burst. He ran inside. He saw Deepika on the floor, drenched in blood. Sushant went down on his knees. He buried his head to the ground and burst into tears. The world had ended for him.

“Hey.. Mr. Dumbo!” Sushant couldn’t believe his ears. He looked up to see Deepika smiling. He rubbed his eyes hard. She hugged him tight and said: “Welcome home, my dear would be hubby!” Sushant was furious. “What on earth is happening here? What sick game was that? Did you know what a bad day I have had?” He was bamboozled. “Well. Things went a little overboard, I have to say that. But wasn’t it fun? Didn’t you have the thrill of your life. This was a small plan me and my friends had made to make your drive down here a little interesting!”, giggled Deepika. “Wait a minute. My drive down here! What do you mean?”, exclaimed Sushant. “Err.. Put the pieces together, Smarty-Pants”, Sushant saw the grave-yard girl as she joined Deepika. “So your husband is also on the way to attend the wedding, I guess!” Sushant tried to get his act together. “Smart boy, eh. Not bad!”, the good old policeman made his way into the house. Sushant tried not to act surprised. “Welcome uncle. Sushant, this is Raghuvansh uncle, our family friend!”, Deepika helped with the formal introduction. “Pleasure is mine uncle! Where is Mr.Banwari?” “Oh.. that was my son, Bansi. He will come directly to the wedding hall!”, Raghuvansh sounded very pleased.

“Sushant. If we had gone a little overboard we are sorry. Me and my friends had a pact that we would do something of this sort for my wedding. But I had decided against it when I met you. But I heard from your mom that you were very fun loving until Smriti left you. So I thought that it was time you lived your life a little more freely and in the moment. I hope you had a blast! Hurry up. Everyone is waiting for us in the wedding hall. Oh by the way.. please do me a favor. Our parents do not know about this. I would prefer if it stays that way!”, Deepika was firing away non stop. At that moment Sushant found her so irresistible. “I thought she was a flower pot. She has turned out to be a bottle rocket”, he wondered.

“One last question. How did you manage that news in Radio Masti?”, Sushant was eager to know that last detail. “hee hee.. that was really simple. It wasn’t Radio Masti. My friend works at the local radio station. That is the only station you get here. And why will they flash a small news from Bemisaalpur in Radio Masti. I thought you would figure that out Dumbo!”, Deepika made Sushant look stupid again. Clearly it was not his day. “Okay.. I am getting ready. See you again in 10 minutes. Sorry Naresh.. had forgotten about you in this whole confusion. Am so glad you could make it!”, Deepika was off in a flash.

Sushant took a minute to soak everything in. He went to Naresh now. “Okay.. good job guys. Brilliant planning. I must have guessed this. So you are not his ex-boyfriend right. Btw.. how did you guess that I will stop at the tea shop? What if I had not? Was the tea shop owner also involved here?”, Sushant was still racking his brain hard. “Relax chief. I am indeed her ex-boyfriend. I don’t have anything to do with this. Now go get married to her. Otherwise you will regret it”, chucked Naresh.

Deepika came down all dressed up. She was looking gorgeous. “Sorry Sushant. I thought you would like it. I am sorry if you didn’t enjoy that prank. I hope that doesn’t change your decision to marry me!”, she winked. Sushant thought about Naresh. He responded in a flash: “No not at all. Last night was so much fun. I haven’t had such a blast in a long long time. I love you dear”. And this time he meant it!

    -  A short story by Raj.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Andrea had fallen in love with Pondicherry. She had travelled a long way to India just to catch a glimpse of this once French colony. She was an architect by profession and a philanthropist by choice. She travelled the world in search of a purpose that would make her life meaningful to others. Working as a protégé to her father gave her the perfect excuse to buy that expensive ticket! While her eyes scanned the world’s monuments for brilliant patterns and structures, her heart wandered in search of souls she could touch and heal.

Life had not been easy over the past months and she had longed for this retreat. Her father and her boyfriend did not approve of her philanthropic lifestyle. While her father wanted her to focus more on her career, Kevin wanted more from their relationship. This time Pondicherry had offered her a temporary solution. And this simple but magical town had put the smile back on her face. Pondicherry had a surprise for her every day and provided a banquet to all her senses.  And she happy soaked herself in its culture. While its perfectly perpendicular streets gave her glimpses of the French genius, the calm of the Aurobindo Ashram refreshed her soul. The gentle breeze of the serene beach touched her heart, the unique Indo-French cuisine ignited her taste buds and the pastel catholic churches gave her inner peace. She wished she could just never leave!

It was another beautiful morning and the sun’s rays kissed her good morning. She looked out of the window to watch the sea waves hit the shore vigorously while a resolute Gandhi stood frozen on a tall plinth braving the scorching sun still guiding his countrymen. She felt a purpose today which strangely saddened her. Couple of days ago, she had seen a small child in the beach continuously flapping his hands while arranging his toys in a perfect straight line. His teacher Jayashri informed Andrea that Xavier was an autistic child. That is how Andrea came to know of Jayashri Special School which takes care of such special children with various mental disabilities. Andrea found Xavier not so social but very endearing. She decided that she should do something for these children.  Today she was going to make a difference. But what troubled her most was that today was also her last day in Pondicherry. She had given in to her father’s threats and Kevin’s pleas to come back. But she was happy that at least she was leaving a small mark in this angelic city.

She got dressed quickly, skipped the famous complimentary breakfast of the Ashram guest house and strode to the nearest taxi stand.

“Welcome Madam. Bonjour. You French or English? I know 5 languages!”, greeted an overconfident auto driver who had edged out 2 others to grab his customer!
“Jayashri Special School please. How much?”
“Standard rate Madam. 75 rupees!”, he added matter-of-fact-ly.
“Outrageous. I have been here for more than a month. The place is just 3 kilometers from here”.    
“No Madam. Petrol prices going up every day Madam. We are already operating in losses, you see. US economy very bad you see. 70 rupees, only for you Madam”.

Andrea was in no mood for bargaining. She decided to walk it much to the disappointment of the autowala who couldn’t believe she had rejected his best offer!

She had probably walked one-fourth of a kilometer when another auto stopped by her side. “Need an auto Madam”, an old man probably in his late 50s inquired. 
Jayashri Special School! I am not paying a single paisa more than 50 rupees. And I don’t care about petrol prices or the crisis in Libya”. She was not in a great mood today, thanks to the late night call from Kevin.
“I don’t quite understand what you said Madam. But I can take you there for 25 rupees. It is only 2 kilometers from here.” said the old man, a little confused.

She wanted to say sorry. But instead she got in and asked: “What is your name?”
“Anwar, Madam! What brings you to Pondicherry?”, inquired Anwar warmly.
“Don’t know. Coincidence I guess. Was looking at the list of places I could visit and Pondicherry caught my eye. Now I don’t regret it all!” reflected Andrea. Images of the beach swept across her eyes!
“Everything happens for a reason Madam. Your visit will have a meaning more profound than you can imagine.” Anwar’s words resonated in Andrea’s ears for a while.

“But sadly it is all coming to an end. I am leaving tomorrow. Don’t feel like leaving this heaven and returning to my mediocre life again. I hope to do something I can be proud of before saying good bye!” Andrea was completely drenched in nostalgia! “Will you take me to the railway station tomorrow? I won’t get such a good man again!” 

“Sure Madam. Wonderful place Madam, Jayashri School. All God’s own children. I am sure he has his angels on earth to take care of them. You are their Angel today from the West!”
Andrea and Anwar had struck a small conversation about the various kids in Jayashri Ashram when Anwar hit the brakes and the auto came to a screeching halt. “Just 1 minute madam”, he pleaded. “Satya”, he screamed.

A small boy with a bag of candies tied to his shoulder turned back at the cry. He came to Anwar and offered him a candy. His eyes were wet.
“What the hell are you doing? Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“No money to pay the school fees, uncle. Dad came home yesterday night after 1 month. He hit mom for 1 hour, burnt my hands with charcoal for trying to stop him and took away all the money Mom had.”
“The drunk bastard!”, Anwar’s eyes were red with rage!

“Anwar, can you please give me money for my school fees as you did last month? Please. I want to go to school. I want to become a doctor. I don’t like selling candies. All my friends are in school. Please Anwar!”
Anwar looked at his pocket. He had fifty rupees. “Just 450 rupees short!”, he thought! Too bad he didn’t have another watch to sell this month!

The awkward silence said it all. The boy understood. Satya was way too intelligent for his age.
“My dad said I will never become a doctor! Is it true Anwar? He said I will end up in the streets. My mom told me that I should forget school. She said it is only for the fortunate and the rich. How much will I earn selling candies? Can I make enough to pay the fees next month?”

Anwar could not answer. Satya didn’t want him to!
“Bye Anwar. The bus stand will be busy right now. I have to go sell some candies!”, he said trying to hide his tears. Anwar had felt so helpless only once before: when his wife had died of cancer!

The boy’s eyes disturbed Andrea. They conveyed a deep message beyond her comprehension. She wanted to help him but had stopped herself.
“Madam, I have a request. That boy Satya is a gem Madam. He is the topper in his class. Studying is his passion. I will not be able to help him. But you can Madam. You can!” Tears rolled down Anwar’s eyes as he violently wiped them off.

Andrea was in a loss for words. She wanted to help him so badly. But all she could give him was money. What if his father again took that away from him? How can she be so sure? On the other hand, if she helps the children in the Ashram, she can at least rest assured that her contribution went to the right hands. The eerie silence was killing her. She was so torn between her feelings when the auto stopped. They had arrived. Andrea did not get down for a long time. Anwar didn’t say a word. The little boy’s eyes haunted her thoughts again. They implored her. They intimidated her. They took her on a short journey through the boy’s heart!
Andrea woke up with a start. “Anwar, can you take me to the bus stand?”

Anwar’s eyes were wet with emotion. He thanked Andrea and raced his auto as fast as he could. They reached there in a couple of minutes. The bus stand was really crowded for a Wednesday afternoon. Were they all waiting for Satya’s candies? But then Anwar saw his bag on the floor with all the candies scattered. He shuddered. He pushed through the crowd nervously. Then his heart stopped. Satya was on the ground soaked in his own blood. “Poor boy! He was completely blindsided by that bus. Such a young kid!”, remarked an old woman. But Anwar knew. It was the bus that was blindsided by Satya!

Andrea was cold. Anwar dropped her back to the guest house. They had attended Satya’s cremation. Andrea had never cried so much in her life. Anwar had lost his son! Again! How can life be so cruel! Andrea will never be able to forgive herself.

“Should I pick you up tomorrow morning, Madam. For the railway station?”
“Yes. Pick me up. But not to the railway station! We have something better to do. This world can’t lose another Satya!”. Anwar nodded silently and went off.

Every life has a purpose. But sadly, the purpose of Satya’s life was to make Andrea realize the purpose of her life!

      -    A short story by Raj. 
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