As it is




September 6, 2024, 11AM “Good morning everyone, this is Tides Now, your own news channel and you are watching news Through the Looking Glass with me, Rolika Gupta.”  “The Mumbai monsoon is here, and so are the pot holes! Same story each year, what are the authorities doing?” Visuals of cars bouncing over bumpy highways flashed alongside one of a motorcycle with its front wheel stuck in a pothole, like a waffle in an ice-cream sundae. She frowned, as the camera zoomed in on her. “We want some action, NOW!” She threw her pen at the camera in disgust. The lights dimmed on cue. Technicians bustled to get the studio ready for the next segment. Manjutai scurried to retrieve the dropped pen and safely kept a bunch ready for the next day. “Rolika, they have begun repairs on LBS Road.” The webmaster handed her a coffee, the third for the day. “Who they? Municipality, Public Welfare Authority or Road Development Authority? Can you be a little more specific than the Aam Aadmi? You are a journalist for god’s sake!” Her team kept a safe distance from Rolika. She sat looking into her coffee mug, reasoning.  It was unusual for the authorities to take timely action against the pothole situation. They needed to investigate.  “Where is Ganesh?” *** The mice nibbled at the nozzle, trying to lick the drop of coffee within. The coffee wending machine was at their mercy till the show went off air at 12pm. An intern walked in unexpectedly and startled them with her shrieks.  “Rats! What is this new nuisance!” the mothballed peon swore without coming to the troubled intern’s rescue.  “Hush!”Manjutai bowed to the mice in obeisance. “They have decided to bless our office.” A familiar protruding belly peeked into the air-conditioned office before the feet could make their way in. The rotund owner of the belly was about to bump against a lad carrying a heap of files. “Hey Ganesh, watch your step!”  “I will, as soon as I can have a good look at my feet.” Ganesh replied mischievously, stroking his tummy. An oversized canine tooth, chipped at the tip, peeked from his mouth. “She is waiting for you.” Rolika’s secretary informed hastily. Ganesh arranged his bag in the chair in his cubicle. He placidly stuffed his earphones in a case, neatly tied into a bunch. He wiped his face with a kerchief. He was about to wipe his long nose when a call interrupted his ablutions. “Coming.” He swayed his head from side to side, his fan like ears still flushed from the scorching heat outdoors. *** “Where were you? I have been stuck here without you for ages!” Ganesh sniffed apologetically as he handed his boss her speech. “I had an inauguration to attend. Sorry.” “You attend one almost every day! Are you some undercover celebrity?” Rolika absently glanced at the script. “People seem to invite me for inaugurations and little else.”  Her grumpy expression softened as she read the pointers with interest. “So you knew about the road repair.” “Question the Mayor on why were the roads not repaired ahead of monsoons. Why just before the elections? The copy of the accepted tender for road reconstruction is attached.” Ganesh smiled with twinkling eyes. “Off you go! Grab footage of the roads, before they are mended.” “Already at it. Our boys are shooting there right now.” Turning around his ample circumference, Ganesh walked out of Rolika’s office. Rolika looked on at her chief writer. Arriving late, leaving early... and indispensible. She recalled their first meeting, two months back.  “Rolika, the newly recruited writer is here. Ganesh Godbole.” The chief writer had resigned overnight under mysterious circumstances, citing personal reasons. Ganesh’s name had popped up among the shortlisted candidates equally mysteriously. No previous work experience in the field, no stellar references. She had assumed his name had been ‘pushed up’ by the bosses from above.  Glancing at his hefty frame and clumsy manner, she winced visibly. And yet he was here, the go-to guy to Rolika Gupta, the grumpiest, most competitive reporter on the channel. Witty, resourceful and infinitely calm under stress. Ganesh was a man of as many mysteries as talents. *** September 6, 2024, 2PM “We have a situation at hand.” Ganesh walked into the newsroom swiftly, phone in hand. Rolika looked up instantly.  She replayed the video twice before it registered in her mind. A man was lying in a pool of blood, the right side of his face crushed to pulp. His abdomen was ruptured, intestines herniated out. Streams of blood ran into a pothole, swirling into its muddy contents. A familiar looking young man in his twenties was trying to urge an Innova car driver to give him a hand in loading the injured man onto his car. “That’s our reporter, Sarvesh. I sent him and Anil, our cameraman, to cover the pothole repair scene. Anil is the one who shot this video.” Ganesh tried explaining. Rolika held out her hand restraining him as she followed the video with rapt attention. Two young men, dressed in crisp white, got down from the car. They began shooting videos on their phones. The driver refused to offer a lift.  “Look at the mess your state government has left you in. You guys elected them, didn’t you?” He called up a rival news channel to reveal the breaking news; a man had been badly injured after slipping into a pothole and being run over by an unknown vehicle.  The rain thrashed the pavement in fury. The injured body seemed limp .Sarvesh began pleading onlookers for help, to no avail. Several cars raced ahead, circumventing the crater on the road.  “Anil help!” Sarvesh seemed visibly shaken, asking his colleague for help. He shielded his phone while he called the ambulance. “Wait, let me zoom in.” Anil seemed to be focusing his camera. The gory details of the mangled mass suspended from the skull suddenly sprang on the screen. “Damn it, zoom on the pothole. Take the pool of blood in frame.” Thud! The men got into their car and drove away. “Leave the pothole. Zoom in on the car, you idiot.”  The camera zoomed on a logo stuck at the back of the car. Workers of a political party, undoubtedly. Sirens of the police van and the ambulance wailed together in the background. Rolika handed the smartphone back to Ganesh. “The man was declared brought dead at Raniwadi Municipal Hospital.” A random thought crossed her mind. Could this be the event that would propel her ahead of her contemporaries? Ahead of the reigning pixie-cut sporting matriarch of prime time news? She absently ran her fingers through her bobbed hair, laughing at her own wishful thinking. *** September 7, 2024.9 PM Rolika sat in her room, absently drumming her desk with a pen. Muggle, her Labrador, her only family in the city, sat forlornly by her side.  “Forget about the potholes, Roli! Concentrate on those party workers. The central government must be held responsible.”  RK, the silver haired owner of Tides Now news channel was in the conference room with his star reporter. “Sir, I intend to go after each of those merciless on-looking party workers. But is the state government not accountable for the potholes? Don’t we run the pothole awareness campaign on our channel every year? What has changed?” “Elections. And our allies.” “What about reporting the truth?” “Oh snap out of it, Roli. Don’t you see our rivals are defending those party workers? By default, we must defend the potholes this time.”  As her boss left the conference room, he remarked, “Roli, why don’t you take a break. Let Sanjeev take the prime time slot. Starting  next week..” Clenching her teeth in frustration, Rolika tried to push the noontime conversation with RK to the back of her mind.  She looked down from the balcony of her sixteenth floor penthouse. There was a mild drizzle. The Ganpati pandal in the parking lot was sparkling in fairylights. Families tiptoed carefully over the wet pavement to bow down to their favourite deity on the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi.  News Anchors blared from T.V. sets in living rooms, contesting with speakers blaring bollywood numbers outside the Ganesh pandal. She thought of the Ganpati idol they got home every year. Her mother used to shuffle about the kitchen preparing the prasad, lending less than half an ear to the stream of questions that little Rolika put forward. “Why is Ganesha the God of beginnings?” “What does he do after gracing new beginnings?” “Why is he immersed in water each year?” “What does he do yearlong till the next Ganesh Chaturthi?” “Is he for real?” Occassionally, her mother would stuff a laddoo in her tiny mouth, less out of affection and more so to have a moment’s respite from her never ending questions! Rolika laughed bitterly. That was the only thing she ever wanted to do. Ask questions. Difficult ones. Uncomfortable ones. Agitating ,inevitable ones, that had turned chewy from having been over-baked over the simmering flame of comfortable indifference. Maybe she could use a break. And go home, to visit her parents. She picked her phone. “Ganesh, book me a flight for the next week.” “Umm, okay. I’ll book one tomorrow.” “Why not today?” “I’m a little busy. It’s my birthday.” “Oh! I had no idea! Happy birthday fella.So, celebrating with friends, huh? Girlfriend?” Rolika tried to tease him, out of guilt for not wishing him on time. “Naah! Almost all girls have Panda-zoned me! C ya.”  Rolika could hear the faint tinkling of bells in the background, reminding her of her Grandma performing pooja back home. She shrugged her shoulders. How was she to know? The chubby guy was friendly with all at the office, but no one really knew much about him. He was tech savvy with informant leads across all avenues, but was himself a recluse from social media.  *** September 7, 2024. 10:30AM The exposed brain was visible through the crushed skull.  Footage of the gory site flooded across news channels. “A poor daily wage Muslim labourer slips into a pot hole on LBS Road, in Mumbai. He was overrun by a truck.” “Look at the crushed face. Look at the unforgiving pothole where Javed Sheikh slipped. For one last time. His little children will never watch their father slip anymore. Who is responsible for denying Javed the chance to slip ever again? The nation wants to know!” News channels screamed for the viewer’s attention, while serving him visuals of ruptured intestines and disfigured face of a dead man from close quarters. Rolika rolled her eyes at the panoramic view of screens on her laptop. She had a sudden urge to go out for a smoke. She decided against it. She had quit long back. Her debate was due in thirty minutes. She was ready to fire. Skimming through recent tweets, she paced the floor in her cabin. “The road was ignored for its name, Laal Bahadur Shastri Marg. Had it been M.G. road, they would have repaired it at the earliest.” Central govt criticizes state govt. “The road connects a central-line suburb to the highway. This is the fate of all ‘outsider’ roads. Potholes in rich suburbs are repaired in a jiffy.” Jhumkaa Dikhaavat, actress. “All because of the rigging of elections. Shut down the road every alternate day. Potholes are after-all a result of daily wear and tear.” Chief, Aakhri Aadmi Party. “The State Govt is helpless. We had proposed laying a new road. It is the Public welfare authorities and local municipality who delayed it.” Chief Minister, Maharashtra. “Our party workers were trying to help. Did they not call the media to cover the root cause of pothole deaths? The doctor who attended him must be investigated and punished. Could he not have pushed the intestines back into the gaping abdomen, before the soul of the injured man departed from the other end?” “Where is the truck that run over Javed? Was the driver a Hindu?” Celebrities holding placards. “If people are not safe in potholes, how are we safe in our houses?” Award returning author. “I come from two Indias. One where pedestrians slip on pavements, other where trucks run on roads.” Beer Das, comedian. Rolika put on her habitual smile, pushing her coffee aside, just as the cameras rolled. “Good evening everybody, this is Tides Now, your own news channel and you are watching news Through the Looking Glass with me, Rolika Gupta.” The participants of the debate came from opposing political parties, with a common interest, the approaching legislative assembly elections. The war of words between the two figures on separate screens proceeded as expected.  “So Mr Thapar, as the State President of your party, what is your stand on the ruthless behaviour of your party workers on that day?” Rolika went for her first kill. What followed were the expected defences that had been chewed on like teethers for misdemeanour by politicians, for ages. The Mayor of Mumbai , Ms Tulasibai Vispute interjected, “Mr Thapar, don’t you think your men had a responsibility towards the injured Muslim labourer? Do you know how many pothole related injuries have been recorded this year? Two hundred and eighty seven. Do you know how many have survived? Two hundred and twenty eight. The odds were clearly in Javed’s favour. Had he been rushed to the hospital in time, he would have survived!”  Rolika stifled a smile. “That brings me to my next question to you, Mayor Madam. Would your stand have been any different if the victim had belonged to a different religion? And since you are already aware of the number of deaths, why were the roads not repaired on time? ” The reply oscillated between delay in tenders, proposals to lay a new road altogether and blaming the lack of co-ordination between various authorities involved. A road contractor turning fraud was also mentioned. The tender for road repair that was signed several months back was projected on the screen. Just as Rolika directed her guests and the audience to concentrate on the document, the director cued her to take a break.  “What the hell are you upto, Roli?” RK thundered at the other end on the video call. Don’t you get it? Get the document off, NOW! You are supposed to cover up the pot-holes this year, Damn it!” The show was brought to a hurried end. As they went off-air, the warring guests exchanged pleasantries. Rolika stormed into her cabin. Dhub....craaash! Her phone shattered to pieces as it hit the wall.  Manjutai rushed into the cabin. Eyeing the shattered device, she walked back to get a broom to clear the shards. The staff looked through the glass doors, keeping a safe distance from Rolika. No one wanted to stroke the tigress even if she was wounded. Ganesh walked in cautiously. “I’ll order a new phone for you. Do you want to upgrade?” He asked matter-of-factly. “What are we doing here? What am I doing here?” Now you are asking the right question.” Ganesh met her eye. *** September 8, 2024. 6pm. “I cannot work where I don’t get to speak my mind.” “Fair enough.” Ganesh looked back at her from the front seat, barely able to rotate his short neck. They were in a cab, stuck in a traffic jam.  As the rains lashed, the roads took a beating and bled from the potholes. The fluid in the potholes soon welled up, spilling onto the pavement. Soon the entire road would be one big pothole. Cars would trudge warily, terrified of disappearing into an obscure crater.  Strangers from surrounding slums got on the streets, standing guard over age old potholes that were now a part of their heritage. They excitedly navigated the line of cars around them. Who are these people? Why are there no headlines featuring their statements?” Rolika looked out of the window. She smiled wistfully at a bunch of kids splashing around in the puddle in the slum adjacent to the main road. As water drained into the low lying slums, they disappeared into the winding alley, only to emerge on the terrace of a tiny house. Raindrops slid over the cobalt tarpaulin sheets sheltering the huts, as the kids resumed their dance. “Look at those pigs.”  Ganesh pointed at the opposite side of the road. Rolika peered through the gaps between the stagnant rows of automobiles. Pigs grunted, rolling in the cakey mud in an open patch of land. Rotting pieces of furniture, rubber tyres and plastic waste lay lodged in the wet mud. The swine played in the filth, slathering the muck on themselves every time the pouring rain washed it off their pink skins. “Both the kids and the pigs are playing in the rains.” He reflected. “Its confidential, but I did get an offer from AajKal News channel last night. They have promised me a freehand over my show’s production as well.” “I know.” Ganesh smiled. “But how...?” He ignored Rolika’s question. “The idea is to play in the rain. Not just change to a different herd of pigs.” *** September 12,2024. 11AM “This is Sanjeev Batra and you are watching news Through the Looking Glass.” Rolika watched through the glass door of the office, her office. She put her framed certificates in her bag. She assembled her belongings in a corner with an eye at the screen running the show. Her show. The Mayor was back as a guest and so was Mr Thapar, while Rolika emptied her cabin. “Work has begun already. We are laying an entirely new road. This will be the road to recovery for the pothole ridden city. Remember to vote for the National Digress Party.” Mayor Madam beamed. Sanjeev, the new anchor of the show, congratulated the Mumbai municipality, as footage from the site of road construction played on the screen.  “Better late than never madam! But you have begun laying the road from the other end, 15 kms away from the pothole. When do you intend to complete the construction? Till next elections?” Mr Thapar jeered at the visuals and continued. “The central government has decided to address the issue right where it is. The proposal has been sanctioned already. We will build an over-bridge to commute across the pot hole. In addition we are launching an app called ‘Building Bridges to Success.’ Any Indian citizen, anywhere in the country can upload a photograph of potholes. The work of building an over-bridge across it will commence within 24 hours of registering a complaint. Remember Sab Swachh Party for elections and beyond.”  Stills of the construction site froze on the screen, as the show ended. The signboard in the visuals read,  ‘GO SLOW WORK IN PROGRESS.’ Rolika held her coffee mug. The one she had sipped a million times from. The one with her photograph, a rare one, displaying her million watt smile. She was about to place it in her bag, when she noticed a crack at the base of the mug. Shrugging, she disposed it in the dust bin before stepping out of the office for one last time. *** September 17, 2024. 11AM Rolika positioned her camera on the tripod. She checked the wall of her living room in the background, before she went live. She brushed her hair, one last time.  “Good morning everyone. This is Rolika Gupta’s YouTube channel, and you are listening to news As It Is.” Keeping a tab on the exponentially rising number of views of her maiden video, she heaved a sigh of relief.  Her phone rang; it was her father, her biggest cheerleader.  “You were fantastic! And for the first time, your smile reached your eyes!” Her mother enquired if she had visited the temple before her new innings. Rolika smiled sheepishly. She recalled the last conversation she had with Ganesh the previous day. “Why are you leaving?” “My work here is done.” “Where are you going?” “I am needed at quite a few places.” “Why do you keep talking in riddles?” “Because you love solving them.” Ganesh had laughed aloud, his belly reverberating in synchrony. “But I will need your help in my new venture...” “I will be there. Haven’t I always been?” Ganesh chuckled as he hobbled out of her apartment, “Remember, you are the Queen Bee in this Game of Drones! And I have not booked your tickets, because I know you will stay back and fight.” Rolika had watched from her balcony as the goofy genius hobbled out of the gate, shifting his bulk on alternate feet. A procession for Ganpati Visarjan accompanied by a heady drumbeat was making its way through the street. Ganesh disappeared in the crowd. A trail of mice appeared from nowhere and vanished in the crowd, behind him. The devotees sang in a chorus,  “Ganpati Bappa morya. Pudchya varshi lavkar ya!” Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Resemblance to any real person, event or place is purely coincidental and unintentional. The author does not intend to hurt any political or religious sentiments. Glossary: Aam aadmi: Common man Ganesha: Hindu God , has head of an elephant and a human body.He has a broken tusk, and is worshipped as the god of beginnings and resolving obstacles. Ganesh Chaturthi: Hindu festival celebrating the arrival of Lord Ganesha to earth from Mount Kailasa, with his mother Goddess Parvati Prasad: edible offering to a diety, later consumed by devotees Laddoo : dessert, often served as offering to Lord Ganesha Ganpati Visarjan: Also known as Anant Chaturdashi, tenth day of Ganesh utsav. Celebrated with a ritual involving immersion of the Ganesha idol. Ganpati Bappa morya. Pudchya varshi lavkar ya: Marathi phrase meaning, Oh!My Lord Ganesha, return soon next year. Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!