An Afternoon At The Beach

This was an entry to the recent Flavorwire Short Fiction Contest that didn’t win. 

An Afternoon At The Beach

 It was the hottest afternoon of the month, but the Boy was in a state of tranquility. His toes were buried under the glowing ochre sand, his body was glazed with warm sweat that rapidly cooled, his hands were in his pockets and his eyes were on the horizon where the sea met the sky and infinity lay in between. The cool, salty breeze billowed his T-shirt, ruffled his hair, and left his lips dry, his tongue licked them frequently. The sea glittered and shimmered under the bright light, but it didn’t hurt his eyes, he was used to it. The languid waves slowly rolled in and withdrew much before his legs, so weak was their reach. A few boats dotted the azure landscape, their outlines wavering in the afternoon haze. He breathed with equanimity, his mind had switched itself off, forgotten the problem that had plagued it all day.

For weeks now, the Boy had sat in front of a blank white screen with a blinking black line on its left hand side, waiting. Waiting for the right word, the right sentence, the right beginning. His mind was a vessel that ferried stories from the cosmos into the world, but it had been docked for a long time, this new story was taking its own sweet time to emerge. Any fugitive sentences that arrived prematurely before the others were promptly excised from the page altogether. When he was not in front of the screen, doing other things to pass the time, he could feel the story coursing through his brain in all its resplendent glory, but he couldn’t hold on to it more than he could grasp a handful of water, such was its fluid shape. The Boy didn’t wait idly: whole paragraphs, characters, dialogs, scenarios, whole pages formed inside him, bursting his mind at the seams. But he lacked the conviction to put it down, what if he didn’t get it right? He thought up a volume a day and it made him sick in the heart and the mind, without having written a line. Life went on, but the block remained.

The Boy attributed this creative drought to a lack of worldly experience. His transition from infancy to childhood to adolescence had taken seventeen years, and in that time he hadn’t really walked the earth. The true artists really struggled and suffered before they achieved greatness, like Fitzgerald, Carver and Updike with alcohol, Dostoyevsky with his gambling and Plath with her depression. The Boy had never suffered for a day in his life. He wished that his parents had divorced early on or that they were poor indentured servants who had accumulated massive amounts of debt to the local loan shark, but unfortunately he had had a relatively normal childhood. To go through a truly harrowing experience and feel real pain and suffering, the kind of pain that didn’t arise from having to take the bus to school when the family chauffeur was sick, that was what he whispered to forces unseen before he went to bed at night. That was the only thing that could refill his writing well.

This wasn’t the first time he had come to the beach, and it wouldn’t be his last. He comes here for the Sun to melt the block away and let his imagination flow through his body. He comes here for the sea, the city’s true confidant, to wash away his paralysis and renew his resolve. He comes here to sweat out the story and to distract his mind from it. He comes here to be inspired by beauty and to remind himself that colors other than white exist.

He was interrupted from his placid solitude by The Beach Soothsayer. The Soothsayer was an old, dark woman, in a yellow sari with red fringes. Her figure conjured an image of a sapota resting on a yellow watermelon in the Boy’s mind. She held a short bamboo stick in her right hand and a string of colorful beads in her left. A large, thick mole stuck out from her left cheek.

“My dear boy, would you like to know your future?” she asked him in Tamil. “I’m one of the few people who can tell you. Just for thirty rupees.”

The Boy was no fool, he had never humored these obvious frauds. They foretold futures of success, fame, happiness and wealth, futures that remained the same for everyone. For who really wants to hear the truth, that Life is unfair? That ten years from now, their wives will suffer from miscarriages? That they will have to suffer the loss of their family because of an incurable plague, or that they are doomed to years of cleaning public toilets for basic sustenance?

But in the state that he was in, he needed the encouragement, false though it may have been. And he had always wanted to see the process up close and personal, his friends and family are cynics just like him. The heat dissolved his prejudices and he nodded. The Soothsayer smiled, her brown teeth, stained by years of chewing tobacco, peeking out.

They sat opposite each other on the sand, she with her legs crossed and he kneeling on his knees. She motioned for his right hand. He stuck it out, palm faced upwards. She held it with the hand that held the strings of beads. Her bamboo stick hovered over his palm.

“Lord Sakkamma!” she cried upward. “Tell me this boy’s fate!”

Her eyes rolled upward and the bamboo stick circled the Boy’s hand slowly. Once, twice, three times, and then it stopped at the center of the palm, still in mid-air.

“Troubles are imminent for you!” the entranced Soothsayer whispered. “You think you have problems now, but more troubles are coming!”

Great, so much for encouragement, thought the Boy.

“Ah, your mind has been strangled by a spirit into submission and you seek an escape from its crushing vice,” she continued. “This is your punishment for forgetting the power of the gods that roam the heavens, you have been stripped of your purpose!”

It was true that he had recently become an atheist, but he did not think that that had anything to do with the block. Evidently this Soothsayer wasn’t in the business of having repeat customers. He had had enough of this nonsense, the next thing she would be telling him would be to apologize to the gods in a weird fashion.

“You must apologize to the Almighty by visiting the six Sacred Murugan Temples in the South and rolling around the perimeter of each temple fifty times!” declared the Soothsayer. “Only then will you stop blocking yourself from your chosen path!”

There was a blast of thunder (in a clear sunny afternoon no less) to drive home her point. The Boy pulled his hand from the crazy woman’s grasp. Her eyes quickly returned to normal, but she was fuming with anger because her seance (if you could call it that) had been cut short by an insolent and impatient cursed boy.

“You have angered the gods still further! You were supposed to spit on the thagudu thrice to take care of your other troubles! Mark my words, I-”

“Now look here lady,” the Boy interjected, “why can’t you be more like the other fortune tellers and feed me a bit of superficial good news? You’ve got to improve your beachside manner, it’s unbecoming for us vulnerable souls. Here’s your damn money.”

He pulled out thirty rupees from his wallet, the last remnants of the thousand bucks his dad gave him last week when he had to go out with his friends, and shoved it into her beaded hand. The Soothsayer glared at him and stuffed it in her bra.

“Watch out, you cursed swine,” the Soothsayer warned. “God has his own way of saying what he feels.”

“Well tell him to say it directly, I’m tired of his messages getting lost in translation because of his incompetent chosen few,” replied the Boy.

The Soothsayer glared at him, got on her feet, dusted the sand off her and walked toward a couple necking under the shade of an abandoned stall. The Boy resumed his endless gaze into the sea, searching for its mysteries and secrets buried within its depths. He wondered what the Beach Soothsayer’s life was like every day and how she got into the fortune telling business. Religion clearly had a role, but he wondered if she truly believed in what she’s selling.

The beach was deserted at this time of the day, the only visible signs of life were a few couples making their scheduled rendezvous, the ice cream vendor with his red cycle stall dozing on his cooler, two photographers and the occasional vehicle the drove on the road facing the beach. And then the Boy saw the transgenders.

The six of them were dressed in faded and soiled saris that were too small for them and emanated a signature stench that the Boy could get faint whiffs of even at his distance from them. The trinkets that adorned their body were cheap and plasticky (they gave an odd glint under the sun), their makeup was splotchy and didn’t quite hide their true masculine features. The Boy had nothing against transgenders in particular, but their Chennai manifestations just happened to be a feared public menace. He felt awkward around them; he tried not to stare at them too hard because of how they looked, but he also tried to act as if he wasn’t trying to control himself and that he was normal.

The Boy had had similar awkward experiences with transgenders before when they stopped him on the street, but he had only encountered one or two of them together. He saw the focus of the group shift from horsing around amongst themselves to singling him out as a potential target, he could see it in their eyes and the way they were hurtling in his direction. He felt fear grab his throat and he quickly walked back to the road, but it was too late. One of them called out to him eagerly and hailed him with the satisfaction of a spider having caught a fly in its trap. The Boy tried to ignore him (or her?) but he (or she?) grabbed his shoulder. The rest of the gang caught up with them.

“Where are you running off to, boy? one of them, the Boy labeled him (they were definitely effeminate men, not manly women) as the Ringleader, chuckled. “Don’t want to spend time with us?”

The Boy shook his head. Behind him was the beach police station. He considered shouting for help if things got out of hand. The group circled around him, sniggering to each other with shared excitement.

“Come on, give us the money, and nothing will happen,” said another.

It was unfortunate that the Boy had spent the last thirty rupees he had on the Soothsayer’s prediction, which seemed to have come true. He took his wallet out, opened it wide, and showed the group by circling round, that he didn’t have anything to give them.

“Uh…sorry, I don’t have any money with me. Can I go now?” the Boy shrugged apologetically. He put his wallet back in his pocket.

“In a hurry eh? But what can you give us instead of money? Perhaps a bit of fun?” the Ringleader said slowly, each word escaping his mouth like the final drops from an empty Coke can. A shiver passed through the Boy as he realized what was going to happen, his eyes welled up from the fear. The circle closed in on him.

The Ringleader snapped his fingers. “Boys, on three!”

“Come on, sir, just let me go, I, I haven’t…”

“One!”

“Sir, please sir, let me go! HELP! HELP! POLICE!”

The transgender standing behind him put his hand on the Boy’s mouth. It reeked of grime and sweat and the remnants of the roadside mutton biriyani that the group had had for lunch. He started struggling, but it was no use because his assailant twisted his left nipple hard. The other five had their hands on the edges of their lungis in utter glee.

“Two!”

The tears flowed without hesitation, the Boy was truly scared. The hand moved from his throbbing nipple down to his dick and crushed it, he couldn’t even piss his pants.

“THREE!”

The group simultaneously pulled their lungis apart and revealed their privates to the Boy. He squirmed under the grasp of the other transgender, trying to turn away from this gross public display of nudity. The three of them that could afford the sex operation had ugly, hairy vaginas. All of them laughed boisterously. The Ringleader came up to him and grabbed his face.

“Next time, you see us, you don’t run. You come to us and give us our money. Understand?”

He shoved the Boy in the sand, where he was left to wallow in his tears, spit, sweat and piss. The group tied their lungis back on and shuffled away whence they came, their laughter the only trace they left behind. The Boy lay in the warm sand as he waited for the Sun to evaporate the whole experience from his body and mind. He rolled on his back and wiped his face with his shirt.

A round copper plate blocked the Sun from his face and fell on his stomach. He picked it up and spat on it three times. The Soothsayer picked up the copper plate, the thagudu, and threw it into the sea like a Frisbee, where it joined several others like it. Then she whacked the Boy with her bamboo stick for his stupidity.

As the Boy lay back on the sand, gazing at the spirals of white in the sky, he chuckled to himself. He had asked for pain and suffering, and he had got just that. There was no point in groaning over what had happened. A couple of months from now he would be recounting this tale with his friends over pitchers of beer. So the Boy got on his feet, dusted himself down, wiped off the crap all over his face and headed home, back to that white expanse, to the world of infinite possibilities.

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The Wrong Door

The door to your house/flat/apartment/abode has come unstuck in time. The next time you walk through it, you find yourself in the same place, but a different time entirely. Where are you, and what happens next? (Weekly Writing Challenge)

They say our house is cursed because a boy died in it. He killed himself, probably because of some cliched teenage angst like being dumped by his girlfriend or getting low marks in an exam, or being chastised by his father for a mistake he made. The house had languished without inhabitants for several years and its realtor was willing to pay us to take the house off his hands.

During the first couple of months in the new house, I would search for any sign of the suicide, whether it was a stain on the walls or dried blood on the floors. I would hide in my closet at night to catch a glimpse of the ghost of the dead boy as it roamed the house, like in the horror movies I had seen. And then we renovated it, so there was no point to search anymore.

The minute I opened the door to my house, I knew that something had changed. I didn’t know if it was the smell or the bare, morbid atmosphere that the walls reverberated from somewhere deep inside the house. All the white curtains were drawn to block the afternoon sun from seeping through, darkening the rooms with spurts golden light here and there. I closed the door behind me softly, as if slamming the door would attract some lurking danger that lay upstairs waiting for my unsuspecting, oblivious self. The plastic grocery bag that I held in my right hand rustled as I moved. I clutched it tightly with my other hand. I waited for a couple of seconds, trying to listen for some signs of my mother and sister as I had left them.

Instead I heard the faint sounds of classical music, music that had not graced my ears in a long time ever since I had stopped playing the piano and gravitated towards the electronic beats of Dubstep and Skrillex. The kind of music that evoked gurgling rivers winding through ethereal forests and rocks made golden by the twilight. The kind of light that accompanies massages at expensive parlors, fit for upper class snobs. These mellifluous sounds flowed from upstairs, and I went in search of them.

With every step I took in this new domain, I saw something strange. Where there was supposed to be the oil painting of Ganesha on the far side of the living room, there now was a collage of photographs of people I did not know. An extended family, much like my own: the growling patriarch in his late 40s with a thick mustache that could rival Nietzsche’s, the docile housewife in her dazzling sarees with an aura of sainthood emanating from every part of her body, the lanky young son with more pimples on his face than skin and the puny little daughter whose life presumably revolved around Tinkle comics and Barbie dolls and the different colored belts awarded by her karate school. Scattered here and there were photos of the elder members of this model family, the grandparents, regally garbed in clothes that forced reverence out of anyone who looked at them. These photographs had been taken with a vintage camera, or with Instagram. Had this family moved in while I had gone out?

The bookcase that stood in the hallway between the living room and the dining room was the same, but it seemed much more polished and sturdier than I remembered. Books and magazines were stacked from top to bottom, mostly Tamil with some English thrown in. None of the books that I flipped through were published beyond 1982. The first copy of National Geographic that lay at the top of the yellow magazine stack was dated 1980. Maybe this family cancelled their subscription way back then and carefully preserved all their back issues so that they could sell them as vintage copies fifty years from now. But that didn’t explain what they were doing in my house.

The tall metallic refrigerator was now a short white one. The 26 inch LCD TV on the ground floor was now a small box that flickered color moderately (I checked, with a remote the size of a brick). My mother’s carefully planned interior design – stained glass windows, silk curtains, colorful paintings and her own artwork –  was gone and in its place were drab walls disrupted by framed paintings of gods and goddesses. The floors, the fans, the walls, the doors, the stairs, the windows, everything had changed! Where was my house, where was my family? And that music would not stop. I dropped the plastic bag and headed upstairs to get to the bottom of this (at the top of the house).

I tip toed on the last flight of stairs like a ninja, clinging to the walls, blending with the plaster. This had to be a prank orchestrated by my family and my friends, just like the time they hired the Bugs Bunny guy to follow me wherever I went. My father thinks he has a good sense of humor, and my mother humors that sense. But fifteen minutes isn’t really a lot of time to redecorate a whole house (unless you’re in Extreme Home Makeover or one of those shows), and this seemed a tad too elaborate even for them.

The music was coming from my parents’ bedroom (or at least it was supposed to be my parents’ bedroom, I didn’t know anymore). Someone had turned up the volume since my quiet entrance and the orchestra reverberated through the whole upper floor. If there was a person up there, he was hard of hearing. I reached the top of the stairs, angling towards the left where the source of the music lay. This floor was even darker than the one below it and I could see outlines of closets, suitcases, boxes, and beds in different places.

“Hello?!”, asked I, ready to run in the opposite direction. There was no answer, but the music had muffled the frightened greeting. This was a horror movie situation, I imagined tense and suspenseful music over my perplexed expression of confusion, fear and anticipation. Generally, the words employed by characters in similar situations were:

  1. Is somebody there?

  2. I know there’s somebody there!

  3. I’m going to call the cops! (even though the character has no idea of who is in the house)

I used all these sentences, but received no responses. I remembered that these characters also had makeshift weapons like knives and guns to back them up. I ran back downstairs. I flung open the kitchen drawers where my mother usually keeps the knives. Instead I found forks and spoons. The next set of drawers revealed shining metal knives. I grabbed two and ascended the staircase again. I moved slowly to the slightly ajar door and nudged it open.

On a wooden table across the room, placed in front of a grilled window, sat a stereo with a tape recorder and in it was the tape that played the booming cascades of Beethoven. I scanned the bedroom: there were many movie posters on the walls – Star Wars, E.T. and Raiders Of The Lost Ark – and the bed was disheveled by its last occupant. There were stickers on the closet opposite the bed, of Spiderman, Superman and He-Man. I moved inside, expecting someone to pounce on me to end the prank.

And then I saw a figure, huddled against the wall in the bathroom, adjacent to the closet. The figure was shivering, but I didn’t feel cold. I pushed open the bathroom door slightly and saw the ugly adolescent in the photos downstairs. Drenched in sweat, he was curled in a compact position, knees to his chest, arms over his knees. In one hand he held a knife. I knew what this was: I had interrupted the boy from slitting his wrists and staining the immaculate white tiled bathroom floor. The maid would thank me for that. The boy and I stared at each other, each waiting for the other’s next move. I decided since I was the one who had ruined his poetic classical suicide, I had to say something.

“Hi there, sorry for ruining your poetic classical suicide, but this is my house.”

“What?!”, asked the boy, as if he couldn’t understand what I was saying anymore and could already see floating angels as they glided down to lift him up into the clouds.

I stepped on the bed, crossed the room and turned the music off. I came back to the bathroom

“Was that Beethoven?” I asked, wanting to sound authoritative on classical music.

“No, it’s Rachmaniov. Who are you?” Like I said, I played the piano a long time ago.

“Did my mom and dad put you up to this? You’re an actor, right? Doing plays that no one really sees…”

The boy sighed.

“Fucking Murphy’s Law,” he said, quite irritated with my intrusion. “Can’t even kill myself properly.”

“You know I recommend that you fill your bathtub with water and then throw in your toaster while it’s connected to a socket. Less messy and less waiting, if that’s what you want. Think about the mess your maid would have to clean up if you slit your wrists.”

The boy glared at me, put the knife down and opened the taps to run a final electrifying bath. I decided I would only get my answers the hard way. I sneaked behind him and grabbed him around his neck.

“Who are you really? What the hell is going on? This was my house half an hour ago.”

The boy squirmed under my grip, trying to pry my forearm away from his Adam’s apple. I pressed the tip of one of the knives I had into his back. That expunged his resistance.

“This house has always been in the family. For the last twenty years, I swear, since 1962! Who the hell are you?”

I dropped my knife and let go of him and lost the feeling in my legs. I supported myself by the bathroom wall. The water was still running, mixing with itself as it prepared to make a deathly potion for the boy.

“What year is it?” I asked, knowing fully well the answer to that question. Now all the shit in the house made sense, in a time travel sort of way. Especially the movie posters. Although I would have stuck the same era of posters on my walls if I could just find them in this culture dead city.

“It’s 1982. Do I need to call somebody to take you home?”

—-

The boy and I stood upon our balcony, sharing a cigarette. I thought by opening the balcony door, we would be back in 2013, but nothing happened. The street outside my house was much wider, and there were fewer houses and fewer stray dogs and fewer cars and motorcycles. The whole area was quieter. I saw my neighbor, Captain Singh, now in his late 30s, maintaining his garden, as he would for the next thirty years until he hired me to do it for him. I pointed at his crouching figure.

“Do you know that man? Captain Singh?”

The boy nodded. “Oh, I know Mr. Singh. He’s not a captain though, just a private in the army.” He handed over the cigarette. I took a drag and blew out the smoke in carefully composed rings, each successive one blending with its predecessors to form, in my mind, the Olympics logo.

“So what traumatic event brought you to this moment?”

The boy looked down, hunching his shoulders as if to communicate through his body that this was a sensitive topic for him. I didn’t care, there must have been some reason that I traveled through time. Maybe I had to talk this guy out of killing himself.

“It’s pretty simple. I’m a fatalist. My life has no purpose. What’s the point of living for sixty years, knowing that there’s always going to be an end, no matter what you do? You can’t postpone it, plan for it, get used to it. Get a job and do the same thing for forty years, fucking forget it! And don’t give me all that shit about living life, being in love, starting a family. At the end of the day, we are all old geezers filled with regrets, sorrow and nostalgia for the past. That’s reason enough to end it on my own terms.”

This guy actually had his own philosophical reasons to end it all. I was impressed. “So why don’t you kill yourself in twenty years? Love someone, pop your cherry, do a bucket list or something, and then fill another bathtub with some other toaster.”

“Did you even hear yourself? It’s become so mechanical, to love someone, tell them your deepest secrets, begrudgingly share each other’s company when you want to be alone. Take them out somewhere when they don’t feel like it.” He sighed. “No, it’s not worth it, just a pain in the ass.”

I really had no other cards in my deck. Each boy is entitled to their own opinion, and it was this boy’s contention that he should die instead of live a life that wasn’t particularly enriching. If God needed to gift someone with superpowers to renew their sense of purpose in life, now was the time.

“Well, you don’t know what movies you’re missing out on in the next thirty years, my friend. You should count yourself lucky to be able to see these legendary flicks in the theatre. Like The Terminator, or Back To The Future, or The Matrix or even the other Indiana Jones movies.” I said this in an offhand sort of way because I knew he wouldn’t bite. He just grunted in agreement.

“What’s it like to live in the future?” he asked me. And I told him. Of iPods, 3D, YouTube, satellite TV, cellphones and the Internet. Of the outcome of the Cold War, the rise of China, the Arab uprising, Indira Gandhi’s impending assassination and the silence of Manmohan Singh. Of how he should bet on India winning the 1983 World Cup and of the Twenty20 craze that had caught the country by storm. I told him how today’s people were glued to digital screens, where books lived in microchips and libraries were made extinct by Google. I told him these things and many more, each new thing springing into my mind after I had explained the last one, like a bottle of juice you think is empty but the drops keep coming. The boy listened with great interest, but I know that he didn’t believe half the things I was talking about. I didn’t care, this was an opportunity that I would never get again.

After I was done, the boy got up and went back to his room. I followed him in, the time had come. We both stared into the water. It didn’t look like it had been charged with electrons, there was no mystic glow. Maybe that’s what made it so lethal, the fact that it didn’t look like it could kill someone.

“I can’t do it,” said the boy. “It doesn’t feel like the time anymore.”

So I had done it, I had pulled a lost soul back from the edge of the cliff the hung over the Land of the Dead and into the Land of the Living. “But what about your reasons?” I asked.

“If they’re still valid, they’ll bring me to this moment once again,” he shrugged. He looked at me and grinned. And then I died.

That was weird, wasn’t it? Skipping to the end with no foreshadowing or hints at all. Does it even matter how it happened? Okay, maybe if you’ve read this story all the way here, I might as well spell it out for you. The boy’s sister had entered the house as we were chatting with each other in the bathroom. She saw me holding two knives next to her brother and saw it as her sole duty to protect him from harm. A perfectly placed karate kick that she had recently learned connected with my spine and sent me flying across the bathroom, where I hit the wall in front of me and landed right inside the electric bathtub. In moments like these, characters speed through the important moments of their lives and the people they shared them with, all in slow motion. I didn’t even have the chance to scream. Serves me right for saving that boy’s life.

They said our house was cursed because a boy died in it. After such a traumatic experience, the last owners sold their house and moved as far away as they could to Europe and became rich after betting on Apple, Google and a small idea from Lalit Modi called the IPL. All because I, like Billy Pilgrim, became unstuck in time and opened the wrong door. Well, it was the right door, but it was wrong for me to…whatever, let me just rest in peace.

My Two Hours With KAL

On Tuesday, April 16th, as I was lazily scrolling through my Twitter feed, this tweet caught my eye:

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 8.40.13 PM

My heart leapt, I couldn’t believe it. KAL, that witty, incisive, magical artist, was descending from his throne up above and interacting with us mortals! This was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up. I promptly clicked the link and filled out the Google Form that The Economist had provided. In the space that asked for a single question that I wished to ask, I typed out three:

  1. Over the course of your illustrious career, which of your caricatures has been your favorite?
  2. What’s the most controversial cartoon you’ve ever drawn?
  3. As the world has shifted through various paradigms, how have your caricatures evolved?

And I clicked Submit.

What Happened Next…

Some of you may not know who KAL is, and I feel obligated to introduce you to one of the world’s finest visual satirists. Kevin Kallaugher is a political and editorial cartoonist who has been with The Economist for almost 35 years. His work has also been featured in many other publications, including The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, The New Yorker and Le Monde. I have always known him by his pseudonym KAL, and I first encountered his work around 8 or 9 years ago, when my dad showed me one of his cartoons in the edition of The Economist that he was reading. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it’s the first thing I turn to with every issue I read. It never occurred to me to find out who KAL was before the Hangout, because I always imagined KAL to be a team of cartoonists who pumped out illustrations every week and since The Economist doesn’t name its journalists and artists, it would be pointless.

A couple of hours after I submitted my questions, I received an email from the Social Media Team at The Economist:

Email

Now, in full disclosure, I didn’t expect this to happen. I thought that my question would be thrown into a long pile of questions that an interviewer would pick at random to ask KAL (yeah, I didn’t realize that these kinds of Hangouts were more than just interviews). But this was something else, I was going to speak to KAL himself, face to face. I was pretty excited. The Social Media Team wanted to chat to run me through what I had to do on the day (two days later, on April 18th). Thanks to the time difference, I would have to chat with them at 1 in the morning.

I start the Hangout with the Team, and I see a brunette on the other side of the chat with a headset in a bright office in New York, but she doesn’t see me, she doesn’t know that the call has started. So I sit there, waiting for her to acknowledge me, while she goes about her work, occasionally looking at the computer screen. I’m afraid to say something at this point, because then she would know that I’ve been spying on her for a bit, and that isn’t a great first impression.

It felt a bit like this…

I close the link and rejoin the Hangout. This time it works and she says, “Hi there, I thought you already joined the Hangout and were secretly watching me work.”

Ha, ha, thought I. Close call. I didn’t say anything in response to that fatuous idea. Her name was Michelle and she ran me through what I had to do on the big day and guided me through setting up what millions of people would see on my screen apart from my face. And that was it.

Preparing for the Hangout

I couldn’t twiddle my thumbs for a couple of days until Thursday, April 18th, 8:00 pm. I had to do some reading up on KAL, get some more varied and interesting questions. The ones that I had submitted were fairly generic and bland. The first thing I saw was KAL’s TEDx talk at Warwick in 2011:

KAL did another TED talk at Jacksonhole, but it’s a more concise version of the above talk (in fact, that talk is actually a rehash of a video he did for The Economist). I then read an interview KAL did with a Warwick student website called The Student Journals. The interview had an Indian kid asking KAL most of the questions I had prepared, so I ditched them. After more “research”, these are the questions I ended up with:

  • If you’ve seen the above video, you’ll know that KAL mentions that Johns Hopkins University scientists wanted to study his brain as he drew his caricatures. I wanted to ask him what they revealed.
  • What other artistic styles does he dabble in (painting, sculpture etc), and how does that influence his cartooning?
  • What does he feel about current online visual satire like memes?
  • Hypothetically, would he program a robot to continue drawing his sketches and congruent images after he passes on, or would he like people to look at his past body of work as moments in time?
  • In January, KAL started a Kickstarter campaign for his latest project Daggers Drawn. His initial funding goal was $20,000, and he received five times that amount. I wanted to ask him what his reaction was to that flood of support, and did he expect that to happen.

The Big Night

On the night of the Hangout, I double checked with Michelle whether I would be able to ask a different question instead of the one of the earlier ones I had submitted. She told me to send in my other questions so that she could give them to KAL, and told me that KAL would probably not be able to answer all of them, which I expected. I also made sure that no one disturbed me during my international broadcast: I switched off my phone, closed all my Internet windows, locked my door, and instructed my sister to make sure Aura, my dog, wouldn’t bark her head off.

Then I joined the Hangout Group Prep where there were five of us privileged fans: a creative consultant, two cartoonists, a management exec, and me. We adjusted our video, audio and even clothes (in my case, because I forgot that you can’t wear your night clothes in front of millions of people).

And then KAL himself joined the Hangout. I had a huge grin on my face. We introduced ourselves to him and informed him about the questions we were going to ask. I had selected the artistic styles question simply because I was interested to know how other art influenced his own, an esoteric question that pertained specifically to him. But really, did the question matter more than me asking it?

Five minutes before we were scheduled to go On Air, the community editor of The Economist, Mark Johnson, joined us and ran through our names. And before I knew it, we were Live, streaming to millions of people around the world (or so I hoped). Here it is:

Now you might notice that during the Hangout, I occasionally shift around and even move uncomfortably off screen at one point, changing the lighting in my room. At the start of the Hangout, I noticed the battery on my laptop read 25%, and Murphy’s Law had prevailed yet again. The lamp that I had connected to the socket had to be removed to charge my laptop, and everyone saw me in, literally, a different light.

Ben Franklin

Backstage Extras

My time with KAL didn’t end with the hour long Hangout; he spent another half an hour with us Off Air to answer some of our other questions, and we spoke about many things, including Daggers Drawn, how to deal with being a political cartoonist while looking at so much chaos, the dichotomy between a cartoonist’s work and his audience, and even an anecdote involving KAL’s time with Dik Browne (creator of Hagar The Horrible). I wish we had more time so that he could’ve answered the remaining questions I had, but I also held back on them because I didn’t think they were serious enough to ask.

The End

And then suddenly, it had to end. I had to say goodbye to a man who makes the world a better place by looking at the cruelties people inflict on others a bit differently. In his words, he’s like a person at a funeral who makes a joke and laughs, and so gets people to smile. Thank you KAL, those two hours were inspiring.

KAL’s website is here. You can check out some of his Economist art here.

Attributions: 

  1. untitled by Dave & Bry, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0
  2. Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis.jpg , PD-US

  3. Kevin Kallaugher.jpg by Nick50000, CC-BY-SA-3.0