Tag Archives: short story

No Fun at All

I miss writing stories here. I am originally a story-writer, you see. But lack of a steady thought process, and dedicated time makes it difficult to write one to my liking. And then there is the confusion of whether or not to accept instructions. The instructions say, a story must have a character, a conflict, a resolution. A plot. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to find a reasonable via-way between my belief that a story needn’t have a plot, and these instructions. So, in all of this confusion — which is quite a normal thing for me, by the way — I’ve decided to try out a vignette today. I didn’t know it existed until 5 minutes ago, when I searched for types of short stories through Google. I am, however, breaking rules here as well, and not writing anything to do with theatre or poetry.  And, even before I publish it, I am half-sure I’ll want to take it off and throw it in the garbage bin. But I won’t, because these writing times are few and far between, and I want to keep their fruits.

No Fun at All

The dusty glass sarcophagus showed fingerprints of silly people, who touched it in spite of the earnest warnings by the museum. Like everything else in the building, the unnamed, lost old Egyptian inside the glass case was without a guard. She stood there, staring at her reflection on the sullied surface. Her own face was pockmarked with the fingerprints of countless people she never would know. Her glasses reflected more of the post-death charade lying in front of her. It hadn’t been easy getting used to the glasses she had recently begun wearing, and when she looked at their reflection now, she felt a sudden urge to take them out and throw them away; they didn’t help her see. She couldn’t see what she wanted to.

The old and tired pedestal fan next to the ugly grey wall turned its head every now and then towards her. Tucking a few stray hair behind her ears, she moved on, unaware that she was doing it. That she was. That things were. She just kept moving on.

It was a Sunday, there were more people than this narrow gallery of a mansion turned into a museum could hold on a sultry May afternoon. Sweating uncharacteristically, she didn’t care that she had left behind her party of friends, and that they must be missing her. The buzz of empty air blocked out everything perfectly. Perhaps this is what she needed today. Dainty porcelain things on glass shelves looked at her from behind surprisingly clean glass walls. She smiled, perhaps remembering something pleasant.

It must have been a while in front of the porcelain things, because when she looked around, she realised that all those, who were strolling around with her seemed to have gone ahead. It must have been long enough for everyone to leave. The gallery was about to meet a huge hall, which would lead her outside to the sprawling lawns. Walking uncharacteristically slowly, she knew she had to find everyone else now. They must be somewhere. Waiting for her. She walked on, slow, straight, unfaltering. But the heart was pounding inside her chest, and it shouted for air. She needed to breathe. Deep, and slow. She needed to stop. She needed. She needed to know her son was not dead. But not all needs are met.

*

Idea for this little piece: About year after my brother died, we took some of my very young cousins to a museum. My mother got ‘lost’ for  a couple of hours inside the huge place. We waited outside, wondering where she was. There were no mobile phones then. We found each other on the central lawn outside. There must have been some system to find lost people — some announcement system — but I don’t remember using it. To this day, I wonder what she must have been thinking. Or not.
Advertisements

For The Love of Colour

Here’s a short story for you. Do let me know what you make of it. Don’t be too harsh, though, dear reader!

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

Dai was in a hurry that day. She had to go to her eye doctor for a review after her cataract operation, so she’d collect her wages the next day. Age had slowly crept upon her, and even though she did not know the numbers in it, I could presume she must have been at least sixty. Or more. There’s never a certainty of age with some people, regardless of the wrinkles on them.

When she came to me four months ago to become my masseuse, I didn’t like her. Her loudness, her rough hands, her chipped nail paint, none of those helped in changing my opinion. She was supposed to soothe my aching body, after all. Nine months of carrying my little girl had changed a lot in my body, I was told. Even though I could feel little of that lot, I took people’s word and decided to let a masseuse ease the strain out of it. What made me decide in her favour if I didn’t like her, you might ask. Besides my secret wish to have someone to pamper me, it was her straight talk that won me over. “Won’t do your tummy until you’re strong. I don’t want any risks,” she’d said, in a very unlearned Hindi. Dai wanted to know what I’d pay her every month. We settled for a thousand rupees. And a saree, with its blouse. “Won’t do without a saree and a blouse. Colourful ones.”
I looked at the one draped around her lithe, old frame. She had wrapped it around her carelessly; the final span of it encircled her hips, chest and finally her head, to fall carelessly down her shoulder and belly. Bright blue, it looked unabashed in its striking splendour against her mud-black skin. She smiled. Her white teeth opened the gates for the gurgling, harsh sound of her words, “Sarees are important. Colourful ones,” she repeated. I liked her love for colour, and that she was no-nonsense, just like me.

That day, her last with me, as her deft hands and fingers rubbed my skin with not just vigour, but also with a sort of tender vehemence, I asked her, “Dai, how long have you been married?”

“Ah, child. A little over my son’s age. We never count years.”

“Where does your son live?”

“Somewhere close to Delhi. Very far away,” her eyes began to look nowhere.

“Is he married?” I asked.

“Yes,” her eyes lit up again, “he has two children.”

“Do you get to see them?”

“Sometimes. They came here two Diwalis ago,” the strokes were now firmer, painful, even. “My son got me two sarees. One so bright red, our eyes watered. And another, bright green like fresh jamun leaves.”

“How do you keep in touch?”

“He writes letters,” she looked wistfully.

“Can you read?”

“No, the local postman reads and writes for us. He’ll write all sorts of letters, if you ask him. My man never goes to him, but I do. For my son’s letters.”

“That’s nice.”

“His wife gave me a lovely orange saree when I finished the massaging for her daughter-in-law. You know? The one I wore yesterday?”

“What colour do you like most?” I wanted to know, her interest in sarees and colours amused me, because of the bright light they lent to her eyes.

“I like all colours except black and white,” she informed me firmly. “He is around, so I’ll never have to wear them.”

I wanted to ask whether she had ever addressed her husband with more than a mere pronoun, but didn’t. That he was alive was a good thing, her words indicated — not because he was a good husband, but because if he died, she’d have to wear the widow white, or dull cousins of the vibrant ones she liked so much. She must want his long life, I realised. But all wishes aren’t granted, are they?

He died that day.

A month after his death, she came to me to collect her final wages, and her saree-blouse. She was her usual demanding, brash self. And she was wearing red to match her style.

The dilemma I had about giving her a bright yellow and red saree I’d originally purchased was quickly vanishing. Maybe her family and people weren’t old-fashioned after all.

Kaisi ho, dai?” I inquired about her.

Sab thik, beta,” she bared her ever-white teeth, glimmering against the ebony of her skin. Nothing seemed to have changed much.

I was determined to know about her life this last month, so continued my inquiry.

“The maid told me about your husband. You must be alone now.”

“It doesn’t matter much, I am all right. One less mouth to feed.”

“I see you’re wearing your old red saree…”

“Oh yes. He let me, he did,” she said impishly.

“He let you?”

“In his things, people found a letter that said that all of his life, he couldn’t give me anything much, so after his death, I should at least be allowed to live as I was used to living. That I shouldn’t be forced to live like a widow. Wear white and all that, no?”

“He got a letter written? But he never went to the postman…”

“He was a strange man, did unusual things sometimes. May he rest in peace,” she sighed.

————————————————————————

Words you may not be familiar with:

Dai — grandmother

Kaisi ho, dai? — How are you, grandma?

Sab thik, beta. — All well, child.

Shelling, and then hoping

The oysters weren’t quite done yet. Noon breeze caressed him gently, bringing with it the aromas of something yummy. “Something yummy” in Jeremy’s dictionary was oysters. He especially loved the ones they made at The Drunken Crab. Jeremy lazily drew whorls on the outside of his beer mug. He was enjoying the breeze more than the beer. And since it was only very seldom that he allowed himself to enjoy, he was taking his time. Or rather, he’d put it on hold.

Jeremy Y was a strange man. He grew up in a suburban mansion with two parents, two dogs and many goldfish. The latter gave way to many of their kind over the years, but there were always many of them. His parents, Emily and Wilfred, were rich heirs of very rich people who liked to live big. But these things were not that made him strange. It was his incongruous existence at the mansion viz a viz everything and everybody; in fact his incongruity every where. He did not fit in. No, he wasn’t a square peg in a round hole. He was a football trying to snug it in inside a highway tunnel.

Jeremy was home-tutored. And that made things worse. He didn’t have to meet anyone except the tutor who was — to Jeremy — a non-entity anyway. You see, Jeremy did not like people. He did not like places or things or people. He did not like being. He did not like.

But he was sitting here, smelling oysters, the only exception.

And he was wondering whether it was really true. Had he really got married last week? He found himself startled each time this question sneaked in. Kathy was a sweet girl, and was everything his parents would want in a daughter-in-law. Well-groomed, and rich. It didn’t take them long to decide that the two should get married. Jeremy wasn’t asked. He was told. He was always told the next thing to do, so he listened this time as well, and obeyed. Somehow, he was certain Kathy wouldn’t have had it any different than them either. The rich people they lived with and around were clever in ensuring their richness got replenished with every occasion — weddings, funerals, birthdays, anniversaries, divorces. This knowledge relieved him of any trace of guilt that might have visited him about having married a girl without intending to ever be a husband.

Unsuspecting, Kathy walked in.

“Hi! Did you see the rainbow?”

He could never have seen one if it pounded drums in his ears.

“Umm, not really. Well, yes. On TV.”

Kathy’s laughter reminded him of the tinkling bells in this mother’s charm bracelet. There were times when he really listened for something that might take this endless cold out of his chest and every time it was the bracelet that rang in his years, but only to be dumbed by Emily’s sticky-like-toffee laughter.

“Where’ve you been living? Come out here,” chimed Kathy with a sunshine-y tinkle.

He reluctantly got up and even more reluctantly put his hand in hers. Together, they stepped out of the trendy coconut-leaf shack. The drizzle had just given way to a downpour. The rainbow to their right was fading rapidly, and would vanish before he could think of coming up with an excuse to get inside. It, the rainbow, was not going to permit him a view just yet.

Jeremy was in any case interested in other things Goa had to offer. He hadn’t picked it for his honeymoon for rainbows. He had other plans.

“Yeah. There it was. I saw it,” he obliged. And then mumbled a wry “Pity, it got washed away.” Kathy’s enthusiasm was made of stronger stuff. She cried with childish pleasure at the sight of fishermen coming out of the ocean, hopefully with prized catches. She ran towards them and called for him. Jeremy shuffled along the formless sand, glad that the Goan rain had gone as soon as it’d come.

The fishermen were prepared for enthusiastic tourists from the western world.

“Hello, Miss,” said a youngish sea-farer, his skin the color of sun-baked earth.

“Hello to you! Did you get some good catch?”

“Not today, Miss. Just some pomfret and a lot of oysters.”

“Lot of oysters, hmm? Isn’t that good?”

“Not much demand in this season.”

“Can I pick one?” Jeremy’s curiosity got the better of him.

“Yes, yes. Try one, no.”

“Try one?”

“Yes, yes. Open and put in mouth.” He washed one in the sea and handed it to Kathy. She pretended to pry it open to put the smelly meat in her mouth. She didn’t have the stomach for this.

Jeremy, on the other hand, worked it like he’d been doing it all his life. He’d eaten oysters, of course. But this was different.

When the meat dropped in his mouth, he felt an animal surge of triumph. The sticky flesh nudged the insides of his mouth, the weighty smell clung to his throat as he slowly, deliberately chewed the flesh.

“Mm. Very nice.”

Kathy looked at him, surprised. “You know, this is the closest you’ve come to appreciating something? What is it about this oyster?”

“It is a whole world in a shell,” he said as he glanced at her astonished face. Turning away, he was surprised to sense that animal in his chest again. It howled. Just for a bit.

“Thank you,” he said to the fisherman and began walking away. Kathy threw her still unopened mollusk and caught up with him.

“You say strange things.”

Jeremy shrugged and led the way to the Drunken Crab.

Josef, the restaurant’s very young chef, was looking around with two plates in his hands, “Ah, there you are Mr. Y. Thought you’d chickened out. Oysters aren’t for every one. Here, oysters in white wine and celery sauce.”

Kathy, sitting down, looked at the sea and said, “I’ve change my mind. I’ll have your pomfret masala after all.”

Josef didn’t seem much bothered. Probably there’d be more takers of wine-and-celery oysters, “Sure, right away,” he boomed and weaved gracefully through the tables. Kathy couldn’t help following him with her eyes. Jeremy was looking at the sea, his sandy hair protesting against the breeze, his mouth thoughtfully churning the sea-juices.

Picking up the beer pitcher, Kathy poured herself a generous pint, sipped at it, and, licking the froth mustache, pointed out a motorcyclist, “They seem to have a lot of those here. They’re available on rent. The bikes.”

“Hmm,” said Jeremy, doing nothing to hide his disinterest.

Kathy’s enthusiasm had finally caught up with the rainbow. “Did you marry me for any reason other than my father’s money?”

“Hm? Yes, of course,” he made some effort to focus his eyes on hers. “My parents wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Kathy looked away, unable to believe what she’d just heard. And what it implied.

<> <> <>

As a child, Jeremy was quite remarkable. He was inert. So inert, he could be the rug underneath his mother’s Chippendale, and no one would notice. But even more remarkable was his persistent, insistent need to keep away. Jeremy Y was painfully suspicious of everything and everybody. He was quite adept at shrugging off people because he’d practiced over the years to build an impenetrable barbed shell around him. Well, almost.

During a holiday at Aunt Josephine’s ocean home, where his parents had sent him with a hope to soothe his frightfully morbid nerves, 10-year old Jeremy was looking at the deep ocean, stretching out to eternity.

The sea did soothe him. He looked endlessly at the endless troughs and swells, allowing the whispering breeze to lull him out of his apathy. He was so engrossed in this therapeutic daze that he didn’t notice a boy about his age approach him. By the time he did notice him, the visitor had almost sat down next to him. Jeremy’s armor was back up.
“Haven’t seen you around before.”

The sea must’ve made the armor rusty. The normal Jeremy would have kept mulishly quiet, but this day was different “I am visiting my aunt here,” he nodded towards the house below.

“Ms. J’s your aunt? She’s one swell lady.”

Jeremy’s grunt was non-committal.

Marty didn’t seem to notice Jeremy’s disinterest, “You ever fished for oysters?”

“No. I’ve never fished,” said Jeremy and continued to look at the sea. Much to his own surprise, he added, “Seeing an ocean for the first time. It is… very different.”

Strange things happen. It was strange for Jeremy to volunteer more conversation than necessary. He hardly ever got beyond monosyllables and callously truncated sentences. It was probably the stress of this new interaction that became so overwhelming that he got up to leave.

“Hey! Wanna join me help my Dad unload oysters?”

“Where?” Jeremy found himself saying.

“Right down there. Race you,” the boy ran down the gentle slope, Jeremy jogging behind him with no intention of racing, his eyes on the deep blue below. He could feel something changing in him; something filling the empty depths inside.

The friendly new acquaintance won. His dad’s boat was about to moor at the pier. Jeremy saw a pile of brownish green shells on the boat. Oysters were served often at home, but given his general disinterest, he’d never tried them.

The boat was a bright traffic-light green. Her name, Sally Flier, was painted in white along the hull. The boy waved to his father, “Hey, watcha got?”

“Guess you were right about the mood, son. Didn’t get much.” He was now tying Sally Flier to the pier. They chuckled at some secret joke, father and son. Jeremy tried not to look at them. It was embarrassing to see such warmth.

“Who’s your friend?”

“He wants to help me help you. He’s visiting Ms. J, aren’t you umm..?”

Jeremy gave his name and heard himself saying, “Yes sir, I’d like to help.”

“All right then, heave ‘em out and help me load ‘em on the truck. Marty, show how.”

Marty got on the boat and told Jeremy to lift out the load. Jeremy heard the sound of oysters rubbing against each other, he felt the salt-laden air cover him with a crisp blanket of life. As he stood beside Marty’s father, mostly useless, because his partner’s sure hands and muscular body didn’t require much from him, he felt surer and more secure than he’d ever been.

They got the load on the truck; and while he was removing sand from inside his shoes, Jeremy saw his reflection on the rear-view mirror. He was smiling.

Marty came around and picked a couple of oysters, throwing one at Jeremy.

“Open it.”

Jeremy turned it over. He wasn’t quite sure how to, but was reluctant to ask.

“Here, lemme show you,” he pried one open and held it out for Jeremy to see. The pink flesh looked too raw. He’d never seen anything like it. Pink, and gooey. Inviting, somehow.

“Dad says they have an entire world in them.” Marty had begun eating them in a sort of meditative tempo. Jeremy was still, meditatively, on the first one. The raw meat was leathery and soft – a marshmallow with more masculinity than you could ask for.

The rest of the day was a fog in Jeremy’s head. That one oyster opened up a whole new world for him. The sea was bluer than it was in the morning, Aunt Josephine less meddlesome. His parents seemed like specters from a world that didn’t matter.

Jeremy was one with the sea and the oyster’s world was no longer a clammed-up non-entity. It nourished him.

<> <> <>

Evening had set in. The waves had found a deeper urge to embrace the skies. They poured in, one after the other, as Kathy, a solitary figure, walked the beach. This was something she had planned for her honeymoon. But she had not thought that the do-nothing days would be alone.

Marriage wasn’t something she was trained to expect anything from. She knew it had to be with someone her parents would eventually find. Sweet Kathy was never the kind to argue or question, she just accommodated. When she saw Jeremy for the first time, she was impressed with his haughty, disinterested air. She smiled with her girlish fantasy, wondering how his expression would change when he knew her more. His expression hadn’t changed. He hadn’t bothered to know her. What she thought was aristocratic pomp for the benefit of the masses was in fact what Jeremy Y was — a cold fish. Would her marriage be what everyone had promised her it would be, after all — strange lives, hand-in-hand, roboting their way to fuller coffers? That is not what she’d secretly dreamed of. Where was her knight? Even a rusty armor would do.

Jeremy leaned against the wooden pillar, arms tied in an unrelenting cross. Those who had been around him would have thought he was looking as usual at the sea. But those who had been around him did not know him. He wasn’t looking at the sea. He was looking at his wife’s lonely figure drawing whorls (he assumed) on the sand with her toes. Her pretty skirt with periwinkle flowers flagged gayly in the breeze. Her auburn hair flipped. She had movement around her. Quite different from his mother’s well-coiffed hair and crisp dresses. He was watching movement. Something he wasn’t accustomed to doing.

And it scared him.

Even though she was far away from the cottage pillar where he was, he thought he could smell her mild gardenia scent. His mother always used a spicy musk. Musk. Why was he thinking about musk when gardenia was something he’d found himself getting drawn to for as long as he could remember? Why must he always look at what he did not like? Always the same things. Pretension, sacrifice, force, manipulation.  Musk. And here she was, this almost-free figure in white encased in a soft, gentle perfume, so far from all those things that made him crawl into a mother-of-pearl case he hated so much, but stayed on in because it saved him from all those things. She was so far, and she wasn’t a cage.

He shuddered and it wasn’t the Goa breeze. It must’ve been the sudden invasion of emotions he knew had no use in his world. But hadn’t they? Should he go out there and help her tame her unruly hair? He made to go, but thought otherwise and looked at his watch instead. Time for dinner. Oysters. The word brought new energy in him. But what was this new feeling? Did the word just bring some impatience within him? A sort of boredom that the rest of the world made him feel? Surely not the oysters!

This was turning out to be very different from what he’s planned for his honeymoon — spend a day or two in Panaji with Kathy just to keep up the charade, and then catch a bus to south Goa to the bungalow he’d taken special pains to purchase. And then vanish from the world that had Chippendale furniture and indecent cacophony. He’d arranged for everything. And yet, here he was, with Kathy, still in Panaji after four days. Why?

He found himself walking towards her. Before he even realized his unusual action, he was close enough to her. She looked up at him and then looked away. Was it the setting sun or a strange something that made her eyes reflect the ocean? He was mesmerized.

“I..”

“You.”

“I…um. Will you.. um.”

“Will I what?” Kathy spat with surprising ferocity.

“I came here to invite you for dinner.”

“Oysters again.”

“Actually, I was wondering if you’d like to order tonight. Anything. As long as it isn’t clammy.”

Unspoken commitments

There must be numerous stories that I haven’t completed. Many still lie lonely in my notebook. Many are even less privileged — they float amongst the countless other thoughts inside my head. The characters, their stories, their lives keep coming back to me from time to time as I’d imagined them before I gave up on them for one reason or the other. Sara, Josef, The Earth-Mover, Nandini, Promila. There are so many. When I get down to write something new, however, one character whispers to me without fail — “You’ve abandoned me, you deserter,” he says. Meet Jeremy Y.

Jeremy was inspired by Jeremy Irons. Not the man, but the character he played in a movie called Being Julia. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that the main character was Julia, played brilliantly by Annette Bening. But there was something fascinating about Michael, Jeremy’s character. He was supremely apathetic, I thought.

When I was kicked about giving meat and body and soul to an idea more than a year back, the first character that came to my mind was Jeremy Y. The idea was to write short stories, seven of them, in which the main characters displayed predominance of at least one of the seven chakras, the centres of energy in our bodies. (If you’d like to know more about chakras, visit here). Jeremy was conceptualised to be an apathetic, insecure, obsessively cold person. Somewhere along the story, I lost track of where he wanted to take me.

I am publishing this post to seek your opinion about what might have gone wrong. Why couldn’t I finish the story? I put forth this same question to Charles, my friend, almost a year back. He patiently read the whole thing, listened to (read) my rants with more patience than I deserved. And he suggested I get acquainted with Jeremy and Kathy more first. To understand why they acted the way they did, to know what they thought. I try. But fail.

Jeremy led me through this that you see below. I didn’t know what I was going to write when I began the story and now I don’t know where he wants me to go! Silly, no? Would you read, and tell me what you see here? Jeremy calls for help!


Jeremy

The oysters weren’t quite done yet. Noon breeze caressed him gently, bringing with it the aromas of something yummy. “Something yummy” in Jeremy’s dictionary was oysters. He especially loved the ones they made at The Drunken Crab. Jeremy lazily grew whorls on the outside of his beer mug. He was enjoying the breeze more than the beer. And since it was only very seldom that he allowed himself to enjoy, he was taking his time. Or rather, he’d put it on hold.

Jeremy Y was a strange man. He grew up in a suburban mansion with two parents, two dogs and many goldfish. The latter gave way to many of their kind over the years, but there were always many of them. His parents, Emily and Wilfred, were rich heirs of very rich people who liked to live big. But these things were not that made him strange. It was his incongruous existence at the mansion viz a viz everything and everybody; in fact his incongruity every where. He did not fit in. No, he wasn’t a square peg in a round hole. He was a football trying to snug it in inside a highway tunnel.

Jeremy was home-tutored. And that made things worse. He didn’t have to meet anyone except the tutor, who was, to him, a non-entity anyway. You see, Jeremy did not like people. He did not like places, things or being. He did not like.

But he was sitting here, smelling oysters, the only exception.

And he was wondering whether it was really true. Had he really got married last week? He found himself startled each time this question sneaked in. Kathy was a sweet girl, and was everything his parents would want in a daughter-in-law. Well-groomed, and rich. The entire crowd at The Drunken Crab seemed to somehow know that when she walked in.

“Hi! Did you see the rainbow?”

He could never have seen one if it pounded drums in his ears.

“Umm, not really. Well, yes. On TV.”

Kathy’s laughter reminded him of the tinkling bells in this mother’s charm bracelet.

“Where’ve you been living? Come out here.”

He reluctantly got up and even more reluctantly put his hand in hers. Together, they stepped out of the trendy coconut-leaf shack. The drizzle had just given way to a downpour. The rainbow to their right was fading rapidly, and would vanish before he could think of coming up with an excuse to get inside. It, the rainbow, was not going to permit him a view just yet.

Jeremy was in any case interested in other things Goa had to offer. He hadn’t picked it for his honeymoon for rainbows. He had other plans.

“Yeah. There it was. I saw it,” he obliged. And then mumbled a wry “Pity, it got washed away.” Kathy’s enthusiasm was made of stronger stuff. She cried with childish pleasure at the sight of fishermen coming out of the ocean, hopefully with prized catches. She ran towards them and called for him. Jeremy shuffled along the formless sand, glad that the Goan rain had gone as soon as it’d come.

The fishermen were prepared for enthusiastic tourists from the western world.

“Hello, Miss,” said a youngish sea-farer, his skin the color of sun-baked earth.

“Hello to you! Did you get some good catch?”

“Not today, Miss. Just some pomfret and a lot of oysters.”

“Lot of oysters, hmm? Isn’t that good?”

“Not much demand in this season.”

“Can I pick one?” Jeremy’s curiosity got the better of him.

“Yes, yes. Try one, no.”

“Try one?”

“Yes, yes. Open and put in mouth.” He washed one in the sea and handed it to Kathy. She pretended to pry it open to put the smelly meat in her mouth. She didn’t have the stomach for this.

Jeremy, on the other hand, worked it like he’d been doing it all his life. He’d eaten oysters, of course. But this was different.

When the meat dropped in his mouth, he felt an animal surge of triumph. The sticky flesh nudged the insides of his mouth, the weighty smell clung to his throat as he slowly, deliberately chewed the flesh.

“Mm. Very nice.”

Kathy looked at him, surprised. “You know, this is the closest you’ve come to appreciating something? What is it about this oyster?”

“It is a whole world in a shell.”

“Thank you,” he said to the fisherman and began walking away. Kathy threw her still unopened mollusk and caught up with him.

“You say strange things.”

Jeremy shrugged and led the way to the Drunken Crab.

Josef, the restaurant’s very young chef, was looking around with two plates in his hands, “Ah, there you are Mr. Y. Thought you’d chickened out. Oysters aren’t for every one. Here, oysters in white wine and celery sauce.”

Kathy, sitting down, looked at the sea and said, “I’ve change my mind. I’ll have your pomfret masala after all.”

Josef didn’t seem much bothered. Probably there’d be more takers of wine-and-celery oysters, “Sure, right away,” he boomed and weaved gracefully through the tables. Kathy couldn’t help following him with her eyes. Jeremy was looking at the sea, his sandy hair protesting against the breeze, his mouth thoughtfully churning the sea-juices.

Picking up the beer pitcher, Kathy poured herself a generous pint, sipped at it, and, licking the froth mustache, pointed out a motorcyclist, “They seem to have a lot of those here. They’re available on rent. The bikes.”

“Hmm,” said Jeremy, doing nothing to hide his disinterest.

Kathy’s enthusiasm had finally caught up with the rainbow. “Did you marry me for any reason other than my father’s money?”

“Hm? Yes, of course,” he made some effort to focus his eyes on hers. “My parents wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Kathy looked away, unable to believe what she’d just heard. And what it implied.

<> <> <>

As a child, Jeremy was quite remarkable. He was inert; he could be the rug underneath his mother’s Chippendale which no one would notice. But even more remarkable was his persistent, insistent need to keep away.

Jeremy Y was painfully suspicious of everything and everybody. He was quite adept at shrugging off people because he’d practiced over the years to build an impenetrable barbed shell around him. Well, almost.

During a holiday at Aunt Josephine’s ocean home, where his parents had sent him with a hope to soothe his frightfully morbid nerves, 10-year old Jeremy was looking at the deep ocean, stretching out to eternity.

The sea did soothe him. He looked endlessly at the endless troughs and swells, allowing the whispering breeze to lull him out of his apathy. He was so engrossed in this therapeutic daze, that he didn’t notice a boy about his age approach him. By the time he noticed him, the visitor had almost sat down next to him. Jeremy’s armor was back up.
“Haven’t seen you around before.”

The usual Jeremy would have kept mulishly quiet, but this day was different “I am visiting my aunt here,” he nodded towards the house below.

“Ms. J’s your aunt? She’s one swell lady.”

Jeremy’s grunt was non-committal.

Marty didn’t seem to notice Jeremy’s disinterest, “You ever fished for oysters?”

“No. I’ve never fished,” said Jeremy and continued to look at the sea. Much to his own surprise, he added, “Seeing an ocean for the first time. It is… very different.”

Strange things happen. It was strange for Jeremy to volunteer more conversation than necessary. He hardly ever got beyond monosyllables and callously truncated sentences. The stress of this new interaction was too much and he got up to leave.

“Hey! Wanna join me help my Dad unload oysters?”

“Where?” Jeremy found himself saying.

“Right down there. Race you,” the boy ran down the gentle slope, Jeremy jogging behind him with no intention of racing, his eyes on the deep blue below. He could feel something changing in him; something filling the empty depths inside.

The friendly new acquaintance won. His dad’s boat was about to moor at the pier. Jeremy saw a pile of brownish green shells on the boat. Oysters were served often at home, but given his general disinterest, he’d never tried them.

The boat was a bright traffic-light green. Her name, Sally Flier, was painted in white along the hull. The boy waved to his father, “Hey, watcha got?”

“Guess you were right about the mood, son. Didn’t get much.” He was now tying Sally Flier to the pier. They chuckled at some secret joke, father and son. “Who’s your friend?”

“He wants to help me help you. He’s visiting Ms. J, aren’t you umm..?”

Jeremy gave his name and found himself saying, “Yes sir, I’d like to help.”

“All right then, heave ‘em out and help me load ‘em on the truck. Marty, show how.”

Marty got on the boat and told Jeremy to lift out the load. Jeremy heard the sound of oysters rubbing against each other, he felt the salt-laden air cover him with a crisp blanket of life. As he stood beside Marty’s father, mostly useless, because his partner’s sure hands and muscular body didn’t require much from him, he felt surer and more secure than he’d ever been.

They got the load on the truck; and while he was removing sand from inside his shoes, Jeremy saw his reflection on the rear-view mirror. He was smiling.

Marty came around and picked a couple of oysters, throwing one at Jeremy.

“Open it.”

Jeremy turned it over. He wasn’t quite sure how to, but was reluctant to ask.

“Here, lemme show you,” he pried one open and held it out for Jeremy to see. The pink flesh looked too raw. He’d never seen anything like it. Pink, and gooey. Inviting, somehow.

“Dad says they have an entire world in them.” Marty had begun eating them in a sort of meditative tempo. Jeremy was still, meditatively, on the first one. The raw meat was leathery and soft – a marshmallow with more masculinity than you could ask for.

The rest of the day was a fog in Jeremy’s head. That one oyster opened up a whole new world for him. The sea was bluer than it was in the morning, Aunt Josephine less meddlesome. His parents seemed like specters from a world that didn’t matter.

Jeremy was one with the sea and the oyster’s world was no longer a clammed-up non-entity. It nourished him.

<> <> <>

Evening had set in. The waves had found a deeper urge to embrace the skies. They poured in, one after the other, as Kathy, a solitary figure, walked the beach. That was something she had planned for her honeymoon. But she had not thought that the do-nothing days would be alone.

Marriage wasn’t something she was trained to expect anything from. She knew it had to be with someone her parents would eventually find. She was never the kind to argue or question, she just accommodated. When she saw Jeremy for the first time, she was impressed with his haughty, disinterested air. It interested her to think how his expression would change when he knew her more. But it didn’t change. She had misunderstood his general apathy for aristocratic pomp.

And after this, naught.

And every floating thought turns into a doodle...



The Invincible

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, place or incident is purely coincidental.

Or

See it just as a story, won’t you?

My father’s bangle shop was in the heart of the Alwar market. Our house was just above the shop, immersed in the sounds, colours, smells and intelligence of a busy bazaar. Growing up there taught me the kind of ever-ready reflex you need in order to know just when to duck, and when to strike. I wouldn’t live in such a place now, no; I’ve taken what I could from there. But back then, it was the only world I wanted.

It is not strange for a person to reminisce about the old days, the childhood dreamlands. You might not be surprised, therefore, when I tell you I took out my old diary on this raving, snowy evening here in Halifax. The Rajasthani dust on its yellowed pages, the memories of an Indian sun, and more, warm my soul like no rum would. I was a keen cataloguer of my exploits back then — filled with a certainty that I would be the Don Corleone of the better part of the world someday, I wanted to chronicle the making of the legend.

Here’s a chapter for you, uncut. Raw. Of the time when we were 12 years old. I, an investment banker, did not become a don, but just look at the potential I had!

Read more

The Time Has Come

The fingers are drumming out Alanis Morrissette’s Ironic on the steering wheel. No, she isn’t singing or humming with the singer. The morning’s smile is gone. Her mouth is pursed in concentration. She will tell me soon what she is thinking of. I like her without the concentrating mouth. I like her little-girl features. I just mean her eyes here, mind you. They’re giving her away. If you take your attention from her concentrating mouth to her eyes, you’ll know that the mouth is only pretending. Her clear eyes are honest, and they betray excitement.

The world’s been running away from us. Trees, side-walks, houses and offices, cows on the side-walks, beggars and policemen. Farms. We could’ve been running away from them, but we aren’t. We are just in her new car. We entered Agra a half hour back, and could now almost touch the Taj Mahal if we stretched our arms out. If we wanted to. If I could stretch my arms out and walk, I’d want to walk to an ice cream parlour on my own, and point my finger at the huge vat of Cookies’n’Chocolates, and ask for two scoops. Or three. And then pick up the spoon with my fingers, and eat one delicious spoonful at a time. Myself. But I can’t. And I never will.

Don’t jump to conclusions. I can think. And talk a lot. And that is important. Speaking of which, she is important right now. Let’s look at her. Alisha. My kid sister. My fun world.

All is not fun in her own world. That is what she told me this morning. She came to get me at six. Amma let me wear my bow tie. Appa wheeled me out, and squeezed my shoulders just the way he squeezes the lemons for our morning lemon tea. I like it like that. Our parents are my care world. But I am still talking about myself. I do that sometimes. Alisha says I do that all the time. I just show her my tongue and ask about her day at the office. If we’re talking on the phone, I tell her I am showing my tongue. She should know.

Her office walls are red. I went there once. That is the only good thing about there. I don’t like advertising. It is like this road. It will take us to the coffee shop, but it will ask for too much of too many things. Being lifted from the wheelchair, getting adjusted on the car seat, the strangeness of the AC, the staleness outside. You know what I mean. Advertising is just like that. Alisha agrees with me. But she is the senior copywriter there. She told me.

She’s replaying Ironic.

We’ll reach Barista soon. We come here every last Sunday of the month. Just Alisha and me. Delhi to Agra. Just for coffee. People used to laugh at us, but Alisha said she didn’t care. I never care about pleasing people. Unless they are nice.

She’s not spoken a lot since we left home. That was three hours back. It must be because of the thing she is concentrating on.

“Vic?”

I say, “Yeah?”

“Did I tell you I like that pink-roofed house over there?”

“Who likes pink roofs?”

“I do!” She couldn’t look defensive even when she tried. If I could put my arms around her, I’d hug her until she told me to stop, she was driving.

“Is it your paintings? Is that why your world is not fun these days?”

“My exhibition.” The drumming stopped.

“Do the people at the gallery not like them?”

“They do. But that’s not the point.”

I don’t understand. If the gallery people like the paintings, then there can be an exhibition. What is the point? “What is the point?”

“I don’t like them anymore.”

“But you painted them!”

“So what?” She pouted.

I think. I think I understand her less and less these days. I think I must try harder.

I say, “But the exhibition begins next Friday!” But I am thinking — can she repaint all of them before then?

Alisha decides to bite off her thumb’s nail. Just at this moment. She knows I hate, hate, hate it.

“Don’t do that!”

“What?”

“Don’t chew off the nails.”

She looks away. The moment is gone. She could have told me. But the moment is gone.

There’s Barista. We first came here 12 years back. And fell in love with it. That is when Alisha and I decided that this would be our Barista. There must be at least 200 Baristas in Delhi. But there’s none like this.

All is not fun today, though.

Alisha’s been running circuits and doing weights for years. Just because she doesn’t want to huff and puff when she lifts me off the car seat to put me on the wheelchair. And the other way around. She says it’ll spoil her nonchalance. I don’t like the word.

When she wheels me in, she says, “Our seat’s taken. Choose another. Quick. Look at those crows over there, they’ll take a seat before we get in.”

I can see through the glass. Why does she have to give a speech?

“Let’s sit next to the girl with the cream moustache.” We hate the poster. First, it is too huge. Second, she could’ve wiped off the moustache before getting her picture taken. But that’s advertising for you.

“Why don’t you like the paintings?”

“Vic. I couldn’t explain even if I wanted to.”

“You don’t want to?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“You talk too much.”

I sometimes feel like getting up and banging my fists on the wall. I’d prefer if it is a red wall.

“The gallery walls are cream.”

“Jess.” We took to pronouncing yes this way a month back because we liked it this way. So there.

“Your paintings are all purple-y.”

“Jess.”

“So what’s the problem? Cream goes with purple.”

“They, somehow, don’t go with me.” My sister takes pauses between words only when she’s really, really, really confused. This does not look well.

“How?”

“I thought I was painting my soul out, Vic. Is my soul purple-y? The eyes of the girls look wistful. I am not wistful. The, the, background’s all yucky.”

“Yucky? Why did you continue painting, then?”

“I didn’t think it was yucky then.”

“What’s changed?”

“I don’t know.”

“I am tired.”

This happens to me. But I don’t chew my fingernails. Raja, our favourite waiter, has got us our favourites. Mine is Devil’s Own. Alisha’s is Brrrrista.

I like it when she opens her mouth while putting spoons of cream in my mouth. It’s like she’s letting me have what she wants. I love her for that.

“The strokes. Do you like the strokes this time?”

“Jess. I think I did good.”

“Al, you can’t paint all of your soul. It is too, well,  a lot.”

“So I just paint a tiny part of it? Everytime?”

“Jess. Every single time.”

I can lift up my hand and pat on hers. So I do that. I have a feeling the fun’s coming.

To the Edge We Go

If allowed to, disappointments break much more than hearts. They are like those invisible elements that invade our existence these days — the ones that float with the air we breathe, seep into the earth that mothers the food we eat, and mingle with the water that quenches our thirst. The days begin like any other, the nights break like any other. The house stands just the way it did yesterday, its foundation swaying with the hollowness. But everything threatens to buckle under the stress of ether fumigated with deliberate cause and deliberate effect.

Take for instance the choices of Niyati and Achal, the heroes of our story. A married couple that could quail their surroundings with their mutual wrath. Or blossom flowers with just a glance of their combined goodness. Such was the strength of these two people, joined together in holy matrimony. Or so the pandit at the marriage ceremony declared thirty-three years back. Niyati was twenty-one, and Achal was thirty when they vowed to take care of each other in front of the ever-consuming fire of the havan kund. Niyati, a sweet-smiled waif; Achal a dark charmer. Their strengths, however, failed to transport them beyond their weakness — ego.

Chapter 1 — The Two Aspirants

Niyati grew up with six siblings. Her parents, Ma and Babuji for the children, were indulgent without allowing the girls and boys too much. The mansion made up for the restraint the parents imposed. Niyati and her brothers and sisters managed to sneak out to the mango grove to play endless games focused around the trees. Hot afternoons or humid ones, they knew no stopping. These games were an escape for the children, after all. It might sound like fantastic fun, but there was something slightly amiss. None of Niyati’s siblings was of her age-group, and none of them shared her outlook. The oldest sisters and brother were too brash in their play. The youngest sister and brothers were too frivolous. There was an intimate association between the two age-groups, and she longed to be part of that despite her differences with both of them. She did try, but couldn’t succeed much — sometimes because of their in-acceptance of her different ways, sometimes because of her impatience with theirs.  She danced a different dance than all of the others.

When Niyati was old enough to know that her life’s train would soon change tracks with an arranged marriage, she began to dream of a man who loved her, supported her, possibly even climbed mango trees with her. She dreamed of finally finding a friend, an intimate confidant who’d accompany her to stupendous spans of love, respect, fun and most importantly, propriety. A man, who gave his everything to her, like she would give all of her to him. It was essential, really, for both to be virginally committed to each other — otherwise, it would be half a pleasure.

Achal was a loner of a different breed. He spent time with people, charmed them, but he was mostly alone in his world and never let anyone in. He had four siblings, all of them much older than him, all of them busy with their own individuality. Their parents, Ma and Pitaji for the children, were loving, but distant. If individualism were made the prerequisite for survival, the members of this family would be among the few prosperous ones. Achal went on jeep drives, tiger hunts, picnics around waterfalls, jaunts with beautiful girls — he allowed the world to embrace him. But never allowed it to feel his heart.

He did fall in love with a girl, though. They dreamt of marrying and doing things all those in love dream of doing. He fought a lot with his mother when she put her foot down against this marriage — she didn’t like the girl. Yes, he did fight for his love, but his mother won. The fact that his girlfriend’s mother didn’t support their marriage either did not help much. Achal had no choice but to look forward to a different life with a different woman. It did not weigh on his well being for long. A love, in a way unrequited, was something he was willing to leave behind. He wanted to look ahead. His mother sought another girl for him after his girlfriend got married. Yes, it was going to be arranged, his marriage. His mother was keen to find a soft, gentle girl for her emotional boy.

She found Niyati.

Chapter 2 — The Ever After

“I know exactly what you are!”

“The hell you do! I haven’t forgotten her after all these years because of just one reason — you. You do not let her go, damn it!”

They had been whispering shouts for the last half an hour, having started off their occasional after-a-party argument right after the last guest had left. Their two children, now 10 and 7, were trying to remember to forget this pounding rage coming from the other room before they drifted to sleep.

In the morning, things would be just the way they were in the mornings. Niyati and Achal would transform into doting parents, forgetting — or pretending to forget — that they were disappointed spouses.

This tiny world they had created with love — yes, they did find love in each other, and for their children — gasped for fresh air, and ached for some respite from shrunken hearts. From the outside, it seemed an ideal world. The children’s friends envied the obvious love they received and Niyati and Achal’s friends saw them as a decent couple working through the minor disagreements all married people with dignity have the right to have.

It was different behind the closed doors, now, wasn’t it?

Sometimes Achal wondered whether he really should have been honest with Niyati and told her about the girlfriend who was not to be; and right after their marriage, too. Sometimes he admitted that Niyati first needed to have been given a chance to believe him when he said that his future with her was important to him now.

Niyati did not like the necessity of having to use the now. Its implication — that there had been a then — irked her.

As a consequence, everything they had done in the last eleven years of their marriage shouted out at Niyati’s latent fear of not being good enough, forcing it to come out. And it culled her much-aspired-for hope to find a man who thought she was, in fact, much more than good enough. She couldn’t help overlooking the love in his eyes when their fingers brushed against each other accidentally in a party, or when someone praised the flower arrangement at the coffee table in the centre of the drawing room she so meticulously beautified. Or when he implored her to follow her dream of learning English, just because. She slapped off his unsure hand that was extended with love, hope and a desire to build something good.

Why did she do so when all she wanted was just that? She wanted his companionship and support. She wanted his confidence. Achal misunderstood her changing needs, though. He did not comprehend that she sometimes needed to be led, sometimes needed to be walked with. So he invariably swapped the two — tried to lead her when she wanted a companion, and tried to become an onlooker when she wanted to be led. Achal began to lose interest in his frustrated attempts. Niyati began to believe her dream was now never to be realised; Achal thought she would never get beyond her complaints.

However, Niyati and Achal occasionally surprised themselves, each other and everyone else who’d seen enough of their impatient sparring. They demonstrated supreme compatibility and enviable comfort with each other sometimes. It was so overwhelming, that their children stopped time in their minds to savour this rare treat. As years approached and they accepted their lives with each other, the two also began to look at their own faults from time to time. Niyati told herself that she had indeed been foolish to begrudge Achal his girlfriend, because she was, after all, no one significant in their lives. Achal had withstood all of her moody complaints, and kept his intention of seeing his future with her as the only life he wanted to consider. He did deserve trust in return. Meanwhile, Achal had learnt to appreciate her unique ability of being a great housewife, a caring mother, and a witty companion.

But these acknowledgements were rare. The magnitude of their disapproval was far greater than that of their appreciation. Years got added to the eleven they had already collected. Life went on, disappointments piled up, until appreciation and respect got buried beyond memory.

Chapter 3 — After the Ever After

It was dawn, and the sunlight had found its way in. A white water lily nodded to the gentle winter breeze. Achal and Niyati had spent the night sitting on the couch, looking at the softly lit courtyard outside. They had not slept at all, and talked a little. Just a little about their boy. It had been a year since he had gone away, promising never to come back. He would be thirty-two today. How indefatigable is life! Their first born was gone, but they still lived — life wouldn’t let go of them.

“I’ll make us some chai,” Niyati said as she began to get up.

“No, wait. Sit a while more first.” She sat down again. Her dainty, wrinkled fingers fiddled with a part of her saree’s long edge.

Achal was looking at the distant redness of the rising sun, his forefinger writing invisible words in the air. “Do you remember the first time he cried?”

“Of course I do. He was in your arms, just born.”

“No, not that. First time as a young man.”

“It was the only time.”

“Yes. His sister was about to get married, everything was perfect — until we found it necessary to argue right there at the mandap.”

“We could never do them enough justice, could we?” Niyati shifted a little for no apparent reason, and gazed at nothing in particular.

“I hope we did.”

The birds were coming home to feed their young. Parrots chattered their throats out, as if today was the only day to talk. The day was breaking. Niyati heard the distant ring-ring of the milkman’s bicycle and got up to go and fetch the patila.

“Don’t make chai just yet. Come back,” Achal repeated his wish, and got up to check on the newspaper. It hadn’t arrived. He kept standing at the doorstep, looking out at the plants he’d nurtured lovingly. The garden was full of asters, his son’s favourite. He had never understood why he chose asters over so many others. Perhaps because of his interest in astronomy? He sighed at another unanswered question.

Niyati made to get out of the door to get the milk. The milkman was almost at the gate.

Ramjanam, aaj do kilo chahiye.”

Ji, memsahib. Kuch khaas?”

Haan, bhaiya ka janmadin hai. Aaj kheer banaoongi.”

Ramjanam poured out the milk from the measuring cup he dipped into one of his three huge canisters. He gave her a little more than the two kilos she had asked for.

Achal didn’t say it, but he understood Niyati’s heavy heart. If a mother had to take extra milk to prepare her son’s favourite dessert even if he would never come, it was almost like watering a plant that had long succumbed to the withering rays of the sun. He wanted to reach out and hug her till both their hearts wept out years. The last one in particular.

Her eyes fell on the carved wooden nameplate her son had made for them — Niyati & Achal’s Home, it said. She looked down at the patila instantly, and concentrated on bringing it inside without spilling any milk.

She put the milk on the stove to boil, and came and sat down on the couch.

“Do you want some puris? With the kheer?”

“It’s been years since I’ve had kheer with puri. Yes. Make some today,” said Achal, putting the newspaper away. He wasn’t reading it anyway. “Should I make tea today? It’s been a long time since I made tea for you.”

“It’s been a long time, indeed.”

Achal took her hands in his, and said, “We’ll live beyond all of this. Do you see that?”

“I don’t know how, Achal,” tears streamed down her eyes, as she looked into the old eyes that once mirrored their owner’s hesitant love. They still showed love, this time determined.

“I don’t know how either.”

Niyati felt her usual rage rising from deep inside her again. But she just pulled her hands out of his gently, and looked away. How could he give her hope and then take it back again? She wanted to punish him with her usual vitriol, but didn’t; she was too tired to fight.

“I see nothing beyond. What are we left with?”

Achal straightened his back against the couch back and stretched his arm on its edge, “We have us, broken as we are, and we have our daughter. What about her? Have you thought of what this means to her?”

“She has her family. And I have no energy to think of what she is going through.”

“Are you really that hard-hearted?” Achal began to see his usual disbelief at her attitude resurfacing.

“Have I ever had a choice?” Niyati’s frown was reappearing. She had been trying lately to at least keep her irritation with life in general out of her face.

Achal tried to take one of her hands again; she resisted. He tugged gently at it as tears began to drop down on her saree.

He put his arms around her and rocked her back and forth gently, in turn rocking himself. And he cried with her.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Unfamiliar words and pronunciations

PanditPuhn-Dit – Hindu priest

Havan kundHuh-Vuhn Ku-n-d – the square pit used to light fire in auspicious ceremonies.

MandapMuhn-Duhp – the usually square area in which the marriage ceremony takes place.

PatilaPuh-Teela – A deep vessel usually used to store milk

Ramjanam, aaj do kilo chahiye. – “Ramjanam, (I) want two kilos today.”

Ji, memsahib. Kuch khaas? – Yes, memsahib. Is there anything special today?

Haan, bhaiya ka janmadin hai. Aaj kheer banaoongi. – Yes, it is bhaiya’s (older brother) birthday. I’ll make some kheer today.

PuriPooree – Flat, deep fried bread made of whole wheat flour.

KheerKheer – A rice pudding made by cooking rice in milk until most water in the milk evaporates and gives a divinely creamy, thick consistency to the pudding.

NiyatiNih-yuh-Tee – Fate

Achal – Uh-chUhl – The Unmovable One, Steady

All I see is rain

I have finally succeeded in writing a complete story. And also found the courage to make it public. Be gentle, reader. In your reading, your criticism, your dismissal.

————————————————


“Oh, damn!” Jack almost dropped the five-rupee note on the chai wallah’s wooden cart as he heard the train toot its departure. His love for the Indian tea had often put him in a tight spot, but nothing as life-threatening as this. The door to his coach was steadily inching away from him. “Run, run, saahib!” The chai wallah looked less than impressed with Jack’s hesitation. Run to catch the train? Or miss it.

His beloved tea spilled outside of the earthy terracotta cup in mud-coloured splashes; he ran.

A man in clean white kurta and pyjama was standing at the door of his coach. The smoke from his cigarette confusedly swirled towards his glasses, and drifted away without any warning. He held out his hand for Jack to grab, “Come on! It’s not that difficult. Just hold my hand and put a foot on this step here.” Jack, panting and holding on dearly to the chai kulhad, grabbed hold of the smoker’s hand, and climbed up. On a normal day, he’d keep his nose valves on slow around a smoker. But it wasn’t a normal day, was it? As soon as he heaved himself up, his eyes met the smoke-yellowed ones of his saviour. And though Jack was preoccupied with plenty, he found that his vision had moved down to the brownish teeth smiling their delighted smile at him. These much-abused set of sufferers were in all likelihood unaware that they emitted a clawing whiff of air riddled with smoke. “Hi, I am Joyodeep. JD.”

“Jack. Thanks for saving my life there,” managed Jack, breathless at 57 years.

“Not a problem. Going all the way to Jabalpur?”

“Yes… Yes,” Jack breathed back.

The train was almost out of the Habibganj station. It looked like it could rain.

Wanting to check on his luggage and drink his tea, Jack decided to go inside the air-conditioned compartment.

Shivani had finally settled on her seat next to the window. She always made sure she got a window seat. If she did not, she shamelessly reasoned with the person at the window to give it up for her. There was no need to do it today, and it was just as well, because she didn’t have the strength.

She hoped that the seats next to her would stay empty. But more than that, she was hoping the tomato soup vendor would come sooner than he usually did. The hot liquid might wash down the lump threatening to betray her otherwise indifferent appearance. She liked the too-sweet tomato soup and the oily croutons they served on this train. They reminded her of the ever-embracing life with too much of everything.

At least one of her wishes was not going to be answered today. A visibly tired-looking man in purple khadi kurta and faded blue jeans came and sat on the aisle seat. “He looks like a European. An American would never have that air.” Shivani looked away. The slums had begun to thin out. It was greener and wetter outside.

Jack had a habit of clearing his throat before he said anything after a long gap. “I accidentally kept my newspaper there in your magazine slot. May I..?” He pointed at the newspaper, not sure whether she’d know English.

“Sure,” said Shivani, but still took out the paper before he could reach it.

She looked at the kulhad in his hand and wondered if he would manage doing both at once —read and drink. He didn’t. He neatly re-folded the paper and inserted it into his slot. And began sipping the tea.

The soup wallah would take time to come. Shivani decided to look out of her window. Mud huts drenched in last night’s monsoon shower stood steadfast against the elements. Or were they scurrying away? Each moved out of her vision before she could decide. She was aware that Jack was looking out of the window, too. Her window.

On a normal day, she’d have initiated a conversation.

On any other day, Jack would have drowned himself in the newspaper.

“Are these neem trees?” He wanted to know.

“Hm? Yes. Oh yes,” smiled Shivani faintly.

“These are sacred here, aren’t they? Like the peepal tree?”

“All trees are sacred,” she turned to look at him, wishing he’d melt away.

It had been an hour since they’d left Habibganj, and no one had come to sell any beverage. Shivani decided to go looking for them. When she got up, Jack got up, too. He apparently didn’t want to be discomfited when she edged through the tiny space between the two rows.

She couldn’t find anyone from the train’s pantry car. By the time she got to her seat, and made him get up again, the lump in her throat had won. She was crying when Jack accidentally lifted his eyes.

The behemoth chugged on its rails through the teak and sal forest, defiant against the menacing arrows of the monsoon rain. The windows of the train were blurred with insistent rivers of raindrops. Time slipped by quickly, much like the landscape around them.

“Hey! Did you see that? I am sure it was a sambar!” Jack was determined to do something. He didn’t know what, but he couldn’t just sit there and let the woman cry. So he tried to distract her by pointing out an imaginary deer in the sal forest.

“No.” Shivani’s voice was noticeably dead.

“It wasn’t a sambar?” Jack persisted.

“I didn’t see. All I see is rain.” Shivani did not believe in pessimism, but today was different.

The soup wallah entered the compartment with his gleaming stainless steel dispenser.

“And all I can see is endless life.” Jack was not an optimist, but he was willing to change today.

Shivani turned to look at him. She had a strange depth in her eyes, Jack noticed.

“Bhaiya!” She waved at the vendor. “Ek idhar.”

“What’s that?” Jack wanted to know.

“Tomato soup.”

“They make it too sweet.”

“Yes. And the croutons oily.”

“I’ll have one, too,” Jack nodded a yes to the vendor.

He winced at his first sip.

Shivani laughed.

“It’s not for everybody. Especially when they’ve had chai just before it.”

“I like the crouton, though,” munching at the fried bread square in obvious delight.

“Really? I thought you’d stay away from all of that.”

“Why? I love pakoras. And samosas.”

“How long have you been in India?” Shivani looked pleased, and yet surprised.

“My aircraft landed at the New Delhi airport last week. I have been in India almost all of my life, though. Figuratively.”

“How so?”

“My parents were missionaries here in Jubbalpore.”

“Jabalpur.”

“Jabalpur. I was born here, but was taken to Brooklyn, New York, when they died. I grew up listening to their stories.”

“Who told them?”

“My grandmother. Mother’s mother.”

The forest was getting denser. The lights in the train seemed more meaningful now. The rain had let up. If a sambar showed up now, Shivani would be able to see it.

“So, are you going to Jabalpur to see your parents’ place?”

“Yes,” Jack looked out of the window with a strange depth in his eyes.

“Why now? Why after so many years?”

Jack turned slowly to look her in the eyes, and asked instead, “Where are you going?”

“To my parents’ cremation.”

“Oh. I am sorry.” He waited for a while, and said, “Alone?”

“My husband couldn’t come. It was so sudden. Their car hit a rock while trying to avoid a rogue truck.”

The rain must have been chasing them ardently. The forest had given way to a modern-ancient human settlement. But the rain covered it indiscriminately. Just like it had done the forest. The buildings were standing next to wilting trees; the people were travelling to chase time. They could almost hear the blaring horns; smell the stench of struggling humanity.

They had finished the soup, but she wanted more. And Jack was surprised to notice that he did, too. This time, the vendor obliged quickly.

“It is a little over an hour to Jabalpur now,” Jack didn’t struggle much with the newly learnt pronunciation.

“Yes.”

“Is someone coming to pick you up?” Both said together, and then smiled.

Shivani said, “Yes. My uncle. What about you?”

“The son of my father’s friend. I’ve been in touch with them all of these years.”

“Why now?” Shivani persisted.

“How old are you, may I ask?” Jack evaded the question again. Or seemed to.

“Thirty-seven. Does it influence your answer?”

He looked away for an instant, and seemed to have made up his mind, probably thinking she had seen enough years to understand.

“I was trying to experience life before I came to see where it began. This way, I wouldn’t have to change my process of experiencing it. Do you understand?”

“I think so. Does it mean that you have now stopped experiencing it?”

“No. It means I am now ready to live it.”

This was the train’s last stop before Jabalpur. People came here to visit the numerous temples it housed. Shridham. The Home of the Supreme Being.

“Were you close to your parents?” Jack wasn’t sure it was the right question, but he asked it, nevertheless. Shivani seemed to be open to questions, he thought.

She took a while in answering. It surprised her that her eyes didn’t well up for yet another time since yesterday.

“Yes. Very.”

“Does it bother you that your husband couldn’t come?”

“Yes. A lot.”

“Are you married?” she asked in return.

“Yes. Cathy couldn’t come either.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Yes. A lot.”

“I am surprised at these temples (we call them mandir). Why do they keep them so dirty, when they are so sacred?”

“Like why they cut trees, if they are so sacred?”

“Yes, a lot like that.” She closed her eyes and rested her head on the back rest. Jack assumed she did not want to talk anymore. Disappointed, but willing to let her have her way, he tried to read the newspaper.

Before long, though, Shivani opened her eyes.

“I don’t know your name. I am Shivani,” she held out her hand.

Jack took it and said, “I am Jack.”

“Jack, if you need anything, any help in Jabalpur, call this number. It’s my uncle’s.”

She took out a small note paper from her bag, wrote a number and a name, and was giving it to Jack, when he said, “May I come over for the cremation? Will that be all right?”

“Yes,” she said, ” Yes, I should think so. Here, I’ve written the address. They’ll leave at 12 noon today for the ghat.”

“They?”

“Women don’t go for cremations. I might stay home, though I wish to go. We’ll see.”

The Jabalpur station was approaching. Jack felt he wanted to say more. Like most times, though, he did not know what he wanted to say.

“I am glad I found you on this journey. Five hours is a long time to read a newspaper.”

“Thank you for talking with me. I needed to talk; just say anything,” Shivani said.

It was raining in Jabalpur. The train’s windows were blurred with insistent rivers of raindrops.

“Look! Did you see that monkey crossing the road?” Shivani pointed at a blur.

“No. All I see is rain.”

“Oh? All that there is, is life.”

—————————————-

New words in their order of appearance:

Chai wallah — Vendor of chai, the sweet, oh-so sweet and milky Indian tea

Saahib — It has a complex origin, but in the current Hindustani, it means ‘big man’, or ‘sir’.

Kurta and pyjama — Kurta is a loose-fitting long shirt with slits on the side, pyjama is a loose pair of trousers with drawstrings. Seen often in the Indian subcontinent, worn by both the sexes.

Chai kulhad — Kulhad is a terracotta cup, usually used to serve tea or sweet curds/yoghurt and some other sweetmeats.

Joyodeep — Masculine name meaning Light of Victory.

Jabalpur — A city in central India, among the Satpura hills.

Habibganj — A suburb of the capital of state of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal.

Shivani — Feminine name meaning Female Part of Lord Shiva.

Khadi — Fabric, and clothes, made of natural yarn in handlooms. Usually associated with cotton khadi.

Neem — A tree found in the Indian subcontinent. Use in medicines, and ayurveda.

Peepal — A tree found in the Indian subcontinent. A ficus. Considered sacred.

Sal – A tree found in north, central and south India.

Sambar — A kind of antelope found in the Indian subcontinent. It moves in herds that are different from the other deer herds; in that, usually, the mother sambar, her youngest calf, and a subordinate female make the herd, instead of the normal large numbers other deer species have.

Bhaiya — Older brother. But women normally call a male stranger this way, too.

Ek idhar — Literally, “one here.”

Pakoras — Fritters. Most common ones are made of black bengal gram flour, onions, potatoes, and vegetables such as cauliflower.

Samosas Savoury snacks. Fried in oil; flour triangles, usually stuffed with a potato stuffing. These days, they are available with all sorts of stuffing, vegetarian and otherwise.

Jubbalpore — The spelling and pronunciation used by the British when they were in the Indian subcontinent as the rulers.

Ghat  Cremation ground, also called shmashan ghat

*****