Tag Archives: fiction

Picture Perfect

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Look at this picture.

What do you see?

You don’t need to be an expert to say-

This is a family.

 

This family is out on a picnic.

Daddy, Mommy and Lil’un.

 

This is Daddy.

Daddy looks impatient.

All he wants is to get back home

Slump on the couch and watch boxing on TV

The punches flying about like butterflies,

it’s Ali after all.

 

Daddy lets out a belch.

In the dark, the light from the telly flickers.

Daddy cheers.

Goes to the fridge for another beer.

 

This is Mommy.

Mommy likes to clean.

Right now Mommy is worried.

She sees ants crawling into the picnic hamper.

 

Mommy is clean. Mommy scrubs.

Mommy dusts. And scrubs some more.

Mommy does not like to be touched.

Even by lil’un.

 

This is lil’un.

Lil’un ain’t got no clue what to do.

 

Lil’un wets her bed.

Waits for the brush.

 

Lil’un breaks a plate.

Cayenne pepper it is.

 

Lil’un washes her eyes at the sink,

 

Lil’un blinks.

Lil’un can see again.

 

Sometimes it’s a heated spoon

Lil’un waits for the sear.

Mommy puts Burnol

to make it all go away.

 

Mommy cries.

Lil’un looks at her with her big eyes.

 

Mommy cries some more.

Daddy looks angry.

Daddy breaks a bottle.

Mommy screams.

 

Lil’un hides under the covers.

 

Mommy comes in to put out the light.

Lil’un tries to give Mommy a hug.

Mommy pushes her away.

 

Mommy says- You should not show love.

You should only feel it in your heart.

 

Lil’un remembers how good it feels to hold a puppy.

Lil’un wants a lil pup.

Mommy won’t even hear of it.

 

Lil’un closes her eyes

wakes up in the middle of the night

sobbing.

 

Look at this picture.

Don’t you see?

You don’t need to be an expert to declare-

This is a family.

 

 
Expert

Lethal Life

 

They say I cheated.

That I was supposed to die.

That I’m not supposed to be here.

Maybe.

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I was a product of violence.

My conception, a burst of agony.

 

I was that tiny spore

that wanted to bolt,

find itself a new place,

away from the muck.

I propelled myself

defining a perfect trajectory,

Pushed deep

from within

to get away,

as far as possible.

 

My arc led me to travelers

long journeys to sandy deserts.

At first dismayed,

I soon learnt the ways…

I waited patiently.

 

Unceasingly, I held on to dear life

that threatened to escape.

I held on,

defenseless and vulnerable

to the rays of the sun.

 

Would I even thrive?

Would I be allowed to?

Would there ever be a flourish of little heads around me in a little magic circle?

The enchanted circle?  Would it happen?

The rings of family, the circle of love, the burgeoning of lyrics, the poetry of life?

Or would I encounter only arid lands, unresponsive and cold under the blazing sun?

Pure rhetoric. I’m sure you know the answer.

Not in a million years.

 

So I nestled in the thorns of parched land

I lay dormant for years,

dying a little every day

in the scorching heat

and the freezing anonymity of it all.

 

I built layers around myself,

protecting the remnants of life within

sheltering brazen hope

never gave up.

 

My optimism was repulsive, even to myself…

did I not know enough?

Hadn’t time in the grooves,

among the others,

taught me the merits of giving up?

 

Close my eyes now?

Have the darkness close in?

Never wake up?

 

My dream began to die.

A little.

The life in me fell asleep,

despite my craving to come alive.

 

The tales I had heard in the past,

the promise of warmth and moisture,

the muggy atmosphere which I needed to thrive,

all an unbelievable dream.

 

Let it be this way.

Oh, the bliss of letting go.

Floating away.

I was a spore, after all.

I knew best how.

 

I found myself in lush greenery again.

The afterlife?

No.

This life.

 

Don’t ask me how it happened.

I don’t have any answers.

Maybe it was destiny.

Maybe it wasn’t my time yet.

Maybe…

 

All I remember it was painful.

And I don’t want to revisit.

I won’t.

 

So I found myself on this damp log,

I put down roots

shot branches out

reluctantly at first

then lustily.

 

The others watched.

Dismayed.

My intrusion unwelcome.

Obviously.

 

For they were the privileged shoots,

the original inhabitants of the log,

the ones born with a ready musty log

to receive them.

 

I was the intruder.

 

The buzz kept me awake.

 

For some time only.

 

I learnt to shut my eyes and ears to them,

did what I was good at…

survive.

 

I survived.

I watched.

I waited.

 

For I noticed the others

being cut from their stalks regularly.

 

Not the ones too close to me.

I remained untouched.

Would it be my time?

Soon?

 

I heard whispers

‘No, not that one.’

‘Do you want to die?’

‘Poison!’

‘Poison!’

‘Poison!’’Poison!’’Poison!’’Poison!’’Poison!’

‘Poison!’

I found great beauty in that word.

 

So I still stand.

Even a dog comes sniffing,

takes one breath and turns,

loping away in haste,

breathing in fresh air

with greater alacrity.

‘Poison!’

 

Meanwhile I keep my eyes and ears open.

I am totally aware of my surroundings.

Blissful that I am toxic.

Exultant even.

‘Poison!’

 

So, that’s why they say I cheated.

That I was supposed to die.

That I’m not supposed to be here.

And just maybe, I cheated death.

Maybe.

 

‘Poison!’

 

Hey, I’m still here.

Deal with it.

Cheat

Down and out

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You spoke to me? Me? Ok, give me a moment.

Yes?

Home? Huh? What’s that?

Where do I sleep?

When it isn’t raining, the trees there form a perfect canopy…

When it rains, you ask?

The priest at the temple allows me to shelter under the old stone ceiling of the mantap, the porch.

A mattress? Ha! Ha! I don’t need one. I know how to bring up the warmth of my body by controlling my mind.

No, I have not chewed on any special root, leaf or fruit.

Yes, I am high.

On life.

I don’t need to explain how.

You wouldn’t understand.

Food?

The forest behind, she gives me all I want.

No, I’m not hungry.

I do not want your bread.

I certainly do not want to share your food.

You need it more than I.

It is all the same to me. I cannot discern any taste. It is only food, something to keep me going.

And I certainly do not need any.

Why do you insist?

What is this need you have to feed me?

Does it make you feel good about yourself?

No?

Then I don’t  know why  people like you throw unwanted scraps at me.

No!

What are you doing?

Please don’t leave food by the side of the tree.

Never mind, I shall give it away to the dogs by the temple.

It is all the same.

The dog and I, what is the difference?

Why do you look angry?

I did not ask you to stop by.

Please leave.

I do not want your attention.

Leave me alone.

Get back into your metal cage and go away.

What?

What makes you think you can help me?

What makes you think I even need help?

I see.

I look like a destitute person.

You, with all your need to reach out, help, and console people seem more destitute than I.

I am content with my lot.

I am poor. I know that.

I choose to be poor.

My poverty is my wealth.

I do not sit at the fringes of your life, begging for money, food or even attention.

Ever seen yourself?

Seeking approval.

Feasting on scraps of good opinion.

I may look like a beggar, but I am not one.

Family?

I must have had one in another life.

I don’t remember.

I choose not to remember.

Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, who are they?

It isn’t relevant.

No, I never married. I did not need to.

Marriage is for people like you.

I am wedded to my death.

The moment I was born I was betrothed to her.

She is alluring and constant in her devotion to me. She walks steadily with me, her step never faltering, her sight never wavering.

Faithful.

She is my beloved.

Every moment I have, left in my life, is hers to claim.

I have given up everything in her pursuit.

I wait for her embrace, her everlasting embrace when I can close my eyes and never wake up.

Never wake up.

My breath, my final gift to her.

What’s that you say?

Have a little faith in God?

What do you know of the faith of people like me?

All we have is faith.

We have little else.

What are you saying?

Visit a shrine?

You  go in search of God here, there, and everywhere.

You fail to see Him in yourself.

I don’t need to go to a shrine to find Him.

I am connected completely with Him within.

He looks out for me, watches over me.

Is me.

And my beloved waits for me, at the end of this path.

Really?

Am I putting my life in danger?

What is danger?

And what is this life?

What?

You ask me why I have been answering your questions if I did not want anything?

You see, you had the look of an impoverished beggar on your face, so eager to please, so eager to help.

Please! Please! Please!

That’s right, please go away.

Next time, be more careful.

Don’t court danger, ever again.

The next stray dog you stop to pat, to feed your scraps to, by the side of the road, might not just growl.

Unlike me.

Jeopardize

…on a loop…

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“The ocean sleeps. The ocean wakes. And the waking of the ocean is the waking of the soul. At midnight wakefulness springs from within the ocean.” – Wasif Ali Wasif, Dil Darya Samandar.

Darya sat there, as calm, deep and still as an ocean on a beautiful day. The restful waves she created droned on, ebbed and flowed, enchanting and lulling the audience into a peaceful state.

She sat demurely, on the stage, behind the maestro, Ravindra Kumarji, the celebrated singer who was in the throes of passion, his voice inextricably tangled with the melody provided by the others, seeking blessed, divine release. He squinted in concentration, arms moving about, tracing patterns in the air drawing from them, the effort required to push the notes out, with precision,just so.

Somnath Bhat saab tried to drive him on with his well-ejaculated ‘wah wah’, general expostulations of appreciation, and ‘kya baat hai’, awesome, would you look at that, in this case, hey, did you hear that, could you just believe what you heard? And the maestro beamed at him, spurred on to reach his peak.

Darya listened indifferently, and by now she was so used to Ravindra Kumarji’s ascents to the summits of his notes that she could even detect where he missed a step and even faltered, fumbling for a foothold.

She raised her eyelids and looked up.

The audience was oblivious.

Was that a note that hadn’t quite reached there?

Somnath Bhat saab wondered too, as his fingers drummed incessantly on the table. He looked at the audience. They had hardly noticed. Anyway, with the rhythmic pattering of the tabla, the pair of hand drums on which the player was playing, his palms held steady and fingers almost invisible in their speed, he assured himself, nobody would notice.

He attempted a more enthusiastic ‘Wah, Janaab’ , Wow, Sir!

Ravindra Kumarji looked up at Somnath Bhat saab and now the action was concentrated between the two.

They locked horns and the jugalbandi commenced. Jugalbandi or ‘Entwined twins’ was the most popular and much-awaited part of the performance, of the entire evening.

The listless audience, who most of the time, with the exception of the music-lover, the music-enthusiast, who attended every concert religiously, was there because they had been prevailed on to be the mandatory escort, chauffeur, or pretentious ass who needed to be seen at all the right places, or had a couple of complimentary passes.

The audience perked up. It was time for the tango. Really the chemistry between the two was incredible. The tension was palpable; they were on fire, these two.

Darya plucked at her strings rhythmically. She played the tanpura, a long-necked stringed instrument.

Her job was simple, she plucked at four strings, in a cycle, unerring in her timing and precision. There was no melody, but she added to the cycle of a sonic drone in the background against which Ravindra Kumarji and Somnath Bhat saab drew the source of their melody and used her notes as the base.

She played on, in a loop, effortlessly.

Darya was chosen by Ravindra Kumarji’s wife, Roshanji, who was her mother’s friend.

Roshanji played the sitar, another long-necked musical instrument, made famous all over the world by Pandit Ravi Shankar and his association with the Beatles and more recently by his beautiful and accomplished daughter, Anoushka Shankar.

Roshanji was a better sitar player than her husband was a singer, but she was condemned to the wings, Ravindra Kumarji not allowing her more solo time on stage than what was necessary.

Roshanji plucked at the strings of her sitar, with more force than necessary, for the Jugalbandi had commenced.

Really, the two seemed to forget the world around them.

Darya looked over, when she saw from the corner of her eye, Roshanji viciously tugging at the strings and Roshanji looked at her with a mad gleam in her eyes.

Oh, no, thought Darya, was she reaching breaking point?

She continued to pluck at her strings, effortlessly, serenely, on the surface at least.

She remembered how agitated Roshanji had been during the rehearsals when she was almost rendered invisible, the playful banter between the ‘entwined twins’ creating such magic. The planning and discussion of the act on stage extended beyond rehearsal hours, spilling over, behind closed doors.

Darya had touched Roshanji’s feet in respect, before leaving their home, and Roshanji asked her to stay back for some refreshing lime sherbet.

Darya could hardly refuse, she loved this quiet elegant woman who spoke so softly and dressed so elegantly, so unlike her mother. Darya needed money for college and this stint of playing the tanpura with this musician family helped. It hardly required any effort and the shenanigans often were a great source of drama and entertainment.

Darya had been the perfect choice as her classic beauty added to the old-world charm of a traditional concert. Darya would have been happy to perform in her jeans and tees but she could not dare to appear in a Hindustani classical music concert dressed inappropriately. Silk kurtas, tunics, the occasional silk saree gave her a bewitching look, made all the more appealing because she was the daughter of a beloved friend. Almost like a daughter of the house.

‘Don’t I look beautiful any more, my dear?’

‘Hmmmm,’Darya gulped and hastily spooned her sherbet down, before the conversation would take on a more dangerous tone.

‘ And my sitar…don’t you think I…?

The entwined twin act went on uninterrupted upstairs, the music now an assault, a sharp raucous contrast to the peaceful notes of Roshanji’s dulcet voice, drowning her words.

Roshanji directed a kohl-laden look in the direction of the door, from where her son, Rohan entered.

‘If it hadn’t been for my zabardasti, my insistence, I wouldn’t even had had my Roshan.’

Oh dear, how quickly could this mountain of sherbet be demolished?

Hardly tasting anything, Darya made a quick dash for the door, hurriedly muttering, ‘Amma will be wondering…’

And now Darya watched with incredulous eyes.

Ravindra Kumarji was raising his notes to an ecstatic pitch and Somnath Bhat saab was tapping measure for measure. Very soon they would reach the pinnacle of culmination and it would all be over.

Darya looked over at Roshanji who was thrumming her sitar passionately, fervently and vehemently, eyes flashing a brilliant black, seeking attention that would never come her way.

Nothing stayed hidden from her eyes.

She perceived, it was only a matter of time, before it would all be over.

Darya shut her eyes to the whole scene, concentrating only on the loop of her tanpura.

The familiar comforting loop, the underlying soothing notes, reassuring in their ease.

Eyes

Rambling wraith

The shroud of mist lifted halfheartedly and the house, reluctant to reveal itself, appeared in patches of brown and dark green, till finally it stood, mute, glowering down at the intrusion.

I looked up at the sheer, imposing walls and breathed in the magnificent splendour of it all. Fell in love with it, again. I walked in, and the heavy old door closed shut behind. It was now me, the house and…

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I rose when she entered. She brought the fresh air from outdoors. Panting a little from the exertion of her walk, she halted in front of the window and stood by me, watching the others play outside. I leaned forward to whisper, but she moved abruptly and walked into the adjoining room that led to the kitchen.

A cool draught of wind ruffled the hair on my neck and I shivered. It was warm in the house but the area by the window was cold. It must be these old houses. Unseen gaps in the woodwork of the window frame and air gushes in, even when it is not wanted. I moved away from the window and walked into another room. The kitchen faced the back yard and had a beautiful latticed screen separating it from the trees outside. The branches swayed and cast shadows on the wall. Beautiful. This house had a soul. I could feel the connection, again.

She stood fascinated, looking at the screen and the trees beyond. She whirled around to look at the walls. I glided there and she saw me, the shadows dancing around me, and smiled. I smiled back. I liked her, it was wonderful, again.

I took my time. It was as if the house spoke to me. I could feel a sense of belonging, a sense of calm as  if I were home again. Something that I had never felt all these years. I touched the old, old pictures on the wall, straightened my favourite one.

I waited. I gave her, her little moments. She smiled, looked wistfully at the old photographs on the wall, she appeared fascinated by one. I leaned over for a closer look. Ah, she had taste, it was my favourite one as well. I followed her, my skirts swishing ever so lightly, the rustle of my silk matching her step, as we ascended the staircase leading to the bedrooms. She stepped in, closed the door. Closed doors weren’t a great barrier.

I loved this room. It was exactly as I had left it. Years ago.

She really loved this room. I could see that.

I stood by the ornate mirror and gazed at my reflection. I looked so young, so alive, if I could say that, unlike what I had glimpsed in the morning. I needed to get out more often.

She lay on the bed and closed her eyes. I walked over and smoothed a stray curl. She stirred and I moved away. I caught myself looking at my reflection in the mirror. Right! I did look younger. I had looked drawn, haggard and pale this morning. I was right. I needed to get out more often. I needed to feel alive.

I walked over to my self and merged my consciousness with her dreams.

Ghost

For all we know…

Has it been a week already?

It’s time for them to go.

Not so soon, I selected the buds with infinite care, arranged them in this divine vase, and I changed the water every morning and evening.

Look at the water now. All clouded and dirty.

Already? Look! The sweet-smelling sap from cut stalks oozed a certain interesting cloud into the transparent clarity only afforded by plain water, before its sojourn in the vase came to a satisfying end. 

Hmmm. The stems are black now, have  lost all firmness, are limp, ready to give up.

But look! The flowers are now in full bloom, opening into pristine white clouds to reveal the sun nestled inside. A glorious burst of white against the cool blue walls, they were the conversation piece of the evening. Did you hear them wax eloquent? You didn’t ? I see. What were you doing? Come to think of it, I haven’t seen much of you this evening.

Never mind. The flowers have to go. Maybe the vase as well. It looks old, The copper has lost its sheen. At least get it polished. And that grotesque china plate, I insist on it being removed, or I shall have break it, maybe accidentally, you know.

What! The plate! The fish swims eternal circles, patterned on fine china, the artist’s flair for capturing movement in a rigid state is legendary.

I’m sure, in an artist’s world, anything is possible.

Maybe china is fluid, taking on the movement of its maker’s wheel.

What defines our understanding these days? It is incomprehensible, really!

Well, the artist certainly knew how to breathe life into his work.  He also knew how to ensure they lived, these living things, I mean. As you know, all living things grow…

Aren’t little ones taught that in rudimentary science class? It’s been some years, but I confess to a little remnants of knowledge…

Don’t interrupt. So, the fish grows and continues downward in its search for the depths where it can submerge itself completely, to merge and lose itself in the union between depth and understanding. Do you follow?

Maybe.

Do you even understand my artistic sensibilities?

Maybe! Can I leave now?

Hold on. Oh, this is so frustrating. You are as elusive as…

This fish?

Enough! See, now that the water is changed, the petals fall off, ripe and satiated.

Satiety?

Yes, they thrived, their pure life in the garden was done and a sophisticated but transient life, in exalted company, awaited them. Sadly, it is time now for them to lose themselves in the larger order of things.

The larger order?

Where are you going? Listen to what I thought of, just now. It is rather clever! Allowed one last burst of colour, bloom, dear ones…

Dear Lord!

Straining at your seams, you are allowed but one bout of flirting with the setting sun, one last desperate fling…

Ooh! Interesting. Desperation.

One last attempt to capture fleeting attention, one last longing look at the mirror, one last breathless breath,

Oh good Lord! Breathless breath!

One last bow to your reflection,  for everywhere you look, you see yourselves mirrored in astounding similarity.

Confound this!

This one moment is yours…

Dear Lord take me away!

…before you call it a day, the blue walls a perfect foil to your beauty, we are only too aware of our mortality,

I’m only too painfully aware of these moments that don’t seem to end, my dear!

They speak to me- Listen! ‘Take a look at our stalks rotting in clean water, while on the surface, the race is on, who can bloom the largest, stay fresh the longest…and then maybe we can call it a day!’

I’ll drink to that! Let’s call it a day!

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Maybe

Qatl-e-aam

‘Nobody makes tea like you, Damayanti.’

The man sitting on the log of wood, in the garden, mumbled these words. He had refused to come into the house and she had not insisted. One look at him had been enough. She recoiled as if she had seen a millipede curled up under a rock that had been upturned.

 

Sameer looked up at her as she brought him some tea and samosas. His hand shook while he held the glass of tea, and Damayanti held the plate of samosas while he reached out for one, and then another, wolfing them down. He gulped down the kadak chai, chai that had been boiled with ginger and heavily sweetened.

‘Let me get you a napkin…’

He wiped his hands and mouth on his sleeve, got up unsteadily to his feet and shuffled into her home.

Silence.

She looked around at the walls, the photographs, at anything but him.

Such a far cry from what Sameer had quoted, from Ghalib, when she had first entered his home.

Twenty-five years ago.

‘Wo aaye dar par hamare khuda ki kudrat hai,
Kabhi hum unko, kabhi apne ghar ko dekhte hain…!’

She came over to my home, this is the grace of God, I glance at her, sometimes, in wonderment, and then at my home, immensely graced by her presence.

Sameer had looked at her as if she were the most beautiful woman in the world, had spoken to her, as if there had been nobody in the world, but she. He made her feel she was the only one.

And now, Sameer lay lifeless, on the low ‘divan’ and closed his eyes. Damayanti, thankfully, had gone into the kitchen. He could not bear to look at her. How could anybody change so much? Not a smile on her face. She looked shocked when she saw him at the gate. Was about to call for help, when he croaked feebly, ‘Damayanti.’

Why had she been crying? Her eyes were red-rimmed when she had brought him those samosas, and that tea, it was to die for. Why didn’t she apply kohl to her eyes anymore? Those eyes. That kohl. It was the stuff dreams were made of.

Ah, how many days had it been, since he lay on a mattress. Years?

Years ago, Sameer had it all.

Sameer could weave magic with his words. He spun incredible couplets, in Urdu, that made his friends exclaim, ‘Wah! Wah!’ in delight. He was a poet and dressed in the way his favourite matinee idol, the evergreen Dev Anand would, on the silver screen. Humming the popular tunes from Dev Anand’s movies, he  walked with a swagger that was the envy of all the young people in his college and neighbourhood. He dressed in the same debonair fashion and his mannerisms were uncannily alike.

One day as he had been sauntering by the houses that lined the road that lead to his college, talking animatedly to his friends about his latest poem, the strains of a rajasthani song sung incredibly out of tune, assaulted his ears.

‘Resham ka rumaal gale pe daaaal ke
tu aa jana dildar mere main-
delhi ka surma laga ke arrey
kab se khadi hoon darwajje pe…’

‘Oy, Sameer, she is asking you to wrap a silk scarf around your neck!’

‘Since when have you arranged this rendezvous with your beloved? You actually got somebody to call you, ‘beloved’?

‘Poor thing she has applied the kohl she got from Delhi and is waiting, by the door, a long, long time for you!’

Sameer, annoyed by this banter, curtly told his friends to cut it out, when they, encouraged by Sameer’s apparent discomfort, egged him on, with talk of the invisible ‘Bhabi-jaan’, Sister-in-law, waiting for him. They were obviously ready to forge new relationships with the atrocious singer.

Cold water rained down on them and they turned to behold a very angry young lady with an empty bucket in her hand, mouthing the choicest invective in Hindi, which would have made even the boys blush if they had not been so cold and wet.

Mirza Ghalib, poet extraordinaire, suddenly made sense to Sameer.

He watched, as she turned to return indoors. His friends recovered enough to shout ‘Ladki, yeh kyaa badtammeezi hai…’when Sameer raised his hand and said that she was not the ill-mannered one, but they were, standing there and discussing her song. The boys hooted with delight and more references were made to Bhabi-jaan, kohl-lined eyes, silk scarves and weddings. Sameer found all this deliciously wonderful, and he turned repeatedly, hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved, with her dark tresses and kohl-lined eyes, glinting in anger.

Sameer found out that she went to the same college as he did. Before long, he managed to run into her at every convenient moment. She wasn’t shy and coy like the others but spoke in an easy manner to everybody, including Sameer. She laughed openly at the jokes he cracked loudly in her presence. She loved a joke and when she laughed, Sameer felt his heart would burst with happiness.

The first time she came home, for his Hindi notebook, with her mother, he quoted Ghalib to her,

‘Wo aaye dar par hamare khuda ki kudrat hai,
Kabhi hum unko, kabhi apne ghar ko dekhte hain…!’

She blushed suddenly and walked into the kitchen where the mothers were having a conversation while the tea was boiling on the stove.

And then there was Rakesh. The successful Rakesh. The ambitious Rakesh. The practical Rakesh.

Perfect marriage material.

Unlike Sameer, the dreamer.

Rakesh walked in after parking his car in the garage and found this gorgeous, bewitching creature sitting in the living room talking to his mother and listening to Sameer who was laughing and quoting Urdu poetry.

The mothers got along very well, Rakesh noticed. That was a good thing.

He sat down holding his cup of Angrezi, weak, English, tea, munched on crisp ‘Marie’ biscuits, while everyone else, sipped on Kadak Chai, the Indian version of tea that had been boiled hard, with ginger till it took on a muddy, earthy flavour, the perfect accompaniment to the kachoris and samosas Sameer had brought home from the neighbouring Mithaiwala.

They settled down to an evening of shaayiri, urdu poetry, and smiled indulgently while Sameer entertained them. Sameer was delirious with joy. He was at his best. Inspired by Damayanti’s presence, he quoted Ghalib and revelled in her attention.

Damayanti revelled in all the attention too. But it wasn’t Sameer’s attention that occupied her mind anymore. Rakesh stepped in. Suave, sophisticated Rakesh. Worldly wise Rakesh, who had a good job, who knew how to treat a lady.

Rakesh turned on the charm and Damayanti, who had never met a gentleman before, finally knew what it was to be treated like royalty. Rakesh hovered by Damayanti’s mother, offering her Kachoris and diamond shaped- slabs of cashewnut burfee, a delicious sweet, till she protested she could not eat anymore. He refilled Damayanti’s cup with more tea and when the evening drew to a close, he offered to drop the ladies home. They protested but he would not hear of it. Sameer went into the garden and brought roses for Damayanti and her mother. He waved goodbye and watched till the car was out of sight. Then he walked in with his mother chattering excitedly about what a wonderful girl Damayanti was. He agreed wholeheartedly.

The Hindi notebook had been left behind along with the roses, on the coffee table.

Unrequited love.

Dev Anand did not work for him anymore. Too dashing, too sophisticated to be real, despite his unrequited love for Suraiya. Sameer had read in a ‘filmi’ magazine that Dev Anand had affected Gregory Peck’s gestures because Suraiya was his fan.

It was Dilip Kumar now. Full of pathos, his ‘Devdas’ was an epic touching the depths of unrequited love. The thespian portrayed, on screen, the despair only Sameer could understand, when all of them went for an ‘outing’ with the engaged couple.

Sameer left halfway through the movie.

Nobody noticed.

Only Damayanti did.

She noticed a lot. The change in Sameer. How he avoided her after that evening. How he became formal with her, saying ‘Aap’ instead of the affectionate ‘Tum’.

She knew the boy liked her. Who wouldn’t? But then, she knew what her priorities were. A stable marriage. Poetry was all very nice, but she wanted to settle down with somebody who would take care of her.

And Rakesh was ready. He had everything. The next step was marriage. Damayanti was perfect, she fit into his scheme of things, his masterplan of life.

Damayanti was very happy with the turn of events. She would now have a husband who would cherish her and provide for her. She could always be ‘friends’ with Sameer. She missed his jokes and missed laughing with him.

But where had that Sameer disappeared? He withdrew into a shell and she never heard him laugh again. No smile either. She did not see why Sameer had to ruin it with his sulking. But she turned her attention to Rakesh.

Zindagi ban gayi, yaar! Life was ‘made’. She would be ‘well-settled’.

Sameer was soon forgotten.

Even by Damayanti.

Sameer’s friends rallied around him.

After the wedding Rakesh and Damayanti moved away to the city.

Sameer never got over Damayanti. Rakesh understood more than he would let on. He never spoke to Sameer about it but ensured he had no access to his home or wife. Damayanti, did she feel anything? Nobody knew, or cared. Sameer did, but he wasn’t getting any answers. He died a little every day.

Damayanti looked up when he stirred on the divan. Sameer got up and propped himself up against the wall and took a swig from a bottle he unearthed from his bag. Damayanti looked at him with distaste. Sameer noticed but pretended not to. They watched a complicated soap opera on television till Rakesh walked in. How complacent he looked, with his briefcase and perfectly matched shirt and trousers, thought Sameer. He noticed that Damayanti hastily got up to switch the television off and hurried into the kitchen to get Rakesh his tea.

‘Wohi Angrezi chai peetey ho kya?’ drawled Sameer. He had great contempt for people who could not bear strong stuff, including tea.

Rakesh made no answer. He shut the door to the kitchen. Then he strode to Sameer and hit him hard on the cheek. Sameer’s head banged against the wall and he uttered a cry that brought Damayanti to the kitchen door. She threw herself against it, to no avail.

She waited by the stove, warming her cold palms and stood for a long time. She heard the gate creak open and close. The bolt shot open and she carried the tea tray to Rakesh.

The next morning, when Kamalabai, the maid swept the floor, she found a little pocketbook behind the divan.

Damayanti opened it eagerly.

‘Zindagi to yun bhi basar ho hi rahi hai,
Tum mil jaate to aur acha tha…!’

Life had been going on well, if I had you, it would have been better.

Damayanti threw the pocket book away, after the pages were rendered illegible because of her tears.

She whispered,

‘Maze jahaan ke apnee nazar mein khaak naheen
Siwaa e khoon-e-jigar, so jigar mein khaak naheen…’

The happiness of the world is nothing for me
for my heart is left with no feeling but that of blood rushing through it.

Then she went about her life, perfecting the art of merely existing.
 

 

Muse

Sepia-toned dreams

She dangled lifelessly, in the light of day, her skirts hanging loose about her feet. Her feet were adorned with silver anklets that had tiny, silver mangoes, in an intricate design, and made a faint sound while she swayed gently from the sturdiest branch of the tree.

Giving up on dignity that eluded her in life and in death apparently, she became a spectacle for all the people of the nearby villages, who flocked to the now infamous mango tree that now bore fruit that everybody would reject.

Only one man knew why she was there. For he had dragged her by the infallible noose that he had twisted effectively to create a sturdy knot. He was dressed in white, the colour of purity and serenity. He had been dressed in white the previous night, as well.

He stood there, looking up at her, the radiance of his dramatic white costume, dazzling and blinding everyone. There were whispers, but nobody said anything out loud and the matter was closed by the end of the day.

The tree was left alone. All summer, no child threw a stone at its branches even when the tree was laden heavy with fruit, groaning with all the weight. Nobody plucked the fruit that turned from a tender green to a mature green and finally a golden-yellow. The ripe fruit fell to the earth and rotted in the sunlight and formed a squishy layer of pulp after it had rained. People held their noses, stopped breathing, as they passed by, for the stench of overripe rotting fruit was overwhelming.

The next year the tree forgot to bloom. The entire orchard was in bloom, the new leaves of every leaf unfurled to change colour with every passing day. Life forgot to visit the mango tree. In a few years, it withered and nothing was left of it except a dying trunk and branches that withered and dropped off, like lifeless arms that amputated themselves.

The dust of time covered the man in white, who lived, unrepentant, all his life.

A sepia tinted photograph remained in his possession and somebody stashed it away in one of the trunks that had all the old photographs of people they didn’t even know.

Peace and happiness eluded him and the next couple of generations.

The story of the woman with pretty feet and beautiful anklets, however, was forgotten.

Except that peaceful sleep often eluded me and in dreams I could see, vividly, feet dangling with silver anklets right in front of me, so close that I could reach out and touch them.

Strange thing.

Mangoes, fruit that every person in this part of the country was familiar with, became elusive to the family. Nobody could make avakaya-mango pickle. If they did, the entire jar would spoil and a layer of grey-black fungus would cover the oil. A nauseating stench, a sure sign of food going bad, would permeate the air.

Nobody could relish ripe mangoes either. One bite into a sweet,plump, juicy, delicious mango and a dozen white maggots would wriggle, embedded in the putrid flesh, in irritation, at being disturbed. Mango juice would choke and rise tempered with bitter bile, and raw mangoes with salt and chilly powder would set teeth on edge and cause such a horrible sensation that spitting them out was inevitable.

And then, one evening, while I was walking in the park, I felt a ball hit me on the head. The sharp shooting pain made me wheel around to tick off the children who were playing ball, rather carelessly, but there were no children around. To my great wonder I saw, at my feet, a little owl, looking perfectly bewildered at its sudden drop to earth. I looked up at the trees and saw the dark nest that I assumed was its home.

This incident was enough for my friend to take matters into her hand. She felt it was a sign. And she had to know what it signified.

Horoscopes are a map to our lives, here where I belong. My horoscope, I refer to as a ‘horror-scope’ in jest, for I have nothing but humour to counter the strange twists of fate that ensure I am riddled with pain, doubt and infamy. Mind you, I am as conscientious as they come. However, everything good eludes me.

So, my well-meaning friend took my ‘horror-scope’ to a seer.

He declared that the horoscope was indeed a very difficult one, indeed. The remedy, he said was difficult to even fathom, without divining the truth. He sat in a trance and held up his arm with his palm over the chart, in an attempt to concentrate, and winced in pain.

‘I see a woman. She does not allow me to see any further. She is holding on to my arm, freezing it in this position and I cannot move it. I am sorry, but you will have to bring her here. Maybe, only then will she allow me to find out the truth.’

My friend, who knew I was very sceptical, asked him if he could do something without me being there. He held on to his arm and said testily, ‘I am sorry. She has to be here.’ He got up to leave.

‘And, oh, please ask her to bring all the old photographs she has. The ones that her grandparents have stored in the attic.’

Surprisingly, I raised none of the objections that I normally would have.

I went up to the attic and rummaged through the trunk that had all these photographs and the forgotten faces stared up at me willing me to recognize them.

There was this haunting photograph of a young woman, that compelled me to look at her over, and over again. There were folds across it as if somebody had tried to crumple it.

IMG-20140519-WA0008

I packed the photographs into a huge envelope and went to bed early, that Saturday night.

My dreams were more lucid and I could also hear the gentle sound of the anklets as the feet swayed. I could count the number of tiny silver mangoes that adorned her anklets.

I woke up drenched in sweat.

Sleep eluded me again.

Sunday morning saw us on our way to the tiny village on the hills, a hundred kilometres away from home.

It was strange, the GPS of the car was on, and yet we lost our way at least three times. We veered off the highway and traversed hills and valleys that were untouched by civilization. Our cell phones refused to cooperate and the signal played hide and seek.

We were supposed to meet the holy man by nine in the morning and it was noon by the time we found our way, finally.

Hungry and tired, we waited for an eternity for him to return.

The sun was on its way, darkness following it, eager to dip into the pool of orange, ready to sink behind the hills on the horizon, when he returned, walking purposefully towards his little hut.

He looked at me and grimaced.

We sat on the mat. He spread the old photographs in front of him and his gaze was arrested by this photograph. He pushed the rest away and my friend hurriedly gathered them up and shoved them into the envelope.

Silence reigned supreme.

His brows knotted and he gazed at the photograph for a very long time.

He then closed his eyes and his palms hovered over the photograph.

This time he could concentrate.

He divined the entire scenario and said that all the inexplicable sorrow that nested in our homes and family, over the generations, was a result of the curse of this innocent young woman.

His voice created a ripple in the pool of silence on which we all floated unaware of the world outside.

‘She wants peace after all these years, and that is why you are here.’

After a few hours with him, we returned in silence.

In the darkness that was inexplicably black, a few fireflies lit up the bushes by the roadside. The stars began to blaze with a cold fire and the car hummed its way on the road, maintaining a steady rhythm.

My friend bought a few mangoes on the way, for fruit sold in these forgotten parts of the world were divine to taste.

Absentmindedly she offered me one and since I had had nothing to eat the whole day, I bit into it,half expecting to spit it out, proving right, yet again, our legendary allergy and aversion to mangoes.

Surprisingly, the mango was sweet and fresh. I relished it, the juice dripping over my chin and onto my saree.

I didn’t care.

After all, this was the first mango that I could relish after all these years.

That night, I didn’t dream of swaying feet adorned with anklets.

In fact I didn’t dream at all.

Elusive sleep had finally decided to have mercy on me.

Elusive

 

 

Shadow puppet play

da curtains!

It was a Friday evening. The lamps were lit in the little altar in the nook of the passage between the kitchen and the bedroom. The divine scent of sandalwood, the incense sticks, permeated the very air of the tiny little ‘quarter’ that Radha and her family called their home.

All the houses in the colony had been built according to the same plan and as Radha stood by the kitchen sink, clearing the vessels after the evening’s cooking session in the kitchen, she got the perfect view of the ‘hall’ of the house opposite her window. The curtains were drawn together, a thin billowy fabric from some old sari that had been torn and stitched into curtains by Mahalakshmi. The dim forty-watt lamp was switched on in Mahalakshmi’s ‘hall’ and the feeble light made the red curtains all the more menacing.

Surely it would begin in a few minutes. Tholu bommalata. The shadow puppet play.

Radha grumbled to herself as she dumped the used vessels into the sink. She cleared the particles of food stuck to the vessels, for Adamma would allow them to remain intact even after scouring with Vim and Sabena powder. Radha felt especially harassed, for her family was extremely demanding. No left-overs of the morning were ever to be re-heated for the evening meal. Even if half a pot of vegetable stew was left over, it had to be given away to Adamma, the help, who came gladly twice a day to clean house. Adamma was only too happy to take  away home, the left-overs in her aluminium boxes, for Radha was an excellent cook.

It was time to put the rice on the stove, for the family preferred eating steaming hot rice with pappu-lentils boiled and tempered with mustard seeds, fenugreek, red chillies, curry leaves and asafoetida in clarified butter. They were to have fresh brinjal curry cooked in a tart tamarind sauce seasoned with a special dry mix of spices, predominantly coriander seeds and red chillies, roasted dry and hand- pounded coarsely, vankaaya dhaniyaala kaaram koora. For dessert they were having paravannam, a slow cooked rice pudding that was creamy and sweet, food for the Gods.

It began. Dark shadows were now thrown by the dim light onto the blood drenched curtains. Shadows that moved awkwardly, one more menacing than the other two, slowly advancing, hand raised and two cowering, shrinking and sometimes slipping out of sight, only to reappear rather suddenly, catching Radha unawares.

A huge shadow came crashing down on the frail one and a thin scream pierced the air, jarring Radha out of her paralytic state. Wiping her hands on the pallu of her sari, she rushed down the uneven steps of her block and ran up the steps of the neighbouring block.

She stood outside the door, hesitating. What was it to her? Why interfere? A volley of yells from within the doors decided it for her. She banged on the door with both fists before she lost her nerve. There was a chilling silence. She called out Mahalakshmi garu, talupu tiyyandi-please open the door!

Mahalakshmi’s daughter Malli, opened the door. She looked dazed and tried to smile, but her face was frozen and the effort looked rather grotesque.

Malli, having fondly been named after the famed konda malli, the fragrant jasmine flower looked like anything but a flower. Thin, gaunt, emaciated, only her eyes looked alive, too huge and disproportionate to her wasted frame. How frail she looks, thought Radha.

‘Amma ekkada?’ Where is your mother? she asked stepping into the gloom. In the dim light the curtains waved and she noticed Mahalakshmi apparently sitting on her haunches trying to stand up rather unsteadily.

While Malli was asking Radha to come in, Radha saw a hand shoot out, from within the darkness and hit Mahalakshmi with so much force that she collapsed, despite her feeble efforts to stand up.

As Radha advanced, the shadowy figure melted away into the darkness of the adjoining room and Radha rushed to Mahalakshmi to help her up. She held her frail frame in her arms and asked Malli if they had had anything to eat. Malli shook her head and a fresh outburst of weeping from Mahalakshmi spurred Radha into action.

Radha helped Mahalakshmi up and led her out of the house. Mahalakshmi tried to protest feebly but Radha displayed a strength she never knew she had in her. She took her home and placed two low stools, peetalu, in the kitchen.

One look at the unexpected guests and Vani, Radha’s daughter, fetched two steel plates, set two steel glasses down and filled them with water.

Radha made Mahalakshmi wash her feet, hands and face. She gave her a towel and when Mahalakshmi could not use it because her hands were shaking, she dabbed her face dry.

She served them food silently. Avakaaya, pickle first and then the brinjal curry. A steaming mound of rice and ghee- clarified butter. Pappu and appadaalu, deep fried poppadums

Malli choked on her first mouthful and hurriedly gulped down some water. Mahalakshmi ate slowly at first, mixing rice and pappu with her fingers, hesitantly put one mouthful after the other, all the while looking around the kitchen with her big, beautiful eyes.

Radha observed her quietly. How thin she seemed. Her skin appeared translucent and her green glass bangles made a gentle sound as she moved her hand. Her kohl had run, forming streaks over her cheeks. her huge bindi on her forehead made her look like a veritable Mahalakshmi, the much worshipped goddess of wealth and prosperity.

After curd had been served, the rice pudding was offered to the two guests and then they sat on the straw mat. The traditional offering to lady guests- vermillion and turmeric powder with a green blouse piece, plantains and a rupee was given in a tray to Mahalakshmi by Radha, an indication that she was a favoured guest and they intended to honour her presence.

Mahalakshmi stood up to go and looked at her home from the kitchen window. The red sari-curtains swayed in the breeze and for a moment they saw a shadow stand  by the window and move away just as they looked at it. Mahalakshmi looked haunted again as she hastily bade goodbye. Radha wished she could help her and did her best by giving her a tiffin carrier laden with food to take home with her, for him.

These curtains provided the perfect backdrop to the action that continued later in Mahalakshmi’s house. Radha averted her eyes, blocked the shadow play from her mind and after dinner, as she switched off the lights in the kitchen, she noticed that the action was heightened and the shadows moved faster in a macabre dance.

Tholu bommalata. The shadow puppet play.

The next morning, when Radha opened the door to sprinkle water in front of her building and draw the rangoli pattern, she noticed a few logs of firewood burning outside Mahalakshmi’s house. Surely, it could not be that! Then a crowd gathered and in the middle, he sat, looking as lost as only he could manage to look.

Malli told her the rest. She said the burning stove tipped over from its high platform and fell on Mahalakshmi, dousing her with kerosene and the flames licked at her becoming a roaring blaze.

Malli sobbed, unable to continue. Radha relentlessly asked Mall, ‘How did the stove fall on Mahalakshmi?’ Malli looked up at her then across at him and said nothing.

Radha looked up at the windows and saw that the red sari curtains were burnt beyond recognition. All that was left was soot and charred wood of the window frame.

There was a routine enquiry and it was concluded that it was all an accident. A horrible accident. Only Radha knew the truth. And Malli. But Malli was silent. She chose to be silent.

He was transferred to another place in a month. One cold winter morning, they packed all their belongings into the minivan and climbed on board, without even a backward glance. Malli sat as still as a wooden doll on the rolled up mattress and the van rattled away.

Radha could never look at the window opposite her kitchen anymore. A new family moved in after performing the requisite rituals of ‘Gruha pravesham’ -entering a new home for the first time and boiling milk till it flowed over the stove and the same platform.

Mahalakshmi would have done that too, little knowing what awaited her.

Radha could never forget the frail frame of Mahalakshmi as she had seen her last, on that fateful Friday evening. She sometimes saw Mahalakshmi’s shadow by the konda malli chettu– the jasmine tree, when the jasmine flowers were in full bloom and the air was filled with the heady perfume of jasmine.

Mahalakshmi’s frail shadow would ask- Malli ekkada? –Where is Malli? and her hollow, unseeing eyes would brim with tears as she continued softly, Malli ekkada? Malli ekkada? 

Radha had no answer. She muttered a little prayer and waited until the shadow glided away with its familiar refrain, Malli ekkada?  

Frail

A Harvest of Pain

She could feel their glares bore into her back as she walked past them. She whirled to catch them unawares, but they were too quick for her. Animated conversations, forced laughter and an obsession with the contents of their backpacks suddenly seemed to be inspired by her straight, unerring gaze.
This power she never knew she had, was incredible.
Shrugging indifferently, she continued on her way to her class. The crowd of milling teenagers parted to give way, strange that nobody seemed to recognize her anymore.
Hastily averted eyes.
To some she even seemed invisible.
She knew, she was there, and, somehow she also knew, that was all that mattered.
Strange, had it been just a month ago? A month since she had been part of a clique, the most sought after elite ‘club’ in the entire tenth grade. She had been on one of their special outings to a popular bowling alley, when afterwards, over burgers and coke, the conversation veered to one that she hated.
It was about a girl who wasn’t around.
The glee with which they tore her reputation to shreds, made her sick to the stomach.
Sicker was the predictable ease with which they would feign friendliness, when they met the victim the next time.
Worst was all when the victim would be oblivious to all effects of mutilation and bask in the extended warmth of the faux sunshine.
Or maybe they knew, she mused.
That was probably why no one ever chose not to appear at these little get-togethers.
Maybe they were not so oblivious after all.
Anyway, after one particularly horrendous maiming session by the reigning Queen Bee, she pushed her half eaten burger aside and said, ‘I’ve heard enough.’
And walked away.
From the royal court of the Queen Bee.
Disbelieving eyes and genuine gasps followed her as she walked away, heart hammering inside her rib cage.
She knew she had done the right thing.
She breathed in the fresher air of peak traffic and felt rejuvenated.
A shudder ran down her spine when she thought what the outcome of the unthinkable thing she had done, would be. She squared her shoulders and held her chin up. No, the deed was done.
There was no room for regret now. She had to face it.
And here she was, facing it.
It had been purgatory.
One month of sheer, unadulterated purgatory.
Not even the most insignificant minnow of the lot wanted to have anything to do with her.
Strange, they always had had a word for her, probably trying to gain access to the upper crust.
Now, she was nobody.
Less than nobody.
Her fall from grace was complete.
The inevitable question came up in class, ‘What have you learnt from your experiences at school this year?’
A buzz of banter and a million knowing looks later, she knew it would veer to her.
And sure enough it did.
A demure little minion of the Queen Bee stood up and gave a very detailed account of how she had been taken in by appearances. She concluded her very moving narrative with how she, the poor dear, learnt not to trust people any more.
Oh, the big bad world!
Everybody looked at her, expecting her to squirm.
But, she didn’t.
She had the conviction that for once, she had done the right thing.
She might have a knife being twisted in her gut, but she would look nonchalant, as nonchalant as a disinterested teenager would.
So, she perfected nonchalance till her wall on a social networking site came alive with references to her.
A thousand memes and long threads of discussions later, she decided to take things in her hand.
‘Hey, there! How’s life? What’s new?’
Silence reigned on the walls for about five minutes.
Then suddenly, the walls changed colour. News of movies, books and music splashed the walls, absorbing all attention.
Really, was that all it took to deflect attention? A direct confrontation?
Hmmmm.
Well, she was no fool.
She knew she would always be the outcast, for speaking her mind.
She knew the cold treatment would continue for a while, till they moved on to fresh kill.
She would not be part of any group.
Nobody would take selfies with her.
But, what the hell, she didn’t need to live with unease and dread any more.
She didn’t need to conform, for she knew she had done the right thing, hell to the consequences.
Whether things changed or not, some things would be constant.
Her books, her music and her writing.
Her identity. Her identity untarnished with cowardice.
Knowing that, she could live with herself.
At least her soul was intact.
She could harvest a little pain.

Cowardice