Saturday, August 31, 2013

Permission (Micro Fiction)

The young hostess pushed back a tendril, her smile fixed to hide the latent irritation. She hated having guests mill around in her kitchen during serving time, making polite offerings of help, it upset her rhythm of serving the food at the perfect temperature so. In this house, the bowls had to be piping hot and then there was her phobia of leaving a dish forgotten in the family sized refrigerator.  

While she bustled garnishing, sprinkling and finishing up the dishes, her fairer part of the family began dropping their guard, a voice at a time. “What’s that you are sipping Guddi, don’t tell me it is tea in the steel glass!” Guddi drained her glass in a long gulp, rinsing it quickly under the tap, “Actually, Gary has permitted me to enjoy vodka on one condition, I must camouflage it so the family does not know.”

The kitchen lit up with knowing smiles, “I stop trimming my split hair months before this trip home. A false braid does the rest, particularly in the gurudwara,” heads shook a little at the sight of Pinky’s discreetly draped dupatta over the nape of her neck.

Goldie beckoned them close, her voice falling to a hush, “Listen, for your ears only, please do not pass this on. Lovely and her husband are undergoing infertility treatment. It seems Lucky’s sperms are sluggish but no one will talk about it, bad for the male ego you know!”

They turned sharply at the choked sound from Kittie, what was wrong with Montu’s new bride? “I am so sorry, I can’t help remember what happened yesterday.  Mummy Ji had given me some minor repairs to sew and I was rooted with confusion at the presser foot sewing machine, we had a hand wheel model at my parent's. And guess what? Montu pulled the pile from under my arm, banging the door shut with one heel and settled down, to guide the seams under the needle like a perfect pro.”

The women threw back their adorned heads and tittered with glee. “Come on, come on, quit gossiping, we are blessed to have such nice families, let’s get the hungry horde to the table.”

The colorful group filed out carrying the cutlery and serving bowls. They entered the dining area in a respectful and solemn procession, having sagged and shrunk in their bearing, a look of appeasement on their faces, treading thin ice with their indeterminate half smiles.

All was well with their world.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Unfair (Micro Fiction)

Red, green, purple!  Every time Keerat  pulled off one romper and put on the other, her eight month old wiggled and chuckled, chubby hands grabbing at the young mother’s arms as she fretted over the colour that best lightened her dusky baby’s skin tone.

“She looks dark in each of these,” Keerat wiped her brow, straining for impending sounds of departure. Ten minutes at the most and someone would be at her door announcing the car was loaded and ready to roll. A wave of exhaustion washed over the new parent and she plunked down on the settee, defeated with rage.

“Who does she take after? Have you been outdoors a lot with her? You are so fair, she looks nothing like you! People are progressive these days; no one in their right mind would obsess over a fair complexion.  Don’t worry; the next baby may turn out lighter. I think she takes after that aunt of hers; the one in Australia, we hear she is very bright at academics otherwise! Are you using “ubbttan” on her after the daily massage?”

Keerat pulled the rattle gently out of the baby’s busy mouth. She gazed at the diapered mite in wonder, trying to visualize her inside the womb. “Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood,” her eyes welled up with tears of fury. “How dared they? They had some nerve sticking daggers into her heart! Why would they judge so?”

Her agitated mind pummelled ahead. This twiddling, gurgling bundle on the Dalmatian print counterpane does not hear the slights nor see the distaste on faces yet. A day will come when the barbs will tear into her soul, clouding her mind with self-doubt and confusion. She will never be picked to play the lead role in a school play. No boys will text her constricted notes. There will be the unflattering eyes of sales persons outside trial rooms. What happens to the colours she wants to wear but cannot because, “Blue is your shade, goes very well with your skin?” The well-meaning will go on to console her with, “But you have very nice features! And dark skin is healthy, all said and done, there is more melanin there.”

Keerat sprang up restlessly and punched her mother’s chat id, “Is this late for you Mum?! Why are people so judgmental?”

The luminous screen affirmed in green the typing at the other end, “That is the world Keerat, people will slot you no matter what. If it is not your colour, it will be the thick ankles or prematurely graying hair or an ample behind or the hair tint you happen to be using. People assess so they can feel better.”

“But my defenceless child Ma, my baby who doesn't have the adult’s capacity for resigned acceptance. She needs to hear she is gorgeous!”

“Yes Keerat, hold fast to that. This you can do, you have to get to her before the rest do. She will believe you the most.”

“Mum, I am going to do more. I am going to break this horrible pattern of a colour put down. Be prepared for hurt family feelings!”

“I am with you Keerat, this is only family, she has to face the world soon. Unless we give her a strong core at home where we exercise control, she will crumble and dissolve in the harshness outside.”

“Thanks Ma, love you!”

Keerat threw open the door and walked to the group chafing with impatience under the portico. They turned at her determined gait, “I am sorry but I will not be accompanying you all today!”

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Doomsayer (Micro Fiction)

The tea and samosa could wait, Shirley told herself as she made to tear open the envelope an agitated parent had left on her table. She had ten minutes before the faculty returned from the dining hall to resume the parent teacher sessions. Shirley pushed her glasses back up the nose and held up the pale yellow paper.

Dear Teacher Progressive,
I am sick and tired of your patronizing and judging.  Please stop telling me not to push my kids and take some time off your high horse to learn the difference between nagging and motivating; diminishing and enabling; projecting and nurturing.

The air is thick with educationists spouting fonts of wisdom, Oh I have heard them all: just let your child be happy and stress free; let them follow their hearts; try not to live your dream through them; you could end up embarrassing and alienating them.

Have you any idea dear madam? Do you not smell the violence in the air, the lack of conviction in our leaders’ voices, the horrifying truth that there is no lofty peg the buck stops at? For all my desire to retain a benevolent view of life and mankind, the fact is that I see queues everywhere. I read and hear and feel the system that rewards ill-gotten power and money. Every morning at the bus stop, it feels like I am sending my little one into the war zone. Do you really believe that your polka dotted and star laden bulletin boards camouflage the real world we all inhabit?


Of course there are struggles and more but the most poignant of them all is my fight as a parent to keep faith and hope alive for my kids. I see strange things. My children come back from competitions with stories of favoritism and partiality. I shuddered the day they spoke of having their teacher suspended. I no longer know what to tell them about patriotism, truthfulness, sense of duty.  Anything and everything seems to go. There is that hollowness in the air, a dry throat-ed scratch to sounds of humanity, the public aura is clogged and clouded. A new attribute is being lauded in children: street smartness. Am I being foolish, telling my children to be nice and decent and responsible?

Petrol costs 71/-, the dollar has touched 62/-, hospitals take 20,000/- upfront for simple registration, food is adulterated, public transport unsafe, the land I just bought may have come with a forged deed, the courts are corrupt, schools overloaded, clinics understaffed, airwaves compromised, water and air polluted and you are calling me a doomsayer!!

The only armor in the face of this claustrophobic hostility dear Madam is education, influence, self-sufficiency, marketable skills. It is out of my hands. I cannot but push my kid. It is my moral obligation to equip him/her for survival in the future. So save your harangues on letting the kids be or else, for a day, only for a day, come wear my shoes.

Sincerely yours,
Middle class parent

Shirley looked up at the knock on the door, “May we come in Ma’am?”

She nodded, gesturing the couple towards the chairs. Folding the note carefully, she turned to the parents, “Please guide us Ma’am.  Our child finds it very difficult to get up in time for the school bus. There is too much stress in school. We want to spare him this daily hustle and bustle. What is your opinion on home schooling?!” 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Change (Micro Fiction)

Mandeep did not flinch. Her daughter’s eyes flashed brilliantly with the light of angered betrayal. “You created my profile on a matrimonial website? Oh God, my friends will never let me live this down!”

“What are the odds bete, them finding you there or caring one way or the other? You are my child, too precious not to cover all the bases over!” her mother looked on calmly at the daughter’s puckered face, “Eeew Ma, its creepy, the whole idea!”

The two sat in bristling silence, their coffee mugs growing cold. “Look Mum, this is not something I have slotted into my life’s blueprint yet.” Mandeep nodded her head sagely, “I know and I am not about to force you into anything. Just trust that these things take time and if we are going to go the traditional way, there is something called the window of opportunity.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, if you had met someone at school!” Mandeep’s voice dipped.

“Hey,” the young voice went up a notch, “You told me to avoid entanglements in college! Focus on learning and growing was the theme song, remember?!”

The mother drew a long breath, “I still think there is a time for everything in life. It is just that the variables are so many with strangers, it frightens me!"

“Didn’t you and Papa meet through a newspaper ad?” Mandeep smiled wryly at her daughter’s question, responding with a laugh, “We’d be considered crazy in some cultures. Look how we jump into ‘till death do us part’ arrangements with people we had no idea existed until then.”

“They would call it certified lunacy Mum. What a tradition, entering nuptials believing we are ordained to do so over seven lives with that one specific person. What did Beeji call it? Sanjog ? Destiny?!”

Mandeep gathered the cold mugs, “Let me heat these up on the range, I don’t enjoy the taste of micro-ovened fluid!”

The daughter followed her maternal into their spacious and clean
kitchen. They stood over the steaming pan, the rain falling rhythmically outside, a perfect score for their whirlwind thoughts. Mandeep poured the last dreg and turned to her daughter, “Hear me out, all right. Patiently! This is not a belief I started out with but I choose to hold it today that marriage is foundational, the canon in fact of family life in society. I can’t imagine an ordered social structure without these islands of commitment. It is in fact what distinguished our species, something that is intrinsically good and long term, quite the antithesis of instant gratification.”

“It is a social contract mother!”

“Oh no, it is way beyond that and the wedding planners, believe you me. Our scriptures have called it a sacrament; a lifelong relationship within which the two partners get to evolve spiritually."

“You mean be real soul mates?”

“Not in the Archies cards and Valentine way, no. In fact, I am not sure one would want to marry a well-fitting glove or a Siamese twin or a band aid or even a mirror image. Soul mate in real terms translates into someone you do your soul’s work with!” Mandeep answered with the firmness of retrospective wisdom.

“Hmmm……so what has changed since?” the young voice took on an impatient edge.

“Your great grandmother was married off at 12 years of age; she bore her first son at fourteen; your grandmother never got to meet your grandfather, he sent his college friends as spies to check her out! Your Dad made sure we got to spend a decent amount of time together before tying the knot but this was only after our formal engagement. And here we are having this candid conversation on the metaphysics, epistemology and ethics of that thing called matrimony…if that isn’t change!”

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Reminiscence (Micro Fiction)

Lovely was your typical Punjabi bride; audible from metres off. Her bells and baubles bespoke of life’s promises. The one discordant note in her squeaky new life was her mother-in-law. “I think your Mum may be a latent hypochondriac,” she had begun to make tentative sounds around her groom. 

Mummy Ji regularly updated her list of ailments. If it was, “The smoke from the sheller is burning my throat,” one day, it would be, “The pesticide on the okra has upset my stomach,” on another. Her irksome aches and pains were rivalled only by an intense distrust of the medical fraternity. She refused to present herself to what she called a “plain MBBS.” Her physician had to be a specialist with published research and an award or two.

Fatigued with this on-going saga of ailments, the family had all but tuned her out. Lovely was Mummy Ji’s uninitiated and obligated listener. This one way monologue formed the basis of their flaky familiarity over the next decade or so. Lovely learned to mask a growing impatience with courtesy and silence. “I think her mind plays tricks,” she would tell herself.

There was more; an obsessive preoccupation with cleanliness and an ever present insecurity over religion and rituals. “There is so much to be grateful for, why can’t Mummy Ji be happier?” Lovely had graduated in her communication with the husband. But there was no insight forthcoming from the family other than a hurt withdrawal.

Until one day.

The house shot into an overdrive. Beeji was coming home from the hospice. With her terminal prognosis and a life expectancy of three months, she had expressed a desire for reunion and reminiscence. Lovely did not know what to expect. She had never heard anyone speak of Beeji. A mute spectator, she watched the bed ridden elder wheeled and settled in.

It was one of those lazy summer mornings when a lone hawker’s cry wends around tree lined lanes. Lovely sat playing cards with her nieces and nephews. Mummy Ji was hovering over Beeji, concluding the diaper drill. The patient lunged suddenly, the room going still. Everyone turned to the bed. Beeji was holding Mummy Ji’s hands, tears rolling down withered flesh, “I am sorry, so so sorry.”

She had carried the bitterness of her son marrying below him half her life. “I would not acknowledge your mother-in-law while we lived together,” she looked at Lovely. “My hurt ego preferred hospice care to being dependent on a daughter-in-law I did not consider fair, cultured and religious enough for my son. I was wrong.”

Lovely turned to her Mummy Ji, suddenly seeing it all. “Do you see how Beeji’s dismissal affected your DNA, your cells? It made you compulsive and obsessive. How can you bear now to change Beeji’s diaper after a lifetime of painful rejection?”

“That was her karma; this is mine,” the smile was wan. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Correction (Micro Fiction)

Cantonment bungalows can take you on flights of fancy. Everything can seem right with the world as you step out of the car, swinging a tastefully wrapped gift, hugging to yourself cosy thoughts of the waiting hospitality. “What a fabulous lawn!” Komal turned to her husband, the fairy lights throwing her warm smile into soft focus.

They picked their way carefully over the cobbled path, Garv keeping a steady hand under his wife’s elbow, thoughtful of her party footwear.

The host couple was waiting graciously at the other end and soon enough the evening flowed along on smooth rounds of drinks, music and effervescent banter. “Is your son home today? How have the auditions been going?” Komal had heard from Isha about their twenty three old aspiring actor son. “He will show up for dinner,” the hostess responded, looking away.

With the bonhomie having reached comfort levels, acerbic anecdotes had begun to roll off artful tongues. Before long, they were all moving in to Isha’s elegant dining hall. A gastronomic high was clearly guaranteed if the visual treat was anything to go by.  Komal lowered herself onto an ethnic chair with a plateful and looked around.

A tall young man had entered from the rear door. She watched him stand still near the table, gazing down at the prawns. He seemed as though he was in a bubble wrap, unseeing and unhearing of others.  He reached for a plate. There was the slightest hesitation when he reached the table end. Beckoning him close, she patted the chair besides her. He came over and sat down obediently.

“Hi! I am fascinated by your choice of work,” she began. He responded instantly, “You know Auntie, acting is a very dirty line. There are mothers who bring their daughters to directors; you understand what I am saying. Also, any idiot can get a six pack at the gym these days. Have you read the Laws of success by Napolean Hill? He talks of the mastermind. I shut my eyes often and picture myself on the screen; I hear the hall resounding with ovation, it is as though the audience are chanting my name.”

Komal placed her plate down gently on the peg table, narrowing her

eyes. “You did not go to NSD or FTII, so how do you plan to crack this?” her voice was tentative, a little unsure at his stilted intensity. He sprang up, “Oh! Would you like to see my blueprint for success?” Komal was led at a brisk pace to his study, “Here, I have organized myself,” he pointed her towards the computer chair. The two turned to a medium sized green board. There were grids and columns under heads such as: personal, social, professional, emotional. Subheads included: make four influential friends; put on 8 kilos; play basketball 45 minutes daily; clean up spoken Punjabi; don’t be picky; NETWORK. Her eyes stopped at ‘BHAI!’

His high strung voice nagged at her “We skyped with my brother last night. He was depressed over some exams. I don’t know man, here, look at this book. He wrote this when he was twelve! See all those shelves there; he has read them all. He is a champion shooter; a phenomenal dancer. At our school, everyone would tell me, “You can’t be Karan’s brother?!” All my life I have been compared with him; he is better built, fairer, scores more. It hurts.”

Conscious of the sudden silence from the dining hall, Komal got up. She parted the curtains, feeling an odd sense of guilt at having glimpsed something painful and private. Isha was seated right across the study. Their eyes met, held briefly then broke contact in haste.

Forcing herself to stay upbeat through the goodbye speeches, Komal let the mask drop as soon as their car pulled away. She gnawed at her lip, brows furrowed. At the red light, she turned to her husband and asked quietly, “Garv! Have we been too ambitious for our children, pushing them beyond what their caliber justified? Time for a mid-course correction?”

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dilemma (Micro Fiction)

“Where will I learn the most Dad? I want to do great things.”

Sandeep stared at the young face, fearful at this talk of life and passion and motivation. “This kid is setting himself up for disappointment,” he thought gravely, casting about in futility for something, anything to help him base his castle upon.

“The National Defense Academy is a great institution Sonny, you would be our third generation graduating,” he made another, half-hearted attempt. “NO way! Never!! Too much discipline and structure for me. I want to fly. I want to do what I love,” the young voice rang resolutely.

“What is it that you love son?” Sonny fell silent before admitting quietly, “I am figuring that out. I am only seventeen, remember!”

The liberal, modern parent that he was, Sandeep walked Sonny into the city’s foremost college, a day later, togged out in their crisps, the two. They walked through the color and splash of dreams beyond the high gates, “Yes, German would be a good option, let him take Statistics as well,” they struck off the subject options at the academic department.

For days after, the father would search his son’s face on his return from college, waiting for the rays of knowledge and inspiration to light up. 

Sonny hung on for three months, believing the fire would find him eventually. He had made friends yes, but he was also fighting fatigue with the omnipresent academic indifference. “No one cares if we learn anything at all,” he admitted to his friend out of earshot of the parent. “My science practicals are antiquated; the lab assistants help with precipitates and residues. I am not sure the reagents are pure.”

Sonny watched his professors busy themselves with petty staff and administrative politics, wondering when they would turn to nurturing his spirit of enquiry. No one had spotted his desire to know, his ability to reason, his stamina for the good and the just. “If this is among the first ten science colleges of the country, what intellectual mayhem must there be in lesser portals!” He flopped down in front of his laptop, clicking on the link reading:


“Dad,” he called out with urgency.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Separation (Micro Fiction)

Cataract surgery does that to a face. It takes the character and substance away. The eyes that appeared bigger through powered glasses all of a sudden look shorn and two dimensional, the face somehow seeming flatter. 

Meha looked away, reluctant to acknowledge the welling shimmer in Vani’s eyes. “You need to sit down,” she gently lowered her friend onto the bed.

The untidy apartment bore signs of a departure. There were old baggage tags strewn around as also discarded packages of newly bought goods. An untidy heap of processed food and toiletries laid in one half of the sofa, they had to be shed so as to account for the baggage weight, the weighing machine had not moved back to its designated slot in the house yet. And there was that pall loved ones leave when they bid goodbye, that heart wrenching vacuous hole in the space they until recently occupied.  Vani was beside herself with grief and guilt, “He is gone. I was so, so harsh on him! What a terrible mother I have been. Oh God, I told him once I wished I had not given birth to him. I am downright evil. Cruella, I am Cruella!”

Meha dunked the tea infuser in a big pot, turning to get some fruit from the refrigerator, “Don’t be silly Vani! Get a hold on yourself. Nobody is a perfect parent ever, it is too difficult a task. You have poured yourself into this college admission of his. It is time to look at yourself and get your strength back. Let’s rustle you some nutritious oats.”

Vani sat vacantly, eyes glossing over at the memory of his packed luggage along the wall. Her moist eyes paused at the corner where his guitar had stood, the “fragile” label dangling from the stem cover. His folder of travel documents had lain right where her hand rested on the bed today. She clenched her fist, feeling the onrush of another panic attack. A claustrophobic sensation seized her, making it difficult to breathe. “Meha,” she croaked, flopping back on his bed.

Meha hurried back with the two cups of steaming tea, “I made Kahwah, it will soothe your stomach. Do you smell the spicy aroma?” Vani was not listening, “I was a very demanding and impatient mother, always criticizing him, calling him a duffer even, hammering at him to become self-sufficient. Oh why, why, why did I use such harsh words, berating him for not scoring as well as my cousin’s daughter? He’s gone now. Too late!”

Meha punched the power switch on the brand new laptop, “Here, let’s get on with our Skype lesson. You have to let go Vani. He is on a journey you cannot follow him on anymore. I bet he barely remembers any of the horrifying past you are kicking yourself for. Here, give me your phone, let’s place a call to your Mum. Talking to her will help ease your mind a bit.”

As Vani held out the instrument listlessly, it stung. A sunny envelope lit up the screen. There was a message. “Ma! Thank you for sending me to such a great school. I love you. In class right now. I am at the right place, just as you always dreamed I would be. Don’t worry. I am telling you. Will do you proud!”


The mother sat up with renewed vigor, holding out her hand briskly, “Would you hand me that cup please Meha?! What were you saying now about the skype lesson?” 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Ferment

My mouth feels acrid most of the day. If you are a nobody like me, neither rich nor poor, you will know what a fermented existence it is to be like the fly: irritating enough to elicit a frown but not threatening enough to warrant more. Now before I get the rap from you dear reader for being an ingrate, for not appreciating my privileged existence, for pointless negativity let me assure you I am as sane as they come. Why then does my cranium curdle as the day progresses?

You have gone into the Basrurkar market, parking with care. Business done, you return and eye the vehicle placed across the road, gauging the angle of turn. No one moves so you get behind the wheel and begin to ease out, trying to catch someone’s eye for guidance. Not so much as a muscle twitches until your car comes to rest on the van behind with a dull clunk. The place erupts. You are a person of murderous intent thereafter.

You return from a shopping spree, laden with bags and the nagging feeling you were fleeced. The bargaining, the silly sweets for change, the tepid Thums Up thrust at you with an insistence it is chilled, the shoe pinching in rhythm with the sweat dripping; a dull ache has begun to hammer at the head. All you can think of is dumping yourself unceremoniously in the car to first switch on the AC. What do you know;the parking attendants have done the disappearing act.

You are blithely power walking the poodle, sniffing the moisture in the air appreciatively when along comes an Audi 4, crunching headlong into the storm water, spraying you with the drain dregs at a brisk whoosh. All you can do is gnash your denture in time to the strains of Honey Singh’s vocals emanating from the dimming tail lights.

You just shelled out something to the tune of twenty four thousand rupees for two pairs of progressive, transition, monochromatic spectacles, having settled on a green and blue david johns and another in maroon, after trying out some thirty four frames. The optician positions your head to mark the center, reaches for the frames and drops them to the floor. With nary a remorseful breath, he bends to pick them up, blows esophageal air twice and proceeds with the event. 

You have paid a packet for a holiday promised with adventure and action. A lot many people seem in charge and there are several communications, the leader guiding you to the camp on phone, even awaiting you near a mountain road for the last leg. Just as soon as the money exchanges hands, there is a Houdini act, all of a sudden you have been declared self-sufficient.

You just craned your neck at the petrol pump in response to the attendant calling attention to the zero marking on the pump. A second fellow proceeds to wipe the windscreen with flair. You debate whether to step out for greater vigilance. Too late! Payment made, credit card slip signed with a greasy pen and you drive off in relief, only to puzzle over the fuel needle that refuses to rise where you want it to.

You are out on a road trip and had the foresight to put the car through a servicing before setting out. But the water logging and moonscape on our roads have brought your steed to a grinding halt. You count your stars it happened close to habitation; there is even an ATM close by for the unforeseen expenditure. You advance, bouncing leaping, grinning at the guard outside only to find it all deathly silent inside. Of course, it is not working!

After precise spelling out of the fond message, having selected with care the most appropriate combination of flowers and cake for a loved one’s special day and having made an advance payment online, Ferns and Petals delivers it all with a minuscule card, the words scrawled in an illiterate hand!

It is these little things. After all it takes only a teaspoon of curd to ferment milk!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Karma (Micro Fiction)

“If you want a gold medal in Indian swimming, better win by ten meters or there will always be scope for mischief!” It was an unspoken creed in the Indira Gandhi indoor swimming pool that kept parents and trainees on constant edge.

It was a daily ritual. The tight circle of young, tanned, dripping faces gazed at their coach. Their parents sat yards away, smiling thinly at the trainer’s words. A lesser lead meant being open to manipulation, the bane of Indian sports. And still they came, by the hordes, with their snack bags and flasks, willing their children to swim their guts out for a glory that was just a heart break away. The inviolable fact was that India neither had the will nor the wherewithal to produce Olympians as a matter of course.

But Mr. D’Costa was not worried. His son Cary was the State star and a future National champion. And those were only the milestones. Cary’s aim, as outlined by his father, was to leave behind the league of Virdhawal Khade and Sandeep Sejwal. D’Costa backed his ambition for his son with an unrelenting drive, support and dedicated care. Swimming was a mission, the pool his battlefield and the aqua folks his family. On most days, it was hard to tell him from the staff. At complete ease with the dank corridors and their indifferent occupants, he had the answer to everything a mortal parent could come up with.

It was the State Swimming Championships, day one. Busy with the registrations, D’Costa was unperturbed over his son’s event. Cary was expected to win. The coach had just the day prior, lauded his daily base metabolism record. “His torso to legs ratio is made for the Olympics,” he had grunted to the beaming father. D’Costa was not done hugging the words to himself yet over the diving splashes from the starting blocks when his head snapped up at the sudden, strident whistle. Burrows knotted in confusion, he slowly took in what he was seeing. Some swimmers were paddling water halfway, heads craning towards the flailing coach, what was he doing in the water? Three of the racers had pulled away to the finish. He squinted for Cary. Had he struck gold already?

There was a hush, like the whoosh of a vacuum cleaner. A clouded, ominous supension, people freezing mid-motion. In a split, as though by telepathy, all heads spun towards the starting blocks. Cary was floating up from the bottom of the shallow end, the top of his head bleeding red.

The father’s knees buckled to the concrete. He grasped feebly at the air. A parent bent over, pulling at him, babbling incoherently, “Karma. It is karma. You must have done bad karma in your last life!”

They say time is a healer. Not really. Over days and months, wounds tire of hurting. They patch up with the fatigue of mourning. The heart is so spent and still, it appears whole once again. It wasn’t until months later, during the sports federation inquiry into the incident that it was established that Cary had indeed executed the “pike” dive at the starting pistol achieving a catastrophic head depth and velocity. The technique involved tucking his chin into the chest at the start of the entry. When he hit the shallow bottom, his neck broke, dislocating the spine.

What made an experienced swimmer like Cary take an unusual break from his regular grab start shallow race dive to the capricious pike? “I have no memory of what followed,” D’Costa’s refusal to implicate anyone at the proceedings had remained dogged. Diagnosed with an acute stress reaction, he was prone to insist, “I suffered total amnesia.”

He was lying. There was one word seared in his memory since, eclipsing all else. Karma! It played over and over in his head. What a futile explanation? How heinous could his past life sin have been to have deserved this living death?

A pale shadow of his former self, he was shuffling out of the stadium after the final hearing that day. He had been getting wind of conspiracy theories alluding to an envious parent or two. Brought up as a good Christian, he had dismissed the “nonsense” as he called the concerned jabber of Cary’s friends and fans.  


Ah, there he was that helpful parent again, surrounded by a clutch of promising trainees. D’Costa drew closer, wanting to talk karma. But he halted at the muffled words, “To give yourself a powerful take off at the start, for the pike dive, you should go over the rope, four to five feet above water!” 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lobotomy

Boxes strike terror in my heart, the ones crammed with books and papers in particular. I will procrastinate sorting them until pushed to the wall. It is not that I am lazy or disorganized; I am just scared of hurting. And so the black containers sit scratchy and sore like corns on the toes, darkly nagging while I get on with the humdrum, telling myself, “Soon!”

It begins with a reluctant dragging of a chair close. The lid clang is invariably accompanied by a sharp intake of breath. It takes more than a day. The first contact is a quick skim. I avert my eyes from the familiar covers and dog ears. They threaten to take me back to all that I have made my peace with. I am sure and strong now, more whole than I remember being. A time travel back past blocks and breakers, rasps. I’d rather be.

Technically, the contents are inanimate. There are diaries, autograph books, drawing journals, song records, dedications, notes, scribbles, letters, tickets, domestic accounts and to do lists; quite easily dismissed if I did not look too close. But of course I pause. The certainty takes root that this junk does not mean as much to any other being so why bother. “Let them chuck it all when I am gone,” is my next thought. For as long as I live, these yellowing papers are proof and a record of my evolution.

I am convinced that words do not carry our stamp, as much as our papers do. It is on parchment that we leave our life’s trail. In those mildewed and brittle covers lie our sleepless moments, the weakness in our knees, our constricted throats, the airiness of our being and the pain we have learnt to numb. No matter how bland and controlled and objective modernity brings us up to be, humans are visceral beings, ecstatic and agonized by turns. It is this gut wrenching reawakening that keeps me at bay from box full of papers. There are reminders there of what I was and what I might have been and what I chose to be. I go still at inked proofs of forgotten bonds; of friends outgrown; of sentiments faded; of days done.

It is not a place I can revisit. So I grudgingly toss some measly fliers and newsletters to justify the sorting. The rest goes all back in another metal case. I will likely not open it for another ten years but knowing it is there somewhere is enough. I wave off the “raddiwala” who has been eyeing the fraying mound, inching closer. My dismissive gestures get louder; all of a sudden I think of him as a Psychosurgeon advancing to perform a lobotomy. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Inaction

Far lonelier than the dark depths of Pluto can be public patches deserted by living, breathing people. And it happens, with unfailing regularity. This desertion of a civic responsibility then threatens our welfare and survival as a species.

Let me start small.

The black dog  got too close for comfort today. It came within a foot, saliva swinging and swimming over meat eating canines and he growled. I had no forewarning. He was quite placidly settled on a mound of sand in the nippy air. I was swinging along energetically, bent upon extracting the most out of the morning jaunt.

Just as I made to negotiate the turn, Blackie got to his feet. Crouched over dipped forelegs, he ducked his head, fixing me with eyes rolled back. Overcome by a fearful cold wave, I swung my short black baton, screaming with my stomach. Three more strays meanwhile had crept up behind the vicious leader, baying and snapping. They began to  encircle me, scraping the tar with their claws, bodies primed to pounce. All sense of my surroundings began to recede. I only saw and heard and responded to this one live threat facing me. Rattled at their aggressive hostility, I lunged for a brick and swung it at the pack. Their ears promptly went flat just before they loped off.

I stood there, shaking. My heart raced and sucked for breath. 
As I regained focus and the eye lens cleared, I looked to my right; there had been the slightest of movements. A morning walker was edging tentatively into view, leading his Dachshund by a leash. He had seen me! He had heard me! I saw that in a snap from his crafted gait. He had waited for the inconvenience to pass before entering the scene.

We are like that. We hate engaging on terms not familiar to us. We also have a fundamental belief in our ineffectiveness.

That is it. Our daily life is fuelled by a numb inertia.

We don’t really believe we can make a difference. When we talk of changing the system, we are invariably thinking lofty, as in systemic at the national and global level. Truth is that we have our own personal circles of influence within our reach where we exercise total control. The slightest shift in those still waters of habit can
shoot off vibrant impulses of change.

What if that gentleman had stepped forward? What if he had not dashed back to routine safety? What if he had charged at the brutes? What if he had come with me to lodge a complaint at the guard room? 

My faith in humanity would have soared, infusing me with the energy for a hundred civic deeds. Imagine the positive domino effect. Instead I came away from the experience feeling alone, afraid, isolated, convinced that our homes are lined by mean streets.
It is not that we are powerless. We are power wasters. More and more, our strength has come to mean numbers. We do not assert affirmative social action even in the immediate radii that belong to us. Inaction is more convenient.                                                                                        

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Soulmate (Micro Fiction)


“The Indian Railway’s Second AC has lost its elitist air” Harshal told himself irritably.

Elbowing his way into his assigned seat, he glared at the passengers already settled in. They wore that shifty eyed look of proprietary, typical of wait-listed Indians. He rolled his eyes at the pedestrian domesticity surrounding him, cursing the college alumni association for advancing the reunion dates. He could have travelled better!

Now that he was in, it made sense to settle down quickly. Ticket checked, dinner order confirmed, toilet visit out of the way and bedding in place, Harshal plugged into his music and reading material. The feverish anxiety of a station halt had lulled into the rhythmic calm of chugging wheels and a pleasant ennui, his eyes began to droop.

Notes, the buoyant notes of jasmine and rose came streaming up his nose, as though from another lifetime. Spriha! Her Coty Sophia parfum, unmistakable! He sat up, heart in a roar.

There was a woman in yellow, seated beside the travelling ticket examiner. Harshal got up as though mesmerized, moving towards the two. “Spriha,” he uttered throatily, “What are you doing here?” He smiled at her sparkling laugh. “Are you attending the reunion?” he was sure that explained her presence on the same train as him.

“No, I am getting off at Allahabad. A meeting came up and I am trying to confirm a berth here,” Spriha turned to the TTE again. “Come and sit with me while he figures it out, might take a while,” Harshal motioned towards his seat. The two sat in silence, leaning away from each other. He felt levitated, a sensation of being in a hot air balloon with her, two souls on a joint flight wrapped in a wistful wisp of what might have been. There was catching up to do, Spriha’s brother Sukrit was Harshal’s batch mate and the two shared an entire web of friends and anecdotes that kept them engaged, breaking pace only when her destination rolled in. She got up, looking down at him quietly, and then leaned over to kiss his forehead as the train slowed to a stop, “Goodbye!” He caught the fragrance again, willing himself not to lunge and never let go.

Harshal sat inert through the rest of the ride to Delhi, his heart bursting. Why had he not come clear with Spriha? What had stopped him from professing that he did indeed believe they were meant to be together? He had suddenly lost all appetite for the reunion. But the national capital was being announced and he braced himself for the overly enthusiastic reception at the station.

There was no one as he alighted, not one familiar face in that teeming rush. “Could I have mistaken the date?” he felt disoriented even more. Lifting his light tourister bag, he advanced slowly towards the exit gate, scanning the racing faces. He had nearly jostled through when he caught sight of Vikram scrambling towards him. “Sorry Harshal, apologies but I have bad news. There has been a horrific tragedy. The party has been called off. We are going straight to Sukrit’s place.”

Harshal dropped his bag with a thud, the blood beginning to gelate, “What happened?” he croaked, not wanting to know.

“Spriha passed away in a road accident last night. She was on way to the railway station to board a train to Allahabad. Some unexpected official presentation I believe!”


Harshal spun around ponderously towards the train. It was pulling away. The woody spiciness of her Sophia began to ebb and leave him. Fiery tears ballooned to hover on his unmoving lashes He blinked rapidly then turned to follow Vikram out into the world.

Guria


With William, Hannah and Ada
I felt a little out of place. I was neither a volunteer nor a Caucasian and I wore an orange necklace.

One of the first things the Guria children exclaimed on seeing me with the visiting group was, “You are Indian!” I may have imagined the tiniest drawing back, just a slight dip, a nanosecond of uncertainty but it was gone before I had the time to permit defensiveness into my smiling reply, “Yes, I am Indian and my name is Neerja.”

My association with Guria was through Hannah 
Ada ( https://www.princeton.edu/bridgeyear/meet-the-volunteers/ada/ ) both of whom are currently doing the service program that my daughter Asawari pursued at Serbia during the year 2010-2011 http://www.princeton.edu/bridgeyear/updates/archives/?id=5417)
(L to R) Nick, William, Allen, Mackenzie, Tyler

My trip to Varanasi was about the Bridge Year Program (BYP) community spirit. I felt a sense of connection with the students who were doing in India what my daughter had done for nine months in Novi Sad and Nis. Hannah and Ada had made me the generous offer of showing their service location and I was honoured to be at Guria on the afternoon of 6th April 2013.

I was impressed. From the start! I watched Ada deftly hail an autorickshaw, negotiate a price and effortlessly slip into the extension next to the driver’s seat on the ride up. We trundled past Hannah on the way, a determined and purposeful rider on her bicycle, negotiating the unforgiving city traffic with panache.

Tom Davis, currently volunteer at this “grassroots anti-trafficking NGO” had insights to share. We stood talking on the periphery of some high decibel excitement involving Kho-Kho and Kabbadi. Even on this flash visit, it was clear that there were huge challenges to be faced for any effective change to take place.

I wondered if Tom or the Guria team ever felt paralyzed at the enormity of the task. I mulled over any disillusion the apparent difficulties might have caused their young American volunteers. I felt concerned about the potential of false hopes being given the Guria children. Tom was reassuring in his even, thought through and open responses.

Guria’s positive role was evident in the orderly manner in which they conducted the meditation session I attended, far more disciplined than my own class in Delhi. The children were expressive, forthcoming and expectant of participation and friendship. Two little ones whispered amongst themselves, standing next to me, hazarding a guess at what my orange necklace might have been worth. Their estimate? Rs 100!

BYP India on the Vindhyachal 
There was hope there in a young voice that said, “My ambition is to become a reporter so that I can tell everyone of the injustices I see around me.” There was a sense of pride there when a small boy thumped his tiny chest and claimed, “I taught Tom to speak Hindi.” There was a sense of security there in the little ones who toppled over during meditation to fall asleep. There was resolve there in the gravity underlining the cheerful faces of the adults in charge.

I sat there trying to guess what lay behind the closed eyes of the older girls. Did I imagine a shade of sadness? Was there a fear of what the future might bring? The tall gates that were hastily closed every time struck me. This was difficult work Guria was doing. There were too many invested agencies crusading for the status quo outside of these four walls.

Of these, the most ludicrous and foolish was us, the Indians who have the luxury of being ordinary and middle class. Unaware of our power to effect massive changes around us, we bumble through our work schedules and weekends at the malls. We have no clue how badly help is needed outside of our self-constructed walls of order and security. We cannot begin to imagine why there has to be a pretense, at the least, to an inclusive world.

A sliver is all that is needed. A shift of our glance, a speck of our time, a fragment of our thought. A thousand more Gurias would be too little!

Guria and the people behind this NGO are to be highly commended.

Visit: www.facebook.com/guriafreedomnow

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Vanished (Micro Fiction)


Seven years of a good marriage is enough for a couple to develop telepathic connection. So attuned can you get to each other’s energy rhythms, it is possible to be together and alone at the same time. Ratan was an early to bed, early to rise disciplined professional while wife Meeta kept owlish hours for her creative output. On most days, he would be winding down about dinner time just as she would be going amber, ready to turn green as night fell.


“I missed my morning walk today. What’s the time? I could swing it even now” Ratan glanced at the ticking clock right behind her on the wall, “Nine, it says! You’ll do your usual two rounds I suppose. I might be flat out when you return" he forewarned her.
“Not to worry, I better grab the moment” Meeta trotted towards her bed room busily. Slipping into her jogging gear, she let herself out into the windy dark, “Please don’t latch the front door by mistake Ratan. I hear lightning outside and I might cut the stroll short.”

"It is a flaky kind of night to step out,” the husband called after her.  He had driven home under an overcast sky, the breeze was angry and twigs had danced on his car bonnet. The rain gods hadn’t made up their minds yet! “Our campus is quite safe though with the two guards at either gate” he decided to turn in. “She is carrying her mobile phone in any case,” he was not one to fret.

Placing thoughts of his wife aside for the moment, Ratan began his nightly ritual. He approached the refrigerator to fetch a water bottle for his bedstead. A printed sheet under the Chinese magnet caught his eye. It looked fresh. The type style was bold. A security alert! Strange, he thought. Meeta must have missed it; the helper had likely received it and placed it under the magnet, having forgotten all about it during the day’s events.

Intrigued by the unusual heading, Ratan plucked the single leaf and ambled to the silent study. He was not unduly concerned. This was a secure cantonment, what threat could the security people be warning them about?  The clap of thunder and falling water bothered him more.
  

Pushing the typed notice under the lamp, he reached for the switch. His chest felt it had been hit by a train.  He nearly fell back in horror then dived for his phone, pressing the quick dial with a trembling hand. There was no answer! He redialled, willing her to pick up. “This can’t be happening!” he dialled the guard room. “Yes sir, Madam walked past gate number two some twenty minutes ago,” the soldier reported from his post.

Ratan made a dash for the garage. Meeta took fifteen minutes to cover one loop, she was five minutes late. The water would have slowed her down, she was not carrying an umbrella. The rainstorm had gathered force and silver blue streaks were propagating in the carbon skies above.  He pulled onto the road, headlights blazing, wipers at maximum speed, unsure if she had taken her regular path. An asphyxiating emotion had begun to weigh him down as he drove past gate number two for the third time. There was no sign of her. He parked his vehicle, alighted, raised his face to the downpour and howled her name. The phone circuit went berserk with the neighbourhood up, alerts were sent out, there was shock and alarm.

A grown, GPS-ed, facebooked, credit rated, emailed, PIN ed mother of two had vanished into thin air that harrowing night. No sign of her. He fractured in the head and heart with ache at the mystery of her disappearance. For him, there was no closure, ever.

When the hurt became unbearable, he would pull out the phone they had found lying in the grass by the road that day, about two hundred meters from the guardroom. He would jab the voice recorder fearfully and listen, heart in mouth, to her last recording, “This stretch feels spooky somehow. Maybe I should head back home. But wait, the trees make such a picturesque archway as far as the eyes go. The leaves are spinning in a vortex. There is a muddy wetness, the wind slaps my limbs. I feel very alone. What is that coming round the corner? Motor bikes, in this weather? The riders are hooded, there seem three. They could be youngsters visiting a friend except that there is something menacing in their approach. They seem to be slowing down.” 
 
Several seconds of static followed not unlike Ratan’s own mind, silently hissing with questions.

Meeta was a writer and often dictated stories as she walked. Was this for real?