Sunday, March 31, 2013

Collusion (Micro Fiction)

There was an odd comfort in the smell. It hung in the boxing ring, a rank and oppressive bromhidrosis stoked by the boxers’ Shiv Naresh polyester shorts. There were emotions there, circulating in the fetid air with sweat molecules; fear, fatigue, friendship, failing, form and flack.

Kohli watched the ring from the door. The Red corner had knocked the Blue down. As he made to rise, Red reached out and struck again. While the Refree called the two fighters out on a foul, Kohli turned away. The National Championships were coming up and there were the usual butterflies in the pit of his stomach. “I am not nervous about winning or losing. My anxiety is over whether I will get to fight at all,” he would often gripe to his mother. On his way to the changing room now, he could see his father in the Coach’s chamber, pumping hands, ingratiating himself towards the 28th Junior Championship selections. There was a week to go but one never knew with the Haryana lobby, more than merit was at play here. Kohli loathed this aspect of sports in India, “I am willing to work and fight to death but I cannot do this hi hello business,” he vented despairingly to his mother at home.

Just as he was entering the hall after having changed into his boxing gear, his father hurried up to him “You will have to fight Pawan Tokas of the Munirka Boxing Club if you want to go to Akola.” The parent thrust the sipper at his son, “What took you so long? Now get up there on the ring and rehearse your attack combinations!”

Kohli stepped over the ropes, snatching his towel from the turnbuckles. Dhiren from his stadium was waiting in the Blue corner. The two got down to clean punches and scoring blows. They fought four rounds and Kohli worked up his tally. His knuckles ached pleasantly as he pulled off his gloves and helmet, a rush of air singing on his scalp. Leaping off the raised platform, he walked up to meet his coach ambling in.

“I don’t want a Referee Stopped Contest tomorrow, all right. Give it your all,” Sidhu sir thumped him on the back, pushing him towards the weights. Kohli picked up the dumbbells and began to count. “One, two, and three…,” he stopped short. “Who was his coach talking to near the water filter there? The player looked out of place and yet strangely familiar.” He craned his neck to get a better look at the unfamiliar colours; it was hard to tell from the distance. His father had fallen asleep on the hard bench the federation provided for the parents.

Placing the weights down slowly, taking care to roll his back, Kohli padded up to where his father snored gently. He shook his drooping shoulder, “Papa, look at that. What is Sidhu sir conferencing with a player from some other stadium for? And I am quite certain that is Tokas. What is he doing here, studying my game? He is competition, not supposed to be here, and certainly not the day before our championship.”

“Don’t be silly! You should trust your coach. Get your things together, let’s go. It is not in our culture to doubt one’s teacher,” the faintly impatient parent helped  his son clear up and the two made their way deferentially towards the exit where the coach had just seen off Tokas, “Touch sir’s feet. No matter what, you need his blessings. You are his disciple, you must show him respect” Kohli heard his father hiss behind him. He laboured down, nearly over Sidhu sir’s feet then rolled his back up, “Respect has to be earned Sir. I am sorry!”

The two older men watched in confusion at his squared figure marching out of the National Stadium Boxing Hall. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Delusion (Micro Fiction)

Meha shifted the phone over her slowly reddening ear, and then flexed the neck.  Her mobile device had begun to feel hot as waves of anger assailed her. The voice at the other end was becoming increasingly unclear, ending in a series of gulps and strangled sobs after every sentence. “Sshh, I hear him calling. I have to go,” Meha strained to understand the garbled words but the phone had snapped shut.

“Homes are supposed to meet our needs. When do they transform into hell holes?” Meha sat staring at her Apocalypse pink Blackberry, paralyzed with concern.  Where was the line she had better stop short of? Need she worry about her anguish becoming interference? Did the meddling clause have any moral standing in the face of bone weary misery? She chewed on a clove to ease the molar that had begun to pound more with distress. No amount of inhaling and exhaling seemed to ease the tension in her muscles and nerves.  

A violent vibration lit up the small screen. Meha jabbed at the answer key, heart in the mouth. “Are you all right?” she asked in a whisper, even though she was sitting thousands of miles away from the caller. “I have just come upstairs and locked myself in. He was charging at me,” the stammer sibilated at her over the transcontinental radio waves.

“Stay calm please. Keep safe. Look after yourself. This is not your fault,’ Meha entreated forcefully, hunching over the phone as though she could somehow transport herself digitally through the instrument and across the seven seas. A muffled sound hit her in reply, “He is banging on the door! I will call you back,” there was a click.

Meha slumped back on her bean couch, nursing the hot cup of cardamom tea her maid had brought in. The hot, aromatic, spicy brew was what she drowned herself in during times of personal anguish. With every sip now, she sat up more, debating in her mind the several courses of action available. It was hard to gauge the dynamics at work in another time zone. “Spousal violence in Canada,” she hurriedly typed into the search box on her IPad.

Clink! Her tinkerbell notification rang with the yellow envelope on the phone screen. She tapped and read the blurb, “I have had enough. He is delusional; says he wants to divorce me; told him to go ahead. Don’t worry about me. I am going to take my pill and sleep now.”

Meha turned to her day as the geosphere continued to rotate away from the sun. It wasn't until later in the evening that she logged on to Facebook to find a Canadian status update: “Marriage is a beautiful adventure.” 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bias (Micro Fiction)

A micro oven is all Pihu needed to create her own heaven. And ten seconds is all it took. The dried whole milk filling inside the pastry would soften just so, leaving the case crisp for delicious crumbling in the mouth. Two gujiyas made to order and total satisfaction! She demolished them now, hungry out of nervousness. There was an awareness pitch she had to make to a group of educators on gender sensitization that afternoon and she debated on how best to challenge their deep seated gender beliefs.  

Laptop, pen drive, marker pens, folder, notes…she went down her check list, reminding herself to carry the presentation on a compact disc after mailing it to herself.  “Good luck Mum! Relax. You will do fine” her daughter and collaborator smiled sympathetically at the sight of her bustling mother. A feminist in thoughts and action, she had contributed to the design and content of the slides. She chewed on her morning ritual diet of five soaked and skinned almonds while assisting her mother with the departure. Soon enough, Pihu was turning the ignition key to back out of the garage.

Within the hour, the presenter was plugged in and ready to deliver in the conference hall. She surveyed the growing audience, reaching for the water. It was a diverse group. Liberal, progressive, conservative and she saw their homes reflected in their reactions to her as the talk progressed. “We face a changing social reality in which true equality is struggling to happen,” she had begun, moving on to the routine devaluation of girls and an urgent need to quash stereotypes.  The delivery progressed well and there appeared to be unanimity over her perspective that it was time to bring the change to bear on every day decisions. “We must emphasize humanity rather than femininity and masculinity. We cannot permit gender to become a person’s destiny,” she concluded to cheers and applause.

Several teachers approached the lectern to compliment her at the end of the talk. Some took her visiting card, a few asked to speak privately about personal views and experiences. Pihu was gathering up, smiling in the afterglow that comes with meaningful interaction when the Principal’s peon walked into the hall, “There is a message for you from the Human Resources office madam, please meet them on your way out.”

It took her a while to find her way to them. The Executive Committee was riffling papers, talking in murmurs when she entered. The Human Resources Director beckoned her in, “Madam, we would like to use your expertise in gender studies to help us with an appointment decision. We are taking a vote between two equally qualified male and female dance teachers for our flagship girls’ school at Kullu. Which of the two do you think would be most effective? Should gender be the deciding factor here? ”

Her own response niggled at Pihu throughout the drive home. She was appalled at who she had recommended. “Just goes to show! I am like the urologist who preaches eight glasses of water a day to all and sundry while he himself barely manages to down two” she kicked herself mentally.

She eased the car into the driveway, feeling small. Her daughter let her in, right hand raised for a high five with Mum at which Pihu shook her head. “A cup of green tea?” she frowned at her mother uncertainly, moving towards the kitchen. 

“Yes please, I have a bad taste in the mouth,” Pihu replied in a small voice, nodding assent. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Adultery (Micro Fiction)

“Disgusting” she shook her head at the mess around her on the international flight. Blankets lay strewn over seat backs, ear phone wrappers savagely torn, half eaten sandwiches dotted the floor and untidy newspapers lay sprawled over armrests. The Air India flight coming in from Delhi had just landed at Newark and the passengers were alighting. Bitty juggled her emotions and the maximum weightage cabin baggage. This was her first time in the United States of America and her bridegroom of six months was expected at the airport to receive her. Her dry throat eased around the Sualin she had hastily popped. She took a deep breath, jostling along with the other impatient Indians to the exit door. There had barely been time after the wedding ceremony to get to know each other and she was unsure of what to expect.

The baggage collection took lesser time than she had anticipated. She had come prepared with a five dollar bill for the trolley.  Her brand new, bridal red bags stood out against the browns and the blacks on the conveyor belt and she was soon out of the building into the American public space. Dragging deeply on the sharper air, Bitty scanned the emotional arrival scenes. A big, bobbing, bold placard caught her eye across the drop off lane, “Welcome to America my Bitty bride!”Angad was stabbing the air excitedly with the unabashed sign, his mother standing close besides him.

Everything seemed larger than life. And quiet. Bitty’s ears hummed with the silence and the hushed smoothness of the car. She stared at the desolate neatness they raced past on the wheels. Her groom sat with his mother in the backseat. She rode in the front, assailed with sudden loneliness next to the unfamiliar driver. It seemed like a long drive before they began to ease into a three car garage of a picture perfect house. “My Mom made you an Indian meal. She is an excellent cook. Just wait, you will love it here!” Angad jumped out of the car to help the driver with the travel cases as his mother hurried ahead into the sprawling house, leaving her alone by the front door, tentative and out of place.  

It was inexplicable. The interiors were squeaky free of dust and done up beautifully. There was that air of plenty and yet she felt cold at the dinner table a lifetime away from home. She made an effort to pay attention to the conversation around her, “Life has been very unfair to my daughter. Did you know that her husband cheated on her with his colleague? Good men are very hard to come by these days. I hope you realize how lucky you and your parents are. Angad is a great son, a wonderful brother and I know, he is going to be a fantastic husband.” Bitty looked uncertainly in her groom’s direction only to be met with a benign smile of self-satisfaction.  

Unknown to her, the jetlag was stealing up, “Why don’t you go upstairs and relax? It takes a couple of days for the body to fall into the new rhythm. Angad’s room is downstairs, next to mine. You can move in with him when recuperated,” the gratitude Bitty felt for the elder’s thoughtfulness dissolved when she entered her room. Plush on the inside, it was in one corner of the house. The view from the window was beautiful but dead. Unmoving trees stood sentinel in a perfect row, grave and watchful. The closest residence seemed far out when Bitty peered through the washroom blinds. She talked to herself aloud so as to curb the emotion of being shut out. “You are going across the oceans, to another time zone. And human beings are complex creatures. Should you ever feel alone, really and completely alone, open this envelope and use the contents but first use your judgement,” her mother had pushed it at her just as they were exiting home in India.

Unused to the deathly stillness and disoriented with the travel, she was tiptoeing down the creaking boards the next morning, letting the voices guide her. “Last night, she…oh God…she pressed me here so hard. I had heard Indian brides are coy but Bitty…,” her husband was bent over the dining table while his mother held a heat pad to his back.

“Bitty! Angad has a disc herniation. Please be extremely careful during relations!”

A rush of giddiness billowed over Bitty. She stumbled back up into her room, nearly tripping over the unfamiliar carpeting.  Leaning momentarily against the door she had banged shut, she gave  her head a good shake before unzipping the side pockets of her tourister to pull out her mother’s good bye gift. Tearing it open with an anguished hurry, she plucked out the folded paper.  

It was an open return ticket.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tender (Micro Fiction)

“Vinay is feeling horny!”

David was holding out the crisp ten rupee note to Rohini. She looked down in confusion at the untidy scribble on the paper money. Vinay and horny? How could that be? It was their driver honking away in the messy Dhaula Kuan traffic! Vinay was sitting on the left front. She did wonder why he was wearing a smirk but he was nowhere near the horn.

Riding a cab was a luxury she could ill afford. The client meeting at Khan Market had ended well and the Company directors were dropping their advertising executive home. A recent college graduate, Rohini was several years younger and slightly out of their worldly wise league. She sat in a self-conscious cloud of their musk cologne.

David’s aura of power overwhelmed her. He was very self-assured, blue chip in every way, travel as he did in a faint wisp of expensive cigar smoke. “Yes, right there, opposite the G Block market, you can stop here,” she leaned forward to direct the driver to her home. Alighting from the car to see her off, David addressed her, “Tomorrow? Over lunch! My place?” Her face flushed at his parting words and she got off the white Ambassador in a fluster. The giddy alloy of shame and excitement balled in her belly, evaporating a little at the smell of her Mom’s dinner wafting over the front gate. She was late and grateful her parent was not positioned at her usual look out post.

The night was spent agonizing over his invite, resolving eventually with this line of self-talk, “Would she be true to herself to pass up a genuine, once-in-a-lifetime potential to connect out of fear of something as fickle as social sanctions?” And it did not occur to her trusting parents to ask what the office was doing working on a Sunday. Rohini was soon enough dodging cycling children, scurrying maids and lounging security guards that lazy summer afternoon, on way to his upscale apartment.

His home felt cool and padded for sound. Several bowls of covered food lay on the dark wood table. David walked her from the front door and up the carpeted stairs to his living room where his suitcase lay open, ties and socks neatly ranked. She lowered herself onto the floor. “A business trip has come up. I will call you from the airport, all right? Here, you can give me a hand with the handkerchiefs," he resumed packing.

The doorbell rattled their easy silence. David rose with a furrowed brow to peer through the first floor curtains. He drew back as though stung. It was his boss and the lady wife. Drawing back quickly, he fumbled with embarrassment as he pushed Rohini out of his room towards the far end of his house in the direction of his laundry room, “I am sorry about this but just stay quiet for a while here, will you. It is the Sahnis and I can't have them catch you here. We would both be in real trouble?” The door clicked softly behind him. The woman sat there in hiding, feeling guilty and mortified and somehow unclean amidst the crisp linen.

Her agency head was nodding thoughtfully at his young employee the next morning, “I do not wish to service the Company anymore" her voice was resolute.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Preoccupation (Micro Fiction)

Maulishree inhaled the mist floating in from the river. Tugging at her beret to pull some over the ears, she tripped down the cobblestones in eager haste. Elegant icicles were beginning to form around the car bumpers and her silhouette contrasted against them, she so radiated warmth and a cheerful pride.

Where was Om? She scanned the library for his familiar Burberry. Ah, there by the coffee vending machine, next to the carpeted staircase. The steam rose from his cup in lazy curls.

Reigning herself in, she composed her thoughts. Pradeep Choudhary of Headway Publications had said promisingly over the long distance call from Delhi, “We are ready to sign your publishing contract!” Having made up her mind on who to share the news with first, she was stepping up happily now in the direction of her eight months old husband.

“Where have you been? I needed a cheque signed for the insurance payment. I do hope you remembered to pick up an anniversary gift for the Sharmas. Did the internet guys call?” greeted her eternal organizer of a life partner.

Maulishree slumped over the bannister at his unheeding staccato.

“We really need to lighten our winter boxes,” Om began thrusting a book at her, oblivious to her hardening face. “Emotive Dance,” she peered at the title, her eyes brimming over. She gripped the tome. “Have it issued, will you?” he was turning down the stairs dismissively, taking a sip from the freshly micro- foamed cappuccino.  

The State Frisbee Champion placed her feet apart to get a powerful balance. She then raised her right arm and took aim! The book connected with his neck. He followed it to the landing, in dull brown thuds.

There clearly was a whole lot he had missed.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Fragile (Micro Fiction)

An intermittent hiss was all that was left of the horrifying trade tragedy. Tortured metal and dying embers lay scattered around the stunned space that once held a thriving medical drug assembly line. Nobody had seen it coming.

Not only did the labor torch their own factory and facilities, some of the senior staff were manhandled by the workers of the Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company. One senior manager and several supervisors had gone up in flames with their offices, charred beyond recognition. Some rioters had been taken into judicial custody even as the Trade Minister mouthed platitudes about continued faith in the country’s ability to protect investments.

In all the hullabaloo of the aftermath, an open letter had surfaced. It was addressed to the General Manager, Human Resources.

Dear Sir Ji,
I hear there is a search warrant in my name but I will be on the train to somewhere as you read this.

It is presumptuous of me to write this note. You are a global businessman while I am only an old faithful wanting to make one last good gesture to the company that made me who I am.

For some time now, I had been trying to reach you about the change in the air around us. It was not just the lock down after eighteen hours of work that exhausted me. It was the looks of accusation from my subordinates that bothered me more. I had begun to avoid the sales staff, fearing the resentment in their eyes at overwork, bad pay, verbal slurs and sycophancy. I had come to feel unsafe in what had been home for twenty seven years. 

But nobody in the management was listening.

I know a thing or two about the good workers. They are so heavily invested in their productivity, they have very little negotiating space. It is the reason you must not push them over the edge. A tiny shift in the mental gears and one of them can go ping.

Please do not bring up labour reforms or the politicization of trade unions here. Human beings are fragile and a man can lose his will. I wouldn’t have known this of myself but here is how I acted on automaton the day of the fire.

I saw Ram Yadav on my way out of the factory. He was in a huddle with three police constables outside the boundary wall, right next to our guard room.  They were signalling furtively towards the service lane. Their body language frightened me and I skirted away. Once safely inside my car, I turned back for a look. A tight knot of torch bearers was hovering nervously at the far end of the lane. My hand went instinctively towards my phone to punch your number. But then, guess what. My limbs took on a life of their own. I reached for the ignition key and turned it, replacing the instrument on the dashboard. Who was I to get involved?!

You have to admit. This was a massive management failure. I don’t know if the board is every going to acknowledge or appreciate the ongoing personal and economic costs to those injured and bereaved.

Goodbye Sir Ji.  I will contact you next when my workplace tragedy support group is ready. Who would have thought?

No longer yours,

Deserter by design

Monday, March 18, 2013

Person (Micro Fiction)

Keerat’s own osteoporosis or her daughter in law’s supposed ailment, it was hard to tell which nettled more.

The two storeys high “Sekhon Farm” with its five watchdogs and twenty Jersey cows had begun to ring hollow ever since her Ajaib Singh’s marriage to the Chief Justice’s daughter. “I feel I have lost my son,” it was a refrain Keerat’s septuagenarian husband liked to ignore. He was tempted more than once to suggest she take a leaf out of his own mother’s note book on freeing one’s son so he may bond better with his life partner but he was a wise man and kept his counsel.

The genteel couple had brought up their son with the time worn values of hard work, enterprise and discipline. It had taken blood and sweat to raise him to be a productive young man. “We did all the tough part and I am now supposed to just hand him over meekly to a strange girl he happens to be married to,” Keerat had turned acutely possessive of her son. “Well, that’s a new! It wasn’t all that while ago I remember you decrying his being insensitive, laid back, careless and forgetful. Now that his loyalties are divided, you hold him up as a shining symbol of his industrious and sterling lineage,” she resented her husband keeping her grounded in this manner. 

But they were one in their concern over this unexpected and bothersome new challenge in Ajaib’s life. His bride had taken ill with a rare and expensive disease. It bothered them no end to see their son bowed down with work and worry. Keerat’s reaction was tinted with annoyance at her daughter-in-law, “Are you sure she is sick? She looks just fine; I think she is just plain lazy. Her parents should have told us of her illness. I believe multiple sclerosis is hereditary.”

“It has been called the invisible disease Mother, the symptoms can disappear completely between attacks. And who is to say about the point of onset, she has been diagnosed with its progressive form, very hard to predict the direction her condition will take.”

Ajaib sat his mother down in front of his laptop, “It is important for us to understand what is happening to her. Multiple sclerosis affects the central nervous system and there is as yet, no cure available for this disease. The more you deny her suffering from it, the greater her stress and worse the MS symptoms.”

Keerat fell silent, struggling with her mixed emotions. “Not many of our friends and family know about it Mum because I was myself uncertain as to what we were dealing with. But we are approaching decision point soon. I am afraid she may be slipping into depression. Her epileptic seizure last week shook her up real bad.”

“A fit, did you say a fit?” Keerat’s voice went up an octave.

“She was alone at home. Everything was fine when I left her for the airport. Some two hours later, she just keeled over. I cannot risk it again.”

The mother broke out of her stunned trance, “How can I help?”

“She is more than my wife, your daughter-in-law or Sunny’s mother Mum. She is a person, a very proud, self-respecting and right now, a deeply grieving person. She is gradually losing her independence and that is very painful. We have a very tough time ahead. Help me to help her.”

“Look up a service dog on that computer of yours. We should consider getting her a pet soon, trained to assist her with the daily chores,” Ajainb’s father had come in quietly and had been listening in with increasing concern.

Keerat sat up with a new sense of purpose, “A pet that could fetch her cell phone, open the door, switch off the lights or keep her company at night when she is in pain. You are so right, she needs her own team on this.”

 “That and an unconditional love,” Ajaib’s voice grew softer.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Isolation (Micro Fiction)

“Lime pickle or ginger powder for tea? Which of the two should I leave out?”

Despite Air India’s generous baggage allowance on the Tokyo flight Sarita had agonized over the two after dealing with winter clothing, homeopathic medicines and Vicco Vajradanti toothpaste.

Her son was on a sponsored study course at the University of Tokyo. This trip had come up unexpectedly.  The family was to attend his graduation nearly six months away but they had received an official email from the Japanese government mentioning a cardio vascular affliction. “I will need more time to get clearances for international travel. You better go alone,” her husband had urged her. He had seen her off at the Indira Gandhi International Airport with words of encouragement and reassurance.

Sarita was not fooled. Her sixth sense was telling her to prepare herself but she calmed her restless mind during the flight with a looping recitation of the Gayatri Mantra. At the Narita airport, she scrutinized her son keenly as he busied himself with her baggage and the cab.

“Did you bring the gift for Sensei?” were his first words as he turned towards her in the car. She nodded briskly, her eyes drinking him in. The voice stuck in her throat, choked at the memory of her own panic attacks back home at the thought of him alone in a foreign land. She fought down an insane urge to run her hands over his limbs just to make sure he was whole. “I got an inlaid bangle box, thought your teacher would appreciate something traditional” she was finally able to put his mind at rest.

He was pleased, “Can we have her home for a meal soon? Her conversation classes have been a great help.” She patted his knee, swelling up with pride at his ease in this vending machine capital of the world while he pointed out the landmarks along the drive to his university. They were soon enough, removing their shoes at the door to his dorm.

The sun rose sharper in Tokyo. “Mum, be careful with the garbage, all right. Two separate canters come for the cans and the organic.” He had been full of stories about Sensei “I will walk Sayuri Sensei to the dorm from the Ebisu station, she is not familiar with this ward”, he had announced over the kitchen clatter during breakfast.

Sarita saw him off to school and busied herself with organizing his mini residence, “My poor baby does not get time to clean and cook.” And there was the happy anticipation of meeting someone mellow who had clearly been an anchor to her son.

Tokyo’s street lamps had come alive when the front door lock clicked open from outside with a key. Sarita watched curiously as an elongated young Japanese beauty undulated in, ahead of her blushing son. Several times during the polite evening, insecurity stabbed at her as she watched Sayuri’s serene melancholy fend off his smitten looks. He had clearly drawn great strength from her.  “Your son is a brave man. It can get very lonely here if you do not know the language,” Sayuri smiled at the mother, admiring the bangle box closely. “Yes, we got an official communication about his health,” Sarita’s voice was tentative.

There was the slightest hesitation before Sensei dived into her neat handbag to pull out a tightly folded sheet of paper. “I took him to a private clinic here before the school got wise to his condition” she held it out for Sarita.

Indeed, it was a medical prescription in her son’s name drawn up by one Dr. Tsuneo Takagi, Researcher and Social Isolation Expert, Roppongi Hills Clinic.

The words pierced her clouded vision as Sarita struggled to reconcile cardio vascular trouble with medical notes on social pain, expatriate loneliness, interaction therapy and depression.

A voice yawned in her head. It was her mother, “Don’t be so ambitious! Keep your children with you as long as you can, you are sending them too far away from home.” 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Horsepower (Micro Fiction)

His habit of eating eraser in class was a cry for help.  It had taken Deborah months of work with the school counsellor to trace it back and resolve somewhat. Her heart sank at the thought of the nine year old out in the cold again; the school session was ending and he was graduating to a new and an unfamiliar teacher. She knew from experience that no amount of inter-class briefing could transfer the affectionate trust a teacher builds over time with a student.

An avid horsewoman, Debbie began her day with an invigorating ride astride ‘Touchwood’ her favourite horse in the school stables. And it was on these windy gallops that her students came to mind, challenging her to think of ways to help them best. She stood in the stirrups now, reining the horse in as the chestnut took the tree stump smoothly. The Ooty downs were poignant in their sleety silhouette at daybreak, her usual riding hour in the countryside. “Yash Gautam needed to open his heart to trust again; he needed a fresh line of communication” she followed the little child in her train of thought, guiding her horse over slippery slopes.

The Ooty Hunt Club was out at this hour, a moist earth having swallowed the sound of some eighty pairs of hooves. Debbie steered away from the Master of the Hunt, her gloved hands chafing at the straining reins and eyes stinging with images and the strong wind. There was Yash wringing his hands during assessment debriefs, “Papa talks to me only if I get A2 and above.” She lowered herself gently back into the saddle, rueful at the memory of him bouncing back from free play in the school grounds, “I am happy alone. Nobody likes me! I don’t like the games my friends play.”

Deborah had been proactive during the recent parent session. Her exchange with Yash’s parents nagged at her memory now. “I can’t help with his school work, no way. There is no time. And we cannot afford a maid. Yash sweeps, swabs, helps with the baby and massages my legs when I am tired,” his mother had disclosed in a soft voice. There had also been a mention of the father who equated parenting with a ‘no TV and three hour daily study’ rule.

Yash clearly needed help far beyond her own capacity as a busy teacher and coordinator. Who could heal and teach Yash respect, forgiveness, confidence, fair play? The child needed unconditional acceptance and the opportunity to lead. Debi slowed down as the stables came into view. Touchwood’s appreciative neigh at the thought perhaps of the customary carrot and jaggery treat brought a smile to the teacher’s pensive face. She patted the horse’s neck gently before dismounting with a strong toss of her dark hair at the stables driveway. She led her horse into the stall, gazing into his unafraid brown eyes and marvelling at his proud carriage. Her mind was made up!

Bright and early on the Investiture Day, it was an impatient wait for the Gautams. Barely giving them time to settle into their chairs, she resolutely pushed the Indemnity Bond made mandatory by the Horse Riding Club towards the father along with Yash’s scholar badge, “Sign this! I just found your son a lifelong role model and a teacher!”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Jeevansathi (Micro Fiction)

“Are you grilling them? Cook the Sheek Kebabs in water, they taste tender and are healthier!”

It was Saturday evening and the palatial living room of Manveen’s parental home rang with energized talk of real estate investments, jewellery purchases and palazzo pants. The women showcased their provider’s earning capacity while the men glowed with magnanimity over premium liquor, having given their wives permission to sip wine.

The talk moved to !

“There seems a famine of nicely brought up, suitable girls for our sons these days?” grumbled Mrs. Dhingra. “Most are too educated plus the money they make is going to their heads. And would you believe it, the last match we explored rejected our proposal because of location preference. Imagine!”

The pita bread snapped as Pammi auntie mumbled over the tastefully arranged platter, “I am quite liberal and mentally prepared that Titu’s bride will wear skirts and tank tops. Of course, she will go clubbing with him. A drink once in a while is all right too.”

Dabbing at her mouth with the embroidered serviette, it was Mrs Kalra's turn to fret, “The change in values has been so drastic. I think most young brides-to-be these days would only be too happy not to have to deal with a mum-in-law at all. I would be quite fine with giving my daughter-in-law her space but please, it scares me to think she might take our son away from us.”

“My Titu is a handsome Sikh but I am not fixated on appearances. I feel looks can be taken care of with polishing and grooming but I draw the line at smoking. It is against our religion, leave alone the health risks!” Pammi auntie was emphatic.

Manveen had heard enough. She put down the Sheek Kebab tray on the center table after having taken it around the room. Her ears quivering in the direction of the bhangra beats coming from across the manicured lawn, she plucked her way along the exotic flower beds towards the shaded gazebo. It was dark inside and she paused tentatively at the arched doorway. A solo ember described a quarter arc at the far end where Titu sat smoking, in his turban.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Unfaithful (Micro Fiction)

Racing to make it to the biometric attendance machine, Reena came up short. It was Khili near the school gate, family driver balancing a humongous bunch of anthuriums and plenty of other flower arrangement accessories. The teacher swiped her vibrating phone impatiently, motioning at the guard with her free hand to let the two in. Khili suffered from Asperger’s syndrome and would need help.

“Khili has practised putting together an ikebana Ma’am,” it was the mother on the other end of the phone. Laden with notebooks and other teaching paraphernalia, Reena beat back her impatience. The parent was apologetic and anxious, “We expect Khili’s participation in the flower arrangement competition to be therapeutic at best. Do keep an eye on her, she should be fine.” The teacher and taught made a bee line for the junior wing lobby, the driver lumbering at a deferential distance.  

Tall for her age, Khili was of a striking Chitpavan Brahmin pedigree. Her golden brown mane contrasted beautifully with her blue green eyes. An acute dysgraphia notwithstanding, she occasionally responded in class with graceful articulation. The teachers were fond of her and let her be.
“Madam, Saab will pick up Khili after school. I have to go on another errand,” the driver was staring at Reena’s feet, eyes shifting. Too busy to take much note, Reena frowned at him, vaguely wondering at the dislike that rose in her heart at the expression on the swarthy face. “Khili’s parents are legal luminaries, both. They dote on their only child. Surely their driver is an old faithful, they would not trust him with Khili otherwise,” went her thoughts as she made her way to the staircase going up to the next floor. “It must be terrible to have to depend so heavily on a third person to take care of your most precious loved one, one never knew these days.”

There was no time to think any further. Your typical day at school went its roller coaster way. The first half was well and truly upon Reena when a colleague sent for her to come to the competition venue. 

The hall was curiously silent as she entered. Muted music played in the background as usual, over and around the feast of colour and beauty, painstakingly arranged by the students on tables aligned for the purpose. The three judges were huddled around Khili’s handiwork, frowning at what they saw. The blue vase contained a single, dried, thorny twig rammed viciously into the tiniest metal frog. All the fancy flowers sent by her mother lay in a mussed heap on the side. “Send for our counsellor,” Reena barked, reaching for the phone to dial back the last received number.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Lament (Micro Fiction)

They sat facing a freshly dug grave. Its wet smell heightened their incredulous grief. Mamta did not know where to look. It hurt to recall the last moments. She skirted David’s entreating eyes. “Oh my God, how am I going to live with this? She was my wife, how could she?” he was bewailing. Anguished sounds punctuated his piteous refrain, “I feel betrayed. Are you certain about this? We had our differences but Annie couldn’t have been so bitter.”

Mamta plucked at an autumn leaf absently, her mind’s eye replaying the frames before the impact. “When I’m gone, I don’t want him touching my body. No goodbye hugs or kisses or caresses. He is not to lay a finger on me. I am calling upon our friendship to ask this of you. Please give me your word,” Lotika had been insistent, reaching out to switch on the wipers while smiling wryly at the look of shock on Mamta’s face in the passenger seat. The hail was crashing like an overturned drawer on the windscreen and the clouds had begun their wispy descent.

She remembered reaching out to wipe the precipitation, squinting at the road sign; twenty three kilometres to go, it had read. Briefly distracted by the lush green ice berg in her brown sandwich, they always carried food in these reaches, she had registered the “No overtaking” sign. The rocky yellow neon rotated away as the car turned around the steep gorge. “I know he is not a talker and the non-committal silence is eating you up. But have you tried counselling? He is such a great guy in every other way. Perhaps you need to be more accepting?” she had mumbled through a crunchy mouthful, glad for the comfort of food in that cold downpour. Unknown to the driver, Lotika’s forlorn frame around their block and her listless marriage to David had long been grist to the local gossip mills.

Lotika’s eyes had welled up. Mamta would remember the tear as long as she lived, one moment it was sliding down the pale cheek and the next, there was a spray of tiny violent shafts. Her ears still burned at the clangourous thwack. The oncoming tanker had nicked their blue ambassador, winging it across to sail into the chasm. 

She took his hand gingerly now, her shoulder throbbing even more at his lament, “I could not say goodbye. Her folks wouldn’t let me close to her body. No closure for me it seems. I would have wanted to give her one final hug.”

The words stuck in her throat. There had apparently been a will, a last wish from Lotika.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


It will be annual diary time for teachers soon. There will be records to fill up; lists of textbooks and duties, method of teaching, detailed syllabi, workshops attended, special efforts for bright students, remedial measures to improve the weak and of course, most important of all, what inspired the teacher most during the session.


The challenge is of acknowledgment. There are indeed two levels at which the school operates, much like the Hindu system of consciousness levels. The surface is represented by its public interface. There is the school diary, website, speeches made on official functions, the school magazine, assembly addresses by school heads. One hears of the school being a tree of knowledge, a centre for learning, the nursery that nurtures leaders and aims at an all-round development. There is another level however, at which young lives singe and burn in the cauldron called school life. It is not obvious to the eye but there are daily glimpses in student aggression, in creative graffiti, in groupism, in exclusion of others, in bullying and risky behaviour. As a teacher, you would wish for a horizon where these two worlds converged.

It has to start with the question of what schools are trying to do. The staff, the resources, the CBSE, the related paraphernalia; do we have a system that focuses on empowering a student or eliminating him at various levels? Do we celebrate or crush differences? Are we building young people who are force multipliers or are we churning out force dividers?

At the moment, there is a focus on a version of discipline based on a strong sense of shame. The measuring scale has been marking only one unit: test scores. There is an ocean of untapped original talent that has been drying up for lack of attention and recognition. While we could be learning from students who have things to say, we line them up for scrutiny under glasses tinted with pre conceived notions. And the outcome is legions of young who leave schools feeling an odd mix of grief and relief.

CCE! The “continuous and comprehensive evaluation of students that covers all aspects of their development” may correct that by forcing teachers to look at their students more closely. We keep bemoaning their lack of attention in class. It is we in fact who need to pay them more attention. 

For attention gives life and vitality.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Limerence (Micro Fiction)

Photo credit: Shashi Nayagam
The ripple in his white school shirt had the power to turn her knees to water. She only had to shut her eyes and that tensile walk would come back, a rolling sort of stride. He was tall, salt and pepper shock bouncing in the hill breeze on those rare occasions he swiveled in her direction.  

One did not turn and gaze back, you see. It was the 1970s and well brought up teenagers pretended the other gender did not exist. There was awkward shame, a sweaty palpitation, neurons hissing and crackling if you were caught staring at your object of interest. Glances had to be stolen, furtive and flickering. At fifteen, you were fighting a losing battle against hormones. And all they did was, call it puppy love!

She thought of mountain peaks every time he came into her line of vision. His frame intruded into her sleep laden eyes at night as she lay imagining what it would feel like to fly off a cliff, diving into the open skies. Just once had they gotten close enough during a class picnic photograph for the whiff of freshly cut grass to take root in her nostrils.

When the teacher droned in class, lessons simply ebbed against the roar in her ears. Her body faced the blackboard but her spirit would be aligned with the right hand corner where he sat, focussing hard on the instruction. It was no use fighting, her skin blushed all over and thin fire washed the pores.

This state of dopiness would have continued unabated had her half yearly report card not come in to her parents, all covered in red ink. Here she was as a direct fall out therefore, ensconced in the family car, ruminative of the chain of events at home leading to the drive today. She snapped out of her reverie as the driver killed the engine and turned to her, “Your appointment is in five minutes, baby.”

She walked into the building bearing a blue sign: Dr. Asmita Pathak, Clinical Psychologist and Self Esteem Expert.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


I watch you grow with pride  
You’re sure and strong in stride
The certainty that you matter
Must never ever shatter

The darts when they come
From outside yes some
But watch out for those
That will come from close

A haven that heals
Wounds and bad deals
May become your inferno
Its ringmaster your beau

His family will idolize
Their son, a grand prize
You may be dismissed
Have you reminisced?

Put down they may
In many a way
Food and his care
They will have you dare

Your music is shoddy
Do not neglect your body
Another’s wife a master cook
No cobweb may you brook

When you take the wheel
Does he guide and squeal
Who has the remote?
Is he mocking your taste?

There’s an hour I fear
Pray hark my dear
As much as the physical
Rape can be mental

You are bright and gay
And you hold sway
Over life, a time
Of dozen, a dime

No hitting no names?!
Look out for other games
And have a plan
If he is not half the man 

Valentine does not pose
With diamonds and rose
He is one who will cherish
Not letting you perish

Friday, March 1, 2013

Pindari Berth (Fiction)

Her friends called her crazy. 

Who takes leave at the financial year end to go visit a house that was home thirty years ago? But word had come from her school alumni association that Pindari Berth had been served demolition notice. Pachmarhi, the Queen of the Satpuras, was coming into its own as a tourist destination and frenetic construction work was in progress. She winced at the thought of a greasy crane flattening a lifetime of memories into dust. She had to say goodbye.

Pindari Berth! Named after a glacier in the upper Kumaon Himalayas, the white structure seeped into her view as she stared out of the car at the ghats swishing by in a green blur. She inhaled the air deeply, letting the pungent scent of mahua wash over her lungs. The mango trees were laden at Panarpani where her cab stopped for a tea break. She wandered away from the hissing kerosene stove to reach for a raw green fruit, holding it to her nose… whispered of her childhood, of bicycle rides, frilly frocks, birthday bashes and family picnics. A quick nick and her teeth stung with the tangy juice. Urgency took hold of her to reach Pindari Berth.

Dusk had fallen when they sailed into the claustrophobic hush typical of hill stations. The car wheeled into peeling green gates, door banging shut. She slowed at the shadow of a young girl, swinging on freshly painted rails. With a shake of her head, she turned to the cottage, “Phantasm!” A lantern was coming into view, swinging eerily and slowly. It was Mr. Devasher, he was hobbling with age! They embraced and she drew back in alarm at his smallness. He felt papery, wispy and light, a far cry from the gregariously avuncular neighbour she remembered. She peered at him, reluctant to let go the sleeve of his brown Burberry . He disengaged himself gently, “Let us go inside, I have brought the keys. I cannot fathom a hotel coming up here.”

The two shuffled through the rooms, the air thick with reminiscences. There was dust and cobwebs, door hinges creaked and groaned. Her host held up the lantern to significant points, “You see here, your Dad had his bar set up in this corner. And there, beyond that is the area your Mum used as her studio.” She felt drawn to her room. It was just a space, she told herself, concrete and bricks and stone and mortar. But it was coming alive to her, right there as they looked on at nothing.

She heard sibling bickering, all huffy and irate. She smelt childish hurt mixed with disappointment. She sensed her own laboured metamorphosis. A hundred emotions waltzed in the air and there was more! In that window glass besides the bed was her Dad’s concerned watchfulness. On the mantle was her Mom’s nurture. Near the steps outside lay her sister’s cautious affection! Her ears rang with laughter, screams, and shouts. Her nose twitched with smells from her growing years; the Ponds cream whiff, the merest zephyr of Fluffy, wafts of fresh baking. She wanted to spread out her arms and hug Pindari Berth close.

“Shall we go home for dinner? Your aunt will be waiting for us. The builders are coming at 9.00 am,” the voice was tentative.  She turned to pick up the lantern Mr Devasher had left on the portico ledge. He shook his head, taking it from her and leading by the hand. 

She nearly missed a step at the sight outside. The lawn trees were alight, a thousand fireflies twinkling in their lush leaves, like twines of X-Mas lights.

She stood gripping the wrinkled hand, tears rolling down her face. “Goodbye Pindari Berth,” she whispered to herself.

All photo credits to Shashi Nayagam