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.


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? 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Truancy (Micro Fiction)

Chunni Chand leaned across the shop counter to grab the hurtling school bags; the students were running late for the matinee show. They slapped a twenty rupee bill each on the grimy counter and swung their knapsacks across, only to hit out at a pace towards the cinema across the road. It was a school legacy generations had graduated, smiling about. You were not a ‘true blue Raffanite’ if you had not “CC-ied”.

CC as Chunni Chand was fondly known was in cahoots with the truant. He provided a range of services to the young of this select school; safe-keeping their bags during school hours so they could play hooky with less conspicuity was base one!

Peskiness was not a fault; he was clear on that, it was their teen age.  He hummed nasally now, doing a brisk business of selling paan, cigarettes, Aquafina, and the odd snack while his young clients sank into their cinema seats, the titles of the latest Hollywood blockbuster rolling on the big screen. 

“You are my pumpkin pumpkin hello honey bunny,” rang Chunni Chand’s caller tune, back at the shop. CC gurgled through the betel juice in his mouth,”Guh gg ghello!” The voice at the other end was frantic, “CC ji! Nitin here! Trouble, trouble…my father was to meet Padma Ma’am at 10 today, please arrange a parent, quick. Three hundred? Yes, standard rate. My details are in the school diary, blue bag, yes. Just take care of this, all right. I have to get back to the movie.”

CC glanced at the dusty clock on the far wall, subtracting ten minutes automatically; there was still a half hour to go. Ever since he had attained adulthood, CC had gotten into the habit of keeping his time telling devices ahead by ten minutes. His sluggish childhood pace had scarred him somewhat, his family had arrived late on several occasions while he was growing up. Shaking his head free of those painful memories, he pulled out his well-thumbed register now. Running over his stock cast of “parents for hire” he did a mental match, taking notes from Nitin’s diary particulars. Within minutes, Nitin’s ‘father’ was signing himself through the school security gate, wearing the deferential look of a parent summoned for chastising.

“Intermission time" CC smiled to himself like a cat with the cream, popping open lemonade bottles with grand gestures. A hungry horde of students was pouring in a steady stream from the direction of the school. It was not considered cool to carry packed tiffin from home. The teens liked to hang out at the corner shop, munching and socializing. “The sandwiches would hold until lunch hour”, CC calculated; he had better order some paneer rolls though; several kids ate on the long commute home. He was kept busy over the next hour. It was not until the school bus engines began their start up roars that CC next subtracted ten from the clock face. “Where are these kids?” he began to fret in his head. “Nitin’s father should have been back with a debrief from Padma Ma’am!”

Just as he made to scan the building across the road, Chunni’s blood froze at what he saw in his line of vision.  A frisson went up his brain stem. He cast about in fearful futility before turning to the bags in confusion. Blue bag, Nitin had said? His hair stood up with alarm. There were two!

Always! Every time! His father’s words drilled his smoking ears, “You must think things through. Stop racing ahead by your silly ten minutes!”

Chunni Chand Banaras Paanwale was turning the minute hand anticlockwise when the School Discipline Officer and guards landed in full force.