Monday, November 3, 2014

Other worldly (Fiction)

The diary entry went back seven years. Reema fluffed up her favourite bolster and settled down with the camel coloured journal, inviting her daughter Chehak to the space besides her on their well-loved sofa bed.

“Sitting in gyan mudra under the Terminalia Arjuna, I felt scrubbed clean. My skin hummed in the light streaming down from its leaves. The red of my blood swirled into their luminescent xylem. I had just finished reading about phyllotaxis. Placing the book aside, I looked up at the canopy to see how the leaves arranged on a stem so as to intercept optimum sunlight for photosynthesis.  The longer I gazed, the brighter it became around me. It began to feel unusually warm. The brilliance in the air exploded like the 1000 skyshot, with its multi-coloured Diwali flare. I lost all sense of life and limb. The only certainty was about being where I floated: in the nucleus of the sun! There was no fear; just a tiny niggling worry about the Ethnobotany semester exam the following day and what missing that would do to my semester grades. It felt unconstrained, quite unlike my claustrophobic body. 
Sensations of expansive connectedness alternated with an effervescent lift. There were no lungs to fill and yet I breathed in deeply. I saw no form but my arms spread wide to embrace the indefinite space radiating from my centre. I was the centre and the circumference. It was finally fun being me!”

Reema drew a ragged breath and looked over the journal sheet at her newly wed daughter. Muted sounds of domestic appliances kicking in were the only other signs of life in the green home library, outside of which, the world went about its daily business of self-delusion.

“Ma, I have left my body twice since this episode.”

Reema leaned back and crossed an arm over her eyes, the journal nestling on her sternum. Her mind went back to Chehak’s school days. The English TGT Mr D’Costa, during one of the parent teacher meetings had asked to see the parents in private, “Ma’am, your daughter is an evolved soul. I don’t know how spiritual you consider yourself but she often voices concerns about the nature of existence. I think she senses I am open to metaphysical debate and feels at home challenging views of reality in my presence.”

Other frames crowded at Reema’s feeble attempts to fight them off. She took her arm off the eyes and grabbed Chehak by her hand, taking care not to chafe the bridal red bangles. The air between them blistered with unexpressed anguish, “You have just entered a new phase of life Chehak ….the last thing you need right now is to go any deeper into that head of yours. This is the time to be laying the bricks of a happy home so you can start your family soon and fulfil your social role.”

“Mum, don’t worry. I understand that completely and am entirely up to it but you wouldn’t expect me to wish away the Tunganath temple darshan last week now, would you?” Chehak protested calmly. 

Reema released her arm and fell back on the comforting upholstery. There was no denying the event that had taken place in that tightest of sanctums high up in the mountains and barely a week ago. The groom was walking away after the obeisance but the bride had stood rooted to her spot facing the deity. As Reema made to prod her, the priest had held up his hand with a look of warning. Reema remembered well his ring finger frozen in a crook, sandal paste dripping as he waited. Unknown to the rest, Chehak was in the grip of a most personal darshan with Lord Shiva. “It was like a faucet of twinkling blue tridents hailing over me”, Chehak had recounted dazedly to her stunned family outside of the precinct. It brought a smile to Reema’s face, the memory of the priest’s hand finally coming to rest on the devotee’s broad forehead for the anointing. Several eyes had seen the tilak turn strangely fluorescent in the shivery air.

Chehak drew patterns on her henna covered hand, “Mum, it is a continuing conflict but you must relax. I may be detached but I have no desire to run away from my humdrum commitments! I am here, right beside you.” The two hugged each other, bound by their wondrous disquiet at these brushes with the unknown.

“It has puzzled me to see how people fight shy of looking into each other’s eyes long enough, other than the smitten folk of course”, Chehak felt emboldened enough to further vocalize.  “Have you tried holding someone’s gaze? It is shocking how revealing it can be. A strange energy circuit builds up and the barriers all dissolve. It feels like everyone is connected in some form of shared union. And yet, it is discomfiting in that fluid intimacy.”

“There is coffee in the percolator, Malabar blend. Let’s get some!” Reema heaved herself up from the couch, casting about mentally for a sane resolution to this spiritual intrusion in their family space. She cursed herself and her husband silently for discussing the fifth dimension, cellular transformation and TV serials like the Fringe and X-Files at the dining table with their children. What’s more, it had often been said at home, within earshot of the siblings that the fundamental sanity of Indians sprang from a belief in the afterlife and the notion of destiny!

They had been foolish in their parenting. Reema winced at the taste in her mouth.

“Mum, I need to segregate my stuff; can’t take all of it to my married home. Where are my school papers….all the teen letters and the slam books?” Reema pointed Chehak to the garage and laid out the coffee mugs. She debated a visit to the Parapsychologist, “No point discussing this with anyone else, they will think we are crazy!” Lost in an intense reflection, the metal grip slipped off her hand, spilling hot milk violently at a jubilant shout from the backyard. Chehak entered the roomy kitchen, holding aloft a red coloured diary, “Look Mum, read this note from Padmaja…you remember her of course, my closest friend in college. I had forgotten all about this. Here, read please.”

Reema rinsed her stinging fingers under the running water from the
tap, taking time to wipe them dry before reaching for the book. The green ink winked at her from the passage of time, “Chehak dear….as long as I live, I shall remember the day you returned from your study hour on the hill. You were shining like a brilliant lantern. I wanted to ask you where you had been but the dinner gong went off and then events took over. Remind me when we meet again to get to the bottom of that unearthly glow around you. I am surprised they didn’t call the fire brigade. Always in memory of your radiance that oddest of days, Padmaja!”

Her mind now made up on meeting a professional, Reema got down to assisting Chehak depart for her new home. There was nary a household item she did not want her daughter to have. The two were kept busy until post tea when she finally stood waving a white handkerchief at the receding tail lights of Chehak’s car in the distance. She was just about turning in from switching on the porch light and wiping a tear when the front gate clanged open with the rudeness of familiarity. It was the family doctor, on way home from his evening health run, having decided to stop by for a hot cup of tea.

“Don’t tell me! Are you crying?! Here, let me see. Already missing our Choosy, are you now?! Come here, give me a hug,” Reema allowed herself to be held, feeling conflicted and emotional. In that weak moment, she decided to come clean with the dear doctor on Chehak’s other worldly experiences.

The doctor took no time and did not mince words, “It is dehydration, plain and simple. The weather is turning; these modern kids do not drink enough water. Plain hallucinations! A parched brain deactivates the visual cortex which in turn ignites the part that drums up kinaesthetic imagery. Send your helper along when I leave. I will give him a dozen ORS packets. Drown her in the oral rehydration solution. But first your spicy cardamom tea; two spoons sugar please!! 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Options (Micro Fiction)

“I love you baby; you come first for me; there is nothing more important in my life” Suheena’s head fell back with fatigue at this exhibition of relentless assurance. She watched the earnest young mother from her TV recliner, hovering and fussing over her primary school kids. “Oh, you are trying hard Tina” her tone was sardonic “treat your children with respect, do not baby talk, appeal to their sense of reason, educate them on options, offer choices and let them make the call…..your parenting tenets are clearly in line with modern theory and thought.”

“Harrummph!” The dismissive sound came from the master bedroom. “What’s gone wrong with my family, they are forever minding their Ps and Qs? It is not our way in India to be so apologetic and grateful all the time. There are some things owed, expected and given without a thought, you don’t have to keep thanking and saying sorry” their grandmother ranted from her invalid bed, clearly offended at the excessive and unfamiliar social graces in the air.

“Nani, it is all right…..they respect each other in their country. We presume a whole lot here, in ours. Neither is right or wrong, it is a cultural thing” Suheena watched Tina lead her children into the kitchen for a discussion on the day’s menu. “This is going to take time” she chuckled to herself, leaning forward to get a good view of the anthropological drama about to unfold. The young mother began soon enough.

“How would you like your milk today kids? Cold or hot?”

“I want it cold, Devi will probably drink hers warm” little Karan cocked his head at the sister.

“Sure, would you like to try chocolate Horlicks in the milk? It is a popular brand in India” the mother began to warm up to the decision making process.

“Mom, it says here the product is for women. Devina can use it, I refuse to!” Karan’s voice went up a sharp.

“Absolutely, that’s fine” Tina acquiesced  soothingly.  “Would you like your milk in a cup or a glass? Here, take your pick? Don’t hesitate.”

“I like the tumbler, Devi likes that Twilight Forever cup.”

“How about you dip your Oreos in the milk, dunk them like I do?” this was one parent eager to lay it all.

“I’ll pass; just the fluid please!”

“Hey kids, look…..Nani has arranged to have all three available…..there is toned, double toned and full cream milk. Isn't she considerate?”

“Mum, you know I am allergic to the fat in a hybrid cow’s milk….they have withdrawn it from our school meal plan too.”

“Well, you both returned negative for the lactose tolerance hydrogen breath test. It means your bodies can break down and absorb lactose. Now shall we drink it here or out in the garden?” the mother was certainly eager to please.

“I don’t care Mum, let’s just pour the double toned!”

“How hungry are you? It is getting close to breakfast time. You want to drink the milk now or keep it for your toast and cereal? You have options.”

“You know what Mum; options spook me. No milk today, no way!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Hoax (Micro Fiction)

A bride’s welcome is an electrifying event on Armed Force Bases.

“The guiding principle is recall value. She must always cherish that first brush with our way of life,” Namita remembered her husband’s company commander laying out this informal social policy at one of their regular gatherings. “What if she gets turned off for good with this nonsense?” Namita was new enough at that time to express concern. The response had been confident, “Oh, these escapades become the stuff of service legend and most often they are evoked by the wives themselves.”

“I am telling you Mum, there is no better mother-in-law than the Indian Armed Forces!” she had excitedly told her mother on the phone that evening. “You have to see how wife after wife slips into the social stream, conforming and converting sooner than later to her adopted family,” it had bemused her mother to hear this from her once fiercely independent daughter.

But this was odd. Without so much as a briefing, let alone a brain storming, the unit was trooping into the “Station Run” to welcome the new couple. “What is the prank?” someone voiced the dominant thought as the welcome bus checked out of the guard room. There was silence and it crossed Namita’s mind “Perhaps we are finally toning down the circus.”

The vehicle trundled busily along the deserted city link road. At the height of terrorist activity in Punjab, you would be lucky to spot even a tractor chugging home at dusk from the farms. But true to their disciplined and time bound fibre, business done some three hours later, the merry gang was heading back, charged up on the somewhat shy magic between the bride and the groom. As they hit the half way milestone, the bus unexpectedly swerved. Stunned at the violent jolt, the occupants sat up, a frisson metastasizing in the aisle at the shouts and sounds of vigorous scuffles.  The front door of the vehicle banged open and five turbaned men charged up the steps, their guns aimed at the dark interior. “Give us the bridal gold, quick,” they growled from behind blankets slung around their torsos in the winter air.

They waved a chunky flashlight on the blanching faces. It didn’t take them long to spot Kitty, the bride. Everyone turned to Vikas seated alongside her, willing him to stand up for his wife. He remained rooted to his seat, poker faced, as the men dragged his brand new spouse off the bus. A community paralysis had taken hold of the unit. The men had turned to stone and the women had entered into the most abject of survival modes. Mitali was holding out her mangalasutra beseechingly. Sophie was plonked on her pudgy toddler, desperate to keep him out of harm’s way. Shalini had achieved an acrobatic feat by folding her frame into half under her own seat.

Kitty’s piteous cries made them cringe. As the awful wailing grew weaker, the sound of a siren took over, swelling exponentially. It was the police, advancing at a clip! Someone had called the 181. All heads turned to Goofy, the commanding officer. The confusion was confounded at the ruckus near the front door all over again. A huddle was force entering the bus, Kitty in the lead! The bus resounded with a collective gasp at the sight of five of the unit bachelors, minus their turbans and blankets now. “Quick Goofy sir, back to base, the police will complicate things” they were entreating even as they threw their squash racquets into the back seat over stunned heads. The memorable welcome to be had just disbanded officially.

Goofy sir barked the order to move, reaching for the phone vibrating urgently in his shirt pocket. Startled out of incredulity, the bus collected itself and powered up hurriedly. Having finished listening to the guardroom duty officer at the other end, Goofy sir replaced the instrument slowly and turned to fix Vikas with a glare, “There is a lady at our main gate….she says she is the real new bride of Major Vikas Gupta! You double crossing, wife ridden rat!!”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Transference (Micro Fiction)

Kamini inhaled deeply and held her breath at the door, exhaling slowly through the mouth as she approached the teachers’ table. High school kids sweated differently; her nose itched at the overactive apocrine glands in the classroom.

Alarmed at the rising incidents of teen stress, the management had mandated a weekly dose of moral science for the senior school. Her track record of lifelong learning and a talent for seeing the larger picture had marked Kamini an ideal life coach and her day was well underway. “Our lesson today is on assuming responsibility for what we are and the person we want to be” she had barely begun, marker pen poised on the white board.

“My parents messed me up in the head Ma’am! I do not want to take the engineering entrance. I want to become a scuba diver” Atul was first off the block, his educated belligerence echoing in assessing eyes around the room.

Kamini put the marker down, falling back into her chair heavily; this filial blame game had begun to come up more and more. It sounded dissonant in a culture that venerated parenting, a mother’s role in particular. She skimmed the faces trained on her, “Are there others in this class who share Atul’s anger?” Shaily pushed her chair back tentatively, “Yes Ma’am, it bothers me to have my mother say she preferred being “my mum rather than a chum”. My friends have parents they can really let their hair down with.” A titter rose at this from the far corner where Bikram stood waving his hand, “Look, we did not ask to be born. I think it is criminal to bring children into this chaotic world and then want to control them completely.”

Kamini turned towards the sound of a throat being cleared; it was Kriti, the school head girl, “Ma’am, you have a social system so deep rooted in a judgmental hierarchy, it is easy to look for someone or something to blame!”

The ensuing silence was broken by a rude movement at the door. Shambhu, the Principal’s peon did not stand on ceremony with any of the staff, least of all with the teachers, “Madam Ji, Principal Sir wants you.”  Shaking her head at the howl of protest from the class at this interruption, Kamini hurried to the lobby.

Taruna Kalra and her mother were standing stiffly outside the Principal’s office, ragged words clashing in low tones. “I feel repressed at home, I need space….there is too much drama already in my life” the young girl was shaking with anger.

The mother stood as though turned to stone. She had fixed her eyes at a spot on Kamini’s hair. Her voice was a flat drone, “I am numb. My chest feels like I have broken a rib. I did my best. I must not cry. You are treating me like I were an invisible, middle aged woman”

“Get yourself a life mother and stop worrying about me!” Taruna continued to lash out, stung and hurting. Kamini watched the parent splinter in slow motion and the daughter crack with an impotent fury; life could bring such pain. The two women dragged on the laden air, blinking rapidly to swallow the salt pricking their eyelids.

The parent moved first; Kamini stepping back to make way. At the sound of the summon bell from inside the office, Mrs Kalra broke stride and turned to look back at her daughter, “I love you but you no longer resemble me. You resemble your times!" Her daughter’s plaintive cry vainly tried to catch up, “Principal Sir is calling us inside and now you are making me feel really alone!”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dress code (Micro Fiction)

Photo courtesy: Mala Kaur
They made for a pretty picture. Three generations of Indian women and from one gene stock, faces aglow in the pensive gold of a porcelain lamp. Steaming mugs of caffeine marked their vintage; a milky, a green and a strong black.

Setting her needle point aside, Raninder Kaur mused “I used to recognize the men around me only by their shoes. Beeji would not let me look at their faces.” Her daughter Harleen nodded wanly, tatting shuttle poised mid-air, “But you and Daddy were ahead of your times Ma; you would insist that I bring all the boys who were my friends home.” Tia looked up from fingering the tattoo on her wrist, amusement writ large on her young face, “Not boyfriends, is it? Boys who were friends!”

The three sat as though adrift, the debris of a social convulsion lapping around them. Harleen laughed softly as she shared with Tia the acute discomfort it caused everyone to have a bra strap peak the slightest. It was considered bad form to tuck it away in view. The offender would hurry away to privacy, shamed by the narrow piece of elastic. “My mother had to wear a heavy lehenga over her salwar, every time she stepped out of her home,” Raninder  Kaur called to memory Tia’s great grandmother.

The sartorial mishap that had the women in a huddle had to do with Tia’s fondness for the racer backs. At a party the night before, a page three reporter had clicked her picture and copies of the rag were ruffling on dining tables across the extended family. “Spotted, a neighbourhood hottie!” the family was squirming as much over the caption as they were at the offending shot of Tia’s ornate halter neck. That it sat well on her toned body and she radiated joy had evidently escaped everyone.

Raninder Kaur held the newspaper up to get a clearer look, “She looks rather nice in this dress, whatever they call it…the color suits her.” Harleen shook her head resignedly, “You know how conservative our clan is Mother. They will pick this bone for years.” Their family of highly educated and staunch Sikhs tolerated diversity but brooked the barest of adventurism from their women.

“Checks and balances make sense for social order, I guess,” the two seniors turned towards Tia, their eyes widening.  She had eventually lifted her shiny head from the WhatsApp screen “I don’t know Mum! What is so scary about an exposed shoulder blade? It is wrong to sexualize the female dress. I wear clothes for myself. The gender power imbalance in our society we talk about…I think many women internalize that and feel forced to commodify themselves through exposure. How about we shift focus to the men and their ‘boys will be boys’ mindset?”

Stung into silence, the adults stared at their progeny. “Oh, and before I forget, there is a letter for parents from the discipline committee at school. They are convening over the dress code at school functions. Some of us wore tank tops to the senior jam session and believe it or not, there is talk of expulsion by way of setting an example. Would you call this reasonable? I mean, the weather is so warm these days!” 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Blind spot (Micro Fiction)

It was a reflex action, there was no other way to explain Mamta’s juvenile getaway. The traffic policeman was squinting at her papers when her right foot took on a life of its own, the silver Honda retreating in a nebula of guilt and anger.

A law abiding citizen belching on values, Mamta had a strong sense of black and white. “How can people break rules? I was brought up to respect authority,” she often simmered at the apparent state of anarchy around.

“Madam, do you realize why I waved you down?” the cop had said. She had apparently stepped over the yellow divider, literally crossing the line! There had been a car snailing ahead and Mamata had swung the slightest right to overtake. This was embarrassing! Another policeman had sauntered up to her window putting pen to the challan book. “License and pollution papers?” he had drawled. It rattled her to be at the receiving end of such pedestrian demands. “This is a copy, where is the original license?”  Mamta remembered silently cursing her husband “Damn Hari’s cautiousness, he advocated carrying copies, just in case.”

“Please hurry up and take whatever you have to. Don’t ask me all these questions!” she had glared at the lukewarm men. “You will have to pay penalty Madam. Copy not allowed ” and Mamta was gone, leaving the traffic keepers clutching at her history.

Foolishly enough, she had dared hope for sympathy at home. “You just drove off like that?” her husband was aghast. “Leaving your license and papers behind?” his voice climbed a scale. Mamta was frigid, “It was your idea to carry a copy!”

Hari was crestfallen, an organizer to the core, his study shelves arrayed with files on everything from family finances to the dog’s medical records. “I know, I know but to slip away like that, from under their noses…I don’t believe this!” And of course Mamta found it convenient to be defensively dismissive “Forget the license, it was just a copy” 

“No way, I will have to retrieve the lot. You must keep your wits about you and that Radio FM plays too loud in your car. Get into the habit of anticipating honey.” Mamta tuned him out, pulling the original license from her metal cupboard to tuck it carefully into her cards pouch. She was livid with herself already and Hari’s litany sounded like he was rubbing it in. 

A highly educated professional, Mamta took pride in her self-sufficiency “I am not clinging to my husband like a vine.” She was therefore self-contained when Hari dropped a white packet on her work table the following evening. He was puffed up and preening with victory “Here are your car papers Madam Bolter!” In that moment, the traffic policeman seemed almost a friend. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Catastrophe (Micro Fiction)

He went at the herbs with a vengeance. The three inch blade would swing to the right as he gathered the greens with his left, their crunchy hits pinging on the tumid kitchen air. 

Meha’s husband called it her default setting; this habit of biting off more than she could chew. A full-fledged, three course Spanish dinner was under production with the solo assistance of google and an Indian cook who was having trouble keeping his hands off ginger.

“Madam, are you sure about the adrak?” his swarthy confidence had begun to crumble. “We are cooking Paella, not Biryani Biju and use only olive oil please; very little at a time!”

The cook house would have put NASA control room during take-off to shame. Meha was scrolling down the recipes online, cross checking the images and calling out the ingredients in a tight voice. “Biijuuu! Just sauté lightly….no browning the onion….this is tortilla not tadka.”

Biju had begun to sweat with the effort of tuning out his long, Indian culinary experience. “Stop, stop, what are you doing? The parsley is for garnishing, you are mincing it with that knife of yours!” Biju dropped the knife as though stung, turning fearfully to the asparagus in slow motion, going pale at their lightened skin, they had overcooked! “Don’t tell me you used up both the green peppers in the gazpacho! We needed one for the Ensalada de pollo,” Meha fought down the panic, an eye on the clock. The ceremonial dinner table had to be laid and the guest bathroom given a once over. She ran down her check list mentally, chafing at having to rein in Bijju’s automatic kitchen reflexes that came from years of training.

“Slice the peaches down the middle Biju and use just a dab of butter for the pine nuts…I can’t give you too many breaks today; this is taking longer than expected.”

Biju shifted his weight in a deliberate manner to the right leg, “Er..umm…I think the meat balls have gone too soft, I will need some corn flour?!” Meha fixed him with that look, irritated at this affirmation of what she called ‘corrective cooking’. “Why are these cooks always patching up with corn flour and potatoes” she talked to herself just as her phone came to life with a message tone. It was her mother, wanting to discuss a forthcoming family event. “Mum, am busy, will call later” she typed out quickly before turning to the guacamole. Biju had scooped the avocado pits and was beginning to dunk the onions in the grinder. “Why? I told you to grate them; we want a grainy texture. Peel another one please.”

Polishing, dusting, watering, painting….the minions were hard at it outside the galley. Having mentally checked off the snack items, the serving bowls, the garden lights and the music, Meha finally shifted a gear down. She had planned her outfit and it hung neatly in her wardrobe, ironed and crinkle free. “A quick shower and I will light the candles” Meha called out some more instructions over her shoulder before closing the door to the master bedroom.

The evening progressed rather well over the well planned and creatively laid out snacks and beverages. Ricky Martin’s “Lo major de mi vida eres tu” kept the esprit de corps humming. Dear husband played the dutiful host, egged on by the memory of how fatigued his wife had looked when he returned home from work. “You have explained it all to Biju, now just relax and let him handle it, he is a veteran cook” he had reassured the hostess.

It must have been that urging combined with the sangria, Meha would tell herself later. She had no memory of how the food came to be laid on the table. What remained seared in her mind was the garnishing. There were slivers, and whorls, even nano-cubes! Flecks and quarters and strips of crisp fresh ginger, generously sprinkled over every single dish at her Spanish red theme, dining table.

Horribles jengibre! 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Compensation (Micro Fiction)

“Push your glutes down, stretch the arms, stretch, stretch… this is very good for the spine. Are the legs burning? Come on, whose thigh muscles are hurting…hold it, hold it…..eight, seven, six, and five…..”

A moan rose from the sweaty bodies positioned around the high ceiling hall on colorful yoga mats. The air reeked of tentative optimism and personal neglect. Having devoted their prime to nurturing families, these women had finally decided to show themselves love before their frames turned too porous. They hoped that a gravity defying lift would happen: to the uterus, the underarms, and the morale.

“Rimmi, my husband is going to bless you if you can teach me salsa. He is an excellent dancer and I am such a bad partner, I just feel so terrible” Manya was one of those sponge students, soaking her instructor in toto. Her gaze did not once waver from the yogi’s crafted body and she pushed herself, absorbing every single word, painstakingly following instructions down to the last turn and twist.

“I am not able to practice at home; why don’t you give us homework Rimmi? Should we do three Suryanamaskars over the weekend?” her dependence on the instructor for direction and discipline was childlike. Their constant exchange interrupted everyone’s rhythm but the group plodded on. They shared an unspoken empathy borne of having survived life’s unending wear and tear. 

“Shucks, I always forget to carry my napkin and water. Rimmi, my arms were aching over the weekend but the Husband’s Night is approaching and I am really looking forward to it this time” there was no abating Manya’s refrain for validation. “Did you try Bikram’s Hot Yoga this time on your trip to the US? Goodness, looking at you, no one would believe you had two caesareans!” 

For over an hour, the hall would thrum with hissing breaths, groaning joints and swiping towels. “Keep the heart rate up but don’t hurt your back, bend from the hip…..slowly roll up” Rimmi had the group in a trance with her steady pace and even manner. “I am launching my website soon ladies, you can check out the exercises there” she had the physical fluency to talk while in a “Bakasana”.

“What inspired you Rimmi, to take up physical fitness. You look so fit, not an inch extra anywhere?” Manya was the quickest to roll her mat, drain the water bottle into her mouth and gather up her belongings.

“My parents!” Rimmi answered, unplugging the music system from the wall socket. “Here, let me show you their picture, I always carry it with me.” Diving into her bag, she pulled out a six inches by four inches laminated photograph. The others hung back politely as Manya craned her neck familiarly. “Ouch!” she crushed more than a toe on the hasty step back. The rest moved forward, frowning. There was silence as they viewed the smiling couple settled comfortably on an elegant sofa in a tastefully done up living room.

“My Dad is 130 Kg and Mum is stable at 98 Kg!” Rimmi’s tone was rueful.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Shrine (Micro Fiction)

The two women were a familiar sight to the guards and the local domestics. They carried a stick each with a strangely apologetic air, not knowing when an articulate animal lover might spring from behind the bushes.  

“I am sorry Rashmi, I slept through the alarm yesterday, hope you did not wait for me!” The taller of the two, Rashmi was gracious, “It is all right Meeta but it is unsafe to walk alone, that black dog came out of nowhere at me but I used my stick, I think it hit him on the nose.”

The two feared their colony street dogs that neither the MCD nor the resident welfare association would touch. Diffusing a canine was apparently more complicated than launching the PSLV C-23. The walkers had therefore evolved a signature move. They would lower one end of their long canes on the tar road, the scraping sound promptly sent the dogs into subdued skulks although there was no telling the canine hormones!

The hour was a trifle incongruous to go striding, not much stirred at 4.30 am. They walked in silence for the most part, commenting intermittently and dryly on the lack of breeze, the faulty street lights, the litter by the road and other fitness options close by.

“Good lord, what is that lying on the temple road?” the two quickened their pace to pull up near the narrow lane one day. “Two shoes from different pairs and a small slipper; must be a pup playing hooky in the night when the household is asleep” Rashmi chuckled to herself, recalling the antics of her own Beagle snoring back home.

A toilet brush one day, a magazine the next, even a mosquito repellent dispenser once! The two looked up from a quartered shoe box in the middle of the road one morning to take in the little statues, flower petals and red scarves scattered under the temple tree. “This shrine blesses expectant mothers with sons, my maid servant made an offering here, she has three daughters already.” Rashmi shrugged her shoulders at Meeta’s words, “Are you serious?”

They had turned around the main gate notice board, gripping their canes at the sound of distant barking. The guards were asleep, rhythmic traffic sounds lulling them unhelpfully. “Oops, did you feel a drop? It is beginning to drizzle?” Two Chinese umbrellas snapped open as they resumed cautiously, “This is odd, it looks like a pack today” Meeta whispered into the sound of falling water. They narrowed their eyes at the sight of five dogs huddled around an object, their heads bobbing. Rashmi sucked the moist air, perturbed at the sounds of ferocious gluttony.

"Is that a stuffed Little Lulu?” they swung their sticks at the busy dogs with a sense of alarm. Meeta howled into the rinsing dark. The animals growled back, their rapacious sounds adding to the turbidity of fear and horror.  

A new born baby and the sounds of om nom nom! 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Base level (Micro Fiction)

“Add the Calzone Pockets and the Choco Lava Cake to our Pizza order, will you?” Meha did not bother hiding the smile, her mother was used to their unabashed amusement at her expense. “To hell with my weight, I have earned this today, all that heavy duty relocating, life can be tough” the maternal rummaged around in her bag for the exact change. “It is rude to keep the delivery boy waiting” she directed the gem at Meha, “they are providing us a service and we must respect that.”

The mother daughter pair settled into their domestic hum, an expectation of hot pizzas easing their unsettled space somewhat. The house was like a war zone, boxes and packing material strewn around in untidy heaps. “This is the one thing I hate about being in the Armed Forces. When I look back, life seems so fragmented” Meha half heard the familiar litany. She had covered the rainbow range of uniform colours, having attended ten schools in fourteen years, ‘friends come and go’ was the eternal truth scarred into her retina.

“Here, hang this uniform up carefully….it is a symbol of honour and privilege…you see those stars on the epaulettes….they don’t come easy….there are years and years of consistent work behind the salutes directed at your father” Meha quietly plugged her ears, logging into Grooveshark online for music. “What an archaic, servile and hierarchical structure, completely out of step with the millennial world and its challenge to authority and patriarchy” her young mind whirred dismissively.

It was as though Meha’s generation had penta-jumped ahead of the parents, their heads and ears abuzz with signals from a global monoculture. Liberty, personal autonomy, ownership of one’s spaces; their modern buzzwords duelled with the family idioms of solidarity, group identity and ancestral approval. Where did one end and the other begin, it was hard to fix the base level!

The bell chimed and Meha pattered to the door. “Wonder what the conversation is about, the order was pretty clear and I gave her the exact change”’ her Mum furrowed her brows at the soft voices. She fought her paranoia at events going awry for lack of anticipation and foresight. Years of negotiating a busy and productive life had taught her the value of staying organized. She heaved herself up from the dining table, pushing back her chair only to knock into Meha bringing in the Pizza boxes from the door end.

“Did you check the delivery? They once got us an incomplete order. Let me get the scissors for the seasoning sachets” the senior pushed open the spring door to the kitchen. A rustle and a flap caught her eye on the table. She squinted at the five hundred rupee note tucked under the napkin holder. Confused and full of self-doubt, she turned towards Meha.

“No big deal Mom! We do it all the time in the hostel. I gave our neighbour’s address on my cell phone. They are out of station on leave you know…I saved the delivery guy from logging a non-delivery…he sold me the order for half the price. Chill!”

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Trinity (Micro Fiction)

“I feel like a soggy choco!” Asmi’s hand shook as she flipped her music book to one of her exam pieces ‘O Sole Mio’! There was an hour to go before the music exam and the fluttering in her stomach was intensifying.

“You should eat a banana before the recital, potassium settles it somewhat” Nevan shared the golden tip on handling stage fright given him by his instructor.

The two waited on the ground floor, their 2HB pencils out and scribbling over sample music sheets. Music flowed down the staircase from the class rooms above, sounds of tentative tuning interspersed with confident notes. The Trinity Board examiners were already ensconced in the Principal’s office. The rest of the examinees were trickling in, plucking and pulling awkwardly at their formal outfits.

A sizable number of the attendees were present under duress. The dress code, rigidity of form and insistence on silence grated on their free spirited youthfulness. They waited in their isolated bubbles of victimhood while their parents milled anxiously in the lawn outside.

“These children have damaged their ear drums with the high decibel music they seem to enjoy. I am sure they have no idea if Frank Sinatra is a classical artist” Asmi’s mother began disbelievingly on the state of the young today. 

“And Trinity has a strange exam format; the students learn just three pieces!” Nevan’s Dad nodded his assent at the inadequacy of their musical education.

The two stood surveying the flock moseying in, “Most do not practice enough, they would rather go to rock concerts…..if they knew the value of things as much as they know the price of everything….” the parental bonding was broken rudely by Asmi stumbling out of the lobby door.

She beckoned for the mother’s ear, forcing her to lean over “Mum, there is a nine year old playing ‘O Sole Mio’ in the warm up room. She is brilliant and it is making me nervous. ” The mother gathered herself together to place an arm around Asmi and turned her towards the school gate for encouragement where Dubey Ji was waving the victory sign vigorously. Asmi smiled weakly, kicking herself mentally for not having practiced enough. “Dubey Ji, the school guard, has known Asmi since her first lesson here and he always looks out for her” the mother turned to Nevan’s father by way of explanation.

“Scales, sight reading, aural tests and the pieces, there is quite a bit” he commiserated. “Oh, she has a record of distinctions, she will be fine. I am not worried. In fact, I had her try out the exam piano last noon” Asmi’s Mum was cheerful. 

There was a stir at the entrance as Nevan stuck his head out to wave at his father, “Dad, I am going in, it is my turn next.” The mother urged the parent on, “Please go ahead. I have to wait here for Asmi’s sign language interpreter. She gets a little extra time. She is taking the alternative aural test for the hearing impaired. She has been deaf since her birth!”

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sovereignty (Micro Fiction)

“Why do you want to learn Spanish?” a proud Catalan from northern Spain, Aina began every new foreign language session thus.

The heterogeneous group of students responded tentatively, brought up in an education system that frowned upon overreaching authority, especially a foreign one! Contrary to their diffident words however, their bodies shouted defensively and unconsciously “My country may be overrun with squalor and poverty, but we have unmatched diversity.”

At most times politically correct, the classroom air in the Spanish Cultural Centre stopped short of turning adversarial on the odd day. “When the Spaniards return home from India, they begin to appreciate what they have much more…cleaner air, traffic free roads, gender equality, less poverty!” subtlety was certainly not Aina’s middle name. Most of her listeners half nodded sheepishly but not Harman Singh, “Oh no!” he was prompt with his reactions, “We share some similarities too! I believe the only thing that starts on time in Spain is a bull-fight. That makes them as much of laggards as us Indians!”

With eight years of teaching behind her, Aina well knew how to wither upstarts in her class. She was particularly sensitive to her pupils having fun at her expense, as a group. The Indians rarely united enough to do that given their genetic insecurity but there was one time! They were to identify pictures of toiletries, “Tooth brush, comb, shampoo: cepillo de dientes, peine, champú.” Champú! Champú!! Champú!!!  Quivering with glee, Harman turned to his group, “Champu  kahin ke!” The room went into strangled convulsions of mirth.

Nowhere was this cultural bandying as stark as during the term test. “I know you Indians. Please spread out, one on each table. No copying from each other please.”  Used to being spoken down to, the examinees would smile weakly through her objections, “How can you guess mark answers, it is cheating, if you don’t know, you don’t know. We don’t do that in our country.”

Severely handicapped in sessions that did not brook any language other than Spanish, the Indians were cavalier in their treatment of the centre’s resources. They maximized on the air conditioning and went poking every plug point with their smartphone chargers.

“In India, you make lesser money and die sooner.” Aina would compare.

“Our favourite food is channa bhatura, not pig’s tails and bull’s testicles!” Herman was game.

The classes used multi-media and a communicative approach to keep the teacher and taught speeding through the sixty hours of basic level. With the term end exam upon them, Aina’s brief to her students was succinct, “There will be four sections:  lecturacomprensióngramática and examen oral, I will email you all the exact format this evening.”

When Harman got home from his dawdle around the Connaught Place to log into his email that day, there it was the yellow icon from their profesora. He clicked on the envelope, skimmed and scrolled down in a rush, frowning.

It was a forward, the original having been written by one Sandeep Singh Khalsa. The bold heading read, “Sovereignty for Catalan and Khalistan: Separatism by choice!” There was a link to the operation Bluestar.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The switch (Micro Fiction)

Aditi grimaced at the needle point on her scalp; her mother was sewing the “tikka” in place. It was standard drill before a performance. Most Kathak dancers used a dab of nail paint to keep the adornment from flying loose during the “chakkars” but Aditi had a phobia of untidiness on stage. She gave herself a final once over in the full length green room mirror, checking for tucked in “ghunghroo” strings, pinned in plait and tightened waist belt. 

The dance festival anchor had begun to announce the artist to the audience with a brief biography.

An outsider in the whimsy world of Kathak, dominated by the “gharanas”, Aditi had come up the hard way. Known for grammar perfect lines and velvety moves, she was an avowed traditionalist. “Improvisations take away from the classical core of Kathak” she had instilled the belief in her disciples.

The senior dancer lifted her costume and tip toed into the wings to await the curtain rising, “I must find my light, get into the spot right. The accompanists take too long to tune up their instruments” she rubbed her hands gently, sending up her customary silent prayer to her two gurus and Lord Shiva. “Strike the heels harder, it is characteristic of our gharana; the Benares and Jaipur schools are becoming too hybrid” her self-talk continued.

“Don’t you think innovation within tradition keeps Kathak relevant to the 21st century?” a journalist had asked her once. Keeping one eye on her swirling and sweating students, she had answered with time honoured conviction, “Young dancers are too impatient these days. It takes years and years for tayyari. They must first be masters of the pure form. If we keep diluting it with outside influences we will lose our legacy. Abhinvaya is dying out as it is”.

“Form with finesse”; “poetry in motion”; “sure footed and lyrically precise”; “living legend” were some of the epithets the country’s prominent critics had used to describe her.

She thought she heard a swish of the curtain rising. Fluffing out her costume one final time, she made to step out, halting mid-step in abrupt confusion. Someone had taken her by the arm, “This way Aditi Ji; your dance therapist is waiting in the hall. Let me settle that hair band on your head!”

“Dance increases cognitive reserve and builds new neural pathways in persons with dementia” the words were travelling down the corridor in a confident voice.

The iconic performer and her hospital attendant shuffled past a plaque on their way to session. It read “Alzheimer’s Society. Remembering those who cannot remember!”

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Will (Micro Fiction)

It had been a long wait. Sardar Fateh Singh was finally leaving for his heavenly abode. The clan was in throes of gluttony outside the ICU, their masks beginning to slip. The patriarch’s estate attorney had spoken of his having left a legal Will. “What is he leaving Zorawar, that favourite grandson of his?” they were beside themselves with envious dread. “His ancestral farm, the fixed deposits or his wife’s gold he has refused to disburse in family weddings?” there was no abating the feverish fertility of speculative minds.

While the tribe carved out their imaginary entitlements, Capt. Zorawar Singh Brar patrolled a far flung sector in Zakhama, Nagaland. It would be days before he returned to a digitally accessible zone.

Fateh Singh’s last rites were performed as per the affidavit of cremation produced by his lawyer.  All that was left to do now was to await Zorawar, he had been found to have been named as the Testator’s Executor. Not only would he review the Will, he would have the power to settle the estate. “He is going to give himself a fat compensation for this fiduciary nonsense” the young cousins fretted over not being given copies of the Will right away. While Zorawar stomped the Naga Hills on the line of control, the Brar Mansion thrummed with fears of an ugly family contest.

An eminent eco-scientist, Fateh Singh was a nominee to the United Nations’ Champions of the Earth award. But for his Alma mater, the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana not many knew of what he did for a living in the USA. To most, he was merely another rich NRI, made wealthier by his agricultural legacy back home.

On a dusty July noon, Fateh Singh’s biological band gathered around Zorawar who was finally home on annual leave from his regiment. The taut air in the main hall slackened in tandem with settling of the shares as the grieving grandson went down the list in a sombre voice. Suspense over the Executor’s share however, shot up as he reached the end of the document. He had been left a shoe box sized carton! That is all. An unadorned, decrepit, harmless looking taped container.

Incredulous faces urged Zorawar to slit the binding and fling open the lid. Dirt! Ugh, a pile of ordinary, everyday, regular earth?! The ceiling shook with rambunctious laughter as the relieved descendants left in a self-congratulatory cloud of prosperity. What were they thinking? There clearly was a lot less love lost between the two than what the family feared.  How truly deceptive could appearances be!
They had missed the hand written note he was pulling out from under the clumps. “Go on! Feel this turf brought over from your 1000 acres farmland in the Sonoran, Arizona. It is live soil, the endangered dirt called cryptobiotic crust. NASA is studying the patches for greenhouse farming on Mars! You will never want for anything. Make me proud. I will watch over you from above.” 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Love Martyr (Micro Fiction)

Minnie pressed the receiver down on her ear, it sounded like dry heaving at the other end, “Who is this, please speak up!” Concern began to nip at her as darkness flowed in over the wires. Something was amiss.

She called up the exchange, “Can you get me the last incoming call?” The number was familiar. It was barely a week ago she had sat with Anu in her artistic balcony, chatting over the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. “These kids call themselves the millennial generation Minnie, I feel such disconnect with their life style.” The two had talked into the twilight, exchanging notes on their growing children. “I feel deeply concerned at the relationships they enter so early in life, multiple ones at times.”

Minnie took a deep breath. She knew Anu’s son Kabir to be a bit of a love martyr; he suffered a chronic heartache over his high school date. Attempts to wipe the rose off his besotted eyes had famously failed. “Karen is the woman in my life, the world will find out soon what true love is,” the youngster was unhealthily attached.  At an age that was best served working on his own growth, he had taken on the onus of another young life.

Minnie redialed the number nervously. Anu had spoken of their
volatile young equation,“Karen is rapidly outgrowing Kabir and he is struggling with her pace.” The two had begun to fight a lot, going back and forth like the Yo-yo.  It was distressing for the adults to see promising young lives drain thus. “He cannot stand her sprouting wings and coming into her own; and she is rediscovering the joys of personal autonomy,” the words haunted Minnie as she gave up on the phone and clambered down the steps to the garage.

There was an ambulance idling outside, ready to pull away. Minnie switched off in haste and climbed in besides Anu, pulling her close. They rode in grim grief, a soul deep helplessness gnawing at their innards. Kabir lay unconscious on the creaking stretcher, the paramedics busy over him. In a matter of minutes, they were surging into the hospital and the waiting arms of emergency wing.

“It is my fault, I was supposed to put away all the sharp objects at home,” Anu was inconsolable. She sat up all of a sudden, rummaging in her familiar rust tote. “Here, read this, it escaped me completely!” The paper was covered with Kabir’s words in black ink. Minnie flipped the green sheet over by its spiral rib. In the right bottom corner, there was a signature in red:  Karen, TL; DR!

Fraught with despair only a parent can fathom, she enveloped Anu protectively before translating in her ear, “Karen, Too long; did not read!”

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Feline (Micro Fiction)

Samar looked on as her sister packed away the last of Leen’a paisley scarves. All that clung to the room of her was a hint of the Vanilla that she so ritually dabbed on.

A lifetime! How else would you describe forty years with a woman? Two children, this neat cottage and a handsome pension were all he was left with. And oh yes, there was Cotton, their feline companion and silent witness, poised over the piano cover this moment. He peered into the blue eyes, “Can you tell where she has gone? Am I ever going to meet her again?”

He heaved over to the cat, moping on the piano cover. Lifting the limp animal off the dark wood, he raised the instrument cover, his breath catching at the sight of the keys. Lowering himself on Leena’s stool, he trailed the black and white gently, willing his skin to recall the feel of hers. With a sense of urgency, he pulled off his moccasin, placing the big toe on the pedal underneath, trying in vain to get more of her. He could have sworn ‘Lara’s theme’ swirled around their living room. Shoving his hand roughly into the air, he tried tracing her form from memory. “Does this space retain her?” he wondered.

“Sam, the Canter is here for her stuff. Give me a shout if you need anything. See you in the evening!” he waved off his sister-in-law with a weak nod, numb with the process of gathering up after a loved one has gone for good.

The room began to surge with keening over Leena. A tidal of aloneness came crashing over Samar. He collapsed on his worn ottoman, desolate like a man upon the dead end. Laying back his pounding head, he reached for the switches, plunging the room in darkness. Half fearful at the march of Leena’s throbbing vignettes, he shut his eyes..

But it was Olivia! Thin fire suffused his lids. Sam pushed himself up with a stab of guilt, casting about for Leena’s cat. She was sunning outside, scratching her ears against Leena’s pot of petunias. He reclined back quickly, and let his eyes droop. There she was at the spectacular golf course, driving with that characteristic downswing. The green light bounced off her flaxen vividness; he never stood a chance. On deputation at the Canadian Forces Base, Edmonton, Sam had lost his heart on the fairway before the ball hit 220 that brittle morning, all those moons ago.

A young pilot on the cusp of a brilliant career, the deputation was to be his litmus test. Barred by the official policy from marrying a foreigner, Sam had come close to throwing away his hard earned flyer’s wings and the exorbitant cost of his training that seismic summer. It took all he had to leave Olivia behind and get on with his life in India. “But now I am retired and no longer bound by service rules” the thought popped into his regurgitating head.

Olivia! He whispered the name, dreading of what it might stir up. It hurt. The Siamese had come in to rub herself against his calf. He got up, pacing to shake off the melancholy. The front path had begun to echo with footsteps once again. Leena’s sister was back, “Sam, I found this bunch of papers at the bottom of her green trunk, you know the one she kept locked.”

“Must be letters from her teen years…she was a sucker for emotional memorabilia" Sam reached out distractedly. He shuffled to the window and released the yellowing ribbon. There were some twenty envelopes of grain textured paper. He turned them over to look at the sender’s name. There it was, in her unmistakably blocky style, written in green ink, “Olivia Tremblay, Clover Bar Road, Edmonton, Alberta”. His heart emitted a banshee as he spun to Cotton accusingly.

The cat’s gaze was angry and unrepentant; his tail puffed up and thumping.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Moon face (Micro Fiction)

The wedding card was unusually simple. And it bore Hemant’s forty eight years old batch-mate Nitin’s name as the groom. “Did the bugger give his son an identical tag, there must be a mistake”, he turned the invite around, reading it several times over. “What an idiot, getting married when it is time for us to settle our kids! Has he lost his wife, divorced her….this is very strange!”

At the evening’s course reunion, the story grew steadily bigger. No one seemed to know. “I was local guardian to his daughter during her Vellore tenure, everything seemed fine,” the anecdotal exchange flowed thick and fast. “Hope he is not getting naughty at forty,” this light hearted observation was met with a pensive, “How is Tara keeping, any idea? I heard they have been living as a joint family ever since his premature retirement.”

Hemant struggled with his feelings over the event, just a week away. There were the usual logistic ends to tie up but there was also a faintly irritated concern. The two had been close until life took them on different paths with Hemant progressing professionally and Nitin deciding to quit for greener pastures outside the Navy. With the unintended callousness of the busy, the rest of their batch had forgotten him, barely responding to his attempts to stay connected. Briefly debating a phone call for clarification, Hemant decided to just show up, he would be the solo serving officer attending the wedding.

The car waiting outside Raipur’s award winning airport carried Hemant to the Byron Bazar, dislodging him at the familiar yellow, two floor building. He alighted tentatively, the home exuded stillness, quite unlike a marriage venue. He joined a small knot of people at the door, slipping off their footwear. The ceremony was already underway!

Hours of mantra chanting, incense burning and ritual relays later, Nitin’s brother escorted Hemant to the terrace where his bridegroom friend sat waiting. Unsure of how happy an expression to wear, Hemant pulled a chair close “Where do I begin? Tara and my mother had one of their more serious fights and Tara walked out of the home in a huff. I had to lodge a missing person report at the end of twenty four hours. The police turned up a day later with news of a body fitting the description, found near the Junction railway tracks. I went to the morgue and identified her, the cadaver was in a bad shape.”

Hemant got up to place his arm awkwardly around Nitin’s shoulders. “We went through with the period of mourning and cremated her,” the groom resumed his narration. By now they were coming unbidden to Hemant, images of Tara as a young bride in their parent unit and her rocky period of settling in. A typical civilian, she had taken a while to fit into the regimented rhythm of the station. “Poor thing, she must have been shattered inside to have taken her own life,” Hemant felt heavy with grief. 

“Hemu Dadaaaa,” he poked his ear violently with the index finger at the familiar lilt, shaking his head. “Good lord, I am hearing her voice. Is it Tara’s soul?!”

His travel weary vision began to blur at a figure advancing in ceremonial red, holding out a tray of snacks and tea. The arm fell away from Nitin in confusion, grasping for a chair. He gaped at the bridal countenance in horror, sifting the face paint frantically….yes, it was, no doubt in his mind, the well-remembered moon face of Tara!

He only partly heard Nitin’s voice drone on, “Imagine our plight Hem, she turned up back home after a week of sulking at her mother’s. I had identified the wrong body. With the bereavement rituals all done, my mother insisted we remarry.”

Hemant was not listening. He had gone cold turkey.