She took the towel he offered. And then his hand. White gown, still pristine in colour, if not form. He watched her peel it off, lace clinging to her curves. Trim the hem, she told him, it trips. And she tossed it to him as she wen to call the bride.
Damn Titanic-themed weddings!
Today is a difficult letter. I didn’t want to do the obvious Xmas or X-rated. So here’s something I thought encompasses a little of both – love and sex. For today’s A to Z Challenge, I give you X is for X and O.
X is for X and O
It started with X and O. Back then, we called it eckssandzeero, running the syllables into one another and letting them slip off our tongues. Deep would have nothing to do with us kids then. But when I spotted the telltale grids in his notebook, I pounced on it. He turned his nose up and snatched the book away from me. Then he scoffed at me and told me it was called Cross and Noughts. See here the cross, he explained. And what’s not, I wanted to know. He didn’t know. But that’s O, I exclaimed, pointing to the loops, proud of my alphabetical ability. No, he said decisively, it’s not. Then what is it, I asked. Nought, he replied with the superior wisdom of fourth standard.
Then Samir came into the room and began tugging my skirt so I went away to play with him. Deep was interesting but I didn’t like him very much then. That pretty much sums up my lifetime’s attitude to him, anyway.
Rivi was my best friend. She wore a pink hairband and her curls shook when she laughed. She laughed every time she won. I would get sad. Then I would look at her clapping her hands. And she would see my face and put her arms around me. And I wouldn’t be sad anymore.
She’s the one who taught me tic-tac-toe. I liked the sound of it. It’s musical. I remember the song that accompanied the game.
Tic tac toe
Round we go
If you miss
I take this
Of course, that one is from the game called hopscotch but back then, I thought it was about this one and I’d sing it diligently every time I played and lost. I always did, to Rivi.
I never enjoyed games all that much as a child. That probably explains why I bypassed the ubiquitous three-in-a-row. It wasn’t till I got to college and had to program an algorithm to play the game, that I even learnt the rules. I still didn’t like it. Two years later, I switched streams and moved to Developmental Psychology. And there I encountered it again. It was now interesting but I still couldn’t see the appeal of it.
Then Rivi walked into the room. She waltzed in like it was her home. At first, I didn’t recognize her. I had been away for over seven years, after all.
“What are you reading?”
she inquired without so much as a hello.
And before I could respond, she walked over and slid the book towards herself. I think it triggered some distant memory. (Or maybe it was because I’d been reading Alan Baddeley on human information storage through the night).
“Rivi. How are you?”
“Grown up. But you’re still playing Noughts and Crosses.”
I stared back. How did she manage to stay so supremely self-confident? I didn’t remember her as a particularly bright child.
“Are you looking for Samir? He’s…”
“You don’t remember, do you? Noughts and crosses. You were so insistent, so superior in your fourth standard uniform, lording it over us kindergarten kids.”
I took my book back.
“You weren’t in kindergarten. First or second, at least.”
She tilted her head to one side slightly, the action causing a curtain of hair to shade one eye. Then she turned and moved around the table. Her hair fell over her shoulder in perfect waves and was imitated in the smooth curves of her back and..
“How do you know?”
I sucked in my breath and my gaze back.
“You were wearing the primary school uniform. Kindergarten had a different uniform, remember?”
“You were paying that much attention to what I was wearing then? Naughty, naughty.”
I turned away. Rivi always disturbed me. But as an adult, I knew just how to handle her.
Rivi should never have come over that day. She knew I was leaving on one of those days. And she’s the one who told me that we should never see each other again. I had begged and pleaded with her. And then, because she seemed so resolute, I decided to take the Bangalore job.
But she came back.
Deep never used to like her, when we were kids. He thought she was too bossy. He was right, she was. But it never bothered me. I’ve known Rivi all my life. At that juncture, I just felt rudderless without her. She taught me everything I know. Everything.
Rivi was my first and my only. I know I wasn’t her first. When we talked about it, back in college, she had laughed (those curls!).
“It’s time, you dope. Go, get laid. It’s not that difficult.”
“What makes you think I haven’t?”
“Because you haven’t come tearing across the lawn, still in your birthday suit, to tell me about it. You know you will.”
I hated her at that moment and loved her at the same time. She knew me so well. She knew it and twisted the knife in the wound, anyway. I sighed and went glum.
“What now? You’ve got that look. That, that look. You’re mooning over some girl. Tell me, who is she??!”
I told her and started to walk away.
She jumped off the parapet she’d be sitting on and followed me. Then I smiled. I couldn’t help it.
“Remember X and O?”
“X and O?”
“Never mind that. What about the girl? Who is she?”
“Rivi, don’t you remember?”
She had the grace to blush as memory dawned on her.
“You’re nuts. That…that never happened.”
“Strip X and O, Rivi. Loser has to show theirs. What a little perv you were!”
And that’s when she kissed me.
Samir was the one. And also, Deep. Samir irritated me but I adored him anyway. Deep annoyed me but I was fascinated anyway. These Pathak men. That doesn’t sound exactly right considering I’ve known them both all their lives. But ‘the Pathak boys’ doesn’t sound right either since Deep has never been a boy. Samir and Deep, that’s what I used to tell my mother, I’m going to Samir-and-Deeps-house.
I wonder if I can continue to say that in the future. Where do you live? In Samir-and-Deeps-house. Who is your family? Samir-and-Deep.
I’m holding the two ring boxes, one in each hand. They are identical, a single solitaire diamond in the center, with a funny golden curve around it like a 70s ‘flip’ wig. Looks like Samir-and-Deep went ring shopping together. The bond of brothers and all.
Deep got my game, Samir was my game.
They’re not going to put this one on me. I put the ring boxes down and put the two rings on the newspaper. With a red pen, I trace a grid around them, putting them in the second box of each row, one horizontal, one vertical. And in the corner, next to both of the, I draw X.
I want them both. I choose Samir-and-Deep. I pick up the rings and put one on the second finger of each hand.
It ended with X and O.
*Image via digitalart on FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I wrote this for a prompt exercise where the theme was horror. This is my first attempt at a scare-story. Tell me what you think. Too obscure? Not chilling enough? In today’s A to Z Challenge we look at a writer’s worst fear, W is for Writer’s Block.
W is for Writer’s Block
I had woken up that night. The cigarette ashes near my bed should have been indication enough. I remember it clearly. But the memory is behind my eyes. You’re going to need to see the evidence in the form of those ashy streaks. What’s the point? You aren’t even listening, anyway. You don’t know how to. You can’t. Did I awaken in a cold sweat? A dull feeling in the pit of my stomach? No, no. I just opened my eyes and there the world was, and I was awake. It happens often enough.
I used to lie awake for nights on end. I’ve spent hours watching fragile, wispy thoughts dance about. It’s an ugly thing they do, solidify into words. Nasty buggers they become then, rattling about inside your head. I used to wonder how coin slot machines felt. You know the ones that have a zillion, hard colourful balls inside them that whir around when you put in the coin? And if you’re lucky, one drops into the slot. You pop it into your mouth and stroll away, never even knowing how glad the machine is to see you go, how it envies your nonchalance. You’re ingesting, masticating, devouring what it struggles to vomit, shit, eject out.
Listen to me. (Nobody does, of course, but me). I’m so verbose. Perhaps I should start taking care of my words, even if I’m the only listening. But it’s so hard, so hard to. HRMPH. Say it again. It’s hard. I feel like there’s…I have diarrhea and I can’t shit it out. It’s clogged inside my entire body, this diarrhea of words. Better. Time to go out. Get some cigs.
I don’t even think about what to carry anymore. The notebook in my pocket is as good as a bankroll. I pat it to check it’s still got enough pages. I step out, and as usual, the memory of that first morning floods me. It’s always first morning now, no matter how many I’ve had since then. It’s gotten so I notice things I should have but didn’t, on the first morning. Infinite rewind.
No scrawls on the walls. Paan stains galore and something that always looks like shit smeared on the second last step. The signboard at the gate is missing. No scratches in the paint, either; only peeling in broad strips. There is a pile of sacks of cement near the wall, where it’s broken. They’re covered in the uniform grey that creeps out of tears in the sack fabric. But no names, no penmarks visible. How did I never catch that? Because I automatically avoid construction sites and materials, that’s why. They make me sneeze. This pile is about ten feet away and I could have read the black or red letters that usually mark such sacks. But I never noticed. My mind wears a breathing mask to thoughts my body does not like.
The road is busy as always. But the sounds never fail to shock me. The machine noises are all there – cars moving, road repair machines whirring. And there’s a steady hum underlying it all – human breathing. Human beings breathe real loudly, did you know? But no voices. Well, there is an occasional gasp and plenty of sneezes. They don’t know the word ‘pollution’ but they suffer it anyway.
I’m nearly at the cigarette shop at the end of the road now. The smokers mill around near it. A lady steps up through a gap. The shopkeeper hands her a loaf of packed bread. She puts down a lemon on the tiny counter. He catches it just before it rolls off and drops it into a jar behind him. I can see it also has a bunch of leaves, spinach maybe and a green chilli or two. It bounces off the top of a tomato and settles on the leaves. He shuts the jar and turns back.
I step up to him and he already knows which brand I want. He holds out the packet. The cigarette pack shows a badly scanned image of a bare-chested man superimposed by a picture of blackened lungs. No face. No name. No mandatory ‘Cigarette sniffing makes your eyes water’ message. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. ‘Cigarette sniffing is injurious to hair’? ‘Cigarette sniffing is halibut to injury?’.
I give up just as I note the frown on the shopkeeper’s face. The other smokers are edging away from me. Just because a man takes a minute to think. Bloody amoeba. What would they know? What was that saying my grandmother used to parrot? Bandar kya jaane ice-cream ki sugandh?
I reach for my notebook and I tear out two pages from it. The shopkeeper reaches out and I swear he does this gingerly with the tips of his fingers. He plucks just one sheet off and sets it down on a looseleaf pile to his right. I watch the first page of the sixth chapter of my next novel settle in with toiletpaper remains, slightly dusty tissues, a sheaf of oil-stained brown paper and a cardboard square. I know he uses that pile to wrap unpackaged things. Maybe he’ll use my worded page to giftwrap somebody’s special purchase.
I slide two cigarettes out of the pack and put it back on the counter. He frowns again, this time even more troubled and looks around his tiny shop. Then he turns and takes out the tomato, lemon and a few leaves from the jar behind him. He packs them deftly in the oily brown paper and hands it to me.
Well, so my noted paper is worth more than a couple of cigarettes. Not that I know what to do with a lemon, a tomato and some leaves. But what the hell, eh? In a world that doesn’t value your currency, you’ve to learn to value their’s.
Back at home, I drop the vegetables on my table and survey the cupboard. I’m a rich man then. I think I’ll start with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first. It might even buy me a car. But perhaps I should invest it instead. Charcoal, first. I’ll have to figure out something to write on. Leaves? Tissue paper, I decide. Cover them with words and letters. Look at me, I’m a money mint! It’s not counterfeiting if it’s the original. Call me an artist.
I wake up, this time in a cold sweat. Hot sweat, actually. My eyes start watering the minute I open them. The smoke is so thick, I can’t even see the door. I drop to the floor and ease my way out. By the time the fire engines arrive, I’m crying so hard, my face is streaked with snot down to my throat. The books are gone, all gone. Our world has truly lost every last word now.
*Image via thaikrit on FreeDigitalPhotos.net
On 26 November 2008, a young man walked into a train station and changed the lives of millions of people forever. I am one of those people, because I am a Mumbaiker. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t look it up until you finish the story. This story is in memory of the unsung Mumbaiker who travels by train, squeezes forbidden affections into communal tensions and bears the hated distinction of having ‘the Mumbai spirit’. For today’s A to Z Challenge, V is for Victoria Terminus. Always.
V is for Victoria Terminus
The car pulls into the lane. Karthik frowns at me, as I get in. He doesn’t like me standing here by myself. He’s given up trying to convince me. I haven’t given up trying to convince him, though. I never even tried. There is nothing to worry about. Anything that can happen to me here, can also happen to me on the main road.
“Look, it’s all lit up.”
He says, pointing to the obvious, unmissable.
I’ve succeeded in missing it. I’m adept at it. It takes great perseverance. Or simply many years of steeping in the fabled Mumbai spirit. We learn to unsee things that are right in front of our eyes. We learn to get past things we can’t afford to dwell on.
We stop for dinner at Worli. This takes some doing, though, since Karthik is hungry already and it will be at least an hour before we get back home. Nothing will be open at that hour. Chembur, like the Chennai extension that it is, sleeps early. He tries to convince me to eat while we’re in town. Worli is a good compromise. Still South Bombay but far enough from the wretched place.
And because he has been patient, I compromise and agree to go to that restaurant. Karthik looks positively jubilant and then immediately, he’s contrite.
“The smell won’t bother you? What will you eat?”
“I’m sure they have vegetarian biryani. Or pulao.”
“I don’t think they make biryani or pulao in Lebanon.”
I settle for a wraps, which I know they have vegetarian versions, of. Karthik practically swoons when his chicken shawarma arrives. It smells so good. I work my way through a wrap that tastes like cardboard covered grass.
Karthik is very happy as we drive back home. He starts to reminisce about the best foods he’s ever had.
“You know, Hyderabadi biryani is really okay. But the real pleasure is in having it at a Muslim’s house during Ramzan. Mutton biryani and paaya.”
He’s driving towards the sealine, I notice, instead of towards the Eastern Express highway.
“Have you ever seen this place, during Ramzan?”
I pretend that I’m dozing off. But he won’t be shaken, when he’s in this mood.
“I know, I know what you think. But really, it’s a terribly racist attitude. Muslims have as much right to this country as we do. They are not all terrorists and criminals.”
The green flags flap in the breeze. Across the water, Haji Ali dargah floats peacefully in the moonlight. I close my eyes, even though Karthik can’t see them, when I have my face turned away. My husband of three years believes that I am staunchly anti-Muslim. I’ve done well.
Rashid would have been proud of me. Rashid’s sharp, twinkling eyes belying the laughter that he didn’t let reach his lips. Those lips, oh those lips! Fifteen years later, I have still not forgotten those lips. Nobody forgets their first kiss. Especially not if Rashid was the one kissing them.
We turn off at Bandra and I’m forced to open my eyes. The smell at Mahim Causeway would wake anyone up. Karthik seems to detect my open eyes and immediately starts talking again.
“You can always tell when you’ve passed the old city and have come into the new parts. Even newcomers. South Bombay has such wonderful classic architecture.”
“It’s all dying embers. SoBo is dead. All the action is moving to the suburbs now.”
Karthik laughs, derisively. He can never understand. But how would he? He’s been in Mumbai for all for four years. He’s still enamored by the hype generated by the money-fueled talkers of this city.
“Don’t you have any romance in your soul? All these buildings in the suburbs look like monsters. Concrete Godzillas.”
“I suppose Antila is a work of art.”
“You know I don’t mean that. Antila is like the Eiffel tower to Mumbaikers, I think. The locals hate it.”
“You don’t? And, you’ve been in Mumbai for four years now.”
“Yeah. But I haven’t gotten jaded about it, the way you have. I suppose living here all your life does that to you.”
“Jaded, why? Just because I’m not waxing eloquent over crumbling buildings populated by equally decrepit old men who’ve never been beyond Worli?”
“Not all the buildings are like that. Look at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus. It’s a world heritage site. Aren’t you at least a little proud of it? Or the Gateway of India?”
I purse my lips. Karthik is persistent. It must be the shawarma. Meat must create testosterone surges.
“It looked beautiful tonight. I can’t think how anybody can fail to be moved by the sight. But Mumbai people, you just move past it like it’s any old building. You didn’t even bother looking at it.”
Suddenly his tone is accusing and the hair on my arm prickles.
“Well, forgive me for not going into raptures over a building that’s basically a public transport facility. VT is just a station.”
“VT. That’s another thing I can’t understand. It’s been called C.S.T. for what…20 years now? Even the signboards and indicators say C.S.T. But you insist on calling it VT still.”
Actually, they say ST, not CST. But Karthik wouldn’t know; he’s never taken a train. And I’m not about to enlighten him.
“What I can’t get is how you switch so smoothly to Mumbai. Isn’t that like a pride thing with you homegrown people from this city? It’s Bombay, not Mumbai?”
“Only SoBo people with nothing better to do with their time, say that.”
I say and lean back, shutting my eyes. We’ll be home soon but not soon enough. This conversation is getting to be too much already. But closed eyelids don’t stop memories from flashing. I give in and let myself drift. Rashid will not be silenced, in my head, anymore than he would be, in person.
“You need to exercise some restraint, Sanjana. They are your family, after all. Give them some leeway.”
“Rashid, they’re bloody casteist, racist…Well, I won’t say what they are.”
“Sanju, stop it. They’ve lived their whole, entire lives believing these truths.”
“Truths? What truths? That non-Brahmins are filth? That Muslims are evil? You really expect me to sit quiet with all that?”
“No, I expect you to be wiser. Exercise restraint. There’s nothing to be gained by going all guns blazing.”
“You’ll never survive them if you take the moderate path. As it is, they’ll expect you to have terrorist connections.”
“Maybe I do. Maybe I’m one of the educated, professional Muslims who’s plotting to do you in. Maybe I’m conspiring to take over the ruling Hindu classes and marry their beautiful daughters.”
“Daughter. Who needs a harem, when a man has firebrand, best friend and lover all rolled into one in you?”
“You’re a sneaky one. Charming your way out of that one.”
“I love you.”
My eyes fly open at this moment. That’s the last thing I heard. That’s the last thing I saw. Gunfire. Screams. Bright lights. I had been standing at the door of the train compartment, Rashid on the platform, with one foot on the door of the train, ready to get in when it started. When the firing began, he turned and pushed me in at the same time. I staggered back and it took me a few seconds to steady myself since the train had started rolling very quickly, all of a sudden. Rashid! I screamed and rushed to the door.
The last thing I saw was his crumpled body lying on the platform. Further down, under the clock, a man in a black teeshirt and camouflage pants brandished a gun. I’ll never forget him. Even if every newspaper in the country had not splashed his likeness across their front pages for the next week.
One week later, candlelight vigils took to the streets. I didn’t participate in any of them. A restaurant in Colaba Causeway proudly displayed its bullet holes lodged in the wall and this tourist attraction has only increased business every year. The Taj Mahal hotel was rebuilt and its security amped up. The Oberoi Trident survived too. The names of the ATS officers who fell became common knowledge in every Mumbai household. But only I remembered Rashid. The station was open for business as usual the next day. The country raved about the Mumbai spirit. And I got up and went to work. But V.T.Station has stayed just V.T.Station.
When I open my eyes, Karthik is driving into the colony gates. The watchman opens the gates and I smile thank you to him. Altaf chacha smiles back at me.
*Image (without text) via Wikipedia
I had the most brilliant experience in water today. After 20 years of swimming, I managed to conquer one of the most fundamental aspects of human-water relationships – getting in. This experience is so special to me, it has coloured everything about my day including today’s story. So today, I give you U is for Underwater for the A to Z Challenge.
U is for Underwater
There was something lying on the floor. Laisha grimaced. The movement opened her lips a fraction at the corner and a bit of water went in. She blew out, the bubbles escaping thunderously past her ear. She surfaced. After she caught her breath, she looked around.
Some boys were fooling around near the diving board, which was at the other end. It was hard to tell how old they were, given they were all wearing swimming caps. But from their smooth chests and lean bodies, Laisha thought they must be in their early teens. One of them dashed down the length of the diving board, flipped himself through the air and hit the water with a terrific splash. The others laughed and shouted jeering comments. One boy stood by the side of the pool, smiling but silent. Then he walked onto the diving board. To Laisha’s surprise, he didn’t try and compete with the earlier diver. He walked cautiously to the edge of the board. Then he slid off smoothly, cutting the water in a sharp stroke. The others barely noticed when he joined them, they were still busy making fun of the first showoff.
Laisha swam to the pool ladder closest to her and sat on the top rung. The sun was tossing sparkles over the rippling water, deceptively pretty. But the upper half of her body that was outside the water scorched within a few seconds. She splashed some water on her upper arms and watched the boys.
She envied them, their unfettered energy, their uninhibited antics. Everything was just so much fun, fun, fun with them. Even as she sat, she was conscious of all the voices knocking about inside her head. She had to careful about the angles she swum at and sat around, so the inevitable tanning would happen evenly. It was just too much having to deal with the unkind remarks and obnoxious salesgirls trying to ‘cure’ her tan, otherwise. She constantly worried about her suit riding up or her pads floating away or her neckline dipping too much. She had to keep one eye on the giant clock on the wall to make sure she was out and back in time. And then there were the number of laps and time she took on each one – how else to justify taking on the problems that swimming brought on, otherwise?
The boys were doing silly dives now, superhero poses while they jumped. It made Laisha smile. It was the boy’s ‘Up, up and away’ pose that did it. She stepped out of the pool and went to the edge. A sheet of bright blue lay before her, white sunlight highlights here and there. It was so big.
Some of the boys in the water turned to look at her. Conscious at once, she jumped off, the water hitting her inner thighs ungraciously. When she surfaced, the Superman boy was on the diving board again, this time jumping as if he were on a trampoline. Fun, again, so much fun.
Laisha smiled. 20 years of swimming and she had never learnt to dive. She floated on her back daydreaming. She was a good swimmer, this she knew. But entering the water had always been hard for her. She stopped paddling and swung herself out of the water again. This time, she decided not to look in the direction of the boys. Eyes downcast, she focused on the water near her feet. It looked foreboding, dark, inviting but not safe. She stepped away from the water, as if it might grab her by the ankle and drag her down. Her breath caught in her throat as she looked up. The boys were looking at her but they turned away when they saw she wasn’t going to dive.
Laisha squinted up, looking at the higher diving board that needed one to climb a staircase, to reach. It didn’t seem very high. But she remembered going up it, excited but tentative. And when she stood on the board, the world had seemed so far away. She had felt tiny and the swimming pool, like a huge mouth that was going to swallow her up. She had pushed back and climbed down the scary staircase, in tears. That was 20 years ago and she had never gone back up that staircase.
She gave herself a little shake and forced herself to the edge of the pool and stepped off. Once again, the water bit her inner thighs and she surfaced with the sensitive skin on them, burning. When she caught her breath, she took off her swimming goggles and wiped the fog from inside the lenses. Then she put them on again and put her head down into the water.
This was never as pleasant as one thought. Everything was clear, too crystal clear. Even from this distance, she could make out the shapes of the boys legs underwater. Streams of bubbles rose in seemingly random intervals around the pool. And on the floor, oh the floor! She surfaced violently. She never liked to look at swimming pool floors. Swimming pools looked wonderfully inviting because of their blue floors. But up close, you could see they were just cheap, broken tiles of a nasty shade of blue. And they were never pristine. There was always stuff lying around on the bottom.
She pulled herself out of the water and sat on the edge. A swimmer cut the water in a clean stroke, a silver cap leading the way. When a head surfaced, she realized it was the same boy who had executed an unseen, perfect dive earlier. He grasped the rail and hung on to it, drifting a bit.
“Why don’t you dive?”
Laisha turned, startled. Swimmers rarely spoke to each other in the pool they shared, especially if weren’t in the same activity leagues of divers, racers, learners etc. It was unwritten swimmers’ code. She smiled, nodding her head. But his eyes remained fixed on her.
“I…I’m not very good at it.”
“Try it. It’s not difficult.”
“No…I, I only like to swim.”
“Try it once. It’s easy.”
And he swung himself out of the water, in a smooth move that Laisha envied. Before she could say anything, he was bending down next to her, demonstrating how to position before a jump. But he didn’t jump. Straightening up, he sat down next to her. A few minutes passed without word. Then he slid back into the water and stroked away, without a second glance.
Laisha sighed in relief. She liked to be by herself in the swimming pool, not engaging with the lifeguards or other swimmers. Even if she was not alone. She usually avoided the more crowded areas.
The boy had reached his friends now and seamlessly drifted back into his group. Laisha looked at him, ruefully. Why had she been so abrupt? The boy hadn’t been offensive. And he was too young to be creepy.
She stood up, suddenly resolute. But when her eyes drifted back to the water, the old fear gripped her again. The water was so vast, so scary. She adjusted her suit, forcing herself to breathe normally. The boy was swimming towards her again. Panic hit her and she froze, mid-pose, with her arms outstretched in front of her, knees bent and locked. The boy reached the end, paused for but a moment before he turned and swum away again. But he tossed over his shoulder,
“Take off the glasses before you jump!”
Laisha remembered that from several different swimming episodes now. Instructors in pools, surrounded by shrieking kids, always made them take off their swimming glasses before they jumped. The glasses came off, they said. That thought was too horrible for Laisha to contemplate, that diving caused such impact as to make glasses that were tightly wrapped around the head, fly off. She was still frozen in that odd pose and her back was starting to hurt.
She stood up, stretching. Then, as the glasses’rubber dug into her hair, she yanked it off. Dropping it by the side, she took a step forward and jumped. There was a terrific splash and bubbles rushed past her ears. But she could barely see a thing. When she resurfaced in a few seconds, the world came into sudden, shocking focus. It was exhilarating.
She grasped the siderail, thinking. Then on an impulse, she swung herself out again. This time, she bent over near the edge of the pool and stretched her hands out, knees bent. Before she could think herself into fear, she tumbled in. The water hit her stomach in a loud slap and she surfaced the skin on her tummy stinging. Again, as she broke the surface, the sunlight was such welcoming exhilaration, she had to smile. She swallowed some water in the process but she didn’t care.
Paddling back to the edge, she readied for another dive. The boy was back, this time. She registered dimly that she had probably seen a shape move past her when she was rising to the surface. But it was too murky for her to see much.
“Not bad. But this time, straighten your legs out. Fly!”
“I can’t fly!”
“Yes, you can. That’s how you dive. First you fly, then you fly into the water.”
And with that sage advice, he was gone. Laisha grinned. Fly, indeed.
As she readied herself to jump, she told herself she must remember to lift her feet after she left the poolside, so her arms would hit the water first. This time, the water slapped her shoulder bones but it didn’t hurt as much as her stomach had.
One last one, she decided and heaved out of the water again. Knees bent, hands outstretched, feet ready to lift, she thought….what if I could fly? The water was lapping at her feet. It didn’t seem that scary, now that she couldn’t see what was at the bottom. She needed to pounce onto it, like it was a playful puppy, not fall like a captive trying desperately to get away. Fly, fly, she told herself.
And she curved over into the water.
Her ears erupted in pain instantly. But she was going through the water, deeper, deeper at an angle she had never seen. The water was so many shades of blue underneath and kissed with white bubbles here and there. She arched her arms downward and then smoothly upward. Now, she was rising. She straightened up in less than a second and she was shooting through the water, like an arrow.
She cut the surface, three markers away from the edge of the pool, head first and shoulders rising gracefully. Sunlight washed all around her. But it was so loud, so noisy, so much. She wanted to be back in the comforting solitude of the water again.
She swum back to the edge. It took her a few strong strokes, she since her dive had propelled her much further away from the poolside than usual. And all around was the newly wonderful shaded blue. It was the blue of underwater and it welcomed her.
It wasn’t until she had stepped out of the pool, that she realized her ears had been hurting all this while and the pain had only now started to subside. But she didn’t let herself dwell on it. One more dive followed and yet another. Her skin didn’t hurt one single time and by the third dive, her ears didn’t either.
As she swum back to the ladder, she realized that not being able to see clearly underwater had made her actually see the wonder of it. It was gorgeous. Underwater, it was just her and the bubbles and the enveloping blueness. How could it be anything but inviting?
Laisha took position again near the edge of the pool and prepared to fly.
*Image (without text) via tungphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Here’s a story about one of my favourite games. This is a story of why I like it so much. I give you T is for Truth or Dare for today’s A to Z Challenge.
T is for Truth or Dare
What an interesting game. Played between strangers, it’s a round of showing off. Exhibitionism minus context, the spills just enough to thrill, not enough to chill.
It’s nostalgia, when it’s between people who’ve known each other a long, long time. Each one adding the finest of strokes to crystallize a shared memory. Even if it is secondhand and they’ve heard it so many times before that they feel they know it.
But Truth or Dare only ever really comes into its own when it’s played between people who know only a little but matter a lot to each other. How about newlywed husbands and wives, does that describe them?
When Mubeen told me about the dinner, I had an inkling it was going to be an important evening. Sahil and Roshan had been at the wedding but I barely remembered them. Lisa I knew, from meeting her a few times. And I was yet to meet the fabled Amara. I was worried about what to wear but perhaps I need not have been. They were all so busy watching each other, watching out for each other and watching for each other that they never noticed me. And I came home with a different sense of my husband.
Amara turned out to be nice enough, if not as harsh as they had all portrayed her. Or maybe I was the only one who saw the look on her face, when Roshan asked her who her first crush was. Her eyes darted across the room to mine and returned to the bottle on the floor. Her answer prompted a number of jokes, a story coaxed out of her, till she ended with a triumphant flourish. Everyone was taken aback.
Roshan followed, with a dare that he ‘suggested’ himself – a pole dance. And while the others laughed and hooted, I saw Sahil tap his phone. Seconds later, Amara looked at hers. Her eyes flicked up to Sahil again. I expected her to snigger but instead, she thumbed something and slipped the phone back into her pocket. She didn’t look at Sahil again till the dance was over. And after that, she ignored the phone so diligently, that there was no doubt in my mind, who was responsible for it flashing intermittently in her pocket.
Mubeen had once mentioned that Amara had had a thing for Sahil in college. I think he once even said that they had gone around together for awhile. Or maybe he thought they did. Amara didn’t seem to care anymore, if she ever had. If I had to guess, I’d have said it was the other way and Sahil was the reason Amara had a less than friendly reputation in their circles.
When Roshan came back and sat down, he steadied himself with a hand on Sahil’s knee. But after he’d settled back in, he didn’t move his hand. Sahil either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Mubeen tossed him a 50 paise coin to circle over Roshan’s head and tuck into his waistband. Roshan accepted with great pleasure, more pleasure than I thought possible for a ham performance. He seemed to like Sahil’s hand on his hip.
Mubeen was allowed some ‘grace period’ since he had a new wife to impress – or so they said. But they forgot about him and he never had to take a turn at the bottle.
Lisa is the one who really surprised me. She didn’t bat an eyelid when Roshan suggested a mujra. She laughed in delight when Amara suggested Roshan acquaint himself with a cold shower. And she only smiled when Sahil asked her who she’d like to ‘do’ that night, if she had a chance to. I don’t think I even remember what she ended up doing for her dare that night. But I do remember how it ended.
First she shivered slightly and asked Mubeen if he’d reach out and turn the AC down. He had to get up and go to the window to get the remote control. Then she stood up and moved till she was next to Sahil. She looked at Amara when she sat down. And I noticed, Roshan’s hand had gone back to his pocket. Then she fixed her gaze on me and said,
Following her gaze, Sahil pointed to me and said,
“New girl’s turn.”
Mubeen was still at the window, fussing with the remote control. It was blowing the air up and down as he bashed the Sweep setting. I saw Lisa lean in and say something, her eyes never leaving me. And Sahil said,
“Tell us something you haven’t told your husband yet.”
I relaxed. Now we were talking. I looked to my feet, then up again (into Lisa’s eyes) and I said,
“I am really good at reading body language.”
Roshan giggled. Amara shrieked a lewd question at me. Sahil as he ordered me to elaborate as he leaned back in his seat, one hand on Lisa’s back. Lisa didn’t crack a smile. When she moved forward slightly, causing Sahil’s hand to slide off, I knew she had got the message. She wouldn’t be trying her games with me.
*Image (without text) via Gualberto107 on FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I’m rather happy with the idea I had today. But I’m not sure if it came across in the story. I am trying a different tack from the stories I started this month with, though. Give me your comments, please? This is S is for Someone Else for today’s A to Z Challenge.
S is for Someone Else
She was sitting on a steel bench on the pavement, eating a sandwich. I sat down next to her, the striped chill of the bench lacing the comfort it gave to my tired legs, with tingles.
“Been walking long?”
she asked, not turning to look at me. I rubbed my hands together and held them to my face.
“I can tell. You’re hunting too, aren’t you?”
It had been so long since I heard another voice articulating it, that it woke me up a bit. It even warmed me. But I couldn’t bring myself to accept it.
“When you’ve looked as long as I have, you start to recognize others. Make no mistake, it is a hunt. Or are you still calling it a quest?”
I didn’t call it anything actually. I just stood up one day and started walking. There was nothing left to hold me. And as I walked, it seemed like there was only one direction to go in. Only one thing to seek out.
She stood up and paused, as if we were together. The sandwich lay discarded on the bench next to me. She lifted her chin slightly, her eyes studying the streetlights.
“Bring it along. You can eat as we walk.”
I stood up and began following her. But I left the sandwich behind. It seemed appropriate. As I came up next to her, she cut her gaze from the streetlights and looked at my hands, in surprise. Then she shrugged, a dissatisfied curve cutting diagonally across her face, from narrowed eye to downturned lip.
“Someone Else can have it.”
And that was only the beginning. She continued talking, salting the air with her breath, for the next 7 hours. Wyoming she complained about the state of the kebabs. In Guangzhou, it was reminiscing about Jack the Ripper. At Bodrum, she told me stories about the Byzantine empire. And in Indore, she wanted a Chinese digestive that she had been told was the thing to extend a lifetime by 20 years.
She took two days to get to it. Easter she said, always made her sentimental. I think it was actually caroling that made her crazy. I knew her well enough to read her puzzles by now. And it was snowing in the streets with the air heavy with Silent Night. So typical, I thought. A failed singer losing it at the sound of music. The sour taste of boredom mingled well with the emptiness in my stomach. She fit. But she was still walking.
It wasn’t till four days later that we entered a deserted street. A single house stood at the end of it. The sign on the door said ‘Someone Else’. No Mr. or Ms. Nothing to indicate marital status, gender.
She stopped the minute she spotted it. But I didn’t. This is what I was here for. I continued walking. Then I stopped and came back for her. This is also what I was here for, for her. She could search the world over and lead me to the place we both wanted to go. But she would never enter it herself. Bringing us here was her task; taking us in was mine.
But she stood rock still.
I opened my mouth and breathed a loud puff. It wasn’t loud enough but the air came out and lay suspended for a few seconds. With effort I untangled vocal cords I hadn’t used in three years.
“I came looking for Someone Else. She left me for him. Someone Else destroyed my marriage. Someone Else took away the job you wanted.”
She looked at me, squinting. Then her lips moved again and her legs with them. As we walked, she spat out,
“You have such a squeaky voice. It’s disgusting for a man your size.”
I nodded in acknowledgement. We entered the house, hand in hand.
Inside we found ourselves standing on a single plank. That was it. There was no room to go any further. String and car parts and wigs stuck out from the mass. She put out her hand before I could stopped her and started jabbing at it. A history textbook fell out and lay open to a page that had her name on it. But she paid it no heed.
So I followed her lead and began poking into the mess as well. It wasn’t till later that I noticed the heavy, fetid smell in the air. Almost immediately, she stopped and looked back at me.
“I don’t want to do this anymore.”
I nodded and we walked out.
“After all this searching, I thought…I thought…Someone Else would have at least been enjoying the fruits of what she stole from me. But this…this is…the nerve of it!”
But it was said with no power, no righteous rage.
“Do you want to go back in and take it back? It’s all there, you know. Everything you ever wanted, that went away to Someone Else.”
“Your wife must be in there too. Do you want to?”
she shot back.
I smiled. She was such a good travelling companion.
“This is terrible.”
she informed me gravely,
“All our lives spent chasing things that we don’t want anymore. And where is Someone Else, anyway?”
“He…She…just left us another gift.”
She didn’t bother looking at me as she picked up speed. In Johannesburg, I caught up with her.
“Did you expect anything else? He is the God of Disappointment, after all. He delivered, full service. You got your round trip around the world. Here’s your deposit.”
Then I handed her the half-eaten sandwich I’d been carrying and I walked away.
*Image (without text) via artur84 on FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Now I’m really falling terribly behind but I resolve to catch up this week. Here’s a story that I originally called ‘Dancing Shoes’. I’m ducking the ball a bit and retitling this so I can use it for today’s A to Z Challenge. I give you R is for Red Shoes. I wrote this in the month of February when red, dancing and unexpected affections seemed to be all about. Tell me what you think.
R is for Red Shoes
She’s standing near the door. John doesn’t like girls who love red. It’s an unusual colour for shoes. Then they fuss and wear other strange things that will match. Too much drama. John is smart. So many years teaching ballroom dancing, he knows how to read people.
The 6:00 batch gets over and the students move towards the door. Good thing she isn’t in the first batch. I want to be warmed up and ready when I dance with shoes like her.
The wearer is grinding one heel into the ground, while the other toe tap-taps, not at all in time with the music. I can see even at this distance, that she’s flexing the right strap, weighing her wearer’s foot down. Dancers always say the shoes are important but most wearers don’t realize how much their shoes make them dance. This one is going to be tricky. She’s going to make me do John’s work as well.
We start off normally. Salsa’s beginning 1-2-3-45 can be followed by anyone. Anyone in a sensible pair of shoes, that is. But I hold my tongues. It looks like the wearer is inexperienced herself. She could have picked less fussy shoes. But never mind that. John shifts to quick-quick-slllow that some people find easier. I think we’ll do this for the remainder of the song.
But she seems to have other ideas. I can see her tensing around the toes, straining at the straps every couple of steps. I maintain my form and refuse to respond. She continues making grotesque shapes at me. If only people could see how ugly their shoes can look, when they’ve decided to be difficult. But no, these women say, oooh they’re such pretty shoes, they’re worth the pain!
The strap buckle has a little tassel hanging over the ankle. I see it in mid-step, what she’s trying to do. But it’s too late. The tassel sails over and is squelched under the other sole. The wearer stumbles and her knee knocks into John’s just as he raises his foot in the air. His years of practice, teaching clumsy beginners – it’s like they’re gone. He slips and I squash her toe, leaving a little scuff mark. I’m ashamed of my boy, he rarely does this. Maybe he likes her. I can feel his embarrassment too. Instructors are not supposed to step on their students’ toes.
But they continue dancing, to my surprise. The wearer follows the man. Maybe she’s not so bad, even if she is a woman who loves red. I focus again on her shoes. I wouldn’t want to admit, even to John that I lost balance just like he did. Dancing shoes can’t do that, even if their wearers can. But she is…she is…she is so annoying!
I keep a wary eye on her for the rest of the song. John moves into the turns, tentatively. I know it’s risky, seeing how she messed even the basic quick-quick-slow. But he knows and I do, if we don’t diversify, it’ll be trouble. John of course, will tell himself that it’s about giving the students confidence. But I know it’s about letting them know who’s boss.
I snap out of my rumination as a tassel brushes me across the side. She did that on purpose, didn’t she? Does she like having scuff marks? I’ll show her, if she tries that again!
But she’s passive for the rest of the song. And the next one. As we near the last number, I’m beginning to believe that she’s just badly made, not a bad pair otherwise. She’s frozen her form into one shape now and even the scuff mark seems to be gone. I can tell she doesn’t like me. Pity. She seemed like she might have been a nice girl underneath all that tassel-fussing.
The class comes to an end. The wearer says her byes and thank yous and she’s panting a bit for breath. I know she won’t come back. John’s careful maneuvering still haven’t given her the confidence that she can be a dancer. And those shoes of her will grind and pinch her and make her forget about dancing lessons.
I watch her walk away. There’s no clenching, no tightening. It’s like she can’t get her wearer out of the class fast enough. I’ll never see her again. I sigh, my tongues coming free of John’s feet. For a change, he doesn’t tuck them back inside with the backs of his legs. He really liked the student too. I know, buddy, I know. That’s the way they are, these girls who love red.
I force myself to focus at the class the next day. Of course I knew she wouldn’t return. Sylvia comes to class so John gets to walk around a little around students. I get to dance with the advanced dancers too and not just the troublesome new ones. There are a couple of white shoes among the stable blacks and browns. But no reds. Thank God. We don’t need these red ladies messing with our minds and tongues. But I have to admit, nobody tosses a tassel the way she does.
It’s three days later when I’m surprised again. We turn, John and I and in mid-step, brush against another dancer. A familiar tassel grazes my side. And I swear, as she sails through the air, I see her clench one toe in my direction. The song is coming to an end. And I know, I just know, I’ll be facing her when the next one begins.
I will never understand women’s shoes.
*Image (without text) via Vlado on FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Now here’s a story based on a little something that happened in real life. I once worked at an office where the printer was named for the employee who was seated closest to it. It created some mirthful situations. This however, is fiction. For today’s A to Z Challenge, I give you P is for Printer.
P is for Printer
Prime real estate. That’s what they call locations that are close to desirable things like the sea, an arterial road or a green area in a concrete city. These locations are extra valuable. The reverse should hold true in office spaces. The row closest to the toilet or the cubicle next to the door? Well, it’s not like the people occupying them get to leave earlier. And the 3 second advantage of being able to get to the pot in one of those ‘when you gotta go’ times far outweighs the frequent fragrant reminders of its existence. How often do you gotta go, when you’re chained to a desk job anyway?
Now take me for example. I sit next to the printer. This is probably not as bad as being the toilet’s neighbor. It’s like being close to a very large person prone to noisy, fume-ridden outbursts, that people magically gravitate to. The printer even has my name. If you were to check the network settings of any terminal in this company, under printers, you’d see the following:
Maxima is the managers’ printer, a tiny colour thing that only the cabin crew uses, while us lowly staff get to mill around the black and white, noisy giant who sits next to me. Maxima sits in a position of discreet honour, atop the stationery cupboard, while the other one is relegated to the end of all the rows of cubicles. And management decided real estate being what it was, they had to maximize space. So they bunged in one more seat next to the printer-allotted space and guess who got to occupy it?
So how to identify the two printers on the network? How to keep the minions from actually using the power of colour print afforded to them, via IT services democratic views? Good manners prevents them from giving them the names that they merit – BOSSES ONLY and THE UNIMPORTANT. So, instead, they decided to hijack the name of the guy who sat closest to it. Voila, my electronic doppelganger!
I kept my chair turned away from it, so people wouldn’t try to engage me in conversations while waiting for their prints. But they’d peer over my shoulder, for entertainment then. The whole office feels like Big Brother. Facing the printer meant there was enough room on my table for sticky coffee mugs and unwanted prints to accumulate. Harish and I finally compromised and today we sit side-by-side. Neither friends nor foes but allies, that’s what we are. I am at peace with my namesake now.
It was through Harish that I met her. Lekha, one of the new project execs. She was clean across the floor and I’d never have been introduced to her. Her team is sniffy and snobbish that way. They also wouldn’t bother to help out the new joinee on their team. Lekha spent a good ten minutes wandering around the floor on her first day, looking for the printer that held her pages. She actually came by my place twice. But her prints had gone under the stack and someone else had dumped the accumulated pages into the waste holder below. She finally figured it out of course, and tottered across the floor to pick up her prints before they were hijacked by someone else.
One day, I plucked out a single sheet before Sinha, the accountant shoved the bundle into the dump. I’d seen Lekha running down the corridor. She braked on her high heels, smoothly and with a curse on her lips. I handed the sheet over to her. Sinha was watching the little exchange, his eyes darting back and forth. But the grateful smile she gave me in return was worth it.
I waited a couple of times and let her run the distance and miss, before I tried it again. Even so, the next time I did a miracle save, she looked at me quizzically. How did I know it was hers, her knitted eyebrows seemed to ask. I would have sat down in my chair, such was the force of that look, had I not been seated already. Instead, I settled for knocking my coffee mug across the table. I went back to my computer screen. She went away.
After that, I resolved not to save any more of her pages. But Harish, Harish, that prankish Cupid connived to bring us together again. Sitting next to it for 9 hours a day, I can tell the time by when the humming starts to become buzzing. If it were under my jurisdiction, I’d post an email on the company network at 11:52 asking them to hold their printouts for 10 minutes while Harish took a break. And again at 3:07 to avoid a paper jam. But it’s not my job. So Harish struggles through its day while I struggle through mine. Allies look out for each other, though, it seemed to be saying that day. The paper jam occurred at 1:03.
My eyes flicked to the corner of the screen that very moment. And then immediately up. Lekha’s heels laid their final tap and came to a halt in front of my table. She stared at the empty print tray, puzzled. Then she looked around. The cubicles were empty, their occupants having bolted to lunch (revise my earlier presumption; those closest to the door do get to lunch earlier than the others). Finally she turned to look at me.
I let her stare linger on me for 2 seconds before I returned it. Then, I stood up and walked around my desk to Harish. Getting down on my knees, I lifted the tray and opened the printer door. I’d thought it would be a simple jam but it turned out to be two papers twisted together and caught in the cartridge.
“Have to ask IT to take a look at it.”
“I need that print.”
I urged, with a meaningful look towards the BOSSES printer.
“No…I…I want Harish.”
she said, turning away almost immediately, embarrassed at how that sounded.
I smirked at her back. But I saw her start to turn, I looked back to Harish. What was to be done? I drummed on the side of the printer, pretending to know what I was looking at. At that very moment, there was a terrific screeching of paper and a sheet came crawling through the slit. A horribly crumpled and torn half landed in the print tray. I extricated the other half from inside the machine and laid it next to the one on top. It was a resume.
Then I became conscious of her stare and stepped away. She bit her lip and reached for the two pieces. Crumpling them up in her hand, she walked away. But three steps later, she turned and gave me a rueful grin. She didn’t come back to pick up any printouts for the rest of the day. And she was still there at the end of the week.
The next time I heard the printer hum uncharacteristically, I looked up. Lekha was walking towards me. Walking, not running, a calm expression on her face. Then her eyes met mine and she smiled. I reached a hand out, without standing up and retrieved the paper she had fired. When she came up, I handed it over to her without a word. And she smiled and walked away. I turned to look at the printer.
Harish, you old dog.
*Image (without text) via pakorn on FreeDigitalPhotos.net.