V is for Victoria Terminus

VOn 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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

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.”

“Daughtersss?”

“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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

V is for Victoria Terminus

*Image (without text) via Wikipedia

U is for Underwater

UI 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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

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!”

Laisha laughed.

“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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

U is for Underwater

*Image (without text) via tungphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

T is for Truth or Dare

T 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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

T is for Truth or Dare

*Image (without text) via Gualberto107 on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

S is for Someone Else

SI’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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

S is for Someone Else

*Image (without text) via artur84 on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

R is for Red Shoes

RNow 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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

R is for Red Shoes

*Image (without text) via Vlado on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

P is for Printer

PNow 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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

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
Harish

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.”

“Oh God.”

she mumbled,

“I need that print.”

“Fire another.”

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.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

P is for Printer

*Image (without text) via pakorn on FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

N is for A Nice Guy

NI was challenged to write noir fiction by a friend. Being that I’m utterly unfamiliar with the genre, all I had to go by was a sexy woman in red, a world-weary man, cynical lines and criminal intentions. I gave it a desi twist, imagining what the seamy side of my city would be like. Tell me if you enjoyed it. For today’s A to Z Challenge, I give you n for noir, N for a Nice Guy. By the way, if references to sex, crime, the underworld or prostitution bother you, please do not read further.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

N is for A Nice Guy

You might expect to find people who look like her about at that hour. People who look like her, but not her. If you were feeling peckish and in a mood for a certain kind of company, you wouldn’t be too far off your mark, to approach her. You’d have to have money though. This one does not look like your classic 300 rupees, by the hour, mooh mein lene ka extra sort.

She walked into my room at quarter past two. A red chiffon saree, so transparent, if it had been yellow, it wouldn’t have been visible at all on the smooth contours of her skin. The palluv bordered with black lace drew a sharp line from the corner of her shoulder down to the tip of her right breast. And if that blouse hadn’t been black, it wouldn’t have been there at all. Her hips, undulating around an impossibly low waist tuck, entered my room before her breasts did – no mean feat considering her proportions. That’s how I knew what she did for a living.

My first thought though, was that she was a hi-fi type, stumbled into my place for nasha. But I didn’t bother telling her that was 3 doors down at Abdul’s room. We’re not friends but why give away information for free? I have a clean chit, with everyone. I may not look it but then, look at where I live. Tinsel town those mediawaalon used to call it in the 80s. Tinsel tarnishes in three days in this weather and scratches like fuck.

My name is Mihir Kulkarni and I am a real estate agent. The only 24 hour estate agent in the city that never sleeps. I still can’t believe how stupid they’ve all been to never catch the significance of that. People need spaces, different kinds of spaces, any hour of the day. A kholi for 4 nights, a bed for 3 hours, a shelter for a kid for 2 days, a safe place to keep 6 petis…I’m the man that will get you these, cash upfront, no questions asked.

I looked her straight in the eye, lace bordered, red tinged watermelons notwithstanding. It’s about being a professional and letting them feel they can trust you. Anyone could be a client, even a Zeenat Aman lookalike in a chiffon saree. Men looking at her in the face couldn’t have been something she was used to. To her credit, she didn’t look surprised.

“My boyfriend is trying to kill me. Help me? I was told you were the man to speak to.”

she said.

So, a place to stay. 3-4 nights maybe. Till she could raise the funds to buy a ticket back home. I could tell she didn’t have much cash (where would she store it?). But she was a wild card. I couldn’t put her with Sheena and Maria – those girls were sweet but they’d probably run off to sell this madam’s high heels. Naveen had told me that they were to be off cocaine for at least a month while the cops were cracking down.

So I took her home.

She didn’t bat an eyelid when I opened the door to the Worli bungalow. But her eyebrows registered surprise when she saw my passport photographs lying on the dining table.

“This is your house?”

I opened the refrigerator and took out the daal palak I had made earlier. By the time I’d brought over a plate of rotis and sabzi to her, she was seated at the dining table. The palluv I noticed had been pulled over her other shoulder (not that it changed things much).

She talked as she ate, clipped words between small bites. Jabalpur was home. Parents who wanted to see her married, a 45-year-old widower who wanted to marry her, no dowry, same old story. Except she didn’t run away with a lover. She got a job with a local news channel. Two months later, they put together the money to come to Bombay, where the real masala was.

Sting, she said, wiping up the last of the daal palak with a roti. That’s what Sateesh had said would be the best way. Blackmail money or instant publicity – both investments in a future of media glory. They set their sights high, right in the beginning. No slow build-ups in this game. The name she told me, surprised even me.

Not a Khan, not a Kapoor but one of Bollywood’s reigning superstars. In addition to a wife and two kids, he also carried the distinction of Family Man. He’d burst on the scene with his first blockbuster 10 years earlier – a kesari-sweet film with 17 songs and lots of wedding rituals. He’d followed it up with a string of similar movies and was credited with bringing back family audiences into the theatres, hence the title.

But Sateesh thought he must have a dirty secret somewhere. So he fitted her with the instructions and the hidden cameras. She was nervous she said, but it all went well.

“Then?”

I said, leaning forward in spite of myself.

“We…yes. But I didn’t go back to Sateesh. I showed him the cameras. Family Man. He was angry at first, but he realized I was helping him. So he promised to get me out of the dirt. What life is there for the girl in a sting video?”

Ah, so that was that. I stood up and went in through the door to prepare a bed for her. I knew I should get back to work but I didn’t want to leave her alone. Her eyes were still downcast.

“I thought…you know, he really is a nice guy. What did I know? There are no nice guys in this industry. Now he’s trying to kill me.”

She stood up and the palluv slid off her shoulders, the hem pulling the tuck off her waist and the saree fell in little circles around her ankles. I was about to turn away when she turned around. Reaching around with painted nails, she edged the blouse strap off. And there, along the line of the slinky strap, was a deep gash, still raw with exposed flesh. When she turned around, I saw the bruises streaked across her breasts.

“There’s more. On my thighs. And in other places you can’t see even in this dress.”

That was when I noticed the line around her throat, lean like the imprint of a single slender finger. I had missed it earlier, probably mistaking it for a fold in the flesh. I reached out and ran a finger across her cheek, wiping away her tears.

“Come to bed.”

I told her.

“You are safe here.”

It was around 6 in the morning when I lay back and pulled out a cigarette. She turned on her side and looked up at me.

“You know, you really are a nice guy. You didn’t look like it but you are.”

I finished my cigarette before I turned to look at her. Then I stood up and pulled on my pants.

“Up.”

I told her.

“Time’s up.”

She widened her eyes. The cheek of it. It didn’t work any more on me. I had almost felt sorry for her. Almost, for a fraction of a second, I’m not too proud to admit it. Till she showed her true colours. Begging, begging me to gag her, to bind her up and hurt her.

I had it all on record. And the camera never even saw my face. Stung the sting. No Bollywood roles for a woman who had done this. S&M is new enough to India to have its takers but not for open consumption.

“It won’t even work as a leaked MMS. This is HD quality and no phone camera can give you that. Don’t try claiming that it was someone else, either. People saw you entering this place. And there’s those scars you had when you came in. I made sure those weren’t make-up.”

My phone was ringing. It would be my money. My first cash-after-delivery job but it was big bucks. The name of the caller flashed ‘SATEESH’.

“Even you tried to take advantage of me.”

she sobbed.

“Everyone has to pay their dues, sweetheart. That’s what you did to that poor actor, didn’t you? He hasn’t had a movie in a year.”

“I thought you were different.”

I picked up my phone and strode to the door. Then I paused and looked back at her.

“There are no nice guys in this industry.”

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

N is for A Nice Guy

*Image (without text) via adamr on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

L is for Letters I’ll Never Send

LI’m falling utterly behind. So I decided to post this already written story and catch up on the missing three later. Here’s another attempt at epistolary, this time in a more traditional, simple manner. Two letters I give you for today’s A to Z Challenge in the form of L is for Letters I’ll never send.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

Letters I’ll never send

My dear Lollypop,

I can imagine you dropping your iPhone, your nonchalant poise destroyed, if I were to call you that in person. It has been years since I called you that, after all. A decade and half to be slightly precise (as you once said). Yes, I remember. Kidster, I will always be your big sister. You and I both know, I will always be able to call you out on the elaborate opera you put up for other people. I can still do it.

You’re a master at it, I will give you that, Lolly. Silly boys, they are so dazzled by your fireworks, they never notice the things you do to them. You’ve had a good, fun run and I don’t grudge you that. Heaven alone knows, I can’t. After all these years

You’re 26 now, pop-pop. I can see your defenses solidifying into confidence. You don’t play those games with ma and baba, that you used to. I think you’re actually learning to be a little kinder too. Or is it just Jimmy that you’re that way with? It must be love, true love at last. I bet you’ve never told him that. But I know it. I know you, poppet. I wish we had not

Do you know what you are getting into? Marriage is a big thing. Look beyond the wedding. Are you sure you want to spend the rest of your life with someone who makes you different from the way you are with the rest of the world? Do you think he will love you as much as. You will probably think that it’s an indication of true love. Maybe it is. Will he still love you

But true love, is that a recipe for happiness, child? Jimmy is 31. He isn’t one of the boys you twist around your fingers easily. After the excitement has subsided, you might find that you don’t like the idea of someone who knows more than you do, who is able to see through your little dramatics.

You’ll be fidgeting by this point but I know you will still be reading. This is the first real conversation that you and I have had in 14 years, after all. My darling idiot, my namkeen poppet, my half-sucked lollipop dear, how I miss you. You were always my baby, even after we stopped speaking. I know you will never forgive me for changing as I did, inexplicably. I’ve never forgotten the injured look in your eyes, when I shut the door on your face for the first time, and told you, “Privacy is a thing, Lalita”. I think my calling you by your full name is what injured you the most.

I know this, Lolly. I know this because I never stopped being your big sister. And I know this because you allow Jimmy to call you Lolly. I know you’re trying to hurt me, by letting someone else share that special nickname. Mission accomplished, child. But it’s really more important that you look at what that is doing to Jimmy and you. I reiterate, he isn’t a boy. Tread carefully, now. You are an adult now, not a little girl whose big sister dropped her, without explanation.

These are my words to the wise and please be wise, Lollypop.

With all the affection of 14 years that I withheld,
Arpita.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

J,

Is this what you’re doing? The next time I see you, I want you to answer this question. Wear a white shirt if the answer is yes, a blue if it is no.

You may wonder what right I have to make demands, to ask questions. Fair point, I say. So I’ll give you an answer to buy back the right to question.

What happened in 1997? I missed my monthly date. It was the first time that had ever happened. Remember how we used to scoff at Hindi movies, where a stormy night was all that was needed to get a girl pregnant? I have never been on a hike after that.

Why did I not tell you? We broke up two weeks later. I wonder if Priya Shah ever knew all the relationships that she ended up destroying just by existing. No, I know you never had anything with her. I found out only four months later when she got engaged. It was too late by then.

What did I do? What could a 16 year old pregnant girl have done? We didn’t have iPill back in ‘97. Or Google. I went into the bathroom and hit myself in the stomach with a hammer twenty-four times. At some point, I also drank some phenyl. It tasted so bad, I got scared. I ran back into my bed and huddled under the covers. I woke up half an hour later, vomiting. And when I finished throwing up, I realized there was a pool of blood at my feet. I mopped it up and went back to bed. In the morning, my mother thought I had just got my period in the night.

Lalita knocked on my bedroom door that night, surprised to find it locked. She used to come to my room and snuggle up next to me sometimes. I shut the door on her face that day. She never came back.

She is nothing like me, a fact that I’m sure you’ve gathered by now. That probably sounds like she is easier to manage. She won’t leave you with a trail of questions. She won’t go into long silences when she is displeased. In fact she’s rarely displeased. She gets disillusioned real often though. It is now your burden and responsibility to keep her illusions intact, till the next time she spots a crack in them. Do not try to introduce her to reality. That privilege has been mine and I chose not to, years ago.

I’ve given you three answers and in return, this is what I want – your answer and thereafter, your silence. We could have had a family, years ago, but we didn’t. And now this is a chance to be a family again. Don’t destroy the chance as I did, in 1997.

I know you really are going to be wearing a white shirt the next time I see you. I will smile at you and show my pleasure at being introduced to you. And we will have a family dinner with my parents and your father.

Welcome to this family, brother-in-law.

A

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

L is for Letters I'll never send

*Image via Simon Howden on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

K is for Kitne Aadmi The?

KHave you heard of Tall Tales? They are stories based on wild, unrealistic exaggeration which cause mirth and entertainment for their readers. Tall Tales are part of popular American folklore. I’ve been wanting to try the format so here it is. I’ve picked a basic concept from one of India’s most popular stories, the film Sholay. For the uninitiated, this is a story of two petty criminals Jai and Veeru, who help an ex-cop/landlord avenge his family’s massacre by a local bandit, Gabbar Singh. Jai and Veeru were played by two of the biggest superstars of their day, Amitabh Bachchan and Dharamendra respectively. Veeru’s love interest is Basanti, a garrulous village belle. The italicised words (including the title) are actual lines from the movie that went on to achieve cult status. This is as much as you need to know to enjoy this story, and I hope you do because I had a ton of fun writing it! Here’s K is for Kitne Aadmi The? for today’s A to Z Challenge.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

K is for Kitne Aadmi The?

Once upon a time there were two young men. Like all young men they didn’t have much to do so they got up to all kinds of mischief.

One of them was very tall. His legs were so long that when he stood up, grown people could walk under him without having to bend. He had been prone to house-jumping in his old village, playing leapfrog over the rooftops. A lot of utensils got broken and gardens mashed with his jumping antics, so he was banished. He didn’t mind, however. He was bored of house-jumping anyway, so he set off on the road to find new adventures. In no time at all, he had gone halfway around the world. (It only took him 7 days and that was because he walked slowly instead of jumping. He thought he should learn to be a bit polite).

When he was bored of walking, he sat down to rest. Stretching back, he decided to study the sky. Just as he had began to fathom white designs in the blue, something ran into his legs. He stood up immediately. From his height, he could just make out something broad near his knees. So he squatted, folding his knees. He came face to face with another young man.

The second young man was looking around nervously. He was most surprised to see a face pop up all of a sudden between what he had taken to be two trees.

“Can’t you watch where you’re going?”

“I thought you were a forest!”

“There is no forest for miles around!”

“I’m sorry, I was walking sideways so I couldn’t tell.”

You see, this second young man was very broad-shouldered. When he stood completely straight, his shoulders were broad enough to block the horizon. Most people did not notice him and thought he was a giant rock. Some people even thought he was the end of the world and that there was nothing to be seen beyond him. One village had chased him out because they thought he had eaten up the sun. It wasn’t visible anywhere while he was standing facing them.

All this, the second young man explained to the first. The first listened gravely. He never smiled, in any case. His long legs tended to pull the sides of his lips down. He understood, yes, yes. But he didn’t know why the first young man cared so much. Saala nautanki, he decided, bahut drama karta hain. But since he was bored, he decided to befriend him. And that is how an uncommon friendship was born.

Together the two of them had many, many adventures. Once they decided to scare the people of their old villages and eat up their food, after the villagers had run away. The tall young man entered the second one’s village. But the village lookout saw him from afar (after chasing out the broad-shouldered one, they had posted him there to deter the miscreant from returning) and warned the villagers. They gathered around with tall brooms. When the tall man came stomping by, they hid. Puzzled, he decided that they were all sleeping. And a desire to try his old hobby overcame him. It had been a long time and he had been very good since then. So he jumped. Just as he soared over the nearest roof, the villagers who had been hiding on the top floor, stuck out their tall brooms. The tall young man got a few unpleasant pokes on his bottom. He landed flat on it in the mud. The villagers surrounded him and began tickling his feet with the brooms. He couldn’t get up, he was so overcome by the giggles. Finally, they ceased and he managed to get to his feet and jump away.

Undeterred, the duo decided to try the other village. Broad Shoulders decided he would be smarter and creep in at night, so the villagers wouldn’t see him coming, if they had a lookout. He needn’t have worried. The second village knew their young man well and thought he’d be too bored to return. They were all asleep and peacefully snoring in their houses.

Broad Shoulders crept up, glad to be able to walk straight for a change. Tall man’s village had a lot of wide spaces because it had a lot of fat people in it. At a distance, he spotted a tall building, with a round thing on top.

That must be Tall man’s house, he told himself. Didn’t his friend miss his home, he wondered. He decided to enter it and bring back something for the Tall man, to remember home. Feeling very generous, he circled around the tall building till he spotted a ladder. So spurred on by his happy feeling was he, that he never saw the ladder’s rungs fall away as he climbed.

When he reached the top, he found he had a spectacular view of all the lands around. It made him a bit dizzy though. He looked around for some water and spotted a bottle inside the window. He couldn’t enter the room though, even sideways. The bottle was on a table. He pushed a finger in through the window, managing to tip it over. Tall man must be very thin also, he thought to himself as he drank thirstily from the drips that spilt out of the window. In a few minutes, he was fast asleep.

He woke up to sunlight directly on his face. When he tried to stand up, he swayed. He rubbed his eyes and looked over the edge of the balcony that he was lying on. A crowd was gathered below. His head was pounding. What was in that drink he had consumed the previous night, he wondered. And it was hot.

There was nothing more left to drink. A trickle of sweat ran down the side of his face.

ICE, he said loudly,

“I wish I had some ice.”

Voices below made him look over the edge again. The crowd was gesturing to him. So he called out.

“ICE, I want some ice for my head.”

“WHAT?!”

“ICE!”

“WHAT??”

“ICE. The thing you put into soda.”

“Into WHAT?”

“SODA!!”

“SO what??”

“SODA!!”

“WHAT?”

“ICE!!! SODA!! ICE!!”

“Can’t hear you! Shout louder!”

“SODAAAAICE!!! SODAICE!!!”

Suddenly a murmur went through the crowd and they stopped shouting.

He sighed. Stupid people, they had probably never heard of fridges. He wondered if he could climb down. He stood up and hooked one leg over the side. Immediately there was uproar from the crowd.

A pretty girl appeared at the front of the crowd. And all of a sudden Broad Shoulders found him being pushed back into the wall. He tried to push back but to no avail. His hands only flailed around in thin air. He couldn’t understand it.

Downstairs the girl was prancing about, waving her hands. She was called the Voice. You see, Tall Man’s village had a great many people of interest. Tall Man was only the naughtiest of them and had to be banished for his bad behavior, not for his divergence. Voice Girl for instance, had a magical voice. Usually she spoke so much that her words spilled forth forming a wall of hot air in front of her. It was also why the village did not need a lookout. They had a one woman army of hot air in her. Also, she could raise her voice to the highest pitch ever. She had just raised it to the height of the building and it had reached Broad Shoulders up there.

“Why are you trying to die?”

Broad Shoulders would have jumped at the Voice, had it not been pinning him to the wall.

“Die? I am not trying to die!”

“Then why were you shouting SOCIDE SOCIDE?”

“I was asking for ice!”

The Voice went silent for a few moments. Actually, she had only brought her pitch down to the villagers level so she could confer with them. Shortly, she was back.

“Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

“I am…you answer first!”

“No, you!”

“YOU!!!”

“After you!”

“If you don’t answer, I’ll keep you pinned like this for the whole day!”

Broad Shoulders laughed. He liked the Voice even though he couldn’t see its source. But it sounded like a woman and women liked compliments, he knew. Some of them even liked music. So he started to sing,

“1….2…..3”

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

The Voice had raised him to the wall and was pressing into his chest.

“I just thought you might like a song!”

“You call that a song?”

“Yes. It was taught to me by my wise friend who knows a lot about women.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, koi haseena jab rooth jaati hain toh, hain toh, 1, 2, 3 ho jaati hain!”

The Voice didn’t know what to make of this. Her hold on him eased and he slumped to the floor again.

“What do you want to do? Where do you want to go?”

“I would like to come down. And then I’ll go wherever you want to take me.”

The Voice vanished at this. Broad Shoulders smiled and stood up, peering over the edge.

“SOCIDE CANCEL!”

He declared and swung over the edge. Immediately he slipped and fell off.

Tall Man had been watching the proceedings from a distance. He was standing right at the back so the crowd had never noticed him. In a flash, he stuck out his arms and caught his friend, cushioning his fall. Then he let him drop into the dust, but from a safe distance.

And he jumped away, chewing a grass stem.

Saala nautanki, he told himself, peeke drama karta hain.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

K is for Kitne Aadmi The

* Translation:

Kitne aadmi the? = How many men were there?
Saala nautanki = Bloody drama queen
Koi haseena jab rooth jaati hain toh, 1, 2, 3 ho jaati hain = When a pretty girl gets angry, 1, 2, 3 happens
Peeke drama karta hain = Causes a ruckus when he’s drunk
SOCIDE: From a famous scene in the movie where Veeru pretends to commit suicide (pronounced ‘socide’) if he is not married to Basanti.

H is for Happiness

HI usually avoid religious references in my writing and on my blog. But this one was an idea that really appealed to me. I struggled with H on the A to Z Challenge, before deciding to settle on the most peaceful, simplest (but hardest) word of all – Happiness. And I could only think of one character to portray its essence. This is his story through my eyes. Tell me what you think. I give you, H is for Happiness.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

H is for Happiness

The Laughing Buddha shifted uncomfortably on the rexine sofa. His stomach was not made for chair-sitting. He had lifted one foot up to tuck it under the stomach, earlier. But in the time it took to lift it and fold it under his under-underbelly, the receptionist had glared at him. His stomach had bloated slightly and it made his smile shrink. Disapproval did not digest well. Daunted, he had put the foot back down. Now, ten minutes later, his stomach had returned to its good-natured flab. But the sight of the receptionist was enough to keep his legs in check. It was all very tragic. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on who was looking), discomfort digested quite easily and didn’t impact the shape of The Laughing Buddha’s stomach.

At long last, the receptionist sniffed in his direction and dropped a curt “Go”. He stood up laboriously and shuffled towards the door, casting a sunny smile in her direction. She didn’t even pause in her perusal of the spreadsheets. But he didn’t mind. His charms only worked on Earthly creatures, not management. Still, it was his nature to shed sweetness and light, so he did. Never mind if a little bounced off.

All the bosses were in today, he noted, as he shuffled into the conference room. To his dismay, they were seated around an oval table, with a hole in the center. There were no mattresses or even a beanbag in sight. All that furniture took up so much room. Maybe, he thought, as the meeting wore on, the disapproval would shrink him enough so he’d be able to sit on the floor. But, he knew the minute that happened, he’d sink into bliss and spread out again.

“Sit.”

said a boxy voice, breaking his reverie. It shattered into a few thousand fragments. But the suited atmosphere of the room made them all evaporate before they had a chance to fly in any direction.

“We’re here to discuss your performance and the plan for the year ahead.”

The Laughing Buddha barely heard them; he was too busy trying to wedge into the chair. Suddenly his stomach filled like a balloon. Grimacing, he swiveled the chair around and settled his little hands around the balloon stomach. The Voice went back to speaking but the waves of disapproval rebounded and mated with the sneering curiosity from around the room, making the room hot and heavy. The stomach would stay bloated for the better part of an hour now.

“Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. We can’t have your random order scatters anymore. It’s not cost effective.”

The Laughing Buddha’s eyes opened and he struggled to see through the gloomy darkness. It was very hard, when his sunny smile didn’t light up the way for his gaze. Words like nitty-gritty dented his mouth-bow a bit. No happy arrows could issue from it, while it was in this state.

“How exactly has this thing been working all these years?”

a metallic voice scissored across the room.

“He follows his stomach. The sunshine radiance sustains for a few hours. It is constantly replenished by joy sensations that he picks up.”

“Which is what, he keeps smiling as long as he’s having fun? And where does happiness come into it?”

“It works like a virus. He smiles, they do too. The joy endorphins go shooting and release into the air. He’s able to gather and store them. Just like a solar panel.”

“Solar panel, virus…does this guy know what he’s doing? No wonder it’s in such chaos.”

“There’s no need to get aggressive. It’s just simple chemistry. The system has worked well so far. He’s..”

“Then why are we sitting here?”

The Laughing Buddha had closed his eyes by now. It was too painful to keep them open in the zinging volleys going across the room. He felt the ache shift back in his direction.

“You’ve to stop shooting those joy arrow thingies as and when you feel like it, now. We have to have some order now.”

“Happy arrows.”

“WHAT?”

“Happy arrows, not joy arrows. He feeds on joy sensations. The happy arrows are for barren situations.”

“Which he has been issuing by the truckload, on will.”

The stomach deflated a touch. The Laughing Buddha’s mouth-bow upturned immediately and he let loose a happy arrow. Then he looked around apologetically. But they hadn’t even noticed. The Voices were still zinging disapproval darts at each other. He realized they couldn’t see the happy arrows anymore than they could feel them. The thought gave him sustenance. It floated out through his nostrils and settled over his form like a glass shield. And he settled back in his seat, his stomach spilling over the arms.

When he shuffled out of the room three-quarters of an hour later, he was still smiling. But he had forgotten his wisdom shield back in the room. It wouldn’t matter.

The receptionist crinkled her nose as he passed her, smiling in the opposite direction this time. He hadn’t even noticed the discarded wisdom shields lying scattered around the office, from all his earlier visits. Ignorance was his inexhaustible power source. She had seen this rigmarole play out every year for the past ten centuries. Then she drifted up and floated to the conference room. Anytime now, they’d be calling for coffee.

The Laughing Buddha was out in the world now, zinging his happy arrows around. This time, she decided, she’d just mark him off as ‘Cost Optimised’. She didn’t want his fidgety stomach on her precious sofa again next year.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

H is for Happiness

*Image via Lavoview on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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