Tag Archives: Tiny Tales

Tiny Tales: Luka

I wrote this for an Alphabet Sambar prompt. Several members of the group said they did not get it. But two others did and liked it. Tell me what you think. Also, to keep from biasing you, I’ve posted the prompt at the bottom of the story and not here.

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

Luka

The man clutches the bottle to him, his spirit hungrier than his stomach, for succor. The glass is warm, from hours of holding and caressing. But it stays unyielding. He clutches it closer. The drink is long gone and he has no money for more. But he is convinced that the magical respite it brings, has seeped through to the bottle. He will take the bottle with him. He has paid for it, fair and square.

The fingers of his left hand close over its neck and he picks it up. His right hand supporting its base, he curls it up inside him, warm from the weather outside.

“Mine.” he croons.

On the street, an old woman stares at him. Her hair turns to hissing snakes as he passes, but he knows she is harmless. Medusa fallen from the grace of a Greek god. She told him her story once, how her lover had cut her and dropped her like garbage, because his mother didn’t approve. She was a kindred soul in agony. She frowns at him now.

“What you got there?”

“A handful of wishes.” He replies, allowing her a peek at the lovely succor his coat has been hiding. But only a peek. Kindred or not, he won’t share.

“Mine.” he mutters.

“Won’t bring her back, you know.”

He gives her a gentle smile. He knows, of course. It’s the first rule. Or maybe it’s the second. No wishing for love, no wishing to bring back the dead. But she’s looking at the bottle so hungrily now that he moves away. No one must know what he has.

He reaches his building door and looks up. He strokes the bottle but nothing happens.

“LUKA!!” he says.

The noise in his right ear gets louder and he stumbles. Then, two small hands reach around his waist and start to pull him up the staircase. He reminds himself to recast the wishes better in the morning. He doesn’t like being kept waiting at his own door.

“You’re late, Luka.”

“I fell asleep.” says the little voice, slightly muffled in his jacket.

“Djinns don’t sleep.”

The man smiles. He remembers his training. Djinns are very sly creatures but they are pure magic. This one has an angelic face. He looks exactly like a nine year old. Luka. But Luka is magic. He can make wishes come true, provided those wishes are correctly framed. Mostly he is really very good. But with djinns you never know. He has to keep an eye on the bottle at all times.

“Mine.” he whispers again. His elbow knocks against the djinn’s head, as his grasp tightens around the bottle and he hears a little cry. The djinn looks up at him, eyes filling with tears. He puts his left hand on the little head and strokes the hair. Such a guileless face. The eyes just like hers.

They reach the door and Luka lets him go. Immediately the man crumples, his knees buckling. The bottle falls out of his hand and rolls away. He lunges after it in panic and grabs hold of it, before it hurtles over the staircase. Luka is still standing at the doorway frozen.

“You little shit. You made me fall. Trying to break the bottle, are you?”

He gets to his feet, not unsteady anymore. The bottle has given him some of its power, from four hours of holding.

Only the old woman on the street hears Luka scream.

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

The prompt was:  Dijnns are cursed malevolent entities known to twist innocent wishes. Dijnns are like temptations; fulfilling wishes without hard work. Dijnns represent the ‘easy way’ to get our wants. So this prompt is to write about the wishes that Dijnns can fulfil or can’t fulfil. You can write about Djinns and or wishes, together or individually. Write about you as a Djinn and the interesting journey you have had. Or write about a conversation that you may have with a Djinn. Or go personal and write about personal wishes. How your wishes make you different from others, and how much you are willing to risk to fulfil your wishes. Or go all psychological, ‘Why do you wish what you wish?’ Also remember, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” Couldn’t resist the song, from pussy cat dolls :).

*If you’re a lover of words and like the idea of prompts, join Alphabet Sambar. We’re always happy to meet new members. Alphabet Sambar is on Facebook and Twitter. To attend a meet, shoot me an email at ideasmithy[at]gmail[dot]com.

Tiny Tales: Clearance Sale

This is the first thing I wrote in 2015 and I’m glad it was both catharsis and short fiction. I didn’t publish it earlier for fear of hurting someone. But it seems it doesn’t matter anymore. Here goes:

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

“I’m having a Clearance Sale for 2014,”

she says,

“You see, 2015 comes in the shape of a cupboard that I haven’t opened yet. And I don’t want to put anything old in there. 2014 needs to go before I can open 2015.”

He surveys the life that she has laid out in neat stacks and tidy piles. He notes that her OCD has not made it to the ‘Sell’ list. He looks over to her. She’s doing something to her hair, stringing it out between her fingers and squinting up through the strands. Now and then she draws out a hand and a grey hair comes away with it, which she deposits into a carton she has labeled ‘Worries’. She’s sitting on a poorly assembled chair, whose seat is askew and all legs of different lengths.

“I made that when I decided to take up carpentry.”

“Carpentry and you??”

he guffaws, picturing the skinny girl in front of him trying to pick up a power drill.

She frowns at him and opens her mouth, while he waits for the entertainment that usually follows such a remark. But she stops short of saying anything. Then she places both her hands on her head. Her face contorts and she looks like she’s trying to pull her skull off.

“GNNNNNNRRRRRGGGHHHHHH,”

she goes. Then she stops and breathes noisily.

“It’s too deeply entrenched, my Patchy Feminism.”

“If it’s patchy, you should dab at it with stain remover, not try to pull it off like a helmet,”

he observes.

“Stain remover,”

she says, Resentful Acid oozing from in between syllables,

“Stain removers don’t do their job well. They remove everything. Oh. Oh.”

He waits for her to reach the conclusion. She doesn’t lack for Intelligence (another thing he notices is not on the List) but Determination is something she tends to have in short supply. It might have been used up already. He watches till the Rebellious Spirit ebbs and she replaces it with Fake Detachment. And he turns away grinning. No matter how hard she tries, there are things that will always be left behind on her shelves.

“Maybe you’ll be able to take some of them up in 2015,”

he says with a yawn.

“No! I have to get rid of everything. It was such an untidy year, arriving in bits and pieces and messily wrapped parcels. I spent most of it cleaning up and picking up things that got broken.”

She stares at him and her eyes grow wide. She can never keep up Fake Detachment for very long. There are inflections in her voice, the neon plastic colours of 2014 flecking sound with styrofoam shards and smothering thermocol. He hates when he can see the inside of her mind this way, without feeling what she feels. What’s wrong with styrofoam and thermocol? She just thinks – or feels – or is – too much.

He nudges a stack of paper with his toe and touches the top. It starts at the base with a couple of diaries, sheds to writing pads and ends with looseleaf sheets of paper, held down by a little box of glittery paper clips and thumbtacks shaped like ladybirds. This, he is not unhappy to see leaving. The Fancy Stationery is a veneer around her Compulsive List-making. Her Elaborate Time Arrangements are lurking in there too, making paper shells and digital mazes around Quiet Desperation. He steps away, breaking contact. Immediately her Too Many Adjectives and Catchphrases drip off his fingers and congeal into the general mass of Excessive Verbosity. They need to go.

Paid Bills lie in a corner and he is careful to avoid going there. They are the noose around his Spontaneous Excitement and he won’t risk any more of it getting choked, than it already does, being around her.

He turns and is surprised to find her standing right behind him. Their noses are touching and he thinks she looks like Cyclops. But he can’t move. She shuts her eyes and he feels her eyelids scrape over his cheeks. Then he hears a sickening sound like velcro scabs peeling off raw human flesh. She is peeling him off her. Their eyeballs (which he realizes only now are melded together) flatten and stretch. Finally they pop out, her optic nerves hitting him across the face. She’s ripping his fingers off her torso now and something small and hard hits him in the stomach. It’s black with slivers of pink and the maroon trickle seeping from the ventricles stains his clothes. He looks up (her optic nerves swing across his nose this time) and sees a hole in the middle of her chest. A thunderous sound jolts him, which he discerns as the word SOLD!

He realizes dimly that he is shouting but his words are getting further and further away. As he watches, her form now drained of melanin, starts to fade. It thins to a hair fine line. Now the line breaks under her right ear and moves snakelike to her right. There it stops and just like in the game, turns right angle, growing just a bit. A little above her head, it turns again. He watches as it turns into a doorframe around her. In a flash, colour fills in between them, a solid wooden door with a polished brass handle. Incredibly, he can see her even through all this. He tries to turn but he is packed in tight. Plastic boards that say FEELING crush his ribcage. A glass case containing a replica of her in his favorite dress, presses down on his shoulders. The carton of Verbosity is dripping unwieldy, catatonic words on his shoulder. And look, even her Patchy Feminism is growing on his jeans and now on his belt in green, furry strokes.

He manages one last look at her but she isn’t even looking in his direction. Beyond her, a cupboard stands slightly ajar. He watches as she pulls it open and steps into it. There is only white light and it melts everything that is on his side and is him. His last impression is of the cupboard doors. The right one bears the numerals 1 and 5 while the left says 20.

He doesn’t know how long has passed before the wooden door that he is behind, opens again. He tries twitching a finger but all he hears is the sound of paper rustling. A damp finger touches a corner of him and he feels himself turned over.

“I’ll take this book,”

a voice says.

20 Steps: A Digital Love Story

1. He sends her a carefully worded to sound casual-but-smart message.

2. She replies with the digital equivalent of a laugh.

3. Encouraged, he does some more of that.

4. She chuckles (digitally, of course). He notices that her smile is crooked and that her teeth don’t quite line up. He wonders whether to judge her for not using Photoshop or be impressed that she doesn’t feel the need to.

5. While he’s thinking, she springs a snarky/smart/weird reference on him that makes him laugh.

6. Encouraged, she does more of that.

7. They continue in this fashion, trading funny lines, witty insights and an occasional urban angst reflection, that they agree (without words) to consider original.

8. The dating site goes down for 27 hours. They return surprised at the relief they feel that the chat history hasn’t been vaporised. But just in case, she says, maybe it’s not such a reliable platform after all? Sure, he agrees, how about moving this to chat instead?

9. They now feature on each other’s ‘Last messaged’ and ‘Always Show’ chat lists. Gripes about work, mid-morning panic pangs and I’m-so-bored-but-it’s-not-time-to-stop-work-yet chats feature on these.

10. Work hits. Life intervenes. Illness happens. Or, never mind that deus ex machina crap, it’s just a weekend. But she types his name into the search bar every now and then. And he stalks her photos on a lonesome Tuesday night.

20 Steps

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

11. 4 days later, a Hi goes unanswered. 2 days later the reply goes unnoticed. 3 days later a message goes undelivered. A week later, they are online at the same time but they don’t exchange a word.

12. 10 days later she says ‘What’s up?’ He replies ‘Same old’. Another week passes.

13. A month later, he says ‘Hey’. She replies (after 20 minutes), ‘How are you?’. They talk. It’s almost like it once was. Almost. But he’s texting a prospective hookup about later. And she is parallel-chat-flirting with a new crush/Fwb. There are no goodbyes in this conversation that is peppered by intervals of at least 5 minutes between each message.

14. Three weeks later, he messages saying he is going to be in her city. She replies “Oh cool”. No further communication.

15. Two days later she pings him saying she saw his profile on another dating app and isn’t it funny how things turned out? He replies with a smiley.

16. A month later, she notices his profile picture has changed to show a geographic landmark that she recognises from her own city. She chooses not to comment on it. She forgets about it.

17. He changes his profile picture back to one more his style, his city after 2 weeks. This time, there’s a girl in the picture as well, her head pressed close to his. Two weeks later, he notices the Facebook ticker shows her rapidly commenting and liking some guy’s status updates. His eyes move back to his feed before he can even think about it.

18. She receives a friend request from someone. It’s an old classmate. Among the 37 common friends, she notices his face. And she wonders if she should ask how they know him. She files it away in her head for a later, more casual conversation where it won’t be noticed. And she forgets about it.

19. He pings and says ‘What’s up?’. She says ‘Same old’.

20. Repeat from 1.

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

I also posted this to my other blog, XX Factor. If you’d like to read more on my take on modern relationships, do visit The Dating Game. Posts you might like:

X is for X and O


XToday 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.

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

X is for X and O

Rivi:
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.

Samir:
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.

Deep:
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.

Samir:
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??!”

“My first.”

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?”

“The game.”

“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.

Rivi:
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.

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

X is for X and O

*Image via digitalart on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

W is for Writer’s Block

WI 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.

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

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.

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

W is for Writers Block

*Image via thaikrit on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

%d bloggers like this: