Thursday, August 14, 2014

Anubavangal: கதை சொல்லும் நேரம் - Time for Stories

Anubavangal: கதை சொல்லும் நேரம் - Time for StoriesHarishree Vidyalayam needed a Tamil storyteller on the occasion of Tamil Day in their school. When my friend from New Horizon Publishing asked me if I would, as ever, I was ready.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Friends Indeed

The four boys swore eternal friendship. "In good and bad times," they affirmed. With a knife, they slicked the thumb and drew blood. They picked up the four sheets of paper they had thoughtfully brought with them and wrote - 'in good and bad times'. The blood was not enough but it was the thought that counted. They looked at each other solemnly, overwhelmed by the solemnity of the promise.

At 12, the boys knew what the promise meant. They may not have money or luxuries, but they had each other. That was not to be dismissed lightly, each one knew that when he looked at the other three.

Nothing was small or big to share. Be it chocolates, juice or sweet, they made sure the others got a share. If one was compelled to partake of something without the rest, he would secretly pilfer an equivalent to atone for the mishap. The friendship was their faith, and there was no crime big enough to commit if their friendship was at stake.

The bond deepened. They repeated the ritual every anniversary. It seemed more than a ritual. It was the purpose of their life. One got the mobile, another the prepaid card, and the third and the fourth charged it in their homes taking turns. If two fought, the other two mediated. There was never any situation where there was any possibility of a break up.

Waah, the villagers wondered at the friendship. But they were also wary. United, they were strong. And their strength made them overconfident. If anyone questioned even one of them, he had to face all four. They were four bodies, one soul. They were four hearts with one mind. They were Brahma, with four faces but one brain.

Teenagers now, one question slowly raised its head. What would happen if one of them got a girlfriend or married? They laughed and joked. They didn't think one day one of them would succeed in beating the others in getting a girl to be their special friend. Was he a traitor? They watched him, the strain telling on their friendship. Did he spend more time with her? What did he do behind that tall tree, or hidden behind the bush?

He grinned and shared every small bit of his conversation with his 14-year-old 'girlfriend', but it all seemed so silly. Was he having them on? Was he betraying them? Were the girl and he making fun of them?

The mood was turning grim. It was like having a known traitor in their midst. And yet, without him they were nothing.

He was nothing too without them. He squirmed, wanting to prove his loyalty but unable to convince them, try as he did.

And then, his casual conversation took a serious turn. The girl and he, betrayed by their youthful bodies, the romantic dusk and the total privacy of the fields, went beyond mere words. He felt one with the universe as the two bodies united. What bliss!

He lay back, the girl on the crook of his arm, staring at the sky. Suddenly, he knew how to regain his friends' trust. He promised them heaven. When he lured the girl into the fields the next evening, she came trustingly, believing in the power of their love. She was hardly prepared to be the oblation he offered on the altar of their friendship. She lay whimpering, forgotten in a corner after each had tasted the promised heaven.

The four friends embraced, their friendship intact. In good and bad times, that had been their promise.



Sunday, August 3, 2014

Project Status

Alka felt bored. She was in no mood for a movie, she didn't read books and her friends were all busy with various things. She called her husband Atul. "Come home early, na?" she pleaded with him sweetly.

Atul sounded impatient as usual. "You know I have a dinner meeting with some clients from abroad," he said.

Sighing, she cut the call and called the beautician one of her friends had recommended. "Can you come today? It is urgent,"  she lied easily. The lady agreed but quoted a price higher than what she normally charged, which was in itself higher than the parlour rates. That was the premium she would have to pay if she needed the service at her home, and at her convenience. Right now, it was an emergency - she was dying of boredom.

Three hours later, and a few thousand rupees lighter, Alka found herself back in the lap of boredom. Her teenager children had classes and did not need her to chaperone them. Her 47 year old husband had a career that did not brook interference from his wife. Alka's diversion came from her friends, who seemed to have conspired and left her in the lurch!

Reluctantly, she decided to go window shopping. But used to light-hearted gossiping with her friends, she felt rudderless as she peered through shop windows. She entered a shop, thinking she would look at clothes more closely. She kept a purple top against herself and peered into the mirror, undecided. She realised someone was shaking his head and glanced up, her eyes meeting those of the stranger in the mirror. She hurriedly put it away, glanced furtively at him and picked up a pink top. This time, he looked at her more openly though she herself felt shy to meet his eyes. His glance suggested this one didn't meet his approval either. He looked around and his glance fell on a rich green top. She walked across, feeling like a fool, but glad of this distraction. She kept it against herself and smiled. She nodded, went to the trial room to try it on properly and was elated - not just at the choice but this little interlude to her otherwise boring day.

She came out, paid the bill and saw the man leave with a package of his own. "Thanks," she called out. He turned and she realised that he was quite attractive. Though slightly filled out, his features still suggested a certain aquiline quality that appealed to her. She invited him to coffee at the cafe in the centre court of the shop. It was an impulsive gesture and she was pleasantly surprised at the way their conversation flowed easily. Ritvik - that was his name - was an artist, new to the city but planning to settle down here. She felt like a hostess and waxed eloquent about the places he should visit. Soon she was offering to chauffeur him to some choice places. He, in turn, promised to show her his works.

It should have ended with those empty promises. But social life no longer sustained her interest. She called him one day, unable to dismiss thoughts of him any longer. He had still not seen the sights the city offered, he told her in a tone that suggested that he had been waiting for her to do the honour. Flattered, and finding a new purpose, she drove him around the city. Over lunch and dinner, she became drawn to the fire in his belly to change the world. She had needed just this spark to rekindle her life. She adopted his causes; his interests became hers. She had something to look forward to. She found his dependence on her charming. She felt needed after a long time.

When he invited her to visit his studio-cum-residence, she went eagerly. She had no understanding of art, and his art left her confused. But his conviction about the subjects was enough for her. She clicked pictures of his works and mailed them to her friends, recommending them to buy them. She herself bought one piece that she thought she could hang in her house without feeling embarrassed. When Atul laughed at her purchase, she snapped at him angrily, "What do you know about art?"

He shrugged and buried his face in his laptop. He showed her a review of Ritvik's works - it had been ripped apart, especially the one she had bought paying nearly a fortune. She pursed her lips, resenting his chuckle. "Must be a novice writing," she replied defensively.

He laughed outright. "And you are the expert?" She did not deign him with a reply. "Looks like a good-looking chap," Atul continued. "Young, handsome, artist... Quite a potential firecracker combination. He is single?"

"How should I know?" she demanded. She hadn't really cared that much, but now she couldn't rest till she had the answer. Ritvik went still when she asked him that. "I am sorry," she said, instinct telling her she had touched a raw nerve. His break up story was quite tragic - rich girl, struggling artist, opposing family. "Oh, the poor boy," she thought sympathetically. He was not a boy, she guessed he was almost her age. But to know of the way he suffered and hid his feelings really touched her. She spent more and more time with Ritvik. He seemed to be grateful of her small gestures that were aimed to soothe him.

The more time she spent with Ritvik, the less did the life with Atul appeal to her. She watched her husband, comparing him to Ritvik. Less than five years separated the two men, but they belonged to different generations. Ritvik still had life in him, whereas Atul was fading. She felt drawn more and more to the artist and his unstructured life. She made excuses to be out with him, keeping away from the boring monotony of her domestic life.

Soon, it was not just dinner or lunch, that Ritvik and Alka shared but the bed too. It all seemed so  natural, and yet, when she really thought about it, it wasn't. That is what made it so special. Atul hardly seemed to care about her whereabouts. She wished he would find out about her affair. She wanted to shake him out of his smugness. Sometimes, she wanted to confess to Atul her indiscretion and get into a fight with him. She broke down at times, thinking back to the days when small fights would lead to making up and making love. Now, they just froze each other out.

When he returned from his trip, she chose a convenient moment to corner him and blurted out the truth. If she hoped for him to plead with her and renew their relationship, she was in for a shock. He served her divorce notice, used her admission of the affair to wrest custody of his children and left her penniless.

Thoroughly humiliated, she cut off from her friends - or did they cut her off? Defeated, she turned to Ritivik. He had packed off without a word. "He had taken the house only for a few months. He came looking to make a fortune, and he said he had," the neighbour informed her. "His friend Atul seems to have paid him for some project he undertook."

Alka felt her world slipping away. Within months she heard that Atul was getting married to a woman he had been dating for a couple of years behind her back. Alka realised she had been that project. That Atul had used her to get the divorce, keep the money and the children. And to think she had thought him blind! It was she who had been asleep with her eyes open!


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Pretty Parul

"Hi Sam," Parul purred on the phone.

Sam leaned back, a smile on his face. "Hello Parul, what a surprise!" He couldn't control the excitement from reflecting in his voice. Well, why not? Any man would welcome being greeted by that husky voice. Anybody would give their most expensive iphone just to have Pretty Parul call them. Sam was neither a saint nor immune to pretty faces. And he was going to enjoy this moment in the sun, when  the very woman he had been dreaming of ever since he met two evenings ago had taken the trouble to call him.

"Did I disturb you, handsome?" she asked and giggled.

He chuckled. "You disturb me even when you don't call..."

Parul squealed delightfully. "Oh you naughty boy! I didn't intend calling you, you know," she said, trying to sound matter of fact. "But I think I mixed up numbers and ended up calling you."

"Really? And yet you knew it was me," he said, exposing her game. She laughed. "Nothing escapes you," she teasedg him.

It was the best 10 minutes he spent that day, talking inanely to this woman of his dreams. But since he was just a salesman with targets to meet, he had to get on with work and excused himself. "Have to rush for an appointment. We'll talk later."

"Oh! On the phone? Why not meet?"

Sam thought for a second. "What about this Saturday?"

"Oh, but that's almost a week away!" Parul said and he imagined her bow-like lips pouting.

He smiled. "Flattering... And I can't wait too... But," he sighed heavily, "weekdays don't work. I have a lot of projects to submit for a course I am doing..."

Parul seemed to find that reasonable. Sam found pleasure in waiting. But Parul didn't seem to believe in that. She called again two days later. "Hi handsome," she said, her voice caressing. "What are you doing?"

He glanced at the clock - a meeting in 15 minutes. "I will call you when I get on the road," he said and dashed to his bike. He plugged the earphones, dialled her number and called. The way seemed shorter, now that her voice accompanied him. "Okay, gotta go now. Meeting a client."

"A client? Put it off," she said prettily. He laughed. "See you this Saturday," he said and rang off. But she called again. "I am bored," she said petulantly. "Meet me after the meeting." He frowned. "No dear, have back to back sales meetings. Month end, targets to meet... you know the works."

She let him go reluctantly.

*
Saturday. Excitement. Meeting Parul.

Sam was on a high. He dressed carefully, made sure his credit balance was respectable. He inhaled sharply on seeing Parul dressed to kill. Even without trying hard she could have walked all over him. He felt immensely lucky at having her in his life.

They quickly hugged each other and then walked to the diner together. She took his hand in hers and he smiled.

The food was brilliant. He wished the evening had been too. But somehow, Parul and he did not seem to connect. Her conversation did not hold his interest, and what he wanted to talk about did not seem worthy of her attention.

Didn't she see, the unfathomable chasm between them?

"When next?" she asked when they got up to leave. He hesitated, but not wanting to disappoint her and deciding to give it another chance, he offered to meet her next week. "A week? Playing hard to get?" she teased. When they met again, his misgivings were confirmed. She, though, seemed blissfully unaware of the mismatch.

She was pretty and not unintelligent. But no, they didn't have the same wavelength. He decided to ease her off. When she asked, "When next," he tried to be diplomatic. "It is going to be difficult for sometime to come..."

She frowned. "As in...?"

"Parul, I don't think I am the right person for you... I..."

"You are bored of me..." she said quietly.

He took a double take. "I don't mean that... I mean, I just fear we are not cut out for each other."

"So you are cutting me out. After using me, you are saying bye to me."

"Whoa!" Sam said, shocked. "Using you? We have just met twice and I am telling you that it is better we back off now."

She wheedled, "We can make it work. I feel it in my bones."

Sam shook his head. Her persistence put him a fix. He didn't want to be rude. He said, "One more try."

"I am not your slave!" she snapped angrily.

Perplexed he said, "Absolutely."

"Then what is this about trying?"

He rolled his eyes. "Because you think we can make it work but I don't."

She leaned towards him, "I love you Sam. Don't you feel the same about me?"

He wearied of this circular conversation. "Parul, why don't we give this a break and meet if we really feel like after some gap?"

"When you say Parul like that..." she smiled suggestively.

He got up and left, hoping she got the message.

She was hoping the same. She called, and how! Morning, evening, night. If he didn't pick up the phone, there were messages. When he ignored them, she called almost every 10 minutes. Unable to bear it any longer, he answered the call. "You cheap MCP! What do you think? You can play with a woman's emotions like this! After leading me to believe you liked me, to drop me like this!"

He tried reasoning with her. But the next moment she whined and wheedled. Frustrated, he put his phone on silent if she called. Even if he could not ignore the persistent ringing, at least it did not disturb or intrigue others around him.

The messages though were hard to ignore. He was called a flirt, a womaniser, MCP and more in that vein. He was harassed, scared to even carry his phone because of the vitriol that poured out of it. It was distracting, troubling, scaring...

He changed his mobile number.

But that did not end his troubles. There she stood, outside his office, "Please Sam..." His colleagues teased him. "Oho, he has a pretty girl wrapped around his finger."

No! That was not what he sought. He just wanted some peace and quiet... But her repeat appearances despite his trying to discourage her, psyched him. He caught himself looking out of the window frequently, especially if he had to go out. She came looking for him in the office and if he were there, he had to rely on his colleagues to send her away saying he was not there. If her stalking him was one problem, their teasing him another.

Seeing no way out, he finally sought and found another job, which took him out of the city.

Of Parul, he heard nothing more.

But with women, he was more wary, earning the sobriquet 'Shy Sam'.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Eternally Young

She wore a bright red, sleeveless evening gown. The lipstick matched the colour of her dress. She dyed her hair black, a stark contrast to her bright dress. She carried a black clutch and paired her dress with black heels. Her eyes glittered black and were kohl-lined heavily, to hide the crow feet and the slightly baggy look underneath.

Her face was heavily made up - a pathetic attempt to hide her 54 years on earth. She had been moisturising her hands and feet for several years now, and yet it looked as if in a few years, the gnarled look would slowly take over. The red finger and toenails somewhat distracted from the weathered look, but not for long.

She eyed herself critically and what she saw passed muster. She would never regain the first flush of youth, surely, but nor was she out of the race. Yet.

She checked the time. As the clock struck 6, the doorbell to her suite rang. He was punctual, as she had expected. She smiled at her reflection and adjusted her lips to get it right. She tried different expressions and finally settled for what she thought was a smouldering look.

The bell rang again. She walked quickly to the door, paused, took a deep breath in, put on the smile and opened the door.

He stood there in bottle green full sleeve shirt with dark blue jeans. She realised with a pang that he didn't look a day older than the first time she had met him almost 10 years ago, when he was just 32 or so. He moved back, seeing her dressed as if playing a part. The dismay was evident on his face though he smiled by way of greeting.

She put an arm on his shoulder and reached up to touch his cheek. Reluctantly, he leaned closer.

"I have ordered dinner in the room," she said in a husky voice.

They sat across the table and she served him wine. "So... How have you been?"

He shrugged and picked up the glass. "All well?" he asked, as if saying too much would get him in trouble.

"How is your girl?"

He took a deep breath, sipped the wine and started to say something evasive when she smiled with an eyebrow raised. "I remember the day we met so clearly."

"Do we need to go there? I have got the papers for you to sign."

She leaned back . "Oh, what's the hurry. Is my presence so abhorrent now? I can remember the day you pleaded with me to marry you. Remember, that day?" He was silent, so typical. "I even pointed out the age difference, but you didn't seem to care."

"You were right then. Happy?"

She laughed, a pleasant, throaty one. "Sometimes one likes to be wrong. But looks like you were! You thought you would love me always, no matter how old I became. But you couldn't, could you?"

"Look, this is getting us nowhere... I was wrong, you were right... So..."

"You do know you will not be young always, don't you?" she asked sharply, moving forward.

He inhaled sharply.

"What a pity," she studied his face without blinking. Nervously, he gulped the drink. He felt his throat burn. He coughed. "What a pity... But no... I love you too much."

"Look," he began but choked. He coughed some more and she affectionately patted the top of his head. "I love the way you are. I would hate to see you grow old..."

He got up, clutching his throat. She leaned back, an arm casually flung across the back of her chair. "People discard you when you grow old. It hurts, hurts deeply. Especially when it is someone you love." She looked at him as he went on his knees, coughing still, eyes popping. "I won't let you grow old and wizened and weak and abandoned. I want to remember you the way you were when we first met," she said, her eyes glowing dreamily, away from his prone form, struggling for breath, the veins in the neck  standing out from the struggle. Suddenly, she got up and sat next to him. "No, you cannot grow old and be forgotten, like me." She took his hand and said softly, "I love you too much to let you hurt yourself."

He fell back limply, his body still as the final breath racked his body. "No," she murmured, stroking his hand gently. "You will remain forever young."


Friday, June 20, 2014

One Earth: Seeking Answers

One Earth: Seeking Answers: I turned the car a/c knob to 2, turned the vents towards me and wondered at the change I had undergone. There was a time when I hated the...

Friday, June 13, 2014

Chapak, Chapak Goes the Demon

He was an old man, with crinkled eyes, wrinkled skin and a slight stoop.

He was a young man. He was still fascinated and keen to learn.

Having lived in the village all his life, working in the fields till his back broke. Watching the sun, watching the rain and watching his land were the only things he knew and understood. He heard about the city lights, which made a day out of the night. He heard of the vehicles that moved without horses or bulls. Sometimes he saw them in village too, raking up dust in its trail. He heard of tall buildings that one had to lean far back to see the tops of.

A small, teeny weeny desire to see this place that sounded right out of a fairy tale sprouted in his heart. But he had work and he kept postponing the trip. One day, he could bear it no longer. The fascinating tales filled his ears, flowed into his brain and like a bee, buzzed only one message in his head, Visit a City.

Finally, on a day when his work was light, he went to his neighbour - an old man of the world. "Sir, I have dreamed of seeing the city for long and wish to visit it today. How should I go about it?" he asked humbly.

The old man, remembering his own younger days when he had visited the city often, tried to prepare the younger man for the surprises in store there. This further fed the younger man's eagerness to visit the city. But the old man added, "Beware, don't get lured in by the attractions of the city. Not everything is as it seems. There are many demons there that will lead you astray."

When the young old man reached the city, he found that the old man had not exaggerated at all. There was so much to see that one day seemed too little. He saw people going by vehicles without bullocks and now realised what the old man had said about demons. He was careful to avoid them. He saw people coming out from a temple and put something on their feet and start walking faster.

This was really the last straw. Having resisted all temptations of the city till now, he couldn't control his urge and slipped his feet also into these contraptions. It seemed so simple and involved no devilry.

His heart shook just a bit when it caught his feet snugly. He looked around at the others shiftily. No one seemed perturbed and he was reassured. It was not comfortable though - the feet were, but his heart wasn't. Would he have to pay a heavy price for giving in?

Soon, he became aware that he was not alone. Every time he walked, he thought he could hear the sound "chapak, chapak" near him. He stopped, looking around to see who was making that noise. The sound stopped too. No one minded him, no one seemed to take note of him or pay him the slightest attention. He started walking, and he thought he could hear the chapak chapak sound around him faintly. He looked around sharply but could detect no one around him. The sound, though, continued unabated.

He felt nervous and lost interest in his surroundings. There was something following him, and something that refused to come out in the open. He said a prayer and started walking again. The sound followed him. Oh god, the demon had caught him, he thought nervously, speeding up. As he walked through grassland, he was relieved to note the demon had left him. But the moment his feet touched the muddy track leading to his village, he heard the sound again. If he ran, the demon ran too. If he slowed down, the demon slowed down too. Fear nearly paralysed him. By now it was dusk and the oncoming night would see him standing ripe for plucking in the middle of nowhere. He decided to run for his life, but by now he was hungry and tired and the demon seemed neither tired nor hungry. Or maybe, just hungry.

He was relieved to see another villager come by in a bullock cart. He hailed the cart and was relieved to be given a ride. Seeing him limp and flustered, the cart driver asked him the reason. Shamefully he told him of being chased by a demon. "I think it doesn't like company," he said looking around him. "The noise has stopped," he added with evident relief.

The cart driver laughed sceptically. But when he dropped the villager at the corner temple and heard the demon every time the villager walked, their eyes met in fear. The villager took a step towards the cart, but the cart driver wanted none of it. He drove away fast.

It was night now and the villager stood shivering in the new contraption. He wondered if that were the reason for the demon to follow him. It had trapped him and he was now unable to shake it off. Crying, he ran through the lonely paths towards the old man's hut, wondering if he could guide him on how to be rid of this chapak chapak demon, which was also running with him. What did it want? It hadn't eaten him up yet. What was it waiting for? Its friends to join in the killing?

Tearfully and fearfully he banged on the old man's door. When the old man opened the door, the young old villager fell at the older man's feet. "Save me from the demon," he cried out pitifully.

The old man, perplexed, raised the younger man and asked him what happened.

"Wherever I go, the chapak chapak demon chases me," he said looking around him as if fearing the demon would spring on him from nowhere. "I promise you, just as you said, I kept away from every city allure. And yet it has trapped me. It follows me everywhere," he said, now bawling more openly.

The old man looked at uncomprehendingly. "Chapak chapak demon? What is that???"

"Every time I walk, it walks with me. If I stop, it stops too."

The old man shook his head puzzled. He had heard of several novelties of the city, but never of a chapak chapak demon. "I do not know what it is. But you say it follows you when you walk? Can you walk for me?"

The villager trembled. 'Do I really have to?' he seemed to ask. But with great difficulty, he brought his feet frozen with fear to move. First, the old man could hear nothing. Then, when the young man walked a bit faster, he could hear it distinctly. "What did you do in the city?" the old man asked, his eyes twinkling. "Surely you were up to some mischief?"

"Not at all!" the villager sat on his haunches, his hands together in supplication.

"What is that on your feet then? Surely not your own. Did you steal someone's slippers?"

The villager looked at the old man perplexed, then he looked at his feet. "These are slippers? I didn't steal them. People came out of a temple and wore them as they left. I did the same." Then, as if he realised something, he said slowly, "Only I didn't go into the temple. Do you think that is why...?"

The old man laughed and patted the villager on the back. "No, that is not why. It is not a demon." And when he explained what the sound was all about, the villager looked sheepish - it was the contraption, the slippers, that had been making that sound? The younger man felt foolish, laughing at himself for believing in demons.

He was cured of his fear, and he was cured of his desire to visit the city too.
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