She Face

On my 22nd birthday I said ‘Nothing,’ to my father when he asked me what I wanted for a gift.

I have spent all these years in unfelt luxury – so part of home, school, (the car trip between) and family vacations that luxury metaphored as life for me.

But in this one year I have been working, doors came open; new people, those from unfamiliar backgrounds, new ways of carrying out life fell into my view, bringing to my knowledge the carefully knit blanket of my own social ignorance.

This sudden exposure has made me question everything – from the increasingly capitalistic working of day-to-day life to the innermost intentions of every human interaction; like a curious baby wanting to touch and feel every part of its world.

So here I am, an unbridled horse, let loose and galloping wild in its capacity of youth, with an unsettling doubtfulness tagging along by the tail.

Sometimes to rest the mind, this horse goes farther. To places and characters well-defined, in contrast to life, and neatly put down in papers. Flaubert is a tonic. In my most self-conscious moments, as I think of my new surroundings and my role in them, I fall into the comfortable trap of considering myself a romantic, as a protagonist making sense of life in the sort of experiences he has only been reading about.

(Given the times we live in, it becomes imperative to declare I am not drawn to the romances of Bhagat and Singh and their cohort of self-proclaimed bestselling authors. I would like to think I belong to the classical period, the finer ground.)

Opposite my house is a newly constructed bungalow. On the first floor, in the façade, opens a baroque-like window showing me a face, which when I turn away and collect my thoughts I realise stands for concrete meanings, an embodiment of my mature imaginings and which, in a moment of truth, belittles my self-worth and makes me feel inferior.

I find it difficult to look at it at a stretch, afraid she would catch me, even though she is always bent down, perhaps fixed on the garden below.

I see this portrait twice every day; very warm when I start for work, nightly cold once I am back. At all times, her face carries a cosmetic of sadness and poses a mystery, making it all the more attractive and intriguing.

The she face

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

I see her father is a proud man, expectedly snob. His wife is nothing less. However, in my comparison, I guess our riches could be matched and that my family would not be embarrassed in calculating for the girl’s hand.

A week before today her parents crossed over and visited mine. They were very happy to invite us to a party they were throwing.

Today evening, I dress to my best, thinking I would get to say hello to the girl, and if lucky, shake her hand.

It is a very swish party; the music is contemporary, maybe even futuristic; red wine keeps flowing from bottles to perpetually empty glasses, bringing to mind the generous stock of blood in a Tarantino; cummerbunds, with rinds for faces, sail on the lawn, always attentive to any turn of the head; young women, trending with 1970’s Hollywood fits now, are supple in their movements, their practised English creating a cacophony; some old women, all with cropped white heads like an agreed uniform, discuss post-millennial Indian feminism; the lights are minimalistic and that aches my searching eyes.

My mother and father have gone into groups that take people like my mother and father. My counterparts, young men and women, are in a gel, and as if by a tacit understanding I ignore them and they ignore me. It is very amusing to see how people of my age instantly categorise me as a foreigner.

She is still not here; or maybe I am so used to seeing her framed face that I am not receptive to her whole now –

She is coming out of the house, unaccompanied and hesitant-or-shy. The usual sadness is dispelled, as if she has only been waiting for this night, and in its place is something stronger I cannot immediately place.

I take a step in her direction, assuming two leftovers would naturally feel belonged when together. As I walk towards her, I prepare. As I walk towards her, I am also deviated to her. She is in a gown that is the colour of tea served in Ladakh. Its hem reaches her – she is gone! She jumps into a car that has been noiselessly revving until that moment and it whisks her off through the gate that opens to the road on the side of the bungalow.

A few minutes of murmur later it is revealed to the paused party that their only girl has eloped with one of their drivers.

The glorious notion that I am a romantic has been built on small negative aspects, like nostalgia, but now, when a tragedy strikes so pitilessly, in the form of a driver getting to take away such a girl, when it dawns upon me that the imaginings of mine she represented are turning into pleasant realities for another, the romantic notion is not at all comfortable, it is throbbing.

Another chapter of formative years.

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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Chinatown

I am travelling shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger, in his car and in his pace, and it has struck midnight just now. Only hours before, I had an experience of friction with my father, the voices and noises from which are shredding the silence in the cab now. Though I can guiltlessly place the entire weight of the discord on him, I must admit I did have a role or two to play.

The repetitious nature of this father-son tussle is becoming irksome.

I am riding to the airport to receive a Chinese businessman, arriving to visit the company I work for. I don’t know how he would look, or what exactly would show him to me, but I don’t complain, because it is vaguely thrilling to flit over dark roads in a cab I needn’t pay for.

A disturbed soul briefly reflected as a daring ghoul.

The only conversation in the cab is centred on the driver’s lamentations of working by Ola’s rules. ‘You have to reach these many kilometres by this time to get what is, after all, your rightful earning. It is like a game, you lose real money if you don’t win.’

Corporate sharks jawing around small carps.

*

My first impression of the international terminal is that it appears like a stage set for a beauty pageant. A ‘U’ railing separates the crowd of white chauffeurs (from various ‘white’ hotels) holding white placards from the exiting passengers of different flights – most of them new to Chennai and expecting to be collected. If a walk from one end of the railing to another does not show the foreigner any board with his / her name, (s)he would turn to walk back to the start, now slower and more attentive, as if flaunting self to judges settled around with scorecards. Some walk back and forth and back before finding themselves and finally relieving the tired man, while others spot their names from a mile away and communicate to the happy holder with a gesture of the index.

The chauffeur from the hotel our Chinese guest will be staying in, a black man uniformed in white, meets with me at the edge of the crowd. He raises the placard and asks if the spelling of the guest is right.

‘What is your name?’ I ask him. I am in the mood tonight to engage strangers in pointless conversations. Probably to ease the short while, probably to bask in stories.

‘Nikhil.’ His manner is prompt, almost mechanical.

Nikhil is not a Tamil name. Nor is his face Dravidian. Upon digging I learn he is a Bengali who’s pitched in Chennai for more than 20 years. His father had a factory, in Howrah, which was cheated out of their hands by his own uncle. Lured by false promises to start a new factory, by his father’s friend, his family was shepherded all the way to Chennai, where they are now in various menial jobs.

A Lufthansa has arrived. I see people trickling out of the exit, some excited, some exhausted and the others equanimous. A young woman is the first I see. Her lips are bleeding and her hair bouffant. Seeing her luggage, I estimate her to be very wealthy, but seeing her clothes I think the other way. She is trying hard to be someone else, in her walk, outlook and all.

Next into view is a young man, awkwardly dressed. Seeing him the weary old man and woman behind me lurch, circle around the crowd, pass through a narrow gap somewhere and rush to him. The father is calm, standing dignifiedly away with his hands held behind, while the mother loses herself and hugs and cries and kisses her son, who smilingly nods to hose down the expression of her happiness.

First flight fantasies.

Close behind comes a tall, lithe, white man, seemingly in a trance. He is pulling one trolley and his other hand is shaped by his side as if it is holding another. After he is received by his chauffeur we all hear a shout and see the man rushing back into the exit shaking his head. He reappears minutes later still holding only one trunk, complains about the futility of travelling in Economy and entertains us all. His chauffeur turns to Nikhil and says, ‘Has drunk all the free liquor they provide up there and forgotten his other bag.’

Light-headed comedies.

*

I and Nikhil wait on the railing for a long time. The flight carrying our Chinese has arrived and even many unconnected brothers and sisters have swept past us, but we have not been approached by anyone yet. Every time a clueless flat face appears I urge Nikhil to raise the placard. He reassures me, but we are still standing.

I shift my weight between my legs, while Nikhil stays like a mannequin. It is insightful to see daily routines remodel a man. I think of my own, and then a lot of other things, but still no Chinese has walked towards us.

A tiny fat man beside me, wakeful and smelling salty, raises his placard reading ‘Gianni Schiavoni’ to all the Chinese men and women passing by. I want to let him know, but I keep silent.

My mind figures many explanations, some creatively curious, to reason the absence of the Chinese. I turn around and walk away to sit on a thick metal pipe installed for me. It is 2 in the morning and only the sky supports that; the crowd at the terminal is unflinching. As I muse about my sleeplessness, trying to balance myself on the pipe, I hear Nikhil’s voice and notice a small Chinese man, glassed and pleasant, nodding to him.

We shake hands, introduce and perform small talk with Nikhil on our toes. He feels very thankful for the reception and climbs into the car. I wish him a good night and turn the other way. As Nikhil drives away I book a cab for my homeward trip.

Another stranger. Another conversation skilfully kickstarted. His mother, the driver said, has been admitted into a hospital and it has become too late for him to get home. Since waking up again early in the morning to start his shift would be difficult he had decided to simply continue driving through the wee hours.

Riding over a short bridge I see hairy pigs, dark as the night, scuttling across to a thick bush and disappearing there.

A few minutes later I am paying the driver outside my house. Before closing the door, I want to mouth something like ‘Take care of your mother,’ but it is so unlike me and I wonder if I am mature enough to say that.

You might also like Anatomy of Love.

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Clocks have Wings

Guess it is the email invitation from my college announcing our graduation ceremony that triggered in my mind what I am unable to pin under a name. But for clarity of expression, I can make a comparison – it felt like last year’s farewell.

In the traditional WhatsApp group that still held us together, I typed a message requesting for a conference call. Affirmative responses popped one after another, playfully pushing the earlier response above. While fixing a time for the call was a conflict, having to keep in mind the different time zones and carefully adding or subtracting hours, we soon settled on a day and time of commonest convenience: the morning of the approaching Sunday.

One of us who is with me here in India, the one who had made it an adamant point to be in touch with everyone, opened the call, not unexpectedly. When I joined, there were multiple voices, sounding as if echoing from my memory.

Greetings are customary, meaningless trivialities reserved for men and women of profession. When they noticed I had joined the call there came expressionistic equivalents of a casual pat, one even bordering on low-key abuse. Levity at once settled, like the usual coat of dust on a polished table, and it felt like time hadn’t sailed long at all.

I clicked each profile and viewed the familiar faces. Some were in day, some were in dark, but every face sent out warmth and aroused the feeling of belonging. Each had an associated emotion, hardcoded in the mind through familiarity. Memories coming to the forefront of the mind were more than many.

The topics for the discussion were several; higher degrees, professional life, trysts with love, of who will be the first to get into knots and stories of brief encounters with what I can’t list here in fear of offending the prudish. The topics were jumped into without minding to discriminate by gender, for years of oneness had aligned our outlook.

Mutual mockery soon followed, encouraged by laughs and giggles in the background. This only left me feeling more despondent, bringing to mind nostalgic images from a blissful past, where happiness was habitual and responsibility was nothing more than a word.

‘Guys, I have to get going,’ came a sudden voice. He had his internship to leave for.

The rest of the conversation was a struggle to weave together the past, present and future, in an attempt to find a place for everyone in life. Surely, those who were across seas would have felt the weight heavier, as the awareness of the fact that they would not be returning for the next many years had already sunk. Until that distant time, only online jaunts like this were to mollify them all.

Every time someone left, the default tone of the app sounded like death knell. We tried to maintain normalcy in the absence of the few. Stories were exchanged, minds were spoken out, but hitting silence at a point seemed inevitable. Cliched conversations had to be restarted.

College and shared incidents made sure to feature in the conversation, punctuated by exclamations of reminiscence. Each point of view was no different, as if experiences were actually one, and only complemented each other to present a vicarious picture.

The last piece of conversation was a request from those away to share photos from our Graduation Day. And then I lowered the phone and went to have my lunch. Only after mother’s hand intruded before my plate I realised I was far, far away from the canteen in college.

Ashamed to Narrate This

The rain still sprayed at my face when I decided to step out from under the overhang. The wind was harsh, sending stormy clouds hurling into one another in a confused somersault. I decided to brave anything just to attain home and sleep well before tomorrow’s marathon.

I had never in my 21 years exercised my limbs, except only to wave at one of my parents to get me what was away from my arm’s reach. But I was running this marathon tomorrow because she would be there.

Locating my bike in the dark was difficult. All of them in the line were glistening with cold pimples on their naked skin.

When I finally identified, there came a lash of wetness, back to back, upon my back. Post a short struggle to start the vehicle, by which time I had become as wet as a dripping leaf, I took to the road, driving as fast and as slow as I could manage on the glossy surface.

It was raining pins and needles. Icy cold prickles syringed my nape, making me cringe as if in embarrassment. The new monsoon freezed my exposure. I struggled to view the road through the coloured water on my glasses. Blinking red, constant yellows. An occasional green granting us permission to move, in a smudged tone. It was like running around in a pub, pushing through a hybrid of psychedelic colours; but since my knowledge of pubs sprouted only from books and films, it felt immature to imagine this. Also, I had to concentrate on the road.

I left OMR and scurried into the service road. And immediately regretted. I was cutting through the logged rainwater, sending waves on both sides and inviting some quantity into my shoes. They were new shoes and new socks, bought especially. I lifted my feet and placed it awkwardly on the crash guard. Thankfully the road was empty with no audience.

*

I hurried up the steps and stopped outside the closed door. Shaking my shoes and wringing my socks, I dislodged murky water in the corner of the veranda and silently reclined my shoes on the wall. As I pushed open the door my nose picked up the acrid smell of extinguished candles. Father was there on the sofa, sitting with no vest, and not bothering to towel his wet chest, mother emerged from the kitchen carrying a ladle, sticking to the insides of which was hot pulp of some vegetable.

I crossed the hall on my toes into my bedroom, and stretched the socks on the clothesline there. ‘Why are you drying them here?’ Mother asked, following me.

‘I want them ready for tomorrow’s marathon.’

‘Don’t you have another pair?’

‘This is Puma.’ I hoped she would appreciate that.

I had dinner, but only a little, prompting a question from my mother, ‘You can’t eat properly either when you are too happy or too sad. Which one is it?’ I thought I blushed.

Ashamed to Narrate this

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

All I knew next was jumping onto my bed. I had slept like a dead. In the morning, I responded sharply to the alarm – later a great surprise to mother, father and the alarm clock – and hoisted myself and beamed at nothing. While telling myself that I was a brisk young man ready to run a marathon, I jumped down from the bed and landed on the pool of water formed overnight from the clothesline. Shluck! Something dragged my feet and I banged my left arm on the frame of the bed. There was a momentary blankness; freaky heartbeats and mind full of emptiness.

I brought myself to existence, like pushing the head out from a dark womb, and searched for meaning, looked for cause and effect from my position on the floor. I tried to get up, to open the door my parents were banging, but I was lying flat on my back with legs undecidedly hanging in the air, unable to voice anything except buckets of breath.

*

But all is well that ends well, isn’t it? She called me after returning from the marathon, asking in a tone of concern (I would like to assume) why I didn’t show up that morning.

Should I ask her to read this?

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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Where is my Degree?

No V-C, no convocation. Forgotten souls wait for their hard-earned degrees.

A recent news article brought relief on a paper platter to education administrators, academicians and countless students, including me,  although it soon came close to broiling the keener section of this same audience.

It was announced that Anna University and Madras University were going ahead to conduct the long-delayed convocation for their students without the customary signature of the Vice-Chancellor, who is yet to be found in the aftermath of the political tumult now identifying Tamil Nadu (if there ever is an aftermath). Speaking for the longing undergraduates, who had, for many months, been experiencing phases of eager anticipation and sullen disappointment in a cycle, I have to say the news was a distant glimmer of sunshine. However, after only a day, reports carrying criticisms of this move surfaced, plunging me and my clan into the darkness of realisation.

Untitled

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

Though many of my batchmates have either joined work or flown to Trumpian and European lands for their higher studies, the feeling of deficiency with respect to our degrees has always fleeted before every mind. Until recently, I have been receiving WhatsApp messages from New Jersey and Colorado asking me if there was any news concerning the awarding of degrees. Even relatives who are regular followers of local news, wanting to see me in the black robe, made an occasional enquiry, only to receive the same answer from me. My mother, top of all, used to ask me now and then, leading me to wonder how concerned she was in my academic affairs; but it turned out she wished to visit my college for one last time before the expiry of all excuses. Selfish little lady! So when the announcement was made that degrees would be awarded carrying the signature of the higher education secretary instead, the ‘At last!’ feeling is only understandable.

But as all doesn’t end well in our times, reports voicing the opinions of students and academicians, that certificates signed this way would be of no value outside of India, came the very next day. It was freshly shocking to read a senior professor claim that these certificates would not be recognised in foreign universities, and that they would have to be issued again later with the V-C’s credential. That faculty unions have warned of ‘consequences’ if the convocation is conducted this way, some hinting at protests, throws light on the negative significance of this move.

About a month ago, my college juniors joked that my batch would receive its degree certificates alongside them next year. I and my classmates simply dismissed the comment then. But now, looking at the progress of the situation, it does feel acceptable to receive my degree with my juniors and stand robed next to them, which of course is subject to the hope that the shadow cast by political clouds on our universities will clear away by then.

Anyways, I saw this morning a WhatsApp status update of my classmate holding the degree of his one-year MS course and standing in the foreground of a lush green lawn and a skyscraper not fully covered in the frame. MS before B.Tech. Funny times!

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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The Goddess in the Backyard

WITH ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATION BY SWATHI

I. Birth

I wiped the black soot and the beads of sweat decorating my face with the unused corner of the already dirty cotton rag. What colour it had once been as a part of one of my old saris, I can’t think; but I was sure it could still be of some use as there were one or two less dirty places available in it.

I closed the aluminium vessel cooking the day’s ration of rice, and stood up to leave the kitchen and go to the shady backyard where the ‘city woman’ was waiting to interview me.

The one plastic chair we owned was positioned for my seating, while the chic woman sat opposite on one of the stone blocks we used to wash our clothes on. She was making ready a big black camera that sat atop a three-legged stand beside her. On her lap were a notebook and pen. Pinned to her breast-pocket was a circular insignia with the words ‘Centre for Action and People’s Development’ cribbed together at the centre.

‘Thank you for agreeing to this conversation,’ the lady’s face radiated, her gratefulness very evident. My mother-in-law, after putting on the clothesline the last wet sari from the iron bucket, turned round to get into the house. On her way, she gave us each a disapproving glance; the more intense one was surprisingly targeted at the other lady. Surprising as it had gone to another person even as I was there to uncomplainingly receive it.

The lady across me, unreceptive to the frigid look of my mother-in-law, crossed her leg and picked the pen. Without taking her eyes off me and with the smile on her face intact, she tucked a few strands of her hair behind her ear and then adjusted her thick-rimmed glasses. These trivialities brought to the forefront of my mind a very recent memory – of the personal discovery of my own modest beauty… only a month ago. Though before this period my eyes had many a time chanced upon the hazy mirror in the hall, I had rarely taken in and acknowledged the ‘look’ of the woman in it. But this one month had been very different. I was unable to discern the new feminine changes stirring deep within me. Yes, I had looked into the mirror scrutinisingly in my early adolescence, but they had only been curious examinations to measure the rate at which my hips curved and breasts developed, and vainly to find out why I felt strangely insecure even in the same environment I had been living in for 12 years. They were not, to put light on the matter, objective assessments of myself through the simulated gazes of the opposite sex. This one month had been very different.

‘Can I have your name?’ The lady brought me back into this world.

‘Kaveri,’ I caught myself uttering the word I had long lost touch with. No one in the house now called me by my name. A wave of a hand or, at times when I had probably seemed of some importance, a ‘You!’ would be my summon.

‘Your date of birth, please?’

‘September 20, 1990.’ Possibly the worst crime I had committed during my long intolerable existence was my birth, maybe also bearing the unluckiest of birthstones. Not because I had unapologetically killed my mother while coming out of her, but because I was born a girl in this society (the place being Manachanallur, Trichy), which had as its punishment for girl children not the relatively acceptable female infanticide, but this crueller inveterate notion of child marriage. My father brought me up with the little motherhood he was allowed to assume, to bestow on me the little packets of happiness I was lucky to receive, only to be robbed of everything on my sixteenth birthday.

A gush of wind blew past me. It rustled my hair, and I thought it also brought to me the scent of his sweat. The lady, looking up at me from her notebook, resumed her questioning. ‘How long have you been married?’

 

II. Death

‘I was married for three years, until my husband died in 2009.’

Maybe I had made the lady uncomfortable, because the smile was now receding, and the tucking of the strand of hair was unsteadily done. ‘I am sorry. I didn’t know –’ she blurted out.

‘Uh – you… can you tell me about your education?’ She asked, clearly intending to change the topic.

‘I have studied till tenth standard at one of our local schools here.’

I still vividly remember the day I was told I had ranked first in school in my HSC examination. I came home, walking on the one-foot broad pathway and showing all my teeth at the appreciatively nodding rice crops, to share my great news with father, but he had news of his own for me. I was to get married soon to a man twice my age. I had realised very early in my life that I was meant to become a teacher. The interest I had for helping out my peers at school, and the lady teacher who continuously encouraged me to take up higher purposes had cast their shadows upon my reality. Until that day, I didn’t know I was harbouring unrealistic dreams, unsuitable for women to even subconsciously dream.

‘Can you, if you don’t mind, tell me about your early married life?’ The question was obviously hesitant.

I smiled in return. I didn’t know if it was because of my uncertainty in replying, or if I was masking a trace of snigger at the inexperienced, unworldly woman sitting opposite me.

‘The extreme effort on my part when in my own house with my father was to sit by the working cooker and keep count of the whistles while he was shortly away. But once I entered this house, with a millstone round my neck, I was expected to do all the household chores with the utmost perfection. When something went wrong – which was often the case – living in the house became difficult for me. And by the time I could adapt myself to what I had been pushed into, the man I was married to died, thrusting on me undeserved blame, and around me an ominous air for the society to smell wincingly. The millstone got heavier.’

Silence prevailed, only to be later broken by the strident sound of a metallic object hitting the stone floor inside the house. It sounded more intentional than strident.

I tried to recover the distracted woman with a question. ‘Have you stopped child marriages?’ She gave me a few exemplary cases and highlighted in them all her organisation’s timely intervention. She then returned the question and added, ‘You must be very cautious after what happened in your life. Always meaning to stop the injustice served to you.’

The question took me on a journey via many memories, but I kept returning to the memory I shared with him.

 

III. Life

I came to know that Manimekalai – a girl who had only crossed her fourteenth milestone – was to be married to a merchant from the next village. With courage that had by then become familiar and a newfound determination, I set out to do what I had done on a couple of other occasions. I dialled the government helpline and informed them of the proposed ritual. It was duly stopped by authoritarian intervention, and when enquired as to the informant, the officers maintained the case of anonymity for my benefit. However, the family on the girl’s side was strongly bent on finding out the Samaritan responsible for their failure to get their daughter married into a monetarily undemanding house. They eventually succeeded.

Untitled

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

Karikalan – a man I had scarcely known until then – came to my rescue, and into my acquaintance, during the confrontation with the family of wounded honour.  It was patently clear from his supportive arguments that he understood my case well. And as far as I knew, he was the only person in this small but terrible world to look at me as a life. His compassionate sight was welcomingly new.

Karikalan had come to my village only a few years ago. He moved in, with his blind parents, to the dilapidated house at the end of our street. The word was that he had completed his diploma in some branch of engineering from the town college, and that he was going to work for the sugar mill that had recently come up in our village. His skin – I noticed when he first came to our backyard carrying a sack of raw mangoes for my mother-in-law – possessed a dark tone. His exposed torso was muscular, and very uncomfortably, to my morality, admirable. He displayed a warm smile when his eyes first met mine. I immediately bent my head down and rushed to the kitchen. There, within the smoky, smothering dark walls, I clicked my knuckles, repeatedly asking myself what possible charm that man could hold to my irrevocably damaged, monotonously routine life. I trained my senses, my mind importantly, to ignore the substance of his presence in my small, terrible world.

My training reined me in well until the day he raised his voice for me during that seemingly inextricable, but ultimately futile confrontation a month ago.

‘Have you ever thought of starting a new life?’

The question caught me unawares.

‘You don’t really have to spend the rest of your life this way. We can offer you any help towards your moral and social upliftment… you need only ask.’

~~~x~~~

All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am becoming.

The street I was taking was moonlit (the streetlamps worked only occasionally on their own temperament). A bright little star was coming into view from behind a dark monsoonal cloud. Everything around me suddenly seemed hopeful and no longer intimidating. Maybe the ‘city woman’ had a hand in this, in my decision. Because after her departure at lunchtime, I was immersed in a cascade of thoughts, mental conjectures, and their possible consequences, only to come out anew a few minutes back. Yes, I was heading to Karikalan’s house.

A stray dog snarled at me from somewhere in the darkness enveloping my surroundings. I walked with my head straight and chest high. A couple of men crossed me from their trip to the local liquor shop, their unsteady eyes were disbelieving about my external presence. I walked with my head straight and chest high. I passed the house of the head of the village Panchayat; he was sitting on the pyol chewing betel leaves, with his grown-up daughter reading a chick lit. The completely bald man narrowed his eyes and stuffed me with his silent dogmatic questions. I walked with my head straight and chest high.

I entered Karikalan’s house.

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

You may also like Kalyana Samayal Saadham.

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Summer Nights and Power Cuts

Common cold, perhaps my warmest friend in life, returned to visit me a couple of days back at the invitation of chilled lime juice. With him, he gaily brought along his family of nasal and throat infections. If a thirsty man can’t take chilled lime juice after arriving home drenched and drained, without the fear of catching cold, I wonder why lemons are planted and grown!

At home, firm resolutions of abstinence from all things chilled and all things citric were adopted by mother on my silent behalf. A flask of hot water was introduced beside. At work, upon a spree of sneezing, questions of bodily tolerance were raised by surprised colleagues, ‘After chill lime juice? Really?’ A feeling bordering on embarrassment passed across my face. Two more days with this! I sighed.

Have you realised that all things cruel are bound to happen in perfect sync at tiring times to simple, harmless souls like you and me? That night, while I was sleeping (or struggling to) with mouth wide open (nostrils blocked) and a container of nasal spray (realised to be empty when needed) thrown by my pillow, the fan above slowed down in its rotation (power cut). As the blades got slower and slower, the pores of my skin began to bud with droplets of sweat. As I sat up in irritation, the droplets met one another and formed playful streams. I smelt salty.

Power cut.jpg

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

My mother, coming to feel my wakefulness, opened her heavy eyes and asked me how I felt. How I felt? Woken in the middle of a peak summer night to find body wet with sweat (and kerchief by the pillow wet with something else) and dense humidity choking me from all sides, I wanted to assure her I was doing great. With mouth so dry and words coming out as coughs, I snorted hard to clear the blockage in my nose, but in the process inhaled a passing irritant, making me sneeze continuously and at the end, feel dizzy and dead.

A tumbler of hot water was promptly presented. My hands groped in the dark until they touched the hot tumbler. Believing my mother’s words that the water inside would not be as hot, I inclined it slightly to my lips.  The fiery hot water slid and burned my skin. I pushed the tumbler to her and angrily exited the house.

Coming to stand unsteadily by the grilled window of my floor, I expected gushes of cold wind. There was nothing like that. Mother followed close behind and cajoled me to slowly drink from the tumbler. In her other hand was a plastic fan. She waved it at me, but the softness of her little palm, unable to disturb the density around, did not create much flow of air. Pitying, I took the fan from her and waved it myself. At her and me, in turns.

A few minutes of wait later, finding the tumbler to only accumulate heat from the surroundings, I slowly sipped from and drained it. I stood there, adrift, in limbo between loose consciousness and unconsciousness, the waving of my hand further tiring me. The opened doorway was given a glance every now and then to detect signs of power restoration, but the yellow bulb did not spring to life for nearly an hour.

And when it did, myself and mother were sound asleep; she on the staircase leading to the floor above and I still on my legs, with head leaning on the window grill. I must have been a picture of pity to sleep like that! I was tapped on the shoulder by father and shown in; Mother followed. With all the energy I had, not caring for the nasal block nor for the slimy plastic sheet covering me, I threw myself on the mat, as if catapulted from behind, with only the thought of sleep in my mind; as well to say I didn’t care for anything else in the world.

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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Marriage of Men

FLASH FICTION #17:

I think it was the wedding of my mother’s cousin’s son, in Trichy, in which we entered familiarity. Familiarity, not friendship. Friendship is too costly a term to be used to describe, even now, the poor bond between us.

Originally, the friction we had always had developed during our first meeting in another marriage we attended as primary school children. It had to do with a plaything he refused to share with me, and then on, until this Trichy marriage, only cold glances had been shared both ways.

Between these two marriages we had met at many familial occasions. He was a writer, his mother would proudly announce to all who were obliged to listen. But since our family was mostly philistine, no one understood what it was to be a writer, and so simply nodded and prevaricated the subject. ‘My son is doing his Engineering,’ my mother would say, and at the turn of awed faces, she would proudly add, ‘At IIT.’ There would follow the immediate question of how I managed to place myself in an IIT, and then my mother would drop into an hour long monologue of how I had always been academically strong, and how she had never had the trouble, right from my wee years, of entreating me to study. And if the moment was opportune, she would even quip at the end that her son had conscientiously refrained from anything extra-curricular, like writing, for example. Although, I must admit, this remark only made me feel profane and less intellectual; especially so in his presence.

All through the occasion we would mutually try our bests not to come too close to each other. We would meet the same cousins, same relatives and same family friends, but never together and never at the same place. And Ramya! She was the object of a sort of competition between us; always individually sneaking to speak to her, and trying to gauge the feeling she had for the other of us. There just had been this indescribable thing between us, so much that I could not come to understand it myself. But looking back from now, it seems ludicrous that we had not considered the bitter resentment a temporary, immature feeling.

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Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

Back to the Trichy wedding. Nothing had changed; only I had begun to work, and heard he was attempting to publish his novel. We still maintained the same frigidity, even while lunching at the opposite corners of the long dining table. After the meal, at the same time the ceremonies got over, the bride’s father summoned me. ‘Go home, open the locker and get me the white envelope inside; we forgot it,’ he hurriedly dropped the words. I nodded my head to display responsibility and darted off to the exit, where I realised it.

‘Didn’t you go?’ Bride’s father again. ‘Uh-no, I don’t know the route; we reached the hall directly.’ He sighed in reply and noticed Keshav sitting in the last row. ‘Keshav, you have your father’s bike? Good. Go home – ’ ‘I don’t know to ride it,’ came back the quick reply. ‘Useless boys! Give this fellow the bike, go home with him and bring back the… he knows; now go fast, you two.’

Keshav and I stared at each other. Before us was the white car, ribboned and taped with roses, soon waiting to carry away the happy couple. Without a word, I went to start his father’s old Suzuki, and watching about him strangely, he came to sit pillion.  The directions were indicated with silent gestures, and when at times he brought his hand in front of my eyes, I shook my head to warn him. The search was even more difficult, not because of the deep location of the envelope, but we had to coordinate silently, both not wanting to be the first to talk. We returned similarly, just as the couple were climbing down the steps.

Uncle, from behind, raised his eyebrows at us. I quickly parked the bike in a corner and let my hands into my jeans. Keshav pointed at my shirt pocket, from where the envelope was projecting. I jogged to Uncle and handed it. To this day, I don’t know who spoke first, but I’m sure the ice has broken, and it would only need another marriage to melt the pieces.

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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Lost in Beauty

FLASH FICTION #16:

Encouraging night. He kissed her cheeks and licked powder. Sucked her lips, but only rubbed off a bitter chunk of red paste. Simply wanted to hold her by her exposed arms, but his hands kept slipping down their polish.

He wondered if he would feel a woman behind the veneer.

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Design

WITH ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATION BY SWATHI

In the year 1933, while India was trying to wriggle her wrists off the strong grip of George V, the Lever Brothers Company was doing good business in the country with its popular brand of Sunlight soaps. The Presidencies were registering surprising demands for the brand, indicating the entrance of Sunlight into most households.

To further its popularity, the administration pushed for some intense marketing. As the year was nearing its end, a creative mind in the company lighted up with the idea of publicising the brand on print calendars. This was succeeded by a noisy, smoky debate, over crystal jars of iced brandy, on what should be the visual of such a calendar. While some voiced for the painting of a British model wrapped in a thin bath towel and displaying the soap in her open palm, the others felt this could only alienate the brand in the eyes of conventional Indians. After a long period, it was decided, amid empty bottles and coughing clouds,  that the calendar would have lord Krishna standing with Sunlight soaps at his feet.

A celebrated painter came up with a quick design that was at once shipped to Lever Brothers’ partner printer in Germany. Mr Karlheinz’s first impression of the design was singular. Unlike his apprentices, he didn’t dismiss it with a casual glance and proceed to printing. Mr Karlheinz was forced to pause, soon disturbed in ways inexperienced by him, and for the rest of that night, remained awake and affected; as if the design, by mistake, had been imprinted on him.

The figure in the design had muscular arms, flat, sturdy chest and an unwavering look, all as of men, but the angular position of the head, curving of hips and glistening of facial skin suggested femininity of the extreme. Man or woman, Mr Karlheinz was yet to decide, but was sure the figure’s attractiveness would appeal to both sexes, with the obvious exclusion of unfeeling men.

The eyes that looked back from the design possessed a teasing mystery. The long, linear nose directed him to the lips, stretched below in a smile that could have as well meant the man knew everything about him, his printing press in Rothenburg, all he had done and all that was coming. His well-groomed wavy hair and rouges on cheeks could only be the decorative interests of his mother, Mr Karlheinz guessed, and the long, slender garland round him the bubbling love of young, wanting ladies. The velvety stole rounding the shoulder, with its one end sailing on the floor behind, and the peculiar turquoise feather at the top of the crown, looked like perfumes of times past, nevertheless potent and fascinating to Mr Karlheinz’s eyes.

A carefully chosen green sash, perhaps by an admirer, girthed his yellow Indian lower cloth. And many ornaments of gold, intricately shaped with all senses in oneness of their outcome, were fit round neck and waist, and on wrists and anklets.

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Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

Even the sun, as if with only one purpose, shone directly behind the man’s crown. After all, Mr Karlheinz felt there was one serious misplacement in the design; whoever thought it right to mar it with a bar of English soap at the bottom!

Upon spending months personally making facsimiles of this design, and overseeing their shipping to India, Mr Karlheinz could no more resist taking a trip to India, to learn more of the man and possibly visit him. So with the last batch of calendars were packed Mr Karlheinz’s baggage of daily necessities and the original design covered in secure layers.

On one stormy night, it was announced that the ship had docked at Madras. An hour later, our German, with one hand roofing his eyes and the other clutching his baggage under his wide armpit, jogged into a ticket booth at the port’s exit. A middle-aged man in a black coat and white turban was sitting busy at the counter. Seeing a red mark on his forehead, very similar to the one worn by the man in the design, he asked in a loud, exuberant voice, ‘Sir! Where I can meet this man?’

Mr Seshadhri, removing his eyes from the bills between his fingers, turned to see a foreigner holding an image of lord Krishna. His practised eyes and ears not registering English, he decided it must be a foreign fool in search of Moksha. ‘At Srirangam, Trichinopoly,’ he quoted the first thought that flashed across.

Mr Karlheinz caught the immediate train to Trichinopoly (which he had reverently written on a piece of paper now in his breast pocket). To all the locals, he seemed an enchanting white man noble enough to travel alongside them. To him, they seemed gifted people to be able to easily travel to his place on their whim. After a day of travel, Mr Karlheinz stepped down the compartment, unidentifiably covered in coal-black and different only in attire and height.

Being weary from the journey, he slept under the tattered roof of the station, and rose in the wee hours to resume his search. A couple of enquiries landed him just before the broad stone gateway of the Srirangam temple complex. Like the hundreds of visitors walking past him, he too marched in with rising eagerness and pumping blood. The design was closely held to his chest.

As he crossed corridors, courtyards and entered countless concentric walls, his pace became faster and faster in expectancy, but also slower and slower in an unreasonable fear entering him, like he was visiting a great authority, the lord of men, or even the lord of lords. His mind revolved endlessly in the mysticism of the man in the design, wondering, when it had the power to, how much more captivating he would be in real. With every step, the fluty music fuelled his yearning and drew his feet like magnet attracting innocent scraps of iron. Clockwise tracks and spiralling queues brought him closer and closer. Pairs of palms, enjoined and raised high, became a common sight among the visitors. Mr Karlheinz deposited his baggage in a corner he wouldn’t remember later and shoved the design within his wet shirt, and gestured similarly. Damp sweat, trickle of blood from a misstepped footing, an advancement of swoon and shut eyes were elements of his own design. He felt his body move with the crowd, sometimes being pushed, sometimes being pulled, but in the end, decidedly moving towards him.

As sounds, human and instrumental, rose in a confusing chorus, he felt the stoppage of a firm hand on his chest. Opening his eyes and wiping the stagnated tears, he could see a man before him, with no upper cloth, but with a lower cloth and that red mark on forehead. Mr Karlheinz however knew this was not him; because this had a pot for his belly and furrows on exposed skin, and that smile in the design was absent here. The man pointed to a board above. It read, ‘Only Hindus allowed.’ Now, Mr Karlheinz didn’t know if he was a Hindu. He forgot to consult his mother and wife in his haste for departure.

After an argument, which clearly upset his fellow visitors, who later proceeded on their way to meet him, Mr Karlheinz was removed to the main courtyard of the temple complex and shaken the index finger at. But he clearly could not be put off so easily. All around him were images and statuettes of him, also the red mark, and music emanating from the inner chambers. His want was immersed in all factors capable of its amplification. And so, Mr Karlheinz remained reclining on the pillar he was shown for the next 23 days.

His Holiness, Parthasarathy Kothandaraman, the Chief of the temple, observing a white man at the same place every day, with eyes towards the centremost block of  the temple, one night, went to stand by him, albeit maintaining a safe distance. As minutes passed, as the eyes didn’t seem to turn his way, as if fully consumed by their object, the Chief understood the man and his condition, and hoisted him.

Supported by the Chief, Mr Karlheinz, now reduced in his width, with his perilously wobbling trousers, began to walk by himself. With every step towards his chamber, life began to flow into him; eyes grew bigger, shoulders realigned, chest puffed and pace strengthened. Soon, the Chief was only an accompaniment in the darkness, a guide to this visitor. A line of doors were unlocked, little bells tinkling during such movements, and at last the door that led to his chamber, called the Garbagriha or Womb, was solemnly opened by the Chief, and Mr Karlheinz was shown the way in.

A mammothian human, darker than his surrounding darkness, emerged at an arm’s distance. He was lying on a coiled snake, which seemed terrifyingly gigantic, but unharmful. That smile was present on his face, now maybe in a gesture of welcome to this faraway visitor. The large, silvery eyes, seemed imposing and as if they were seeing him even in his sleep, which he must have literally fallen to, because he had not removed his crown, like tired children who doze off before changing their day-dress. At the other end of the chamber were resting his feet, tired from all the standing and posing for calendar designs, maybe.

Mr Karlheinz enjoined his palms and wished to raise them, but before he could, he fell face down, as though two fingers snapped somewhere and life was sucked out of him.

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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