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.

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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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