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.

You may also like That Family Festival.

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What War Does to Men

An episode from the Stri Parva of Mahabharata

With original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran

It is the end of the epic war. Kurukshetra, the valley of death, has in it thousands of hills of dead bodies with rivers of blood flowing round their bends. Mothers and wives, both palatial and civilian, are wailing and beating breasts in a frenzy of murderous energy. Flag poles, armaments, parts of warriors, elephants and horses, and even full chariots can be seen strewn on ground, suggestive to anyone present that restoring this piece of earth would take no less years.

The Pandavas, looking as if, after all their efforts, they have been the losers of this great war, have just reached the Court of Hastinapura. The doorkeepers bow six times and show in the group; Krishna, with fragrant garlands and a smug smile on his face, as if the drama he orchestrated has been completed in harmony to his fullest satisfaction, is seen to appear at the wake of the Pandavas, like a collyrium of clouds sailing past and revealing the always bright sun.

Dhritarashtra, blinded but aware of all that has transpired, and so greatly disturbed outward and inward, is at the edge of his throne. Sanjaya, his charioteer, and Gandhari, his ideal wife and also the mother of one hundred mighty men, all killed by Pandavas in the war, flank the throne. As the announcement of the arrival is whispered, the king leaves the throne and walks down, his grandeur and enormity not smudged in the least by his heavy loss.

Yudhistira, the first among Pandava brothers, steps forward to embrace the king and to receive the blessings of a father-figure. The embrace is conducted, but formally, and the king utters no words of goodwill, understandably. Next, Bheema, the giant, the strongest of them all, like ever possessed of a destructive cyclonic storm within, steps forward to embrace the king. His foot covers many measures of the floor and lends a sense of shiver to the palace itself. Even a blind can understand it is Bheema approaching him.
As the last step that would lead to the embrace is about to be taken, Krishna, Vasudeva, the conductor, the dramatist, the playful, raises his hand and gestures Bheema to stop right there, with the smile on his face intact. A giant pillar, round and tall, made of the strongest iron, and immovable by any man or beast that exists, suddenly emerges between the king and Bheema.

Pillar on Fire
Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

Dhritarashtra, sensing Bheema close in front of him and overcome by grief and anguish, as a father who doesn’t carry meaning anymore in that position, throws his arms, each weighing a boulder even in that age, around the giant iron pillar. At the next moment, the pillar is crushed to grains and reduces to a heap on the floor.

A loud sound, torturous to every soul in the Court, emanates from the chest of the king. In realisation of his mistake, he cries like no man has ever cried. ‘I killed you in my grief, my dear! Forgive me.’ Even one hundred deaths did not deserve this cry, for who was Bheema, but another son to him. He has played on his lap as a child, has been fed by him, been coached by him on the field, had his growth overseen with love and fatherly affection by him. But now, why did the same hands, which have always been tender and protective of this son, kill him in an embrace? The king, thought to be above human vagaries, beyond the crippling emotions of man, bends down before the heap of metal and shakes in guilt.

*You can find other amazing artworks of her here.

 

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Kalyana Samayal Saadham

Flash Fiction #15:

The most anticipated marriage of the 1997 NIT-T batch was performing in Madurai. Inside the hall, every body smelt of rose water and every forehead of cool sandal (except Mary’s). Festoons of red and yellow patterned every wall and silks of all colours parcelled every woman. Shankar, Ravi, Prem, Hema and other classmates entered the hall as one cheerful group.

‘Poovalan’ Pavan soon started sighting the young ladies of the occasion, as though reliving his college days, and Latha was already sharing recent gossips with Malini and sister Shalini. Gradually everyone melted in the cacophony of music and chatter, but Chandran, in an aisle seat, looked like he didn’t belong there, like tomato soup placed at the corner of a pure non-vegetarian buffet.

A strong yellow glow filled the stage where the bride was posing with her soon-to-be husband. A photographer was clicking endlessly as family and friends from a long line spent brief moments onstage. Hema waved her hand at the couple until Vidhya noticed and waved back. She then nudged Karthik to see their classmates. The group stood up, waved and cheered at the couple. Vidhya and Karthik teethfully welcomed them all. The hall, many guests and Vidhya standing at a distance were but only a confluence of colours to Chandran; like objects seen through a glass of water.

Cups of Badam Kheer with soaked saffron were being served to all guests. Chandran received his and kept staring at it. Prem, sitting beside, swigged his and inferred that the distributing ladies were not as kind as to serve him another cup. Noticing one full in Chandran’s hands, he plucked it for himself. Chandran loved Badam Kheer, but what could he do! it was his friend’s now.

As time passed, the chairs in the hall were rearranged to form batches of circles. Some joined in at the middle of conversations, some excused themselves out for early dinner. Vidhya and Karthik could no more naturally smile; their cheeks were aching from continuous stretching. All through, Chandran alone stayed stiff.

Malini felt it was time they all went upstage to meet Vidhya and Karthik. So the group got up, adjusted shirt sleeves and sari ends, and approached the stage with Chandran at its tail. With Prem’s urging measure on the ladies to march quickly (he feared dinner would fast get over) the group was soon onstage. Embraces and handshakes were conducted. The photographer had a hard time fitting everyone in his frame. Some had to go behind the couple and some bend knees at the front. Their collective gift – a blue velvet case containing a silvery pearl necklace – was proudly displayed before the camera. After a couple of flashes, Vidhya received it with a natural smile.

‘Chandran, put it on!’ Vidhya sounded and Karthik, pure-heartedly, seconded. After all, Vidhya and Chandran had been thick friends in college. He was pulled to the front and handed the jewel. As his hands neared Vidhya’s neck, they seemed to go out of control and shake obviously. While knotting at her nape, the necklace slipped and beads came unstrung. The wire fell dead at Vidhya’s feet while the beads bounced and settled all over the stage.

Kaatru Veliyidai – To Like or Not to Like

What is the film? Is it the breeze you want to embrace? Or the dusty storm you want to run from? Whichever side you snuggle to, there is no denying Kaatru Veliyidai‘s lead character VC is perhaps the most complex role ever written in Kollywood.

VC, for Varun Chakrapani, is played by Karthi, an Indian fighter pilot made and kept charming throughout the film. And one layer beneath that charm resides everything we don’t want to see in a hero. Self-obsession, aggressive confidence, a pound of ego and chunk of misplaced romanticism.  It is all these that conduct half the dynamics of this relationship story.

The other half is Leela Abraham, a doctor girl who keeps going back to VC all through the film regardless of how carelessly he treats her: he shouts at her; twists her hand; pulls her to his lap, only to stress the fact that she’s a girl and can’t afford to be anything but beautiful. In her own words, he sees her like a pet dog and not as an equivalent with self-esteem. And briefly in a scene, we see his father is very similar: dominating, and if disrespected in the least, a violent man.

There are two beautiful, subtle-as-snowflake scenes that unravel for us these two characters. One shows us the romantic Leela is. She’s been hearing of VC since her twelfth grade through her brother’s letters (he’s VC’s colleague). She has not seen him at all, but has been hearing of him for years. Imagine what years of highly opinioned letters from a close brother could do to a mellow girl. It is this combination of mystery, age and credibility that makes her accept VC’s date invite. Once here, he only had to smile his charming smile and show-off some heroics to make her realise she has fallen for him years, years ago. And this is precisely why she doesn’t leave him at all.

The second luminance is about VC. He has taken Leela to a snowy peak, but in a minute senses a snow storm approaching them. He tries to take her away for her safety, but forcefully, and when she resolutely expresses her wish to stay longer, he warns he may slap her. She asks him what the storm could do and he replies it could swallow them entirely. ‘Couldn’t you have said this earlier? Instead, why treat harshly?’ she asks. That is VC. He cares, he loves, but all in his own self-centered, gene-inherited way. Even when we see him woo her with a song and much love, it is only, we realise later, to boast to his friends he can get his girl back.

So the internal conflict is himself. He loves her, quotes Bharathi, and calls her ‘Azhagu Rani’, but he can’t let her have her own way and can’t even marry her because he fears he wouldn’t make a good father, a good husband. The external conflict is Kargil, which captures and locks him in Rawalpindi prison. Left alone, he thinks of his mistakes, how much cruelty he must have dumped on the woman who had given him her everything. Fragments of memories and a rudimentary love now assuming shape in the absence of the woman it stands for keeps him sane and helps him escape prison, and Pakistan.

That most of us have in some point in our lives thought and acted like him connects us to the film, but to feel this, the audience I watched the film with wanted something stronger than snowflakes. Missiles of messagey writing would have maybe given them reason to connect.

While coming to like the film or simply dismissing it is a personal issue, missing the subtleties that underscore the story and stroke every character’s image is as grave as the sin VC self-confesses near climax. For the film is a visual thesis on character study. It plucks an exemplary one of us to show us what we basically are and how mad we can get, in and out of love.

Some of Ratnamisms are retained in this film. The most important being the hero’s romance built on an equal proportion of love and lust, if not more of lust. It is evidenced throughout the film and in the songs Saaratu Vandila and Azhagiye. But in my opinion, nothing can match this outright lyric from Aayutha Ezhuthu: Kadhal konjam kammi, kaamam konjam thookal. 

Anatomy of Love

Flash Fiction #14:

When Koushik met Ramya for the first time, he changed his image of the girl he had always wanted to fall in love with.

It was a New Year’s Eve party. As an antonym of the people she was with, Ramya stood in a corner, away from the maidens laughing and dancing. She was a wallflower.

During the next six months, Koushik built his mind and body, all for that day he would go and speak to her to champion her heart. Wanting and needing and coveting and dying to be her ‘Yes’ candidate, he took care not to let slip the confidence and courage that had never been his.

On the marked day, he walked into her classroom after smelling his breath and adjusting his sleeves. Ramya was there, distributing to her classmates her marriage invitations. ‘It can’t happen without you, Shreya,’ she said to a girl in the front row. They went for a long embrace.

Koushik felt deeply disappointed. But when he met Shreya for the first time, he changed his image of the girl he had always wanted to fall in love with.

That Family Festival

When Tabu’s mother breathed for the last time and closed her eyes, Tabu’s plastic clown, the wacky battery toy he calls ‘circus man’, clapped his hands and smiled his painted smile. The boy’s father, entering the room to stop the clown’s noise, discovered his dead wife and started.

After the doctor had come and gone to do the unnecessary vetting, after chests and breasts were beaten, the body of the young lady – not beautiful, but all the world to Tabu and father – was lowered into the rented glass box. Soon, plies of coloured flowers began accumulating over the box. Friends, relatives and neighbours visited to do the same ritualistic enquiry. Tabu’s friends, all little like Tabu, came to gape and whisper at the glass box and leave with their parents, attaining a sense of maturity.

The incense stick was replaced. Flowers and garlands were shoved off to leave way for the oncoming batch. Tabu’s father’s manager dropped in with his decorated wife, and before leaving, announced a week of paid leave. Tabu’s paternal grandmother, a mentally weak old woman, settled down at the head of her daughter-in-law with a large bowl of flour. Mindless of her surrounding, she poured in tumblers of water and began kneading as hard as her age and mind permitted. She had been meaning to do this for many days. For that night’s dinner, Tabu’s mother had planned to cook the packet of penne he had picked in the supermarket. But now with no one to intervene in her kitchen activities, the old woman concentrated her energy on the solidifying mass to get out of them soft rotis. Her husband loved her soft rotis.

That evening, Tabu’s father and three uncles shouldered their dear dead to the cemetrey a kilometre away. Once at the ground, a tussle erupted between the elder uncle and his two younger brothers on whether to bury or electrically burn. Tabu’s father pleaded with the warring factions to stop arguing, but they kept vetoing the opposite’s decision. Losing patience, Tabu’s father slapped the elder brother. As if suddenly realising their bereavement, all three calmed down. Tabu’s mother was presented in a copper container an hour later.

Back at home, Tabu’s grandmother had washed the floor and was waiting for others and her husband with set plates and a hot pack of soft rotis. Tabu was on her lap, trying to retain his mother’s face and silently praying it should stay with him forever.

A week later, Tabu’s father nailed his wife’s newly framed photograph beside his father’s.

The Trump in You and Me

How Donald Trump serves as a personification of all the darkness in us

Donald Trump has tied the world together under the common imagery his name evokes. His is a personality we all agree on. Now to add meaning to the title, a few personal accounts want to be stated here.

Every life…

On our way to work, my friend and I have to cross a particular street (he takes me on pillion). Apart from the waste-logged potholes and spheres of mosquitoes, my friend hates the people themselves living beside these. They are categorised as Dalits. Vulgarity is abundant in their every spoken word, even those of the old women, and civility is almost absent. The combination of these two factors was evidenced upon us once when he swerved the bike a little and endangered their lifestyle. Oh, even the children of this street are, piteously, unpleasant to him.

Later, when the street is crossed, I myself relax and breathe a sigh of relief.

The genre called Women

On International Women’s Day this year, there was a simple, yet powerful definition of feminism being promoted. It addressed men this way: It is how you see the woman next to you. I instantly remembered how, on our way home I see every day, striplings and the middle-aged looking up and down the women passing them, some secretly with a small sense of shame, while the others without.

Every time a trace of masculine arrogance takes birth within, I would turn to the woman next to me at that time; a very concrete exercise to turn my ego into nothing.

All the green and blue

‘Environment’ has always been an abstract term to me. When my friend litters, runs his AC in an empty room, or when his sister takes the cab to go shopping in the next street, I have not consciously thought about these. But when the city submerged in 2015, when I had to roam with my mother for a can of drinking water, environment was suddenly all around me – in the waters I was wading, in the darkness the city was plunged into, and shrinking away from the plastic, AC and cab I have myself carelessly used.

If the above paragraphs feel disparate, then we clearly misread. They are united, at the very bottom, by the pride and wilful unacceptance that characterise them. And who better to represent these with other than Trump, a xenophobic misogynist under the scary impression global warming is a Chinese hoax .

Without meaning to say we all share these qualities, this is to present a window of introspection towards the Trumpian characteristics we could harbour, for he is just not a leader we joke of, he is also the embodiment and mirror of all things dark in us, worthy of all our thanks for having shown us who we are.

Now, do you have a Trump in you?

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The Idiot

Flash Fiction #13:

In haste, he inserted his feet into the casuals instead of the black leathers and climbed down the two floors. Arjun, roaming in his territory at the parking lot, pointed out the blunder with a filling bark. Pausing, Tommy looked down to see his formal trousers reaching his casual shoes. He climbed up the steps in twos and corrected the footwear, but forgot to collect the helmet from beside the shoestand. Another filling bark from Arjun and Tommy again climbed the two floors. He took his helmet and some heavy breaths.

Tucking his shirt in, he walked to where his bike was relaxing under the drumstick tree. A few nosy stems from an overgrown branch lovingly scratched his helmet as he kickstarted his bike.

He was about to exit the parking lot when Arjun again barked. This time it was an overflowing bark; just too loud. Tommy braked and checked the side-stand – it was safely lifted up. He turned to Arjun questioningly, and got an indicative bark again. After confirming he hadn’t missed anything, Tommy ignored the further barks as he sped away.

With his project status meeting due in 1 minute, he was flat out like a lizard drinking when the junction signal switched making him come to a sudden, swerving stop. If he hadn’t forgotten his helmet, he would have escaped the irritating red.

An old man sounded his horn from behind him. Tommy stayed. But as the oldie didn’t seem to let go easily, Tommy tilted his bike and created way for the deathbed Honda. The oldie, once at par with Tommy, slapped his helmet – tup!

His Project Manager would have begun addressing the team. Tommy lifted his buttocks from the seat, stretched his left palm and brought it harshly on the oldie’s wrinkled cheek. The neighbouring cab driver had to step out to keep the frail man from falling. Tommy then rode away, leaving the lizard twitching on its back on the hot tar.

Co-authoring with Mr Tharoor

 

Jan 25, 2016;

The Hindu, India’s national newspaper and a reputed fourth estate, organised its annual literary fest The Hindu Lit for Life 2016. As a part of this festival was its new addition, the Tweet-a-Story contest, that used Twitter as a platform for budding writers to contribute to a short story initiated with a line by the popular author, politician and former UN under-secretary Mr. Shashi Tharoor.

I, to grab the chance to write alongside such a widely know personality, entered the contest. Many of my tweets being selected to contribute to the development of the story, at its end, after a week, I was selected by the team behind the contest as one of its four Top Contributors.

The rife word is that the story is getting published, and that the top contributors would be acknowledged as co-authors of the story.

You can read the complete story here.


May 25, 2016

The result of the contest is published, with my name under the eminent Shashi Tharoor’s. I take great pleasure, and a little pride – just a little – to present the same here: LFL_TweetAStory