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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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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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 hotpack 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.

Empty White

With body under cuffs

from days of unrest

and mind poisonously stale

from guilty nights spent

away from my wooden,

I bend over sheets,

for time – the wanted,

the suspect, the robber –

is caught in my grip.

 

I look for light

for my mind wants to fly,

but in the night that sits

I only see empty white.

Parker point scratches

while my eyes stare walls.

I look down for words,

but what I see

my baby could have done.

 

Another wrinkled ball

joins that hateful bin.

My wife’s aroma kindles

the cement doorstep outside.

Surprise rents her face, for

with paper and pen I sit.

‘A story? A poem?’ escapes,

but not from my mind.

A weak smile. She gets it.

 

Four little paws crawl

eagerly to my wife. She,

brightening, picks the doll.

Sounds she makes, names

she calls. More Joy is the reply.

When their eyes meet,

I know something happens.

But what it is, neither says.

Evening. Flowers. Music.

 

Freshened from their sight

I begin again. Words seep:

‘With body under cuffs…’

A tumbler of coffee sits by.

Purity lies on love’s lap.

As two eyes close in peace,

the lullaby carefully shrinks.

Our eyes meet. I know this.

Night.Mattress. Silence.

A Humble Sonnet

Your finger to me is that of a throned queen,
And its gesture is a law I want to act thus.
My words of praise may flattery mean
To outside beings but never to us.

Your goodness is high when I think of it;
Faults of you are never in my view.
Though you may fault sometimes a bit,
Your goodness is what I still see in lieu.

When do you plan to give me yourself?
in marriage of faith for the crowd by jove.
For you are already my wedded self,
Since I met your eyes and said my love.

This poem may go on for ever and ever,
‘Cause unending are words given me by you.
It’s time I put a dot to it and sever,
As now I don’t want to play with words, but you.

A Breakthrough Love

With blood gushing from my torn knees and a heaviness weighing on my weak head I walked, falling and getting up, to nowhere. It was all the same to me, wherever I turned. The loose grains of sand were everywhere; under my feet… on my face… sticking to my wound by the adhesiveness of my thick blood. I walked, leaving a trail of dark patches behind me made brighter by the burning disc above. This was the imagery of my life until you showed yourself as a small oasis with limpid water and lush-green vegetation.

I survived thereon.

Thendral Vanthu Theendum Pothu…

The 21-year-old bent forward, restlessly, on the cushioned wooden chair he had been sitting on for many hours now. His face was covered with a film of oil secreted by itself. Thin and short hairs had sprouted under his nose; a few were scattered on his cheeks. Behind his lenses were two troubled eyes, staring straight ahead.

His head was filled with incomplete images of Her. Sometimes Her eyes. Sometimes the hand he had held in his. And sometimes… some images. He was throbbed by the forty kilometres between them… He didn’t know when he would next meet those eyes that made him feel his masculinity, and sucked time enough to make even those rare long trysts painfully short.

His room was dark, but not bleak. The windows and the door that led to it were firmly shut. Inside, he was alone with a radio singing for nobody. The combination of 21 years and a beautiful girl in it can make you play life strangely. More so, if you are living far away.

 

Nesam poranthale udambellam eno silirkuthuSruthi

Aalam vizhithaaga aasaigal oonjal aaduthu…

 

He inclined on the armrest to reach the radio. Going backward on the tape and turning the volume knob clockwise…

 

Oda neeroda intha ulagam adhu pola

Odum athu odum intha kaalam adhu pola

Nilaya illatha ninaivil varum nirangale…

 

Again going backward on the tape…

 

Nilaya illatha ninaivil varum nirangale…

 

‘Shades that recur in the wavering memories,’ he translated silently, and meditated, reclining moodily on the sofa, upon the words that wafted through the many holes in the frame of the radio woofer. Taken away farther and farther from the room, dissolved in the female voice rendering the song, he discovered that, after all, She was with him… in the lanes of memories opened to him by the song… bending and curving in accordance with the mesmerizing melody and the voice faithfully producing it.

 

Vanthu vanthu poguthamma, ennamellam vannamamma

Ennangalukku etha padi vannamellam maarumamma…

 

Images, complete enough for him to tangibly feel Her, began to take control of his feverish mind. She was there right before him, leaning on the closed door, arms folded, one leg close in front of the other, smiling invitingly, and eyeing him affectionately. The image was a carefully made collage sourced from his memories of Her. The dark room and the gliding lines gave Her a dreamy aura.

 

She was indeed a dream.

 

Thendral vanthu theendum pothu enna vannamo manasula

Thingal vanthu kaayum pothu enna vannamo ninapula…

 

[Click the above lines to hear the song… you would love to!]

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