Unfinished

You are the futility of my words

And the laboured breath of my

Ragged silence; you are half

A paragraph of a

Letter I wrote,

But never

Sent

She rocks back and forth in a stationary wooden chair, teetering on the brink of a fall. Her pen is poised on a bleached piece of thick paper, an ink drop quivering, ready to blot out the word she’s just written on it: Sorry.

What does one write after an apology? An explanation, perhaps, but explanations are the most futile bits of literature that ever existed. To those that need it, an explanation will never be enough; to those that don’t, it is superfluous.

She hates using that word, the one she has just traced out on that overly white sheet. It’s been said too many times, and means too little. She has said it to people who’ve lost a parent, those she bumped accidentally in a queue, even a flower vase she once knocked over. Somehow it seems too puny to say to a man she loves as much as it is possible to love another person. Because she is about to do something she hates even more than saying sorry- she is going to lie. She is going to look him in the eye. Well, as much as one can look through a letter, and she is going to tell him, Sorry, I was wrong. Sorry, I can’t love you anymore. Sorry, I need to go. And sorry, I’ll never come back.

She gets up from the chair, turns up the speakers. Strands of music emanate, settling into a familiar rhythm, like the bus conductor on your daily commute, who knows exactly where you want to go. The song, it takes her places she doesn’t really want to go. The places that have been left hastily, before the mess could be tidied up. There’s a lot of dirty laundry. Not all of it is hers. His voice resonates in her mind, you don’t always have to do everything alone.

Somehow she’s never really believed him; in this moment, she desperately wants to. She picks up the pen again, after shaking off the drop of ink elsewhere.
Sorry, she writes, let’s give this another shot.

The forty-second draft lands up in the bin along with its predecessors.

280 days

The first night, XX meets XY in a burst of music. The lilting refrains of an old song, and suddenly it comes to them, the answer- or perhaps, it is a new set of questions. They meet again that night, their cracks resonating within each other, their lips touching with the hesitant feel of having waited for a long time. But love, you know, is like learning to ride a bicycle. You’re going to fall a few times, but once you know how, you always remember it. It doesn’t matter which bike you ride.

The sun rises the next morning, illuminating them with a wintry pallor. Beauty is often fleeting, and it leaves behind in its wake, the burden of actions- actions that determine if it will be rekindled. No creation is without consequences, and the greater the masterpiece, the longer it is one has to pay.

Everything is tinged with a new light in the first trimester, even the darkness. They feel it growing- expectation, anticipation, happiness, fear, inexplicable bouts of sadness, of excitement. That terrifying realisation that there is always someone else in the picture now, that amazing feeling of joy, that there is always someone else. They’re still wary, sceptical of their fates, afraid of admitting that there is a tangible thread of something that connects them. Yet they’re silently hopeful, of everything working out.

The next three months find them quieter, yet more confident in their skin. They have accepted that they will never be entirely ready for what is to happen. They’ve felt the kicks of reality, of challenges, of stressful schedules and self-doubt, even when they’re trying their best. They’ve also felt the beauty again, fleeting but true, in the oddest of situations. Sometimes, they voice what they’ve been wishing for, for time to freeze in that moment of bliss, the morning light on sleepy faces, the warmth of each other’s arms, the comforting presence nestled within. Then they shake their heads in amusement at their frivolous fantasies as they leave for work.

One day, with only three more months to go, she cries, as he holds her, whispering that it will be alright. “That it will be over, you mean”, she says. Like all manners of routine, a dangerous inertia has crept in, its warmth cushioning them, giving them something to care for, yet holding them back. They know things will be different soon, better, for a new life waits. It’s still a scary prospect- “What if I don’t know how to deal with it?” she asks. But he is wiser, and has seen farther, “You will know, because Time teaches us all.” he says.

The final night is one much like the first in some ways, and yet not in others. There is music, there is love, but there is a sad kind of understanding that is alien to first meetings.  His touch sends shivers of a different kind across her body, the chill of a dying hand. He cries a little tonight; she tries to but she can’t. There is an odd calm within her, the kind that comes not with the absence of fear, but an absence of feeling altogether- she knows there will be no respite from emotions once the next day arrives. There is only light surrounding them- a dim, hazy light that unites their shadows as one.

Then the water breaks.

*Published on The Scribbled Stories*

 

Technicolour maiden goes solo

The first thing I can tell you about myself is – I’m scared. Shit scared. Don’t ask me why. Or about what. Of course I realise it seems funny that I should start a narrative about a holiday in this fashion. But that is why I’ve left home all alone to come to a town where I know no one. Because I’m afraid. And I do not want to be afraid anymore. I think it’s time to stop hiding. Behind people, and masks, and stories. Stories are beautiful, but it’s time to paint my reality with my own shades, whatever they might be. Even if they’re darker and uglier, oozing venom- those bleeding cuts are as much a part of me as anything else.

Little things scare me. The men on the train with me. The way they look, and the way they don’t. The glare of the corridor light, mildly blurred through the chink in the curtain. The velcro strip is half torn, much like my thoughts. Wary of missing my stop, I try to focus on the rhythm of the wheels, the blinking headlights of cars on the distant highway. After waking up thrice in three hours, I give up on sleep. It’s still pitch dark outside as I plug in my headphones and listen to songs. Old ones that I’ve had ever since my school days. They calm me, reminding me of the seventeen year old girl who had an unabashed bravado. In the flashes of blackish green countryside I occasionally hear her laugh in tandem with the beats of a folk song. She is the first fragment I need.

The cool air slaps my cheeks, oddly soothing. I look around the tiny station, the first part of my journey over. The rest of it will be by road. As I successfully locate and board the bus, there is an odd sense of accomplishment even though it isn’t the first time I am traveling on my own. As the bus slowly winds up the hill roads and the lush valleys emerge, I realise why. This is the first time I am traveling for myself. I am sick of existing for someone, with someone. This is the best pilgrimage on earth. The search for lost pieces of my own soul.

I  indulge in my favourite activity, walking, as I set out to get a feel of the place. It is, sadly, much more of a town now than it was years ago, and concrete has obscured many a field from view. The tiny art museum in Kotwali Bazaar gives a fine glimpse of history, and is vastly under appreciated by the mobile toting families who are eager to photograph every exhibit.

Someone in need of tranquility would feel more at home in the Civil Lines area, past the hospital and government offices. The Martyrs’ Memorial here has an oddly resonant silence that befits the solemnity of the place. Here is a place that has receded into itself despite the intrusions of man. My blood hums in approval. It is a fine place for seekers.

I walk past the pillar of a thousand names, carved into stone, scratched away by years of rain and the more recent initials of young lovers. It irritated me once, this perverse habit of humans of leaving a mark,however trivial on every shred of nature they enter. Now it amuses me, because I know the futility, and I appreciate the attempts at preserving a fragile existence. After all, every one of us wants to leave a mark. Some do it on pillars, and some do it on souls.

Sakha

* Draupadi’s thoughts after collapsing on the final journey. *

 

It’s cold here. Yet I feel warmth as you call my name. Perhaps this is what death is like. One no longer feels cold, pain, discomfort. Just blankness with you as a light.

I can see you beckoning me, the same way as you would when I was a young, shy girl, unaware of where life would take me.  We would sit under the frangipani, as you narrated some obscure mystery of the scriptures or a fact of everyday life, and then watched, in amusement, as my face changed shades in thought.

There was so much noise, and now finally there is quiet. It is perhaps true what they spoke of me- Draupadi is immoral, unchaste, with five husbands, how can she not be?-yes, it is. I say so because in the face of death, I do not remember any of my five lords, not even Arjuna, to gain whose affections I struggled a lifetime. In truth I had expected this- each of them was a warrior, king, husband, father, but not my love. I had almost definitely thought that I would remember the only other man I ever loved-Karna. What could not happen on Earth might perhaps be fulfilled in another realm. Yet it is curious, for it is not him I remember.

It is you.

Perhaps it is foolish of me to say I remember. I have never forgotten you. How can one forget that which is in everything? You were my earliest memory, a flash of brilliant blue as I stepped through the fire, holding my brother’s hand. You are my last prayer as I seek an answer to the eternal question. I wish for you and you alone.

I can see you walking towards me, gliding almost; you assume your most human form for me once again. My Sakha, the first man I loved, my friend, my guide, my best support and worst critic. Distantly my human mind remembers the news of your death, the poise I maintained in court, while my husbands collapsed in distress. A cry of raw pain was all I permitted myself in private.  A part of me knew that it would soon be time for me. And all the grief would end.

You stroke my head gently as I kneel before you, feeling like a child. I have not felt so pure in a long time.

“You’ve done your part, Krishnaa. Now rest” You say.

My smile can bedazzle the heavens.

Letters to no one

Ms./Mrs. Random Old Lady

 The footpath near St. James School

Calcutta 

Kolkata

I don’t know if you still live at this address. I don’t know your name. I think you might have died. You were quite old then, and it’s been almost eight years since that day I met you. I remember being sad. Before I met you. After I met you. There are flavours to sadness just like there are in coffee- there’s latte sadness, for the time when,say, you lose one of your favourite pair of earrings, and then there is a double ristretto,  a dark,brooding mess, when you feel everything that you have is slipping away. My sadness that day was somewhere in between, when I casually walked out of the house, hoping no one would see that, in reality, I was storming out.

I remember walking aimlessly, the only direction in my mind: Away. Away from death, away from morbidity, away from the endless discussions centred around a few lines of a medical diagnosis. Now, I can’t even remember who it is that was ill. So many have passed, they’re all blurred in my head. I only know that they loved me, and I must have loved them as well.

So I walked. Past giggling school students, teashop owners, women with vegetable-laden shopping bags- their damp blouses letting the light brown of their skin peek out in places. I moved as if in a dream, contemplating life and death until that great equalizer, hunger, played its drums in my stomach. Descending from plane infinity to ground zero, I stopped at a tea stall, gazing at people who seemed far too happy, especially through the mist in my eyes.

Perhaps, I noticed you because you were staring at me. Rather, not at me, but at the biscuit in my hand. I’m writing to you today because I don’t want you to keep thinking I bought you the biscuits because I cared, or anything like that. I was just a self-obsessed teenager wanting something to come and set her world right again. Even when I sat down next to you, I was jealous of you. Jealous of how cheaply your happiness could be bought. Ten rupees. Why couldn’t I have it too?

Well, I did get some of it. When you patted my head and smiled, still lost in your own little world where dinner would be biscuits. But I was greedy, I wanted all of it. I wanted to push away all the sadness. Even for a little while. I went home soon after that and told them all about it. Told them how happy it made you ,and how happy it made me. The thing about happiness, I think, is that when you see people happy,you desperately want to be a part of it, at least for a while. Just for a while, no one spoke of death and darkness and doctors. They spoke of biscuits, and kindness, and gifts.

Now I’m older, and when I look back, I’m not so sure. Of you, your happiness, my happiness. I only hope you’ve moved to a better address. Because I do care, a little bit.

*Published on The Scribbled Stories*

 

 

The forgotten song

Once upon a time, a young robin lived in the branches of a giant oak tree. During the day she would fly to far-off places, singing cheerfully and foraging for food. When dusk crept into the crevices of the sky, Robin dutifully returned to her branch. There were a few other birds on the oak tree but they were much older and kept to themselves.
So she lived on her own, and her days passed, and for the most part,she suppressed the tiny part of her feathered chest that said it would be good to have someone to come home to. Such voices were not to be listened to, she said sternly. Hadn’t the Blue Jay promised to set up home close to her? Then he’d realized with a lament that he could never live in one place.
She lived peacefully until one day she woke up to a delightful sound. It was a Willow warbler sitting on the next branch that greeted her with a “Hello”. He was quite a pleasant fellow and soon they’d become friends with each other. He was a traveller, gone sometimes for days at a time, but he always returned. And surprising herself, our young Robin began to look out for him, staying up a little longer on her branch so she could see him return with his cheerful chirp. Days turned into months, summer faded into winter.
One day with the first chilly wind, the Warbler came to her. He said he would have to leave for the South and he would be gone for quite some time. Robin was sad, but happy too that he had come,one last time. All night long, they sat on the branch and sang songs, of unspoken love. Then the sun rose, and with it, the Warbler spread its wings and flew away.
Robin spent the winter months tucked in her cosy nest, building up any jagged edges with care. “He will come in spring”, he’d said, “and maybe he’d want to live here”, she thought. Maybe we can make a bigger nest, on that curved branch. Just enough for two, she thought, and the thought carried her through the icy gales. Soon enough, the first of the flowers bloomed and so did Robin’s heart for she knew he’d come soon. He’d never broken his word.
One morning, she heard a familiar chirrup and she hopped out of her nest, in sheer ecstasy. He was back, as beautiful and glossy-crested as he’d been. But there was something, he was happy to see her, but not the way she was. She ignored it, showing him the larger nest she’d built. He looked around, then quietly, he said he was moving- “There is a tree in the next forest,all her friends and family live there.” “Her?”, she asked. “I met Willow down South” he said, “We’re setting up nest. Will you come visit me sometimes?”
Robin smiled, and Warbler went off busily, he had a home to make.
He visited her sometimes in the months that followed and looked disapprovingly at the ruckus around her nest. There was a singing thrush, a roguish fellow,who’d be staying a few weeks. “Wasn’t it someone else the last month?” “Oh yes, the brown Magpie. He left some days ago. He had to go meet his friends. This one won’t be around for much longer either.”
“You shouldn’t let just anyone into your nest. ” He said scornfully and flew away.
Sitting on her branch, the Robin sang a forgotten song.

The Boy Who Conquered

Long ago, and far away, there was a land blessed with a strange and magical power. No one quite knew how, but any child born in that realm was gifted with the ability to live up to his or her name. Now you might think this was mere coincidence, and believe me, so did people for a long time. Then someone did the math and deduced that there was indeed a reason as to why all the young men named after the Fire-God were setting haystacks ablaze with their slightest tantrums.
Anyway, such were the ways of the land and people took great care to choose a perfect name for their young ones, one that would seal their destiny for the years to come.

Time passed by until on the first day of winter, with the first snowflake, a baby boy was born in the family of a modest school teacher, and the entire village came to partake of their joy and to witness the ceremony of name-giving. Amidst the crowd, the teacher’s wife held up her little baby in the air as he shrieked, protesting against the cold blast, and pronounced his name “Arihant!” There was a murmur for no one quite knew what the name meant. It was the first of its kind and they stood in awe as the teacher told them what it meant- “One who has vanquished his enemies”

The years passed by and the little boy grew up under his family’s stern but loving eye. He went to school like others of his age, but his heart lay in other things, finding shapes in the clouds, building artifacts from clay and making up elaborate stories to amuse his younger siblings. The bane of his existence, in his ten year old mind, was his name. Each time someone asked him that question, he suppressed a grimace thinking of the inevitable awe that would follow. He often thought of asking his parents why.

I don’t want to kill enemies, I don’t want to conquer anyone. I’d rather make friends and make people happy, don’t you get it?

But being a polite boy, he never voiced it out loud.

One day he was sitting by the river bank, throwing stones into the water, watching as they created ripples in his reflection. Suddenly he heard a plop and saw that an old man was trying to recover his little metal pot which had just fallen into the river. In a jiffy, he waded into the stream, his wiry body underwater for a few seconds before he resurfaced with the pot and handed it over to the man with a “Pranam”.

“May God bless you, my son. What is your name?” The old man asked.

“My name is Arihant, Dadaji” The boy replied, using the form of address for grandfather. He didn’t quite mind telling this man his name, maybe because he didn’t pause in awe, he just smiled.

“And Arihant, do you know what it means?” He asked.

The boy crinkled his eyebrows for a second, ” It means one who has conquered his enemies” , he recited listlessly.

“Yes that is what they say it means. But do you know what it means?”

By now the boy was confused. “What does it mean then? I don’t know. I always thought…”

“You always thought the enemy would just be someone who attacks you with sword and spear. Someone whose blood you need to spill. Okay tell me, if you are very hungry and have only one mango and a boy your age suddenly snatches it from you ,what would you do?”

“Hit him hard!” Arihant said, a flash of outrage making way to his face at the imagined scenario

“Okay, but then, suppose he hasn’t eaten for days. Suppose he has to bring back food for family too. What then?”

“I’d not get angry, I’d let him have it.” Arihant mused

“So who was your enemy in this case? What was driving you to do something bad, an eye for an eye?” The old man smiled peacefully.

“Anger.” the boy uttered with a wide eyed look. “My enemy is not a person. It can be a thing. An emotion. Something truly bad.”

“Yes. And your destiny is to be the conqueror of your enemies, my son. Do you see now?”

The old man quenched his thirst and walked away.

Ten year old Arihant walked back to his village with his head held high, ready to embrace the power of his name.