The Storytellers’ Secret

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The sun had moved from over our heads and was making its journey westwards, towards the forests and she still hadn’t come. I had finished all my chores and was helping mother. But my mind was somewhere else, and my mother was going tut-tut at my distracted state. Though she pretended otherwise, I knew she looked forward to Nalini’s visit as much I did, possibly more. Why were we waiting for Nalini, you ask?
Nalini was one of the storytellers. She was one of them, those tellers and jesters, who traveled from place to place, village to village, telling stories, bringing news, providing a glimpse into the world outside our meager existence, offering relief. Storytellers’ tradition was such that they could tell a story to an audience of more than one, not less, ever. If you met a storyteller alone, and he or she, told you a story, it would not be a story, not a service, but something more and infinitely less. You could pay them whatever you owned, but even that would not be enough. They often held their sessions for a larger audience, where there was no chance of them breaking tradition. You could find the teller Prayag holding the villagers captive with his tales of battleships and kingdoms under the banyan tree near the temple. He was there once every week, and he would tell the same story, with the kings and places and the weapons changed, but the villagers all loved him. He was also very good-looking.  And his demands in return for a story were thus proportionately extravagant. He once asked for a cow, would you believe that? Mother never liked him, and so neither did I.
But Nalini, she was different. She would come to your house, talk to you, tell you stories on a whim, ask you for your favorites and retell them, and she never asked for much in return. A few kind words, some food and on occasion if you had any clothes or other items to spare, Nalini would be more than content with that. Mother said that she did actually ask for a lot when she asked after us, when she enquired about our life and living, and you never knew if she was asking because she wanted to know, or because she was looking for a story. As the saying went, “A teller can only tell what has been taken; taken is always what is given.”  One time, when I was telling Nalini about how our goat ate mother’s favorite ring, mother got very angry at me.  “Would you want the people in the next village to know that a woman can afford to let her goat eat her ring and still stay in this hut? Do you want to be a joke in front of strangers?” she yelled at me. After that I kept everything that could be taken, safe and secret. Sometimes, even from mother because I knew she would not like what I was thinking.
But I’m digressing, this is not about me. This is about Nalini. And there she was, one could hear her anklets falling in rhyme with her steps. I could hear it the moment she entered the threshold, and leave whatever I was doing and would run outside to check. And there she would be, taking off her bundle from her shoulders and resting it on the porch, shaking her head and muttering to herself, those gentle calm eyes, sweeping the surroundings as if memorizing the color of mud and the number of steps leading to our door. She would settle her eyes on me after an eternity, exclaim “Kairavima, how you’ve grown!” and rush to pat my head and validate if I had in fact grown as much as she had imagined, since her last visit. Mother frowned upon this showering of affection, but I liked it. I felt special, for I knew she greeted none of the other children in the village this way. Mother would ask us to hurry inside, get refreshed and begin, for she had many other things to take care of apart from dilly dallying with pleasantries.
Nalini would come in and sit next to the only cot, on the floor, while mother would perch herself as comfortably as she could on the cot and I’ll be left to find a favorite spot between the wall and the cot. Though Nalini didn’t belong to lower, nor higher caste than ours, she would sit at a lower position, and mother, the owner of the house, above. I could sit with my mother, as I did when I was younger, on her lap or resting my head on her lap, but now that I was no longer a small child, I could sit wherever I wanted, but not too close to the storyteller. And I had to sit like a proper lady, or as proper a lady from a place like ours could. A concoction of crushed herbs and lemon juice would be kept in front of Nalini for refreshment; she would sip it from time to time, taking pause from her story. I wondered what story she would spin today. The last time she was here, she had told the story of the Prince who wanted to be married to a swan in the royal ponds, and how he took swimming lessons and I had burst into fits of laughter at odd times for days afterwards. I hoped she would tell something less funny today, for laughing without reason, or because of past reveries was also one of the things not much appreciated.
Today she looked a bit tired and seemed to be as lost in thought as I had been sometime back. Mother began shaking her foot impatiently and making the cot shiver, waking Nalini from whatever daydream she was chasing. She took the hint and began. “What tale do you want to listen to today? The story of the King who wanted to learn flying from Jatayu, or about the Princess from the mountains who could stop rivers from flowing? Or do you want to hear the legend of the King trapped inside a mango seed that was eaten by fish? Or should I tell you about the girl who was born from the earth?” Nalini would often ask us these, but would tell a story of her own choosing. I suspected this was just her way to let us know what stories she had and give us a tantalizing glimpse of them and nothing more. “You know the tradition Nalini, the stories and the rules. Tell us what you please.” Mother would parrot her favorite line as the answer to this question, as she did every time. The storytellers, with all the stories and the places they visited, were trapped with many rules. And only they knew what those were, but one always heard rumor. One of the rules was that they could not stay with their families for more than a quarter of the year. They had to leave them and had to move from place to place and make their living. I don’t know why that rule was there, it seemed more like a necessity than a rule, but then as mother kept saying, there’s more that you don’t know than that which you know and don’t understand. I’m not sure if I completely understood that, but it was enough to intimidate me into silence whenever I got boastful in front of her.  
“Well then, let me tell you the story of the Curse of Minasmara. This one has never been told before, or maybe it has. You’d never know, but this is my story.” Sometimes she would tell the story from her own point of view, as if she was there, present, not just observing but also experiencing. I often felt that these were parts of her own life, and not some story passed down from tradition, and I also felt that it wasn’t just because she chose to tell it from her point of view. I’d see how her voice would go soft and slow and her eyes would dance with emotions when she told such stories, but I kept these observations of mine hidden, like the many other observations, from mother’s omniscient gaze.
“To begin, we’ll have to go back a long long way back in time. When I was just a girl as old as you are now,” she said, looking at me. I smiled at her, mother seemed to be suppressing something, but there was no time to look into that. “My father was a fisherman and I was the only daughter. My mother, they told me, had been taken by the lake’s deep waters, as a price for my father’s profession. My father took his living from the lake, the lake took my mother’s life in return. I was only a year old then. I don’t remember much of her, but father told me that she was very beautiful, like Ganga herself. It had been twelve years since my mother’s death. One night I got a dreadful nightmare. The lake, Minasmara, spoke to me, and told me that my father still had to pay his debt. I saw a woman thrashing and trapped at the centre of the lake, her silhouette in the sinking sun, her face invisible to my eyes. I didn’t know if it was my mother or me. But I saw her struggling to escape and was rooted helplessly at the banks all night, or was it all evening? The sun sank into the waters and dragged the woman with it. There was no dark figure against the sun, only the dark of the night descending in my dream. Daylight broke into my sleep and I woke up with a thudding heart and a very restless mind. I relayed my dream to father, as soon as I could. Now, when I think of it, it was perhaps not the best thing to do. Some things are best kept secret.” She looked at me, and I felt her eyes reading what I thought I had kept secret. This, fortunately, went unnoticed by mother, who seemed to be quite engrossed with the story.
“A few days later that dream left from my mind, for after unburdening myself of its weight, it seems I had passed on the nightmare to my father. Though he never admitted it to me, I knew he had not slept well at night. He would be distracted and lazy through the day, miss easy catch, get lowly prices for the fish and began to look like a defeated man. I’d try to help him, but being a girl, I couldn’t go and help him catch fish, nor could I go into the market myself and conduct the dealings. I was to stay home and look after the household chores. Summer was approaching and we needed to get whatever we could from the market, before the lake shrank. One evening, father returned from the market, with a woman. By what right was she to enter our house, I asked father. Her name is Harini, and as your new mother and my new wife, she had all right to enter our house and live with us, he said. I was deeply hurt. I felt rejected, a strong sense of betrayal was rising in my heart and up my throat and I threw a big tantrum, blocking the door and not letting them inside our house. Was the memory of my mother, as beautiful as Ganga, not enough for him? Was I not a good enough daughter to take care of him? I was myself nearing the age of marriage and he went and got married himself! What was he thinking? All my anger was directed at him. I didn’t know her, nor did I care. The way I saw it, she was here to take my place. And that was also how my father saw it. ‘You will be married soon, Nalima. Who will look after this old man, once you are gone? Do you want to leave your poor father, in his sick state while you start your new life with vigor and prosperity?’ That did it. He had put the guilt of selfishness on to me and my heart. What could I say to that? What choice did I have other than welcoming this woman into our house, our life and our world as we knew it?
“Days went by and I became friends with Harini. I couldn’t bring myself to call her mother. But I couldn’t call her by her name either. In my mind, she was always Harini. She was quiet and had the most beautiful eyes. I always thought she was quiet because her eyes said so much more than what could be said. It was difficult not to like her. She would help me with the household chores and tell me stories about her childhood in the forests, and how she had never seen the lake or the ocean and how scared she was of the fierce flowing rivers that winded around the forests. I used to make fun of her because of this, but she would take it well. I promised to teach her how to swim once the lake was filled with water again. She was more friend, and sister than my new mother, or my father’s new wife. That was something we never talked about, and never wanted to either.
“With the arrival of the monsoons, came the time for my wedding. I was going to be married to Iravan, who was the strongest and most handsome fisherman you would ever see. Despite the stern exterior, he was as gentle and large-hearted as the ocean. How we fell in love and how he got to ask my father for my hand is a thrilling story in itself, but I will keep that for some other time.” Her eyes had that brightness which convinced me that this was no mere story being recounted for the hundredth time in front of an audience.
“We were going to be married at the temple at the centre of the lake. That was where all our weddings took place. We would be married in the temple and then there would be a big feast at the bank of the lake, which was already decorated. As per our customs, we would get married at noon, when the sun was over our head and showered us with light and blessings in its full capacity. Since the temple was not very large and it was difficult journey and also because the monsoons had made it all the more difficult, only family members and the priest were to be present for the actual ceremony. It was an overcast day and we had no idea how we’d know if noon came and went.  Thus we got married under a hidden sun, and it seemed our feast would take place under a storm. But nothing could dampen my spirits, I was getting married to the man I loved, everyone I loved was around me and healthy. Harini had a glow around her face and a smile that spoke of fulfillment. I had asked her about it, but she had said that she would tell me after the wedding. In her words, she didn’t want me to go giddy with all the good news.  The clouds above had started gathering force and we began our hurried departure from the temple towards the bank. We were still a good mile or two away from the bank when it started raining. And such a gale it was! The likes of it I’ve never seen since. The lake and the clouds seemed equally angry and at war. Our boat dipped and rose dangerously with the waves. Iravan held me in his arms and I clutched on to him for dear life. My heart was beating with excitement and somewhere uneasiness was creeping in, but it got swept under the raging rainstorm that surrounded us. Harini was sitting scared, across me. I wished father would hold her, the way my husband held me and protect her. I wanted to say something to that effect, but didn’t know if my in-laws would find it appropriate for a daughter to speak to her father like that. I was just going to tell Harini to hold the flank of the boat tightly, when our boat gave a mighty heave and it seemed like the heavens and oceans had switched their places. There was utter chaos for moments and nothing could be seen or heard under the thunder and lightning. With another giant lurch, our boat settled back on a wave and seemed stable. And just as it had started, the storm was fading away. The clouds were fleeing as if a giant wind was erasing them away. The sun was making its descent into the lake, it was already evening and none of us realized. Neither did anyone of us realize that Harini was missing. I couldn’t believe how I didn’t notice immediately and then the creeping fear inside my heart exploded. I looked at the helpless figure thrashing about in the middle of the lake, against the dying sun. I wanted to jump in and swim across and drag her out. I had risen up and was screaming her name, but strong arms were holding me back. I beseeched my father to go in and save her, but he looked helplessly on. I begged and pleaded with others, for someone to go and save my mother, my sister and my friend. No one wanted to displease the lake. No one would interfere; no one would save its victim. ‘Why don’t you save her, she’s your wife? It’s your duty!’ I bawled at my father again and again. ‘I could only save you’ was all he said and as I saw Harini drown and sink into that bottomless depth from where there was no rescue, no respite, another truth sank into my heart. The heavy truth of betrayal. My father hadn’t betrayed me by bringing her into our life, he had betrayed her. And she had trusted him, she had trusted me. And what did we give her for her trust and care? We gave her to the lake, as a price, as our payback for its gifts. We sold a life for a living, with treachery. My father had not just tainted his life, but mine too. For I had shared the burden of my nightmare with him, and now he would share the burden of this crime with me.” 
“Careful Nalini, be careful. Kairavi, you too.” Mother’s voice interrupted us. I was sitting open-mouthed at the unfolding of events in Nalini’s story. I had expected this turn of events when the nightmare was mentioned, but to see it, to imagine it happening as expected was still a blow.  Mother got up from the cot and went into our kitchen. Though I was almost on the verge, I didn’t dare to cry in front of the storyteller, and even worse, in my mother’s presence. The look that mother gave me when she got up promised flaying if I broke the rule. This was one of the most confusing, yet strictest tenets of the storytellers. They were not allowed to make you cry. That’s putting it too simply. They weren’t allowed to affect you too deeply. They could entertain you, inform you, even preach, but there was a line and that was not to be crossed. They could not evoke emotions that would have no way to be paid for. They can make us laugh, make us angry, keep us in awe, keep us confused and questioning, but to make your audience cry, shed a drop of tear, was the gravest crime. They had no right upon that personal and private feeling.  Allowing that brought upon heavy punishment from the Keepers of Tradition of the tellers and there was gossip about storytellers who had been banished from their faction and used their storytelling skills for black magicians. I wasn’t worried about that, I was more worried about what mother would say and do, if I broke it. For it was a rule binding on both the teller and the listener. Both had to know their place and be aware of the boundaries. As mother had once tried to explain, when you let that innermost emotion be shown, be shown to a storyteller, it puts you in a bond and gives the storyteller powers over you. They would know what your innermost fears and desires are and would play with them to his or her advantage. The storyteller then could control you, your mind and your heart, for what lay inside was now for everyone to see, and exploit. I thought that rule about storytellers never seeking audience with one person was probably created to enforce this complex rule, but I wasn’t too sure. For now, I was primarily concerned with avoiding the wrath of my mother. Then to see if there was more to the story.
Mother came out and kept a plate of rice, some lemon pickle, and water in front of Nalini. She asked me if I wanted to eat, it was too early, but I didn’t want to refuse. She kept another plate of rice and pickle for me. “Eat and continue with the story, if there is anything left to it.” She went on to light lamps around the house, and after a while I heard her sitting further inside in the house, next to the pots that had been made in the morning. I didn’t know if she was going to begin working on them now, it was already dark and she could hardly see in this dim light. But I didn’t enquire, and sat and ate my meal quietly.  Nalini was eating as if she had not eaten for days. The rice and pickle had disappeared even before I had finished my third morsel. I kept my eyes to her plate, not wishing to go and meet her eyes. I wanted to tell mother that maybe we should give her more, but mother seemed to have read my mind and asked me to offer her some more. I gave her some more rice and extra pickle, she seemed to like that. I also gave her some more of the lemon juice concoction. I was going to sit and begin eating again, but I had no stomach for it, so I went in and emptied the rice back into the pot and ate up all the pickle. With all the scurrying around, I figured mother would not notice. I sat down, and for a minute there was no sound other than that of Nalini eating.
I went back to what mother had warned about, it seemed Nalini would continue only when she had finished. I looked at her and didn’t think she would take advantage of me, or bind me with her powers. It was hard to believe that she would make you cry, just to get some sense of control over you and your destiny. I sometimes felt that she could look inside my heart and tell me the stories that it wanted to listen to with furious longing. Her stories had brought peace and hope to my restless mind so often, had enlivened a bleak day so easily. How could that ever be a bad thing?
Before I could answer, Nalini indicated that she had finished. I took her bowl and plate outside, where it would be washed with the other vessels and gave her some water to clean up. She returned and sat down just beyond the doorstep. She spoke softly, I don’t know if mother could hear her or see me and I inched closer.
“Following that incident, I could never go back to speaking with my father. People told me I should be thankful to him for saving my life. When I asked them, ‘At what price?’ they would say nothing. I was resolute and didn’t talk to him till he was on his deathbed. Weakened by age and grief, he died just months after my marriage. I sat next to him like a dutiful daughter, but could provide no calm, nor comfort, nor peace in his last moments. His last words to me were, ‘I hope I saved you’.  I don’t know what he meant by that, and even if I did know somewhere in the back of my mind what it meant, I refused to go there, for it brought back the memory and guilt of betrayal. Something within me had died with Harini’s death.
“It had been three years since I had been married and yet we had no child. His parents blamed me, and I too blamed myself. There were sacrifices and ceremonies made, but to no avail. Iravan’s spirits were low and it seemed as if he cared for nothing but a child. Was I of no value to him? Perhaps I wasn’t but that thought still rankled in my mind. I feared he might leave me, or get another wife. That was nothing new; one could always get another wife to bear your child. I put all my heart into prayer and visited the temple in the lake every day. I prayed for one and only thing, for a child.
 “One day, Iravan came home excited and gave me the most exquisitely beautiful white lotus. He said they had found it stuck in a fish’s mouth and that it must have come from the temple. Yet it looked as if it had grown from the fish itself. He instructed me to eat the seeds of that lotus; it was bound to have magical properties. It might just help us conceive a child.”  Magical lotus from a fish’s mouth? White lotus in a lake first of all? My belief that this was indeed Nalini’s story began to falter, but another part of me remained stubbornly faithful.
“I believed in prayers, but I was always wary of miracles. Though I didn’t really believe that the lotus was magical, to humor him, I did as instructed.” This time, she definitely gave me the most fleeting of glances and I was glad we were safely hidden from mother’s gaze. “The thought of this magical lotus left my mind after some days. I had immersed myself in prayer again and would spend hours sitting at the temple, sometimes just sitting on its steps and looking for answers from the lake, the lake that held all the answers to all the problems in my life. One evening, after prayers, I was sitting on the steps when I heard Harini’s voice. I first thought I was just hearing voices inside my head. Then it came again, and again, and it seemed to be coming from the lake itself. And I looked down and there she was, looking up at me, with those eyes of hers. I thought the steps would vanish from under me and I’d fall into those waters, never to breathe air again. I was feeling breathless. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was, how foolish I was, how I had never realized. I wanted to hold her and cry with her. But she kept asking me to take something from her. I didn’t know what to make of it. All I wanted was for her to come back and be with me, or that I could go and be with her. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I kept walking down the steps into the lake. Before I knew it, it was cold and dark and everything seemed empty. I didn’t know if the lake had swallowed me, or if the lake was inside me.
“When I woke up, I was back inside our house. Iravan was sitting next to me looking worried and excited at the same time. He told me how some fishermen had seen me and had rescued me. They had seen me floating. ‘Floating on what?’ I asked. He said they didn’t know. They just saw me floating near the temple steps and had hauled me up and brought me home. And that I had been unconscious for hours. All this while, there was a bright spark in his eyes, as if he was very happy. I felt a rush of affection for him, imagining that he was happy to see me alive. Before I could say anything to that effect, he burst out with the news that was making him so happy. ‘And you are going to be a mother Nalini. And I’m going to be a father. Everyone is so delighted. We are going to hold a ceremony soon.’ I should have been happy, I think I was very happy, but I was more worried than ever. I felt slighted by the importance given to the news of me being with child and not that that I was saved, but I decided I was being too self-indulgent. It was my child, and he or she, too had been saved along with me. I had no recollection of what had actually happened at the temple steps. I sometimes tried to recall, but I would be left blank and restless.  I decided to instead be happy for my child, and for my husband.
“As the days turned into months, the memory of that evening faded. I was busy making arrangements for the child, busy getting pampered by Iravan. Monsoons arrived and the baby started kicking. Just another month the elders told me. Iravan would spend all his evenings by my side. He would rush home even before the sun had set, and would talk about his plans and dreams for his son. He was convinced it was going to be a boy. I disagreed, but didn’t express my disagreement. Any day now, the mid-wife who came to look after me told me. She was a young woman called Prakshi and she came from a far-away village. Though she wasn’t old like the other midwives were, I knew she would take good care of me. I would get horrible cramps every night.  Prakshi would give me a potion of juices made from herbs every night to help the pain, but those attacks still persisted. One night, I had the same dream that I had once, a long time back. The lake wasn’t satisfied. This time it would be my husband’s debt. And I saw the woman again, thrashing and screaming against the sun. I didn’t know if it was my mother, Harini, myself or my daughter. Or was it going to be another hoodwinked stranger. I woke up with terror in my heart. Even though it was as dark as night, I knew it was nearly morning. My heart beat rapidly with fear and my body was convulsing with pains. Prakshi, who was staying with us now, came to check on me hearing my screams. Iravan was out, preparing for the day, as he did every day, before the sun rose. It was only me and Prakshi. I hoped she knew what was to be done. I had no idea what was to be done and I wondered if I could survive the night.  White light was blinding my eyes and I feared I would cry myself to death. She helped me control my breathing and got everything ready. She held my hand in one hand and asked me to put all my strength and willpower in helping my child come out. After what felt like days of torment, we heard the first cry. It was a boy she said. He was to be named Divit, as decided beforehand. Iravan was right, it was a boy. It could also mean that my nightmare might never come to be true. I was happier than I could imagine. I just wanted to sleep, the ordeal was over. We all might live happily ever after. Prakshi shook me and woke me up from my drowsy state. ‘There’s another baby’ she said. I couldn’t believe it. There were two babies? I had been carrying twins and I had never realized. What was this supposed to mean? Before I could ponder upon this question, the pains returned. I was to go through that process once more. Again, I pushed and panted and a shrill cry broke out in the air.
“It was a girl, Prakshi said. I didn’t know what to call her. Though I had imagined from time to time that I might have a girl child, we had never decided upon a name. Worse, I was gripped by the fear of that curse following her. But what could I do? I asked Prakshi to help clean up the babies and set everything to order. I told Prakshi that she can put the babies to sleep and that I needed to rest a while. While she did that, I looked carefully at her. She was gentle and caring with them. I knew she would take good care of them. I pretended to be asleep. I wish I had forgiven my father. I got up before the sun was properly up. I dressed hurriedly; even though I felt weak, I knew there would be no other opportunity. I bundled up the girl, I had named her Saumyi in my head. I took her into my arms, and she was there, looking at me with those eyes and already speaking to my mind. I looked at Divit, resting peacefully, calm and confident like his father, and I knew he would be safe. The price had been paid for their lives. I left the threshold knowing I’d never return, I left the only place that could have been home. I knew Iravan would marry Prakshi after appropriate time had passed and they would live happily, for as long as it was possible. I understood that the curse was not of the Minasmara Lake, but of human heart. Who was going to pay the next price?”
I never knew Nalini had a daughter. What happened of her? Or was this really her story? Why did she tell us this story, to what purpose? What was she getting at? I knew maybe, but I didn’t like the answer one bit. I had a feeling everything had changed in the house. My mother came out of the darkness, and gave Nalini a pot to take with her and walked out with her. My mother asked her something, and she replied, though I couldn’t catch any part of that exchange. I watched as Nalini left and my mother returned home, having broken the rule and broken, otherwise.
As I looked at those gathered around me, I suspected one of them was about to break today. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it was necessary. And they never really understood the rule, their heart betrayed them much before their eyes, or their face, did. I knew there was going to be another storyteller joining us soon.

Petrichor

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They say rains sometimes wash away color and cloud vision. Not here. This grassy slope is as green as peace can be. This is not the green of envy, but of roiling calm. Young blades of grass tickle and tease, but never manage to cause irritation. I look out towards the gray lake. Somewhere along the horizon, it blends with the gray clouds. The gray doesn’t speak of indistinct evil and good. It doesn’t speak at all, it’s silent with weight. It contains a million little life sources. Each droplet will create life on earth. Each drop will fall on me, wash away something, will take away more than settled stale dust and blend me with the earth. All I need to do is soak them in, and offer myself for theirs to own.

There are woods behind, full of tall nameless trees. Those ageless witches covered by thick barks have taken over the lands with their dark long branches, and narrow spaces between themselves. The grass at their roots have obliterated brown. The earth there is sheltered, with grass and mighty goddesses of the forest. The rain falls softly on this cushion. It is more than water and moisture. It has taken the abandon of the clouds, the wisdom of grandmothers and freewill of the winds.

The lake ahead is trying hard to contain a turmoil erupting from within its depths. Tiny waves scarring its surface betray the secrets it wants to hold. The clouds tease him. They unleash a drizzle that will touch, entice and infiltrate its barriers. The spies within will get lost within the currents and rebel against their own mother. The revolt turns into a wild dance of passion and restraint. All water, held against its will by the greater powers of sky and earth. Where would the child go? It seeks to escape with the favorite uncle, the wind. But that traitor of the gods, he will drop them the moment it hears the roaring of the thunder from Zeus.

I sleep on the earth. Waiting for that stubborn, helpless son to make a choice and escape. He can rest with me, or take me along to whichever faraway land he seeks for adventure. I care not for my footprints to be left for worried search parties. All I ask is for him to leave the scent behind.

Calling Home

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She had returned to unadorned walls. The medium-sized suitcase was plundered and its contents strewn around in an orderly manner. Discarded paper and other items lay on the floor.

The neem tree outside the window looked bald and deprived. It had shed its leaves. The mango tree next to it was in bloom, as if mocking its neighbor. Little did she know that no one cared for its flowers, but someone definitely missed the neem’s jade green canopy.

Her mirror was missing again. She didn’t miss it, but she noticed its absence. That explained her barren looking walls. A lone lamenting voice coming out of a machine created disturbances in the air. The only kind she liked.

She sat down, trying not to look anywhere and to hold that moment to herself. To enjoy that solitude and peace, all by herself. The sun was growing weak, ready to sink into dusk. She wished it would hold on for a moment longer and not slip in to the cloak of evening, not just yet. She liked the way it fell on her window glass, touching it, not cutting across in a rush to reach the floor.

She looked at her overflowing book shelf. Part pride, part regret. There was too much white space around she felt. Birds outside were talking to each other, she wished she could know who they were. She didn’t want to understand what they said, that would be an uncivil intrusion on their freedom and privacy.

Her windows were left open, to let her room breathe. Her mother, had she been present, would have asked her to keep it shut, for fear of mosquitoes. But for now she wasn’t there and the room could behave however its owner wanted. This room was home. There was no one here, no one’s possessions encroached upon its territory. Everything inside was hers to call home. She would have wished for this to be an ever-present state, a perpetual ownership.

A knock forced her to pause her reverie. “Have you paid the rent yet?”, asked someone. She shook her head and went back to staring at a tiny screen. There’s a price to pay for everything. But it’s never too big a price if you can call the purchase home, however temporary.

The lament continued with another tune, with another softer voice. Her eyes returned to the flowers that covered every branch and caressed every leaf on the mango trees. It was said that the flowers had a mild sweet scent similar to that of the lily of the valley. She didn’t know whether she’ll ever be able to confirm that. She didn’t know if she would be around to see the fruits either. But that could wait, she didn’t need to concern herself with that at the moment.

For now, contentment was to be the flavor and rhyme.

>An Old Wives’ Tale

>

This is the perfect date, no webcam between us, he thought.
They shared a Diet Coke and ate fries. 
“I’ll wait for your status update.” She received a text as soon as she reached home. 
She updated her status immediately : 2nyt ws awsm, gr8, lulzzzzzz.  
The boy, heartbroken, deactivated his account.
The End.

Drop Your Pants!

>

It was a very tense situation. I’d never done this before.

“Drop your Pants!” The security guard yelled at me. This was going to be very very embarrassing.

I dropped the pair held in my hands right away. Whoever thought people would want to wear buff colored pants, let alone get caught stealing them? 

The Muse’s Farewell

>Once upon a time there was a girl. She thought of too many things, dreamed of even more. She believed in a few things, hoped for even fewer. She questioned too much, but answered all by herself. She smiled too much, but never knew if she was happy.

One evening, on a ceasing winter’s day, she met her Hero.

She never thought she would meet a Hero. He had wild dreams, and wilder ways. He cared not for things usual, but pursued things that others had no time for. He was her Hero and she cared not for what he was, because she knew only of what he would become. Her thoughts, dreams, beliefs, hopes, questions and answers, smiles were all for the Hero.

He called her his Muse. And she felt special to be his Muse. Was there any greater joy than to be an inspiration? The Muse and the Hero, they marched along that dangerous path of discovery and adventure. There were many ideas to be ensnared and many to be enslaved. He would conquer, she would guide. He would wonder, she would reflect. Life began to run, but time had slowed down. What was time but a construct of science meant to keep mere mortals on their toes? Why think of time when the imagination begged to explore other passions?

One afternoon, on a reluctant rainy day, she saw the first fall.

It was as if she had been knocked down a long flight of stairs and had collided with a solid wind. That solid wind had turned into a sea, that carried her and sank her, then brought her floating up to be charred by the sun and then calmed by the night’s tide. She could have left, but she stayed on. She didn’t want to be a bad Muse.

The sun rose and sank. Ships left harbors and charged into storms. Buds bloomed and leaves shed. Snow fell and fires burned. Something gave, everyone took. Seasons fled, time dipped into decay. She stayed in a corner, called when needed.  But she didn’t know if she was there because she was called or because she was needed. She didn’t even know if she was needed at all. She didn’t know if she was even wanted at all. Maybe there were others who wanted her.

She saw herself falling. She watched as her Hero fell. She tried to help her Hero rise, while trying to help herself from fading away. The Muse and the Hero stumbled and picked up, fighting and faring along. Sometimes she would watch her Hero, with real people and the real world and try to ascertain where she was. She would see the sun, from under the deep ocean and know not how far from the surface she was.

One morning, on a summer night’s end, she began to question. 

Does a Muse choose her Hero and make him a Hero? Or does a Hero find a Muse and give her the status of a Muse? Does anyone care for the Muse when there is a Hero? What does a Muse ever do to leave behind for herself, apart from the shadows of the Hero’s footsteps? Can a Muse’s only existence be to inspire and not ask for anything more? What does the Muse do after her Hero leaves for another Muse, for another life?
Was that all that was left of her being a Muse- being just a feeble spark on the dim horizon?

Or does every Muse fail when she begins to dream of her Hero turning into Pygmalion? Can a Muse never dream or hope, but only support those of her Hero? Could the Muse leave on her own accord or did she have to hang around till she was forgotten? Was there any greater misery than to be just a Muse?

She realized she knew all the answers, but didn’t like them at all. So she kept questioning till she was exhausted of all her answers and knew there was no escaping the questions. She asked till she couldn’t fight the answers, till she defeated the questions.

One wintry night, past some springs and monsoons, the Muse decided to cease to be.

She looked out of her window, and knew she cannot look outside anymore. She had to bid farewell to the Muse that had been for a Hero. She had to bid farewell to the caterpillar and the statue. She had to leave the depths of the ocean for the cliffs above. She had to stare at the sun straight in its face.

There were dreams to be chanced upon, thoughts to be given attention to. There were beliefs to be wrestled with, hopes to be given birth to. There were questions to be chased, answers to be discovered. There were seasons to be seen, places to be experienced. There were things to be done. There was time to be reclaimed.

There were swaying fields and dropped arms, cotton clouds and burdened orchard trees, fiery sunrises and unfettered souls, and other such inconsequential sights to smile for without asking why.

The Salesman

>(This was written on 18th April 2010. I’m finally moving it from drafts to published in the hope that seeing it online will goad me to pick it up and finally complete it.)  

He lived with one mantra- Give each day your best. One day at a time. Fine, two. He woke up with one and went to bed with another. He woke up today thinking positive thoughts as prescribed to him by his spiritual quack. He suspected his quack suffered from some personality disorder or schizophrenia or some other mental mumbo jumbo for he changed ways as often as the weather changes its mind in Springfield. But he deduced that could come from what his quack called “transcending spiritual and metaphysical boundaries” or maybe he was just a big old oaf making much money selling out the inner gods. He stopped himself from thinking too much about it. He had a long day ahead of him and he really needed to get started.

His first customer for the day was a Mrs. Mamona Aergias. She lived alone in a single storied small house on the street behind the supermarket and opposite the theatre. He hoped this time she would listen to him long before dozing off on the table. He rang the bell. There was no answer for a full one minute, he counted. He rang the bell again, two in a row, and was about to complete a set of three when the door opened, and a face hidden behind layers of fat poked itself through the gap.

“Good morning, Madam. I hope today would be a good day. Here, have some coffee.” With that he nudged the door open and entered.

Mrs. Aergias eyed the coffee with distaste. She wanted to go back to sleep, but she could never refuse a free offering. She pulled her robe around herself, took the coffee and plonked herself on the couch and switched on the news. He sat himself down across her on another seat and thanked an unknown god that Mrs. Aergias was too lazy to go and get her TV repaired of the sound problem. All they heard was a low droning sound and watched as the reporter showed them a midget with a beard that reached his feet. The midget was apparently trying to set a record for growing hair that was five times his height.

“So, have you thought about it?”, he asked.

She shook her head distractedly.

“Well, let me go over it again with you Mrs.Aergias. What I have here is a thing that could solve all of your problems and make you a more complete, wholesome human being. You would do good not just for yourself, but for those around you. Dolorium1618 is the solution to all our problems. Imagine this, you wake up and have this severe pain plaguing your mind and body and soul. What would you do?

“Take a pain-killer”

Exactly. What if there was no pain-killer that killed it?

Mrs.Aergias shot him a look filled fury and dread. Why would the man just not leave her alone?

“I don’t know”

“See… There’s no real pain killer.”

“Ahh.. There’s no real pain then either,” she chuckled at her own marvellous wit and logical deduction. 

“There’s no real pain killer, but there’s real pain. There’s pain when you can’t hear your favourite talk show host bitch about the latest model. There’s pain when you have to stand an hour in line to buy your favorite brand of bacon. There’s pain when you want to talk but there’s no one around. There’s pain when you have to wake up every day and wade through life’s small, but plenty, futilities.

“The only way to deal with it is to embrace it. Pain will make you stronger by pushing you to act. By pushing you to harness your energies and channelize them in the right direction.  Hence Dolorium1618. Start with 4 pills a day, you will have to do something about the pain. It will wreak havoc inside you. You’d be forced to go out and about and seek help. At the same time, you will learn to accept it, understand it, make it your friend. How’s the coffee?”

“Not half as bad as I thought it would be”

“Do you think you want to come on our free trial programme then?”, he laid subtle emphasis on the word free, making it come out casually, as if it was part of the deal doled out to all customers.

Again Mrs.Aergias seemed to struggle between two extremes of wanting, and she knew she would succumb. She was a woman who would take death if it told her there was nothing she would have to do to be dead. He almost believed that she would embrace death more enthusiastically if it came her way because there was nothing to do after that, nothing that she knew of yet. And hence, it was even more important that he converted this one before she chose the easier way out.

– To be continued. (hopefully soon enough)

At shut of evening flowers

>Florets of sinopia and xanthous,
On a bed of smaragdine.

Stains of solferino and ferruginous,
In a cyaneous sea.

Nankeen feathers on a columbine tail,
Aubergine blooms on lovat floor lie.

An aeneous blaze on a waking star,
Leads the son under a cerulean sky.

Beholden

>She doesn’t know why she thinks of that day. She doesn’t even remember his name. Not properly at least. She has been thinking of that day a lot lately. She tries to reconstruct the events leading up to it, she remembers most details. But not his name.

It had happened when she was seven or eight, almost fifteen years back. She can’t believe so many years have gone by and she recalls it only now.

It was second period- History, in 3rd E2.

The teacher, Mrs.Gulati was considered to be strict. She didn’t hesitate before doling out punishment and called lions “loins”.

She was her usual talkative self, he was sitting quietly. She never bothered to ask if he ever listened, at all. She’s not even sure if they talked, if they were friends, or just partners waiting to be assigned to a new companion any day. It was his birthday. But he wasn’t wearing the customary new, casual dress. Every kid loved the opportunity to not dress in regular uniform. Not him though, he seemed his usual calm and composed self. There used to be some rotation, ensuring every pair got their chance to sit in the front rows. They were in the fifth or sixth row. She isn’t very sure, but she remembers wherever they were sitting, it gave him enough time.

“Take out your textbooks now,” Mrs.Gulati calls the class to attention.

She reaches into her bag and starts looking for the pink writing on the pages that had been treated as blinds, common method employed by most students to help identify books. It was taking her too long to find that book, he was already sitting straight, with his book in front of him. She abandons her search and begins to prepare herself for the ultimate humiliation. She has forgotten to pack the book back, now she will suffer.

“Those who don’t have the textbook, go sit on the floor.” Mrs. Gulati was walking between the rows, inspecting, ready to unleash the first round of punishments. She was walking two aisles away, slowly heading their way. Three students had already made their way to the floor.

He looks at her, as if studying her, his options. Silently he moves his textbook to her side. She accepts it quietly, like a mouse. Her chatter and chirping gone, mute. She doesn’t even question the fairness or unfairness of it all. She just doesn’t want to be sitting on that floor.

He stands up just as Mrs. Gulati approaches their desk. She looks at him, realizes it’s his birthday by the big pack of toffees sitting on their desk. She wishes him, takes a toffee, but no one is spared from punishment. Not even birthday boy. She walks towards the back, inspecting. He knows what’s to be done. He picks up his notebook and goes and joins the other students sitting on the floor.

She’s still keeping quiet, still accepting his kindness with a shameful silence. She looks at him, wondering how angry or humiliated he must feel. He looks straight ahead, his spectacles perched on his nose, looking up at the board. Where she was earlier dreading being sent to the floor, now she’s dreading the end of the class. She couldn’t face him. She has no idea about the lesson, only remembers reading the text blindly, twisting her fingers and looking at him from time to time.

But the class finally comes to an end. They are given some homework and reminders to bring the required books. She forces herself to remember for tomorrow, to avoid another today. He returns to their desk, dusts off his pants and sits. She passes the book back to him.

She doesn’t remember if she had thanked him or not. She doesn’t remember if that bothered her then or not. She doesn’t remember how rest of the day, the week, the remainder of the year had had gone. But it’s been bothering her lately. She has realized only very recently how big an act of kindness it was on his part for her, at that time. He had left the school at end of that year.

His name may have been Shepherd. Or Stefford. Or neither. She feels infuriated at herself, how she remembers so many other names from school, some of whom she hadn’t even talked to ever, but has forgotten his name.

So many people from your past now stalk you. She has tried looking for him. But she doesn’t remember his name, has no idea how he may look now. She doesn’t know if she will ever find him and will finally get to thank him. Maybe he would have changed by now, maybe he would seek her out to reclaim the gratitude owed. Maybe someone will read this, ask a friend who’s known by this name if he remembers being the nicest guy for a talkative, annoying girl. She knows this is plain day-dreaming.

But she still holds some hope. To find the birthday boy and utter a very delayed “Thank you”.