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Archive for the ‘belles-lettres’ Category

“When did you see it last?” he asked his girl.

“I don’t know,” she wailed. “It was on me when I walked into the restaurant.”

She looked so sad, and her eyes were so large and ready to cry that his insides dissolved in a burst of affection. This led to kisses being exchanged and tender words spoken. When all was done, they commenced a search of the floor and the handbag. She went into the bathroom to see if she had dropped them there. Unfortunately, the ear rings were nowhere to be seen.

“It doesn’t matter sweetie, I will get you another one. I’ll get you one that’s exactly the same.”

His reasoning seemed to have little effect; she continued behaving in a manner that suggested she had lost something irreplaceable. He puzzled for a second over this and whatever he inferred made him strangely happy.

***

Their romance stabilized and their entanglement got more intense every month. They were similar in a way no two people ever had been and he truly believed they could realize this miracle. Slowly, he came to think of her as an extension of himself. The smallest differences drove him mad. They vowed to each other, “Your smallest whim will be more important to me than the combined power of the rest of the universe.” She used to write to him, “I could lose anything but you, or math that is; the things in life I’ve chosen are those which give me that extra something. I think I know how special it is. The colors, the hues, the shades, they are different for us. Richer… special… the whole tone…”

***

But exactly nine months after he had gotten her the ear ring and eight after she had lost it, they broke up. For many months after that, he could not think of the loss without an accompanying pain in his chest. The pain was physical and asphyxiating, like being constricted by a giant python. It intrigued him that his memories could affect him so physically. Sometimes he would think of her just to trigger the reaction. It was like taking part in a controlled experiment where he was master, slave and observer.

What he had less control over were his dreams. They were all variations of a common theme in which she would appear and tell him that everything had been a massive joke. She had never really wanted to break up with him, she said, merely to punish him for hurting her.

“So, none of the things you told me that morning are true?” he asked, full of amazement.

“Of course they are not, dearest.”

“So nothing is true? You did not … nothing happened?”

“You really think I would betray you, baby? It was just a crazy scheme I cooked up because I thought I was getting tired of you. But.”

“But…” he whispered.

“I want you. I cannot live without you. Will you take me back?”

He did not reply. He was crying for the first time in many years, for the full import of her revelation had finally hit him. She hadn’t disobeyed him; she hadn’t decided that the thread with which he controlled and loved her obsessively needed to be snapped. None of the events that had led to the break-up were real; everything had just been a long, arduous test which he had finally passed. Yet, she knew from his expression, and he knew that she knew, that they had forgiven each other, that his tears were out of joy too immense to contain.

This was when the dream usually ended and he woke up violently to see the harsh sunlight flooding his bedroom.

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I wrote a short story (“Middling”) sometime in early 2002 (or late 2001?) that I remember not being particularly pleased with. It was one of many results of a period when I tried my hand at fiction and poetry; doesn’t everyone go through such a phase? But anyway, I think it was a bad story. So I was really surprised yesterday when an old friend (let’s call him T) who had read the thing back then, mentioned it to me saying he had found it beautiful. “One of the most relevant to the human condition stories I have ever read”, were his words.

This prompted me to take a second look at it, and alas, I do not agree with his assessment. Middling strikes me as cliched in content as well as poorly written — corny is the word — and if I ever publish a collection of my writings it will not be included. Nonetheless, T’s reaction suggests that at least some people might think of it somewhat more highly than I do, so here it is. I made some minor edits but it is essentially the same as the version I wrote seven years ago.

Middling

Mahesh Rao smiled.

It wasn’t a simple everyday smile of the kind we see in people around us everyday. It was a smile that was an odd mixture of defeat, irony, self-derision and triumph. An observer would probably have mistaken it for a peculiar frown.

Softly, he muttered to himself, “Your time has come.”

All his life he had never excelled in anything except at being middling. He always got middling marks in school, he was middling in all the games he played, he wore middling clothes and he lived with his typically middle-class parents in an unremarkable part of the town where the sun seemed to rise and set at the same times each day. He couldn’t remember a single field in which his accomplishments could be described as good or bad. It was always middling.

All through school, his teachers had predicted that he would definitely fail that year. He had proved them wrong each time by always passing, albeit by a slender margin. Sometimes he felt it would have been better if he had failed…

“But how could I fail? I am not a person who fails or succeeds! I am just middling!” Mahesh abruptly realized that his thoughts had broken free of the shackles of his brain and he was screaming at the top of his voice; he shut up as suddenly as he had begun.

He needn’t have. Standing alone at the top of Majestic Tower, the tallest structure in the city, there was not the slightest chance that anyone could have heard his outburst.

But why? Why did everyone have to be good? Was there no chance in this world for the mediocre? He wasn’t born a genius. It wasn’t his fault that he was middling. Why should he denied the happiness, the success that everyone else seemed to have? Of course, he was allowed to succeed. But it didn’t make a difference. He was, after all, middling. But so what? That’s the way the world worked. But why? Why not? Why? He wasn’t talented! So? Why should only excellence be rewarded? To hell with the outstanding! What did he, Mahesh Rao, lack that the smart rich kid who stole his love have? And even if that smart kid had something he didn’t have, why should that matter? Excellence be damned! And why was he called Mahesh Rao? Why not Mahesh Sakzo? Or Huyrn Rao? Why such a commonplace name like Mahesh Rao?

Because you are middling, you fool, he told himself wearily.

He was weary. But then he had been so for almost as long as he could remember. Weary of being average. Weary of his inability to say with regard to anything, “Yes, I am good.” Weary of his firm belief that he would never be able to say it. Weary of the fact that he was never particularly happy or deeply sad. Weary of the sameness that he felt all around him and above all in himself. Weary of all the comparisons and realisations. Weary of every second of the 17 years he had spent on earth. Weary of life…

But not for much longer, he thought.

There was once, and only once, when for a short time he felt that he wasn’t middling. That was when he had loved Sheetal, the most beautiful and the most intelligent girl he had ever met. He had risen above his mediocre self and wooed her in style. He had spoken to her in the most charming manner he could imagine He had tried to make her feel like a princess.

He still remembered the shrill, cruel laughter with which she had rejected his proposal. Shrill and cruel as the jagged edge of a piece of glass. Or a piece of rock maybe? He wasn’t sure.

Sheetal had ever since been in a ‘steady’ relationship with Vikram, Mahesh’s classmate. Of course, Vikram and Mahesh were as different as chalk and cheese. Vikram was the first boy in class. He excelled in every sport. His father was one of the richest men in town. He was anything but middling. So it wasn’t too surprising that Sheetal preferred Vikram to him.

Yet that rejection had hit Mahesh harder than anything else in his middling life. He sometimes wondered why. Was it because he had tried his hardest, played all his cards and yet failed to succeed?

Since then he had planned for this day. The day that would prove that even an ordinary, middling boy could do something extraordinary. He had played his cards well this time. Considering that Majestic Tower was 25 stories high, he couldn’t see the slightest chance of failing. And he had also arranged for sufficient publicity. All his friends, the police, the media and even the local politician knew by now what he planned to do. He could already see the huge crowd building up under the tower.

In his mind’s eye he could see the next day’s newspaper headline. ‘An ordinary person commits an extraordinary suicide’. Or maybe, ‘Middling in life, but not in death’. Wow, what publicity he would get the next day! Maybe they would even organise a gala funeral for him! Or a grand dinner maybe. Where everyone would remember him and shed tears. Why, even Sheetal might be there! He would be the toast of the town. After all, who had ever heard of a middling youth jumping from the tallest tower in town in full view of a television crew and half the local population? A middling person was expected to die in an ordinary manner. Not like this, he thought triumphantly.

He stepped over the railing and on the thin slab that separated the terrace from nothingness. He still held onto the railing by one hand. He leaned forward so that his hand supported his entire weight. He now only needed to let go, and…

Yes, now was the time. He could see the television crew, the scurrying policemen and the vast crowd watching him in dreaded anticipation. They would be watching him succeed. He prepared to let go.

He could hear a faint voice from below. It was that of his mother. She was pleading with him not to jump. For a moment he wavered. Then he steeled himself. No ma, don’t stop me now. For once I am going to succeed. I am going to succeed this time, dear mother. I promise you, I won’t fail, he whispered to no one in particular.

He let go of the railing…

When he opened his eyes, he was on a long white bed. Everything around him seemed to be a blur. Then as his senses cleared a bit, he could hear voices around him. “Brave fellow, risked his life to save this idiot…” “Caught him just as he dived…” “Have you heard, the police have announced a reward for Vikram Agarwal!” He could also see Vikram standing a short distance away, the toast of the town.

He closed his eyes again. He had failed, after all.

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Twenty five years ago on this day, Cynthia Jefferies looked lovingly at her husband Arthur Koestler.

He was sick and  mentally decayed – the brilliant mind that wrote “Darkness at noon” was all but vanquished by Parkinson’s, the body was fighting a losing battle with leukamia. Yet, she knew that the essence of the man hadn’t yet gone away. And though diseased and a fraction of the person he used to be, he knew it too – and he had resolved many years ago to always remain the master of his fate.

She was healthy and only 55 – she would live many more years if she wanted to. For a moment she felt regret, why? She walked over to the window and looked out at their garden. It was overgrown and had the unmistakable signs of neglect. Yes, she had lost interest even in gardening, something that would have been unimaginable to her a year back. It was at that moment she realized with the final certainty of truth that the ties that bound them were far too strong.

She sat beside him – her lover, her soul-mate, her everything – and held him tight, full of fear and love. They cried and whispered to each other for the last time. She got up and scribbled her last words – “I cannot live without Arthur, despite certain inner resources.”

So it was on March 3, 1983 that Cynthia and Arthur each drank a glass of wine laced with barbiturates. They died a few minutes later.

Note: The above is merely my retelling of a certain event. As such it expresses my fantasies and prejudices. Whether the details are historically accurate or not is irrelevant.

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It’s a brilliant morning. The air is cool and fresh, the sunshine abundant and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I sit on a metal chair outside Corner Bakery sipping my coffee. 

The road is full of colourful kids. It’s the annual parade day. They walk, they smile, some wobble along on their tiny bikes wearing their impossibly cute red helmets. The proud mothers and the enthusiastic drummers follow. I eat my breakfast, watching happiness and listening to the sound of drums and twinkling bells. Occasionally I read the mathematical paper I have brought along. I am struck by a sudden urge to extol, to write about this. But the air is magical, the beauty exquisite and I cannot make myself get up. There is too much love and freshness around. I sit there smiling, musing, dreaming – what?

Oh outdoor cafes, I love you so!

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Morning colours

I entered my kitchen lethargically and lit the stove. The flame flickered uncertainly, then became a strong bluish-white as I turned up the gas. I poured some water in a steel saucepan and put it on to boil.

It was early and my housemate wasn’t yet up. I walked over to the veranda and stood there for a few minutes, taking in the delicious morning air. The grass below was still wet from the night dew and smelt fresh and earthy. There was no one in the street except an old lady walking her dog at a measured pace. I followed her with my eyes as she drifted across my field of view, and then tiptoed  back to the kitchen.

For a while I gazed dully at my collection of knives, feeling nothing but the strange lethargy in my limbs and brain- then breaking free with a mild effort, I picked one up. It was a medium sized wood-handle stainless steel knife which I had used- despite its unsuitability for the task- to cut chicken thighs the previous morning. I dipped the steel blade in the hot water and the same instant Jo, my housemate, announced her arrival into the living room with a yawn.

“Geez, you are up early, aren’t you!” she exclaimed and walked into the bathroom.

She hadn’t seen the knife.

“Hi Jo, you look like you just had a beautiful dream,” I shouted back. Our conversations were always like this. But I liked her. She was sweet, though not sexy. This was the first time I had had a female housemate and I was enjoying the experience. We got along as well as housemates should.

Trying not to concentrate on the soft trickling sound of her peeing, I stared at the boiling water, the knife hidden between my legs. Eventually Jo came out of the bathroom and skipped towards me.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

“What do you think I am doing?”

“I can see you are boiling water. Why?”

“Oatmeal”, I lied.

She seemed contented with my answer and went back to her room to presumably resume her dream. I dipped the knife in the boiling water again.

I continued in my dull task for about ten minutes before I was satisfied and took the knife out. Once again I could feel the lethargy gripping me, again I broke free. I selected a spot high on my arm, and pressed the tip of the knife into it. I was nervous, it was the first time I was doing this. My skin felt soft and plastic, and didn’t break. Changing tactics, I pressed the sharp edge of the knife against my arm and pushed upwards. This time it felt like attempting to cut through a particularly resilent chicken tendon. I hadn’t realized till now how tough human skin really is.

“Don’t give up!” I told my unwilling brain, and pressed some more. Something gave and my knife went in a couple of milimetres. I pulled it out almost instantly and stared at the spot on my arm that I had mutilated. For a couple of interminable seconds it looked almost normal, then a bright red blob of liquid started forming which grew larger and larger, until it was too big to stay together and dribbled down in a thin red line along my arm.

I wiped the wound clean, put some band-aid over it, and then returned to the kitchen to cook some oatmeal for breakfast.

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It is summer, and there’s not much to do. In other words, there is plenty of opportunity to feel sad.

I suppose it is a season of dementors. They glide into you and take control, and sometimes they do their job so well that you think you’ll never be happy again. But eventually they let you go, they always do. When I was younger I didn’t know that, and once had the terrifying suspicion that they were never going to go away. I tried to express my fears into mediocre poetry, which, taking advantage of the reader’s patience, I reproduce below.

Apprehension

Lips trembling, face burning, heart pumping;
The forces of id work relentlessly to overthrow
reason from this temple – A strange unnatural heat
spreads through the body like a spirit freed;
Turbulence in the soul, sweat in the brow
And vague senses of doom in the ears ring.

 

Man’s worst enemy is at work, wrecking vengeance
On his conscious; Making me fear – anticipation
of something that is perceived to be killing
brings with it a poison far more galling
than what it seeks to analyze – And makes me shun
my most creative tool as greatest foe-my subconscious.

-written by me sometime in the year 2000. 

Yet, there is Mozart.

He makes me happy. He has this incredible capacity to drive away the dementors by the beauty of his music. He makes me think of pretty flowers and tender leaves, green vales and lofty mountains. He shows me all that is beautiful in the world and fills me with love.

This post should end here, but I just remembered something slightly unrelated. Once, after one of those moments of utter happiness granted by music- I was hearing Mozart and Salil Chowdhury- I wrote to someone:

“If I had to spend a lifetime on a desert island,
Three things would I ask
Mozart, Salil Choudhury, and Math
Yeah, that, and no more.”

To which she wrote back( and if you know her you’d know why it was the best possible reply):

If I had to spend a lifetime on a desert island,
I would ask to retain my imagination,
with the added quality that I not need anything real,
to project my imagination onto. “

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