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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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There’s a certain quality about Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories. For want of a better word, I’ll call it tension.

It is not the fear-laced tension of a well-told ghost story or the sexual tension of a romantic novella. Nor is it the tension that comes from reading a truly great novel of ideas, the kind that turns your world upside down.

No, Jhumpa Lahiri’s tension is of a more earthly kind. It thrives upon the most basic unit of human society, the relationship. It entertains the reader, yet makes him feel uneasy. There are no grand flourishes in her writing style. Her sentences don’t evoke wonder the way Fitzgerald’s, Nabokov’s or even Kiran Desai’s do. Yet, her writing contains an astonishing understanding of the human condition and of the extraordinary potential for disquietude, contradiction and waste when two distinct beings interact for a long time. You read her for a while and slowly you fall under the power of the mundane. Everything is subtle, indeed subliminal, but the effect is a powerful one. Or is it just me?

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Think twice before writing a violent story. Steven Barber, a student at the University of Virginia at Wise, was searched, involuntarily committed for three days, and finally expelled from the university, for … hold your breath … writing a story in which a character contemplates murder and suicide.

I don’t know which is more disturbing – the fact that the administration acted so viciously (and possibly unlawfully), or the fact that some people justify the administration’s action by pointing out parallels to the Virginia Tech massacre. Just a thought – if everyone who expresses disturbing thoughts or ideas is placed under a period of mandatory observation, our lives might be more secure, but would it be a life worth living? 

(Link via The Volokh Conspiracy)

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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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