26 Apr 2011

The Departed

Posted by Oblivion in Fiction | 1:49pm


When I opened the window, I felt it was cold. The sky looked cloudy, but I felt like going out and enjoy a stroll. I looked at the street. Involuntarily, I focused more on how much it has changed. "Sid, wear sweater. It's cold", I heard mom's voice. She was in kitchen, making tea for us. Earlier, it always irked me that she thought more about me than about herself. But now, it didn't. I thought I would say, "Mom, please! I lived in Ladakh for so long, this is nothing".

But I said, "Okay, mom!"

"It's in the second shelf of your wardrobe, Sid".

It amazed me how she remembered such a trivial accessory with such precision. Mothers are a rare breed.

Quickly, I pulled on the sweater. When I was about to shut the door, I noticed an old diary. Twenty years old. "Wow!", I exclaimed. It was more out of curiosity than a rush of nostalgia that I opened its cover. The pages have aged. It's a funny thing about diaries, they get heavier with time. They store your memories. It was dad's gift for my birthday. In a neatly written hand, the first page had dad's favourite quote.

"Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman."
- Beethoven

I admired how beautiful the writing looked. Dad's fingers not only played piano to perfection, but also wrote exceptionally good. He was an artist, impelled to compose and play music. He performed for years, held audiences captive, and taught music at university. For him, music was not a discipline to be learned; it was the very essence of life. On an evening when I was about to fall off the car, he tried saving me and had his fingers crushed by the car door. Doctors broke it to him that he can never play piano again. Next evening, he jumped out off our flat on the fifth floor and fell dead. Doctors took pride in being frank; I lost my dad. 

"Sid, ready yet? Tea is ready".

I closed the diary and put it carefully back in the same place. "Done, mom. In a minute".

As I sat and relished tea, she ran her fingers fondly through my hair. It felt so nice it choked me. When I left home eight years ago and chose to stay in Ladakh, I had no intent to detach myself from anything or anyone. Yet, even as I met strangers and made friends, had my moments, memorable and forgettable, a sense of distance had slowly crept into me. With every passing day, the world looked further afar, and I thought its affairs would never touch me again. Along with the feet that battered and bared many a rough terrain, and felt hardened, the heart, I thought, too, had become stronger like the solitary soldier whose armour no weapon can pierce. And how wrong I was! A simple, loving gesture felt like the touch of a gentle breeze in the midst of a desert, wafted across lands and sea to soothe a forlorn bird and break all walls and doors of the cage to set it aflutter in joy. I realised I didn't become detached; I merely shielded myself from all care. It was fear; strength was a pretense. It felt so absurd that it choked me.

She arranged my collar neatly around the sweater. "You are still a careless brat", she teased. "Mom, easy! Sit and have tea", I smiled and pulled the chair beside. I always liked being lazy and disorganised. I could never imagine living any other way. An organised, planned life is a dead life, I always believed. Nevertheless, when I reflected this moment, I realised it was probably not this heavy philosophy that drove my inertness. It was probably that I valued these small moments as priceless and desired them more, for every such moment attracted care and attention from mom. What if she admonished, didn't she just so lovingly notice how I wore the sweater and arranged my collar? And if I added up all such moments through the years, I would have a wealth of precious memories. The price of being disorganised! Priceless!

She didn't say it, but every glance of hers said, "I am so happy you are back, my precious child". I had regularly written her how it was there in Ladakh, what I ate and drank and where I stayed and slept and worked. But she asked about it all again. I answered in brief, as ever.

But it was enough for her. She didn't ask to know answers; she asked just to hear me talk. Just to notice that glint of joy in my eyes. She recounted how the neighbourhood has changed over the years, who moved in and who moved out, how unfortunately Steve met with the fatal accident just a day after he finally had agreed to marry Jennifer and how sad she felt, how prices have increased, how fast the neighbour's baby has grown up, how fond the kids in the society have become of her... As I listened to her, I didn't mind it was getting late for the stroll. But she remembered. "Oh, I could go on! You enjoy your stroll and come back soon. Don't stay out too long, Sid, you could catch cold".  

"Sure, mom! Will be back in an hour".

I went to Steve's. A Goan family had moved in, not long after he died. The house looked new. I rang the bell and an old man opened. He put on his glasses when he noticed me. "Evening, Mr Benjamin. I am Sid, Steve's friend". It took him a few moments to map. "Okay! come on in", his tone was cordial. I walked in and looked around. "Please", he pulled a chair for me. "That's okay! Don't bother, sir", I took it from the old man. An old woman entered the hall and smiled at me. "Steve's friend", Mr Benjamin told her. "Hello! That's nice", she said, with a smile that made me feel at home. "Hello! I... I just dropped by to... to just see the place... and say hi to you. He is my best friend, and I used to visit him often. Steve". They followed me ardently. "I understand. This is your home. You are always welcome", she said. "Let me get some coffee for you".

"No... it's fine. I just had tea at home, in fact. I wouldn't have anything. Next time, surely", I replied.

As I conversed, I looked around the house. Everything looked different. The family was nice and warm, but I couldn't relate to anything. As I got up to take leave, he gave me his card. "Do call up and drop by with your mom. Would be a pleasure", he said.

"Sure. Thanks!" I would rather never call or visit them again. I had nothing against them; I had nothing to do with them either. Steve is gone, and what does it matter who lived there? I wasn't sure why, but I was angry. Maybe I thought they had destroyed all signs I could possibly relate with. I didn't expect Steve to receive me at the door, but I didn't want the house to look so alien either. Steve was dead, and the house looked alien. I had no intent to extend acquaintance with Benjamin family.

After walking a few paces, I wanted to call Sameera. I heard from mom that Sameera got married a few months ago. She also said, "Don't call her up at late evenings now. You will cause her trouble". I always found it queer that unlike any other attribute, that of marital status affects all other equations, and perpetually alters a few. I asked quite a few people, relations, acquaintances and friends alike, to explain this to me, but none could. It was as if they had accepted it as a divine dictum, and questioning it sounded like blasphemy or at best stupid. For my part, the fact that one person's arrival should alter the equation with others meant absolute disrespect for the others. It did not, however, matter what I thought. The world runs its course. None of the friends lived in the town anymore. Sameera was the only one. Without thinking much, I called her number. A male voice answered politely and put me to her.

She was her ebullient self. I wondered if she could take some time out for coffee. She suggested me to drop by at her place instead. "You could get to meet Armaan too. He has met all my friends except you, so he would love it", she pushed. I was not up to it, as I felt somewhat lonely and lost, and preferred some time with someone who has known me for a good time. I was surely not up to striking it with strangers. "I would love that, too. Will drop by, one of these days. Take care", I assured. I thought I would visit her next week.

I walked back home, observing people and streets. It felt cold, and it was not just the weather. Streets were buzzing with trade, people were rushing, and it confounded me how distant and cold urban spaces are. But then, it's probably just me; I never felt at home in cities.

After supper, mom liked watching news and playing some music. I waited impatiently for the newscast to finish. She knew how much I hated watching news. "Just five minutes, sweetie", she smiled. "No problem, mom". Soon after, I checked if she wanted to listen to Kishore Kumar or Ilaiyaraja numbers. Listening to the music, she fell asleep. I switched off the player, closed the window and left for my room.

Lying on the bed, I stared at the roof. I saw no sky or stars; only a dark concrete wall. I don't remember when I drifted into sleep, but something woke me up suddenly early next morning. It was quite early, it may not be even 5 in the morning. I heard someone gasping, trying hard to breathe. For a few seconds, I tried to make sense of it all.

I realised I was at home. I rushed to mom's room. I switched the light on and saw her writhing in discomfort. "Mom!" I cried out loud and rushed to hold her. She was not in pain. It was rather a feeling of being strangled. She was trying hard to breathe. "Mom!" I called her, holding her by shoulder. I felt she might need some medicine, but I had no idea. "Mom, are you all right?" A stupid question, but I just wanted her to say something. Recollecting herself, she said, "tablet... it's on... the... table... coffee table..." Quickly, I fetched the medicine and offered her. "Water", I gave the bottle. A minute later, she could breathe normally.

She looked weak. Weary. Her forbearance has worn out. She couldn't open her eyes. Sitting beside and holding her hand, I noticed the wrinkles on her face. It scared me. All these years, every day of my life, every morning when I woke up, every evening when I slept, I took her presence for granted. I held it with certainty that she was always there, whenever I needed her, and whenever I needed her not. I could walk out in anger, booze and return home at midnight and find her serve food, and I could stray for years and return and still find her receive and welcome me with a hug. For the first time, I found my certainty shaken. For the first time, mom looked mortal. For the first time, I realised how fragile it all comes down to when you sense the end. It felt as if I was looking at her for the first time. How busy we get running around for tomorrows that we rarely look at those we think we love! I cried.

Shortly later, she slowly opened her eyes. She looked at me fondly. "Don't cry, my child! Old age, you know. But... not much time left, though. I have lived well and I lived happily. I am proud of you, child. I am happy you are back. I have no regrets and nothing to seek. If this is it, this is it. I love you and I'm always with you. Always". She had tears in her eyes. "I know, mom. I know. You will be fine. No worries". I didn't have it in me to think of her death. Maybe, it seemed to me, this is why I left home. Having lost dad, I was perhaps scared to see her age every day. So I ran away.

Or maybe I felt like that being faced with a sensitive moment. Maybe it wasn't out of any fear.

Maybe I left because I had wanted to, having become quite averse with living in cities. I wanted to see the mountain, the stars, the streams and breathe fresh air. Maybe that was it.

I had a quick breakfast. I convinced her that we will visit doctor. She checked if I would take her to temple also. I assured I will. She was happy. She wanted me to select the saree. I was never good at that. But I suggested thick blue and she liked it. "I will be ready in five minutes", I told her.

When I came out of the shower and pulled on the tee and jeans and walked into her room, I found mom lying on the floor. She must've collapsed. I held her, pulled her up and cried, "Mom! Mom!" She didn't respond. I sought the neighbour's help for rushing her to the hospital. I didn't keep track, but I was sure it didn't take more than twenty minutes for us to reach the hospital. All the while, I kept checking if she was breathing. After the formalities, doctor suggested we can't afford to delay and that she be put in intensive care unit. They put her on the bed, lined in white sheets. She lay quiet and motionless. As I stood out at the door and watched through the glass, they took her into the intensive care unit.

The hands pushed, the wheels slid, and the bed retreated. And with it, mom. 

19 Apr 2011

Stolen

Posted by Oblivion in Fiction | 8:41pm


Waving at the neighbour's baby, Sudip entered the house. He noticed Sucharita in the kitchen. "Here, on the table", Sudip told Sucharita, putting the packets of milk and medicine on the dining table. Sucharita looked at him and acknowledged. "Thank you", she said with a smile. Sudip responded with an indifferent shrug before walking into the bedroom. 

Ten minutes later, he walked to the kitchen to check what Sucharita had prepared for breakfast. Not finding her there, he called out her name. "Yeah, coming", she replied. He walked toward the table and found tea and breakfast arranged neatly. Serving tea for himself, he looked around for Sucharita. He found her administering medicine to Tanmoy. Tanmoy looked rather weak. "Two more doses through the day and you will be fine. Don't worry", Sucharita assured him fondly and took from him the glass of water. "Have these and tea", she gave him the plate. Sipping tea, Sudip observed her. As she stood up and walked toward the hall, he pretended reading newspaper. 

Sucharita pulled the chair beside Sudip and served breakfast for both. "He is quite down, poor fellow. Medicine should help. I advised him to take rest", Sucharita told about Tanmoy. "Okay, good. He should be fine", Sudip replied. He avoided looking at her, and his reply was rather terse. "Are you taking me for the movie next evening?" Sucharita asked. "Let's see", Sudip said, following the sports page.

********

Sudip returned from work early. He looked cheerful. Tanmoy was plucking flowers in the garden. "How is it going?" Sudip asked, without expecting any reply. He walked in and noticed Sucharita lying on the bed. Naina, the maid, arranged for tea and snacks. "Nilanjoy is staging a play at Nandan tonight. We have the passes. Shall we go?" he asked Sucharita. She remained quiet. "Suchi", he said and moved toward the bed. As she saw Sudip, Sucharita began to weep.

"What happened, Suchi?" Sudip enquired. She wouldn't answer, but couldn't stop her tears either. Sudip insisted her. "Suchi, what happened?" She nodded her head disapprovingly and said in a faint tone, "Nothing". Sudip held her shoulder and insisted, "What happened?" He shouted loudly, "Naina". Naina rushed. "Yes, dadababu".

Sucharita meant to stop him. "Shh, nothing happened!". He ignored her words. Looking at Naina, he asked, "What happened? Why is she down?" Hesitatingly, she said, "No idea, dadababu". "Nothing happened", Sucharita repeated.

"Tell me what happened", Sudip demanded an answer. Wiping her tears, Sucharita spoke to Naina. "Naina, arrange tea and snacks". 

"Just done, didi". She, however, knew that Sucharita wanted her to leave. She walked to the kitchen.

Sucharita looked at Sudip. "I am not finding the necklace that mom gave for Puja. I fear I might have misplaced it, but I have no clue where". Trying hard to suppress tears, she said, "It's her last gift to me and it's precious to me". She broke down.

"Do you remember where you had put it last?" Sudip asked. "It's unlikely you have misplaced it. You hardly do. And if someone has taken it, that's a dangerous move. It must not happen".

"No no. It's not possible that anyone has taken it. I must've misplaced it", Sucharita assured. 

"Suchi, I know how precious it is to you. You cannot be so careless about it. This is certainly someone's doing".

"But who can it be? That's impossible".

"Naina", Sudip called. "No, Sudip", Sucharita held his hand and suggested not to call her. Sudip ignored her gesture. "Naina, Suchi di has lost her Puja necklace... her mom's gift. I am sure she hasn't misplaced it. Someone has surely taken it. And I don't tolerate that. If you did, you better admit. If police step in, it will be, let me tell you, very bad for you". Naina has been working for them for years and it came as an insult for her, although she very well knew Sudip's outspoken nature, sometimes bordering on rudeness. All the same, the mention of police scared her. "Dadababu! At least for my belief in God, I wouldn't be doing such a thing. I swear on my children", she pleaded. "Sudip, please. She cannot have done that", Sucharita said.

"Okay, okay! I had to ask anyways. Don't mind. Get the tea", Sudip looked at Naina. Naina gestured obediently and reflected a sense of gratitude. She went to the hall to fetch tea.

"Sudip, relax. We will find it", Sucharita stressed.

"Rubbish. Your decent nature makes others easy to exploit. And necklace is not a small thing, Suchi... if only not for money... it's precious to you for deeper reasons. Let me check with Tanmoy". 

"Sudip, that's ridiculous. You are not doing it".

"Stop it. I don't know why you defend him so much". The tone of arrogance and a deeper grudge surprised Sucharita. Naina walked in with cups of tea. "Naina, call Tanmoy in".

"Sudip, please! This is getting unpleasant. We will ask Naina to search the house. Am sure it is somewhere".

"Suchi, enough. A precious thing is gone and it's fair to check with people living in the house. What's so outrageous about it?" Sudip paused. He added, "He asked me for some money the other day. He needs money. I feel he is the one".

Sucharita feared where this would lead to. She is fond of Tanmoy and it pained her heart that he was being put to the wall. At the same time, she didn't know how to convince Sudip to stay quiet. But she feared the worst and wanted to stop. "Sudip, please stop. I don't care if it's lost. Let it go", she said in a firm tone. 

Sudip ignored. "Stop defending him. I am only doing a fair job. Why don't you let me even check with him?"

Tanmoy walked in and sensed an air of grimness. "Sudip da", he looked at Sudip.

"Tanmoy, I saw you at the jeweller's the other day. What work did you have there?" He was brash in tone.

"Sudip da! Not at all. I never went to the jeweller's", Tanmoy answered hesitantly. 

"Oh, so you mean I'm lying?"

"No, Sudip da. I don't mean that. But I never went there".

"So who was it then? Your clone? Your apparition? Or you are saying my vision is at fault? Now I get it! You wanted money. I didn't give, so you stole Suchi di's necklace. You sold it or mortgaged it? How much did he give?"

Sucharita was completely taken aback by Sudip's words, but she knew it would get worse if she interfered. She just prayed it ended soon. Naina watched helplessly. 

"Sudip da, I swear!" Tanmoy broke into tears. "I couldn't have done that", he pleaded. "Believe me, didi", he looked at Sucharita. Tears rushed to her eyes.

"Stop this mushy drama. It's okay if you did it. I can understand... people do all sorts of things for money. Just admit and tell me if you sold it or mortgaged. I will convince police to not handle you roughly".

"Sudip da!" Tanmoy fell on Sudip's feet. "I didn't do it. I swear. Please believe me".

"This is useless. Thieves cannot be trusted with promises. Nobody else could have done it. None has the need to do it. Except you... except you. I know you did it. You better admit".

Sucharita couldn't take it anymore. "Sudip, I beg you. Please stop this", she said, tears running down her cheeks.

"I plead you, Sudip da. I swear I haven't done that". 

"Okay! I know you did it. But I don't intend to hurt people. I know you did it. I will forgive you. Will not take it to police. Only, walk out of the house this very moment and never come back. Go!"

Sucharita cursed herself why she had told Sudip about that necklace. She wept. But she realised there's little she could do to stop Sudip. After the deathly blow on his credibility, she felt it's better if Tanmoy left and went on his own. She was heartbroken, though. 

Tanmoy took his belongings, thanked Sudip with folded hands, bid a moist-eyed farewell to Sucharita and Naina and left the house. Sudip sported a faint smile of victory. Shortly after, Naina finished her errands and left for the day.

*********

At midnight, Sudip woke up. He noticed Sucharita sleeping. Quietly, he walked to the next room. He pulled on shawl, picked up his two bags and walked out of the house in silence. Thirty minutes later, he reached the railway station. "When is Guwahati-Trivandrum Express arriving?" he checked at enquiry counter. "In ten minutes", the attendant answered. 

The train approached slowly. Standing on the platform, Sudip pulled the necklace out of his purse, looked at it carefully and smiled, and put it back. He located the bogey, checked his name on the chart and stepped in. Two minutes later, the lady made the departure announcement of the train.

15 Apr 2011

The Eagle

Posted by Oblivion in Fiction | 8:51pm


The huge corridor was complete with massive pillars. It surrounded a spacious hall, that, ages ago, was witness to royal grandeur that few reigns could match. The splendour has died, the noise of dance has faded, and the palace stood weary, beleaguered by its own weight of forgotten history. Standing atop the hill, west of Sarnath, the palace echoed melancholic silence.

As they stepped out of the hall into the corridor, Banya clasped Amit's hand. She didn't say a word, but he knew she was concerned that it was getting dark. He looked into her eyes and smiled, and it meant assurance for her. Her heart sang and her step lightened. Amit put his arm about her shoulder and teased, "In light and in darkness, I am with thee, beloved; Do you care, then, where we go or where we don't". They stopped in their stroll. She smiled and embraced him. "You are my world, my love, my life; Wherever you take me, I shall walk in heaven", she whispered. 

"Isn't this the perfect moment! Far from the din of the world, holding you in my arms, looking at your smiling face, your hair caressing my face, your glances soothing my soul, your whispers making my heart throb... I see, hear and feel none but you... just you... only you, Banya!", Amit said in all tenderness. Briefly, they looked at each other. A moment that a soul in love feels has transcended time. "My mad poet!" Banya ran her fingers through his hair and beard and laughed. 

Anwar heard a faint sound of a woman's laughter. He stood up with a start and tried to feel where the sound had come from. It was from right side, he reckoned. He heard the sweet female voice tease, "You never keep your promise, do you! You have not given me your poems diary yet!". The sound became gradually more distinct. Anwar moved toward them with caution. He thought it's better to quickly walk toward the corner and hide. The male voice replied, "The poet himself is yours; What of frozen poetry!" 

"It must be him", Anwar thought. He hastened his walk, and slowly pulled out the gun from his pocket. Four more pillars and he would reach the corner. 

"Do you know it's full moon today?" Banya asked, her beautiful, loving eyes glancing him. "If that is so, we should watch it by the lake. It's stunning. You will love it. And I would love to watch you as you admire the moon", Amit replied fondly, pulling her closer as they crossed the penultimate pillar before the corner. 

Anwar's heart raced faster, as he heard the steps approaching the corner. He held the gun tighter and awaited impatiently. He reckoned they were barely three feet away.

As they turned left at the corner, Amit dreamed of Banya's face, shimmering in moonlight, tender as her touch. Anwar quickly took his stand, obstructing their tread. The sudden sight of a stranger startled Amit and Banya. A fretful Anwar was possessed with fear, and he didn't give it even a second to ensure it was indeed the person he wanted to kill. Gasping, he pointed the gun at Amit's forehead. Before Amit or Banya could react, Anwar pulled the trigger. Amit felt a jab on his forehead, a gush of blood, and a veil of dark quickly pulled on his dream, before his being could feel the shock completely. As his head hit the stone on the floor hard, the dream has faded into utter darkness.

Banya stood stunned in disblief. She looked at Amit, lying dead, and fell to the floor on her knees. Tears would rush in cascade. Anwar collected himself as he tried to check the face he had just shot. He observed carefully for a few moments. Banya looked on, as her eyes swelled with tears. Anwar realised his mistake. He seemed to speak to Banya, although he avoided looking at her. He still looked at Amit. "I am sorry. I thought it was Sid", he said and quickly walked away. 

Banya sat defeated and devastated. She held Amit's hand and sobbed. Inconsolably. She was so full of love for Amit that she felt no trace of anger for the stranger who shattered her world.

Not very far away, an eagle hovered above the lake, admiring the reflection of full moon.