Drown

Scene change. Dissolve. Cut to. Fade in.

The world crumbles around me. Walls are built, broken down, lamps shine and flicker in the light and darkness, people materialise, emotions surge and disappear. Things change in the blink of an eye. I do what I’m told. I enter doors, exit lives, all in a matter of a second.

Sometimes, I don’t like it. This person seems interesting. Why can’t I speak to him longer? But I wonder if he is being directed by the quill, too. What would he do without the quill? He seems nice enough.

Maybe I should say something. ‘Hello?’ The quill stops scratching furiously. I’m dumbstruck, I didn’t really expect it to stop. I splutter bits of un-dried ink from the page. I hadn’t thought this through.

The quill looms over me ominously. I try to say something quickly before it comes back down on me again. But I find I can’t speak. I have no words in my mouth. I have no words in my mind. I feel what I want to say, but I can’t find a way to say it.

Then it dawns on me. I can’t speak unless I have the words in me. The words that come from the quill, the words that it wants me to say. Words that I have no control over, actions that I cannot stop. I can feel what I am feeling. But I can say only what I am made do.

It all makes sense. But I still drown.

Going Home

There is no feeling like the countdown to going home.

‘Home.’ It’s a conflict-ridden word for me. Is it a place, a situation, a state-of-mind? When I am in Madras, I long to go back ‘home’, Mumbai. But I don’t really love Mumbai. Not in the way normal Mumbaikars do. I have all the qualities that can be found in a typical Mumbaikar – a crazy sense of punctuality, the do-or-die mentality, the ability to wriggle myself through any situation – pretty much like wriggling oneself through a quarter-inch space in the crowded ladies compartment in a local train. But I don’t feel ‘at home’ there. I can’t keep up with that pace, with that lifestyle. The rush always makes me feel something deep inside. ‘I want to go home’.

So, in that respect, Madras should be home, right? I love Madras. It has given me enough reasons and more to love it extra every day. The smell of medu-vadas on the road, the beach bajjis, the buses-that-take-you-anywhere-anytime, the theatre elite, the kutcheri season vayira mookuthi mamis, the Tam Brahm tamash’s and the Non-Brahm biriyanis. But no matter how much I love Madras, I don’t have a home here. Irrespective of whether I am at my grandparents’, my Amma-like dance teacher’s or at the awesome Jyashree’s, I still get that feeing. ‘I want to go home.’

All-in-all, one might conclude that I am, to put it mildly, homeless. Or perhaps going through a spiritual crisis.

However, someone then told me, ‘Pea. Home is where the heart is. -And if the heart is not sure, then where Amma-Appa are.’

It was so simple, I was surprised I hadn’t seen that earlier. Home is where Amma-Appa are. Where I can run into their warm hugs, where they can awkwardly push me away while I try to plant wet, sloppy kisses on them publicly, where we can fight about them unfairly usurping my room while I was away, where we can have long discussion about the future, the country, the universe and life – and then try to find logic behind my intense dislike for Okra. Home is where I can sleep at 3AM and not have a bath, not answer the door, not clean my cupboard, not look minty fresh all the time. Home is where I can be me – because Amma-Appa are the only people who will love me unconditionally in spite of that.

There is no feeling like the countdown to going home. I’m coming home, Amma-Appa. Leave your arms wide open.

Moving On

Everything comes to an end. The good, the bad, the ugly. Everything has a shelf life. Whether you like it or not. Friendships, relationships, love, life. Nothing can prepare you for it. It comes out of nowhere and hits you smack in the face – and leaves you feeling empty inside. Like a bit of yourself has gone away and left you with nothing but bits and pieces of a broken past. Trying to fix it only leaves your hands scratched and bleeding. But you still try. You try to pick them up, you try to put them together – like trying to make a whole of something that always missed a piece – only you never noticed it missing till you tried putting it together. You keep trying, not giving up. But there is that one point – you have to give up. You have got to stop.

But you know, new things come along. Just like the old things that end – they turn up when you least expect them. You are wiser now. You don’t expect, you don’t fantasise, you don’t try too hard. You let it be. Warily, doubtfully, you observe from a distance. The void gets filled slowly, but surely. You resist it – the feeling of wholeness has deceived you before. But it doesn’t stop. It forces its way in. It makes you complete. It makes you forget what you had lost, and remember what you have gained. It creates your new jigsaw puzzle. You put it together, like bits of your life.

Are you missing a piece here, too? Will you find out too late? Everything comes to an end.

Then you discover the answer. It is the memories. They are the missing piece – the piece that completes every relationship, everything that has ended – and will end. Put them in – the puzzle will be complete. Complete, for cherishing, but also for finally putting away. For moving on.

Running

What is it, that makes one want to run away so much? Is it fear, itchy feet or just simply boredom? Is it thirst for adventure, or search for solitude? Is it to dip your feet in a stream, or raft down the current?

It creeps up on you, this need to run away. Sometimes, as you are reading at a play. Sometimes, as your sitting on your windowsill, drinking coffee. Sometimes, even when you’re actually running. You can’t really explain it, it’s not like something is going dramatically wrong. You just want to run away. Where to? Maybe you’ll find out. Maybe you’ll be surprised, maybe you’ll realise it was there all along, maybe you’ll figure out you always knew. Maybe, you’ll understand, life has brought you full circle and you’re back where you started. It’s all about the timing. Always the timing.

‘All I want is a place somewhere’, it can even be the cold night air. For all I know, that’s what I am looking for.

Stories

‘Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.’ – Neil Gaiman


I don’t understand the world too well. No, forget the big things like war and violence and love and disagreements – not that they aren’t important. But I feel like I have never really even understood the world in its most mundane, everyday self. Why does it function like that? Like… clockwork. People are born, they die, empires are built, dynasties are wiped out. But the world still keeps moving on. We still drink our morning coffee, leave for work, come back, kiss our loving partners, sometimes for special occasions do special things and just keep moving on. When did it learn this resolve, this fortitude?

That’s why I write stories. So I can try and understand the world in ways that miss me when I look at it in passing. For in stories, I can break everything down into little bits. I can explore, explain, exploit every single doubt and feeling that I had in my mind from the day I began to understand that the world was not just through my eyes. It was through the eyes of the mechanic at the end of the street, and the woman knitting garlands at the roadside – even the multimillionaire reading a self help book in the toilet.

Stories create questions. Do you see something the same way I see them? Has your world given you a different perception of this? But we live in the same world, don’t we? Do we?

‘Fairy Tales are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated’. – G. K. Chesterton

Tightrope

She climbs the ladder, the crowd cheering her on with every step she takes higher. Her heart is pounding, she is sure everyone can hear it. She looks down, at the distance between her and the ground. It feels miles away. Something catches her eye. She looks closely. Its a white thread come loose from her sequinned leotard. It can barely be seen, but it nags her. Everything should be perfect. She tries to shrug it away. She’s too high up the ladder anyway. She’s getting tired, already. She knows that’s not a good sign. Getting to the top is just the beginning of the act.

She’s reached. She sees the long rope stretched taut across the wide circular theatre. The audience has finally quietened. She knows they are looking at her now, holding their breaths, waiting for her next move. She lifts her right leg, hovering over the tightrope for just a bit. She can feel the expectations of the people rise around her like an invisible cloud. She gently lowers her foot on to the rope, spreading her hands out like wings on either side, and lifts the other leg. She pretends to lose her balance, a carefully choreographed move designed to shock the spectators. She achieves her motive, a woman gasps loudly in the crowd. She smiles slightly, and continues moving. The thread is still fluttering, distracting her. She is annoyed. This isn’t alright. Not today.

She reaches the centre of the rope and stops. The spectators are distracted by now, looking at the acrobats cartwheeling in the air. She raises one foot, standing in a ballet pose. One child notices her and shouts out. Instantly, the attention is back on her. She can feel eyes boring into her. The acrobats have also stopped their antics, confused. This wasn’t part of the choreography. She gently bends her knees and jumps.

In an instant she is hurtling through the air at breakneck speed, the wind hitting her face and eyes, her hair billowing out behind her. She loves the feeling, the liberation that comes from the free fall. She thinks of all the times she had walked the tightrope in the past, focussing only on the rope, on the restriction placed on her, on the way that was laid out for her. How she used to wish that she would find a loose knot and fall through it, be free, if only for the few seconds that would take for her to hit the ground. The fluttering thread distracts her from her thoughts, and she reaches out to rip it out once and for all. She smiles as she breaks the thread, just as she hits the safety net, softly bouncing on its sturdy material. She knows she won’t be allowed to work at the circus anymore, they will say they cannot depend on her. But she doesn’t mind. In the free fall, she has discovered what it was that she had always wanted to be, explained her deep-seated urge to run away from everything and everyone, and found out what she really wanted. Liberation.

The Sacrifice

He took a long drag from the chillum. He could feel the euphoria rising in him as the marijuana coursed through his veins. But instead of clearing his head like it usually did, he just found himself getting more muddled. Something was nagging him, but he wasn’t sure what. He knew he was angry. He just couldn’t place the reason. It was something to do with her. Her, her father… That man was always the bone of contention between the two of them. He pushed aside the picture of his father in law irritably. Not the time to think of it. He took another drag.

“Shiva!”

The urgency in the voice made him sit up suddenly. He looked around, but the smoke made it difficult to see.

“Shiva!”, the voice called out, more urgently.

He waved his hands to clear up the smoke. Eventually, he could make out the figure of his best friend, Nandi. He had a look of utter terror on his face. Shiva felt a sense of deep foreboding.

He leapt to his feet. “Nandi! What happened? Tell me!”

Nandi looked down at his feet. He seemed to hesitate. Shiva went up to him, held him by his shoulders and shook him. “What is wrong Nandi? Weren’t you with…”

“Yes,” said Nandi. “I was. Shiva… Shiva, something terrible has happened.”

***

She was at a loss. She couldn’t believe this was happening. A ceremony at her father’s house, and her husband was not even invited? She was sure this was because her father did not approve of the match. She considered the situation. At any other time, she would not have thought twice. She was an independent woman. She never let anyone dictate her actions. The decision to marry Shiva was hers, and hers alone. She hadn’t listened to anything her father had to say. She agreed it was impulsive and wild, but Sati always did what her heart said.

The first time Sati ever saw Shiva, she knew it was him she would be with for the rest of her life. She would never forget that moment. He had been sitting outside the town temple, lost in his own world, laughing and teasing his friends. There was a calmness on his face, and litheness in his stance that signified gentleness. But the hard lines of his face, the ripple of muscle when he flexed his arms and strong hands spoke otherwise. That same moment he had turned and looked at her. In that millisecond of shared glance, they both saw their future.

But now, Sati was lost. What should she do? The future that they both had seen did not include all the troubles they would have to endure in order to be together. Today, her father had refused to even invite them for the annual family sacrifice. But in her heart, she knew she had to go. Ever since she had been born, she had attended the sacrifice to the Mother Goddess. She knew she couldn’t miss it.

But Shiva? He wouldn’t come. He wouldn’t care for it. What could she say?

***

Shiva strode towards the temple, his thoughts storming in his mind. He knew he shouldn’t have let her go. Why, why did she have to plead thus, making him give in? If he had refused, this would never have happened. He had only himself to blame.

Nandi followed, knowing and fearing what was to come. He knew Shiva’s bull-like temper. He could only hope that Shiva did not do something he would later regret. “Shiva…,” he said, searching for words to try and make things better. “Shiva, please calm down. Please. You know that this won’t help. Getting angry won’t bring her ba-…,” he trailed off as Shiva turned on him with bloodshot eyes. As he looked at him, Nandi could sense the heart-wrenching pain that his best friend was going through. He could feel his helplessness, his loneliness, his despair wash over himself. In that moment, Nandi rushed forward and hugged Shiva. He held his friend by his shoulders, and looked deep into his eyes. “I am sorry, my friend,” he said. “I stand by you.” Saying this, Nandi strode ahead of Shiva, leading the way.

***

She entered the room apprehensively, toying with the large coral ring on her finger. He seemed to be in a good mood and was just preparing a chillum for himself.

“Shiva…,” she began softly.

He turned and smiled. His smile slowly turned to a frown as he saw the worried look in her eyes. He set his chillum  down and strode towards her. Holding her hands, he gently kissed her forehead and asked, “What is it, love? What is making you so worried?”

Looking into those eyes that held so much love for her, Sati for a moment, thought of abandoning her plans. The moment was so idyllic. It was rare to see Shiva so relaxed. She knew what would happen if she brought up the topic, and she feared it. She lightly rested her head against his chest, mustering up courage for what she knew she had to say.

“Shiva,” she began slowly. “There is a pooja at my father’s place today. It’s a -” , “a family sacrifice that your ancestors have been performing through generations, I know,” Shiva interrupted. He laughed as she tried to wipe away the astonished look on her face. He cradled her face in his hands, and said, “It must be painful, I agree. I am sorry you have been deliberately left out of family functions because of your ragamuffin of a husband.” he laughed. “But it is alright. The two of us are enough for each other, aren’t we? You and I. We don’t need anyone else, least of all your grouchy father!” He smiled and kissed her softly on the lips. But Sati had frozen. She didn’t know what to say. Shiva sensed it, too. He drew back, a look of puzzlement clouding his face. He looked into her eyes, questioning her.

She took a deep breath. “I have to go, Shiva,” she said. “I… I want to go.” She could sense her words pierce him, his ego. He let go of her shoulders slowly and turned away. She wanted to reach out, tell him that he will always be more important than anything to her. But she knew it was not for her to say. It was for him to know himself.

“So,” he said, his back still turned to her, “you would choose your father over me, is it? Don’t justify,” he raised his hand to stop her from talking. “I don’t need your petty reasons. I refuse to go for this pooja. Will you go without me? How will you face your family, all the guests, your father, when you arrive there as an unwanted guest?”

“I am going for myself, Shiva,” said Sati. “I am not concerned with any of the guests, members of my family or my father. I have been part of this since the day I was born. My father did not invite us. But I am his daughter. I am family. So are you. We don’t need to be invited. It is our duty to go.”

Shiva turned around in rage, his eyes flashing, “Duty? What duty? What duty do you have towards a man who refuses to acknowledge your presence anymore? Even when he sees how much it hurts you?” Sati stepped back in fear, but did not avert her gaze. She knew she was right. He took a deep breath, walked to the window and spoke calmly. “Fine. If you want to go, go. But remember. If you go today, don’t think of coming back to me.”

She was shocked into silence. She began to speak, but something told her to stop. She had to go. She knew it. As she turned to leave, she looked back at him. “I have to do this. I love you, Shiva,” she said, and left.

***

He kicked open the massive gates to the sacrificial hall. It was chaos all around. People were running about, trying to escape the huge stones crumbling down upon them. He scanned the hall. He could see people he considered his friends hiding from the destruction taking place. He felt like walking up to them and shaking them, demanding from them a reason, any reason as to why they hadn’t stopped it. How they could have let it happen.

Then he saw. In the middle of all the confusion, in front of the Idol. A man sitting down on the ground, cradling a charred body. Shiva felt the life go out of his legs. He shook his head. No, this must be someone else. He searched for any clue that would confirm that this wasn’t who it was. The man shifted, and a hand dislodged from the wrist. A hand wearing a huge coral ring. He felt the world come to a halt. For a moment, time seemed to stop. He stood transfixed as the man holding Sati, his own daughter, turned around and looked into his eyes. And then it came crashing down upon Shiva.

He saw in his mind Sati, as she walked, petite and graceful, into the ancient temple, her hands clasped in devotion. He saw her bewildered eyes as she looked at her father when she was stopped by his guards. He saw his father-in-law dismiss her pleas to allow her to participate, telling her to go home to her ‘junkie’. He saw his wife’s eyes flash with anger, as she defended Shiva. He saw her question the sabha as the spectators remained mute. He saw her turn upon his friends, who had borne this slight to him without a word. He saw her walk towards the pyre resolutely, announcing to the audience that she was the cause for this dishonour to her husband, and that she wished she would be reborn to a man whom she could respect. And he saw her, as she stepped into the fire in front of hundreds of people – who did nothing to stop her – and immolated herself. For him.

He roared.

He rushed towards Daksha, tearing at his face with his bare hands. Daksha didn’t fight back. Listless and powerless, he allowed himself to be shaken about as a puppet, finally dying of his own accord in Shiva’s hands. But Shiva wasn’t done. He ran around like a bull, crushing everyone and everything that came his way. He teared down pillars, threw men out of his way, clawed their heads from their torsos. It was almost as though something had taken over him. As he ran past a group of young women, he heard them chant the Mother Goddess’s name. His blood boiled. This Goddess was the reason Sati had fought with him, her Shiva – and killed herself. She was the reason all that remained of Sati was a pile of bones and charred flesh. Sati had chosen Her over him. He turned towards the idol. He would destroy it, the temple – everything that was related to Her. He ran towards it, but as he neared it, he found himself looking at Sati’s lifeless body.

He stopped. He felt the rage leave him, leaving only an acute, throbbing pain in its wake. He crumpled to the floor in a heap. He looked at her charred face. He remembered the times he had teased her about bring dark, his own fairness being the only thing she envied him for. He brushed her long burnt hair off her face. He know how much she hated it when that happened. As he looked into her face, so peaceful in death, it finally hit him. He realised the intensity of all that had happened, and its consequences. He saw the futility of it all, that he could not reverse time, that Sati was truly dead and nothing would bring her back. She was gone. He began laughing silently. It was deafening in its silence. The laughter of a mad man, a man who had lost everything, whose life could no longer have any tragedy – for there was nothing he cared about anymore.

He laughed until the tears stopped. Then he gently lifted her up in his arms, and stood up. He sensed Nandi move towards him, and stopped him with a shake of his head. This was his burden to carry, his sin to pay for, his guilt to assuage. He began walking. Again, he heard Nandi follow him, asking him where he was going. He didn’t reply. He didn’t know himself. All he knew now, were his wife’s remains that he was holding. He looked down at her, smiled and walked out of the gates.

Why

Its odd how you think of the most life-changing things only when you are stuck in a crowded local train with no space to move or breathe – and there’s a man’s hand placed very inappropriately on your backside. No, there isn’t even enough space for you to kick him in the shins. You wonder if there is a purpose to life, to existence and to survival. Why exactly do we do what we do? Why do we put ourselves through so much trouble to study and work and earn? Why do we make ourselves labour through relationships that have the lifespan of a goldfish, and try and build up a social circle? Why do we work at, well, anything?

Then your stop comes and you get off, along with the sea of humanity that pours out of the tiny opening of that train, everybody moving away and moving on; working towards their own goals, their own dreams, their own needs. And, just like the awkward touch of the man’s hand fades away from memory, so do your thoughts. You walk ahead, planning for the rest of the day, responding to your relationships and social obligations, moving towards that unknown goal, bracing yourself for another day’s living. Or is it survival?

Forbidden

Lajo kept nodding off during the speech. She knew she shouldn’t. It was some sort of important event, apparently. She didn’t understand it fully though. She knew it had something to do with the new Independence thing Gandhiji had begun. He was a strange man, this Gandhi. From what she understood, he had been all over the world. England, South Africa, all these places she kept hearing about. But here he came to India, wearing but a loincloth and a shawl, a scrawny bag of bones.

The baby stirred in her arms and whimpered. It was feeding time. Lajo looked around. There was no way of getting out. People were sitting for miles on either side. Besides, getting up and leaving would be disrespectful. So she shushed the baby and gently rocked her in her arms. She smiled as the tiny hands searched through her pallo and jewellery and made their way to her earlobe. Lajo gently ran her hand through the soft brown curls, so similar to her father’s. She looked up and searched him out in the crowd. There he was, standing off to one side in the distance, looking smart in his uniform and holding a big rifle. She looked at his handsome features, his shining skin, those brilliant blue eyes with their piercing gaze, her pulse racing with the secret she knew only they shared. He turned abruptly and looked directly into her eyes, as though he had sensed her looking. She blushed furiously, but held his gaze defiantly. He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the side, and her heart melted.

Suddenly, a stone flew through the air and hit him on the forehead and he crumpled to the floor. She screamed, but her screams were lost in the instant fire his comrades opened fire against the crowd. The enraged crowd ran against the and began to assault them. She ran in the direction she had seen him, the baby rudely awakened and crying in her arms. It was mayhem. She saw people, friends, relatives falling and getting trampled all around her. But she didn’t stop. She kept running, screaming gibberish, for she didn’t know his name. She felt bodies and arms and legs under her feet, as she ran without a care for their lives – without a care for her own.

She reached him finally, writhing on the ground with blood streaming down his face. The baby was shrieking now, but she couldn’t hear any of it. She yelled, tried to get him to move. She began to pull at his clothes, his limbs, his face. But he was too weak to move. All of a sudden a hand grabbed her baby roughly from her arms and pulled her away. She looked up to see her husband’s face, red with fury. She struggled to get away from him and screamed at him to let her go. He dragged her away forcefully till he couldn’t listen to her anymore and turned around and slapped her so hard that she turned and fell.

‘Do you think you are some great freedom fighter, that you can kill these firang men with your bare hands? You are a mother! Get away from them!’

But she didn’t hear a word. She was looking at the eyes. The eyes that she had grown to respect. She eyes she had learnt to not fear. She eyes she had fallen in love with. She felt herself being picked up and pulled away. But she didn’t resist. She thought of their clandestine meetings when her husband was in the fields, or away at some protest – meetings that were all the more exciting because they were forbidden. She thought of their long, one-sided conversations while neither understood the other. She thought of the first time she knew she had fallen in love. The eyes were lifeless now. Staring at her, staring through her. The eyes of the stranger, who was her lover.

Write

Staring at the screen, the speakers blaring A R Rahman music. Faint strains of home. Soft voices of neighbours floating up through the windows. Clutter of roommate cooking busily in the kitchen. Words float around head.

Type furiously for a while. Stop. Look. Cringe. Backspace-backspace-backspace. GAH. Frustration! Am I a bad writer?!

Favourite childhood song plays. Smile. Think of days past. Holding on to Ma’s pallu and hiding from people shyly. Perched on the bed, looking at Pa getting ready for work. Dancing to my song, this very song, for everyone. The only confident, preening time. Running away again and hiding from compliments. Smiling softly to self.

Renewed vigour. No one is watching. I can do this. Start typing again. The beats are running out. Quick, before the song ends! Finish with a flourish. Sit back with sigh. Wide grin. Read.

Grimace again. Never perfect, hardly good. Well. That is that.