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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Short Story: Question Hour


This month's prompt for the short story writing challenge was "Cut the strings." I thought and thought of different ideas (involving strings) to weave into a story - a veena vidwan, or a young adult cutting free from the apron strings of his mother, or a tennis player, or even an athlete suffering a hamstring injury! Somehow, nothing seemed quite right and waiting for the muse to show up, time sped by and suddenly, today, the 4th of October was the day to submit the story that I hadn't yet written.

Desperate, my mind cast about for ideas and seemingly out of nowhere, came the inspiration for this story. Wait...I can't actually say out of nowhere....read to the end of the story, and you'll realize - like I just did - where the inspiration came from 😇😇


                     **************************

An expectant hush settled over the crowd as Shivu Bhat walked into the temple. The minute he threw open the doors to the sanctum sanctorum, the temple bells pealed and the ceremonial drums struck up the traditional beat. After hours of waiting, hundreds of thirsty eyes feasted on the divine sight of the Goddess Renukamba. 



Decked in a bright red sari, adorned with ornaments of gold and precious stones, covered with layers of garlands of yellow and orange marigold flowers, She waited patiently to receive the worship, and fulfill the prayers of Her devotees.

Shivu, the young temple priest, got busy reciting the mantras and swinging the lamps as he performed the rituals. The devotees watched silently, muttering their own prayers and mentally beseeching the goddess to grant this or that wish.

Finally, it was time for the special rite that drew people from villages far and near. Question Hour with the Goddess. Anyone who wanted Renukamba’s guidance stood in front of Her and mentally asked if a particular course of action should be undertaken or not. It was believed that She would answer by causing one of the garlands draped across the idol, to fall. Her wish would cut the strings holding the garland, causing it to fall. If the garland dropped down on the left side, the answer was taken as a “no” and if it fell on the right, the answer was considered a “yes.”

Shivu had been performing this particular rite since the past few years as part of his priestly duties, although he didn’t really have a strong belief in it. An educated young man, he had initially been dubious, arguing with the senior priest saying, “How do you know it’s Renukamba speaking? If the garland had not been secured firmly on one side, it’s bound to fall from there. Or maybe the string is weak at one point and that’s where it snaps. ”

The senior priest had refused to be drawn into the argument, merely saying, “I don’t know all these things, Shivu. It’s the faith of the people, and Renukamba responds. So far, I have never heard anyone complaining that Her decision brought them trouble.”

After the senior priest had quit, the rite had become part of Shivu’s duties and he went about it like any other part of the worship. Today though, he was a little apprehensive. The young Aaryaa was going to be participating, wanting to know if she should take up the job offer she had received at an office in the nearby town. Over the past few months, Shivu and Aaryaa had grown into good friends and given time, the relationship was likely to flower into something deeper.

Shivu had already told Aaryaa that she should take the offer. But Aaryaa was not so sure, and wanted to ask Renukamba. It hurt Shivu to think that an otherwise intelligent girl would trust the supernatural over an educated human’s opinion. He’d tossed and turned in bed the previous night, hoping the answer would turn out to be a yes for Aaryaa’s sake, stubbornly ignoring the sadness that gripped him to think of life in her absence. How he wished he could hold her in his arms and transmit his confidence to her, and calm her fears!

Now, standing in front of Renukamba, scanning the crowd to locate Aaryaa, Shivu sighed. Momentarily distracted from his priestly duties, he wished he could gather up the courage to ask her how she felt about him.

By late evening, the festivities were over and the crowds were gone. Aaryaa hadn’t turned up to ask her question. Shivu was alone in the temple, putting things in order and clearing up. He looked towards Renukamba, and the few garlands that still hung across Her, and She seemed to be smiling at him.

On an impulse, Shivu went and stood in front of Renukamba, closed his eyes, put his palms together in prayer, and said, “Ma Renukamba, I have served you diligently and think of you as my Mother. You know what my feelings are about this question-and-answer thing. But now, I really don’t know what to do and am asking for Your help. Should I tell Aaryaa about how much I love her and how I want to spend the rest of my life with her?”

“Oh, Mr. Temple Priest, asking our own private questions to Ma Renukamba, are we?” A sweet voice, followed by a mocking laugh, broke into his reverie.

Shivu turned to find Aaryaa smiling playfully. Blushing, he averted his eyes and moved away, wondering when she had entered.

“Why didn’t you come for your answer?” he asked.

“I thought about your advice and decided you were right. There’s no harm in giving the job a try.”

As Aaryaa continued looking at Renukamba, there was a sudden movement. With awe in her voice, she said, “A garland just fell on the right side. Whatever the question you just asked, the answer is a yes. Or wait…was that an answer to my saying I will take the job?”

Shivu stood transfixed. For a while, he didn’t know what to say or do. Then, slowly, he turned and walked to stand in front of Aaryaa. Looking deep into her eyes, he said, “There’s something I want to tell you….”

“I know…..and I feel the same….”

“But….how could you know what it is? I haven’t said anything yet…”

“You were asking your question loudly to Renukamba, Mr. Temple Priest! That’s how I know.”

“Oh, Renukamba…. ….Aaryaa, are you sure? Do you really feel that way? And …and…what about your job? And...your parents…what will they say?”

“Don’t you think you’re burdening Renukamba with too many questions?” Aaryaa teased.

Had anyone looked into the sanctum sanctorum then, it would have seemed like Renukamba was smiling with the satisfaction of a mother who’s found the perfect match for her child……


Friday, 22 September 2017

Unleashing the Goddess Within

A friend sent me a set of pictures on the theme of Modern Goddesses. The pictures are created by Penguin India (I assumed from the logo, and later confirmed it from their Facebook page). I sent it to another friend and we swapped thoughts on how we felt some of them were based on a shaky premise. One thing led to another, and so, Tilottama and I thought we’d come up with our own version of captions for each of the Goddesses in the picture series. This post is what we came up with. 

The intent is not to deride what Penguin did; rather it is to go a little deeper into the essence of these Powerful Women/Goddesses. Read our captions carefully, and you'll find the facet to which they connect.

We’ve kept the basic image the same and are acknowledging that they are the creation of Penguin India; the new wordings are our own.

Praying that Devi Mata bless and protect us all ….and specifically protect me and my friend from charges of plagiarism and perhaps, even, “Sanghism”!😉

 







































































































































































































































WISHING EVERYONE A HAPPY NAVARATRI !

या देवी सर्वभुतेषु शक्तिरूपेण संस्थिता । 
नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमो नमः
To that Devi Who in All Beings is Abiding in the Form of Power,
Salutations to HerSalutations to HerSalutations to HerSalutations again and again.


- Tilottama and Anusuya








Saturday, 16 September 2017

Crisis and Character

Crisis can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere. You can never anticipate it and that’s the reason why your reaction to it is an instinctive one. Some people think that crisis can serve to build character and maybe it’s true, but that happens much, much later, after the crisis has passed, and only if one is inclined to learn by introspection and insight. At the moment when catastrophe strikes, you can only exhibit the character ingrained in you. 

Seen someone panicking when things go wrong? That person is likely to be of an anxious temperament. The people who stay calm when disaster strikes? They’ve probably spent a lifetime cultivating that composure. And while it is true that moments of crisis can cause one to find unknown reserves of strength, it is extremely rare for ordinary people to be moved to superhuman efforts to save more than their own skin. 


Imagine you were in a remote place out in the wilderness.

You get bitten by a venomous snake and need immediate treatment to survive - Crisis 1

An ambulance comes to evacuate you to a medical center. Your ambulance meets with an accident - Crisis 2

One nursing assistant dies; another is badly injured and the Medical Officer, who was supposed to take of you, is caught in the wreckage and himself in need of medical aid - Crisis 3

What would you do?

We may have different responses to this, based on the kind of character we’ve cultivated throughout our life.

But for someone who’s been educated and trained in the Indian Army under the motto of “Service Before Self” and attached to a unit (Rashtriya Rifles) that is driven by the spirit of “Dridhta Aur Virta” (Determination and Courage), the answer to that question would be a no-brainer. Despite probably realizing that his course of action would leave no chance of a happy ending.

Naik Vijaya Kumar S. was awarded the Sena Medal (Gallantry) posthumously.



Take a look at the citation in this picture. Notice that “beyond the call of duty”? Let's imprint that on our minds. Every time we find a petty thought cropping up in our mind, telling us, “But that’s not my job,” let us remember that there are so many people helping make life easier for us without our even being aware of it. Let us allow this realization to guide our actions so that if and when some crisis strikes, we’re ready with the character required to face it.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Spirit of Sacrifice


She sank into the seat with a sigh, leaning her head back and closing her eyes, seeking respite from the exhaustion of the past few days, as she waited for the bus to leave. After what seemed like ages it was finally Friday evening, and time to go home. Time to revel in her mother’s cooking and sisters’ excited patter and the complete “at-home” feeling that only someone who lives in a hostel during the week, can truly appreciate.


The rocking movement of the bus must have lulled her into a light doze, for she was startled awake a little later when someone standing in the aisle suddenly lurched into her. Looking up, she found it was an elderly woman who was finding it difficult to stay balanced as the bus driver blustered through the sharp turns of road.

The young girl was very tired and reluctant to spend the rest of her 30-minute journey standing. Yet, something within pushed her to stand up and offer her seat to the senior citizen. By the time she reached home, the girl was even more tired in body, but felt a tiny glow deep within, that perked up her spirits.

Later that night, she narrated this incident to her older sister, and in conclusion said, “I was feeling so tired myself and yet, I made a sacrifice for the sake of that old lady.” As she basked in the glory of her selfless action, the older sister told her something. A bit of advice that she found deflating at first, but, which, in hindsight, turned out to be one of the most valuable lamp posts, guiding her throughout life.

Even today, I remember my older sister telling me:

“If, doing something to help someone else gives you a sense of superiority because you’ve made a sacrifice, it is better you don’t make that sacrifice for it will lead you to become egoistic and that kind of an ego is the worst thing you can possibly have.”

In her own way, my sister had cautioned me against falling into the trap of what is one form of “saatvik ego” – the feeling of pride and superiority one gets from being good or doing good. After having used that advice since the past few years as a lifeline to try and stay humble, today I’m able to fully appreciate the wisdom of her words.

The realization has also dawned that whatever one does must flow naturally, as the very nature of one’s being, not as an effortful action done by keeping a probable future outcome as the goal to be achieved. 


I was reminded of this message yet again today evening. I walked into the garden outside our home and found two Brahmakamalams in full bloom. Emerging on graceful stems from the succulent leaves of the plant in a small pot placed in the corner of the compound wall, the blooms stood resplendent and beguiling with their faint fragrance.


Unconcerned by whether someone saw them or not, they dangled silently. Unfazed by the hectic activity of people and vehicles moving on the adjoining road. Simply being what nature had intended them to be. And, by their very presence, giving bliss and peace to anyone who happened to look at them. 



Friday, 1 September 2017

One Challenge Too Many


“Amma, I’m going to take the Blue Whale Challenge!”

I step out of the kitchen and search my son’s face for the emotion that accompanies this announcement. He’s at that stage where he says things for the sole purpose of getting a rise out of me. But I know his tricks and it’s a battle of wits between us, so I’ve developed my own intelligence-gathering mechanisms. A glint in the eyes is a dead giveaway, as is the impish laugh tugging at the corners of the mouth, waiting to find relief in the guffaw that ensues when I take the bait.

So, I respond to his statement with a mere smiling, “Hmmn…why do you want to do it?”

Deprived of prey, and yet, still trying to turn the exchange into a joke on me, pat comes the reply, “I mean, not all of it…just the part about waking up at 4.20 am.”

Now, it’s my turn to score. “Why do you need the Blue Whale Challenge for that? You could always come up with your own thing – maybe call it the ‘Brahmi Muhurtam’ Challenge, even!”

“And do what after that?”

“Oh, I’ll help you with suggestions. Let’s say, tasks like – 

  • Complete 108 Gayatri japams every day, 
  • Do trikaala sandhyaavandanam without fail every day, 
  • Learn the Bhagavad Geeta by heart, 
  • Watch the programs on TTD’s Sri Venkateshwara Bhakti Channel for 2 hours, 
  • Listen to Velukudi Krishnan’s upanyaasams, 
  • Read the Ramayana and Mahabharata………” 

He’s quiet, and I wonder why there’s none of the usual “No way” response. Perhaps, he’s learned too well from me not to take the bait? 😉

“And what will be the last task at the end?”

“Maybe you can go somewhere,” I say unthinkingly. Immediately, I pray, that in keeping with the spirit of the topic, he won’t come up with a quip like, “Yeah, somewhere like Vaikuntha.”

Quickly, I continue, “Maybe you can go to the Lord Ranganathar temple at Srirangam and post a selfie from outside near the gopuram?”

“Oh no….I can’t do that!”

“Why?”

“Because 50 days from now, I’ll be having my exams…how can I go to Srirangam in the middle of that?”

He doesn’t know it, but inside, I’m smiling. I thought he would refuse doing it saying those tasks are too boring or difficult but the reason he comes up with says he may not be averse to doing at least a teeny-weeny part out of some of them. Not bad at all for someone at the volatile age of 15, I think. Or, knowing the guy, maybe he knows an answer like this that leads me to such a conclusion will make me happy, and he’s playing me. 😐

Whatever the answer to that, I’m hopeful of one thing – that the communication channel we have going between us will preclude the need for him to take recourse to such horrendous ‘challenges’.

But then, I remember something he told me just one day before this discussion. A couple of guys he knows have actually downloaded the game out of curiosity and been doing the initial few tasks. When it came to the self-harming ones, they decided to quit and delete the app. On doing that, one of them received a few calls from the ‘curator’ of the game, asking why he quit. The boy has reportedly told that chap that he will file a police complaint and then, the calls have stopped.

I ask my son if these guys who tried the game, are in some kind of bad situation or depressed. He says no, they were just experimenting, because they were curious to see what the hullaballoo is all about.

And this is where I’m annoyed at the way the press chose to sensationalize the whole issue, without paying heed to the guidelines they’re supposed to follow when reporting about suicides and mental health issues. Tanmoy Goswami explains the nitty gritty of it beautifully in this post on The Health Collective and I strongly recommend you read what he’s written here.

http://www.healthcollective.in/entries/reporters-diary/media-watch-portrayal-of-mental-illness-and-suicide

I’m pretty sure many of you have received and forwarded the message that circulated on WhatsApp as a warning against the Blue Whale Challenge. However, as we all know, it’s not enough to merely point out a problem; it’s equally, if not more, important to provide a possible solution or at least an alternative.

Which is why, now, I propose a challenge for you, the ones reading this blog post. An online counseling platform, YourDOST has come up with a Yellow Dolphin Challenge to help our youngsters take control of their lives. Are you up to the challenge of making the news of this positive alternative go viral, at least in your circle of family and friends and colleagues? Just click this link 
to share on social media.

http://yourdost.com/blog/2017/08/the-yellow-dolphin-challenge.html?q=/blog/2017/08/the-yellow-dolphin-challenge.html&q=/blog/2017/08/the-yellow-dolphin-challenge.html&
 And, may I also add, don’t be content with being a mere armchair do-gooder. Whenever you find the topic coming up in real-world face-to-face conversation, make sure you tell everyone about the Yellow Dolphin Challenge, then too! Even if the topic doesn't come up, go ahead and tell people about this.

Just as I was writing this post, I clicked on a friend’s ‘status’ on WhatsApp and found this image. It resonated with me because of the conversation with my son. 



For those of you who don’t get Tamil, “Vel” refers to the spear associated with Lord Karthikeya, also known as “Saravana” because He is believed to have been born amongst the reeds. 

Kudos to whoever came up with this idea of a “Blue Vel” challenge! Whether people take to it or not, it serves, at the very least, as a reminder, that when all else fails, He, the Supreme Lord, is always there to give us strength and succour!!




































Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Random thoughts on Independence Day

On 14th August 2017, at the stroke of midnight, while the world slept, I awoke … not to freedom, but to being captive to the sounds of construction activity in the plot behind my house. Preparations were on in full swing for the morrow’s important program – the inauguration of an eatery to be run in the name of the daughter of the man who gave us the famous ‘freedom at midnight’ speech. 

This morning I got up at night, 4 o’clock in the morning (like the same guy’s great-grandson once hilariously said) to find that the din of the construction activity had miraculously stopped. Perhaps the contractor in-charge decided that the Indira Canteen was as ready as could be. Or maybe the downpour by the whimsical rain gods had forced them to take cover. 


A few hours later, as I walked to college, a neighbor told me the inauguration was to happen tomorrow – on the 16th of August. Someone else says that there are rumors Rahul Gandhi will be coming to grace the occasion. Whether that really happens is yet to be seen but all the common man is bothered about right now is to see if the Canteen lives up to its promise of wholesome, tasty food with breakfast at Rs 5 and lunch at Rs 10. Freedom from hunger and freedom from high price of food is what matters the most.


Listening to the Hon. Prime Minister’s address to the nation on TV, it sounded to me like this time, he stepped up the pace of his speech. Maybe when you have so much to convey, and so little time to do it in, and so much more yet to be accomplished, you tend to talk faster so that you manage to cover it all.

At college, as we stood silently at attention while the management office-bearers hoisted the flag, I couldn’t help but notice the sound of the ‘Suprabhatam’ (made immortal by M S Subbulakshmi) playing in the background. No, it wasn’t someone’s cell-phone ringtone. Rather, the sound emanated from the small Ganesha temple on-campus that is fitted with a sound system that plays the Suprabhatam on loop in the mornings. No one had noticed to switch it off or lower the volume today and so it was that the exuberant tones of the National Anthem mingled with the strains of the prayer to Lord Venkateshwara, proclaiming Him as the Saviour of us all. Given the state of our social media debates today regarding singing the National Anthem and the National Song, that sentiment is probably going to be strong in many of our minds.


A cloudy sky and inclement weather tends to make people want to get on faster with things. The school band stepped up its pace and march, the NCC parade put up far fewer formations on display and people quickly headed into the auditorium for the cultural program to follow. 



During the NCC parade, I observed a woman filming the entire event from the first floor. She didn’t appear to be one of the college staff. I caught myself wondering what she would do with it later…and in general, thinking about what people do with these videos they create. Do they put it up on social media? What will be the significance of it for people removed from the incident? Later, as I walked out of the college, I got something of an answer. I noticed this same woman and a much older woman posing with the leader of the NCC unit and judging from their interaction, they were likely to be his mother and grandmother respectively. So much for my mental acrobatics – it taught me there is often more to things than what meets our eyes.

A little while after reaching home, my son came home from his school flag-hoisting ceremony. His march past performance had gone on well, and he’d done justice to his speech about Independence Day – in Sanskrit. Some time later, I got a message from his Sanskrit teacher saying the speech was really good and everyone liked it. Quite a memorable way to celebrate your last Independence Day in school.

From being held in your mother’s arms as she attended flag-hoisting to being on your way out of school yourself, that's 15 Independence Days !




And even as I finished writing this blog, I chanced on this picture of Indians in flood-hit Assam celebrating Independence Day and it quite brought tears to my eyes. When a land is loved so much, there is nothing that can stop Her from progressing !!

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Gada - The Club

The prompt for this month's short story was "The Club" and we were given a word limit of 750 words. I toyed with different ideas for the story - I thought of things that the word "club" bring to mind - a hobby class, a group of friends with a common interest, an event set in a bar and even an out-of-work writer starting a club to write life stories for people who're down and out. Nothing seemed to click, although the last of those ideas is something I definitely want to consider more seriously some other time. 

Finally, I tried some lateral thinking to come up with other contexts where the word "club" is used and almost at once, the Mace or Gada - the favoured weapon of Hanuman came to mind. Then followed a Wikipedia search to confirm that contextually, the mace is indeed a type of club so that my story would fit the writing prompt. Satisfied with what I found, I sat down to write and the result that flowed is this short story. Happy reading ! As usual, comments and feedback are most welcome 😄


Ravi ambled along the pathway that led up to the door of his new house. He still couldn’t bring himself to think of it as ‘home.’ Home meant a place where he had stayed with his parents. But Ma and Baba were no more – they had been killed in a horrible road accident. Chachu, Baba’s younger brother, had brought Ravi to this house to be cared for by Dadi.

Old she may be, his grandmother, but Dadi had a sharp eye. Which is why Ravi pulled down the sleeves of his shirt to cover the bruise that was building on his left upper arm. That big bully in class had cornered Ravi in the playground, grabbing him, trying to have some cheap fun at the new kid’s expense. Thank God the school was closed for the next week, so he wouldn’t have to face the brute very soon, thought Ravi.

“Oh, you’re home, Ravi? How was school today?”

“Yes, Dadi..it was…okay….Seema Ma’am gave me a ‘star’ for my drawing of a kite.”

“Wah! That’s great, Ravi! Your Baba used to draw very well, too.”

“Where’s Chachu?”

“He must be at the akhada, where else?”

Ravi dropped his school bag in a corner of the room, changed out of his uniform and ran from the house, calling out to Dadi, “I’m going to see Chachu and I’ll come back with him.”

The akhada was the local gymnasium where the wrestlers trained. Chachu was one of the most respected wrestlers around town and was now training a new batch of students. Ravi entered the akhada and watched all the activities with wide-eyed wonder. 



The young men first prostrated in front of an idol of Lord Hanuman, who wielded a club in his hand, called ‘Gada’ in Hindi. He was considered the champion god of all wrestlers, worshipped for His strength and wisdom. Later, the trainees went through their exercise and wrestling routine, sparring with each other under the watchful eyes of Chachu.

“Did you finish your homework, Ravi?” called out Chachu.

“No, I’ll do it later. Chachu, why do your students do some exercises with the Gada?”

“It helps to strengthen the muscles of the back and chest, Ravi, and also makes the arms more flexible.” Chachu winked and said, “Some of them also think Hanumanji’s strength flows into them when they practice with the Gada.”

“Will you please teach me to wrestle, Chachu?”

“Hey, you’re still too young, Ravi. Now is the time you must be studying, not wrestling.”

“But I too want to be strong like Hanumanji and fight bad people,” whispered Ravi, unconsciously fingering his left arm.

Chachu noticed the gesture and frowned, as he caught a glimpse of the bruise before Ravi tugged his sleeve down.

“Okay, Ravi, let’s do this…I have a small Gada. When I was your age, I pestered my father to teach me wrestling and he kept on refusing. Your Baba bought this Gada to cheer me up and I played with it for many years until I started wrestling. You can use it …come, I’ll teach you now.”

A little later, Chachu left Ravi to practise his moves but not before warning him, “Remember, Ravi….the Gada is only for your exercise. You must never use it on any person, alright?”

From that day onwards, Ravi spent a few hours every day at the akhada, exercising with his Gada. Being a smart boy, he also tried some of the other simple wrestling moves he’d seen the students perform.

The day school reopened, Ravi waved goodbye to Chachu and Dadi and walked slowly under the weight of his bag. Around late afternoon, one of the wrestling students burst into the akhada, yelling for Chachu to hurry to the school playground. A strange scene met their eyes when they reached there.

A heavily built boy with a menacing look was advancing on Ravi who was bent over his bag in a prayerful stance. “Look out, Ravi,” screamed Chachu when he saw the boy begin moving his arm to throw a punch. With a deft movement, Ravi stepped to his left even as he nimbly struck out his right foot, tripping the big boy and sending him careening down. Dazed, the bully slowly picked himself up and walked away, red-faced.

As they walked home together, Chachu threw a questioning glance at the bulge in Ravi’s bag. Ravi smiled at his uncle. “Your students are right, Chachu. Hanumanji’s strength does flow through those who practise with the Gada.”

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Short Story: Facing Reality


A few months ago, finding myself overwhelmed by the onslaught of (often unnecessary) information, I quit a few groups on WhatsApp. I stayed back on just two family groups and two friends' groups and my Pharmacy College friends' group. Now, this last one is quite silent most of the time - probably because none of us have the inclination to send out run-of-the-mill inane forwards. Conversations are generally triggered when someone remembers some old snippet of the good old college days.


Last week, a friend posted two images on our College WhatsApp group. Both were of compositions of two budding poets that had been published in the College Magazine. One - a beautiful, imaginative play of words on emotions captured through imagery of the desert sands was written by the better poet, my friend Parimala. The other one, more analytical and thought-out, with a dash of crazy rather than creative, was written by - who else - yours truly 😉

I have absolutely zero memory of having written this poem, so it came as a nice surprise. And seeing the theme on which it is based was quite a shock - especially to think that even 20 years ago, I was interested in the machinations of the minds hovering over the fine line that separates balance from imbalance.

This week, I was due to post a 1200-word short story to my story-writing group. The prompt given to us was "Coming Undone." So, having received that old poem turned out to be a serendipitous event, because I could now weave it into the story's narrative. Here's the story as it finally turned out.

FACING REALITY

Smita bit hard on the end of her pencil, and fixed her gaze on some vague point near the bougainvillea tree. She had seen people doing that when trying to concentrate, as if the mere act of looking pointedly at something would provide an answer.

Smita was due to meet Dr. Asha in an hour. But her poem wasn’t ready yet because her mind refused to cooperate. Of course, she could string together a few sentences with the last words rhyming and technically, it would be poetry. And anyway, Dr. Asha never criticized her, so it was okay. Yet, Smita wanted to try and give expression to at least some of the thoughts that felt so beautiful when they moved around her head.

Smita gave herself a small shake and settled into a more comfortable position on the garden bench. “Start small,” she heard Dr. Asha’s voice encourage, and she wrote:

Some things ought to be

And others not to be

But the latter often are,

And that’s reality….

The next moment, she flinched. She sensed someone beside her and looked up. Nurse Jenila was there, pointing at her watch, and Smita stood and followed her into the building and into Dr. Asha’s room.

“Good morning, Dr. Asha.”

“Good morning, Smita. Sit down. So, how are you today?”

“I’m okay. But I couldn’t finish the poem,” Smita clutched her notebook protectively.

“That’s alright. Do you want to show me what you’ve written so far?”

Smita extended her book slowly and was relieved to see Dr. Asha smile and say, “This is quite a good beginning. I’m eager to see what comes next. So, you’re going home tomorrow….”

Smita nodded cautiously. She was happy to be finally going home after 3 months at the Nirmala Psychosocial Rehab Center. But she was also worried about what would happen next. Dr. Asha seemed to sense her anxiety, and they spoke for a while, going over the dos and don’ts they had already discussed during the past few sessions.

The next day, Smita’s father drove her home where her mother was hovering anxiously by the door. New clothes, half spilling out of their boxes, were scattered all over the sofa, and Smita turned questioningly to her mother.

“Oh, Rupa bought those things yesterday. W-We thought, err, that w-we’d wait to t-tell you…you know after you got s-settled in at home, because, you know…err..we didn’t want to …”

“Rupa is getting engaged to Varun. The ceremony is tomorrow,” her father cut into her mother’s blather.

Smita felt something like a dull ache begin to form at the base of her neck. Her kid sister was getting engaged. In 24 hours time. To Varun. He had been her friend, not Rupa’s.

“Breathe deeply. We are going to take things one step at a time,” Smita heard Dr. Asha’s calm voice say.

Smita was arranging her medicines in the wardrobe when Rupa walked in.

“Congratulations, Rupa.”

“Thank you. And .. sorry. For not telling you before. And also, you know, j-j-jumping the queue…..the thing is, Varun is a nice guy…..and Mum and Dad felt we shouldn’t lose this alliance…. so…so…we agreed without waiting for you …please, Smita, please don’t be mad at me.”

Smita stared at a point outside the bedroom window. “Think calmly,” said Dr. Asha’s voice, again. So, despite the ache growing stronger, she said aloud, “I know, Rupa….it’s okay. A nice guy’s parents came looking for a bride….I was out of the picture…so Mum and Dad did what any sensible parents with 2 daughters would do.”

There was a lot of work to be done. Smita found her parents and sisters getting busy deciding who was to sit where, what articles were to be arranged for the rituals and making a few last minute calls to invite people to attend the ceremony. Smita tried to follow the different trains of conversation, but it felt like peering through a fog. No one asked her to help; when she tried to tidy up the sofa, Rupa made a gesture as if to say, “Leave it there.” Her mother kept looking anxiously in her direction now and then, and every few minutes, her father kept telling her, “Smita, go to your room and rest. We’ll manage everything.”

Not knowing what else to do, Smita went and lay on her bed, drifting off into a deep sleep. When she woke a few hours later, all was quiet. She walked to the kitchen, but it looked like there was no lunch prepared. She rummaged in the cabinets, found a few biscuits, and munching on them, got out her notebook and pencil, and continued her unfinished poem:

None will remember with clarity,

For being insane is no longer a rarity.

You have become a non-entity…

The next morning, Smita woke to the sounds of a busy household. Her mother peeped in to ask her to get dressed quickly as it was almost time for the bridegroom and other guests to arrive. Fumbling through her wardrobe, Smita finally found something that fit her satisfactorily. Looking into the mirror, she found a haggard face staring back, with eyes too large for her face.

When she joined everyone in the hall, the place was filled with the groom’s family and other guests. They were all busy with the rituals, talking and laughing and even gossiping happily. Smita tried to talk to her uncles, aunts and cousins, but they all were very busy, and walked away after just a brief greeting. At one point, it looked like Varun was pointing at her and asking something, but her mother steered him away in another direction.

Smita felt the dull ache in her head coming on again. She went to the kitchen and one of the catering staff assumed she wanted breakfast. She carried her plate out into the garden and sat in the shade of her favorite tree, pecking at the food. She looked hard at the bougainvillea tree in the distance. She tried to recollect where she had left off her poem and tried to fit in words to frame the next verse.

——————————————————————————–

Smita felt a hand on her shoulder and flinched. Nurse Jenila was there, pointing at her watch, and Smita stood and followed her into the building. Dr. Asha was looking at her with concern, and asking, “How are you feeling, Smita?”

“Much better, actually. Maybe it’s because I managed to complete the poem. You want to see it?”

“Show me.”

COMING UNDONE

Some things ought to be

And others not to be

But the latter often are,

And that’s reality….

Can’t face it?

Retreat into insanity;

For:

Being insane is no longer a rarity.

None will remember you with clarity,

For :

You have become a non-entity

Brooding upon the captivity

Forced upon the mind by activity,

That, alas, follows necessity….

Farewell, ambiguity !

Welcome insanity !

Dr. Asha smiled. “Nice work, Smita. Just wait here, okay? I’ll be back in a minute.”

As she stepped out, three people looked up at Dr. Asha, waiting for the verdict. The next moment, six eyes shone with unshed tears, for, the sideways shake of her head had told them all they wanted to know.

                    ------------ The End -----------------

If you've savoured the story and figured out what I set out to convey, this is where you stop reading this post. 

But just in case I've left you a little confused, maybe this well-worded comment from one of my writer friends will help you understand exactly what I was trying to get across...

"...
Smita came across as someone quite lost and yet not somehow; their world is different from ours but it’s valid nevertheless."

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Tumbl(er)ing Into Insights


There’s something about tumblers that gets to me.

Now, I’m not talking of the people who use the microblogging and social networking site called Tumblr – and I don’t think they are called tumblers, anyway. Nor am I speaking of the sportspersons who participate in a specific form of gymnastics called Tumbling. My post has nothing to do with locks or a particular breed of pigeon either. This preamble is, of course, just to show how thoroughly I research any term before using it.

When I say tumbler, I’m talking of the humble steel glass that has (until recently, maybe) been the staple container used to dispense water, milk, tea or coffee in most Indian homes (at least definitely in those located south of the Vindhyas). Of course, thanks to liberalization and globalization, these same homes are nowadays equally likely to sport a variety of glass and porcelain containers that are deemed more befitting of one’s social status than the lowly tumbler.

Coming back to the thrust of this post, there’s something about tumblers that gets to me. Especially the sight of unwashed ones strewn around by people who can’t be bothered enough to rinse them out.

This tryst probably began at the time of the wedding of one of my sisters. It was held in our native village which, while rich in ritualistic knowhow, was quite backward when it came to resources. Besides, the now ubiquitous plastic glasses had not made an appearance 24 years ago.

As anyone of the TamBrahm community will tell you, in those times, the wedding grandeur ratings were more often than not decided by the quality (and quantity) of the coffee provided by the bride’s family. A steady supply of the concoction through all times of the day (and night) was the grease that helped the wedding juggernaut roll smoothly until the bride was safely ensconced in her marital home.

During my sister’s wedding, there was no dearth of coffee. But the meager stock of tumblers couldn’t quite keep up with the beverage’s demand. I had just finished my 12th standard exams – which means I wasn’t young enough to be told “go and play outside.” At the same time, I wasn’t old enough to be called upon to assist with getting things ready for the more important rituals.

I don’t remember anyone specifically telling me to do it, but I took upon myself the mantle of “tumbler-washer.” For the three days of the event, I found myself constantly shuttling between the washing area and the hall where the rituals were being held, unwashed coffee tumblers in hand, on a self-appointed mission, playing a vital role in the coffee supply chain.

My labor did not go unnoticed. In hindsight, considering the nature of the attention it garnered, I’d have been quite happy to have been ignored. An elderly person sought me out, commending me on how I was working hard to help in my sister’s wedding. He said he was very impressed with me, and had made up his mind to ask my dad for my hand in marriage for his grandson. To say I was stunned would be an understatement. But I clearly remember that even in that befuddled state, I wondered how such an important decision could be made on the basis of something as frivolous as tumbler-washing!

Of course, today, when each day brings its quota of tumbler-washing my way, I know there’s nothing frivolous about the task, although the process has certainly become a routine one. And yet, there are times when this simple activity can take my mind on an insightful journey.

A few months ago, I had been away from home for a day. When I returned, this was the sight that greeted my eyes. Look carefully at this picture. 



Turmeric spilled on the floor, slightly wet in some parts. The turmeric had been sprinkled to drive away ants that had been crawling on the floor. But that was just part of the scene. This image below was the entire scene. 



The ants originated from the few drops of leftover coffee in the tumbler. They had covered the entire tumbler and spilled out across the floor. I agree that using turmeric is an excellent non-violent home remedy to get rid of ants. But to me, it seems a more sensible, lasting solution would have been to remove the tumbler and wash it. 

Even as I set about cleaning the tumbler, I was struck by an epiphany – how often in life we seek to focus our attention on the effects of an issue – throwing turmeric over the ants on the floor – while willfully ignoring the source from where it arises – the dirty tumbler – because tackling the latter requires more effort.

If only we could get ourselves to deal with the root cause of any problem, perhaps we could avoid the emotional roller coaster rides that are such a drain on our energy?


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Long Time, No See....

It's been two months since I last ventured here. A hectic, tiring two months that left me with no energy and inclination to write or engage on any social media platforms. That is, except for two occasions, when I was forced to submit my story in the short story writing challenge for which I signed up in February of this year. Now, things have started slowing down, and there's a much awaited vacation looming on the horizon; so, hopefully, I will be writing more often 😅

About seven people reached out to me during this hiatus, asking if all was well, because they noticed I was off the radar. Thank you, guys and gals for your loving concern, for I suspect it acted as a positive reinforcer in hastening my return here.
 

This post is a 500-word short story I wrote for this month on the prompt "Going Home." I've taken a little liberty with what is essentially a real-life story. 



Title: Home Is Where the Heart Is


After stumbling for two hours through the dense undergrowth, Captain Kiran finally accepted that he was well and truly lost on his first day in the beautiful mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. He rued his impulsive decision to trek to the army camp instead of waiting for the jeep that was to transport him.

“Veerta aur Vivek,” he chanted aloud, trying to draw strength from the motto of his alma mater, the Indian Military Academy. He knew he had shown no ‘vivek’ or wisdom and was in dire need of ‘veerta’ or courage, to go on.

A low, bloodcurdling growl came from somewhere to his right and Kiran ran blindly, mindless of the low-hanging branches that scratched his face and arms. Which is why he didn’t notice the hand that thrust into his solar plexus, pushing him to the ground. The same hand steadied him into a crouching position and a voice barked, “Take a few deep breaths and you’ll be okay.”

Looking up, Kiran noticed an elderly but fit man in front of him, dressed in old army fatigues, with a rifle slung across his shoulder. Answering Kiran’s unasked question, the guy separated the branches of the trees right in front and beckoned Kiran to take a look.

“Sorry for hurting you, but I had to stop you before you went there, you know.”

Kiran looked out gingerly to see a bottomless ravine that plunged a few thousand feet.

“I don’t know how to thank you, sir. If not for you, I’d be dead by now.”

“Indeed. Now that we’re not at war with China, this is the only service I can render my country,” he grinned. “Come, let me show you the way back to your camp.”

“How do you know where I’m going?”

“I heard you pleading for ‘Valour and Wisdom,’ young man, and knew you’re an alumnus of the IMA at Dehradun.”

Kiran struggled to keep up with the rifleman’s scorching pace and within the next hour, he found himself in the army camp. But his guide was nowhere to be seen. Kiran asked the guard at the gate if he’d seen a man with a rifle passing by. The guard looked closely at him and mouthed a cryptic reply, “He’s gone back to his home.”

Later that evening, as he walked on the Sela Pass, Kiran came to a stop outside a structure that bore the name of “Jaswant Garh.” 



Entering, he found a cabinet display of the personal belongings of Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat who was killed on 17th November, 1962, while fighting a large Chinese force with a mere three hand grenades in his pocket. A war citation gave a brief description of the encounter and explained that for his valiant act, the rifleman had been posthumously awarded the gallantry award called Maha Vir Chakra.

As he gaped at the photograph that took centre stage in the hallowed room, Kiran could have sworn his guide of the morning actually smiled and winked at him.

My intent is to inspire you readers to look up the details of the incident it mentions and so, I've provided a link to another blog that does justice to the legend. Read this.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Short Story: Cheats Don't Win

This is a short story I wrote as part of an exercise being conducted by a South-Africa based writer's group. The prompt for this was "New Life" and word count was 1000 words. 

Let me know what you think of my effort and if you'd like to read more of my stories 😊


“Group hug!” shouted Dev, grabbing Atul and Jai before walking into the examination hall. Just two more papers to answer, and then, a new life, thought Atul. Already selected by a top firm during the campus recruitment drive, he didn’t need to worry about looking for a job. He had beaten Dev to it, but his best friend hadn’t seemed to mind because he’d also been placed with another good company, albeit with a smaller pay package.


Two hours after the question papers were distributed, Atul’s pen continued to move furiously, filling up the pages of the answer booklet. 

Which is why he didn’t immediately stand when ordered to. A hand pulled him up, then slid into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper with some formulae scribbled on it. A voice barked, “What’s this?” and before he could realize what was happening, Atul was being dragged downstairs to Principal Nadkarni’s office. The dreaded flying squad from the University, monitoring examination centres, had struck.

“We caught this boy with copying material. Book a malpractice case.”

Nadkarni slowly asked, “Did you catch him copying?”

“No, but the slip is evidence enough that he intended to cheat.”

Atul finally found his voice. “Sir, I don’t know how this paper came into my pocket. I ..I ..went through a check before entering the hall, they…they didn’t find anything then…Sir, please believe me. Ask the staff; they’ll tell you I’m speaking the truth….please, Sir, I haven’t done any cheating…please, Sir… don’t book a malpractice case against me, Sir!”

Nadkarni asked Atul to wait outside the office for a while. Turning to the men from the University, he explained that Atul was the college’s star pupil who had excelled year after year in both academics and extra-curricular activities. Besides, his ailing father couldn’t work and the family ran on the meager income from Atul’s part-time job.

“We can understand that, Nadkarni Sir, but rules are rules and we have to set an example so that no one else dares repeat this offense.”

They argued back and forth until finally, a compromise was reached. Atul was called in. In front of his very eyes, one of the men drew a line through each and every one of his answers. The men warned Atul, “It’s only due to the immense respect we have for Nadkarni Sir’s words, that we’re letting you off the hook, but you better never try this trick ever again.”

People on the pavement saw a boy run blindly out of the college gates. They yelled at him to stop, but it was too late. An ominous screeching of brakes and then, there he lay, sprawled on the road, his leg twisted, blood all around…..

A few minutes later, Raghu the lab technician ran into the Principal’s office. “Sir, I’m sure Atul couldn’t have had a slip in his pocket.”

“How do you know, Raghu?”

“Because I’m the one who checked him at the entrance to the corridor and there was nothing in his pocket!”

The light in Principal Nadkarni’s office burned long into the night and when he finally left, he thought he knew what had happened.

Three months later, when Atul came to the college office to pay the fees for the supplementary examination, Nadkarni spoke to him.

“How are you feeling now, Atul?”

“I’m okay, Sir. The first two months after the accident were bad, but now I’m busy studying for the supplementary exam. I can’t afford to mess up this time,” he grimaced.

“How’s your dad?”

“He’s ok, although a bit sad that I couldn’t complete my course on time to take up the job secured through the campus placement. But he accepted the accident as an act of fate and says God does all for the best. If only he knew --”

“Study well, Atul. I’m sure you’ll score well and once the results are out, you’ll quickly find another job.”

“Thank you, Sir. For everything. If not for you, I’d have been tainted with the “malpractice” tag. At least now, I can honestly blame the accident for finishing my course late.”

Six months later, the phone on Nadkarni’s table rang.

“I’ve cleared the exam and scored 80% marks, Sir.”

“Great news, Atul! Congratulations, my boy!”

“And Sir, I’ve also been selected as a trainee at BT Info Services. I start work tomorrow. Thank you for all your support, Sir.”

“Good, Atul. And don’t worry - a bright spark like you will soon rise to greater heights. I wish you the very best for the new life you’re going to begin!”

No sooner had he finished speaking to Atul than Nadkarni dialed another number. A call long overdue, he believed.

“Is this Dev? I’m Principal Nadkarni….yes, yes, good morning to you too. So, are you still working at BT Info Services?”

“Oh, that’s nice, that’s nice. Isn’t Mr. Krishnakanth your manager? I know him very well ….we studied together…. Dev, do you know that Atul is joining your company tomorrow? …Oh, you do…that’s good. I hope you will help him, Dev…yes, yes, he’s already lost almost a year….By the way, are you free this Saturday? … No, no…nothing urgent…I just wanted to show you the footage from a CCTV camera in the college corridor on the 1st floor. Remember that day when Atul had his accident? I can’t hear you clearly…speak up Dev…you’re sounding very faint….Right, as I was saying, I was watching that footage and it seemed to me like just outside the exam hall, when you and another guy were hugging Atul, your hand slipped into Atul’s pocket….what’s the matter, Dev? Is the signal weak? I can’t hear you very well…ok, I’ll wait for you on Saturday at 10.30 am, don’t be late!”


After two days, it was Mr. Krishnakanth who called Nadkarni to say, “Your student sure is a star….what do you mean, which one? Of course, I mean Atul….no, no…not Dev…I don’t know what came over him…he suddenly resigned two days ago.”