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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?