This blog has been selected for the final round of Best of Indian Blogosphere (BoIB) 2010 polls under the category Fiction. Do vote for me, if you like the stories I’ve penned down! 🙂
You can cast your votes here: http://poll.fm/f/2mxdi
He closed his eyes and was near-instantaneously transported to a place he knew as his own. He twitched his eyebrows funnily and smiled at the crowd as they expressed their approval with a thunderous applause. They were calling out his name now, over and over again. It fed his ego, he felt good. Really good. He’d do anything to keep this going. He opened his eyes and worked furiously on his new script. He retrieved the crumpled post-it notes from his pocket, opened them up, and straightened them out with his fingers, holding the edges in place. He took a closer look at what he had scribbled – ideas that had occurred to him always went on post-it notes, to be put to use later when he actually got down to writing the script for his next show. His over critical gaze drank in the words over and over again, shredding them of all meaning and dignity. These days nothing could please him; his jokes didn’t seem funny anymore. It was maddening. For a stand-up comedian who had people in splits all the time, he led a pretty miserable life. The applause at the end of his thirty minute show was his only moment of glory.
He bit on the end of the pencil nervously, his fingers trembling, a queer restlessness started to take control over his senses. Fame – it takes them down, it takes them all down; and the defeat seems like victory until the moment dawns, when you know better and it’s too late. He strained his eyes on the piece of paper. He desperately wanted to come up with something that would send the audience into an unending fit of laughter, but he couldn’t see the humor in anything anymore. He clutched a bottle of pills and opened it with great effort, his fingers trembling furiously, feeding the fear within, of losing his top spot. He thought toxic thoughts. Vulnerable with the increasing sense of defeat that he often clouded with denial, he took solace in the little white pills – a temporary relief to a permanent problem.
Where was the humor? He grasped the notes in a frothing fit of rage, crumpled them until they could shrink no further and flung the ball to the far end of the room. Seconds later, he found himself running to that corner, in dark desperation, retrieving the ball, freeing it from dust bunnies. He opened it, his only thread of hope, and cried helplessly. Failing to make sense out of smudged pencil marks, he realized he didn’t remember a word of what he’d spent more than an hour, analyzing. He ran to the window and looked around, at people, and waited impatiently for them to do something outrageously funny. He had an audience to please. They must love him. They must cheer for him and call out his name. He had an audience to please. They must love him like they loved him the last time. They must love him more.
Another futile attempt, there was no new script. He had been trying for weeks now. He felt…impotent. He donned the crisp clothes that the best designer in town had tailored for him, he clutched onto the last of the series of scripts he had written when the days were good. He held on to his last script. His air conditioned Mustang escorted him to the venue. He felt priceless and worthless at the same time. He felt the pressure mounting and tried to brush aside thoughts of the elusive set of fresh scripts he had to work on after returning from the show. He had to keep this going, hear his name being called out by the frenzied crowd. Over, and over again. He pictured himself putting on that show of humility after the crowd cheered at the end of the show, that jovial “Get outta here!” with a dismissive flick of the hand.
Show- time. Loud cheering. He could see a few familiar faces. “What’s up New York?!” he greeted the crowd with his signature contortion of facial muscles followed by the cupping of his right ear with one hand that conveyed they weren’t cheering loud enough. There was an immediate increase in the decibel level. They were now calling out his name. “So I was just thinking …”, he began, as the crowd grew quiet to hear what he was saying, “…People are getting real suicidal these days, you know you hear these stories floating around, people killing themselves everywhere…I was just wondering…we could just make the whole affair a whole lot of fun by thinking up new and innovative ways of doing it, if you know what I mean. ..So I was just thinking up a few favorites, and somehow dying of suffocation in an elevator with Mariah Carey breathing in it hit the bottom of the list” He heard some distant guffaws while the rest of the crowd laughed politely.”I mean come on, you deserve better than that, it’s your life your ending and if you HAVE to end it, you need to do so in style!” he put on a pompous look and pretended that he was running a discourse on a topic of profound importance.”You know… I’m an old fashioned guy when it comes to such things, and I love being this way. I mean, when it comes to topics like these I’m the guy who walks around with a sundial on his wrist while the rest of you sport the trendiest wrist-wear”… The crowd laughed in unison. “So I’d like to go for the tried and tested traditional ways …I think I’d rather try a combination of all of ‘em. You know what I’d do? I’d tie a rope to a tree at the top of a cliff ,and the other end around my neck. I’d also bring a gun to shoot myself while I’m falling and before I jump… I’d swallow poison”, he joked, illustrating what he said with tying an imaginary rope around his neck, pulling out an imaginary gun and popping an imaginary pill, with a queer spaced-out expression on his face that struck the audience as funny. “As I jump off, I’d try to shoot myself in the head but I’d miss and I’d shoot through the rope. The free fall would make me sick and I’d throw up all the poison on the way down and land in a river” He kept a straight face throughout and continued to speak with wide eyed interest, at the same time he pretended that he was having a free fall which finally ended with a not so dignified dip in the river. “Having escaped all that, when I finally crawl out onto the back I’d curl up and die a few hours later from hypothermia” The audience hooted and cheered, they seemed to be having a good time.”You know I think I’d enjoy it more to watch it happen. You know what my goal is? To be cloned. So if I’d want to commit suicide, I’d have options!” This time the hall reverberated with loud applause and laughter. “Heck, I was spring cleaning the other day and I happened to find my old backstreet boys record, when I realized that I’d spent the whole of my teenage committing suicide!”, he jerked his neck violently with both his hands as the crowd went mad with laughter, looking at him teary eyed, wanting more… “Alright I’ve so run out of jokes right now…I think I’m gonna kill myself!” The crowd laughed uncontrollably, the pace and the momentum was just right. He closed his eyes and drew in the applause, savored it. He slipped his hand into his pocket, pulled out a gun and shot himself. He lay in a pool of blood. People were still laughing. He always got the right comic timing.
Eight pm. Time to get to work. She pressed the lipstick on her lower lip, a deeper shade of red, and surveyed her reflection in the dim light. Emptiness reflected back. The walls of the room bore witness to her trysts with the mirror every evening, the paint giving way with each passing day, as if peeling off in shame. She applied a layer of talc over the foundation that she hoped would conceal her dark skin, a curse to her profession. She looked at herself with renewed hope, and hated what she saw. A tear drop washed off a mixture of talcum powder and foundation as it progressed towards her chin, leaving behind a trail of her naked complexion. She threw the make-up kit away and looked at her garishly done-up face as she walked closer to the mirror. Her breath clouded her reflection as she watched herself cry. A bit of the lipstick had stained her teeth; she made no effort to wipe it off. She just stared into the emptiness in her eyes and let the tears meander; discover new routes to her chin, hot as the blood boiling within. Every inch of her body ached… tired and all used up.
The new ring road had opened up a lot of opportunities for business. The truck drivers would line up and park the trucks in close proximity. The first few hours went in striking a deal and fixing the price. She was always approached last. They preferred the younger, fair complexioned, slimmer girls. She looked away from the mirror and moved towards the stack of brightly colored clothes and picked a red flashy top with the lowest neckline. She struggled to get into it, sometimes she felt like cutting off her flab with a knife. “I don’t want the dark, fat one”, they’d say. The other girls would leave one by one and she’d stand there waiting alone, watching the blur of yellow lights flow past her, her hands crossed, and trying to hide the flab around her waist. She wiped off the tears, coated her lashes with heavy mascara and coated her face with a renewed layer of makeup. Images from her childhood haunted her as she sprayed perfume over her neck. She didn’t feel bad about the crudeness of her profession, having been robbed of all dignity and innocence way back in her childhood. She felt there was nothing more to her than a body she could exchange for money. A body scarred by cigarette butts.
She brushed her hair wondering how she’ll survive with so little money. The other girls could afford to throw their weight around and charge extra. She’d be excited at the prospect of being chosen last if it weren’t for the money. She had a baby to care for, whose good-for-nothing dad was her own uncle. She hated the fact that the child that was growing inside her was a product of a man she detested the most, but she had decided not to kill it. She had just hoped the child would look nothing like its father, that way she’d find it easier to love the child. She bent down to pick the earring that had slipped out of her hands and her eyes fell on the floor. The same cold, damp floor on which she had spent days writhing in pain.
She slipped her feet into her gaudy sandals and cast one last look at the mirror and was disappointed with what stared back. With leaden feet she crossed the threshold to earn her day’s income. She was escorted with the other girls to the dark corners of the ring road which was their usual hangout. There were some men already waiting for them. Deals were struck. Girls were taken. She stood there waiting, watching the yellow blur of lights from the passing vehicles. She laughed at her fate. Even among whores she was picked last. The rustle of leaves announced the approach of a prospective customer. There were two men, they surveyed her unhappily. They had no choice, the good ones were taken. They looked around impatiently… they smelt of sweat and alcohol. One man announced that he’d rather wait for the ‘good ones’. The other man beckoned to her…she was thrilled and horrified at the same time. The door of the truck closed behind her. She was the whore who got picked last.
They looked at each other, an impish glint in their eyes, and smiled knowingly. The competition was on! They ran in opposite directions, a boy and a girl…their feet disturbing the soil into a messy trail of footprints, tiny specks of sand were shaken off in a unanimous spray of brown. They stopped at a distance, turned around and signaled to each other, grinning. This signified the beginning of the hunt. They set off in two different directions, consumed by the thirst to be the one who returns first with the most valuable possession. Their giggles echoed around the place. With grubby knees and grimy fingers, they stirred up the rubble, scouring the place, moving things around, digging deeper, exploring corners, dirt collecting between their fingernails.
There was no promise of success, but it didn’t occur to them, the thought of not finding anything didn’t bother them because they were in it together. That’s all that mattered. Imagine having a friend who was all you thought about, who was all you cared about, being with whom was all you needed. The treasure was of little value if they didn’t have each other to show it to, brag about it, fix up a bargain, and negotiate on a fair exchange. The search grew more intense, the increasing heat colored their skin a deeper shade of brown. They picked up useful bits which would help in the bargain, brushing away annoying sweat beads. Occasionally, they looked over their shoulders to make sure the other hadn’t made enough headway either.
They had been inseparable ever since they met. Every little thing excited them, they’d make big plans about the things they could do and achieve together. The world was their playground and each opportunity was a piece of clay they could mould into any shape they liked! Was it love or friendship? They didn’t know and they didn’t care! Their days revolved around each other and they’d risk anything, go any distance as long as they were in it together. Life without each other was unimaginable. The excitement had transformed into a burst of frenzied searching. They agitated every corner into a confused pile of rubble, their fingers skimming through anything that held promise of bearing something valuable.
They had managed to fill their sagging pockets with trinkets they’d manage to collect. They believed they had an eye for things that were priceless. Of course they did. They had found each other. They ran towards each other as fast as they could, emptied their pockets and found great pleasure in exaggerating the importance of each item. The girl had found pieces of a ‘highly expensive’ watch which she believed she could fix and sell for a hundred bucks. The boy laughed at her naively ambitious idea and snatched it playfully. This was followed by a mad chase, clumsy snatching and dodging, punctuated with insanely loud laughter. They surveyed the pile of ‘valuables’ – used batteries, broken toys, scraps of metal, with wide eyed wonder; easily excited, easily pleased, and blissfully happy. The two slum-dwellers walked together in the dumping ground holding on to their biggest treasure- each other.
Little triangles of cloth of various hues decorated the floor; the tiny shop was dimly lit and smelled of fresh cloth and grease. The rat-a-tat of a single sewing machine competed with the rat-a-tat of many from the adjoining shop ten steps away. Yakub bent over the wooden counter and looked at the newly opened shop that had a shining board that read ‘Modrern Tailors’ with a picture of a beautiful woman wearing an attractive salwar kameez. Fifty years in the profession was a really long time, he had dedicated his life to sewing clothes to fit people and suit their tastes. He didn’t know what modern women liked but he did know that the clothes he stitched would last for a long time without one stitch giving way and he prided himself on his stitching techniques. He scoffed at women who now thronged the new shop fooled by the promise of a shiny board. He lifted his metal scissors and cut the cloth neatly from end to end, feeling sorry for his years of his experience overshadowed by a well-lit tailor shop for modern women.
It started with a tinge of jealousy when he first heard about a new tailor shop, he brushed it off thinking that it would take years for it to get established. People would trust their clothes with a person who has spent years handling them, with an experienced eye and hand. He pictured himself giving words of advice to the young fledgling in the initial days when there would be no business, about how it takes patience and perseverance to succeed in any business and that only when you win the customer’s trust by providing quality service, will they return to your shop and become regulars. This fatherly feeling of looking out for and being pitifully affectionate towards a fellow tailor soon turned into a combination of insecurity and seething anger when he saw that not only did the new tailor get a lot of customers on the day he opened shop but he also managed to lure some of Yakub’s own regular customers.
Yakub was only sixteen when Abba gave him enough money to rent out a small room and buy himself a sewing machine, he had already spent two years under his uncle’s supervision, learning the fine art of turning a sheet of plain cloth into something spectacular-he learned the art of embroidery, attaching tassels and turning any plain looking outfit into an extraordinary piece of art. Of course he charged extra for the embellishments, but more than anything he considered the longevity of the stitches as the mark of a good tailor. Business flourished and he had made enough money to buy the shop and call it his own. The loud clang of the metal scissor that had accidentally slipped out of his hand brought him back to the present. He took a renewed look at his work and it came as a fresh shock of understanding that his clothes did indeed look quite… old-fashioned.
He heard giggles from the new tailor shop; he bent over the wooden counter and caught two girls engaged in deep conversation with the young tailor, finding almost everything he said funny, bursting into a fresh set of giggles after every sentence that he completed. The young tailor flicked his silky hair and seemed to be enjoying all the attention, when he caught Yakub looking in their direction with unconcealed disgust. ‘Salaam aalaikum Yakub bhai!’ he greeted him, putting on one of his fake smiles. ‘Wa aalaikum as salam’, Yakub responded hurriedly and looked away. So this was his new ploy to keep customers coming back! In his fifty years of experience, Yakub hadn’t compromised on his conduct with women, not once! He treated them with utmost respect and spoke to them in a gentle tone, eyes lowered. What did the new tailor have so much to talk about with the two girls who had come to get their clothes stitched? Maybe he was too old fashioned to understand this.
That evening the new tailor came to his shop with a proposal. “Look Yakub Miya, you are aware of the fact that the number of customers who visit your shop is close to nothing, and you’re also growing old. Why don’t you sell your shop to me for a price much higher than what you’ll make anyway? Khuda na khaasta, agar paise kam pad gaye toh?” he said importantly. Yakub was angered at the very thought of selling his shop to someone, he spoke to him with great emotion, “Anwar Miya, I have everything I need. This shop was passed down to me by my father and I will not sell it. Why do you want my shop when you already have one?” Anwar thought for a moment, and decided to give the old man some time to think over it. “Yakub Bhai, we have so many customers coming in that we have run out of space. We need new machines and two more men will be joining us tomorrow. Alright, don’t sell the shop to us, but you can definitely consider renting it out? Think over it and let me know tomorrow. Khuda Hafiz!”
Yakub sat thinking till late in the evening, the mullah’s call from the mosque echoed in the confines of his little shop. For the first time he had missed his evening prayers. He repeated Anwar Miya’s words in his head slowly, deliberately. ‘Why don’t you sell your shop to me for a price much higher than what you’ll make anyway? Khuda na khaasta, agar paise kam pad gaye toh?’
Loud hammering was heard in the street the next morning. Tiny wooden chips flew as the old man’s eyes flickered, they were slightly moist and some of it collected around his wrinkles. It is difficult to tell if an old man is crying or if his old eyes are watering. No one really cares. That’s what old age does to you. “A good decision, Yakub Bhai! Here’s your rent for this month! Enjoy your days with your grandchildren.” Yakub collected the notes with both his hands, wrinkled but still strong; strong enough to guide the metal scissors, strong enough to run the sewing machine. He looked up at the new board that now adorned his shop; it proudly read ‘Modrern Tailors’. He picked up the little triangles of cloth from the dusty floor and pocketed it. He cast one last look at the new shining board as the letters reflected on his grey eyes, eyes that were still strong enough to slip a thread into a needle.
The good old days at Loyola college had finally come to an end. The professor puffed hard at his receding cigarette as it’s far end almost singed his darkened lips. Scenes from the past flickered on an imaginary screen, like one of the slide shows he presented in his lectures. It made him terribly nostalgic… yet a part of him believed that it was best to resign to his quiet home at Nungambakkam and spend the rest of his days studying the nuances of superconducting single photon detectors.He laughed at this idea, his love for Physics wouldn’t diminish even after he’d crossed 70!He remembered the delectable arguments and conversations he had with the students on Magnetostatics, Ferromagnetism, dielectric breakdown…
The students loved him and his popularity soared. A soaring popularity was something he hadn’t expected or wanted. It was the cause of all the troubles that ensued. His unconventional ways of thinking and teaching didn’t go well with the other professors, they absolutely detested him and waited for opportunities to pull him down. He wondered if they were even conscious of it. About the magnitude of accusations they had meted out to an already broken man. The ‘elite’ professors of Loyola college – why didn’t they direct their energies at beating him at what he did best? They couldn’t teach like him, love their subject like he did, make passionate and consistent attempts to challenge the intelligence and abilities of his students. The elite… all they did was watch and mourn the fact that their outdated and defunct methods of teaching no longer appealed to the students. They got together and spoke ill of him and felt good about it. Professor Paul, as the students lovingly called him, felt sorry for them. He felt sorry that they had been reduced to an existence where their conversations over meetings and coffee breaks were about his personal life, about what he had said or done. Heck, his best friend had even leaked out details about his relationship with his wife to all and sundry after a bitter spat. Personal details that he had trusted him with. They were out in the open. Everybody knew. Everyone spoke about it. He felt sorry for them…
Mr Swaminathan had befriended him the day he stepped into the staff room. He showed him around the 100 acre campus, introduced him to other lecturers he knew. In a way, he had probably aided his popularity. They spent coffee and lunch breaks discussing Physics, politics, history and technology. Paul thought that he had found in him an amazing friend. He had great love and respect for Mr. Swaminathan. Swami loved cricket.. Paul didn’t share his passion for the game but listened to him speak about it for hours, smiling affectionately. He’d even secretly bought Harsha Bhogle’s “On the Run”, to give it to him…he thought it right to wait for an opportune moment. Swami… he was a good man deep down…There were times when Paul had stood up for him when the other lecturers poked fun at Swami’s dressing sense or spoke ill about him when he wasn’t around. It was an unspoken thing. Mr. Swaminathan never saw it. “You’re always driven by impulse, Swami!Stop acting out of impulse!”, he used to chide him lovingly each time Swami did something absolutely cloth-headed when anger fogged his understanding. Paul knew that this could be the ultimate threat to their friendship. Swami’s mind could easily be poisoned and what made it worse, was that his own thinking was capable of poisoning his mind…things that were mere figments of his imagination.
Professor Paul believed in striving for the best. He’d delve into Physics with obsessive interest and awaken the dormant curiosity within all his students. To him, knowledge far transcended textbooks and the syllabus. Knowledge was all important and his colleagues assumed it was a mask that he put on. They were of the opinion that he enjoyed the perks of projecting an image like that, that he enjoyed the popularity. If he was spotted alone with a smitten female student, he was accused of flirting – a terrible thing to say about a man who was nearing the age of 70, one who was already happily married to the woman of his dreams! His novel ideas and rich arguments catapulted him to a status where there was a thin line between fame and notoriety. He wanted none of that. It wasnt about him.. it was never about him.. it was about the world of Physics… something as impersonal as that had left his personal life in tatters.To make things worse, Swami and Paul had parted ways after a bitter argument. Things weren’t shaping out well, yet Paul held his ground.
It all started when Paul spoke to his students about how education should be imparted. That it shouldn’t be restricted to what the authors limited their knowledge to, that there is no harm in exploring further. After the seemingly harmless lecture, Paul returned to his seat in the staff room. Soon the news spread like fire. The other lecturers took it as a personal insult when it wasn’t intended to be one. The pent up jealousy and hatred had now found it’s outlet. Driven by impulse, Swami had leaked out information about Paul’s married life to all and sundry. He had now found confidantes in people who didn’t think twice about stabbing him in the back, earlier. Swami’s secrets were still safe with Paul. He’d never make a public mockery out of his dearest friend’s woes. He didnt speak to him , but would never stop caring for him. Things turned ugly at the college, it was one man against all the professors.Swami sneered each time he walked past him, pretending to be happy with his new set of friends. Paul could see it in his eyes …Swami sorely missed him. He remembered the thing he had told him about impulse… his heart sank. He stroked the envelope in his pocket, which would finally separate an attention-seeking commoner from the ‘elite’.He resigned.
The doorbell rang… the professor jerked violently out of his reverie. It was a delivery from Loyola College. They had sent back all his stuff …from the staff room that he had forgotten to collect before leaving the college premises for good. He opened the parcel to find uncorrected blue books, his research on photon detectors and the copy of “On the run”, which he had affectionately picked out for his trusted confidante, his friend Swami… It was indeed, as Swami would have called it, ‘The Final Delivery’ . Paul picked up his lighter and set the book on fire. He watched it burn …until the flames consumed the pages bit by bit and burnt them beyond recognition. He lit a cigarette with the dying flame and retired to his study …to immerse himself in the nuances of superconducting single photon detectors.
She was dreaming again. Kalki was half asleep and she knew that it was only a dream – that she wasn’t really a bird flying without a care in the world – with nobody stopping her or telling her where to go. She didn’t want to wake up from the dream. Only when the sheets were rudely pulled off by Amma, she forced herself out of bed. She folded the sheets neatly, rolled the mattress and placed them in the corner of the room. She cast an envious look at her brother- the master of his own destiny. He would continue to sleep until lunch time and no one would object to it.
Kalki walked to the cowshed. Babuji liked drinking fresh milk every morning before setting off to the fields. She milked the cows in silence as scenes from the past played before her eyes. She remembered the day Babuji walked up to her when she was playing with Gudiya. He had one of his grave and cold expressions on his face. He told her that she’d have to cut down on playing in the fields and help Amma with house work. She had to learn everything in a day – sweeping the floor, milking the cows, cleaning the shed, making cakes out of cow-dung, making rotis, packing Babuji’s lunch – the list was endless. When she wouldn’t obey, she’d be forced into submission with a chadi or by twisting her tender ear to a full circle. Each passing day brought a new bar to her cage. Soon she learned that she wasn’t allowed to step out of the house after six, there was a boundary in the field she wasn’t allowed to cross. She had made two grave mistakes – she was born in a poor family and she was born a girl.
Being the youngest in the family, she was always at the receiving end of everyone’s ill-temper. If the harvest wasn’t good enough, Babuji would find the rotis she made hard and inedible, if Bhaiyya had a bad day at school, he’d kick her and tell her she was blocking his way, if Amma had an argument with Babuji, she’d tie her choti real tight and smack her head if she squealed in protest. Nobody knew or cared – but a child’s heart was wilting! Her vision blurred and cleared as tear drops that escaped her eyelids brought her back to the present. That afternoon she walked up to Amma and asked her if she loved her. “Of course I do, Kallo”, Amma said without looking in her direction. Kalki wasn’t convinced. Amma’s eyes didn’t light up when she saw her, the way they did when she saw Bhaiyya. She knew Amma was lying. Love and neglect cannot co-exist. Even a child knows that.
That evening, Kalki found Bhaiyya’s kite lying unattended near the door. She looked around and found that nobody was watching. She knew that this could get her into trouble, yet she didn’t fight back the urge to pick it up and run as fast as her tiny feet could take her, towards the open fields. She turned around and watched as the colourful kite took flight. She was breathing heavily now. She was stealing a moment of happiness, something she had every right over, but it felt so wrong that it gave her a unique thrill. She ran faster – until the grass was just a blur of green, the sky was blue with a dash of colour held by a string, with just the sound of her little feet and tense breathing in the background. And then she stopped and watched the wind lead the kite as her breathing got back to normal. For that moment, she wanted to be the kite. She watched it perform pirouettes mid-air, when she realized that it’s motion was bound by the string – that in her hands, the kite was but a puppet. By being constantly denied freedom, she knew what freedom was all about. She heard faint cries from the distance. Someone was calling out her name angrily. It was Bhaiyya – he was running like a madman in her direction. She ran in the opposite direction, the string wrapped around her tiny fingers. He was closing in on her, but she didn’t stop. She had now reached the far end of the field, the point beyond which she wasn’t allowed to go. Bhaiyya was just a few steps away. Her vision alternated between him and the boundary. And then in a moment of madness, she let go of the string. The kite tossed about violently in the sky – unafraid, unrestrained, uncontrolled. She was stealing a moment from her life. For that moment, she was the kite.
Dissection has always been a messy affair. The mere thought of it quite makes one’s flesh creep. Other narratives may excel this in depth of thought and knowledge of cockroach nature, but here’s an insight into my experience with half-dead roaches…
I was in the twelfth grade. I still remember taking slow, hesitant steps towards the Zoology lab. The day had finally arrived, when we were expected to dismantle a cockroach, part by part, and arrange selected portions of it on a platter, in patterns pleasing to our Zoology teacher’s eye. I made my grand entry, well-equipped with a needle, tweezers and doctor’s gloves, hoping that after this disturbing ordeal, I’d be able to sit down to eat with an easy mind.
I entered the lab to find a huge pile of dead roaches in a rectangular plastic container, slightly overwhelmed by their sheer abundance. Even a cockroach would have winced at the sight of it. Some were dead, some half-dead… with legs in the air, apparently in a fit. For a person who hoped to be a surgeon some day, I was a particularly nervous girl. But I had decided to take up this delicate mission which was the first essential for a budding surgeon.
Like the first kiss, the first roach is always special. I can be quite picky when it comes to finding a roach that appeals to me. I surveyed the mess and for the next half hour, I rummaged the bodies up into much the same state that they must have been before the world was created. All their limbs were in such a confused whirl that I was incapable of grasping anything with my brand new tweezers. I overheard one of the girls saying, “You know,these tweezers won’t go for a waste. I’m going to use it to pluck my eyebrows”. I continued the search for my first roach, trying to look as if I hadn’t heard it.I finally settled on one roach. I weighed him, as he dangled from the tip of my tweezer, before stamping him with the seal of my approval while the other girls continued to survey his foul associates with unconcealed dislike.
I chose a corner, placed my roach on the table and told myself that dissection wasn’t that big a deal…nothing radical, just common-sense stuff. I spent long, tedious minutes looking at the diagrams on the blackboard, of the parts that we had to dismantle, and at my cockroach…comparing, analyzing, failing, trying again. It was like a really challenging ‘match the following’ problem. Everything looked the same. I just stared at the roach, not knowing quite what to make of it. Clearly, I wasn’t showing any aptitude for dissection. I have never shown aptitude for anything except eating and sleeping.
Then suddenly it happened in a flash! I had been electrified by a sudden idea. It was a sort of nebulous idea with a big important message wrapped up in the huge pile of cockroaches. I realized that like the Chinese, it’s impossible to tell one cockroach from the other so all i needed to do was to find atleast one part in prime condition per cockroach cos the rest of it would be destroyed anyway in the process of yanking the part-of-interest out, with my pair of gleaming tweezers. Without further ado, I got down to business. A brief moment of madness. Gloves. Needle to pin down the subject. Tweezers that gleamed balefully in the morning light. Parts were plucked out… the rest were crushed. It’s true, cockroaches do have white blood. I pictured myself at the wash basin doing a Lady Macbeth, struck by a serious case of OCD, trying to rid my hands of all the white blood.
I wasn’t doing that bad after all! I had shown a swift grasp of the situation. 8 and a half cockroaches later, I looked up, infinitely relieved. As i wiped a sweat bead off my temple, I caught tweezer-girl staring at me, her eyes fixed, with an expression of deep loathing. “Why are you wasting cockroaches?!”, she wanted to know. I was about to volunteer an explanation, when my mean streak came up with something more evil and caustic to say. “Well.. unlike you, I don’t intend to pluck my eyebrows with these so I’d like to make full use of them in this lab session itself”. She looked up with mild surprise and gave me a look that could send those half-dead roaches scurrying back to where they came from. After giving her a counter-glare that lasted for half a minute, I shifted my gaze to the platter. What an unpleasant dummy! What did she expect??.. that the dead roaches would miraculously spring to life post class and do a Hrithik Roshan to the tunes of Krazzzy 4??!
A close look at the platter brought to life a very curious fact. One of the mandibles had disappeared without any trace! The pattern was incomplete without it, with zero aesthetic value! This only seemed to renew the demand for the ninth cockroach. There is more to dissection than you’ll ever know. Taking apart bodies was taking it’s toll on me but my perseverence illustrated the power of the individual. I refused to allow myself to be discouraged. I marched to the pile of roaches and picked the ninth martyr.By then, there was a pile of a considerable size on my table too. Of squished cockroach remains.
I drew in breath for the delivery of the final tug. There was silence, only the sound of my tense breathing could be heard. Now that I had held the ninth roach at needle point, the mandible seemed within easy grasp. Well atleast it did until the roach’s limbs twitched. It was only half dead!! I think I screamed. The needle spun out of control, taking the cockroach with it as its limbs violently tossed about. The whole class was in a state of frantic commotion. For reasons that are unclear, tweezer-girl made a fearful fuss.
It was my responsibility to fetch the roach from the sink. The whole process of it landing there hadn’t been a very pretty sight. I picked up my tweezer and picked the cockroach with it. I had my eyes closed. The blood froze in my veins and my hair stood up on end. I walked to my end of the table and when I let go, the roach had breathed its last. but it had left me a parting gift. I found its mandibles between the ends of my tweezer.
I arranged the parts on the platter in a beautiful pattern. I considered that particularly artful on my part. They looked absurdly out of proportion. Unlike the Chinese, cockroaches do come in different sizes. I had overlooked that possibility. But an artist is always an outsider, a non-conformist, a rebel.My pattern was lovably flawed. I presented the platter to my Zoology teacher. She studied it for a while and moved her lips to speak. Feedback time. I inclined the ear invitingly. A good teacher always knows her roaches. I expected a ten on ten. Nothing more, nothing less. Her sigh seemed to reveal that I had thought too much of my dissection skills. “Eight on ten”, she said, with a sort of frigid distaste, as if it soiled her lips. I gave her a look of contempt. She belonged to that class of people, I thought, who don’t understand roaches but talk about them anyway.
I returned to my table and as I gathered my stuff, I miraculously found the mandible that had gone missing! It was desperately clinging on to tweezer-girl’s upmarket french plait! Ofcourse I didnt tell her about its wherabouts! I’m still trying to figure out how it got there in the first place! I had a strong urge to gift her my pair of slime-bearing tweezers but I flung it into the dustbin and left the lab picturing her pull out her eyebrows ith it, holding back the goofy smile that was beginning to spread on my face…
I have been a victim to one hundred and seven fatal footwear tragedies. You must be under the impression that I’m fabricating statistics. Of course, they’re total fabrications. Why would anyone keep track of the number of chappals they’ve broken? We’re all bluffing our way through. Yet, I’m sure the actual number will be nothing short of astounding.
I always labour under the false belief that the next pair of footwear I purchase will be indestructible. But I guess its how my feet are wired. I really see no reason to curse Fate or wallow in self pity, but the loss has been so profound, I’m yet to come to terms with it.
It was my second day in Bangalore DC. I had spent many blissful hours in the company of my latest pair of shoes because not only were they comfortable, but they also looked so dainty and pretty that they were a constant source of compliments. The loosening of the shoe around my heel was just a preview of something far more sinister. “Maybe a bit of the sole has come off”, I thought. That was an underestimate. It was a matter of a few seconds…the sole had now detached itself from the rest of the shoe holding on tightly to the tip with all its might. I didn’t know what to do next. My mind was in a state of frantic commotion. It was an undignified position for me. Faced with a problem which lies in the realm of locomotion, getting from point A to point B seemed like a Herculean task. I was in a morbidly nervous state by this time. I somehow managed to worm my way to the cubicle without accidentally killing innocent bystanders in the process.
My friend viewed my shoe with concern and said she wouldn’t advocate overstraining them in this condition. I looked at my dying shoe breathing out her last with a look of wanting to cherish eternity when she perhaps knew that even the average span of mortality was going to be denied to her. Without saying another unnecessary word, I decided to place my shoe in the hands of a competent cobbler.
The first road hump arrived when I realized I wouldn’t be able to walk up to the cobbler kiosk in the current state of affairs. The cobbler wouldn’t walk all the way to my cubicle owing to the fact that I was no CEO of the company. A very understandable prejudice. My friend fetched some cellotape and we gladly cut pieces of it to celebrate the betrothal of the rear end of my shoe to the eluding sole. Suddenly something came to my mind and started off a search within. I found myself worrying…some day, before I shrug out of my mortal coils and zip onto the blue beyond, I need to find myself a good pair of shoes to last the journey. I was stirred out of my reverie by talks about shopkeepers artificially inflating the value of shoes. I gaped at my friend speaking out vehemently against things that were already unpopular. I was beginning to think she was a brilliant visionary in the footwear department, but she suddenly changed polarity and said “It’s your own darn fault!!” I looked up with intense surprise. “It’s overused if you ask me”, she continued. I was in a dangerous mood to begin with, and I decided to put my foot down. Literally. “It’s Marie Claire!! And I paid a fortune for this!” I protested. She told me that its appearance wasn’t a sufficiently good advertisement for the brand. I was to learn in the minutes to come, that the ‘brilliant visionary’ was a miserable impostor, who could have evidently known nothing about the matter. I said I didn’t care a hang whether it was a good advertisement for the brand or not. I don’t know why it should be, but the sight of her comfortable in her pair of sandals, maddened me. A dense crowd watched the entertainment.”Why don’t you go to the cobbler’s kiosk and get it fixed?” somebody piped in. We fell into the suggestion with readiness that had something uncanny about it. On the way out, over our mutual abuse of the brand, we became quite friendly and sympathetic. We decided to rescue the ailing shoe and in this noble resolve, our own dispute was forgotten. We were sure things would be fine, though why we were sure, we could not say. Every half mile we covered seemed like two.
We plucked up courage at the sight of the cobbler kiosk, and I came trotting along in great hurry. Cobbler is introduced into work. The sight of my shoe made his flesh creep. I never saw so much thoughtful sadness concentrated into one glance before. If it had not been those restraining influence of two sweet women at his side, the young man might have given way to violent language. “Buck up. Don’t take all day over it”, I thought. It’s incredible how a man with the work of only one shoe on his hands manages to pass away his time. For the first few seconds, the young man sat staring at the dying shoe for some moments in deep silence, broken only by occasional, sharp whistling intake of breath. His eyebrows twitched giving additional proof that he was alive to the gravity of the situation. You could scarcely expect him to bubble over with joie de vivre. These things take their toll.
He expelled a deep breath. This time a faint light of intelligence seemed to brighten his eye. He spent the next few minutes in tedious efforts to unite the two polarities of my shoe with generous helpings of superglue. At the end of the operation, my shoe looked calm, like an ascetic with no wild yearning of the unattainable. I gave an involuntary sigh of relief. I paid him generously. Ten whole bucks for a bit of sticking!!!. He must have blessed me when I turned to leave because after walking a few steps ahead, I turned around and found him muttering something, his fists in the air – must’ve been a verse in Sanskrit!!. God bless you too, noble cobbler guy!!
My friend and I looked at the shoe. We came to the conclusion that as an object to hang over a flower bed in early spring to frighten the birds away, we should respect it. But as an article of dress for any human being, it made us ill. On the way back we agreed on almost everything, being too tired and cranky to enjoy belittling each other’s intelligence. I never wore those shoes again. In stark contrast to all the ones that preceded it, my current pair of shoes have lasted for over a month now.!!!! ****CRACK!!!!***** Oops.
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. The most miserable day in the year for single people who helplessly watch the rest of the world having the time of their life! I belonged to the former category this year. So in the listlessness of despair, I decided to recall all of those instances in life when i had denied bestowing affection on the unfortunate souls who had made brave attempts at unbaring theirs.One of those several instances struck me as rather amusing but it must have been the cause of much heartache for he other person around whose feelings the story revolves.
It all happened three years ago. It was the last day of exams. The paper was pretty okay and I remember walking towards the exit along with a couple of friends when I heard my name being called out by a rather hesitant voice.I turned around to find the boy who I thought, always seemed to initiate weird conversations which usually ended with abrupt and uneasy exit speeches. But what was that?! Had he undergone a complete makeover?! The formal attire was now replaced by a rather funky shirt with designs and patterns which seemed rather inappropriate for the present generation, teamed up with an equally funky pair of jeans. But he still hadn’t made significant strides in the fitness department!
For the first few seconds, he did nothing more than shuffle his feet as I looked on enquiringly.I figured the uneasiness had something to do with the pants.Its difficult to find a perfect fit!
“So….How were your exams?”, he stuttered.
“Well…I goofed up in a couple of them but today’s paper was pretty good”, I replied impatiently.
“So what do you think about me, Priyanka?” was the question he thought appropriate to ask next. I was progressing in the general direction of mental fog. This was all rather mystic. I had seldom met a young man with such a gift for asking inconvenient questions. It seemed like a year for perhaps two seconds. I was scarcely in a frame of mind to sing hymns in the praise of the person who had his eyes fixed on me with overflowing anticipation. After giving the matter much thought, I could only say
“You’re a pretty nice guy…” His face fell at this.
“You’re a very nice guy…” His face grew more cheerul.
“What else do you think about me?”, was the next ‘appropriate’ question to ask.A foolish question, perhaps, but a man’s brain is never at its nimblest on these occassions. A part of me wanted to catch him by the shoulders and shake him violently saying “Will you stop drivelling?!” But better sense prevailed and I again gave the matter much thought and I framed the answer with the following well-chosen words.
“Nothing else.That’s all”.
“Priyanka, I love you…”, came next. My mind was racing. A series of images flashed in my mind in succession…the shuffling of feet, the abrupt and uneasy exit speeches, the weird conversations, the shuffling of feet…did I already mention that? My thoughts were in a swirl. For some reason which has escaped my recollection, I thought it appropriate to ask
“So, you’re taking the college bus?”
For a small bunch of moments after that, I found myself wondering why there was a bewildered look on thr poor boy’s face?! I had asked a perfectly normal question…
“Priyanka,I want your answer…”This accounted for the seeming enigma regarding the bewilderment easily enough. Well, the answer was a big no but I couldn’t say that! I imagined that he would be as sick as mud. He hadn’t waited until the last day of college to hear that!No that would be too harsh!
“Oh? Well,its a…How shall I put it?…” I was desperately groping for words.
“Do you love me?”, came the next question as I stood staring in disbelief. The boy must’ve summoned every iota of courage he had in him.After all, he was speaking up after a year of supressing his emotions!It took me a couple of crushing minutes to react. The answer, I felt, was in the negative.He had but a pretty obese chance.It did not strike me as even a remote possibility.Finally, the part of the brain that often aids in the artful formation of a tissue of lies, began to gain control. I drew in breath for the delivery of the nasty blow…
“Well..I’m sorry but I’m not single”, I said as I watched his face contort, twitch and quiver involuntarily.Rather touching.
“Oh…okay…I have to go now”, he uttered before dashing off at three miles per hour.With his departure, I remember there was a marked improvement in the atmosphere.Today, he must be counting me among the most disgraceful people he’s met in a respectable world.
I sighed as I recalled this incident.Gazing morosely out of the window into the night I wondered if it would be wise to ever disclose your love for someone.Sometimes such feelings are the strongest when left within our hearts…