Fiction

The wristwatch

Time flies when you are engrossed in work, working from home that is. You just go on slogging away, unaffected by lockdowns, or news of the menacing virus, even the fact that you haven’t met your friends for a while doesn’t matter.

As I write these lines on a lazy, cloudy Saturday afternoon, my thoughts go back to the conundrum that is time. And time reminds me of Erica’s wristwatch, which is still in my possession.

I met Erica at a wedding party of an acquaintance. We found ourselves seated at the same table with three other people who knew each other a little too well. I am not very sociable, and it’s not because I am shy. It’s just that conversations at social gatherings sound inane to me. Erica however, had othes ideas on the subject and started a conversation about the size of fingers and how it meant different things for men and for women. Her theory was that the size of fingers is directly proportional to the size of penis or to the magnitude of artistic inclination if you had no penis. She was ten years older than me, though she didn’t look like it. She didn’t look exceptionally beautiful either, or to put it in another way, if I was with my girlfriend I wouldn’t have checked her out. But she looked young, maybe she lied about her age. In any case, for her, things like age, marital status, size of fingers, beauty, played a part only in social gatherings.

‘If you cannot change something by your thinking or your way of life, it is pointless to discuss it,’ she had said looking at my face filled with wonder.

‘So what is it that matters to you?’

‘Time,’ she had replied instantly, ‘it’s the most important aspect of our lives. Yet we either ignore it or take it for granted.’

She had a solemn expression on her face, a look that went well with her elegant dark purple dress and probing eyes. I didn’t know what to say in response to that, so I complimented on the food.

After the wedding, we went our ways. I had then finished school and got myself a job which kept me busy. When I met her next, she was with a man who looked as tipsy as she looked bored. I walked up to her and tried in my clumsy way to remind her of our earlier encounter. She cut me short in acknowledgement, asked for my number and dialed.

‘So you have my number now,’ she said with a wink.

‘Don’t sit on it, your time is running out,’ added her companion. She shushed him in a way that looked either like admonishing, or a bit condescending.

My life was well occupied those days, both on the professional and personal front. I had a girlfriend who was very much into drinking and sex, she never asked the difficult relationship questions. So I never felt the urge to call Erica.

At midnight on a weekday, a few weeks later, she called. I ignored, but she kept calling and forced me to get up and answer.

‘You should not take phone calls at midnight,’ she said.

I was too baffled to even comprehend it, and replied in some grumpy gibberish. Then she started interrogating me about why I asked for her number when I didn’t intend to call. I was getting more and more awake by the tone of her voice, which was accusative, but somehow felt husky and seductive. We talked for a long time. She did most of the talking, but I liked what she had to say. It was not often that you come across weird, mysterious women.

We met the next day for coffee, but she didn’t appear to be interested in either the coffee or the conversation. Neither did she look interesting, nor was she weird. We left soon and were in her bedroom. She undressed quickly and gestured me to do the same. There was a sense of urgency about her movements, it percolated into mine too. Then she took out a wristwatch from the table drawer next to the bed and looked at me. I was however not in a mood to ask questions. She kept stealing glances at the watch during the sex, which lasted longer than average, maybe because of this curious behaviour. Even towards the end she was more interested in the watch than either me or her pleasures. It was disturbing, but I liked it. She was weird after all. Apart from this queer behaviour, everything about her was normal, she always looked presentable, she was good at conversations and quite intelligent too.

Everytime after that she would wear the wristwatch, but only while having sex. Once done, she put take it off, slowly with deliberation and either put it back in the drawer or into her purse if we were at my place. I don’t recall why, but this measured way of hers somehow prevented me from broaching the subject, there were always better topics to talk to her about. Also, I might have been worried that talking about the watch might put a stop to this unique experience I was going through.

Once she followed my eyes and probably my thoughts as she was putting the watch away. She was naked and looked beautiful. She asked me if she was and I nodded. Then she said something that I still think about.

‘There is something odd about every human being, and the reason why we find some people to be normal, to be like others, is not because they lack imagination or verve. It’s because we have not examined them closely yet.’

I worked out many theories. At first I thought she was interested in checking how long it takes, maybe she maintains a journal. Probably an excel sheet. Every relationship, as we all know, follows the bell curve of sex-time. I have myself often thought of breaking up at the apex. No one feels bad at being dumped when they just had the best sex in a relationship. The only flaw in this approach is to correctly assess, how do you know if you have hit the absolute maxima. To add to the problem is women, they have their own ways of assessing. An objective way of evaluation is next to impossible if it’s to be done with consensus. I had this constant worry that she might be planning to pull off the bell curve tangent on me. I mean, after all I invented it.

This went on for a few months till the night we went out for a movie. She was very quiet throughout, maybe she was the type who want an immersive experience. After the movie, we went to her place and I found myself alone on her bed. She had gone to freshen up. I was so accustomed to the room, that there was nothing more to explore. And then it happened. On an impulse, I took the wristwatch from the drawer and put in my pocket. She came back and we went through the usual routine till it was the turn for the watch.

She rummaged the contents of the drawer to no success. Then she searched among the books, the cupboard. I tried telling her that it was ok, that we can look for it later, but she gestured me to stop speaking and went on looking frantically for it in every nook and corner. I saw how disturbed she was and decided it was enough, I had almost taken it out of my pocket when she turned around abruptly and looked into my eyes. I was wrong, she was not disturbed, or irritated. She just stood still, looking at me as if transfixed and I saw sadness. I was seeing her sad for the first time.

But the sadness she felt looked distant, so far away from me and my ideas of sadness that it felt alien, a feeling so intense that I froze. In the silence that ensued, I could hear my heart beat in my chest and the watch tick in my pocket, but these sounds were drowned by the echoes of sorrow coming out from some unknown place within her. I wanted to console her, but I knew it would only aggravate her pain because what I really felt then was a mixture of pity and guilt. She snapped out of it after a few more minutes of remaining suspended and asked me to leave, which I did. The watch remained in my pocket.

The next day she didn’t take my call. I tried contacting her but she severed all ties and cut off all channels of communication. I did see her a couple of times, but she was always with a group of friends.

Almost a year later, I found sitting alone in a pub, sipping a beer and looking peaceful, contended. I went up to her and was thankful that she recognised me. Instead of small talk, I plunged into the watch episode straightaway, and confessed to my crime. To my surprise, she was neither angry nor sad, instead she acted as if it didn’t matter and tried to change the subject and ask me about my life. But I was determined. I had to ask, and I did, expecting either no response or a lengthy explanation. Surprising me further, or rather confusing me, she said, ‘I look at the passage of time when I am most vulnerable, during those moments when I am about to lose the sense of time.’ I wanted her to go on, but she got up and walked away. Only at the door did she stop and turned around, smiled at me and blew me a flying kiss. Thats when I saw that she was wearing the same wristwatch.

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Fiction

Incomplete stories

‘Lost in the forest, the prince wandered, looking for a sign, trying hard to listen for a human voice. But the evening had gone quiet, as if the forest had stopped on its tracks and was peering at him. He saw its two eyes behind a bush and stood transfixed. That’s when the howling began, he couldn’t move even though he knew they were coming for him.’

‘Do you know what was coming for him?’

She would ask these questions out of nowhere, with flair, enjoying herself more than we did.

I remember how the wrinkles around her eyes swelled and spread all over her face as she broke into that mysterious, mischievous smile. Just like how you could almost feel the monsters and the evil men lurking around in her stories, you could sense the gleeful laugh somewhere behind that smile.

At such interruptions, we were filled with conflicting feelings of relief and frustration. But the smile was infectious, and a giddiness invariably seeped in. Like the moon breaking out of the clouds, guided by the gentle night breeze.

‘Listen to the foxes.’

The rasping voice would break out suddenly, startling us. We would hush up trying hard to listen, beyond the raucous chirping of the crickets, and the rustling of the leaves of the trees around the courtyard. On every such occasion, a firefly would appear out of nowhere and hover close, distracting us. Finally however, we would hear the sounds of the foxes. Like cries of a baby, far away.

‘Do you know what just happened.’

We would say no in chorus, expectant and eager.

‘The fox granma just completed the story. A broken up story devours the weakest. She should have known better, but you know how it is with foxes. They think they are so clever.’

What happens at the end, tell us, we are not interested in foxes.

If you don’t listen to the complete tale and rush to the end, the forest claims a little one, she would say raising her eyebrows and making a circle with her small mouth.

But that also means the prince lives for another day and for another adventure. A little fox is the casualty for tonight, this crying only makes the forest happier. You were lucky that I paused. And she would laugh, with her whole body.

I am sipping beer and my sisters rum under the city sky. After years, the three of us have managed to meet. Everyone’s life has been busy, and each has more than one story to tell. Somehow, the topic shifts to those summer vacation nights with granma. Maybe because we could finally see the stars in the night sky, thanks to a virus. Who would have thought.

We try to remember, but none of her stories seemed to have an ending. She would distract us, and we were always too engrossed, or too sleepy to notice.

All I remember is the foxes, the younger one says.

She was too young to remember the princes, the forests and lurking monsters.

The sound of the foxes grew scarce as we grew old, and every year granma’s stories got weirder. Not that we minded. The breaks and the missing parts only served to increase our intrigue. Little did we know that she was not doing it deliberately, or maybe she did. Even now I am not so sure it was a physiological degradation. She always had the last laugh.

At some point during such retelling, she would realise that she has messed up, or mixed up, or missed out a whole chapter. It was then that she brought up foxes. She would make us listen to the sounds of the night and then blame it on the foxes, on how they took parts of her stories. We were fascinated by the sounds but not impressed by the story theft among humans and foxes.

Now, however, three of us complain on something missing from life. This feeling of being left out, on bits and pieces needed to complete our stories seems to be universal. It makes me think that maybe granma was right, maybe stories are shared.

Somewhere, someone, or maybe more than one, might be having the other parts of our stories.

But then maybe we have all become foxes. Thinking we are too clever to believe in such granma tales that broken up stories devour the weak ones.

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Fiction

Eye witness

[Recording starts]
Let’s get done with this now. Start.

You mean all the way from the beginning. I just told what I saw to the other detective, in the green room.

Yes, green room is for screening, and that wasn’t a detective. Most likely an intern. They just sit and record.

Oh!

What oh.

I thought the green room guy was spellbound by the story.

You are not here to tell stories.

Yes, yes. What happened that morning. You know you could as well listen to that recording.

Yes I could, but I get sleepy.

Fine, where do I start.

From the beginning.

I often wonder why we feel everything starts from the beginning. There’s always something before. Maybe it makes us uncomfortable. Does it? Ok ok! I will tell the whole thing again only if you let me go after that.

Yes, of course. But keep to the details, I don’t care about your weird thoughts or comments.

[long prolonged sigh]

I was sitting next to my camel, minding my own business, when I saw a fishing eagle swooping down upon us, with enormous talons open to pounce.

Fishing eagle? Are you sure?

I won’t be telling you if I wasn’t, would I. I mean if you ask how I feel about it now, I am not so sure. It’s very unlikely to spot a fishing eagle in arid regions. But on that day I was sure, because I saw it. It’s difficult to make an error with that reddish brown wingspan, white belly and the talons. You must see the talons, I must say. But it didn’t pounce, probably changed its mind when it realized we were not fish and flew away towards the road. I doubt if it was sane, looking for fish in the barren lands.

You said it flew towards the road.

Yes, it’s not a busy road and it might be doing it a favor to call it a road. Just a stream of broken bits and pieces of what might have had some semblance. Like our broken dreams, in retrospect, still remain dreams in some dark corner of sleep.

Stick to the eagle. No wait. What am I saying. Come to the point and tell me about the two people.

The eagle might have spotted something, it’s hard to tell. I lost my faith in the eagle as soon as it changed its mind. It’s difficult to trust the fickle. Making a mistake is not so bad if you go through with it, that’s when you really learn. To abort and get on with life is to commit more and learn nothing.

Cut the crap, you making me sleepy.
[sound of lighting a matchstick]

So, I followed the eagle’s flight path and saw what it must have spotted. Two men were walking towards each other on the road. They could as well be women, it’s difficult to tell because what they wore covered from their head to toes. I could however see clearly, the morning air is very light in these areas. You can see beyond the horizon, they say. But what’s beyond the horizon? yet another horizon, isn’t it. It’s the same as finding a God. He won’t have all the answers, and most likely ask you to be more pious so you could meet the next, who may or may not have the answers. Can I have a cigarette?

No. Well ok, you may have one if you stick to the story. I hate it when there’s nothing but one eye witness to build up a case.

Ah but you say that because you don’t know how good an eye witness I am. These two men, people, seemed not to be surprised at seeing each other, which might mean they knew each other. Maybe that place is where they had decided to meet. It’s pleasant in the morning, so maybe it was a date. On the other hand, they might be there by chance.
Like I was.
Chance is more powerful than what is attributed to it.

[Grunt]

Ok yeah, I know, back to the story. We might never know what was before the beginning.
The little broken road in the vast expanse of nothingness might make it imperative that you stop when you see a fellow being. They did too, but maintained a distance, and stood still for a long time. It was as if they were at that threshold when you can either continue to walk away or face your fear, or your opponent or say the unknown, that’s when something happened. I could not just see what but could feel it.
I waited, with bated breath. Don’t ask me how long. Time is not a straight line but like a fluid on a flat surface, it flows as per it’s whims.

I am not asking, move on.

It was as if I was looking at a painting, white clothes in the pale yellow background, like a fading antique. You know the feeling when everything freezes, and you feel the chills even under the sun. That feeling when you know everything is futile, and you might as well enjoy the trance. I hate that feeling, so I took out my gun.

What?! You had a gun??

Oh no, not to shoot but to have a better view. It has a telephoto lens. Just at that moment, the one on the right fell backward, and a perfect fall I must say. Not too slow, as if affected, not too fast either, I mean nothing dramatic. I must say I relished the fall, and only when the feeling wore off did I switch to the one on the left. He, or probably a she, was walking. The gait was leisurely, as if punctuated by doubt, the way you would when walking away from your troubles.
What feeling would such a scene instil in you? Anger, right? A feeling like some incomprehensible injustice that has been done. I was upset, but tried to reason that I knew nothing about these people, but who has ever won against the sense of being virtuous, to make the wrongs into right is the purpose of any meaningful life. I harnessed my anger into focusing on the one walking away. If only I could catch a glimpse of the face, concentrating hard, my whole being channeled into my vision. That’s when the white dress turned orange. It was a beautiful change of the scene. A feeling of elation filled me, a happiness bereft of guilt. Only after a while, maybe after a few minutes, it dawned upon me that it was fire, I ran towards the road to save the guy.

Ran? Why didn’t you take the camel.

The camel was gone, they are very temperamental you know. Also, it must have sensed danger. All in all, you can never tell with a camel.

So you went to where the bodies were lying? What happened then.

I could see the man who had fallen backward, he had a look on the face that can only be described as peaceful. I searched the pockets but found nothing in terms of identification.

That explains your fingerprints. What about the other.

Yes, about the other. I had to walk quite a distance before I found the ash. Nothing was left of the body or any belongings.

How convenient, you find yourself in the vicinity of a double murder, with a fishing eagle and a vanishing camel. Then you see the two and take out your gun, one falls and the other tries to run away. But you catch up and burn the body, clinically. It’s interesting why you had to walk into the police station after this. That’s the only piece that doesn’t fit.

Because I didn’t want police like you to catch me and pin the case on me. You would find no evidence to connect me with this incident, I was just an innocent bystander.
Don’t implicate the eye witness for lack of any other suspect, this isn’t fair. Sheer injustice!

Lower you voice. And enough with your bullshit.
Why is it getting hot in here. And why are you looking at me like that.

You promised a cigarette, at the end.

[Muffled speaking and noise]
[End of recording]

~~~

That’s the end of the second recording. The story in both the recordings match, except for the stray comments and observations.

So, you say he walked out with an unlit cigarette between his lips?

Yes, they say he looked happy. Elated, as he might have said. He even waved at a few policemen as he walked out of the station, never to be seen again.

And the interrogating officer, he never stepped out of the room?

The CCTV camera captured only the eye witness coming out. The officer has been missing since then.

Did you guys find anything strange in the room?

No, nothing really. Only ash from the cigarettes, a considerable amount of it but the officer was a chain smoker.

Fine, let’s close this file.

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Fiction, Fun

Stage-shy bloggers get no likes

The crowd is slowly building up. Looking at the size of the hall, you realise that this is bigger than what you were told. Even the walls have soundproofing, and the stage a little too lit up. Limelight is always bright light, you tell yourself. There’s just one aspect of the whole scene that you are not surprised about, the large number of women. Do all of them write, you wonder, looking at how decked up they are, and how clueless they look, or maybe it’s just you. But of course you are clueless, you have always been. You shake off the women and get back to assessing the stage. It seems to be wincing under the light, like you would do if you were to stand there and speak. The thought itself makes you queasy, and you would have winced too if it wasn’t for the soothing, calming sight of the woman walking on it, the only person in the whole arena that seems to have a purpose in there.

You snap back from watching her because someone has asked you a question, you stare at the enquirer for some time till he gives up. Your thoughts are back on the stage. Public speaking is as terrifying as speaking to the woman who you have been ogling openly for the last ten mins, more so when you find that she is one of the organizers and to add to your woes, she puts on specs with one of those chic looking frames and looks very similar to the one who occupies your fantasies lately. But the dream is broken, slowly, as you realise that she is indeed walking towards you, and not in slow motion. You try to act cool and look past her only to find the stage staring back at you, mocking you maybe. This was always a bad idea, there is a reason why they say you shouldn’t listen to friends, especially the ones who act like they are your well-wishers.

So what do you do now. Your mind takes pace throwing the usual ideas at you – running away, acting as if you are someone else, or just being yourself, that is dumbstruck, all seem to be wise choices. Stepping down and chickening out are things that have been berated throughout history, but not because of the fact that lack of courage is looked down upon, but because these acts of disgrace deprived people of entertainment. There is self-humiliation and there is public humiliation, but today you decide to take the chances with bespectacled humiliation. After all no one would know, and it will be yet another failed attempt involving you and a female with an overtly intellectual disposition.

The conversation is surprisingly smooth, but circles back to why you won’t go on the stage, after all you had enrolled yourself. It is not a bad idea to start tonight, she says, given that your writing is better than others, definitely better than the rest of the speakers tonight. You discover that she really loves your writing, and she has no qualms in admitting that with a coy smile. Maybe she does that with everyone, but one doesn’t get the opportunity to be gullible to someone beautiful very often. You feel all pumped up. You start believing that it might not be a bad idea after all. She tells you things like how success these days demands things beyond writing, it’s your appearance, presentation, oratory skills, and you agree, mostly because you lose the thread every time the strand of hair falls on her face and she swipes it out. From the way she has tied her hair, it’s evident this strand was left out for the purpose it is serving now.

You end up saying yes. She ticks off your name in the list and walks away with a winning smile. You watch her walk away, and how mesmerizingly non-intellectual she looks from this side. You would have continued watching if your senses were not assaulted by something sensually strong, flowery, yet strangely spicy smell that you wouldn’t forget for a long while. It feels like you have had a bite of a forbidden smell and it has gotten stuck in your throat. The woman wearing a saree who has passed by leaving this overwhelming trail walks up to the stage and starts introducing herself to a big round of applause. You don’t know her but you clap with limp hands so as to blend in as you are feeling a little out of place. The feeling grows when she starts reading her poetry, with elaborate gestures, the next speaker talks about how the surreal themes are exploited these days to produce absolute nonsense. He then proceeds to read one of his own, thus proving his point.

After three more, you feel uneasy and not just out of place, but out of the times these people are living in. The recurring subject of pain seeps into you in the form of a headache. You search for coffee, your bespectacled beauty, or even the woman in saree only to make sure she doesn’t come anywhere near. The current speaker talks in a droning voice, as if her mind is elsewhere, maybe she has been assaulted by perfumes too, maybe she is surreal. You realise your thoughts are losing shape, and then someone at the back starts coughing. As if on cue, someone on my left joins in with a tentative cough, there’s someone clearing her throat now, it seems to be spreading, and people get restless thanks to all the coronavirus news and related Whatsapp forwards. The guy sitting in front gets up and leaves, and you follow him, all the way out of the auditorium.

The filter coffee and the smoke feeds your ailing soul, like raindrops on a toad. You take your time relishing the rejuvenation. But then you realise it’s getting late and your turn to speak must be drawing close, but so is the dusk. You choose to appreciate the evening sky for a while, not because you are feeling poetic, but you are back in your senses and scared of the stage all over again.

The woman in specs is frowning at you when you go to find out, you have missed your slot she says in a voice mixed with accusation and sadness. Your heart melts. She called your name five times, she says, and you can’t help rejoicing that your name was announced five times among budding writers and such a big crowd. She sees your face, and probably the celebration going on beyond the face and walks away. You feel sorry for her, for yourself, and for your heart that’s broken because of her exit, but wait it just melted and is probably still liquid. You reassure yourself on the heart front and remember that you have forgotten to ask for her number, like you had planned over the coffee. But she is walking away and you don’t want to stop her, because you would rather watch her walk away.

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Fiction

imagination is not always fiction..

“She is not the typical fiction writer who conducts methodical research and then labors to produce a faithful simulacrum of a time or a place. She doesn’t bother about each and every detail of a major event that will form the backdrop of her novel, just a facet, or an anecdote enables her to recreate the event in a way that fits well into the plot. If she visits a place which appears in her work, she doesn’t research the social, economical or historical aspects, instead she wanders in the streets, stopping at a building, or say a mossy wall from which she will create the whole building in her work.”

As I read this critic review of N’s latest novel, I remember her telling me, with those wondrous eyes – ‘The outside world is a place from which we must snatch an inspiration, one detail, or one person, even a feeling, and then develop on it.’

It was one of the first animated discussions we had on the subject of writing, where we debated with passion, on the virtues of research before sitting down to write a novel. She wasn’t forthcoming with her views at first, this conversation for instance happened months after we were well acquainted. Once you get to know her, you get the real sense of the power of human imagination, and how to be vivid about it. It’s a feat I still cannot manage with finesse.

Also, I find it a bit queer, but then I am an insufferable realist, she says. Judging people at the first go. Which I did when I first met her, I knew there was something amiss about her. In a room which was a little too crowded for a book launch, N had looked lost, misplaced, like a beautiful pearl among open and discarded oysters. She was looking for an empty chair. Her beauty was however not in the feminine projections or the curves that are the usual indicators. It was her face, with a small forehead, her inquisitive and ever wondering eyes, the sharp nose, full lips that had no lip colors on and a curving chin. It looked out of place in her unremarkable body. I had saved a seat for S, who was late as always. I was so moved by N’s appearance that I had offered her the saved chair, as if in a daze.

She was thankful, of course, but the way she offered her thanks had wrenched me out of the charmed state and then put me off. She looked as if looking through me, a smile that betrayed it’s distance. Like a smile in response to an old joke that one recalls for no reason, or a pleasant memory that visits us out of the blue. She belonged to my world, was present in that room, but I was certain it was just one of her imaginary identities, another N was probably visiting the streets of Cairo, and yet another kissing me passionately, but that was just wishful thinking. I had tried to make harmless, mundane conversation but her responses had made me regret my decision as I started preparing for the wrath of S.

On our subsequent meetings, N started acting more sane, and more social. She would engage me in conversations about things that ranged from the most petty to subjects like molecular biology, or say theoretical physics. But her presence wavered, one instance she is listening to me intently and the next there she would have a lost, glazed look. Even though she was against explorations in the usual sense, she wanted to explore each and everything she could. What she wanted from me were those little triggers to set her imagination soaring. And once on that flight, she had no use of me or my views.

This applied to our love too, or whatever you might want to call the relationship that was between us. She took cues from me, my actions, inactions and confessions, but that was all she needed. Breaking up was an equally surreal moment, she was right about most of the things, on how I am never sure about what I want, of how I am years younger to her, but what remains with me about the event is how calmly she had said that she loved me like no one she ever did, and how she had taken all that was to take from me, in form of inspiration, details and feelings and how she had built me up in her imagination, in her soul. A version of me that will remain so even if I wasn’t there, even if I changed. In a way she taught me the same, the N I loved remains etched in mine, no matter what I read or hear about her.

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