Fiction

The girl with a round face (a repost)

1

She smiled perfectly as she extended her hands for a shake, most likely deciding against the hug.
“Hi Amit, so we are finally on a date. I see you don’t find me attractive.” The perfected smile that would have disarmed the Stoics, made me think if she had been practicing.

“Oh, what makes you say so, I feel you have the perfect smile,” I grinned back, wondering if it looked hideous as usual.

“I see that in your eyes, so why did you ask me to meet,” she asked with more than a hint of mock. “Didnt we decide we hate each other.”

“Yes, but then I thought of you debating as if you wanted to win wars, and all that you said compelled me to prove you were wrong,” I blurted out, which to an extent was the truth. I never like to concede defeat in an argument, no one does.

“Ah that sounds typical, but you should have done that when I was in a mood to argue,” she said with a more natural smile.

“Well..” I paused to find the right words.

“But,” she continued, “you were drunk, all you wanted to do then was kiss me rather than prove me wrong, so not just the rights to kiss but you lost your chance to refute, forever!”.

“Ah, so you remember me trying to kiss and don’t remember us kissing.” I winked, or I think I did as I strained to remember what had really happened.

“Nice try,” she laughed, “I never drink beyond the flirty pegs, but wait, you think I forgot your kiss. Are you that bad?” she said stifling a giggle.

I didn’t actually remember what happened that night, except that I wasn’t really drunk when the discussion and the alleged attempt to kiss ensued. Maybe she looked more attractive than now, but once the girls and their not so girly escorts were gone and so was the booze, we went hunting for more. What follows usually is waking up in a place that’s usually not my bed and with no memory of how I got there.

I realized I was looking up at the poetically azure sky filled with some errant clouds only to find her expecting eyes staring at me.

“Fine, it was lame and I m convinced we didn’t, but I have been honing my skills in that area lately. Why do I feel like you are flirting with me more than I think I must be doing here.” She looked for a second as if to think, and burst out in a hearty laugh.

Just then the phone rang as if coming to rescue her from the conversation. A wave of concern enveloped her comely face, which only rose as the call went on. I sipped my coffee and checked out the people on other tables, the usual ensemble of girls with a guy sprinkled here and there.

“I have to go,” she said snapping me out of my scan, got up and rushed out in a blur.


2

Besides this conversation and her hearty laugh, now that I am trying to recall what I felt when I saw her for the first time, in sober state, it feels like an event in the haze, one that clouds the northern plains she belonged to. It is the haze in the winter days just after the sun wins over the fog. Her face was like the same sun breaking through the mist that had built up from years of me becoming a virtual recluse, I think it was two years since Kavya broke up to marry a guy from her school days. The painful part of it was that she was not in love with this guy, but she always wanted an arranged marriage for some twisted reason. Whenever I enquired, I got the same answer – “it’s the same twisted reason why I choose to live with you”. But that’s me paraphrasing her answer, hers were more prolific with words, ones that didn’t include the word twisted.

No one could argue with that, and I felt it wise not to engage in an argument with someone you shared the room with. Aditi, the girl I am talking about, was good to argue with, I think she was wearing some nondescript colored clothes, she was neither pretty nor sexy, neither fair-skinned nor dusky, to sum it up there was nothing remarkable about her appearance, except the round face. Her face was a perfect circle, and it was not easy on my part to control the urge to verify this theory. The thing I vividly remember of her appearance was the expression that went over her face as she saw me smiling, or rather as I grinned out of my failure to smile. This expression which made appearance more than once during our talk didn’t last a second, but it’s engraved in my memory. I have tried giving words to the expression, and the best I could come up with is how one feels seeing a piece of cheesecake after one had many rounds of jalebi dipped in thick rabri.

Almost a year later, I was with friends and having jalebi at Haldirams when I saw her, and this time she looked stunning. Maybe she did something about her looks, her dress or it was just me happy to see the familiar round face, the end result was stunning. I started walking towards her with my grin, which is less hideous when I m not on a date, and was just a few steps away when the expression on her face changed from prettiness to a shade of sourly disgust. It then dawned upon me that she was part of a crowd which seemed to be well connected, a connection now enhanced by their common interest at that moment, me. I resumed my approach after a moment of hesitation and asked how she was.

Instead of answering me, she looked around and answered the gathering in general, announcing that I’m an old friend. This made my grin extend a few millimeters because I liked being an old friend of pretty girls. The happiness was short-lived though, like most happy moments, as a taller and good-looking guy came forward with resounding confidence. He grabbed my hand and asked me to join them, an invitation I refused with a blank expression and looked questioningly at Aditi. She appeared to have gone into a standing coma with a weird expression that didn’t suit her face making me realize that it was a cue for me to withdraw.


3

Next day she called up and asked me to come to the same place we met for our first date, or was it a date I still wonder. In any case I was happy like a bumblebee since it had been a while since I went on a date, I would have said yes to anything. In my excitement and lack of any reasonable purpose in life, I reached the venue much earlier than the appointed time. The crowd looked the usual, girls in pairs or bigger groups, or a guy on date with a talking girl. The only change I noticed was the girls looked fatter and more chirpy. What is it that they talk about incessantly, I was wondering when something hit me on the head. I looked up at the sky in reflex, which looked back at me tranquil if not depressive as it basked in the orange glow of the setting sun.

“Lost in yourself, as always,” she almost screamed in my ears and laughed.

“Are you like this with everyone or do I get the credits of bringing out these brilliant acts,” I said recovering from the auditory assault.

“Don’t be grumpy, no girl would date you besides me. Ruby told me about your breakup and the sad status, but wasn’t that years back?” she winked.

“Yes, women run the society, I know, while we men think we are the superior kind.”

“Ok stop there, I know you will get on one of those philosophical trips of yours, I still remember the night you tried to kiss when you fell short of arguments,” she giggled.

“I am getting married to Akash, remember the guy you shook your syrupy hands with.” She said faster than her usual pace and looked seriously at me, as if expecting a response that she had already accounted for.

I, on my part was disappointed with the news, or maybe at her, or myself. Disappointment though doesn’t care about the people, it is usually more arrogant than failure. She looked the same, unremarkable, like a girl you would skip checking out even when there is not another in sight. At the same time she was one of the few girls with whom I felt a sense of freedom, and for some reason there was always an air of intrigue around her.

“Congrats, the guy is handsome, you deserve better though,” I said after a while, which must have been too long because she looked impatient.

“What do you mean better, and he has asked me to invite you to the wedding,” she still had the foreboding, impatient look.

“Ok, I m good at attending weddings, everyone seems to be getting hitched these days. So, when is it happening?” I tried to look interested.

“Not sure, they are doing the astrology stuff to decide on the dates. I am in no hurry anyways.”

“Ah does that mean I get to meet the prospective bride again?” I attempted a wink, which must have failed miserably because she looked offended.

She kept staring at my face with the straw in her mouth. I stared back to locate a red spot in her eye, a mole on her neck and her not so impressive breasts.

“Stop checking me out!” she was saying.

I grinned, “you didn’t answer.”

“Yes, we can meet but let me tell you about Akash who you clearly seem to be very interested in,” she said looking all serious, and that she did. Girls are taught from birth not to give options to others, there is just one and you have to take it, a theory I have formed based on statistics. She went on and on about his job, how he worked out every day, his family, even the latest movies he liked, and more. I listened and interjected when she was dragging on a point, sometimes its fun to detect run on sentences.

The phone rang, this time mine to save me from the Akash onslaught. I made it look more urgent than what it really was about and left. On the way I realized my knowledge of Akash now surpassed my knowledge of Aditi.

Unlike what we had decided, I didn’t meet her for a few months after that. Then one day coming out of a liquor shop I met Akash. I waved but he just looked through me. I was not to be deterred and went up to him and started introducing myself. He on his part interrupted and said Aditi and he broke up, the marriage never happened. He walked away, deciding against the planned trip to the shop. I called her immediately and heard the familiar high-pitched voice. She didn’t sound gloomy like Akash, and almost ordered me to meet at our familiar date place.

Part 2

4

Almost every Saturday afternoon during winter, Nikhil and I would sit in our balcony of the second floor flat we rented and watch the girl with abnormally long hair massacre them. This hair combing ritual had an effect on Nikhil that I am sure he too never figured out, he would sit still with an unblinking eye as if in a trance, not a single muscle of his body moving. He was always treading the line between being crazy and being weird, which made it easy for him to dismiss my questions on the subject with a half-hearted wave of hand. I, on the other hand, was born with a scientific predisposition that made me struggle to find something reasonable about his behavior. To add to my confusion he showed no interest in her if she was found in any other state, which was quite often because we lived next door. I remember talking to the girl, which in my case meant going beyond the smiles and the hellos. I also remember suppressing my urge to ask her if she noticed us watching her comb. I liked this afternoon activity because besides the occasional glimpse of her ample cleavage there was an inherent sensuousness to the scene. As in most cases of sensuous phenomena I could never find the exact reasoning, maybe it was rooted in the length and darkness of hair, the pretty facial features, hair covering part of her face or maybe because of the voyeurism in the act. The nature of sensuousness is that it makes you more aware of yourself, which contradicted with Nikhil’s lost in the scene attitude.

I was thus lost in contemplation and trying to define the differences between sensuousness and eroticism when my phone rang and both of us were wrenched out of our reverie and back to acting like guys who don’t have the appetite to do anything worthwhile after a Saturday lunch. It was Aditi on the phone, which came as a surprise because she never called to just talk. It was always the authoritative tone asking me to meet her at a predestined place at a predetermined time. The surprise factor today was that it was a Saturday and she never went out on weekends, the reason why she wouldn’t go out on weekends was a mystery that I had learnt to live with along with many such peculiarities which I assumed had something to do with being a female of the species.

I took the call after this briefest of pauses and found her in the middle of a sentence, “…you must be with Nikhil watching the hairy one comb,” she sounded irritated as she continued, “get a life, and on that subject meet me tonight at 7 for dinner.”

“Great!” I cut her off, my curiosity taking over the prospects of a Saturday night date, which throughout the history of mankind has always led to progression in intimacy. In our case the next step was a kiss, which evidently never happened in the booze party with which this tale started, or in any of the consecutive dates.

“How come you are asking me out on a Saturday, you must be getting desperate for the kiss. You know the one that lingers in the air, lately, when we are together.” A very smart thing to say I figured to set the mood, and in my little triumph I winked at Nikhil who was staring past me or most likely listening closely. The cigarette in his mouth didn’t seem to be lighted either.

“Cut the small talk and save your kissing bravado for the girls who might fall for such humor,” she said in a flat voice that made the whole kiss joke seem lame. She then proceeded to tell the name of the restaurant and asked me not to worry if I checked out the details of the place since it was her treat.

Before I could ask the occasion she disconnected. It was a mutual agreement, as were all agreements she came up with that I was never to call her up. Unlike the other mutually agreed rules of engagement, this suited me well because I wasn’t obliged to call if she didn’t for days. I never mastered the art of talking on phone, not that I ever tried. Also, the etiquettes of phone calls when you are dating a girl are complex and I had seen Nikhil struggling to figure that out even after a year into a much stable and intimately successful relationship.

“She is using you man!” Nikhil said in the muffled voice he produced with a cigarette in mouth. “You just need to learn to say no,” he continued, “or learn to make her say yes. Learning is important in all aspects of life, but its most essential in a relationship. Otherwise the relationship floats without purpose like a boat in a placid lake.”

“What the fuck, what boat in lake, are you smoking weed?”

“Never mind the boat and lake, you call her up and say you can’t do it tonight,” he said with a finality that was unlike him. He was born a chronic quitter, exemplified by the way he just gave up on his boat in the placid lake.

“No, I am not doing anything of that sort,” I declared, still looking at him with suspicion. “Tonight is the night we are going to kiss, and with the beer or probably wine, she hinted it was an expensive restaurant. So yeah, you never know what will ensue after she experiences my kissing skills.”

“That’s never gonna happen because she is using you. I don’t understand why you can’t see such an obvious thing, you are just a filler till she finds another worthy guy to get married to.” He looked at me for acknowledgement and finding none went on, “Ok don’t say anything to her but don’t go, let her have a taste of what it is like to wait. You are going with me tonight.”

Again, the finality in voice made me realize for the first time since I met Nikhil that he might actually have some ambition in life, unlike me.

“Ok, and what mission have you signed me into,” I asked with my best sarcastic face.

“I am going to dump Priya, and need one more person because I won’t know what I will do if she starts crying, loudly. I have seen her bawl, man! it’s embarrassing.” The cigarette was still not lighted, which now I had figured out was because Nikhil was nervous.

“Oh.. and what the fuck will I do if she starts crying, I am sure you will flee leaving me with her if that happens. But more importantly, why are you dumping her, you guys were like the perfect couple?”

“No couple is perfect, it’s just a facade to keep you from falling in love with more people than you could manage. I realized over time that she is not my type, also I suspect she might be faking it, which makes her a liar.”

“It’s ok, I never judge, but are you sure about this?”

“Never been more sure and thanks for coming,” he concluded the conversation by lighting up the smoke.

I thought over and realized I had never witnessed a guy dumping a girl, my case was in the reverse order. Brilliant that I always have been, I solved both problems and convinced Nikhil to do it in the same restaurant. Aditi would be paying, also he will have a girl to handle his potentially bawling and broken up girlfriend. We could both flee the scene. I marveled at my skills in problem solving after Nikhil agreed to the plan and called up Priya to tell the place and time for dump. For a guy going to dump his girlfriend, he looked calm and composed and sounded the same.


5

We were getting in the car when Nikhil’s phone buzzed. He looked at the phone for a moment which lasted more than a moment. The call was brief, and as we started Nikhil told that Priya is bringing her friend too and he couldn’t say no, it just had to happen tonight. This made me nervous because now Aditi will have to pay for more people, or maybe she won’t which would only make it worse. Nikhil was mostly silent during the drive and I kept quiet to give him space to practice the dumping routine. For once I was more interested in this event than meeting Aditi on Saturday night, a first of its kind date with her.

I was still parking the car when he shot out of the car and was gone in a blur. As I got out, I saw him with a bunch of people standing at the parking gate. At closer proximity, the bunch turned out to be two girls and a guy. Nikhil seem to be engaged in a heated debate with Priya while the strangers held hands and it looked as if they were squinting into each other’s eyes. Since I didn’t know if Nikhil was already doing it, without wasting a second I walked up to them and said hello. Priya looked jolly, which allayed my fear of losing out on the scene, and introduced her friend and friend’s fiancé, Aditya.

“Sorry for the late intimation, but my dad won’t allow me to go out alone at nights. I could convince him by dragging Aditya along, he is good company.” Priya’s friend answered with a dash of pride to my bewildered look at Aditya, Nikhil and back.

With the introductory issues settled, the five of us entered the restaurant. It looked dark and a woman wearing even more dark popped up from the dark air asking if we had a reservation. When I told we are with Aditi and she made the reservation, our dark dressed woman looked at us with the typical doubt ridden femme eyes and probably approved, because she directed another dark attired but younger woman to escort us to a table. There was music coming from the roof, more beats than music but one can tell bad music from the faintest of the sounds. We were settling in the cozy chairs when Aditi arrived, looked at the crew and looked at me with questioning eyes. I decided against explaining the circumstances that made the two people treat now a six people one and grinned instead. Priya got up and hugged Aditi, which brought back the pleasant smile that always went well with her round face.

Priya went on to explain the presence of her friend in conspiring tone, and the presence of Aditya in louder, announcing tone. I could see Aditi’s eyes light up at the news of the two getting married and she was immediately friends with the duo asking them questions that mostly made more sense than the answers that were offered. I looked at the silently fidgeting Nikhil who caught up with me and directed my attention to Aditi, still engrossed in wedding conversation. Nikhil was bad at doing the “I told you so” look but I got the gist. As a fitting reply I interrupted the talks and announced, “Nikhil has something to say,” I paused for effect, “something to say to Priya.”

Nikhil glared at me and turned to Priya in an extremely slow motion who looked at him confused. In a hushed tone that he wasn’t capable of, he embarked on the speech.

“You have been the best girlfriend any guy could get, you are smart, sexy, intelligent..”

“Wait, are you breaking up with me,” Priya cut him off and looked at him as if he just committed a grave crime.

“Well,” Nikhil fumbled for the right words and said “yes, I was. Stop interrupting me.”

“Oh I see, and you got your friend so he could witness your brave act.”

“No he was invited by Aditi, I thought it a better idea to do it in an expensive place.” Nikhil grinned.

“Ok, but I got my friend along because I wasn’t sure how you would react once I broke up with you tonight. This relationship needs to be aborted right now, stop grinning like an idiot.”

They kept staring at each other for some time, for me it was like a tennis match. The grin on Nikhil’s face was gone and replaced by the straight face mirroring the same look on Priya.

“So, you want to break up too? You could have told me on phone and saved me all the trouble.” It was now Nikhil’s turn to acquire the accusative tone, and he continued, “but wait, what did you think I would do, cry like you?”

Priya laughed, “you never know. Have you ever been dumped?”

“See? This is the problem with you, you are never serious.”

“As if you are,” Priya looked at us and realized there were more people around, and still looking at us said, “we should continue this discussion when there are fewer people.” To which Nikhil gladly agreed. He was still looking at Priya, and I suspect it was with awe.

With the break-up broken up before it matured, my attention found its way back to Aditi who looked happy.

“What’s the occasion, how did you manage saturday night, why such expensive place,” I had many more questions.

“Occasion is I resigned and starting something on my own, will give you details later. It’s such a brilliant idea you will blow out of your mind. Wait, I am upset with you inviting this medley of jokers.”

“I wanted your treat to get bigger, and see it’s a party now,” I grinned, “You are still paying, right?”

Just then the waiter came and we ordered drinks, being last order of happy hours Nikhil and Priya overdid their orders. Priya’s friend and Aditya were discussing the menu still. I went for the same non-alchoholic drink that Aditi ordered. She had quit alcohol. After her wedding was called off and we moved on from coffee joints to pubs, she used to drink like a drunk fish. But then, for no apparent reason one fine day she quit. The reason for my sacrifice of beer was that I still had the kissing thing in mind and didn’t want to risk the smell of beer as a deterrent.

The drinks order was followed by discussion on the music that was playing upstairs, we didn’t see anyone going up the stairs though. So the conclusion was – if there was a party in progress it must have had started much before.

“How’s work, why do you stick to a job you don’t enjoy,” Aditi asked. She was in the mood typical of people who have recently quit their jobs. They tend to question others of their choices, life, universe and almost everything you don’t want to discuss.

“I know it’s pointless, but I don’t care, sometimes it’s nice to go with the flow. But you know that about me.”

“Are you insinuating at our relationship?” Aditi asked with the most solemn face she and continued, “because if you are it’s just too good and precious to me. I don’t want to ruin it by a kiss that supposedly lingers in the air. Also, I know why you are not taking beer.”

More than heartbroken I was curious about the theory. “Why would a kiss ruin our relationship, especially when there isn’t one in the first place to ruin. Most relationships, on the contrary are conceived by a kiss.”

“I meant,” Aditi said with the same serious voice, “let’s not ruin such a friendship over a kiss.”

“A friendship! Ah, Nikhil was saying that you use me as a filler while you wait for a groom charming, is this true?” I never believed in keeping things in the closet, especially when I was desperate.

Aditi looked at Nikhil with cold scrutinizing eyes. “You believe Nikhil, a guy who brings a friend for support to dump his girl. Look at him now, one moment he is doing a shoddy job at breaking up and the next he is serenading to her.”

“It’s not that I am judging your friend, and I never said I wasn’t interested in ruining our friendship, it’s just that I feel I might end up in love.” She said in such a matter of fact tone that I missed the import of the statement.

As the implication dawned upon me it was too late and she was looking at Nikhil and Priya who were engaged in a hushed up conversation and were sitting more close to each other than what the chairs would have possibly allowed. Her friend and Aditya were still discussing menu, most likely the food. I didn’t notice anything romantic about this couple except that they never argued, and arguing, I always felt was one of the most romantic things to do.

My thoughts on the nature of romanticism and future prospects with Aditi were interrupted by a police siren and the restaurant being flooded with cops in a flash. We all looked at each other clueless, yet excited, at least I was.

Part 3

6

The cops moved around like a swarm of bees around a disturbed hive. Some went upstairs, a few were crowding the dark dressed lady who looked as calm as she was when we walked into the restaurant. Every table was manned by a cop now and the one who was given the charge of ours seemed to be disappointed in us. He looked around but never said a word. Nikhil however ventured to ask him about the state of affairs, a relevant question in the circumstances but which drew an unabashed and an almost glorious yawn from the guy. I decided to do a better job, driven more by the yawning attitude of the cop than any intention of demystifying the development. I was just opening my mouth to speak when there was a sudden outbreak of commotion upstairs and a barrage of footsteps. The sound of stampede mixed with feminine screaming made it seem more ominous than what we would have wanted to believe.

We were all glued to our seats watching the stairs which now came to hurried life, chased by angry lawmen. The cops standing at the tables, with bellies that would shame even the most conceited pots, now ran to the door in a sprint I never thought they were capable of. Some of the party animals though, wearing clothes that covered the whole spectrum of colors managed to escape. The unlucky ones were held while women from upstairs were as clueless on what action to embark on as were the cops who were all men. So the most reasonable thing the women decided to do was to run randomly among the tables and occasionally scream.

The whole scene, though bizarre, entered a rut and my interest was gradually transitioning from dumbstruck to a stuck-with-the-dumb state. This deadlock was momentarily broken by the arrival of sniffer dogs who instead of being let to sniff were shown the way upstairs by the leash holders. The advent of dogs distracted everyone and the guy held by his collar by our yawning cop shed his collar like a lizard would shed its tail sensing a way out of danger. This brilliant idea of lizard analogy was inspired by the way his eyes bulged from the rest of the face. Bulging, bloodshot but overtly alert, the eyes scanned around for signs of prey only to settle on me. I was midway with my flinching, when the guy moved with alarming speed and grabbed the table knife in his left hand and Aditi in his right.

The knife was pinned to Aditi’s neck making her sit still and like all the others on our table my eyes were switching at a breakneck speed between lizard-eyes, the knife and Aditi. The next best thing to look at in that moment I figured was our cop, who I found holding the shed collar and looking at lizard-eyes with a queer amusement and no inclination in any kind of movement on his part. It was thus my turn to act the hero and save my girl, I could already imagine all the eyes on me. I was the gladiator in the ring, except here it was a table and I was no valiant warrior in disguise. Everyone looked at me as I got up slowly, everyone except Aditi who was trying to look at the knife pressed against her throat. I did the get-up-slowly sequence intending to bring some flair and more importantly because I lacked any plan of action. Help immediately came in the shape of when-in-doubt-punch-the-face strategy and without taking my eyes off lizard-eyes I aimed one on his face with all the force I could muster. The punch would have been an unforgettable achievement in my life if had been successful in finding the intended face. It was lost in thin air though, because at the last moment our villain decided to pass out, the soft sound of his fall was contrasted by the sound of the laughter that escaped Priya. Aditi, who looked flustered and irresolute stood up, looked at Priya with disgust and hugged me. This event propelled Nikhil to burst out laughing, but unlike Priya who was giggling now, he managed to say something, the gist of which was we two are equally hopeless and that lizard-eyes should have gone for the fork instead.

Our yawning cop came to life and asked Aditi if she was ok. He then went on and told the air above us that we were part of a busted rave party. There is nothing to fear from the party people because they are high with chemicals that even the sniffer dogs won’t smell. Even before he ended the denouement, a black canine was sniffing Nikhil’s balls who now had the looks similar to that of a ghost realizing for the first time he is dead. The sniffer dog’s cop then asked Nikhil to empty his pockets bringing relief to Nikhil’s face since he realized the dog wasn’t interested in his nuts. But to our surprise and dismay, out came five joints in perfect condition even after being in his pockets for hours. Nikhil always impressed me with these tricks which I am sure only a few could accomplish.

The ensuing consultation between our benevolent yawning cop and canine wielding cop concluded with exchanges of high-handed smirking. We were informed that we would be accompanying the party people to the police station for further proceeding. Before most of us could comprehend this new development and react, Priya’s friend burst out crying. A cry that was so feral and shrill that I thought it would wake up the still flattened out lizard-eyes on the floor. We all turned in that direction only to find Aditya consoling her, himself in teary eyes. Nikhil though, ignoring the cries started arguing with cops on legality of carrying marijuana when Aditi declared she is calling her dad to sort out the affair.

After a hushed up and a surprisingly quick call she assured us that we are not going to any police station. I had experienced this – being in control, being on top of situation voice of Aditi before, but others on the table looked at her with disbelieving eyes. Nikhil, taking advantage of this confusion, carefully and without attracting attention pocketed back the joints. He looked at me with a mischievous grin and explained the post break up celebratory purpose of the same. Aditi wouldn’t reveal details about her superdad and his plans in rescuing us innocent victims. My question regarding Aditi’s dad were different though, as I wondered if and when we would be able to kiss tonight. Will her dad take her with him or will she go in her own car. These questions remained questions in my head as we heard more sirens outside.

The white kurta clad man who entered looked important, there was an air of confidence mixed with disinterest in that confidence hovering above him. He nodded at Aditi and talked to a cop, one who suddenly started behaving like the leader of the gang. I always marveled at how these seemingly important people spotted their peers instantaneously. After a few minutes of discussion, Aditi’s dad came to our table and asked her about the friend. An awkwardly smiling Aditi pointed at me which he acknowledged with a conspiratorial nod. I was offered an enveloping hand to shake and asked if I would mind leaving the company of my friends for a while. Clueless, I looked around for support but was offered blank faces and the remnants of Aditi’s smile. Having no excuse that would rescue me, I joined kurta-dad on the way out of the restaurant.

“Beta, kyu karte ho ye sab?” he started as soon as we were out of the door. I realized this guy valued time and had none to spare.

“But what did I do,” I uttered confused, only to add a little too late, “sir?”

“Aditi has been telling all good things about you but first time we meet, you are caught with drugs and getting my little girl in trouble.”

“Oh, we were not doing drugs, there was a party upstairs. We were here for dinner.”

“Well that’s not what I was informed by the inspector, who by the way is a very honest cop. If he listens to me, which might happen tonight, it’s because I am an honest man myself.”

“I was not carrying any drugs,” I insisted, not listening to the disclaimers on honesty, “nor did I do drugs, ever. You may ask Aditi.”

“Of course she will support your claim,” he said, the tone now getting edgy. “That is exactly what we need to discuss here, all this boyfriend and dating stuff doesn’t suit a girl from our family. It needs to stop, also she needs to marry Akash.”

“I don’t think she wants to marry Akash, or for that matter anyone as of now,” the mention of Akash brought back the hero again. “Also, we are simply friends, I am not Aditi’s boyfriend.”

“Well that’s great then, let’s cut to the chase. She has been behaving weird since she broke up the marriage, exactly around the time you two started being simply friends. She has quit her job and wants to do something that none in my party understand. So I offer you this deal, the one you must not refuse.”

He looked at me with assessing eyes, and I did spot a wave of doubt pass over his face as he stated the terms of the deal.

“You stop being simply friends with my girl and none of you will be indicted tonight. Alternatively, you may continue messing with my girl’s mind, but only when you are acquitted of the charges for supplying drugs to rave parties.”

I looked at his face for a laugh, or even hints of a mocking smile but he remained as emotionless as a boiled egg.

“It has the sounds of an offer no sane person can refuse,” I said still looking into his eyes, still hopeful. But nothing changed in the firm face, and I gave up.

We shook hands, while his men fetched Aditi who left with a faint wave at me and an apologetic smile that every time I think of, still manages to make me fall in love with her, the girl with the round face.

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Standard
Fiction

Soulmates in the cabin

I like talking to the mute, or the gagged, they are the best listeners but they never keep still. I am therefore writing for you, my mute listener, the reader.

~

The clouds are back by the time I am done washing. I watch the water going down in the sink, the fading red looks as ugly as the greying sky. It will start raining soon, that persistent rain which mocks you. I hate this fucking place and it might be time to move on. Maybe I am getting old, I feel tired and sink into the chair, drinking whatever I get hold of. They all taste the same, probably because they are all the same. I stopped caring about these things long ago. A numbness fills me and then, maybe after a few hours because it looks darker outside, I am wrenched out of my place.

“Do you really have to kill me,” she asks in a voice that is cold, almost inhuman, one that feels simulated and if there is any inflection it is only in her eyes. They shine with the calm intensity of the insane.

She is bound to the chair that is now placed at the centre of the cabin, facing me. Avoiding those eyes I walk towards the table, which thankfully is still in its place next to the window. Grabbing a bottle that is not empty, well, almost empty, I take a swig at it and then notice the table is slightly askew. Maybe it is the window. This is the reason why people hate furniture. I have reinforced the front door with steel but the door to the bedroom is tearing apart. There are gaping holes from which, if you peer hard, you can see the white sheet on the bed. I hate this place, it stinks of death.

To answer her question, no I don’t have to kill her. I don’t answer though, it feels like a sin to talk to these soon to die people. No wonder they send a priest to the cells. I don’t have to but I will kill her. It’s something I love to do, and in my opinion, taking out a life from this world is a bigger accomplishment than bringing a new one into existence, the latter might seem noble but is absolutely unnecessary.

A new life comes blank, almost like a piece of meat, another errant drone to the already swarmed up planet. A thriving life on the other hand, is full of dreams, hopes, agony, stories, an uncertain future and such existential elements that suffocate the individual. Deep down we all want it to end, to not wake up to another morning, to not live another day of the future that would soon become our past. A past from which we won’t learn anything new. I am like, no not just like, but truly a messiah for these poor souls. You may think of me as one of your justice systems that condemn the proven guilty, the guilt I work with is about existence without a reason.

She moves the chair disturbing my line of thought, making me realize how I hate you, the reader who will undoubtedly judge me. But I must go on, not for my redemption but for your education and if I sound pretentious, it’s because I am not getting carried away with the story, forgetting you.

She is looking at me without fear, something that’s unexpected. Fear is what drives me to do the honorable act, without it these people are no different than children and I have never killed, or could ever kill a child. Children won’t appreciate what they are being saved from, they need to grow up to digest the dose of enlightenment.

“Why are you staring at me like this, are you done sermonizing,” she asks, the same voice again.

I don’t answer but I can’t take my eyes off her. It’s as if not her words but her voice, or is it the eyes, that are asking me questions. I don’t like questions, they are like shackles that you know how to get out of but in the process you know you will lose a bit of yourself. I look expectantly into her eyes searching for that fear, instead what I see now is something that can only be called abhorrence.

Being intimidating is honorable, but being despised. It is base. It makes me feel little, insignificant like a worm, or a gruesome spider, an abomination that I am not. I hate her for this. But something about her checks even the hate spewing out freely. I take another swig, a generous one. Does it taste like tar, maybe it’s the sound of rain splattering against the glass.

“You are in trouble, ain’t you,” she asks smiling and in a smug voice now. “If you are not going to kill me, release me. Let’s run away from all this.”

“Where,” I ask, immediately hating myself for it. It was on impulse, and yes, I am in trouble because I have never been impulsive. She keeps smiling, but it doesn’t seem fake anymore.

“You are irritated because you have realized the futility of your life. There is just no justification, no martyrdom for you, no reason for anything, is there?” I pick up the gun and shoot into her eyes. Surprisingly, I miss and I have never missed before. She laughs and deservedly so.

“See what I mean? It doesn’t solve anything, you are as worthless as I am, except I have a clean conscience. You on the other hand,” she pauses to sigh, “You know what life is?”

“Beat it! I don’t want philosophy, save it for your admirers.”

But I know, I feel it deep down that she is right. At times she sounds too familiar. Outside there is thunder and it looks like it’s going to be a premature dusk, did I say I hate rain. I must get done with this fast and leave this cloud-ridden town. It seems like I am repeating. But that’s what I have been doing, repeating the act over and over again, all my life. The guns have changed and so have the people, both insignificant in their transience. I may be thinking of righteousness and glory, but who am I kidding. Glory has been found in many disreputable places, but it has never been found in a rut.

“Ok you want to know about death, is it?” She looks at me coldly, as if she won’t even waste her time judging me, unlike you.

“Death is the end,” I can’t help it, I look for another bottle to fill my mouth with whiskey if only to stop talking to this horrible woman. Thankfully there is a sound outside, of tyres screeching to a halt, it must be Chuck. I hate him, I hate drama and people who act with flourish. A silence follows, and in it I move swiftly and untie her. Then opening the bedroom door, I switch off the light and watch her silently blend into the darkness.

He bangs hard on the door, the same antics. I take my time to open, he barges in brandishing a gun that looks too big for his hand, and seemingly with a purpose that’s too much for his brains.

“Did you take care of the body,” he asks trying to remain calm.

“No, but I will. Why are you here” I look towards the bedroom, his eyes follow.

“In there?”

“Yes, I like to fuck the dead.”

He looks taken aback, sick bastard.

“Don’t even, it’s in my car. Just go away.”

“Well, you better get done with it. I am taking over, but I don’t want to waste time or bullets on you, just make sure you go clean.”

“I have a gun too, you know.”

“And you are talking? Weird shit too. Your gun is a lost cause and you know it better than anyone.”

I can see her eyes smiling through the big crack in the door. Chuck seems alarmed.

“What is in there”

“Nothing,” I say finding her eyes irresistible, “and if you want to do it yourself, take these keys, it’s in my car. Go”

“I am sorry buddy, but I have to make sure you are not up to some sick game here, don’t want no tricks. I definitely don’t want to leave hot trails,” he points the gun at the door and fires three shots.

I love the sound, and the silence that follows. It is however interrupted by drops of water trickling down the roof. He looks at me with pride and starts walking towards the door.

“Don’t go in there,” I say it with such urgency that he stops, realizes what he has done and moves further.

“Don’t open the door,” I plead, but it’s unheeded.

He walks into the room and then I see him flying out as if pushed with a monstrous force. There is a look of dread in his eyes and the face is contorted in a fashion that no human language would have the words to describe it. I see a puny stream of red slowly flowing away from the head, but not as slow as the realization that creeps up within me as I find myself standing at the doorway. I drop the gun.

“Grotesque, isn’t it, why do they send us the frail,” she is standing next to me and looking intently at the body.

“You don’t have to do it you know,” I say, miserable.

“Are you tired of me, you want this to end?”

“No, but there are other ways.”

“Of course there are.”

She turns and wraps me in the familiar embrace. Everything starts to seem normal, I feel at peace. I can hear her thoughts echoing in me, and I know she knows it too, it’s like we don’t exist in this moment. I can feel her breath on my neck, she smells of whiskey. Or is it me, I look around.

“Do you want to tie me up again,” she asks with excitement, already on the chair.

It has started raining again. I hate the rain.

***

Standard
Fiction

The legend of the dragon warrior

Princess Elizabeth never wanted to be a princess, at least not after she found out what it took to be a princess, and what more it took to be the princess of Camelot. She looked out of her window at the people below moving carefree, women without escorts, kids playing with reckless abandon and she wondered yet again how happily she would trade her life with theirs. Her vision traversed the walls of the castle and settled on the green wilderness. Something always stirred within her when she looked at the undulating meadows flanked by pines and the deciduous trees. But then the houses in the small clearings among the trees caught her eyes filling her with a sadness, if only these people were friendly she would have had a much different life.

The castle city was surrounded by barbaric chiefdoms all vying to get a piece of Camelot, its eggs in particular. Prosperity of the city was solely based on the unique breed of fowls it boasted of and which didn’t survive outside of the walls. The meat exports were soaring but it was the eggs that were sought for from faraway cities. Besides their exotic taste, they were of great nutritious value and didn’t rot over days, even in the hot weather making them conducive for long distance trade. Out of diplomatic and military pressure from the consumer cities, the clans provided safe passage to the traded goods to and from Camelot. They too gained in the process from taxes but each of the clans desired to rule Camelot one day.

The castle was made of rocks, a shade of greenish black like the volcanic rocks found in that region. With a spire rising high as if piercing the sky the palace looked formidable yet beautiful. The walls of the castle were however ill designed with many wings vulnerable due to the terrain of the surroundings. There were mounts looking down upon the castle at these places, providing enemies with vantage points and high ground to launch devastating aerial assaults. The reason Camelot still stands was not because of its valiant kings or a great army, both have always capitulated in the face of the most trivial of attacks. It is the fear and the legend of the dragon warrior that never failed to appear whenever Camelot had been at brink of annihilation. No one knows where it came from, or how and where it vanished after decimating the aggressors.

Elizabeth’s father Arthur was the last king, and for that matter the only king who ventured beyond the castle to put an end to the threat of the barbarians once and for all. There are many stories of his valor and victories but he never returned and became a legend himself. Some say he died fighting David, the hornbeam, the great barbaric regent. Some say he stayed too long among the heathen to become one of them and died from an unknown disease, but the most popular version is that he was the dragon warrior and having accomplished his work he went back to mother fire. Elizabeth grew up believing her father was a great man and that he was still alive, if she harbored the idea of him being the dragon warrior, it was deep within her heart rather than in her head.

Her favorite pastime in the confines of the palace was engaging in sword-fights and honing her skills at archery. She was raised by her mother who was a strict disciplinarian, ruling the city and her with as stern a face as any queen ever had. The queen was beautiful with chocolate hair, black eyes and a porcelain skin, everything about her was perfect and in correct proportion. Elizabeth, with her golden hair, green eyes and a nose that went red at every emotion came out too colorful to end any exercise on finding resemblances between the mother and daughter. This fueled the rumors surrounding her birth, of the king being away and the queen doing penance day and night in the temple, and then the unexpected birth of the princess one moonless night.

The only thing mother and daughter had in common was their love for the temple of the dragon warrior. Elizabeth was allowed to visit the temple once every month, the queen being queasy about her going out of the palace due to recurring reports of her planned assassination. No one wanted another queen, it suited neither the statesman within the castle not the clan chiefs outside who already feared the dragon and didn’t want, of all people, a woman leading the dragon. The temple was a huge structure at the centre of the city with the face of a dragon looking fierce with enormously large emeralds for eyes. The townsfolk claimed that the eyes glowed and came alive in the moonless nights but too bright to make eye-contact.

It was not the structure or the eyes which impressed the princess but the feeling of being at peace when inside the inner chamber. It had a small mound with a flat top that was popularly called as the egg basket in which you put flowers for good luck. The prevalent notion was that if dragon warrior accepted your offering and prayer it would bestow blessings upon you in the form of a golden egg. The queen was always uncomfortable when asked about the veracity of these facts. For answer, she always looked at her daughter dreamily till her eyes got all watery. As for the daughter, she didn’t care much for these stories because what mattered more was how safe she felt in the calming embrace of the cool air trapped inside the temple.

When she turned 25, there was a ceremony to initiate the process of matrimony after which suitors could come up and show why they were worthy of the princess. Maybe the inert dragon warrior will come as a suitor, maybe with his dragon, the princess dreamt. However, nothing of the sort happened and the clans which had been getting powerful over time blockaded anyone who desired to go to Camelot. She soon gave up on thoughts of elusive love and spent more time practicing various aspects of warfare, from the generals and the statesmen. To everyone’s surprise the clans united that year in order to attack Camelot yet again. People panicked and flocked to the temple, everyone looked up to the sky, not a speck was left unattended to. As expected, the dragon warrior didn’t appear. The army and the ammunition was prepared to be led by a queen for the first time in the history of Camelot.

Elizabeth’s protection and security was strangely tightened up by the queen in the wake of this development. It infuriated the princess who itched to go fight alongside the army. Instead as a compensation, she was allowed access to the small platform on the spire from which she could have a clear and panoramic view of the proceedings. The war started a bit too soon and she felt restless and helpless watching the walls starting to crumble as slowly and steadily the clans marched forward with their artillery, their beasts and contraptions overpowering the enervated defenders of the castle. She joined the citizens looking at the sky, not just hopefully like them, but with a determination that felt strange even to herself.

She was now certain her father, the dragon warrior will swoop down upon the enemies wrecking havoc and drawing cheers on the other side, she could almost feel the presence. Nothing of the sort happened even though she became more and more certain of the imminent event, the itch to be in the arena had now started to burn. She could hear the sounds of the horns used by the barbarians as a symbol of victory, and couldn’t stand the surge of energy that shook her body. She lost her poise and along with it her grip on the glinting metal of the spire, it felt like liquid in her hands and she plunged down with an alien force.

All she could see now was the eyes of the dragon warrior on top of the temple looking at her with it’s green fierceness. It instilled an unchecked wrath in her heart that flowed to every part of the body as she flapped her wings, nothing surprised her now as she rose looking at the enemy troops celebrating already having breached a few of the walls. The hatred brimming up inside her felt justified and she let it pour upon them, the green fire lighting up the sky and the land alike. A fire that consumed not just the armies and their bearings but every thought, every particle of her being, she was pure energy and then as abruptly as it had started she ceased to exist in an instant. The queen looking at the wondrous spectacle had tears in her eyes but a pride too. A pride befitting the mother of the dragon warrior, except she was not.

This post was written in response to the prompt
Mythical, from calmkate.

Standard
Fiction

When the roses turned orange – 2

[2]

He didn’t get a chance to talk to her for months after that, but he did see her face at the window more often in the mornings. Sometimes he stood there waiting till he saw her and nodded before he continued. There was no sign of the young man or of roses. The plant had taken up to looking like it’s surroundings. A scent of neglect wafted in the air. Kishan felt restless everyday as he passed the house. Many thoughts kept him occupied those days, maybe the young man was her husband and she keeps looking out of the window expecting to see him come any day. Maybe she is the daughter and not the daughter in law of the elderly couple, and her husband was in armed forces stationed in Kashmir. Maybe they were siblings, and her husband is a third person. But nothing happened beyond the thoughts.

Today is the collection day. He knocks at the door and waits. An unfounded dread fills him as he looks at the dying plant. When no one answers he goes around the house as if on impulse, maybe because this never happened before. Someone always answers at these houses. Instead of signs of life he finds a rusted tap and a plastic can. He fills it with water and waters the plant without thinking, it soothes his anxiety. The soil looks dead, almost plastered. He rushes back to his house to get a shovel and a bag of plant manure from the shop. Digging around the stem to loosen the soil, he mixes the manure and pats the soil back to level. There are no flowers but the plant has life, it will survive. He is pleased with himself and had almost forgotten about the people when the front door opens.

“You did a good job, Kishan,” she says looking sallow with sunken cheeks and a forced smile. A little girl stands hiding behind her dress.

“You surprised me madam, I knocked and knocked. Why didn’t you open. How are you, is everything ok? You don’t look well. Is your husband here.” He stops himself from saying more, the damage he realizes has already been done.

“I love the plant too,” she says in a weak voice looking at the plant.

His attention goes back to the upturned and healthy looking soil and he feels a happiness surging.

“You must be tired, do you want a cup of tea?”

“No madam, I must go. I will come tomorrow for payment.”

“Where do you have to go,” she says without emotion but with a confidence that startles him, “wait here I will make tea. Meanwhile Pihu will give you company, won’t you Pihu?”

Pihu giggles producing two tiny dimples. She seems to be happy at the turn of events. Does her mother have the same dimples, he wonders.

“Do you want to take a walk in the garden,” he asks more to the mother, who nods with the same forced smile.

The girl releases her mother’s hand and instantly grabs his and is already dragging him with all her might. He relents and follows the lead as she goes all over the garden. The weed must be grazing her legs but she shows no signs of discomfort, instead she laughs without reason. They spot an anthill that gives her a little scare and the loosening hold on his finger tightens. Kishan remembers someone saying that one’s children are reflections of one’s inner spirit. He feels good looking at Pihu. Maybe all she wants is to hold his hands and run into the wilderness, he dreams the impossible.

“Enough exploring,” mom shouts at them, “there might be insects or even snakes.”

She is sitting on a chair in the porch with a cup of tea. There’s another chair placed at the other end and next to it his cup of tea. He sits on the steps, sips the tea and says thanks.

“People have stopped caring. I was moved by your gesture at saving the rose plant.”

“Madam, are you well. Is everything ok?” He has not forgotten his earlier question and the way her focus shifts back to the plant tells him she hasn’t forgotten either.

“Do you have a family,” she asks instead.

“Yes, a son.”

“Oh I am sorry.”

“No need madam, she is not dead, and most probably not sorry either,” he says with a sardonic smile.

“You are right, they are not sorry,” she says, lost. “It’s not the moving caravan but the cactus that feels sorry for itself standing alone in the desert, deserted.”

“But the cactus survives in the desert, give it water and it will die.”

“Yes Kishan, sadly it does. Maybe what it wants is not water but company,” she lifts Pihu on her lap.

A cactus with a flower. He finds her looking at him, not angry because he has been staring, she doesn’t seem sad either. She just looks, with her keen eyes, as if not afraid of what she might find.

“Thank you madam, I will go now. Bye Pihu.”
Pihu says bye and waves, while mom nods and looks away.

[3]

Every month on the collection day, he now has the cup of tea on the steps while she sits on the chair and they talk. It is mostly about the resurgent plant, the desolate garden, Pihu and Rohan, the bookshop, and everything mundane till she interjects something odd, something poetic that makes both of them conscious. The other chair is always placed where it was the first day. He likes it’s presence. Sometimes the parents join, even though for namesake since they just listen with glazed expressions on their faces. But they too make sure the empty chair remains so. It makes him wonder if it is for him or the lost member of the family.

~

Years pass as these talks take a more philosophical and more personal tone, but it’s done with so much ease that he doesn’t feel embarrassed and she looks too happy to be bothered with implications. Life on her cheeks are back and her dresses are more colorful, at times he finds her nails painted and lips glossy. He wonders if she too looks forward to these meetings.

“Pihu went to std 1 this week, would you imagine,” she says with a mix of pride and tenderness.

“Rohan is in fourth but the school is not good, madam.”

He had been complaining a lot lately, about teachers scolding for no reason and bullies making it difficult for him at school.
“He is a bright kid, maybe that’s the reason why he is having troubles.”

“Why don’t you try the Army school, they have to take students from economically backward sections. I will get the forms.”

“That will be wonderful, our kids studying in the same school. I wouldn’t have even dreamt of it,” he says with a smile.

“Oh I know what you dream about,” she says playfully, a tone he often forgets she is capable of.

“Of roses?” he suggests and they laugh.

“Roses? I thought there was just one, do you see more,” she asks after a while, looking at the plant.

“This one is beautiful, and so full of life.”

She looks at him and agrees, “Yes, after years. Thanks to you.”

“I think there’s something in the soil, I have stopped adding manure long back.”

“It’s the love, plants feel it and are not ashamed to acknowledge.”

“You are probably right madam, we humans have many reservations,” and they look at the flower together, fighting the reservations.

“Call me Radha,” she says with an earnestness she reserved for the most important matters.

“Madam, is that your name?”

“Of course it is, do you think I will invent it to have fun.”

“Yes, you would.”

“Well it is Radha, and the joke is not just on you,” she says with a wry smile.

~

It’s the year of Rohan’s board exams, he studies hard, till late in the night. It amazes Kishan to find his son so determined and so full of ambition. He himself never had any ambition, he just followed wherever life took him. Rohan talks about going to IIT, about doing MBA, about Pihu who he insists in calling Neha. When he sees Kishan worried he assures him that studies can be funded with bank loans. But Kisha’s worries are not for finances, he has been saving over years. He now owns the newspaper distribution of the south part of the city, not because of his endeavors but because his employer never had a family and Kishan proved to be a worthy successor. The bookshop was flourishing too, people were reading more, everyone wanted education for their children. What worries him is Rohan’s ambitions, he knows it is good but ambitious people are never happy, and in their struggle to achieve more they end up hurting themselves and the people they love. He hopes Rohan doesn’t turn up like his mother.

He doesn’t have to go to people’s houses anymore, either for deliveries or collection. But he makes the monthly trip to the Cantt. Everyone knows him and he knows the secrets of many families, their joys and sorrows, their history. The last stop is invariably Radha’s house, she inherited the house along with ancestral property of the parents, as she still calls them. She never unveiled the mystery of the young man, the only thing he knows is that he didn’t get a share. The house looks the same though Radha has aged. If she was elegant before it is now highlighted by the grays, the high cheekbones have gone higher and the dimples deeper, but her eyes remain the same, distant yet longing ones.

~

“Rohan is going to join a sport-shoes firm, multinational he calls it. The pay scares me, but what scares me more is he is going to be a salesman, reminds me of someone.” Kishan says sitting on the steps with the cup of tea.

“You are too old to be sitting down, c’mon the chair wont bite.”

Kishan dismisses with a wave and looks at the chair. Maybe he could have moved on to the chair, but that phase and that window is now gone. He finds the steps comfortable, everything about his life is peaceful.

“You worry too much old man,” Radha says with an indulgent smile, “Pihu tells me they love each other and plan to get married soon, in the court.”

Kishan doesn’t like the idea of the no-frills wedding any more than Radha, he would have preferred to have a grand wedding. They have the money and not enough ideas on how to spend it. They give each other company in their helplessness around the only children, knowing their opinions wont count. The children might have gotten closer but Kishan sits as apart as he did since the first days of the acquaintance. The distance between him and Radha seems as unassailable as it was on the first day they talked, a distance that feels artificial, affected because they feel each other’s touch in every moment, every whim, every event in their lives.

“Our children are doing what we couldn’t do.”

“What do you mean by that,” she asks with some petulance.

“Fulfill our dreams that is,” he smiles.

“Yes, I hope they will be happier than us, and won’t need a plant for the roses to bloom.”

They look at the rose plant, now old but with new offshoots. The flowers look bright in the orange sun, it floods the porch too taking both of them in its wake, melting the distance between the chairs with its glow.

***

Standard
Fiction

When the roses turned orange

[1]

Kishan realizes he has has woken up early, yet again, like he used to do when he had the job. He looks outside the window at the overcast sky, it makes him sleepy again. In order to avoid the ugly stare of the clock on the wall he switches sides disturbing the curled up boy who grumbles and then mumbles in his sleep.

“It has been more than a month,” Lakshmi says with a sigh and more than a hint of irritation. Kishan switches back so as not to see her face, she has been egging him for a confrontation since he lost his job in the shoe factory. But he isn’t in a mood. The clock ticks away with disinterest, a bit too loudly though. Maybe time is getting frustrated with him too.

Coming from a family of shoemakers he loved the work and had the skills too. He was perceptive and innovative at work unlike the migrant workers from neighboring states who had come looking for better jobs, or any job for that matter. Everything, including his life had come to a halt suddenly when the factory was closed down, apparently for violation of environmental norms. Kishan knew it was a sham, the real reason was politics, and change of fortunes between the two parties that ruled the state alternatively. He had to get a new job and even went to the other factories looking for one. The modern machines used in the bigger firms didn’t leave much to the imagination of the shoemaker, or the worker as they were now called. He had decided he would do some menial job instead of watching machines churning up shoes like broiler chicken. These new age people will never understand that every shoe has its own character, with either a minor flaw, or a special touch, a certain softness or a luster that stood out. Progress has killed the spirit of the shoe, and the individual too, now all that he finds are workers and shoes alike that seem artificial, identical to a perfection.

He gets up reluctantly and avoiding Lakshmi slips into the busy street, scouring for jobs again. The jobs had been getting scarce over time, today however he is determined and without giving much thought he settles for delivering newspapers in the morning and sitting in the books and stationary shop of the owner in the evenings. The pay, to start with, is at par with his earlier job but this involves cycling, a lot of it and early in the morning. Besides the two apartment complexes where he could use elevators, he had to cover the whole of Cantt area where the retired men from armed forces had bought big pieces of land and thus houses, with beautiful gardens, were plenty and spaced apart. He didn’t mind the exercise, for a shoemaker he had an athlete’s body with strong bones, understated but but strong muscles and a high forehead that gave him the appearance of someone who had more promise than what he delivered.

The first week was exhausting, but he saw less of Lakshmi. She had been complaining about his choice of jobs. It’s her friends and family who she has to answer, she says. If there was any love left after Rohan, it had been ebbing away from him towards her friends, who kept her occupied till late evenings. The second week brought news of Lakshmi having an affair with a man who was a salesman of a reputed shoemaking firm and often visited the city. The third, of her missing from home one afternoon when he returned tired from the deliveries. The fourth week confirmed her exodus from the stagnant life to a life full of promise and travel, something she always wanted. Kishan however loved Lakshmi, he always blamed himself and his inability to keep her happy for the coldness that had crept into their relationship. He was heartbroken, and remained so for a few days till Rohan asked about his mother.

“She went with her fairy,” he makes up a story with his mother finally finding a fairy to take her to wonderland. “She had no choice but to leave, you just can’t say no to fairies. Also, she couldn’t take them with her because every person has a unique fairy,” he consoles a skeptical Rohan. “One day your fairy will find you too, till then you have to be a good boy.” He had to tell the story every night. Guided by the motivation to make it convincing to a boyish brain, it grew less fairy like and more magical and fantastic over time. Along with his son he too started believing in the story and shared the happiness and wonder for the lucky mother.

He had to bring his son to the shop in the evenings for there was no one to take care of him back home. Being a quiet and well behaved boy he was not only allowed to move around the shop but he impressed the owner so much that he was lended books with pictures, those expensive ones to read. Nothing made him more happy than watching his son reading with all attention, lost in the world of books, much different from his father’s.

If anything came close to this, it was the exhilarating feeling that went over him as he went cycling in the Cantt, the canopied roads flanked by mahua trees with old banyans at intervals. Most of the houses had big gardens tended to by gardeners while the old watched and gave instructions. Among the beautiful houses there was one that stood apart, like a black sheep. With an unkempt garden and the walls painted in a shade of worn out gray, it looked drab except for the plant of red roses that seemed to be misplaced, like a queen overlooking a destroyed kingdom. Behind the plant was a window that faced the gate, with glass panes reaching almost to the floor. Kishan always paused for a second in front of the gate, to admire the flowers, the stark contrast and sometimes he felt like he saw a face in the window looking back at him.

At the beginning of every month he had to collect the payments which led to familiarity over pleasantries. In a few months Kishan was at the listening end of stories, anecdotes of knee pain and fragile hips, wistful tales of grandchildren and disconcerting complaints about offsprings. The rose house owners were an elderly couple with stern faces and a constrained vocabulary unlike their neighbors. They had a son who looked young for his age and was handsome, even jovial as he made jokes about Kishan’s moustache. But his appearances were rare, and only on weekends. So he was surprised when he was greeted by a face that wasn’t stern or facetious, of a lady who reluctantly returned his smile, a smile that had formed inadvertently and inappropriately. She had a baby girl in her arms who looked like an overgrown fruit because of its color and the clothing.

“My parents have gone for health checkup. Here is your money,” she said looking at him questioningly.

“Namaste madam, I am Kishan. I saw your face behind the window many times.” He knew he was going beyond the acceptable etiquette, but he was out of control like a bicycle with a dislocated brake. “Beautiful! the roses, I mean..” He found himself fumbling with words and took the money and left.

At the gate, he looked back to find her staring at him surprised and then she turned to look at the plant.

She was beautiful, not in the way Lakshmi was but beautiful with an easy elegance as if she was aware of it but didn’t give it much importance. Kishan laughed at himself on harboring thoughts that were alien to him, maybe because they were about a woman who was not Lakshmi, he never dreamt of the impossible. But scoffing at himself or pedaling faster than his heart, couldn’t shake off the giddiness, the smile left his face but settled itself in the wrinkles around his eyes.

When the roses turned orange – 2

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Love, silence and a few words… (8)

“Can you drop me at my place,” Nikhil asked, realizing immediately that it must have sounded well rehearsed.

“Yeah sure,” said Megha, mildly surprised and then led the way to the car. When she was about to start the car, Nikhil said Wait with some command. As she turned to ask why, she found him leaning towards her and then he pulled her towards him. Their mouths were now almost grazing each other as they looked into each other’s eyes, none making a move. Nikhil was trying to think what to do next, without much success. He felt intoxicated by the smell of Megha, or probably it was her perfume. It was strong and spicy reminding him of exotic flowers he hadn’t smelled before, a smell of love maybe. With her heart trying to beat its way out of her body, Megha couldn’t keep herself in check and kissed him with a passion as if this was their last kiss before they parted for good.

“Keep quiet and drive,” interrupted a heavy voice. It went unheeded till Nikhil was knocked back to his seat, too swiftly for him to react. Megha screamed but no sound came out as she was dealt in the same manner and instantly lost her
consciousness. Nikhil could hear the frantic discussion as if happening in a big hall far away and he saw two guys moving Megha to the back and a third taking the wheel. He tried to turn around to look if she was safe but the pain in his neck moved downwards as if piercing the spine fading out his vision.

“Drink” commanded the youngest member of the trio holding a dirty bottle of water. He looked too young for the job, probably just entered his teens. There was however no trace of nervousness on his part. Nikhil touched the back of his neck to check the pain which had subsided and was now a periodic throb. Megha was huddled close to him on one side and a heavily built guy was sitting on the other side. The mobile phones were gone along with their wallets, which were being investigated by the man in a white turban whose was at the wheel.

“Four ATM cards and three credit cards,” he said in a gruff voice startling Nikhil and Megha.

He looked back and continued, “ok so here is what you two will do, we will stop at the relevant ATMs, you go inside and take out the cash as much as the withdrawal limits allow.” He sounded like a man who was used to giving orders, definitely the leader of the pack.

“Any smart moves on your part will be dealt with smarter moves,” he said as if remembering something he had forgotten. Then in a satisfied tone, he added “not that you look smart.”

“Madam looks classy though,” said the schoolboy turned gangster. I looked at Megha who was looking at him wide-eyed as if in wonder, or maybe it was fear.

“Don’t harm us, we will get you the money,” Nikhil managed to keep anxiety out of his tone. The leader brandished a gun with a smug look, one of those locally manufactured ones that had the reputation of misfiring in the hands of the shooter after the first few shots. This one looked new and had a shine, most probably still virgin. Nikhil’s thoughts were interrupted by Megha’s hands as they surreptitiously slid into his.

Megha was scared out of wits, till now she had been reading and fretting over the news of such crimes, which had in the recent times become more frequent and more violent. She felt the need to be brave and to stay composed but as soon as Nikhil had addressed the abductors and she saw the gun, she succumbed to the wave of panic, sinking and in the need of holding on to something she clasped Nikhil’s hands. Nothing happened though, the leader was at the wheel with the boy next to him. No one spoke, especially the third who sat next to Nikhil on the other side. He seemed to have something concealed under the loose end of his white turban that fell below his chest. They were driven to the ATMs followed by the inconspicuous companion, the only thing that betrayed his presence was the feel of something poking at their back, something of metallic hardness.

The leader seemed satisfied with the proceedings but the young man fidgeted and kept whispering into the leader’s ears. A firm and audible No after a few minutes put an end to the whispering and schoolboy now sat sulking, intermittently looking back at them, with malice. The silent guy had an ominous air around him, silence in such situations being more scary than the scariest of the words. He looked disinterested, and looked out of the window on his side into the dark of the night and the deeper dark of the bushes growing wild next to the road that were whizzing past. Megha too kept checking on him with furtive glances, he seemed composed enough to be cold-blooded.

They drove around the outskirts of the city, driven with a precision on the locations of the ATMs, even the guards on duty appeared to give subtle nods when they saw the leader. These locations were however far apart, it took long and made them stop to refuel. They were asked if they needed tea or something to eat. Schoolboy not keen on hearing negatives brought a bottle of water and gave it to Megha with an awkward smile that made him look shy. He quickly went away and didn’t look back.

As the night progressed, Nikhil and Megha started to relax and wished for the ordeal to be over soon. The only doubt that lingered was if they will be left unharmed once all the cards were done. Holding each others hands and sitting close so as to keep as much distance from the silent one, they thought about the kiss. Nikhil felt the urge to kiss her again, it would definitely scandalize these guys. Did he really want to kiss her again, he felt the awkward dissatisfaction creeping in. Now that he was with her and going through this drama, which would only make their bond stronger, he felt disinterested. It was much better when he had no hope, was being scorned. Reciprocated love leaves you with the same taste of success that you get when you achieve something only to realize you could have aimed for more. Megha remembered and regretted being reckless but then maybe it was their last kiss, she didn’t want to think of the kiss, of Nikhil or love, all she wanted was to get out of the situation alive. She remembered the news story of the victim getting hacked to pieces, would people be able to find which piece was her and which Nikhil. It will be a shame to die like this, like poultry. She needs to do something about her life, she thought. If Nikhil brought anything good it was the sense of new beginnings, of possibilities, she had been giving up on things a little too soon.

Once the last card was used they stopped on the service road next to the highway and everyone got out of the car. They were all looking at the leader to say something, but he took his time, probably enjoying the attention. He just stared at Megha and Nikhil.

“I know where you live,” the leader spoke finally ending the suspense, “so don’t attempt to tell anything to the cops, not that it matters because we also know where the cops live.” He winked at his mates, the schoolboy returned the gesture slyly but not a muscle on the silent killer moved. Maybe he was plotting to take over the reigns. He would make a better leader, one who is unreadable, unpredictable.

“We won’t and you have got your money, please let us go,” Nikhil pleaded.

“Can we have the car back,” he added as an afterthought and ended in pain as Megha nudged him hard with her elbow.

The leader laughed and the silent one turned to look at Nikhil. Schoolboy took a step or two but was held back by the leader who said, “Now that you have been treated like one you have started to feel like a hero, is it?”

“No, no, I mean sorry,” Nikhil blabbered, “please don’t kill me, us.”

“Ok, but you need to be taught some manners,” came the harsh, booming voice of the silent one surprising everyone. The leader started laughing heartily and the schoolboy joined in after some hesitation. Nikhil relaxed and started wondering where they were, looking around. Megha’s eyes were however glued to the three and she knew something was going to happen, something bad. She wanted to warn Nikhil but he seemed to be lost in his world gazing at the nothingness around. Just then in a flash, the silent one snatched the gun from the leaders hands and shot at Nikhil. As if in reflex, Megha dived taking Nikhil down with her. She heard the gunshot, a little too loud than how she thought gunshots should sound, and a pain shot up in her knees as she passed out.

There was a hint of sun in the sky beyond the weedy bushes as Megha woke up and saw Nikhil lying next to her holding his head in a hand soaked in blood. He wasn’t moving, she shuddered and passed out yet again.

~

Nikhil woke up on a bed that reeked of hospital disinfectants and found GD and Sameer looking at him with knowing smiles. Shruti stood a little behind in disheveled hair that made her look a bit scary. He spotted a drop of tear running down her face as he smiled back at all. Megha walked in looking more pretty than she, with a smile that radiated love and leaned down to kiss him. Nikhil tried to rise up but was held back by the pain on the left side of the head, he touched instinctively. The left ear was bandaged, gone. He started panicking when the still smiling, angelic Megha leaning over him said in the softest voice he had ever heard that she loves him. He was now sure this was heaven as he got woozy and Megha turned into Shruti, with a pensive yet eager face. He fought the creeping delirium and realized that the faces were not transforming in his mind but he was looking at Shruti and then something snapped, he relapsed into a blissful sleep.

~

Megha woke up with a start at the sound of the alarm. The alarm didn’t last beyond the third beep as it was deftly snoozed. Yet again. Why does he set the alarm on weekends when all he wants to do over the weekend is to go to the mall and watch movies. She wasn’t going anywhere today and she wont relent, with a resolute happiness she went back to sleep.

The mall was crowded for no apparent reason. It seemed the whole city had poured in having found nothing better to do. The little boy was restless being held back by his mom. He wanted to run between the people, it was like a maze and just too tempting. He soon found his moment when mom leaned towards dad to say something. Running into the crowd he looked back with glee, he loved getting chased by his parents. When he finally managed to get hold of the imp, Nikhil was out of his breath, at least none of it to spare in scolding the incorrigible brat.

“You should do something about your ears, I can’t always shout or talk into them,” came an annoyed yet sweet and mellifluous voice.

“You never say much and I give up after a few words whenever we sit down to have a conversation,” she now sounded bitter, and yet the voice felt soothing as ever.

“But Shruti, if I do that I won’t be able to love you every time you say those few words you manage to say.”

They smiled at each other, a private smile that didn’t impress their son. He kept tugging and pulling his hands away from the grip.

*****

Click here if this post didn’t make sense

Previously: Love, silence and a few words…(7)

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From a crack in the wall, continued…

The wall looked more beautiful today, maybe it’s the same but in his relief at finding it again, establishing that it was not a figment of his imagination that was making it seem enchanting. Breathing heavily, Tam reached the stream and closed his eyes thinking of cold refreshing water and he was granted enough to soak him to the burning heels. He tried milk, honey, wine and it worked every time.

To test further, he tried ice-cream but nothing happened. It probably works only for liquids, he thought, examining the surface of the wall. It was made of layers of multi-colored rock, formed it seems over thousands of years. He touched a layer that seemed pink and the surface came off like butter kept out over a warm night. It smelled sweet and when he tasted it with the tip of his tongue he couldn’t believe it was strawberry ice-cream. Licking it he felt it was the best strawberry icecream he has ever had, maybe second best. The best was when he had done well in school his father had taken him out for the first time for a treat. He was so happy but when he had looked at his father there was a disappointment, he had potential and could have done better he was told.

Something flickered on the rock above. He stepped back to get a better view and couldn’t believe his eyes, his father’s face was looking down at him more real than how he was imagining it, and it had the same disappointed look. Tam was spellbound and he waved stupidly, the father on the rock surface seemed surprised and waved back smiling. Could he ask just about anything he desired from the wall. He thought of the woman who he fell in love the first time in his life, though she never did. The picture immediately changed to a version of woman as he often dreamt of, with the exact seductive look on her face and the revealing clothes. This made him think of his wife and kid, he felt pity as he was sure she would be tending to their son besides doing all the chores he didn’t do. The image of his wife, frustrated yet working flashed immediately.

Thoroughly intrigued and excited, he decided to get to the bottom of this wall, or the top. Climbing however wasn’t an option due to the steep angle and lack of foothold. He walked into the ferns that flanked the sides, walking parallel to the wall and finally found an opening. As soon as he was on the other side, the scene transformed into a barren expanse, there was sound of machinery coming from the top. The wall on this side looked like a contraption with thousands of chambers dug out into the rock. Each chamber had a miniature Tam working on a piece of machine protruding out of the wall, with a slot from which a retractable appendage seemed to be coming out with instructions. The Tams appeared sad when idle and looked furtively at the glass windows separating the chambers, the slits on the windows were closed. It was as if they were afraid of seeing one another. As soon as the protruding limb came with a command the Tams got busy, with a sense of purpose.

Some of the chambers had people in it. Peering hard he could make out his father in one, irritated by the Tam questioning him, when all he seemed to be wanting was to go off to sleep. There was one with the toddler sitting ignored while the Tam looked unhappy with having nothing to do. There was one with the seductive woman who was being made to wear clothes she hated. His wife in another chamber looked forlorn as she worked to fill the vessel with wine, or was it milk. There was a chamber with books on a table and its Tam was reading something and typing into a keyboard.

Tam couldn’t decide on a single emotion or response to the scene, he kept looking at it mesmerized till he spotted a sleeping miniature Tam in one of the chambers towards the top. He was being prodded by the probe which finally managed to wake him up.

Tam woke up and realized he was late for work. He looked at the window with the shades closed and had an urge to think about his life, and what it all meant, but he shuddered at the thought and got up, eager to go to work, there was too much of it piled up already.

This post was written in response to the writing challenge From a Crack in the Wall. I have not conformed to the word limit because try as I may, I am not cut out for flash fiction. When I sit down to write a story, I try to emulate the great and immerse myself in it, most of the time this is forced but I notice the stories eventually manage to get out of my hands and flourish on their own.

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