Monthly Archives: March 2014

Flames

Sumita Dasgupta looked up unhappily, tired of argument and desiring nothing but a long sleep.  Across the table, her father looked stubborn.

She slowly walked out of the room and into the balcony. On that hot June day the skies were a dull grey, and like a certain Lear she felt a correspondence between her dark thoughts and the oppressive atmosphere. But she had not Lear’s overwhelming sense of being ill-used by a wicked world. The consciousness of one’s own culpability makes it harder for the sensitive mind to bear griefs ; it does not have the safety-valve of blaming Fate, God and everyone except oneself. She should have done something about her family’s unhappiness long ago. Her father was too proud a man to be appeased now. There was nobody really to blame except herself, she thought; notwithstanding the fact that there is not much you can do about someone who means to have his own way and who states in no uncertain terms that he regrets being imprisoned by his family. Sumita was proud too, and would not beg. That her father, who had once been her greatest supporter, should now begin to find faults with her every word and action stung badly.

She called out to her mother within. Mrs Dasgupta could not understand why her daughter suddenly wanted to go to the cinema with friends. In the midst of her infinite worries she regretted that her daughter seemed to have become too quiet and eager to please. She never appeared to take much thought for herself, but her passivity covered discontent: on some days, she would be as cheerful as anyone could desire, and on others would sleep in and skip college. Thus she was happy enough to accede to her request, though she was unable to approve of these modern Hindi films any more than her grumbling husband did.

“Well, where will you be going?” she asked.

Sumita paused. There were two large cinema halls nearby that she could visit, apart from the absurdly expensive multiplex that had come up in place of the old Priya cinema hall. She decided she would go to the latter and really treat herself. (Of course, she had no intentions of meeting any friends – she just wanted a little time away from home). Uncharacteristically, maybe because once you start lying you cannot stop, she told her parents she was going to one of the older theatres.

Therefore, when the five o’ clock programme exploded with news of the terrible inferno that had broken out at the Ratna Cinema Hall, Mrs Dasgupta screamed and brought her husband running in from his room. They spent the next fifteen minutes alternately weeping and dialing Sumita’s friends’ houses, until the sound of an autorickshaw broke through the bedlam. There she was, calmly paying the driver.

“Whatever happened ?” she asked, puzzled.

Her mother began to cry again, with relief now, though many imprecations about naughty lying girls were intermixed with her tears. Mr Dasgupta said nothing at all, but looked at Sumita for a very long time, and hugged her awkwardly once. 

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A Little Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

 

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

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Bedtime Story

White, fluffy and magnificent, the pillow nestled neatly between others of its kind at the HyperCity mall, dreaming on the shape of things to come. Until, one day, a rather thin brown hand picked it up and transferred it with care into a large shopping-cart. Thus did it find its way into the room of a tousled-haired student where it was to spend the next few years of its existence.

It was scarcely used initially as its owner seemed to have little need for sleep, though she cast many longing glances at it. Over the course of the months the pillow saw many things and received quite an education. It cradled its owner’s curly head when she thankfully dozed off after 10 hours spent composing a boring report for some excruciating course. It was the luckless recipient of frustrated punches and pummelling when the student discovered a mistake that had decreased her grade drastically in the said report. Occasionally it was waved threateningly in the air to chase away bats, cats and squadrons of flying insects, but the pillow bore even this undignified action with equanimity. On a few occasions – a very few occasions – it was damp with tears.

The pillow’s student was a silent sort of woman. She did not have a lot of people over to her room. She did not hold noisy parties or decorate the walls with posters. However, as the months passed she began to pin small bits of paper onto the soft board and reorganize her little world  a trifle hesitantly. Occasionally the pillow had to share space with a small pile of books:  Macbeth (a good story, showing the sort of monster that lack of sleep can turn you into), Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq (If Mr T. had slept well, all that pointless running around to Daulatabad could’ve been avoided) and The Name of the Rose (which acted like a strong opiate upon the reader).

The student bought bright colourful sheets to replace the dull prints she’d brought with her. She put up a tired attempt at a drawing on one wall. She changed the orientation of the cupboard so that the room appeared brighter. The pillow, though, remained in its place.

Soon it was time for the pillow’s owner to leave, for good. The chaos of packing sent up a thin dust into the air.And a rather snooty man was saying, ‘Madam, I am giving you Rs 100 for the mattress and pillow both. Last offer. See, this is such an old and worthless thing! It will be of no use to anybody now!” With that, he picked up the old pillow by a corner and poked it rather unmercifully, as if to drive home his point.

And the pillow was very depressed.

 

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The Woman

Dunois had had enough. The enemy were baying for blood, his townsmen were starving, and he had seriously considered starting to pray to the saints for a miracle, like the more illiterate of his godforsaken countrymen. And then Chinon sent him, in reply to his most earnest entreaties – this. But when he turned around, his dark face betrayed none of his thoughts.

‘I am the king’s most humble servant,’ he said, ‘ and this lady shall be accommodated here, and she shall be given an honoured place in the counsels of this city.’ He uttered the word lady viciously, as if it were a coarse insult.

The tall, ungainly girl said nothing. The awkwardness of the farm still clung to her, except for a certain something in her eyes which alarmed those who looked into them too closely. The count dismissed them with a weary wave of his hand and wished heartily that he could get back to his Aristotle – but no, there was a war council meeting very soon. He sighed.

Now, a week later, he regretted his half-hearted acceptance of the royal court’s insane commands. He should have told her to go drown herself in the Loire. He should have quoted her favourite Scripture at her and convinced her that women did not fight.  For that fool, that crazy religious village woman had somehow – he still didn’t know how – convinced those other fools in his war chamber to lead an attack upon the surrounding forts. Of course, the first few had been easy – as the enemy, taken by surprise at the sudden madness that seemed to possess them, had given way. But she had insisted on retaking fort after fort, until Dunois threw up his hands and  told her to do it on her own. Regard for the king and his favourites was one thing and sheer foolhardiness was another.  We will be the laughing-stock of the Burgundians, he thought gloomily as the company rode on to Les Tourelles.

 


 

They had still not managed to penetrate the wooden outer defences of the castle. Hundreds of men worked to fill the ditches with inflammable brushwood, but were constantly beaten back by a hail of arrows and small shot. Dunois’ face was grey in the pale morning light.

It went on and on — the stench of blood, the screams of the wounded – and above them all, hardly less confident than at the beginning of the battle – that peasant woman’s shrill voice. “To France!” Dunois smiled grimly to himself. Nothing had changed materially, they were still (literally) stuck in the same damned ditch since morning, and yet how the soldiers’ eyes lit up when they heard her, as though she was some angel from on high! Let her be wounded on the field of battle once and all that childish play-acting would soon cease, he thought brutally. And yet, what was the harm? If France could be “saved” not by careful diplomacy but by a female standard bearer with a crudely drawn picture of the saints on her banner, then good for her.

Suddenly, the general perceived that a few ladders had been placed against the fort’s imposing walls. The white standard clambered slowly upwards. That woman has some courage, he thought. Pity she’s an idiot.

He was just turning away to talk to his lieutenant when he heard the twang of a bow. The white banner stopped, and slowly fell.  A yell of triumph went up from the defenders.

‘That does it,’ he thought. ‘Now this army of superstitious fools will throw down their weapons and run.’

 


 

 

They brought her back from the shadow of the walls, still conscious, the arrow stuck in her shoulder at a shocking angle.

‘It is only a flesh wound,’ she gasped.

‘Wait,’ the general said coolly enough. Part of him was filled with disgust at the situation, and part marvelled at the girl’s strength. What the hell do they mix in the bread of Domremy? But by the time they had managed to extricate the arrow from where it was lodged between her neck and shoulders, her voice was hoarse from screaming, and she was shivering uncontrollably.

Good, he thought. And then, Why? What part of me is glad to see her fail?


 

‘I am calling back the troops. We will try tomorrow, again,’ he said, peeping into the tent. ‘Where –‘

For she was readying herself as if to go out into battle again, with her esquire’s aid.

‘You fool !’ he snapped at her. ‘You’re the only chance of victory we have  – we will have, that is, tomorrow. Do you want to go out today and die?’

‘I have been praying, and the saints have told me to,’ was the calm answer.

Dunois wanted to beat his head against a wall, but walls were wanting. He followed her outside.

She had rushed towards Le Basque, who held her banner aloft unsteadily, and snatched it out of his hand. ‘To the saints !’ she cried weakly, ‘To the saints, and to France !’

In the gleam of the westering sun the banner seemed touched by fire. They gazed at her in amazement : lords from the once-proud castles of the Loire, tough townsmen from Poitiers, hardy country folk from the war-torn East. And suddenly, they moved to make a final desperate attack upon the mocking grey walls.

‘Nay, to you, Jehanne, who are indeed skilled at using men’s superstitions in your favour,’ whispered Dunois, disbelieving, as Les Tourelles finally fell to his forces.

 

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The Flowerpots

It was past two in the morning when the call came, and by the time she had hung up and replaced the phone on the bedside table Nalini was fully awake. Arun had said it was peaceful, a blessed release. Her eyes wandered unseeing over the dark contents of her room. Apart from regret that she’d been away in Mumbai she felt oddly shorn of any emotion.

Out of the darkness an irrelevant thought floated into her mind.The flowerpots, she decided, eyes flickering in the dim half-light. I must do something about the flowerpots.

 


 

In Amma’s house, as she now called it – not my house or my parents’ house – there were always flowerpots, crowded into the tiny balcony or spilling out into the staircase of the first-floor flat much to the consternation of the neighbours. Most of them were perennials: leafy money-plants that Amma had fondly believed would bring good luck, stately tall hibiscuses that bore blood-red blossoms, marigolds that slept quietly through the unforgiving Delhi winters and raised their golden heads in February. (Amma had been a believer in perennials, even when everything around her proved ephemeral. Would her father be there? she thought, in alarm). But ever so often around Springtime her mother would erupt into a frenzy of buying “annuals” as she called them until the small balcony groaned under its burden of color: purple and yellow heartsease, pink gardenia, all punctuated by the solitary proud dahlia. But she had hated roses, for some reason. ‘They don’t last,’ she’d said to her, when Nalini expressed her own preference for them.

Amma apparently did not care whether any human being could set foot on the balcony as long as the plants were well-cared for. The family objected strenuously, of course. Ever so often they would reproach her for wasting (her own) hard-earned money, but a firm nod in the direction of Appa’s and the children’s enormous and growing collection of English novels would quickly stop all discussion on the subject. It was understood that if the flowerpots went, the books would have to go first.

And now who will look after her plants?  the thought troubled Nalini’s mind, despite her efforts to still it. She opened a dusty album of photographs, hoping for a reaction, a resolution. Leafing through the plastic-covered pages would, she thought, revive old memories and allow her to grieve. But an hour passed and she stared at the pictures, dull with age, her mind still uncomprehending, her face drawn into a strange, tired expression that was neither sadness nor shock nor anger. Many of the photographs had for a background the mini-garden her mother had collected.

They were her plants. Nalini could not take them with her, where they would surely die under her indifferent eye; she had long ago learnt not to trust herself with plants or people. But some arrangements had to be made. She did not feel that Amma’s precious flowerpots could be left to Arun: men did not understand these things and his wife would probably give them away to someone.


 

The roads were as dirty and dust-choked as she last remembered them. Arun had come to fetch her from the airport. She had said no, but he had refused and here he was now, her baby brother all grown up, expertly picking his way through the narrow lanes as the car crawled up to Amma’s house.

She had caught him looking at her strangely once or twice and thought, it must be because of my face. But I long ago made peace with that, I know this is my normal face whether I am sad or afraid or shocked or whatever. I tried, once, to have a cupboard of faces, one for each occasion like other people, but the experiment failed.

At the door, she stopped as if confronted by a stranger. A rose-plant with a single pure pink blossom as large as the palm of her hand stood in her way, swaying a little in the cold wind.

‘She bought it just last week,’ Arun murmured.

Surprise gave way to understanding. The petals felt welcoming, warm to the touch. And suddenly, for no reason at all, something twisted inside her, and she wept.

 


 

[So, I have decided on this ambitious project wherein I write a small story every single day, for a month. Not an article, a freaking ponderous story, because I wish to alienate and frustrate the few patient readers that my blog has. In all seriousness, if anyone reads this,   I would really welcome (a) encouragement, because I wonder  if I can continue this and (b) criticism, which I *really* need right now.  I shall probably announce the sad ending of this little idea before thirty days have passed, but let’s hope for the best ]

[Edited a little after detailed feedback]

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The Professor and the Dragons

Courage is found in unlikely places. Be of good hope!

People always look at me a little strangely when I confess, usually under duress, that I’m a Tolkienophile. I blame the culture of “fandoms” and a certain Peter Jackson for this. As a kid, the one thing that could probably get me quite murderous was people comparing LOTR to Harry Potter.I am sometimes told that it is a childrens’ book  (inspite of the author’s own declarations to the contrary) and that it is comparable to Potter. Superficially they seem alike: strong elements of “magic”, a parallel universe and a stylized war between good and evil. But that is where the similarity ends.

I always struggle to define why Tolkien’s works are so different from that of almost any author I have read. I could point out the unique, detailed way in which he has constructed his universe. The careful manner in which matters as seemingly trivial as languages, names and geography are constructed, in order to make the whole thing not just consistent but astonishingly believable, shows his wide and deep knowledge of Western European languages and literature, knowledge that betrays his day job as a reputed Oxford professor. I could also mention that Tolkien was a poet of no little skill ; that half the charm of his works is lost in the film adaptations (atleast, for me) because the hundred-odd poems in the text were necessarily erased. (They did keep part of Eomer’s Song in the Pelennor Fields scene).  I could point out his skilful writing  which is clear enough to illuminate his scenes and characters and situations but never so dramatic that it overwhelms them. But none of these is the real reason why I keep on reading and re-reading The Lord of the Rings, ever since I got my first look at it some eleven years ago.

Tolkien’s writing – or his artificial universe, if we can call it that – is imbued with a very pure, almost religious sensibility that is never clumsily done, never obvious. Probably some conscious echo of his strong Catholic views, it stands behind every one of his sentences. It is this sensibility that gives it a unique character of hopefulness: of the promise of a future that may be better than the past, of a triumph against temporary setbacks. In a world filled with books and films that revel in cynicism and hopelessness, it seems almost like an act of defiance to read a book as beautiful as this one, almost like a confession of immaturity to say one loves it and prefers it to things that are more “realistic”.

This does not mean that Tolkien wrote a pleasant fairy-tale. Much of the book, especially the latter part, is surprisingly wistful, “laden with the sadness of Mortal Men”. And there is no mistaking the themes of sacrifice and suffering that run through it: the central character transforms from a likable but normal person to a tormented wanderer who finds no psychological peace, even at the end, when he finally takes a ship for the far green country under a swift sunrise.  Bitterness and despair are explicitly discussed and their ramifications laid out. Through the voice of Denethor, we hear the tragic results of pride, bitterness,  and hopelessness :

“…soon all shall be burned…It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended. Ash ! Ash and smoke blown away on the wind !”

But even if all is doomed to failure – and it is clear that there is very little hope for our characters– Tolkien’s point is that we must not give up, we must stand to our posts even to the uttermost. Strange it is to hear such a forthright assertion of hope, even in fiction, from a man who lost most of his friends in the First World War and lived through the horrors of the Second. And it is alluring to return to something that promises  to be “a light in dark places when all other lights go out”.

(March 25 was Tolkien Reading Day).

 

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The Road Goes Ever On

Exactly two years and a day ago I walked into the IIFT building, in a state of great nervousness to give an interview I had little hope for. When I got out of the interview room – after an intense grilling that involved everything from the Pigeonhole Principle to a recitation of Shakespeare – I had only one thought in my mind : I’m glad its over, and I can get back to my real life.

Odd how things turn out, in the end…

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Meetings, not partings.

Elen sila lúmenn’ omentielvo.

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Spot On

“Take my handkerchief, Scarlett. Never, at any crisis of your life, have I known you to have a handkerchief.”

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March 1, 2014 · 6:47 pm