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The Radicals

April 14, 1967

I have kept Isaiah Josefs’ tale far too long to myself. Sometimes I wonder what is the use of writing -all this. After all, who will read these lines ? Then I feel that it is my duty to bear witness. Even against myself.

Where do I start ? Perhaps in the beginning of the thirties, when I first moved to Berlin. I was lonely at first. But (atleast in those days) I was said to be good company, and within no time a little group began to meet at a restaurant in the Alexanderplatz. It was a time of great changes and of revolution.

There were twelve of us and Isaiah. We were bachelors and so our weekends were spent discussing philosophy and politics, our voices loud and free, our thoughts clarified by the good beer. It was a motley bunch. There was James Clausewitz, the half-English professor of logic, a fiery Communist who we nicknamed Freiherr for his refined manners; Shimon, the taciturn bookbinder; Peter Fischer – that’s me – I worked then in the department of statistics at the University. There was Matheo, the businessman who supplied us fine wines through his contacts when wine became a little difficult to find. Can I ever forget those well-known faces ? But the face that rises up before me again, and again, is that of Isaiah Josef, the sculptor. He was not our leader, not the most talkative man there, nor the most intellectual, nor the most humorous. No, Isaiah was simply our conscience.

The years passed and the shadows lengthened, but we continued to laugh and sing and make irreverent jokes at our meetings, and to play forbidden jazz music. But soon we could exclude the shadows no longer. One weekend Lukas did not come for our weekly dinner. We went to see him at his home. He was sitting with his head in his hands: they’d taken his fiancé away.

And so it went on. As life became more and more difficult we thought of retaliation, of bombs placed in strategic halls and targeted assassinations. I was most enthusiastic about these ideas, and soon it was an increasingly more radicalized, directionless set of men that I led. Isaiah would sometimes look troubled at some of our ideas. But he did not hinder us in our activities, and actively aided us like a good comrade should.

He never quite agreed with us, though. “Paying back our enemy in the same coin is never the answer” he would say. “How can we, comrades, hope for a moral revolution if we use the same repulsive methods of our enemy?”

“What is the answer then?” I cried out one January evening, in real agony. I looked around me at the withered, stricken faces and wished I was not the one they called their leader. All of us were there, gathered in a ramshackle inn on the riverside. A meagre dinner lay uneaten on the table, but we dared not go back to our apartments. We were wanted men.

“What is the answer then?” I cried again. The clock struck eleven in answer. Only I noticed Jude Ullmann slip quietly out of the door. I thought little of it. We kept staring listlessly at the single candle on the table.

“I do not know, Fischer,” came Isaiah’s voice, a little troubled. “Perhaps all this really has no meaning, and it’s exactly like the modernists say: life is meaningless, and men are inherently wicked, and God doesn’t exist. Perhaps all that we have believed in is false. I hope it does not come to that.” he added softly.

“It’s you!” I cried angrily, walking up to my old friend and shaking him roughly. “It’s you who are the cause of our failure, you who have sold us to the fascists! You have purchased your safety at the price of your comrades!” I do not remember what else I said, my eyes were stinging and my throat burnt as I flung accusation after accusation at the man. All I remember is that he remained seated calmly through my diatribe, neither rejecting, nor accepting, his only expression one of compassion.

I stopped only when I heard the dull thud of hob-nailed boots.

“It is too late to go anywhere now,” someone said.

“But not too late to pray,” smiled Isaiah.

And so when the police broke the doors in, they found us kneeling, side by side, praying to a God we weren’t sure existed. They laughed uproariously. For ten whole minutes.

Anger rose in my heart, to be overtaken by a mad fear, when I saw Ullmann with them.

“Which is the leader?” barked the captain. My wrists were trembling, I thought surely they would notice, our hands were up above our heads. Ullmann said nothing in reply to the soldier’s question, but pointed mutely at my friend, the sculptor.

I froze.

In that moment, my past and my future all ceased to matter. Before me was a choice, and I had to decide in seconds. Both paths led to Death, but one would kill my body first, and the other, my soul.

I was not sure I had a soul any more. And so I chose accordingly.

********************************************************************

They executed Isaiah Josefs, stateless man, sculptor, failed conspirator, on a cold day while we watched, shivering. They hanged him at sunset, as an example to the Camp, and through each horrible moment of it it was as though I saw my own hands putting the noose around his neck and my foot kicking away the rough stool, heard my own voice laugh harshly and blaspheme at the limp body as it swung in the bitter Saxon breeze.

Is it of any use now to record the terrible ways in which all of the others died ? More skilled men have told of the dreadful things that happened in those days. I am the only survivor of the thirteen: the twelve of us and Isaiah. But my soul is dead. It died the day I saw them take Isaiah away, and did not say a word. It died truly, whatever religions say about the immortality of the soul. I don’t believe in God and Heaven and Hell anymore. But sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, cold and sweating, crying out: My God, my God, how will you forgive me ?

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Mother’s Day

Do you remember?

I was four. I drew great green birds with wax crayons and topped them off with incongruous little fashionable hats. An American friend of yours had introduced me to the wonder of Disney, and all day long I’d sit around drawing anthropomorphic animals. And when you came back from work I’d follow you into the kitchen, hoping shyly that you’d come and see them, which you inevitably did.  As long as you liked them I didn’t care what others made of my efforts.

For my drawings I used these extra-large sheets of white paper you brought back from work.P & IDs you called them.  The ones you gave me were waste sheets, of course; you had your real P&IDs which you’d work with, using different-colored pens to write comments.  I‘d sit on the drawing-room floor and watch, learning new words on the way.

I remember you telling me, later, that I’d look at the squiggly little symbols and say things like: Pump. Tank. This is a tank.

Your colleagues would smile broadly and say, My God, your daughter is so precocious.  When I was eight I once looked up that word in the dictionary. I liked what it meant.

I developed a love of facts. You fed my eager mind in the best way you knew. Subscriptions to Children’s Digest.  Encyclopaedias. Science books. I never went out and bought a single one myself, though I read them all greedily.

How proud you must be of your studious daughter, they said.

 


 

 

Your hands are steady as you wash the dishes. I am helping you dry them. The kitchen is our only escape now. No one else bothers to come here.

My own wrists are shaking and I am drowning in a sea of anger and bitterness and even hatred.

“How can you bear it?” I hiss. “If I were in your place I would not undergo these humiliations a moment-“

You tell me to hush. You say I don’t understand. That I cannot understand.

“Men have egos, my dear,” she says in a resigned voice. “I know you are very educated, but this is an inescapable fact. You have to deal with them carefully…”

I stare at you. Was it for all this that you made me love the truth and hate injustice, care for facts and strive for nobility? To have our lives reduced to the banal truisms of a third-rate K-soap?

I walk away, simmering.

It is much later that I realize that you are not amenable to logic. That I can’t appeal to the pride of a woman who spent her entire adulthood serving other people. That even if others hurt you deeply, you are incapable of hurting them back. And all of this is because you are a mother. You are, apparently, destined to bear all this, and bear all this you will.

But some tiny rebellious part of me asks constantly: Is it fair?

 

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Sussex, 1890

Unnoticed I slipped in among the mourners. My precautions were unnecessary, for they were far too busy with their grief and with each other to be bothered by my presence. A steady cold rain had been falling since yesterday night, and the men and women now gathered at the graveside were huddled into their overcoats or struggling to keep the rain away with sombre black umbrellas. The funeral was delayed. I wondered what people would think if they knew how eagerly I had awaited this day.

Lurking unseen in the densest part of the crowd, I looked around carefully but unobtrusively, hoping to be confronted by a familiar face. But apart from a few elderly local luminaries – he had been successful and well-respected in life– they were all strangers. Relatives, perhaps, of the unfortunate man’s wife, who had been lying peacefully under the green turf for the last five years. They had placed fresh flowers at her headstone in a gesture which brought a wry smile to my face.

The man’s son stood on the edge of the grave, looking through me out of tearless eyes. I considered speaking to him for a moment before deciding it would be quite unwise.

It was very late when the procession finally reached the graveside. The black-robed priest was unfamiliar to me. It must be a new man. They set the coffin down and the priest began to say the customary prayers.

I pushed through the crowd to the front, my skirts checking my speed.  With a quiet sense of dismay – but not surprise – I realized that they were burying him next to his wife.

I sighed and drifted back to my corner of the graveyard unseen. Even in death, it seems, I was to be sundered from him.

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Ravens

You take the early train to the small town just outside the city. The thirty minute ride is crowded. You find a seat somewhere and present your pass to the conductor just a minute before the stop arrives.

It is a tiny, cold station with a single platform. You know that there is no train expected here for another half an hour atleast, so you nonchalantly cross the railway tracks and follow the small path towards a set of neat white houses. There is nobody to be seen; at this hour, everyone is at work. You follow a street named after Sophie Scholl. The name sounds familiar. You ponder over the fact that one man’s criminal is another man’s hero while a solitary bicyclist crosses the road in front of you, the first human being you have seen.

You finally reach the building, or rather the outer wall, low, grey and forbidding. You note that the word Denkmal means “memorial”.

You walk in, rather subdued and already wondering why you came here. At the reception the middle-aged, bespectacled man politely asks where you’re from. Perhaps it is just curiosity, awakened by your brown skin, as to what you’re doing here. You tell him you are a student. He understands, because it is mostly students who come here. Mostly young people – or the very old.

You thank him for the site plan he has kindly given you and walk out into the October breeze. Reaching the elegant, imposing gate, you read the three cold words, wrought in iron.

To your left is a patch of woods, the floor golden with the first leaf-fall of the year. Oak and birch and various other trees you do not know the name for lean over the quiet graves and stone memorials that bear inscriptions in various languages.

You go on into the interior of the camp. There is a rather garish Soviet-Era memorial at one end. Someone has placed fresh flowers there. You attempt the museum, but it sickens you after some time and you come outside, glad to be back into the air, glad to be alive.

You walk around for some time and decide that coming here was a mistake. If people could really learn to recoil from the  cruelties of their ancestors, they would have done so long ago; they would not need such brutal reminders, tucked away in far cold villages, of what happens when too little empathy meets too much calculation – and too much idealism.

 

 

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Artist

Today’s post is a bit too short to be called a story. Sorry 😦


 

In an unnamed metropolis, in an anonymous flat which came with noise and lack of privacy for no extra cost, there lived an artist. His precarious existence was the distilled essence of the precarious existences of a thousand artists since the dawn of Left-leaning literature: it consisted of occasional freelance work, patronizing remarks from non-artistic friends who had established themselves in government service, and a sense of the world’s injustice that was gradually giving way to a sense of personal failure.

But one day, as he sat at his desk (a gift from his parents) in his tiny, bare flat (rented, and fast becoming unaffordable), moodily contemplating his easel and his finances, he dozed off for a few minutes. On waking up, he remembered nothing of the dream he had just seen except for a certain hauntingly beautiful yet familiar face.

Because this is not a fairy-tale, the artist decidedly did not become so consumed by the thought of that Face that his days were a torment. But he did observe people a little more carefully in bookshops and train stations, in marketplaces and on buses, trying to get out of its snare.

But all this was to no avail. At last one day, tired out by his search for the non-existent, he lay down, sensing the onset of a sick headache, and was just thinking of reading The Telegraph for the eleventh time since morning, when he was interrupted by a ring at the door. He opened it to have a piece of paper and a request for “subscription” thrust at him by a religious-looking man.

The artist looked carefully down at the paper, which depicted a dark goddess with the most extraordinarily large and luminous eyes he had ever seen. With a shock he realized that his quest was over. And that is the (unofficial, unverified) story of how Mr.Jamini Roy was inspired to make use of the peculiar style that marked his celebrated career.

Note 1 : The above  is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to the famous Jamini Roy is purely coincidental.

Note 2: It would be cool if he *was* inspired this way, though…

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Unhealthy Competition

All their friends later claimed that they had seen the Incident coming, but then whenever something unusual happens there are enough people to claim that they’ve known all about it. In case you are wondering what Incident I am referring to, it occurred in one of the “poshest” schools of Delhi, which we will call G. I. S (Generic International School) and notably, did not involve a secret camera and activities that may not be mentioned with propriety on a family blog. (G.I.S was a value-based school, thankyouverymuch). No national newspapers covered the scandal either. But from that moment Ritika’s reputation for oddness spread through the school faster than the common cold in a crowded classroom.

Ritika Ghosh and Saikat Majumdar hated each other almost from the first day of Standard Five. They would hardly have spoken to each other except for the Bhaskaracharya Mathematical  Trophy, which the school had been winning for the last seven years. At the tender age of ten and a half, such things are seen with a sterner and more serious eye than adults realize. The school authorities may have thought it cute to have Mrs Verma take extra maths classes for a select few students during , but for Saikat, Ritika and the chosen others, it was as deadly serious as being trained for a war.

Especially Ritika and Saikat. These two behaved as though they were opposing sides in a Corsican vendetta, bound by honour to score higher than the other in every Practice Test, and if that did not happen, to ignore the other’s presence pointedly. Ritika was better at this than Saikat, who seemed to delight in calling her Miss Four-Eyes (regardless of the fact that he wore considerably thick glasses himself). One heedless joker dared tell Ritika that she clearly had a “crush” on S. The result was that the said joker was firmly cast out of existence itself, as far as she was considered.

The fortunes of war went this way and that as the Bhaskaracharya test came closer. Sometimes Saikat would score higher than Ritika on the Practice Tests, owing to the latter’s carelessness in Ratios and Proportions; another day Ritika, with her superior appreciation of Properties of Triangles and her shameless memorization of all the geometry formulae (shameless because True Maths Students, like True Engineers who are but their older versions, memorize nothing and derive even the Pythagoras Theorem on the spot), would come out of the exam room smirking.

When the great day came Ritika realized she was suffering from a mild confusion of objectives. She wasn’t clear whether she wanted to get the highest marks in the exam or just score higher than Saikat. She had enough set theory to determine that the former was a superset of the latter but she honestly wondered if anything could beat the joy of gloating over her rival’s discomfiture.  As you have probably realized by now, she was not exactly made of sugar and spice and all that is nice.

The results arrived two months later, by which time ten students of Generic International School had suffered the agonies of Limbo.  Their joy in Paper Crafts, Art and Clay Modelling was completely dulled by the waiting. (They had stopped attending Maths class, of course, having mastered all of the current syllabus and part of next year’s as well).

To Ritika’s pleasure, she had obtained the highest marks in the exam. She would thus be the proud recipient of the rather misleadingly named Silver Medal. This was to be presented by  The Bhaskaracharya School Mathematics Association in a suitable ceremony. Since the school contingent had also won the Overall Trophy, all ten, plus the teacher, got into a rickety minivan and arrived at the festive scene.

When the boring speeches and ceremonies were over, and everyone had crowded into a large air-conditioned room for snacks, Ritika went in search of Saikat Majumdar. She was in a good mood and wanted only his dejected face to complete her victory.

But there he stood, grinning from ear-to-ear, as if *he* had won the Silver Medal in her place.

“Well, Miss Muggu,” he laughed. “Happy, finally?”

This was not to be borne.  The next few seconds were a confused blur for Ritika but eyewitness accounts state that she seemed to swing her arm around in a great arc and bring down the entire contents of a well-filled glass of Mirinda onto her enemy’s best white school uniform. Everyone gasped.

Physical movement has been observed to have a great positive effect on the clarity of one’s mind. Before Saikat could recover our violent criminal had prepared and rehearsed an appropriate apology speech. Faced by her repeated insistence that she had merely slipped on the carpeting the teacher – and even a furious Saikat – had to drop the case.

Even after twenty years, their school friends still say they saw it coming, inspite of Mrs Ritika Ghosh –Majumdar’s  efforts to convince them otherwise…

 

 

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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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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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