Fiction, Romance

Hope and Morgan Freeman are stupid!

You know, I always believed Morgan Freeman’s supposedly iconic dialogue from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, “Hope is a dangerous thing,” was utterly stupid. I mean what an Oscar-winning multi- millionaire knows about the emotion of hope and the countless aspirations that a human heart attaches to it. Nothing.

Seven months and 27 days later, I began to live by it. It all started that fateful morning, when Daddy was reading out the newspaper to me, while I played hide and seek with my Winnie the Pooh in bed.

Any TedEx speaker or some monk of the highest grade could not have consoled my bleeding heart; such was the intensity of the ‘news’. And for a split second, I could feel my soul escaping my now feeble body. All by myself, I cried back to sleep.

Hussain, knowing how melodramatic I could get, jumped in for some damage control. At 12:45, right after his Abbu left for their footwear shop, he woke me up with his repeated calls. Even with the glazing ‘poor connection’ notification adoring his screen, he could see me weep. His eyes suggested he could sense my despair that found an outlet in the form of tear beads that ran through my arms and settled on my lap, soiling my cushions. I was like an adamant toddler, crying for a candy that was too hard for her barely-there teeth.

“Do you…you…know…” I asked.

“I know…listen…I do know…calm down first”

“Skype is banned…,” I replied.

“In Pakistan…from 31st March…Yes I know but you need to calm down first, Jiniya. How do you plan on chalking out an alternative if you continue sobbing.” Hussain is my logical Pakistani and I am his emotional ‘cry machine Hindustani’.

“We won’t see…we won’t see each other again…Oh God! Please tell me this is a hoax…Why would they shut down? You and I talk over it daily. Skype is doing so well,” I ranted.

Honestly, it wasn’t. With hardly half a million accounts and far lesser advertisements, this announcement comes as no shock to Hussain Al Masseri. It was me who was in complete denial.

Before hanging up, Hussain commanded in his husky voice, “Just run through our loveliest conversation tonight and go off to sleep.”

“What about alternate plan?” I quizzed.

“One thing at a time, Jiniya,” Hussain signed off.

Right after the Liberation War, when Skype was still in fashion and a big rage among third world countries, Hussain ‘accidentally’ added me on Skype. A story I find hard to digest. It was my display picture, I am telling you!

In his whimsical voice, I found, like me, a true patron of Art. He had me on our very first call, just by reciting:

Out beyond the idea

Of wrong doing and right doing;

There is a field,

I will meet you there

He loved Rumi and preferred Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das over Manto. That was what set him apart from mere mortals; his ability to look beyond the obvious and hold his ground against all odds. Talk about the never-ending tension between our respective nations, he would snap, “An art lover never dreads the distance or loathes the boundaries, they go where words, music…their craft takes them.”

Hibiscuses growing in my mother’s garden caught his fancy for two reasons- he loved vibrancy and Karachi did not have it in abundance. On Sundays, it was our ritual to show each other hibiscuses of our lands. He would often wonder, “Just like us humans, even the flowers look alike. I don’t understand why this bloodshed.”

Hussain was born to a staunch Islamic father and a liberal mother. His Abbuji is the reason why we could not connect on Orkut, for he apparently knew about it all too well and learning about befriending a Hindustani would automatically make Hussain a kaafir. Hussain was queer and cryptic, he would never hang out with his mates from college and always branded them as ‘other people’ and called himself ‘not for this world’.

Despite the 12 o’clock curfew, we would stay up till wee hours of the night chatting away. About the magnificent Taj Mahal, the parallelly-running rivers right outside his home that would never meet, my broken bicycle, his blue eyes set on a chocolate brown chiseled face, his desire to study liberal arts, my love for Ashton Kutcher; our lives together.

The day after the terrible news struck, felt better. And Hussain made it all the more wonderful.

“Here is the plan. We both wanted to flee our countries since forever. Let us apply to University of Iowa, their acceptancy rate is 88%.”

“Daddy will never say yes to it.”

“He would…score 115 in TOEFL, both Iowa and Daddy will accept.”

“On a scale of 10, how sure are you about the results?”

“Almost certain.”

“Let us give this a shot,” I gave in.

“Good girl! Now comes the hard part. TOEFL, SoPs, transcripts are serious business and require immense attention. Therefore, we will talk on 31st March itself”

“But…”

“Listen, desperate times call for desperate measures. Give it your best and we will pose together near the Statue of Liberty.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

“Is there some other girl and you are doing this only to shoo me away?”

“Whattttt???…(laughs) Girls here think I need help.”

Help? He is way too smart for all of them.

Hussain and I are like two stark opposite characteristic traits of Bella from ‘Twilight’ saga; I was the one irrevocably in love and he preferred to suffer in silence.

With a little help from Mumma, I managed to buy two earthen piggy banks and labelled them: ‘application fee for Iowa’ and ‘visa process’.

I studied relentlessly, losing track of days and nights. All this because I had faith in Freeman’s conviction.

We will pose together near the Statue of Liberty.

The urge to end up in the same city was so strong that I no longer paid attention to Daddy’s rant on communalism or even helped Mumma with household chores. How could I risk TOEFL?

Even though laser wired fences and Benazir Bhutto and Atal Bihari Bajpayee posed hurdles on both sides of the disturbed nations, I somehow found myself wondering off to the forbidden territory. My mind was asking a thousand question per second? Has Hussain taken the test already? Has he cleared the visa process? I hated Hussain for the self-imposed ultimatum and even more for being able to stick to it.

Hibiscus seeds packed, woollen garments stacked up, and with a heavy heart, I hosted the farewell party for my friends and folks. “The excitement will kill me. Why can’t I call a day prior?…I hate diktats”

After pacing up and down the veranda, the ‘call of the century’ had finally come. Singh uncle from across the street could hear my heartbeats but who was complaining. I pulled off an extremely desperate stint; received the call after first ring.

“Look at you! You have grown so thin, been mugging away?”

My heart was pining for you, hence the weight loss. You idiot!

“You look malnourished,” I observed.

“Been thinking about me?” I teased.

“Hmmm…how are your plants? Nurturing them well.”

“Thanks for dodging. They reminded me of you, every day.”

“Do you want to talk about the time we were apart” I asked.

Stoic silence.

“Do you want to talk about our plan?”

“Oh, about that…So…I hate to break this to you now but my Abba passed away the month before and being his only son, I have to take care of his business and my mother here.”

“You said you were too unconventional to be domesticated.”

“I can shun the world but not them. I … have withdrawn my application.”

When were you planning on telling me?”

“Jiniya, please.”

“I better go, Ammi is a little disoriented these days. Good luck”

Call disconnected

Dialling

Call dropped

Dialling

Call dropped

Dialling

Call dropped

Dialling

Screen goes blank

Standard
Fiction

Looking out of the window

“They take us out from the prison but not the prison from within us. The prison stays with us 24 hours of a f**king day”

               – A victim of miscarriage of justice for 13 years

Day 1

“The world seems to be glaring at me, I wonder why,” Danny joked. Dressed in an ill-fitting jacket and skin-tight denims, the former murder convict looked charmingly droll. Martha, just like the last 15 years of her life, could not help the stream of tears from rolling down her cheeks; only this time, they are out of utmost happiness.

Amid blowing her nose in a phlegm-laden handkerchief and chanting Danny’s name with activists, who she believes helped her in quashing the court’s verdict, Martha clutched her only son’s hand and declared in a trembling voice, “Welcome to this side of life. This is what independence looks like.”

Martha and David McGregor are ‘proud’ parents to Danny aka David McGregor Junior and had been a constant source of support and reason for survival in their supposedly notorious son’s life. The world came crumbling down for this ideal family of three when Danny, then 13, found himself in the bedroom of a murdered cocaine addict Leona, who had already taken three gunshots to her abdomen by the time a curious Danny entered to inquire why her door had been open since morning.

Next thing the McGregors knew, a written confession was produced in Danny’s name admitting to the crime and the state of Texas decides to try him as an adult for the cold and calculated murder. Despite public furore over corrupt policemen beating the confession out of an innocent 13-year-old, who could not even tie his shoe laces without a little help from Momma, the Texan judicial system was convinced that he had carried out the heinous crime and incarcerated him for life without a possibility of parole.

“Do we really need to do these interviews? I am not sure if I even know the English language well anymore, let alone giving a heroic speech,” remarked prisoner number 12567. “There was a lot of pressure on the jury, thanks to these guys. A speech would mean you are grateful to them,” Martha explained to her son.

“Okay…Let’s try this.  Hmmm…I once saw a dog playing with his master from inside the prison and broke down. Independence…In…deee…pendence… (after a pause) This has been insanely hard but I am glad that I will get to play football again and tickle my pets, eat turkey on Thanksgiving and most importantly…I will have something to be thankful for (giggles),” he spoke to them.

After reaching home, Martha invited over 200 guests to celebrate Danny’s homecoming but the only hindrance was, Danny wouldn’t move an inch from the side of the window in his room. As embarrassed as Martha was, she requested her guests to excuse the boy as he is drained- physically and otherwise.

Day 60

“WE HAVE TRIED TAKING YOU TO THE BEST RESTAURANTS AND PLACES YOU LOVED AS A KID, WHY WOULDN’T YOU COME. YOUR GRANDMA IS DYING AND SHE WANTS TO MEET YOU. MOVE YOUR ARSE, NOW,” demanded Martha. It had been two months since he was vindicated but Danny’s progress in pulling himself back together and blending in with the crowd had been rather stagnant.

His anger did not seem to have an outlet; Danny was angry over the police officer who had been long dead and the ruthlessness of his fellow inmates. He now threw glasses at his parents as if they had conspired against him. He is highly delusional and seems to have trapped his battered soul inside the tall walls of the prison that wrongfully held him for 15 years.

When Danny was convicted, his wisdom tooth had just started to make its presence felt and Bill Clinton was the President of the United States. At the age of 28, he had to learn how to shave and struggle with an unprecedented force that would draw him to the window and make him stare outside, every single day.

“MA, I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO KICK A FOOTBALL. I DO NOT KNOW WHAT ‘FOMO’ MEANS AND WHY IS LADY GAGA’S SUPER BOWL PERFORMANCE SUCH A BIG DEAL. I DO NOT FOLLOW THIS POP CULTURE. I AM SCARED OF THE DARK AND CANNOT HELP LOOKING OVER MY SHOULDER EVERY TIME I VENTURE OUT OF THIS ROOM. WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO. WHAT?” he cried in pain. Danny looked much older than he should have. The eyes that once twinkled with joy over mundane pleasures of life, now only gazed out at eternity; not by choice but out of sheer habit he had inculcated during his time as a prisoner.

With his childhood sweetheart married with two kids to a man she loathed as a rebellious teenager; and the school band dismantled, Danny, honestly, saw no hope or motivation to turn the tables.

“Look Ma, I am a liability to you both. You have suffered a great deal for me. I may harm myself and you too. Please put me in a shelter for the homeless,” Danny begged.

Martha and David had left no stone unturned trying to instil positivity and enthusiasm in him but to no avail. Danny wouldn’t date girls nor would he meet his folks. He would not take the dogs out for a walk and needed his mother’s help for every little thing that he did once in a while.

Despite the government authorities’ repeated requests to put him in a state-funded rehabilitation programme, the McGregors vehemently refused to live in the mercy of a system that had failed them so terribly.

“No, you are no orphan. You will walk out of this home over my dead body. OVER MY DEAD BODY, do you understand?” yelled Martha.

“I CAN’T. I AM TOO BROKEN FOR THIS WORLD. I CANNOT FUNCTION AGAIN.”

“GIVE IT A SHOT”

“GO AWAY OR I WILL DRAG YOU OUT OF HERE. JUST LEAVE… LEAVE”

Day 365

Human progress is an eccentric phenomenon; its course of action can neither be measured nor determined. Even the media had grown out of Danny McGregor’s horrific tale of miscarriage of justice and moved on to more scandalous stories but he hadn’t.

His window was still his solace; he still gazed out of the window for hours at length- hopelessly, aimlessly. As if he had been surviving in an ICU and his body no longer belonged to him.

Martha, the adamant mother that she was, storms into his room with a knife. “This has to be my last resort and knowing Danny, it will work,” she assured David.

“Now, if you, Danny McGregor and my goddamn son, do not move out of your room then I will slash my wrist right here and let you watch me die.”

“Put that away and tell me what do you want?”

“Tomorrow, Rockport Beach.”

“It was long ago, it does not mean anything. I have been through hell and the memory of that beach has wiped out.”

“This is it. Goodbye”

Danny may have been withdrawn and aloof but his love for his parents remained intact. He had lost his childhood to a concrete monster called Law & Order, he could not lose that one person who looked beyond his chained hands and written confession. He could not let go of that one person who baked him cake on his birthdays while fellow inmates fed on his body calling it the ‘birthday treat’.

“Okay, but if we fail. I am not doing this again, ever.”

Day 366

Just like school picnics, Martha and David Sr packed breakfast comprising of food Danny once loved- pancakes, chocolate chip muffins, waffles and cheese omelette- and headed to the beach on a pickup truck, again, just like old days. Danny wore a printed trouser his mother forced on him that made the poor thing look like a drunk Mexican lost in an American beach, and sat in the front seat of the truck for his father wanted him by his side. But one thing was not thrust upon him, his once infectious smile.

Danny stuck out his hand to feel the gust of wind and smiled to himself. This is what had been missing, a little familiarity. Martha was right; Danny is still that 13-year-old Mamma’s boy. The prison may have destroyed him internally but it could not teach him anything new. The prison may have snatched years from his adult life but it could not loot him of his boyhood memories.

“The beach is just as refreshing, go there.”

“You come with me”

“No, this is your battle against your inner demons. Fight them alone”

After initial hesitation and a little push from Dad, he ran towards the sea and rushed back to his mother waiting at the shore when waves hit him hard. He laughed hysterically; their eyes welled up.

Prisoner No. 12567 David McGregor Jr was Danny again- collecting pebbles and chest bumping the highest wave. Martha could have murdered the world for this sight, so could David.

Danny soaked in the beach vibe and frolicked with his parents. He brushed his unjustly hardened cheeks against the gentle breeze. He was back to building sand castles with Momma and Pappa again- carefully carving out the room that they would live in together.

“So, are we coming here next month?” Martha asks with her heartbeat racing.

“Next week should be fine.”

They looked at each other and smiled. Danny was finally home.

Standard
Fiction, Romance, Travel

Unlocked the locked only to never relock it again

What is it about mountains that she is irrevocably drawn to them, Jiniya wondered. Is it the morning fog that engulfs it or the fact that she can behold the entire city from the peak of it? Yes, mountains give her a sense of power. Like she owns the top of it, like she owns the entire stretch of land within the vicinity of her far-fetched imagination. Or, is it the calmness and serenity that a stand-alone, often abandoned mountain brings along? She will never know the answer. May be, she does not have to.

Jiniya, smart and overtly ambitious, is toying with the idea of a holiday, a way to escape from her robotic life in the urban jungle of Mumbai. Honestly, she has no reason to escape the glamorous life and seek shelter in the mundane rustic environment of an alien place, everything’s working in her favour- she has a job she loves, is on the right path towards realising her ultimate goal and has a loving family that always stands by. But like they say, we seek what we do not have and chase what is not meant for us.

Waking up at 6:30 AM, struggling to hop on early morning trains, over-eating during lunch and watching travel videos hoping to be one of the ‘daredevil’ girls featuring in them – she has done it all and now, she feels, she has done it enough. It was time to move beyond the fancy videos and tempting wallpapers. It was time to bruise the knees and tan the cheeks; it was about time she looked beyond her protective mother’s inhibitions and her possessive brother’s apprehensions. Jiniya had always dwelled under the shadow of her folks, which often felt like an abstract cage, and knew from a tender age that she had to leave. Just leave someday and disappear into the surreal rollercoaster called life.

She loathes living with her parents but must as they wouldn’t let her leave. On nights when she does not feel like ‘she’, Jiniya brainwaves hideous ‘escape plans’, which, of course, never see the light of the day. She has never played with mud or has never felt what it’s like to bunk school. She has never scrubbed any utensil after a sumptuous meal or moped the floor after puking from over-drinking.

But now, it is too late to bottle up her pent up emotions. Either she lets the wildness in her find an outlet in the form of a solo trip or she swallows the little sense of adventure left in her and be the ideal family girl that she already is.

“For me to fall on my face, I have to walk down that road first,” Jiniya convinced her self before buying the tickets to Jaipur.

Born to an immigrant father and a biracial mother, Jiniya had breathed her first in the lap of nature, Shillong, and went on to live there for 15 years before she took the plunge and moved to what she calls ‘a mechanical city’, Bangalore, whereas her folks shifted base to the ever-ferocious, unforgiving land of Mumbai. While she kept moving from one jungle to another, her heart remained entangled to the silent hills and the monstrous-looking naïve mountains. Jiniya, the uptown working girl, is now a withered shadow of her once vibrant self. Tall buildings and sky scrappers do not inspire her. Mountains do.

The day has arrived and she is leaving to explore that lies ahead. An alien destination awaits her and she has to befriend the strangers who inhabit there. How is it going to be? She does not know. Will they be welcoming? She could not tell. Yet, the joy of climbing the steep hills and rocky mountains filled her with unprecedented bliss. It is happening, life is taking a drastic turn and for the first time, this turn has not been predetermined by her parents or work, she is in charge of it. Her life’s remote control is in her hands, at least this time.

 The introduction was awkward, Raman speaks broken English that was incoherent even for someone like her and she, unapologetically, flaunted her impressive command over the language on him.

“He is so rugged and filthy, poorly-maintained individual,” Jiniya thought to herself. Fear of the unknown has gripped her gentle soul. How will they take the 250-stair long journey together on January 26? Even his dialect is as incomprehensible as his English. What if a Leopard shows up, will he protect her from it or run? She worried about their hiking plans and has every reason to. After all, he is a self-confessed ‘jungle boy’ and she is an urban lass. Chances of awkward silences dominating their uncertain trip together seemed like a possibility.

“I have nothing to lose, I will do it anyway. Wake me up at 6:30 in the morning. Let’s see the sunrise together,” she ordered him.

With no traces of sunscreen on his sun-kissed face and white flakes on his dirt-filled feet, Raman looked beautiful. She thought about the first time they had met, he was so shy that he wouldn’t even look into her eyes. He is a rebel child with a lost cause. The difference between their personalities was stark, he feared none and she feared all.

After initial discomfort, Jiniya and Raman climbed a few steps and broke into a hysterical laughter.

 “Are you stupid? There is no Leopards, I was kiddings only. Okay…if there is any of them, I will stand before you. I will protect you. Now come, let’s do a joint and eat it and phinish this one,” said the village boy to his city Maharani (princess), as he would lovingly call her.

And with every step, Jiniya was unknowingly breaking free from the shackles of her sheltered upbringing and ushering into a territory her folks would not approve of. She was learning to be independent and fearless. He was imbibing his ruggedness in her and she was stealing glances of his infectious smile. He would look at her and then look away. Embarrassed about being caught. She would laugh at him calling her ‘bawli chhori’ (crazy girl) and then wait for him to clutch her right hand with his left.

He exudes confidence. She knows no matter how nasty the road ahead is or how dangerous their way down is going to be, he has got her back. “I will stand before you,” he had assured her and she believed it with all her heart.

Meanwhile, Marijuana had gotten the better of them and they were laughing a little harder than before. He would crack silly jokes and take her pictures and she would laugh because that would make him happy. Or, was it the other way round?

Jiniya was in the moment- not worrying about the future and least bothered to recall her past. She was with him and he made her intrepid, cleansed her soul off all the sorrows she did not know existed.

“Have you ever seen the Tiranga (Indian National flag) dance so freely? I bet no,” inquired Raman.

Looking at the flag dancing aimlessly to the tune of the crazed out wind gave her a major heartache. It reminded of her own plight; 25 years of slavery to protocols that make no sense to her in any way. Independence does come with a price, she thought.

The Tiranga was looking celestially beautiful that morning, as if it had conspired to mesmerize its spectators. If God existed, He had instilled His divine powers in it so that it could dance its heart out.

“Thank You, Raman. I have been on international trips with my family but nothing matches the joy of witnessing something as sublime as this.”

“ Happy Republic Day,” said the predator of her heart.

“Happy Republic Day.”

While coming back, he did as she had expected. He took the stiffest of lanes and rockiest of paths but never, even for a brief moment, did he leave her hand. Amid peacocks dancing and pigeons screaming, she felt the urge to look at his sparkling eyes.

 “He is what I am not. He is who I always wanted to be,” she observed.

And for him, getting what she wished for is all that mattered. Like this one time, she had very softly expressed her desire to get a peacock feather and he went out of his way to get it. That was him, always putting others’ wishes before his. May be that’s why he has had his heart broken twice. Always lets heart overpower mind.

“So, what do you want to be?” he inquired.

“I am already a professional writer but would love to write books. Before that, I want to go to the States and do my Master’s in Creative writing,” she revealed.

“Nice! You know I want to be a cricketer but dream broke and my heart in pain before, not anymore… (giggles) and now I am here, to sow you this jungle Maharani. Tour guide and gaanja-baaz,” joked Raman. His eyes filled with sorrow of dejection. Those eyes were really the window to his heart for I could tell he is disillusioned but not disheartened.

“What are is your gifts plans on me?”

“Depends on what you want?”

“I don’t know, I feel sai… You say Na, what you get for me.”

“I will see what I can get, let’s go home now. My knees hurt so bad.”

Raman and Jiniya, oblivious to the conservative town’s judgmental stares and sniggering, lit one cigarette each and spoke about the journey they had just finished. He teased, she blushed.

She was embarrassed about her inability to climb, her big talks about wanting to hike more seemed so superficial now. Yet, if the partner is him, she wouldn’t be apprehensive about climbing even the Himalayas.

Their unmissable chemistry had everyone whisper about a potential case of tourist-traveller romance. Or may be they triggered it, after all she was evidently love-struck and he looked every bit in awe of her. Their eyes met every now and then but their hearts were conjoined by their poorly-written destiny. She was meant to go through failed romances and he was meant to have his heart broken. It was all meant to be, it truly was.

Some 1500-odd feet above that rocky mountain and bone-chilling weather, she found him and he found her.

Did she love him? ‘Yes’ would sound surreal and ‘no’ would look deceitful. But she has formulated a parallel form of attachment in her heart. She loved him like a prisoner loves his jailer right before biding adieu to the jail that had tortured him for years. She loved him like a bird loves the one that set it free from the cage. She loved him like a widow loves her new lover. She loved him like a woman loves the man who saved her from a near-fatal accident.

He has bailed her out of her miseries without really doing much. Sometimes it’s the vibe that counts and marks the beginning of something real that no fancy dinner date could even match up to.

She always wanted to free herself from the societal norms and live a gypsy life but something in her forbade from taking that route, he gave her the strength. He protected her from the unknown and fulfilled her wishes without asking for anything in return.

But, like they say, all good things must come to an end. Moreover, Jiniya has never been lucky in love, neither has he.

It was raining heavily and she was packing her bags, wanting to stay with him a little longer but giving in to the urge of going back to resume work.

“Here Raman! This is my gift for you, a notebook,” she said without meeting his eyes and embraced him with all her strength. Perhaps for the last time. He smiled at her briefly and then looked away. Dropped her to the bus stand and said, “I will write you in it(giggles)…I will miss you, bawli chhori.”

On the way home, Jiniya was again a 10-year-old, her old vibrant self has suddenly made a comeback. She could not help but reminisce her time with him, shedding tears and chanting his name under heavy breath.

“What did you get for yourself?”

 “A notebook.”

 “That is it? Nothing else?”

“No, Maa, can I sleep now? I am exhausted. Put out the light before you leave,” requested the bereaved soul.

“I thought vacations make people happy, you are just as cranky.”

Tucked inside the blanket, drowning in a pool of tears, she opened the notebook she had gotten for herself. Lifted the pen and wrote what she had been itching to write for so long. The only story that ever needed to be told, that will ever matter. Her story.

But it consisted of one word. A name.

‘Raman’

Standard
Fiction

Fall and fall of a dreamer

“Why do you always sit by the window and smile staring at the stars? What joy do you get from it? Your Sinha aunty suggested I take you to a psychologist in front of a room full of ladies, all from our neighbourhood,” yelled Lata, my confidant first and mother later.

Lata has always been a hyperactive child with an innate ability to stress over the smallest of things. She panicked so much that her school friends distanced themselves from her citing a very puny reason- her stress disorder is contagious.

Twenty years and two children later, Lata is just as hyper and worries just as much. Ask her why she never works on her characteristic trait, “One cannot just do away with something they are born with,” comes the reply.

For as long as I can remember, I have always lived under the well-protected shelter of my loving family. My brother- a little irresponsible, sometimes cranky and often self-centred- is the apple of my eye. From the day I was born till today, he is the face I have woken up to every morning and I would not have it any other way. If my mother showed how to walk, it was Joel (my father fancied Englishmen, hence the name) who taught me how to tip-toe. If Lata got into heated arguments every time someone called me ‘ugly’, Joel inspired me to be comfortable in my skin.

But that was a different brother I had known, times have changed now. I have changed. Lata has changed. Joel has lost himself. He no longer inspires me to rise after every fall, no longer commands me to guard my dreams. Time can be diabolical; it can trick you into believing you don’t matter to your folks. Or, in case of Joel, your folks don’t matter to you.

Adulthood has played a queer game with our family; sleep-overs have replaced family dinners, trips with friends have replaced family vacations. A ruthless urban stranger has replaced Joel.

Just like a bereaved wife finds love in the memories of her deceased spouse, I too found solace in the next best thing to have ever happened to me- writing. Writing, how can a term as simple as this  trap you into a utopian world of ecstasy? How do words weave magical traps that engulf you for eternity? I always wondered.

Before I could realize, the dream of being a writer had turned from a mere interest to a hardcore ‘dream’. No, I wouldn’t settle for anything else.

Joel might have undergone drastic changes, hormonal and otherwise, one thing remains constant- his passion for business. He loves numbers. I love words. He fancies himself wearing formals and storming into the chambers of CEOs and CFOs with his bright idea. “I have an idea that will change the face of Indian economy, it will be a path-breaking invention in the world of business,” insists my brother and Lata believes it. She has always managed to turn blind to his faults and overlook his flaws.

My day-dreaming, sitting quietly by the window and minding my own business, may have brought her shame but Joel’s loud and obnoxious claims were never silenced by our mother, because  according to her, his ideas only brought glory and good name to the family. And it is their inexplicable confidence in his ‘path-breaking idea’, sans logical backing, that has promoted the duo to take the plunge. Just like me, Jo also wants to give wings to his dreams; he too wants to go aboard.

While my days find me engrossed in preparation, nights are usually tucked under the blanket of writing. I like to borrow someone else’s plight or triumph and add color to it through my imagination.

“I want to be a creative writer, Maa. I will write fiction,” I often tell my mother with pride. Because that’s what it has been for, pride. After years of disappointment in the form of an alcoholic father, writing saved my ship. In the tunnel of darkness, my dream came as a glimmering ray of hope. It offers an escape from a life filled with futility.

My urge to write has reached the level of obsession now. I will go to America. “I will clear the TOEFl test with flying colours and apply to University of Iowa,” I thought to myself.

Not Princeton, not Harvard. I want to get into University of Iowa for two reasons: their creative writing programme tops the world charts as ‘best university for creative writing’ and Lata can afford to pay 10% of its total fees.

“Joel is breaking his head studying for his CAT exams and all you do is day-dream,” concluded my mother. On rare occasions when Joel did sit to study, Lata always sat by his side, fanning him in scorching heat and feeding him dry fruits lest he falls sick before the D day.

While his sincerity is something that the whole of our neighbourhood frowns upon, I will be elated if my brother makes it to whichever university he aspires to be a part of. Because, irresponsible or not, he is still my kin. We had shared the same womb and I still l love him.

On the day of his test he looked astonishingly calm and gave me a nod for a reply when I inquired about his paper.

“It went okay, could have been better,” explained Joel to my mother who, in her head, has already sent him to America.

The river bed looks celestially beautiful on rainy days. I always find myself dumbfound by the enormity of the river post a washout. The banana trees that the storm has uprooted look scary. The droplets follow a chain- from the tip of a larger leaf falls into a relatively smaller one and so on- as if the storm had conspired with them, as if they had known it would happen. As if they had rehearsed for the aftermath.

My groggy eyes cried for sleep but how can I rest when my dream university has just sent me their acceptance letter:

“Dear Jiniya,

Congratulations! It is with great pleasure that I offer you admission to the Universtiy of Iowa for the class of 2017.

Your thoughtful application and remarkable accomplishments convinced us that you have the intellectual energy, imagination and talent to flourish at UoI…”

Since 2 o’clock I have read the letter like a zillion times still the fact that my dream university thinks I am just as capable and deserving has not sank in yet.

“They will wake up at 9 in the morning. In the pretext of tea party, I am going to surprise them with this news.”

Staggering through rocky lanes and muddy isles, I finally reached my den and climbed up to my room.

“Tomorrow will mark the beginning of a new life- no more haunting memories of my alcoholic father beating me to sleep, no longer hiding behind bushes to save myself from the embarrassment of being yelled at by him- tomorrow will be different,” I assured myself.

I thought I would see no one at home as I had overslept but to my utter surprise, Joel is home and so is my mother Lata. His look suggests he has just won a lottery worth millions of dollars and Maa is staring at him like he is some Bollywood actor. He is happy for something unknown. She is happy because he is happy.

“Maa, Joel, could you guys please sit down for a tad bit? I have something to tell,” I said, suppressing my grin with great effort.

“We have something to tell you too, you will not believe what just happened.”

“What? Is it very important or should I go first? Maa, whatever you both say”, I said.

“I cannot keep it to myself anymore so I am going to go first. No, I think I will burst into tears. Joel, why don’t give your small sister the good news.”

“So…”

“So..? What Joel”

“I received an email from University of California last night. Their New York campus has accepted my application. Jiniya, I am going to New York. My ideas will finally see light of the day.”

Although it felt like a mighty blow to my stomach, I was genuinely happy for my big brother. This good news brought along the sad realisation that my dream has now been overshadowed by my big brother’s. I knew my dream has to slip out of my palms and I must watch it go, silently. Helplessly.

“Since University of California has a very high fee structure, I have decided to sell this ancestral house and shift back to your grandpa’s. Joel will use all the money for his fees, the surplus amount will be covered by bank. I have already spoken to them,” revealed my mother. I could not believe what I just heard. My father has left nothing and my mother is planning to sell off the only piece of land we have ever owned to pay for his tuition fees, what am I left with? How will I pay for my university degree? What about my dream?

Nothing? Nothing.

“You can sit at home and write and once I am big and famous, I will help you get your books published. I will go to all the publishers in town and show them your work, till then take care of Maa. Be home and continue writing. You write well,’ said Joel. His happiness knew no boundaries and I did not have the heart to upset him. I was a giver, will always be.

“So what were you saying? What have you got now,” asked my mother.

“Naah…Nothing much…I mean nothing serious. I had taken part in the alumni writing competition and secured 1st position in it,” I lied. I had to.

“See, we always told you you’re gifted, didn’t we?” asked the mother-son duo in unison. “Yes you did, you sure did.”

“You had applied for UoI. What happened?” Joel asked, reluctantly. “They rejected my application.”

“Don’t lose hope, write at home.”

“Yeah”

“You won an award for your story. Which one was it for?”

“Fall and fall of a dreamer.”

I slammed the door and disappeared into darkness.

 

 

 

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Fiction

8-8-8

On a sunny morning Jiniya is invariably filled with zeal and her energy reaches its brim within minutes of waking up. As if the first ray of sun that touches her freckled face infects the half-hyper half-curious child in her with ardent zest. Zest to chase the only purpose of her life- fulfilling her semi-broken dreams.

Average looking with a visibly bloated face, Jiniya has always dreaded looking back at bygones. “I feel naked,” she had told her mother once. Her face is a blank notebook, neither exhibits the volcano that may have erupted within her nor does it show any signs of joy.

But she has her off days, especially when clouds dance aimlessly in the sky and hover around the mighty Sun. “Just like emotions, clouds and raindrops exude weakness. I feel powerless,” asserts the plain-faced marketing officer.

She is her 9-year-old self on damp days, as she would often jokingly call a rainy day, it magically draws her back to the golden days- days her mother thinks are testament to how lively and bright she had once been.

On that day, she slipped into a maroon-coloured pajama and requested her privacy be uncompromised with. Jiniya flipped through the pages of the book she was reading a couple of days back but couldn’t recollect the plot now.

And before she could keep the book back to where it belongs, she dozed off.

“Why are you coming home this late? Why did you not take an Umbrella?” enquired her mother who has long given up on trying to ‘infuse’ life in her daughter.

“Sorry, I know I should have informed you. Mom, I got drenched. Can I stay over? I have to leave for work early in the morning,” asked the 9-year-old in her.

“Your brother and sister are on my bed, don’t ask me why. They call it ‘cosy’ or something similar to that. Will that be okay,” Jiniya’s former ‘bosom friend’ asked hesitantly.

Jini assured her mummy that wouldn’t be a problem as the hall room was empty. One blanket. One pillow and she will sail through the night.

A thundering sound came from inside, as if the worn-out house had begun to crumble and will crash on their heads in a matter of few minutes. “Oh! Your daddy will never change. He is such a light sleeper that even an ant’s movement wakes him up.”

He staggered his way out of the house, each step a battle in itself. Daddy, despite the wrinkled forehead and saggy cheeks, looked concerned. With great struggle, he lifted the dirt-clad towel to rinse off rain water from her hair.

“My old man has really grown old,” she thought to herself as her kohl-rimmed eyes gave way to a teardrop.

As a juvenile, she had taken immense pride in her father. She would break into an innocent grin every time someone said she has inherited her father’s pointy nose or his soft curls. Her father had always been a man of few words and did not have even an iota of talent in showering love. He said the kindest of things wearing the bluntest expression imaginable to mankind. Like this one time when she had topped the class and he did the unthinkable. He brought her close to his face, combed her messy hair in clean plates and said, “You make me proud. I was the happiest the day you were born,” he said without a sparkle in his eyes. Not even a brief smile yet what he said  went on to live with her forever.

“How did you come home? It is pouring badly. Why did you not go to your place?” asked the concerned father who was happy as well as astonished to see his independence-seeking daughter standing at his doorstep, seeking shelter.

“Daddy, My house is situated at a distance of 8 minutes from our…your place. Anddd…my office is situated at a distance of 8 minutes from your place. So I came here, since it is the closest,” said Jiniya, awkwardly.

He gazed at her. She has known this gaze for eternity yet not been able to formulate a fitting response for it. The gaze of hopelessness, he wants to say something but he wouldn’t.

Every time he gave her that gaze, she looked away. She never bothered to ask what it meant, he never felt the necessity to explain.

“Here! Come to my room, sleep with me…This hall room cannot keep you warm.”

“Okayy”, she said, perplexed. She was right, she will never understand her old man.

With great effort he lifted his right hand, clutched it to her left palm and started moving towards the room. Each step reminded her of the times they went to school together and she would tell him tales of what had happened the day before.

Sure he was a man of few words but never forbade her from talking endlessly. He felt a sense of inclusiveness in those stories. He knew he was a part of whichever world she was living in.

“Go get the maroon-coloured blanket from my cupboard. It is the thickest of all,” commanded her old man.

She slept in no time as she had been working the whole week without any break.

He ran his cold fingers around her head.

“Don’t smoke baba (he lovingly called her, sometimes). Your heath has deteriorated.”

“I always see you smoke, at times standing at the balcony of your office, at times at the backyard of your house. Is something bothering you? Baba. Baba. Tell me.”

“I know you are unhappy but you are too proud a woman to accept that. Your eyes don’t twinkle anymore. What is bothering you, baba? Why do you smoke? Don’t”

She woke up like she had been battered in her dream. Reluctantly, Jiniya lifted the book from the edge of her bed and placed it on the table.

Despite screaming out a couple of times, Maa wouldn’t come. She walked to the kitchen and opened the window.

“You had always been worried for me Daddy, stop it now. You are old, rest well there,” she said looking at his tomb. Ten years have passed by but his last words still ring in her ears. Like his death has been a joke, a game, that he had always been around. Watching, crying, lamenting. Always around.

She wiped the corner of her eyes and reached for the cigarette. Then threw it away. No, she wouldn’t. She cannot. Her Baba has asked her not to.

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