Ten #scrapstory

He has been roped in. It’s not that he resents it. He has a car after all. Might as well use it. He just hopes that his friend gets the girl. After all, that’s what it’s for. Isn’t it? They have a concert to get to after this. Best get moving.

They heave up the luggage, mounting the winding staircase, a strange conceit in a house so small. The walls gargle with ancient plumbing. He is eager to get back to his own apartment, in the north of the country. It is sleek. This one smells of everything he has worked all his life to get away from. Why anyone would want to go back to the beginning is beyond him.

He collapses on the mattress. It is stained. He tries not to look at it. Perils of a flat share.

What you got in here? Bricks?

Books.

This is a shit hole.

Well, it’s a houseshare. I don’t know anyone here, it was easier to get.

She stands there, apologetic. She hasn’t lived up to his expectations. She isn’t sure why she should but she feels bad anyway. She likes to live up to expectations.

Look, isn’t there time to change your mind. Take a year out? Are you sure this sure what you want to do?

I’ve always wanted to teach.

Since when? Anyway you wouldn’t do this if you knew that you had no other choice. This only works if you know you’re going to get married and you’ll have a husband to support you. Don’t be like other girls, dude. I thought you were better than that.

He’s always been blunt. You had to hand it to him. This was a guy who spoke his mind. His friend sighed. The girl looked down, cleared her throat.

Who said anything about marriage?

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

She’s a new bride in the glaring white heat of summer. Her feet seek the cool of vermillion red floors. Her eyes trace the archaic lines of the green shutters that have been drawn against the sun.

She’s thrilled with the romance of it. A new bride, a young one at that. There’s an image embedded in her mind. It is a jewelry advert. There is a girl sitting on the floor. Impossibly young, she is resplendent in her bridal red benarasi. Her throat and chest are laden with unending ropes of gold and pearls, stars fall from her ears. While one hand (on which the skyline of the city is in the process of being traced) is offered to the unseen mehendi artist, the other rests on the cool grey keyboard of a MacBook Pro.

This was a bride who could have it all and gazing at it, she had wanted to be her. And now, she can be. She just has to find a job.

The doorbell rings. She is excited by the prospect of opening the door, of heaving off the heavy bolt and of clattering open the collapsible gate.

It is her grandfather’s friend and she is delighted. She wants to show off.

He is delighted too. He looks around the vast home with a proprietary pride. He was the one who fixed the match after all. The one who knew a boy of marriageable age and a girl of marriageable age at the same time.

He has been crowing ever since their horoscopes matched.

She staggers though. What is she to do now? Offer water! Sit the glass on a plate because that’s how it’s done? Offer sweetmeats? What are you meant to do when you are a grown up and somebody visits your house? What are the rules?

This isn’t really her house at all. She’s barely lived her one week.

Should she get the sweetmeats from the fridge? Would her mother-in-law be angry? Would the maid laugh? What are you meant to do when someone from your family comes to visit? Treat them casually or formally because you are not their family anymore?

Sensing her distress, he smiles. He declines all of her stuttering offers. He reassures her that he is perfectly capable of making himself comfortable. He sinks down into the red couch. It’s cushions are well worn, he remembers instructing the deliverywallahs when they carried it into the house.

What are you doing?

Looking for a job.

She smiles. He will be pleased. He used to always ask after her marks.

Why?

Less sure now, she replies.

Well, I’ve always worked.

But you gave it up.

It was too far to travel, that one. I wanted to give more time.

She gestures vaguely at their surroundings. Her hands take in everything from the windows, the floor, the dusty pot pourri in the corner to the showcase stacked full of her husband’s trophies and toys. An only child, the room is a shrine to his existence.

Here. I wanted to give more time here.

But if you are working, how will you give time?

I’ll manage.

She gives a nervous little laugh. Little is exactly how she feels.

This is the problem with you girls today. You manage. You manage everything so you manage nothing. This, all this, who will manage all this when you are managing outside? You won’t make much money anyway. Not in your line. This household doesn’t need your money.

It’s not for the money. I want to…

You can still work. But have some dignity. Give tuitions, for free. Have some respect. Help the needy. Think about others.

It is the maid who rescues her, bringing in tea and little white sandeshes heaped on a plate.

I’ll go and call Ma, she says.

She leaves, shaking.

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

They look at her serenely, the two women. They peek at her over the tops of their glasses.

We paid you too much, they say. Now you need to pay us back.

But the money, she stutters, I don’t have the money.

But you should have it. We gave you too much.

I spent it.

That’s not our problem.

I don’t know how I’ll do this.

Well you are married aren’t you? Surely your husband can support you.

I don’t like to ask him.

They look on, unblinking. They are extraordinarily beautiful, she thinks. She had wanted to be like them. Corner office, glossy and polished.

I thought it was my money. You’re asking for my savings.

Please try to understand, it was never your’s. You are going to have to make some changes because we paid you too much and now you need to pay us back.

How could you not tell? How did you let it go on for so long?

Mistakes like these happen. We will support you. Your husband will support you. You are married after all.

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

Oh but don’t you see…?

She cries into the phone. Clutching it, pale yellow knuckles ripe with despair.

I can’t just leave. I don’t have any money. I am financially utterly dependent on him for everything.

But he cheated.

He cheated me out of a life too but I can’t just leave, I have nothing.

Parents?

I’ll never hear the end of it. I put myself here and now I must stay.

Because of money?

Because of money.

That’s sad.

Yes, it’s sad.

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

Ma’am if you wish to stay in this country, we will need to see papers and statements to prove that you can support yourself.

I work part-time.

That’s not enough.

That’s all I could find.

It says here you are living with your partner. I’ll tell you what, write us a letter, submit his statements and your’s. We’ll see.

His too?

His too.

But I…

His glare finishes the conversation.

She thanks him, feeling cowed.

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Nine #scrapstory

The walls are peppermint green and the furniture is dark. They would be made of mahogany, but they are not. A quixotic mix of plywood and varnish, that is all they are, designed to dupe the masses.

She, of course, is one of them now. The masses. When she gazes out of the window, she sees the teeming mass of city life, the smog of winter steaming where fresh air ought to have been.

The stench of the tannery is strong in the air, and together with it is the yet, stronger smell of soap. There are factories nearby. She is no longer at home.

It is hard to believe how fast the city has come along. It’s like a wave, a never ending tsunami of development, bounding along and flattening everything in its wake until all around there is nothing else left but it.

The elephants are long gone. Goodness know what happened to the pilkhana. This was not to be her lot, meager furniture in a flimsy will o’ the wisp apartment.

Her daughter tumbles by and for an instant her heart wrenches, twisting in two different directions at once. The urge to run towards her, scoop her up in her arms, bury her nose in the folds of her neck and the other…

The urge to run away fast in the opposite direction because as right as it feels, this is not it, this love feels like shackles. Her daughter, her daughter should have known something else.

Back in those days when there were seven ponds, a courtyard, orchards and groves, a pilkhana, a family temple and other houses which all had the same and one spent seasons upon seasons on a leisurely progress traveling from one grand house to the next…

Well, back in those days there had been a person whose sole task had been to walk behind her as she had toddled from one room to the next. They were to walk behind her so that should she fall, she would never feel the sting of the ground or even if she did, it would not be for long.

And yet, here now was her daughter, twisting a hairband into six or nine. She sighed. Her husband would be home soon. He would expect them to be ready. The party would begin soon enough and there was an entire city to cross until they could reach it.

She imagined them in their little Maruti 800, chuffing along, dwarfed by the other cars on the road. It didn’t seem real somehow. Was this her life?

“Come here”, she beckoned the little girl. She stood the girl in front of her. She was so malleable, so eager to please. “Let me make you fair”. It wasn’t that the child was dark exactly, she just wasn’t fair.

She had been born fair. She had been born pink. Everyone who had seen her in those early days had remarked on it. She didn’t look like a Bengali baby. She was all pinks and whites. One of the great uncles took to calling the baby, Snow White.

Only, her mother didn’t take the bait. Upon holding her third grandchild in her arms for the first time, she promptly checked behind the baby’s ears. “Dark”, she had pronounced. It was a sentence.

The women in their family were fair, this one was not to be. She had obviously taken after her father.

Her daughter wasn’t dark exactly, she reasoned. She just had a scrubbed look, bronze, or perhaps a light copper. Not the prized milk and alta computing that was so prized and preferred, especially in women.

She lathered the child in pink lacto calamine and fluffed talcum powder all over her. She was sure to cover the neck and the arms. She despised it when brides wore a mask of white on their face while their necks and arms glimmered with the copper of their real skin.

The child would need to do better.

“Lovely, I’ve made my dark girl beautiful, haven’t I?’ She cooed and the girl beamed. She felt grateful, disaster averted.

This was love.

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

She stands in the narrow aisle of the Indian shop. There they are, the familiar icons of her childhood all laid out in a row.

Vicco turmeric (nahi cosmetic, the jingle continues to jingle in her ears even after after all these years), Dabur Amla hair oil, Keo Karpin, Vicco Vajradanti and of course, Fair and Lovely. She aches to reach for it.

There was a time when she would have felt incomplete without it. But then she had discovered bleach.

And now, well, she is resting her skin, she tells herself but really, it is because now she no longer had the time nor the inclination. She just feels too tired. After a lifetime of potions and unguents, her spirit has given up.

She looked down. Her son clutched a Tetrapak of Rubicon to his chest alongside a brick of Parle- G. His weekly treats. It was lucky he was a boy, she sighed. He had got off easy, no gramflour and lentil scrubs for him! She wasn’t sure she had the patience.

He was dark. When she had first held him, she felt fear and disappointment on his behalf. She had learnt her world, had rehearsed it well. He was so dark that he was indigo. He shone. His skin gleamed baby smooth. She loved to stroke his cheek but even then she wondered, would it be enough?

Her mother and grandmother had both been disappointed. They tried not to show it, he was a boy after all. Small mercies. In a girl, such a colour would have been unforgivable.

Her mother, however, hadn’t skimped on the advice, “ Pale colours”, she would whisper urgently, “Pale colours will brighten him up, fill him out”.

He is thin too. And so her son dressed in pastels even before she realised it was in fashion. The colours of the rainbow were expelled from the fray, their quieter cousins were welcome still.

But every time she wades through the rails in shops and her fingers skim over the bright reds and bottle greens, she wonders if cream, white and pale grey (at a push) is really all that the world has to offer her son.

Her eyes fall on Fair and Handsome, secreted behind the Fair and Lovely like a shameful secret, she is surprised that it too has crossed the seven seas and thirteen rivers. She glances at her son, is this his future just as it was her’s?

Letter to An Unknown Soldier

My dearest Babu,

We are here, as we were before, waiting for you to return home. Your father, brother, sister, grandmother and I miss you and wish for you always. You are the sum and sun of the yearning in our hearts. Kajol has declared that he will not shave until you are returned home to us. The furry caterpillar that is currently crowning his upper lip is at once heart breaking and hilarious. How you would laugh to see it! You would mock him into shaving. In a rather perverse, rather Kajol-like manner, I believe he means to goad you into returning so that you two can fight once more. In the meantime, Bela, our little bidushini, our would-be blue-stocking has taken to keeping a diary. She says it is for you to read when you return. She means for it to be a very comprehensive catalogue of the minutiae of our lives like the time, two weeks ago, a stray cat birthed its kittens behind the room on the roof, next to where your grandmother keeps the old rags for selling. She kept padding up and down our stairwell and skulking desperately in the shadows. I am not sure who she was more afraid of, us the fearsome householders or the toms. Toms eat kittens, did you know?

Did I ever tell you?

Anyeay, Bela, Leena, Kajol and I suspected that something was afoot immediately but we had to keep it a secret from your Thakuma. The thought of strays nesting on her roof, above her beloved Puja room would have led, well, to her having kittens, if you will pardon my terrible pun. The cat, which Leena named Shiuli, kept her litter in our trust for more than a week before moving them on. Leena misses them. She would put a bowl of milk out for Shiuli whenever she could. I think she was summing up the courage to ask me if she could keep at least one. Without Shiuli and the prospect of gambolling kittens to play with, little Leena has now turned her attention to feeding a crow after our own lunch is over. She keeps the fish bones and the sparse fistful of rice that she has secreted away, on the parapet of the back-verandah and there the crow comes while she waits for it to finish eating. She whispers to it constantly but I can never hear what she says.

Your father, it will not surprise you to know, has fallen very quiet at home. His mind is no longer on the business and your Thakuma worries that his uncles will use this distraction -if you,away at war can be called that- to cheat him. She would rather that the nefarious ropes of the mill and it’s consequent worries tie him in place until such time that you can be brought back to take his place.

The thakurmoshai comes every morning and evening, as he has always done, to put our Narayan to bed but nowadays he has been relegated to the role of an assistant, a sous-priest if you will. It is your Baba who does everything now, from cleaning the Puja room to arranging the flowers to performing the prayers, while your Thakuma looks on. I know that they would like me to participate more, but I cannot Babu, I cannot. I cannot think of any God while you are not here. Let her call me godless, let her call me a stone-hearted mother. Let them all call me anything and everything that they wish but I will not waste my moments thinking about a god when I should be thinking of you or looking at an idol when I can be looking at your likeness.

In truth, Babu, I cannot enter the Puja room without thinking of the time when you picked up our Narayan-shila, thinking it was a ball. Your Thakuma came running as did your Pishi and in their hysterical cacophony you threw the Narayan-shila into a corner where it landed on a discarded pile of your Thakuma’s stale clothes, perfectly intact and unharmed. This is not a God, you said, it is a ball. You were crying and they held you in their arms until you were quiet and they were too.

Your Thakuma misses you too but she shows it differently than we do. If you are wondering at this, know this: I only achieve this clarity in my letters to you. I am as devilish a harridan as I ever was. I inspect Kajol’s moustache a smidgen too long, read Bela’s diary (you must have suspected already, do you remember how angry you were with me when you discovered that I had been reading your’s?) and eavesdrop on my youngest’s conversations with a crow, jealously guard our mornings and evenings from visitors so that your father can do all that he feels he needs to do in order to pray you safe, all in the hope that by spreading my senses out acutely, I will bring you closer to all of us.

Who holds you in their arms now, my love? My little Babu, this house would not feel so big with you here. You are off, fighting somebody else’s war and I fear for you so. That somebody doesn’t care for us much. We must not venture where those ‘somebodies’ go in civilian life yet they would have you fight their war for them, with them even. The only equality you can ever hope to achieve might be on the battlefield, but is that even the case? Will they look after you once the war is done? Will you be remembered?

I fear for you there and I fear for you here. You are a moth drawn to a cause and the world is now a restless place. Or, was it always this way and I simply had not noticed? I don’t how how you have found your place amongst it all. Do they understand you? Do they realise how much we have given up in letting you go so far away from us? However, it is clear to all of us, that you are the still, quiet, strong, centre of our universe at home.

How strange it is to know every pore of your child, to know the precise angle at which their fingers curl in sleep, to be aware of their particular scent at different times of the day, to be party to all their woes and joys, to sneak peeks at their diary as they grow up and away from you and then suddenly, with the final brutal evaporation of time, to not know them at all and to be deprived of all opportunities to do so. I have worry now, numberless worries that bleed morning into night. Are they good to you Babu? I, your stone-hearted mother, pray that they are. You must come back home for me, and for all of us here.

Mothers in our part of the world never say this until their sons marry (what a hoot that will be! You bringing back a sweet little bou back for me!) but I am going to break with tradition my darling, because the times are changing and I cannot find my way amongst the currents, so here it is… I am proud of you, my son. Wherever you are and from whichever theatre of war they have placed you in, come back home to me,

Your loving Ma

Ps: Drink water, plenty of water. I do not want to have to remind you here about why that is important. You are old enough to know.

Eight -Part 1 #Paperboattales

Eight: Part 1

October and Kolkata is steaming. The skies are washed blue. White clouds appear to have been brushed on as an afterthought. Everyone, everywhere is enveloped in a frenzy of shopping. The streets are heaving and roads can barely contain the cars that trundle up and down, plying the same old streets day and night. There is a feverish madness in the air, a sense of breathless anticipation.

She has sought a red jamdani for years now. She can see it in her mind’s eye. It is red wrought with gold. It has an air of genteel sophistication. It is not showy, it is gently resplendent as she hopes to one day be, herself. But, as it turns out, it is expensive. Much more expensive than she has bargained for.

They simply cannot afford it.

Today, her friend snapped one up, right in front of her, in the blink of an eye. Without thinking. It was magic.

You shouldn’t think so much, her friend had said.

It’s not that, after paying everything else, I don’t have much left over, she replied.

He should pay, na? Is he giving you anything for Puja this year?

We are saving for a flat.

Well, that’s something isn’t it? Mine would never even allow me to think of leaving his parents.

No no, we won’t leave. It’s just a small thing, for investment purposes.

It’s just a sari.

Maybe next year.

After the boutique, they went their separate ways. Time is measured and mapped out for them. Their moments of freedom are earned on account of good behaviour. They must hurry back on time. Punctuality. Discipline. These are their buzzwords. As daughters-in-laws, as mothers and as wives they are told that they must set the example. A recent study has shown that intelligence is inherited from the mother. That study has not helped them one bit. Rather than give credit where it is due, it has simply raised the platform of that unattainable pedestal higher, the pedestal that they know they must strive for.

She falls into the taxi. Bright yellow, it shines in the sun like a polished lozenge. It moves slickly through the traffic. She is hot, it is sweltering. Every year the heat takes her by surprise, it’s unseasonable or at least it ought to be. She wishes there was someone to complain to. Crescent moons have appeared beneath her armpits, a full moon has waxed onto her back. Her back. It reminds her, she needs to check back with the tailor. The taxi leaps over a speed bump and she’s thrown back onto the frayed and tattered faux leather seats. It’s surprisingly comfortable. She would usually make this journey in an auto. Indeed, she should make this journey in an auto. Cut your coat to match your cloth. Her son is learning idioms in English at the school which is supposed to be a springboard to a better life, launching him beyond the city, beyond India even. Ever since Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella burst onto his consciousness, her husband can talk of little else. Their daughter- if they ever have one- will be Indira Nooyi. In the meantime her husband has taken the liberty of dropping textbook idioms into everyday conversation. Perfection is expected of her, indeed it is demanded of her. She is the wife and the mother after all.

But today she has money in her wallet. Not enough for the sari of her dreams but enough to fritter away on a taxi. She might even – depending on the time and if there is time enough to conceal it- buy an egg roll, a Cola and a Dairy Milk Silk. She can wolf the latter down in the secret of the night. It will give her something to look forward to but the other two demand her attention now.

In the quiet bubble of the taxi juddering over potholes and makeshift speed bumps, there is a bubble of peace, a thin film of privacy. The stars have aligned in her favor today, the driver has actually agreed to take her where she wants to go. She hasn’t had to beg, to plead, he hasn’t demanded an extra 100 rupee note. She fishes for her phone in her handbag. Her husband doesn’t like her to look at her phone at home. It will set a bad example, he says.

So, she looks now. She turns to Facebook like a woman starved. Her most recent photo, a selfie in the sari shop has garnered fifty likes already.

Ravishing.

Mind blowing.

Quintessential bong beauty.

Gorgeous.

Mwah.

She can almost hear the chorus of the comments. She can feel the gust and blow of her friends’ enthusiastic, breathy voices. The screen speaks to her, it reaches up, out of itself to keep her company. It is a place where she can finally feel free. No one is trying to make a better version of her. The version of her that they see has already been honed to perfection. The perfect marriage filtered through carefully worded tributes, the perfect child framed by milestone cards and already sufficiently garlanded by accomplishments, the range of perfect holidays from Goa to Phuket, a sojourn in Switzerland by way of a Shah Rukh Khan standee. If she is a sum of her socially visible parts then she is perfectly enviable.

The sacrifices and compromises, the never-ending, suffocating saga of adjustments don’t find room here. The half abandoned meals, the time she stormed out of the car at a busy junction, the nights he did not return home, the all consuming sadness that enveloped her after the child was born, the fact that amidst a house filled to the brim with people, she still felt alone, the school gates that she stood outside of, waiting for her moon-faced child after each and every test. Test after endless test. The constant threat of a transfer certificate hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles (she knew about the sword of Damocles and this was the life she was leading? Well, more fool her), the holidays on which they survived on kebaps from Turkish takeaways and Pot Noodles because after the ticket and the hotels, there wasn’t much money left for more, his anger over her swimsuit, his anger over gazes held too long, his anger, his frustration, his fundamental petulance over a life that wasn’t going right (his anger followed them from the gullies of Gulmohar Park before chasing them up and down Gornergratt) – all of this was cropped out and filtered away. While these were the meat and bone of hushed conversations held in the middle of the night, tapped out against the dying light of this very phone, these very same friends would never give lie to the image that she was building.

She sighs. She thinks of the life she has built in place of the life that she had worked hard for. Both overqualified and under qualified at the same time, they tell her that this is normal. Everyone goes through this. The first few years were teething pains, she was told. His possession was a sign of his love. He didn’t want her to work? Well she was lucky. If was she to insist on it then good for her but make no mistake, everyone handed over their salaries to their husbands. After all, he would manage it better. She has always been one to fritter it all away on useless junk and fripperies. It would be okay, they said, after a child. The child came and it did not make things better. The child only added to all the roles she was failing to perform to the expected standards of perfection. Now they told her that she should plan for another, give her son the greatest gift of all by giving him a brother. But some said girl. She should try for a girl – as if it were so easy – because raising two boys would be too hard while girls were easy, malleable, lenient, easy to mould, like water they took on the shape of the container they were held in. Like her. Hadn’t she done it well? Why complain, this was life after all.

The taxi pulled into her street. She saw that the windows to their home were all flung open wide. In spite of that, the air inside was stagnating. She knew a malaise, a lethargy would descend on her as soon as she entered. The anonymity of the taxi gave her an independence, a freedom that she was not otherwise privy to. She decided to get off.

Ekhane daran, dada.

She did not want them to see that she had arrived home in a taxi. Not when they were supposed to be saving. He pulled up next to the tubewell. Small mercies, at least she was not expected to use that. That had been her mother-in-law’s life. No wonder the latter thought that she had it easy.

She could hear all the televisions in all the houses in all the lane boom together, coming together in a solid, wailing, mass of sound. All crescendos reached together. When she was a child, balconies had been full at this time of the day, early evening giving away to twilight. Now everyone had retreated indoors, watching imaginary lives unfold on increasingly intelligent boxes. She longed for that time. Had she known then what she knew now, she would have done better. She would not have yearned to be such a good girl. She would not have blushed at the thought of marriage, she would not have glowed warm at the prospect of her parents saving up to buy her gold, she would not have listened to them when they asked her to wait for marriage and told her that everything she wanted would be hers if only she would wait for marriage. She would never have tried to learn all the things that made her a good daughter-in- law. She would never have saved up to buy Fair and Lovely, bleach her back, wax herself hairless like a little girl, thread her eyebrows into submission, scald her hand learning how to make the perfect consistency of rice all the while working to get good grades, go to college, go to university, pass government exams but after all that, what for? Good girls, she was fast realizing, has decidedly stifling lives.

The city churns itself up for a festival, celebrating the goddess within, they bring her home and they put her on a pedestal never realizing that all she wants is to put her feet on the ground.

Seven

Seven: They know it is not possible. The positive pregnancy test spells a future that is not their’s. It is a future that they have both individually crossed continents and oceans to get away from. When it happens, they are both unprepared. She stops taking his calls and over time, too soon really, he stops calling.

The unexpected invitation to the memorial service landed on her carpet. She wasn’t expecting it. It upends her world and wonders if yet again she has been lost in translation. She must go. She doesn’t want to go but she must.

She felt obliged to let him know, at the very least. She wrote an email. She hadn’t expected him to come. It had always been difficult to draw him away from his books.

Beneath skies washed blue, they meet again. He, from the library that has painted him ash and she from the lab where she lives at the beck and call of her experiments.

He is even wearing a suit. In fact they had both made an effort. Neither has been to a funeral. All that they know has been gleaned from years of convent education, Hollywood and a smattering of Merchant Ivory movies.

As it turns out, it is a non-denominational service. There are flutes and recorders and thankfully, no mention of God or indeed, any god.

Amidst the gentle ritual, she finds home in the most peculiar of places, in the golden zari work of the flautist’s tunic. It is black, she has one almost exactly like it, practically every one she knows does.

The priest wears long flowing robes, she is almost gothic in her black boots and her sharply shorn hair, the glasses on her clean, oval face suggest knowledge in that way that knowledge is always written about. A thing of calm.

She doesn’t feel calm. She knows too much. Her face is awash with tears. This is a decision that they have made, together, but the rationale of it deserts her now. She tries to remember. The thinking trips her up, the nature of it goes against every grain of her being. This is not how she thought of herself.

She tries to wipe her face. Her clay feet are showing. She has always had to fight harder and longer than anyone else to occupy the same space as everyone else, to earn herself a place at the table. She has been sensible and fierce in equal measure. Tears here, are unexpected of her but perhaps, she fears, all too expected of someone like her. She doesn’t want to give herself away.

He stares straight ahead. They do not touch. He wonders if the other men too, feel like a spare part. He looks at her from time to time but she’s wearing her armor today. He is, as he has been, recently and in some ways, always, the enemy. It justifies the present.

Someone sniffs. And then someone else sniffs. Finally somebody else blows into a hanky. They are not quiet in their grief.

She should not be here, he should definitely not. They are here under false pretenses. She wants to run. They don’t deserve the funeral, the chance to say a good bye. It is not the same for them. The couples have begun to cleave to each other. At the sight of the urn, there is a collective intake of breath, a soft hiss that she will hear for years to come.

They follow the urn in a silent procession. Everything is too green, too manicured, the flowers and graves too well tended. It throws the disorder of their lives into sharp relief.

When they finally stop and the priest lowers the urn into a a hollow in the ground that she hadn’t noticed at first glance, the tears come, thick, guttural, fast.

The men he sees are sobbing too and his own face is damp. He reaches for a tissue. She offers him her’s. It is one in which she has blown her nose. They once shared toothbrushes. Borderlines of intimacy are arbitrary, she had said once.

He takes it from her and dabs at his face. She is looking at him, he cannot tell whether she is bemused or irritated. Or perhaps she is disgusted.

She has bristled at his attempts at consolation. She folds her arms and stares into the middle distance.

She sees a life that could have been. A life filled with compromises, she wonders if she could have grown to love them. She wonders what her mother would think of she saw her now.

This too, is happening Ma, she thinks. This too, is something I did . Unlike the scholarship, the fellowship and every other ship she has ever boarded, this is not news that her mother would have shared. This would not spread amongst the family like wildfire.

It will just be him and her, they will hold this secret in their hearts. After today they will never see each other again.

Six#scrapstories#paperboats

Six:

He walks home, congratulating himself. He has not been found out today.He had come uncomfortably close and he has worried about today for weeks. Three weeks to be precise.

He had gone to see her during a trough. Peaks and troughs, peaks and troughs they said, that was what life was all about. His uncles spoke of hardships back home, wars that they had had to flee, battles that they had to fight even if they were not their own.

And him? With his suit and tie and briefcase, his university education, his sit-down-at-a-desk job, his mortgage, three kids and a wife with a nail business of her own? He was the prize, the sign that all that they had suffered was worth it. His brothers, sisters, cousins and now nephews and nieces, all looked up to him.

No pressure.

And, so, what if, in the middle of the kitchen conversion, he had felt like his life was fracturing, breaking up into small, brittle fragments of charcoal? What of that? No matter. He had to keep on going, surmounting one impossible task after another.

Posting a letter was his undoing. He couldn’t do it. Just the effort of going to the post office, buying envelopes, getting a stamp, licking the back, posting it. It was too much, just thinking of it made his eyelids heavy.

She has been telling him to see someone for ages. When she had found him sobbing with the letter in hand, she had made the phone call with little regards to the consequences.

She didn’t seem to realise -no matter how much he tried to explain – that everything that they had, everything she prized, could be taken away. Rubbish, she said, it doesn’t work that way. He could not bring himself to believe that he could ever be lucky enough to believe her.

She had driven him to his first appointment, she had waited outside. She had been beaming, as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.

When he went back today, he went by himself. He told the doctor about everything he had done. He told him about the healthy eating. His wife had him on a diet. He was cheating at work.

He told the doctor about the walks they were taking. She was. He had opted out.

He told the doctor about how they were making time together as a family. He was coming back later than ever. The children’s raucousness made his face ache. He was not the father to them that he wanted to be. It was difficult to live with that.

He told her about the letters he was writing. He was flitting between the same three apps on his phone every day.

He told her about the time that he was taking for himself. He was getting off at the stop before and then waiting for the next train. Station platforms at twilight with their sodium fizzing were an oasis of possibility; chances for him to think about what he would do if he were no longer himself.

He told her the shadows of the truth and watched as how each successive lie lit up her face from the inside. She congratulated him on his hard work.

Baby steps, he said, smiling, diffident.

He had moved mountains, she said. What did he feel about the medication? She asked.

Not required, he smiled.

He walks deliberately towards the garage. The thought of her face, caught in the sun the following morning stalls him. She doesn’t deserve that. He turns to the house. One more night.

He is attentive. He knows she likes presence. He can do this for her in short bursts, when he knows there is an end in sight. He gives all three children their bath, he takes out the rubbish after dinner. He even calls his parents and sends each sibling a text.

She looks at him, squeezes his shoulder. It amazes him that she does that, that she insists on doing that. It’s done in books and films but for him it does nothing. His shoulder is all bone, there is nothing to squeeze. He feels empty.

Are you okay, she asks. She has become good at spotting vacancy.

‘Course, he says, kissing her on the forehead. Two can play at this game. She goes to bed tired, happy. The house is spotless, he looks around. Everything is a shade of grey or teal with occasional splashes of pink. It is tasteful in the way of supermarkets. He smiles. This will bring her comfort. There’s contempt in this thought.

In the morning, on the way to work, he closes the door softly, it whispers to a click. The occasion should be momentous, he should be flooded by memories, memories upon memories layering up, a palimpsest. After all, this town, this station he has been living here and leaving here all his life. But even as he takes his shoes off in the last breath before the train has the chance to sweep him away to a different life – they will always wonder why he took his shoes off – he just marvels at the ordinariness of it all.

It is only at the very last, when it is too late, when the girl standing next to him realises that it’s too late, the window of opportunity to grab his hand, to attempt to pull him back is already gone, that he wonders if he could have gone on and if there was another way. He closes his eyes.

Five: #Paperboats#scrapstories

Five

She has begun to think of the olden days with fondness now. The city that she never loved, the one in which she had never felt at home has begun to feel just that now. Like Home.

They can never go back of course. He doesn’t believe in it. Always move forward, he says.

She likes to go back. She never likes anything the first time. Familiarly breeds comfort. Time, life, love, self never seem to walk the same path together at the same time as far as she is concerned.

He is so different. Cheese to her chalk. His life moves in tandem with him. He is not at loggerheads with it. He lives his life by maxims. Carpe diem, that’s his thing.

So she sits, in,corners, next to aisles , in abandoned front rows and watches yet more new people she doesn’t know rally together. She is the new one here, again, indistinguishable foliage that will be shed once a year.They are the roots.

She marvels at their freedom. She watches them topple into one another, marvels as they hold each other up. She tries to see who is friends with whom, which one is married to the other, she gives them characters based on what they wear. Larger than life. She paints them in her head. She wants to sit at their table.

He is already there, at their table. He never beckons.

Once home, he urges her to transform herself. He tries to talk her into becoming more likeable. He likes to solve problems.

She declines. It appears to involve the dismantling of her, dissembling to the degree that she would have to forget herself.

It is a small victory, but it is her’s.

Four: Paper Boat Tales #scrapstory

There is a boy and there is a girl. The girl looks at the boy and wishes that it were that simple. He is within reach, he would be so easy.

There is a concert tonight and they will go together. He is always doing the right thing. He is there, always there, ready to help, ready to lift, just ready.

When he sees her, he smiles. It flutters, unsure, about his eyes. She holds back. She will have to let him down, again. Gently, again. It is for the best. When will he learn?

He is forever finding these things for her. Things that she enjoys, experiences she loves, moments and occasions which appeal to the way she sees herself, appeals to the person that one day she would like to be.

It is novel, this arrangement. This experience of being courted is unusual. It is usually she who feels far too much and too strongly for another who always turns the other way.

They walk together,side by side, into the church and step together down the aisle. They are late. The harmonium is being adjusted, the tabla is being tuned. The dancer waits in the wings, poised and ready. But really of course, there are no wings, there isn’t even a stage. It’s the just an open space, a clearing amidst the vast limestone trunks and branches of this celestial forest that the chapel seeks to mimic. The audience is close. It is intimate.

Did you know, he turns, as the singers take to the low stage, that Tagore was inspired by Burns? Robert Burns?

Bond. James Bond. She raises a brow – the only gesture left over from years of Saturday mornings spent in South West Ken learning mudras and bols off by heart as if that would have be her life forever.

Of course. She turns back.

He bristles. What he would not give for her to soften, to acknowledge the wonder of him. How he has brought himself to appreciate her. But she carries herself as if she did not know who she was.

As the singers begin, she tries to lose herself but it isn’t until they pause and the dancer drifts back to the pews and the singers begin to take questions from the audience, when the singer answers in song, dispensing with the music altogether, that she is able to let go.

Unburdened by the weight of the music that seeks to envelop her, the singer’s clear voice soars, it touches the rafters, it flies around the room looking for rain clouds that have fled into the skies beyond.

It looks for oceans which have found their shores, it reaches out into the wide wilderness beyond and brings them inside, her voice paints pictures, builds cathedrals in the sky.

While the other sings, she gazes and listens in wonder, wondering a little herself, laughing a little at the quiet comedy of it all. She has come to listen to songs sung by the woman loved by the man she loves accompanied by a man who does not love her at all.

Three: Paper Boat Tales #scrap story

Three

When his parents took him to Delhi during the Puja holidays, one of the places that they took him to see the Qutub Minar.

But, as their car passed through Mehrauli, it was really the Iron Pillar that he was most excited about.

They had stayed with relatives. His cousins had prepped him. They told him about the legend that if one stood with one’s back to the pillar, and managed to clasp their hands behind it, then they would be blessed with good luck.

He was in Class 5. It was a big year. Only the finest went onto Class 6 at his school. The rest were handed transfer certificates. He had been working towards the all important Class 5 exams for as long as he can remember.

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

Years later, he returns with his daughter. He feels that she should know her nation’s capital.

Yet, he is just a little bit proud that this is not her real nation after all. Her nation is the country of her birth. But that one step remove grants him generosity.

That one step remove from the reality of all things Indian allows him to feel benevolent about a country that he has made his life’s work to remain as far away from as possible.

He is immediately disappointed. They have fenced the pillar. While centuries of rain have not managed to rust its iron, centuries of human hugs have apparently been far more damaging. No good luck for his daughter then.

She looks around but is far more intent on taking pictures with the candy-colored camera with its bulbous packaging that she has looped around her neck. He also has DSLR and he has a good feeling about all the pigeons he’s managed to shoot in various states of flight.

He calls the driver. They must leave. There’s still the Lotus Temple and Red Fort to see.

Just as they are about to get back into the car and move on, a child comes knocking at the window.

He’s bare-bodied. His ragged shorts defy gravity, they are held up by sheer good will and nothing else. The flesh has begun to slide off his bones just as his smiles appears to be wider than his face. His naked feet are grey with dust.

“Babu”, he says, “kuch de ke jana”.

She looks at him, shocked and then looks up. Eyes melting, brown, distraught, that this too could be someone’s reality. She doesn’t understand what he says but poverty is an universal language.

The thing is, they have spoken about this. He has explained to her that they can’t give money to all those who come begging. That’s why they do readathons, sponsored silences, sponsored fasts (although that one didn’t go down so well)…

…They run, they hike, they bike, they bake, they auctioned to raise money for an earthquake over here, a flood over there. They are already doing their bit.

But she insists.

And he can never say no.

He takes a coin off the dashboard and flings it at the child.

It catches him between the eyes. It lands on the ground, by the tires. The child looks stunned before recovering swiftly to scrabble for the coin in the dirt. He runs away without looking back.

He slides into the passenger seat, he feels something. He doesn’t know what.

He turns to check that she is safely secured into her booster seat. He has had to fight for it. His family think that he is ridiculous.

“ You’re a big man”, a voice says, approaching. The voice belongs to an unassuming pink paunch, brown trousers which baggily flap in the wind, weatherbeaten sandals that have allow his toes to be dusted grey.

“Big man, in a big car. If you have to give, give with a big heart or don’t give at all. Think of the little people like us”.

“I,” he begins. “No”, he stutters.

“No sir, you’re a big man. Carry on, just remember”.

He slumps in his seat. He can’t look at her. He can’t meet his daughter’s eye.

One: Paper Boat Tales

One

The rain catches her by surprise. It shouldn’t have. She should have checked the weather. She should have planned better. She should be more organized. She is carrying too many bags, her pencil skirt is riding up. She feels held back. In spite of the rain, she feels too hot. It’s muggy. What was just right for the office is too much for the world outside. She teeters, she stumbles.

She is not effortless. She does not feel effortless. She hopes no one can see her. She puts a lot of effort into being effortless. She feels like an imposter. She’s stayed too long at work. She will have some explaining to do at home. She won’t win any points with her manager either. Work smart, not hard, he barks.

He doesn’t like overtime. Overtime means days taken off. Overtime means inefficient. She ought to be efficient and effortless. She breathes deeply. The rain patters down, cool. She has been praying for it. And now she’s just wet. A bus pulls up. She sighs.

She slips off her heels and plants her feet firmly on the ground. She hasn’t done this in a while. There’s something to be said for the coolness of rain soaked tarmac after a long, drawn out summer. It isn’t quite grass but if she squints really hard and focuses on the potted plants beneath every lamppost, it could be.

She walks quickly, able again.

A woman on the bus gazes at her, a smile lingering on her lips.