Sunday, 10 June 2012

Short Story 2012 Longlist, Merlin Flower

Who Blew It?

“Will! Will’s mother say, ‘I’ve made a Will,’ she asked and looked at me.
 I looked at her. The face had a question in the brows, and a smile well hidden in the eyes.
“Hmm,” I said, “likely, she’d say, Bill instead of Will.”
“Then it’d be, ‘I’ve made a Bill,” Swati smiled.
 I reflected the smile, “Chances are, she’d just say, ‘son’.”

“You are a big spoiler alert, you know that?” she said, an admonishment I’ve gotten to like.
I knew the whole spoiler alert thingy, but my slow brain looked at things for what they are-a line is a line, a square, a square. Swati’s emotional quick witty brain saw a thin man in a line, an old man in a square, with a logic not apparent to me, I should add.  Even prosaic lines made flip  in her brain to churn out as witty humour, which I could never match up to. Not that I didn’t try. I read many a book of jokes with diverse titles like, “Twenty jokes to rumble your stomach,” “Hundred very funny jokes.” Still, however harder I tried, a joke never sounded funny coming from my lips; blame my brain and their grey cells!  “Oops,” Swati would say and the whole room laughed. I could never understand since I laughed too.

We went to the same school. Once, in my mother’s version of the story: “You and Swati were playing near the fish tank. I was listening, you know, when you said, ‘My day says coloured fishes are painted by God’. Swati promptly added, “No, I saw my uncle painting them and leaving them in the water.” You looked at the fishes and started crying, then Swati cried looking at you and your brother sleeping next door joined too. It was so funny.” I don’t remember this incident but have heard so many versions that I’d be surprised if the incident never happened at all. The story was embarrassing since my mom made it a point of recollecting it when my friends were around. Moms!

Another time, we were watching a bird pruning herself on the big neem branch outside her home. The bird lazily scratched its wings with a stretched out leg in one big gesture.  Swati imitated the bird to the T. It could have been hilarious, if not for me who broke the spell with my one feeble doubtful imitation.

After school, Swati and I, we went to the same college, but settled at different jobs. She became a sculptor, while I earned my bread-more like pizza- at an IT firm. She could have too, with that razor sharp brain, she could have ruled the world, but wanted an outpour for her creativity. A career as a sculptor, and in India? I had my doubts, and prayed for her success. Sometimes during the ever dragging team meetings I wondered how the scene would have been with Swati around. She always had bright, fresh ideas which she poured out as if there was no tomorrow. Selflessness and disdain for money can stifle entrepreneurship, I told her, while she smiled lost in her own world. She had broken nails working with woods, soft stones and gems. Often her nails had grime so thick they looked like small black sculptures set against a white back ground. Once, for a project she caught spiders and introduced them to her sculpture of a modern city. The project never got any financial backing, but the spiders thrived and had a splendid city tailor-made for them. She never cleaned that patt of her studio, but never had any spider bites. I, on the other hand…oh, leave it, I  hate spiders.

She also had a blaring instinct, which she relied more than she should. The first boyfriend I had was dismissed as a ‘puerile bit of virus’ and he turned to be a deadly virus. Well, that’s not me getting back at my ex-he truly was/is. The second one, I didn’t introduce, just referred to the relationship, hoping the name didn’t turn her instincts on the wrong side. Not sure I understand the whole instinct theory- I need at least three meeting to draw conclusion about a person, much like the rest of the humanity. Swati and her pointed radar had it all too easy in the judging department. Oh, and she dislikes my sister too, but that isn’t much of an instinctive reaction, just a friend’s reaction to seeing her friend being bossed around by her big sister.

I got angry twenty times a day. Then logic didn’t have any hold, just pure anger and me. Many people managed to bring the worst in me. When I have to make a decision, I ask around and they say, “You know it’s your decision, not my place to advice you.” But, manage to pour heaps of advice at other times. Another common statement, “can’t you trust me?” How can someone trust a stranger? I suspect, half of India’s population is the result of this question.  They say enjoy nature, and when you stare at a tree there will be a miserable soul coming up to you asking, “What are you thinking?” or “Penny for your thoughts?” You know people say “listen more than you speak?” Don’t believe them, introverts get instructions to enjoy life from every stranger. Can you blame when I get angry?  That meant I had very few friends-though I am not an introvert, ahem- but not a loss since they were the best in the world. Ok, back to Swati, she loved animals, and the only person I knew who loved cats and dogs equally. Cats and dogs played together in her house, hard to believe unless you saw them playing around.

Our friendship bought both the families together. Diwali season was the best with sweets and lights. We children used to lights the diyas all over the home, either Swati’s or mine. Swati’s mom had tasty hands, anything she made with those hands was tasty. Lunch was served in banana leaves with rice, sambar, avviyal, mango pickles and pappadam. I can still role my tongue and feel the taste. Afternoon time allotted watching movie in the tv, debating on who would move to change the turner, with most of us napping in the sofa lazy to get up.. Evening it was cracker time with sounds in varied proportion. That was in the past, as environmental attention meant no crackers anymore, just lights for Diwali in a different land. Good old days, easy to laugh, easy to cry. I haven’t shed a tear in three years. The last cry, for three straight days, was for the boy friend when he became ‘ex’. Not that I don’t emphasize, or felt sad after that, I just haven’t cried. As if all the tears went away to live with my ex. Hmm.

This lazy afternoon is just a week before her wedding. (Tying the knot at twenty-two, she is insane.) I have to fly back to the US tomorrow, while she will settle in India itself.  I was there for her engagement ceremony, five months ago, but will miss her marriage. She doesn’t mind it, or so she says, as my face was already present in her engagement album, a consolation prize but better than nothing. Her future husband is a bureaucrat in a local office. He, when I caught sight of his head for the first time, had a pleasing smile on a bald head. His moustache had more hair, by contrast, with two white hairs now black with the dye of the same color. He was also polite to the guest and stole furtive glances at his would be bride. She was resplendent in a marron saree, and tried hard to keep up the smiling face-very difficult with in flow of  five thousand guests. Wonder, how she’ll manage the wedding smile?  From the looks of it, he’d manage the smile like a snake, hmm. And his mother looked younger for her forty-six years. You have to understand the role of a mother-in-law in India. She juggles the role of a president, prime minster and finance minister. Since, the daughter-in-law comes to live with her; she is the cynosure of all eyes in an Indian wedding-judged more than the bridegroom. A smile and you’ve got a good mother-in-law. Swati’s had a smile alright, but I quite didn’t like the young mother-in-law. Mothers, if you ask me, should be old with visible grey hairs. Vilasini, Swati’s future mother, widowed at nineteen looked just two years older than her son, an Indian version of a Meryl Streep.

I told Swati, “You mother-in law looks so young,” and waited for the reaction.
A flicker of something, or did I just imagine? “True, poor thing has been alone for a long time,” said Swati. “She calls me ‘daughter’ and has a special room for my sculptures.”
“You are lucky,” I murmured.
“Listen,  said Swati, “ I’ll send you snaps of the wedding, happy journey and don’t forget to call me.”
----

Vilasini tried to close her ears. Still, she could hear distinctly the violent love-making in the adjacent room. She tried to deflect her thoughts and tried repeating, “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna’. It was impossible as the thoughts had a life of their own and returned to the taboo subject. Didn’t her mom’s Guruji tell her the human mind held only one thought at a time. Well, Vilasini was confident; he was wrong, damn wrong. She could say a mantra and still think ‘unholy thoughts’ on the couple next door, there was picture and audio, like two minds each with its own life. She could see a lizard moving across the ceiling, pale and alien across the mosquito net. So, Vilasini found that there were three forces at work-her eyes on the lizard, one mind reciting mantras and another on the couple next door.

She felt hot but didn’t move to switch on the fan, her mind roamed to her last time, wasn’t it a long time ago? Did they make sound when they made love? She doesn’t remember, except for some silent gasps.  She remembered her husband three days after the wedding, how his eyes sparkled in the dark looking at her face, the smile paying hide and seek, the smell of his hands, and the wetness of his sweat. Fast forward two years, and he was gone leaving her with a baby.

First thing tomorrow, have to ask them to change bedrooms, she thought and felt a powerful emotion in her chest. She remembered the wedding, how the guests had commented on her young, beautiful skin. Vilasini touched her cheeks, they were indeed soft. Nowadays, girls used anti-ageing cream before they reached twenty, while she had always found refuge in papaya, sandalwood paste and orange peels. Her hair was still black, and wrinkles were but two just around the corner of the mouth, invisible to the naked eye. Some of Swati’s friends wondered why she remained unmarried. Vilasini didn’t know the answer, her excuse had always been fear for her son’s future, and also reluctance to share her son’s love else, even if it was just her husband. If only her parents had pressed her more- the second marriage was mentioned only twice, four days after her husband’s death and ten days later. If only they had pressed more but now it looked really late.

After her husband’s demise, it came down to two choices-live with her parents or stay at her husband’s home. She returned to her parental home, which looked lesser of the two evils. Money was not a problem; the land she had inherited was more than enough to provide a decent income. But there were many unwritten rules she found stifling. She couldn’t light the lamp, couldn’t laugh loud, couldn’t be the first face anyone woke up to, couldn’t wear flowers in her hair and so on. It was laughable, they all enjoyed the food cooked by her hand, even licking their fingers shamelessly like that morning. The only true possession was her son, the boy she could love for the rest of her life. He was hers’ right from the moment of conception.

When he was a year old, her husband was playing with his son, while she was busy in the kitchen. Her husband, in some deep moments of paternal endearment, lighted incense and showed it around his son’s face. A speck fell on the baby’s cheek, and brought to the room a frantically panting Vilasini fresh from the kitchen, frying pan in hand. She saw the black mark on her baby’s cheer, however small it was, and hit her husband bang with the frying pan. He just stared at her for a minute and left the room, never mentioning the reason for the deep cut in her head, which stayed red even after he was dead, five hours.

When her son was ten, she moved to a new but bigger house-a white house with spacious rooms, decorated geometric paintings and a long foyer.  The garden had long pruned trees, chemically treated lawn, and many shrubs that the gardener had a hard time removing spider’s web every day, in addition to the caterpillars. A clean garden but the gardener was sure half the trees had sprout out of bird and human shit. But no one wanted genesis, and no one cared. Sometimes, the caterpillars squirmed at his hand, and he wondered if it was the right thing to do, but always completed the task as per instructions given. He felt jealous seeing the woman at the big house, happy, single and beautiful shielded away from the hot, cruel Sun, insects and the often flaring up conscience over the sins of killing small bugs. The son was worse, with a pleasant smiling face he patiently listened to the question put to him, shaking his head up and down like a banana leaf, only to answer with, “ask my mom.”

It was a small world of two people, excluding the two servants and the gardener. Marriage was never uttered, as for sex, men always found a way to convey, not always through words, their availability. She, in turn, fantasized the men she met, her husband’s friends, movie stars and relatives, after all anything was possible in the imagination. She missed her husband as much for the lack of sounding board, as much as for the physical closeness. Of course, had she wished she could have had any man she wanted, but never ventured that far, why? She never understood.

Years rolled on, and a friend told her about a prospective bride for her son. She was a distant relative, from a good family and worked from home. That meant, a daughter-in-law for company, and she was glad to see Swati. Even after marriage, her son, the bright boy, was always near her. He even cancelled his honeymoon for fear of leaving his mother alone. I am lucky; Vilasini sighed and waited for sleep. 
 
Swati’s voice sounded different. “It’s like I am calling from a different country,” I said, and laughed. “You are,” she replied but didn’t laugh. If she had, I’d have deciphered. I could always do that, finding meaning in her abstract sculptures, give them funky titles and urging her to do more. She had creative juices, turning clay to forms I’d have never imagined. Not many collectors understood her work, which meant that she gave away most of them as gifts. Looking at her sculptures, I’ve always felt that she has a dog’s eye view of the world, definitely not how I saw things.

“How’s life as Mrs. Bharat Talwande?” I asked. Didn’t I tell you, her husband was named after his country by his Mom. Have to give it, mothers knew best.

“Good, marriage is good” The voice seem to come from Antarctica, cold and distant.
“Shudh, is something wrong,” Shudh meant ‘pure’ and I liked it better than ‘Swati’. That said, I’ve seen Swati argue when someone called her Shudh, she obviously liked her name with an ‘a’, but never corrected me.

“You mean like the US fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq” she said.
“No, like you idling without new works or leaving home.”
“Come on. I just got married, you know.”
“No, not after three months. That bald man troubling you?

“Hey, you are talking about my husband,” her anger was fake, I knew that. “And you mother in law?
“She has a good heart, just that she like giving advice, which I don’t take,” She laughed for the first time in the conversation, it pained me, “and she doesn’t like pets at home, which I can live with.” It always came down to that, marriage changed people however hard they tried to resist it. Soon, Swati won’t have time for me with a family to cater too. One less person to talk to, and it was irritatingly natural, but a part of me fervently wished that she would remain the same, with the same sense of humour.

----
Vilasini tried to be a mother to her daughter-in-law. Every morning she found her daughter-in-law with coffee and breakfast. “That must have made me happy,” she thought, “instead I find more sugar in the coffee and more salt in the idlli.”
“You should let me do the breakfast,” she finally told Swati, adding, “You can work, you know.”
“Then how will you break the fast. I’ll do the breaking mom,” Vilasini blinked, and left the kitchen humiliated with what she considered, ‘instant snub.’

Swati was everywhere. It was the same with her son, he wanted Swati to bring towels to his bathroom, eat with him, and called out her name when he returned from office. One day, Swati wanted to get her eyebrow done, but Vilasini thought her brow was beautiful enough naturally. Swati used her sculpting scissors to trim her brow, which went haywire that she was forced to take her to the beauty salon.

Soon, however hard she tried, Vilasini found sharing faults of Swati’s with her son. Shouldn’t she share the budget at home instead of wasting time at sculptures? Swati laughed too much, and joked when it was unnecessary, had a big mask on her face.  His mother also reminded him of the many girls who could have been his bride. That worked, as she found her son’s face uncertain and bitter.
When her son fought with his wife for the first time, Vilasini felt light at heart, and saw the return of her son, and silence in the bedroom next door. The room specially allotted for Swati’s sculptures didn’t see any new addition. The new stones and metals remained untouched, and Swati found refuge in the kitchen most of the time, staring and staring at nothing.

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