Monday 15 September 2014

Short Story 2014 First Prize, Amit Shankar Saha


Twenty four hours ago that boy was standing just where he is standing now. No, a little to the left. Or, a little right. Okay, choose any, either left or right. But he was standing, not sitting or lying down. He was standing. And we are going to view everything that happens in this story through the eyes of that child. No, no, not a child, a boy. So widen your mind’s eye. Double up your imagination to invade my muse’s den. You are going to read a most  extraordinary story - a story where this boy is the major character but his role is just a cameo of sorts. This boy doesn’t act until we almost reach the end of the story. Though the boy reacts quite often. Some might say that it is just an ordinary story. It is for the reader to choose.

Already in this short beginning a good number of contradictions have cropped up, so I must forewarn the reader that there are more to follow. This story is of contradictions. Full of it. Or, for some it might appear just straight forward. The reader has to make his / her choice. And no longer will I ask you to make your choice - you have to do so of your own volition. Reader, you are free to do so whenever the need arises. Whenever there is a contradiction -whenever there is a choice to make.
But I can already see the reader getting perplexed and wanting to know that if the child, no no no no, the boy is the narrator then what I was doing there when the boy was standing there. I was waiting to see just what the boy was waiting to see. And it is the boy who is the real narrator. But since he is hardly ten years old and has a very weak vocabulary, I vocabularise (permit my neologism) what we see through his eyes. No, no, don’t contradict that he is a mannequin of sorts. He is the only narrator of this story. No, contradictions about that.

So, now to start the story. But the story has already started for the boy has already seen her showering the flowers while I was busy explaining contradictions. Now don’t read ‘showering the flowers’ as ‘flowering the showers’ and imagine any erotic scene. I appeal to you not to imagine your own inane contradictory images. Whatever inanity will follow will come solely through my pen. Your imagination should come to my muse’s den and not to any other god-forsaken lair. Anyway the boy is not peeping into a bathroom but into a garden. As for him being a voyeur or not, is up to you to choose as the story progresses. So she was watering the plants in her garden. As flowers were all around her. And she manoeuvred to water the plants in the last row; the pollen grains yellowed the stretched salwar on her bum. She kept on watering the plants unaware of both, her yellowed bum and that peeping Tom whom since the beginning we have named by a common noun and called just ‘the boy’.

After she finished her work she washed her hands and feet with the little water that remained in the water-can and then went in, can in hand. But the can returned back to the garden; hurled out, bang, crash, hurt. It hurt our little narrator on the right knee and he limped back home. He might have hurt his left knee. I can’t remember clearly. But he limped back home.

Yes the boy has a home. He is not one of those aloof narrator about whom you won’t know anything even after reading the whole story. He is the neighbour of the woman who bathed the flowers and the flowers in turn painted her bum. Or, that is to say he is the only child of her neighbours. We elders always assert our superiority on the youngsters by calling them ‘child’ but for that we are not going to rename or nickname ‘the boy’ as ‘the child’. That would be too childish. So the son of her neighbours might have got a good scolding from his father or mother for hurting his left or right knee. But we won’t care for that because not even the boy cared for it. He will remain with his limp till the very end of this story. By this you must have guessed that the time span of this story is not months or years but just a few days. Maximum two weeks, a fortnight. Not more than that. And we are going to skip a lot of unhappening days along with their details. Neither I have any patience to write a long story and I hope nor do you have the patience to read it. Or, you might have the patience. But I don’t.
We find the boy a couple of days later standing just where we found him standing a couple of days ago. She was again watering the flowers. Unlike the limp of the boy, the injury (remember the can) on the left or right side of her forehead has healed. Or it might not have healed. Nobody asked her about it. Her husband came out and walked out.

Her husband was a Christian by faith and a teacher by profession in the school where our narrator, the boy, studied. She was a Hindu girl but they were in love. So they married and she changed her religion. She found no difficulty in changing from Hinduism to Christianity but she found it absolutely impossible to change from salwar to skirt. The dozens of skirts that her husband bought for her lay unused and she always wore the few salwars she had from her unmarried days. What one gets used to, like habits, die hard. It should not be surprising that had Adam and Eve instead of covering bottoms in shame for their sin had covered their faces then just to maintain status quo generations after generations and civilizations after civilizations would have devised ingenious  undergarments for our faces and we would have been wearing them now. And we would have felt utterly embarrassed to pull the under wear from our faces in front of anybody except our mates. Or not even in front of our mates. So she always wore salwars with yellow bottoms. And her husband hated that, though he had fallen in love with a salwar-clad girl only.

The boy watched her finish her work and go in, can in hand. This time the water can did not come out again as her husband was not at home. The boy stealthily entered the garden, up the couple of steps, on the verandah, and started peering through the slight-parted curtain on the left or right side of the door. He saw her cleaning a mirror and swinging her yellow bottom, rightleftrightleft, until she caught the boy’s eye in the mirror and turned around suddenly. Seeing the unexpected turn of event as well as the woman, he became frozen and just could not move his legs. He felt as if his limp was cured but his legs were paralysed. She came towards him, smiled and as she opened her mouth to say something, he suddenly found enough strength to move his legs and he ran away. Nononono. How can he run? He has a limp. So he limped away. And just out of the garden he collided with a candy-wallah called Holiday Singh. He used to sell ‘bombai mithai’.
And now for the first time we are going to have an exception to the rule. What we have professed at the beginning as a rule will now have an exception. The boy instead of reacting will now act in our story but for a minute time, hardly a minute. He will have a conversation with this newly arrived figure called Holiday Singh, the candy-wallah.
“Eh munda! Why are you running from your house like this?”
“My house. Yes. Oh! Running.”
“Have you got hurt?”
“Oh! Uh! Ya. No. No.”
“Ooo, you are limping. Let me take you to your mother.”
“Oh! No. I’ll go.”
“Oye, where to? Go home. And don’t tell that the candy-wallah Holiday Singh hurt you. You bumped into me, not I. Take this boy.”
The boy took the small piece of candy and again entered the garden from where he had limped out a few moments ago. No women with yellow bums were waiting for him there. After the candy-wallah Holiday Singh was gone he again slipped out of the garden. He vowed never to peep through the door again. The windows were okay. They were outside the garden. He went home, candy in hand. Whether he ate the candy or threw it away I don’t know but for the next three / four days he did not go to school due to severe tooth ache. But I found out that every month he used to have tooth ache. But that is another matter.
Three or four days he stayed at home and all those days he spent watching her; through her windows of course, doing household work. What attracted the boy towards that woman? What made him so inquisitive? These are just matters of conjecture and I leave it to the reader to do the necessary. But he was attracted to her. Whether he saw her as his mother or sister or girlfriend or daughter or anything else can best be answered by persons who study child’s psyche. But, for us, he is not a child, he is a boy.
And this boy was a clever boy.
He knew that he was on a secret mission and like we don’t spell out SECRET over things secret, he never slipped out of his house stealthily. He just limped out casually. Though we also know that he is on a secret mission, we don’t know what the mission is, since we see everything through his flesh and blood eyes and not through his mind’s eye. And we also know that only mind’s eye has no chiasmata and that is what that makes everyone see things the right way. But alas! We don’t have access to the boy’s mind’s eye. Or we might have access just if we notice the boy’s actions and thoughts. Oh! Oh! The boy hardly acts (only reacts) and seldom thinks.

Enough about the boy. Back to our story. Yes, on one of those three or four days, in the afternoon, when shadows have again lengthened considerably, he saw something that needs to be written. Mind it; it is not just to entertain you but the story demands it. And I hope that you’ll have realised the coming tragedy, cheek-by-jowl of this tongue-in-cheek comedy. So that one day the boy peeped through the bedroom window and saw the husband and wife sitting nude on the bed amidst the scene they have created. And no doubt the argument centred on the things that they have shed from the bodies, that is clothes or more specifically salwars and skirts. It seemed that in their arguments they would not do the very thing for which they have unclad themselves. But I find some readers raising their eyebrows. I also realise that it is very difficult to stop oneself when one is charged up on the bed. So for those ‘some readers’ with raised eyebrows I give an alternative: They finished their usual business, which the boy was most unfortunate to watch, and then started their argument. Or the boy might have come a little later, may be when they are mid way or towards the end of their argument. Whatever the boy heard I have written on a separate sheet of paper and have no intention to include in this story. Hanh! What the boy saw I will write. Towards the end there were a few slaps - obviously from the husband to the wife. Even if I want to contradict it and write ‘vice-versa’ beside, I can’t. You know why. And then there was that bonfire.
Fuelled by kerosene, the fire began to devour salwars after salwars. All yellow-bottomed salwars. Getting scorched and then bursting into flames. Her husband burnt all her salwars. You know we Indians are champions in burning clothes. Don’t you remember those swadeshi and boycott days? Those bonfires were really huge compared to this one. Anyway, so after the bonfire was lit the two nude persons, one with a look of triumph on his face managed themselves within their undergarments. And the wife, to sabotage her husband’s triumph, declared adamantly, “Either I’ll wear salwars or just lingerie but never those clothes.”
It was just about this time, before any contradictions rose about the woman’s declaration, our narrator, the little boy, became aware of someone coming down that narrow lane. He at once steadied himself and started doing one of the two things that is wonted to do in the space we leave between two buildings. Obviously he wasn’t taking a short cut way like the other man but was just peeing on the wall below the window. But the man either by seeing the designs that the forced spurts of urine made on the wall or the smoke coming out of the window got curious and started approaching the boy. The little boy, getting alarmed, turned around towards the man and started shaking his little penis vigorously to scatter little droplets that adhered to its tip. The man, also getting alarmed, scampered out of the lane without getting his self profaned. Thus the boy was saved. Or in fact the husband and wife were saved.
And I am also saved from elaborating on yet another character of this story.
And now a little elaboration on a character of this story. The husband. We know he was a teacher but we should also know that there was a prospect of him becoming the principal of the school within a few days. On the twenty-first he has to make a speech in the chapel in front of the dignitaries, and there and then his future will be decided. He might be promoted and made the principal. He was already in preparation of the speech, rehearsing it at home, polishing his oratorical skills and hoping to stay clear of scandals.
So we see the time is now ripe enough for the scandal. We, that is the boy and I, position ourselves at the backside of the garden so that we remain hidden from any roving eye. And then she comes out shorn of her salwar as well as shame, can in hand. She started watering the plants and slowly, like a solenoid increasing its magnetisation, more and more eyes began to turn towards her. Eyes from a coven of witches, eyes from a parliament of owls, eyes from all, gradually, gradually. Eyes from everyone who were present there, from footpaths to balconies. Some eyes stayed on her, some eyes shrunk from her. She with only her loins covered, like that person called Greatsoul Gandhi who also had seen bonfires of clothes, kept on with her work. Or she had covered herself a little more than Gandhi for she wore a short kurta too. But she kept on watering the plants in front of staring eyes, who were trying to guess which of the seven deadly sins she was committing. And then the ululations began and continued until Holiday Singh entered the scene.
“Are’ sister. What shamelessness! At least care for the embarrassment your boy will feel.”
Effrontery or not, I don’t know, but she went in, can in hand, hearing the remark. I think she went in just because she realise that underage kids were getting uncensored entertainment, which wasn’t their privilege.
It was only after the streets had started clearing out that her husband returned and remained quite unaware of the scandal that his wife had just given birth. So he made himself busy with his speech while there were many other people who made themselves busy by discussing the beauty of his wife. As for me, I found her beautiful beyond compare, that is to say she was really ugly. But like beauty, ugliness too lies in the eyes of the beholder and I guess my eyes are really ugly. Anyway, you’ll also won’t like to read a story having an ugly heroine. Days passed and every evening a crowd used to gather near his house. And all those evenings he used to stay out either to let the scandal grow or due to some important business. Whispers began to grow. Now here, now there. It was only very near to the office of the dignitaries who were deliberating on his promotion that he overheard a whisper and came to know about the scandal. That day he returned home earlier than usual and saw what we have been seeing for some days.

It was beyond his imagination.
I had read somewhere that imagination is the memory of things that did not happen. I believe it. For often what does happen we can never imagine and no memory can relate it to anything past. He was aghast. He was used to and happy seeing his wife cavorting about with the household work inside the house in her undergarments. But he never imagined her boldness or shamelessness. I prefer ‘boldness’. She was really bold. I am in her favour, though the reader might object that favouritism might mar the realistic elements of the story. But I believe in what Oscar Wilde once said that the more personally biased an interpretation is the truer it becomes. Again the eyebrow-raising reader might ask, “What truth is doing in fiction?” I am not going to answer that question.

So where we were?
Hmm. Her husband was furious, infuriated, angry, piqued, agitated. He needed to do something. Something drastic. He won’t let all this speech practice go useless. He must do something. Something drastic was destined to happen.
Another bonfire was lit.

Morning. The charred remains were rescued by the police by breaking open the door. Why no scorched clothes were found? We all know why. Suicide. Hmm. Her husband was informed. That very evening he had gone out of station for a couple of days. Alibi! Mentally deranged, they said. Schizophrenia of sorts. Suicide, no doubt. Not even a question was raised on the man’s innocence. Many were interrogated by the police. Even Holiday Singh was interrogated but not the boy. Days passed by. Many came to console the husband. The wave of compassion even washed the dignitaries who were to hear his speech the next day, the twenty-first of June, the longest day of the year.
Nobody was much surprised by this drastic incident. Or were they surprised? Might be. But one thing is certain that our narrator, who has a limp, the boy, was baffled. It was only he who knew a lot. I mean apart from you and me now. He thought it was a murder. Or at least a suicide in desperation. Oh! Sorry. We have already said that the boy seldom thinks. So let me rephrase the sentence a little. The boy did not think it to be a suicide. Or at least a suicide without desperation. He was just awe-struck. How can her husband be both at home and at that other place! The boy began to imagine aloud that the two places were in two separate time zones so at one time he could be present at two places. But what about the closed door? It was all due to some manipulation of dimensions, especially the fourth dimension. He quickly realised that like on the cinema screen everything loses one of its dimensions, there was certainly some dimensional aberration in that woman’s death.
Wait. For those who are thinking how such a small boy’s mind hold such big, big things; we must realise that we are getting into his mind for the first time and that too just because he is imagining aloud. He might be a precocious child from the beginning. But for those who are still sticking to your point, you can skip the portions you want to.

So the boy was taxing his mind. It should not be surprising if I say that he was in a fit. He limped back home and saw the reflection of the clock on the mirror in front of him. He saw the clock hands. He saw time going backwards. He brought down his sight below the line of the mirror and saw the just-now-scrubbed shiny floor mirroring the ceiling. He looked down at the floor and felt as if he will fall in the mirror, down to the ceiling. And he fell down on the floor and became unconsciousness. In the evening the boy was sitting on the steps outside his house. And Holiday Singh was passing by.
You must have lost all your patience by now and asked why a minor character called Holiday Singh, a candy-wallah, always comes from and is given so much of importance. It will be made clear in no time for he is instrumental for our climax. So Holiday Singh, seeing the boy, whose mother he thought has recently died, sitting on the steps of what he thought to be somebody else’s house, came to him and said, “Poor boy. Have some candies. Why are you sitting here? What has happened has happened. You should not waste your time wailing and crying. You are a brave boy. Get up and smile. And you should not stay out long. The world is not good. Let’s go home.”

And now for the first time, in keeping with the rule, the boy will act. So long he was just nodding and shaking his head and now he blurted out rather rudely, “This is my house and that woman was not my mother.”
“Why do you say so?” retorted the candy-wallah.
“Because it is the truth,” he confessed.

And slowly the boy revealed to Holiday Singh everything. He let him see everything through his mind’s eye. Holiday Singh heard everything in details. And all those time, god knows from where two flies came and got into my ears. I had a terrible time getting them out. I absolutely could not hear anything. And when at last I got them out, the boy had finished telling what I had intended to hear. The conversation had almost ended for after that the candy-wallah Holiday Singh gave the boy an idea and a candy and went away.

The idea worked. But I think that the candy worked for even though the boy ate the candy in front of me, the next morning he went to school without any toothache. A little more should be said about this man, the only one to have a genuine name in this story, before we something about the candy he gave to the boy. Or it might not have been his genuine name; just a nom de guerre. Never anyone saw him ever anywhere since the boy last met him. I think he is sort of sorcerer. Remember his clairvoyance. Every time he addressed the boy he addressed him as “boy”. How did he come to know that he will be called “the boy” in this story? It might be just coincidence. Anyway the candy was also mysterious. It had a mysterious shape; it had mysterious inscriptions on it. It was just a sweet, sugary lump of mystery. And it was eatable. An eatable talisman.

And now the idea. The next day, the morning of June the twenty-first, the boy went to school earlier than usual and detained his teacher, the husband, for half an hour just before he was to make his speech and discussed with him, how and why Brutus betrayed Caesar. The boy stood in front of him and heard his explanations and as he finished answering one question, he had another question ready to shoot. And the teacher, in his happiness, obliged the boy. So it was almost time for his speech when he excused himself for he was fed up of saying “Brutus, Brutus”.

And now he went to make his speech. The boy sauntered limply and sat in the last pew of the chapel. He had a triumphant smile on his face. The speech started. He had a deep, oratorial voice. He gave a good beginning and then suddenly, due to slip-of-tongue or otherwise, he mentioned “Brutus betrayed Jesus” instead of “Judas betrayed Jesus.”  Nobody realised the mistake. Or someone may have noticed. But the major part of his speech was on Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, and the same mistake began to crop up again and again. And now gradually the audience surely began to notice. Every Judas was changed to Brutus making the people uncomfortable. People began to fidget. Dignitaries began to frown. But the orator kept on making the same mistake again and again. Two minutes passed. Five minutes passed. He kept on with his Brutus, Brutus, Brutus, Brutus. It was almost at the head of ten minutes, when each and every member of the audience was finding the speech unbearable, that his eyes met the eyes of one of the dignitaries. And there he saw his El Dorado pulled down to ruins in the earthquake of his mistake.

Whatever Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold he had hoped to receive as gifts seemed now out of his reach. Dumbstruck and thunderstruck at the same time, he began to stare at the faces of every member of the audience until he saw the triumphant smile at the last pew. Very slowly his being began to dissolve in thin air. He slowly started diffusing into space. Silence was everywhere and everyone watched. He began to lose all his dimensions. He was now just as the pictures in old newspapers, full of thousands of dots. Gradually he began to disappear. And now, and now, like a whiff of smoke he vanished. He was no more. No more to be seen. He became dimensionless.
Something stirred in the last row of seats in the chapel. Everyone turned to look. The boy stood up with a triumphant smile and limped out of the chapel. Ruminating on the candy he had eaten yesterday. And since then ennui descended on anyone who looked at the boy, ruminating on a candy that he had eaten years ago.

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