Monday 15 September 2014

Short Story 2014 Longlist, Sayujya Sankar

An Incomplete Building

When she had first spotted the cordoned-off zone of the construction site, Vishakha had tentatively stepped across the rubble and squatted behind the parapet-wall trying to snatch a moment to herself. She sat amidst the stone and mud, taking in the smells, the sound of the evening traffic and watching the chaos in front of her. It had been empty, with the earth up-turned. The empty mess seemed to soothe her nerves. She closed her eyes and allowed the tears to flow.

She had been sitting there for quite some time, her tears dried up against her cheeks, when she heard a noise. By now, the sun was a glowering red. She looked up and saw a slender-framed, but well-built man stubbing a beedi , walking questioningly towards her. He wore a dark, earth-stained pant and a towel was tied in a turban around his head.

“Who let you in? You can’t enter this zone,” he snapped in Tamil, sounding annoyed. He had taken out another beedi and searched his pant pockets for a matchbox. Not finding one, he cursed. Vishakha flicked out her lighter and held up the flame to him. His eyes registered surprise, but unquestioningly, he accepted her light. Noticing the flicker of astonishment her face broke into a sudden grin as she lit a cigarette for herself as well.

“You work here?” she responded with a question. He nodded taking a deep drag, as though he was letting all the tension in the world out in a puff of smoke.
“What is coming up? An apartment?” Another nod.
“How long have you worked here?” she asked, not really knowing why she was pursuing a one-sided conversation.

“Construction? Five years,” he responded.
“Before that?” now she was just curious.
“Finished twelfth.” Before she could respond, however, he stubbed his beedi and continued, still in Tamil, “It’s late. You cannot be here!”
She was annoyed but decided to leave.

The next evening, just to see whether the construction was starting anytime soon, Vishakha went to the site again. But before entering, she heard a bunch of men shouting to each other and the various sounds of construction-sites- the pounding hammer, spade against mud and the stacking of bricks- filled her ear. She was about to leave, when she heard a voice behind her.
“Why do you keep coming here?” he asked.

“It’s on my way back home. And, plus, it’s a nice place to smoke before heading back!” she quipped. “Unga paer enna?” What’s your name? she asked the construction-worker.
“Mani. Neenga?” You? he seemed to put on an impudent air as he asked her.
“Vishakha,” she answered.
“What do you do?” he asked as she took out a pack of Flakes and offered one to him. He shook his head, taking out his beedi, quickly looking to see if he’d be missed at the site.
“I teach. College.” He looked surprised at what she had told. “What? I can’t be teaching?”

He looked sheepish, “No. It’s just… I thought that you might be studying.” She grinned.
“What do you teach?” he asked, curious.
“Physics.” Looking once again at the other workers, he nodded a goodbye to her and went in. Vishakha heard the others yell at him: Mani, you’re always late! Pick up that shovel and start digging.
He was not too old, she realised- probably in his mid-twenties. A lot of the other men seemed much older, wrinkles creasing their faces and hands, their beards peppered with shades of grey. There were women, too, the pallu of their saris tucked into their waists, carrying loads of earth on their heads. She watched them as she slowly consumed her cigarette, vaguely enjoying the sounds before leaving. Ever since, whenever she walked by, if he was around they would wave a cordial hello to each other as she passed by, Mani taking a breather in the midst of his work.

A month later, she walked back from work with tears in her eyes again. She felt the weight of the world against her shoulders- a tight, constricting pain against her heart. She wanted to collapse, to give in but she willed herself to walk. One. Foot. In. Front. Of. The. Other. It isn’t that difficult, she whispered to herself. She hugged her bag to her chest, lost in her world of grief when his voice snapped her out of it.

“Ka! Why are you crying? What happened?” Mani called from the parapet-wall. She turned towards the voice, quickly wiping the tears from her eyes.
“Akka? I look like your elder sister?” she responded, pushing her worries to the back of her head. He grinned, offering her a beedi. She took it, grateful for the distraction.
“What? You never work, or what?”
“Illa, ka. Break-time,” he said. Then, quietly, he handed out a lunch box to her. She raised her eyebrows, but opened it. The sweet smells of halwa wafted from it.
“What’s the occasion?” she asked.
“A girl has been born to me,” he said.

“Oh!” Vishakha smiled softly, “I didn’t know you were married! What’s your child’s name?”
“We’ve not named her,” he looked elated. He was still in his dirty, black pants the towel resting next to him. He was wearing a yellowish-white stained, unbuttoned shirt. The wind was whipping up the leaves at Vishakha’s feet.
“And your wife? What’s her name?”
Vishakha smiled, “I’ll remember,” she said as she waved to him wanting to leave.
“You should come some day and see them!” Mani called out after her and she shouted back, “Definitely!”

The part of a sari that trails over the shoulder
A type of sweet
Kamatchi was a young woman of twenty. She sat at home with her daughter cradled in her arms. She was in a nightie , squatting on the single-cot that was placed at the corner of the room, with her back against the wall. Vishakha took in her surroundings as she squatted beside the mother and child, Mani hovering in the background. The house they stayed in was a shack- something of a makeshift home. There was no current and the stifling stillness of the day was oppressive. Vishakha could smell the fish in the pot on the stove at the other end of the room. Kamatchi was a rather shy woman, Vishakha noticed, but her eyes were extremely expressive. Euphoria played in the blackness of her pupils. Her long, plaited hair reached her waist.

Her daughter was a tiny bundle. The child’s round face was small, her lips bright and gurgling, her eyes were closed, and her tiny wrists were closed into a tight fist, her thumb tucked safely between her other fingers and her palm. Her naming day was to happen the next week, and her parents were excited. She had asked them what they were planning on naming her. Thenmozhi, they said unanimously.
The mother and daughter were being cared for by almost all their neighbours who kept visiting her. A bunch of them would bring food, or sweets or they would come to ask if Kamatchi needed help. Kamatchi’s mother, who had come down to help her with her child for a few days, had just stepped out to meet a neighbour.
Vishakha had bought her favourite kaju kathli and some mangoes to give to the happy couple. They accepted it and almost immediately, Mani brought the sweets and fruits on a plate for everybody to eat. She sat with the family of three, playing with the little girl, and chatting with Mani and Kamatchi about their lives, their little joys and their hardships.

Kamatchi had also worked at construction sites, she found out. That was how Mani had met her. Their relationship had been very sober. Kamatchi had five siblings, all younger than her, and her parents had wanted her to earn for them as well. Mani had offered to provide some of their income for the support of Kamatchi’s family. Mani’s parents died in a fatal bus accident, which forced him to find a job after his schooling, and he got into his father’s profession. Mani was a fighter, Vishakha realised. He would never give up hope and he never held a grudge against destiny.
That afternoon, she ate with them- rice with fish curry and pickle. When she left, she felt an absurd sense of satisfaction with life. That evening, she caught the bus back to her house. Standing outside her building, she looked at the window that was her room. She sighed before entering.

Her walls were a stark colour of plainness, with almost no picture to remind her of her past. A Beatles poster hung in the hall, near a tall lamp-shade. Her kitchen comprised of necessities stacked neatly in a row, compartmentalised into boxes. Her bedroom had a mattress lying on the floor. There was a shelf in the hall with all her books, and the open rack in her room contained her meagre set of clothes.
Vishakha went to her room, started up some music, and then got around to preparing her dinner. Having set the rice and eggs to cook, and the sambar to simmer, she grabbed a book and a small photograph wafted to the floor. She stared at the two faces of a lady and a girl plastered to the floor and she froze. And time froze. And the world around her stopped like a heart-beat.

She was twenty, living with her parents and having a hard time. They did not like the fact that she had so many male friends in her life. They did not like that she would come back beyond eight at night. They didn’t like her choice of clothes, her sense of make-up, the constant phone calls she would receive… She was finding it hard to explain to them that this was her life and that she felt out of place in theirs.

A night-gown
A sweet made of cashews
A type of South Indian stew cooked with vegetables and spices

She got to know Rithek during her post-graduation. They became very close friends and remained so for a long time. They had met a year after their courses had gotten over during their graduation. Vishakha had started her doctorate degree while Rithek had begun a graphics company. They had gotten together over drinks. She had never thought of Rithek as a person she could love- never a person she saw spending the rest of her life with. Yet, in a moment of passion there was a spark of comfort. He was a friend who taught her how it felt to be subsumed in, to be consumed by, and to explore the dark, deep pools of passion… somebody who would probably leave the next morning, whom she would not see again for months on end.
She stood in front of the mirror in her college, her eyes a little blood-shot from having cried briefly in the loo. She was afraid, terrified. She was only twenty-three, she thought dully. She thought of what it would mean to abort her child. And an image of a little head being chopped off, brutally murdered flashed across her eyes. She wondered whether she had the courage to kill it. But even worse, she wondered whether she had the courage to keep it.

She had decided to tell her parents about the man who changed her life completely. Gathering all her courage, she told them that she wanted her child; that she was four months pregnant; that she couldn’t possibly destroy the foetus that bloomed inside her. The quarrel that ensued was a never-ending one. Her father refused to see her again. He would leave before she got up and would come only well into the night. Her mother seemed to her to be a stone wall- emotionless, devoid of care or love or even empathy. She could no longer tolerate the silence. She left. She found herself a single-bedroom apartment in a not-so-prominent locality. When she settled there, having found herself a content-writing job that paid her rent, two months after having broken the news to her parents, she gathered up the nerve to call the father. Rithek picked up her call and the initial enthusiasm in his voice drained as he heard her story. She had never expected him to take responsibility, but she was daft enough not to have realised that it would ruin her friendship. In her eighth month of pregnancy, the father called to say he was getting engaged; that he didn’t want to hear from her again. It suited her well, really. She didn’t need anybody in her life. And yet, she was to be yoked to an infant for the rest of eternity.

Little Rakhi was a year old, and had nobody in her life to play with except her completely anti-social mother. She would listen to her mother’s stories with awe and the moment her lips stopped moving, Rakhi would begin to bawl. Frazzled and exhausted by it all, Vishakha was the happiest, most content human on earth. She shifted her work timings from eight until noon, working the rest of the time from her house. She got so accustomed to multi-tasking, she would only half-focus on the content writing, constantly expecting a cry or a strange silence that could only mean bad news. Coffee was the only source that allowed her to become un-grumpy at one a.m. when Rakhi demanded her love and attention. 
Vishakha picked up the photo and smiled, softly shoving it back amongst the books. She went back to her work, trying hard not to remember and trying even harder not to forget.
Vishakha had started weekend visits to Kamatchi and Mani’s house which soon became a part of a routine. She would bring some food over to their place and she would play with their kid. They would play music on her phone and she got to know a lot of the other workers. She found out that their housing was a makeshift one, and that they would leave this place to another one when their construction contract was completed. She couldn’t imagine being constantly on the move like that. She loved the place she had called home, and Mani and Kamatchi’s story made her re-think her concept of home.

Thenmozhi was a vibrant kid. She gurgled with laughter, and when she cried it was enough to bring the skies falling down. She would always grip her mother’s forefinger with all her might, swirling her feet in the air, as her anklets jingled loudly. The months passed and Thenmozhi learnt to flip onto her belly, and push herself across the floor. A few months after her kid was born, Kamatchi went back to the construction site for part-time wages, leaving her daughter with her mother. Vishakha offered to help, but the couple would not hear of it.

Thenmozhi was more than a year old now. Vishakha had thought back to Rakhi’s first birthday. Her shabby apartment had contained nothing; no one except the two of them. Squatting in a corner of the house, holding her child in her arms, she wept miserably for the lack of company her daughter had grown accustomed to. She wept that she couldn’t even provide her a decent birthday. She wept that she had to do it alone, and she wondered if she could manage. Then, gritting her teeth, she got up and decided to make it a memorable day. She had taken her on a stroller to the park nearby. She had tidied up the house for her (just so that Rakhi could mess it up again) and she had snapped pictures with her camera so that she could remember that day as a loving day, as a day of happiness. She had resolved that she would not allow herself the solace of wallowing in her loneliness anymore.
It was the time of semester examinations. The rains had arrived. The roads were flooded, and she had to stride through thigh-deep water in order to reach her house from the bus stop. She had stopped walking by, because of the hassle of the rain water. Her raincoat was barely sufficient. The first paper was over- quantum mechanics. She had just received a bundle of papers to correct. She sat with the television switched on- NDTV news. The words wafted over her head as the papers in front of her filled with red ink. There seemed to have been a commotion on screen. She looked up. There were police, ambulances, workers- everybody screaming, yelling, shouting. A building she had known almost intimately had come crashing down. Thoughts raced through her mind, vying for attention.

It couldn’t have been this afternoon. I would’ve noticed.
Was Mani there? Kamachi? Were they alright?
Should I go there and see?
Should I wait? Find out what they are reporting before heading there?
I should call. Call him.
Switched off. Maybe he didn’t go.
HOW could it just crash? I should go check!
Then she saw him. He was being shifted onto a makeshift stretcher. An oxygen mask was being placed on his face. It didn’t seem as though he was breathing at all. His body was partially mangled. His left hand seemed to have been pulverised…

She couldn’t watch anymore. She switched off the television.
She had to do something. She couldn’t sit at home. Alone.
She went to the site. Found out which hospital they had taken the victims to. Victims. What a terrible word! She remembered having read somewhere- the word ‘victim’ was originally Latin. It meant an animal or person sacrificed for the supernatural powers… the gods. Who were these people being sacrificed for? Who god?

The hospital was in utter chaos. She couldn’t find him. She realised she didn’t know his full name. She searched throughout the ward where the patients from the building collapse were brought. He wasn’t there. She thought of Kamachi. She hoped that the wife at least had escaped, though she knew that Kamachi would have also gone to work that day.

She vaguely recollected something that Mani had said. They were going to get their salary that week. He had wanted to get new clothes for Thaenmozhi. With a surge of guilt she thought of the one year old child, not knowing what had happened to her father. She didn’t know what else to do, and so she went back, vowing to herself that she would visit the family the next day after college.

What greeted her eyes was despair. There were families awaiting the news of their loved ones- families whose oppari pierced her like a dagger through her heart. She reached the shack that had been Mani’s and she saw his mother-in-law holding a tiny bundle across her chest and weeping.
She barely understood what she was saying. Wage day, she said. They had been eager to get the money. Clothes, food, special dinner. Then the rains began. They had stood under the concrete ceiling that had come up. Sudden collapse. Both of them… She had promised to visit again, but the lady had stared at her blankly. A week later, after the exams had gotten over and the semester holidays had begun, she went back to Mani’s house, but there was nothing there. The houses had been cleared away. The people had been moved, somebody told her. A new project had come up across town and they had to leave this settlement. They didn’t know where the project was.

She would never know what had happened to them, she realised. An incomplete story. A week later, college had reopened. She had caught the morning bus and had dozed off between stops. On her return, she passed the construction site, now razed to the ground. No workers. The place looked bare. Lifeless. A flash of an image in her mind’s eye. Desperately, pointlessly she tried Mani’s number again. Still switched off. She watched the barren land, as though hoping to glean some information from it. She sat there all evening, smoking cigarettes.

When it was finally dark, she went back home and opened an album with stories of her child. Stories that had stopped. Another half narrative. Incomplete.

A loud wailing that is associated primarily with death

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