Tuesday 1 September 2015

Short Story 2015, Shortlist Nivedita Narsapuram

The Meeting

Anirudh stood at the threshold. His hands shivered before he pressed the doorbell. He looked around. He saw an old lady look at him suspiciously and hurry towards the lift. He ignored her and stared at the doorbell before finally pressing the plastic thing.  Would they be sleeping? Anirudh anxiously thought but then waived the thoughts. The silence of the scorching summer morning of Hyderabad and the dust choked him in his drive from the military-ish disciplined air of Alwal to the erratic ruffian soot at Begumpet. The song: Jaane kis gali aagaye hain (Which lane have we come by?) played in a loop in his head. He looked at the mahogany wooden door and stared at the name plate below the small Ganesha statue: Mr. Anandam Rao.

Click, the door opened. ‘Please come in,’ Mrs. Rao politely said.  Her chubby wheatish face reminded him of Nitya. Mrs. Rao was more graceful, though.
He removed his sandals and walked in. The peach color living room was adorned with photo frames. He smiled to himself as he saw Nitya’s and the man with the large moustache made his forehead sweaty. The photograph of Sai Baba was placed near the kitchen door. Wasn’t that why the suffix ‘Sai’ added to Nitya’s name? Wiping it, he sat down when Mrs. Rao signaled him to be seated.
‘My husband will be coming soon,’ she smiled as she walked into the kitchen.
Anirudh nodded and sat down on the brown sofa. He picked up the Reader’s Digest placed on the glass center table after he glanced through the brown framed pictures on the wall—the pictures of their yearly holiday and cutting cake. So this is what it is like to have a father. 
Gingerly, he opened the magazine and headed to the Humour section to feel lighter. He chuckled through the jokes. But, beads of sweat like an unwanted guest crawled on his temples and touched his side locks. He craned his neck and peaked into the diagonally opposite room. There were some soft toys of pink, blue, green colours and a few posters of Rock, Triple H..etc. Must be her brother’s, he thought.

He resumed reading the Reader’s Digest and was immersed in a story about a lady who was bit by a shark and emerged stronger, when he heard a loud and thunderous HELLO!
He stood at once and saw the same moustachioed man in the picture, in a brown cotton pant and a neatly folded in-shirt. ‘Namaste,’ Anirudh whispered folding his hands, clearing his throat.
‘How are you?’ he asked signaling him to sit down with his right hand.  Observing the thin clean-shaven man in front of him, he tried to look at the pen that was placed in the front pocket of his green chequered shirt. ‘Hope you have not found it difficult to locate the house?’ he asked.
‘No..Sir.. I have my GPS’ Anirudh said showing off that he owned smart phone. He had dropped her at the end of the lane, but never entered inside.

‘Oh..good good.. Now a days, all phones have GPS .. don’t they?’ he wilily smiled
‘Yes, of course.’ He said and looked at the center table with other magazines that awaited to quench his appetite. Anirudh felt Mr. Rao’s eyes like fiery arrows rest on him. He stared at the rug beneath the center table to avoid his glare. Looks expensive.
‘Lakshmi, coffee please,’ Mr. Anandam shouted in a loud pitch, startling Anirudh.
‘Bringing,’ she shouted back, tucked one end of her blue kancheevaram saree and walked briskly like it was a marathon and placed the tray on the center table. ‘How is your mother?’ Mrs. Rao smiled as she handed over a cup to him.

‘You know her?’ Mr. Rao gave an inquiring glance as he sipped the coffee.
‘Oh they spoke a cou...’ Anirudh said
‘I am asking you, Lakshmi..’ Mr. Rao interrupted.
 ‘Yes, I spoke with her once when I learnt she is a Sai Baba devotee too,’ she quickly said and walked back to the kitchen.

Nodding, Mr. Rao said lowering his eyes and resumed sipping his coffee from the china ware.
‘She is fine, ma’am. She conveyed her wishes to you.’ Anirudh replied, hoping this warm conversation. Mrs. Rao was like the advertisement between a tense India Pakistan match. Deciding to break the silence, he said ‘Sir, Nitya has mentioned a lot about you. How well you have raised and the sacrifices you made. She treats you like her hero.’
‘Yes, a father is important. Isn’t it? And, I have heard about your father. I am very sorry!’ Mr. Rao sipped the coffee. He continued ‘Please have your coffee.’

Dang! Anirudh was aware such questions would be asked. But this question made him uncomfortable each time. ‘Yes, sir. We are now used to leading a life without him.’ Anirudh pressed his lower lip.
Like a parrot, he narrated to him about his disjoint family – his mother who worked at a local private school trying to lend a hand in meeting the expenses and waive off the loan raised for his brother’s education. Should I mention about my promotion? He was contemplating.

‘It is easier to waive of a loan when you get into a secure job. Film Industry is tough. You should have opted for medicine or engineering at least. Rather than making advertisements and movies which are solely dependent. Its success depends on people’s moods,’ Mr. Rao said, admonishing their way of living.

He breathed hard, placed the coffee on the center table. The coffee spilled on the center table but Anirudh did not seem to mind. ‘Sir, sorry to say but what is the point of a society where advertisement -  a creative means of engaging an individual to something he needs or a helping him reflect on the way he is living or telling stories that help him or her look within himself are considered an inferior profession.’

‘Look son, I haven’t used the word, inferior, but do you think these are serious noble professions. Would a scientist or an engineer have more value or an advertisement professional? Would a doctor be respected more or a film maker? I am not talking of ‘your closed family’ here. But our society that you want to engage.’ Mr. Rao said, adjusting himself on the sofa
‘Sir, I don’t completely agree. But …’ Anirudh wanted to quote Robbin Williams from Dead Poets Society. Medicine, Engineering, Law are noble pursuits but poetry, love, romance is what we live for.
But kept quiet for the fear of being named surreal and impractical.

The air in the room was getting hotter than the summer noon outside. His stomach was grumbling with uneasiness. He sat there sipping coffee and munching the murukulu (South Indian snack) that Mrs. Rao offered. She stood behind the dining table on his right side. She smiled, hesitantly and finally said, ‘So Anirudh tell me how did you land up in this job..Nitya told me that you have so much experience. I am sure it must have enriched your experience. Isn’t that all we crave for!’ she said looking at Mr. Rao.

‘Oh yes, it has been an interesting journey for me, ma’am. I have always wanted to pursue arts.’ Anirudh responded smiling at her.
‘Nitya did show me your charcoal painting. A few people are lucky to pursue what they love doing and do well.’ Anirudh saw Mr. Rao’s eyes turned red fixed on Mrs. Rao as she spoke with him.
‘Certainly ma’am.. I feel we must strive and do what we lo…’
‘Hmm..alright..I have a meeting to attend and I need to prepare for that. It was good meeting you’ Mr. Rao shook Anirudh’s hand and excused himself from their flowery conversation and headed towards their bedroom.
Anirudh stood there, wondering.
‘Wait, take some murukulu and go,’ Mrs. Rao interrupted. He stared at Nitya’s picture again while wearing his shoes, on. Your father will kill me, he nervously smiled.

He walked out of the house, thanking Mrs. Rao. He placed the polythene cover in his back pack and checked his phone. Seventeen missed calls. He scrolled through to see it was his Boss. He called him immediately to assure that he wouldn’t be late for the client meeting. He dashed through the five floors and before reaching the penultimate floor, he walked slowly and then like a sprinter, he jumped the flight of steps. He startled the old lady, who almost bumped into him.

‘I am sorry,’ he apologized.
‘You scared me.’ she shouted at him.
‘Bamagaru (Granny) I am sorry.’ he said again.
‘It is okay,’ she finally said, offered him a pinch of dry coconut and jaggery. He bent to take and thanked her. ‘We have met in the morning, haven’t we?’ he asked quickly ‘Aren’t you Ani?’ she suspiciously asked.

‘Umm..yes. do we know each other?’
She reached out to his ear and twisted it and said, ‘I am your girlfriend’s grandmother. Hasn’t she told you about me?’ craned her neck to look at him. ‘She must have. Why will you boys remember oldies’ she laughed ‘Did you like my son-in-law? He is a gem. Very humourous and kind hearted. My husband chose.’
Humourous? Kind hearted? He was puzzled.
‘Anyway, you must be getting late. All the best!’ she pointed out her thumb
‘Thank you Bamagaru,’ he touched her white bata chappals
‘Okay okay..God bless you.’

Anirudh sighed, Was she talking about Mr. Rao. He looked at his Timex watch. It was 11 pm already and the meeting was scheduled at 3 pm. He had to make a presentation on the new soap being launched and the marketing strategy. He plugged in his earphones and drove to the Panjagutta circle, cutting through the ever growing traffic. He had a brawl with an autodriver on the way. They exchanged a couple of standardized Hyderabadi abuses (tera abba ka road hai kya rey/chasma nikaalke chala rey/kaana me kya ghused ke rakha re) He finally apologized and drove through the short cut. He parked his bike at their incompletely constructed building. He rushed to his desk and sat at his new cubicle. He could smell the paint, afresh still. He sipped from the glass of water placed on his desk and breathed. He switched on his computer. He was tempted to see Nitya’s few pictures before working on his presentation. He scrolled through the folder “We” and clicked on one pic after the other--their time at Golconda fort, their rainy evenings at the Hussain Sagar Lake and the chai outside his office. A knock on the door tapped him out of his reverie.

It was his colleague who dropped her draft and quietly walked back, noticing his sullen look. He still stared at the pictures and saw the chaiwala (tea server) waving at him. It reminded him he needed his tea. He had to skip his lunch again, today. He quickly walked through the two floors of the unfinished building and walked towards his stall.
He greeted him folding his hands and prepared his favourite tea adding ginger and cardamom. He was sipping it and lit a Gold flakes, when he received a text message.
Meeting in half hour. Come soon! 

He completed the tea, spoke to the chaiwala and stubbed the cigarette and walked into building.
He unlocked his computer and scrolled through their pics. He sighed How do I ever convince your father, madame! He doesn’t understand. How do I ever tell him that your happiness is mine, too. I wouldn’t hurt you. I am no engineer or doctor but I can take care of you.
He shook his head and stretched his arm before clicking on the Palmyra soap folder. He laughed at the draft prepared. These interns!  And thought of a few lines himself.

He slowly unlocked the door and placed the footwear as he saw his mother chopping the ladies fingers into circular sticky pieces on a board placed on her short legs that were dangling in the air. Had there been a center table and a rug below she would place her legs on it.
‘Here you are! Where have you been? It’s been four days since your meeting. Your cell phone was off. Luckily I had a key. How was the meeting with Mr. Rao?’ she said her eyes fixed on a reality show about crime.
‘Ah! Relax Ma I had back-to-back meetings at work. We will talk about Mr. Rao later.’ he lied down on the cot placed beside the arm chair. His back rested on it, he looked at the ceiling fan and like scenes of a movie, he reminisced the meeting with Mr. Rao.

When his mother warned him again to freshen up, he finally lifted himself up. unbuttoned his chequered dirty green shirt and walked into the washroom. The scent of lavender, again, he complained to himself. His mother did it every time she was home. He hastily opened the shelves in the washroom when his mother screamed ‘top, right.’

During the shower, his mind juggled between the client meeting and the forthcoming meeting with Mr. Rao. Why do Indian parents look for stability and security only? Why can’t we do what we love? Does that mean that every artist, writer in the world should remain unmarried? Love is the basis for so many art forms.
He coughed at he walked out of the washroom. ‘Did you make the bhindi (okra) spicy again?’ he complained.

She simmered the stove and said ‘Okay, I will add salt, don’t worry. Come quickly, I will serve dinner.’  The 1 bhk house in the center of Alwal beside the cantonment area was sufficient for her son and when their daughter-in-law would arrive, they could built an extra room, she thought.
‘Tea?’ he asked, walking out of room and rubbing his curly hair with the red turkey towel.
‘When did you buy this shirt? Don’t wear black. Go wear some other colour pyjama (night pant)’
‘Leave it now. Nitya gifted this shirt before leaving.’
His mother rolled her eyes. ‘Now, you look fresh No tea. Let’s have dinner. Rotis are ready!” she said placing the contents into a steel vessel and peeping at the television set while placing the plated on the rose wood dining table which needed wooden chairs.
He dragged the plastic chair and looked at his phone. His eyes searched for Nitya’s new messages knowing that she was in a no-signal area at her grandmother’s place. He read her old messages and smiled at her innocence.

‘What are you smiling at!’ his mother asked as she served him food.
‘Ah..nothing. You know Ma. The first time I met Nitya she was so tensed about going to college as if that was the most dreaded thing to do and slowly as we kept meeting and she learnt what I did. She was astonished! She thought people drew only for a hobby or for science diagrams. She never knew one could make a living. Like a wide-eyed child she entered into my office one day.’
‘hmm.. she said hitting the remote on her thigh. And she rubbed off the dust with the end of grey silk saree. ‘We need new batteries for this.’

‘Ok. I will get. And you know one day. I woke her up at 6 am to come and meet me. She must have been so tired studying for her exams but she came to meet me at Clock Tower Kamat’
‘Idiot Why. 6 am? But Kamat opens at 7’ munching on the bhindi, ‘take one more roti’
‘Yes, we begged him to open it half hour early. I had to finish my campaign for a minister’s elections and we stayed up at office all night. No! You take one more. I will clean the utensils.’ he said and put all the utensils in the basin and looked for the washing soap. His mother signaled him to look to look at the last shelf. Only one bar was left. He noted in his sms drafts.
 ‘Which Minister?’
‘KPR..Krishna Prasad Rao.’ He said, plucking a mango out from the fridge and a plate from the shelf.
‘Don’t forget the knife’ she yelled ‘You guys campaigned for such a noble man? You must tell this to your father in law. He will be impressed.’

Mr. Rao was sleeping at the far end of the right side of the bed. Mrs. Rao stared at his wheatish colour vest for a long time, like she was in a trance, before she whispered ‘Emandi.’ (Excuse me.)
He had heard it but kept quiet. He closed his eyes tightly. He knew what would follow was a volley of questions and answers followed by a loud wail till silence enveloped between them. He was tired of it now.
Mrs. Rao knew how to charm him and this time, she suggested, ‘Why don’t we go for a movie? Since the kids are not here we could also go to the Necklace road on Nitin’s motorbike. What do you say?’
‘Yes, only if there is no traffic’
 She turned to face the roof and stared at the cream khaitaan fan. She adjusted her nightie and tried to sleep.

‘You think I am being unreasonable by being harsh? I don’t want him to take easy on us. I wanted to show him that I am the boss. That’s why I was rude to you. That little girl of yours, I am always worried for her.’ Mr. Rao slowly asked and woke up again and sat on the bed.
‘She never asked us anything. I trust her choice too. This boy is better than all the matches that we got. Either, the father or the mother was not right. They eyed on dowry and nothing more. I know what you think but profession isn’t everything. It depends on the person. Plus, I have spoken to Anirudh’s mother and even met her a couple of times. You must meet her too. A woman of grit and determination.'

‘Hm… So, you have been meeting her. I like your initiative. But isn’t Nitya too young? Remember how she switched her best friends? How she wanted to be a pilot then an air hostess. She is very finicky. Don’t you think so?’
‘Maybe she evolved from one decision to other. Why don’t you see that? It has been three years since she met him. They stuck on. Don’t you think that speaks a lot.’
‘Yes, agreed. What if he leaves her? These love things are tricky.’
‘How are you sure about arranged?’
;But in arranged we can help them understand.’
‘Even in love, we can. Why don’t you think so?’
‘Stop arguing. I cannot believe you are supporting that advertising guy and not your engineer husband.’
‘It is not about advertising or engineering. It is about the man.’ Mrs. Rao said reminiscing what her mother and Nitya said.

‘A man who chooses a tricky career like advertising that depends on the company? With a film maker brother and a ready to get retired teacher? Open your eyes. I know you trust Nitya a lot. Even I do. But I am skeptical about this choice of hers.’
‘Okay…calm down.. let us discuss after you research..ok?’
‘Fine.’ he said and rolled down the bed to sleep

Anirudh breathed hard as he woke up. It was 3 am. He went to the kitchen and gulped down a glass of water. He drank another glass of water from the steel tumbler before he breathed in and out to relax. He lay down for a few minutes. The thoughts of meeting Mr. Rao engulfed his mind. Only if his father was alive, mother would never have had to work. Would father support him choose a career he wanted? Would his father behave like Nitya’s father. He had very faint memories of his father and his mother did not speak much about him, either. Especially after their relatives ousted them from their family.
‘What dream did you see now?’ his mother, rubbing her eyes, shook him from his reverie
‘I don’t remember.’ He said, closing his eyes tight.
‘Shall we have tea? I will prepare’ she yawned.

I will prepare and got up at once. He cleaned the tea vessel that he hurriedly placed it in an upper shelf so that his mother couldn’t reach. He added cinnamon and cardamom while the milk boiled, he asked his mother, ‘I think I am in stress, Ma. I see Mr. Rao everywhere. Yesterday, I was in a client meeting and saw him talking to my regular chaiwala. The other day, I was talking to a colleague, I saw him at the reception. I was not sure. So I did not ask.’

‘You nut! It is not imagination. Mrs. Rao called me the other day to invite to a Sai Baba Sangam meeting and also to tell me to inform you that Mr. Rao will be visiting your office. She asked me to inform you in advance so that you could make adequate preparations. I trust you, Ani. So I thought it would be foolish. Plus, you must earn that girl on your own.’
‘You are right, Ma. But had you told me, would something have worked out? Should I have been an engineer?’ he handed over the cup to his mother.

‘Yum..I can smell the flavours’ she smiled  ‘No, duffer. That’s cheating. I still remember meeting Nitya Sai during that lunch at Nankings. It was pleasant. She admired what you do and wanted to be a copy writer too but only for the fear of her father. I think if you marry her, you must procure a job in your company for her.’

‘Breathe Ma..first I need to pass the test with Mr. Rao.. I think he hates me. Plus, there was a small tiff in the first meeting itself. I should have avoided that.’ He said, as he said down placing his elbow on his mother’s lap and sipped the tea.
‘C’mon Ani, you have never changed before anyone. And you musn’t. Have you been disrespectful towards him?’

‘No.. Ma. I have been calm. But his society will never allow me in’
‘His society? You have to convey you will take care of her.’
‘Ma.. I mentioned about you helping in earning and also of brother’s loan’
‘Hmm..you shouldn’t have mentioned about the loan. He will think that we will not be able to take care of his daughter now. But no problem, we can mend it.’
‘First let us see what he has to say about you tomorrow.’ She sipped the tea. ‘By the way, make some tea in a flask and go. He will agree instantly.’ She teased, handing him over her empty cup
‘Oh c’mon..Ma.’ he said, placing the cups in the basin.

The next morning, Anirudh woke up early. A quick bath followed by a quick breakfast. He picked out his favourite green plain shirt and a brown cotton pant. He shaved his chin smooth and folded his hands to the Sai Baba idol his mother placed at the far end of the kitchen and kick started his bike.
‘Drop me at the stop’  his mother asked, running behind him
‘Sure,’ he nervously smiled
His mother reassured him that all would be fine. She told him to remember that the marriage was about him and her and not about the professions. She asked him to tell about his multiple achievements. Nitya will be happy if she married him, she stressed.

He smiled as he bid her a goodbye and drove through the Secunderabad area looking at the multiple shops that sprouted since the past few years, the familiar smell of the bun, the bakery bread and the medicines as he whizzed past the chemists’ shops. Till he reached the twin theaters, there was no traffic. He had to halt under the flyover too and then drive past the chain of road side Irani caf├ęs and the famous whiff of Hyderabadi Biryani. He finally took a turn towards Nitya’s house.
I will do it, he said to himself, combing his hair in the rearview mirror and ran towards the lift. Bamagaru walked past him. God bless you, she mumbled and looked at him. He smiled at her, touched her feet and walked into the lift.  Every blessing counted, he thought.

The door was open. He knocked softly and waited. It was about two minutes before Mrs. Rao walked in.
‘Come in,’ she smiled.
‘Thank you, ma’am,’ he stepped inside the home. The room was filled with a mixed smell of sambhar and filter coffee.
He sat on the plush red sofa and waited for Mr. Rao. ‘Do you want some help, ma’am?’ he asked her when he saw, Mr. Rao walk into the living room.
He folded his hands in a Namaste and waited for him to sit down. Seated, Mr. Rao looked at a file he carried with him. He folded his hands and looked at his palms. He finally called out, ‘Lakshmi, get the coffee please’.

‘Yes, bringing,’ She said and smiled and walked slowly towards him and she placed the coffee and sat on the plush sofa.
‘So, why haven’t you mentioned about your many laurels? I am told that you are all set to manage a new branch of your company if things go well,’ Mr. Rao asked.
‘Well, sir, I wasn’t sure if you would take it as boasting,’ Anirudh said, feebly smiling.
‘You are almost like Nitya.’ He laughed ‘We met your mother a few times, last week. I attended the Sai Baba Sangam too. She seemed like a very independent woman. A fiercely independent woman, I must say. A woman who has fought her life like a battle and has emerged a winner. My wife mentioned about her many a times but I did not think of meeting her.’

She never mentioned it to me, Anirudh thought.
‘So, tell me, what will you do if you become a manager? He asked
‘Sir, we plan to extend the house that I am living in.’ Anirudh said
‘And, also have a servant. My daughter would certainly need one. This is the file of all the details of my expectation after your wedding.’ Mr. Rao handed it over to him as Anirudh sat there, astonished. A tear dropped down his right eye as he looked at Nitya’s framed picture on the peach wall.

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