Friday 5 October 2018

Short Story 2018 Longlist, Bindu Saxena

Bruise For Bruise

They were friends. Sheena was 18 and so was Manu.
While she was curious, innovative, bubbly with tremendous patience, he was intense, restless with a voracious appetite for reading.
It was a tale of endearing love that flourished for years.

If his sweet messages in her books, notebooks, and pencil box were her collector’s items in the pre-internet era; his love-laced letters with “Post-it” notes gave her company when he went to the US as part of International Student Exchange Program.

Reviewing his notes over and over again, arranging them meticulously according to the dates was her passion. She knew exactly which envelope bore what content! She read these as her daily prayer. He would use every word to admire how she amazed him. She knew how deeply he missed her, and how desperately he wanted to be back. Through his mystic magic of language skills and the symphony of word music, he could almost make her feel his surroundings.

Sheena’s eminent love would help him tide over the hiccups he had in his adapted land. She would cut a heart shaped packet, enclose a five grams of his favourite talcum powder and secure, seal and send to keep him fresh all day long. She would adoringly send handmade bookmarks painstakingly painted on skeletons of Peepal leaves. The reward of her creativity was his overwhelming love showers and constant encouragement.
Alas! It wasn’t the same again…

After he returned things began to fall apart. It was difficult to ascertain the reason. It was neither time scheduling difficulties nor the loneliness and boredom, anymore.
The only thing that changed with time was his changed ideology: ‘What you knew was more important than who you were.”

He poisoned it with drama and things got entangled under the maze of cobweb.
He started whittling away her self-esteem by constantly belittling her. He advised her to improve her written English, sentence structure, vocabulary, and syntax.
And, it wasn’t once or twice, but each note had this punched.
It unnerved her. She rejected the stray thoughts, but the sling hurled through the written word intensified. Take a look!

Dear Sheena,
“Whether you like it or not, foreign expressions represent an integral part of the English language. Knowing the meaning and their usage is very important. By the way, do you know the meanings of expressions: De Facto, Vis-à-Vis, status quo, cul-de-sac, per se, and Ad hoc?”
She let it rest…
She couldn’t monitor his behavior. It was baffling to note that this change was observed only after he returned to India!
What was he trying to convey? Was it the key to helping her growth spurt and trying to feed her a morsel she could learn from or was he turning into a serial bully? She thought.
She felt she just played the role of a victim and allowed him to set her as a target.
Her heart wasn’t quiet, but she didn’t want to shoot from the hip neither could she ignore as a background noise and move on. She just wanted to act.
She decided and stopped writing.

A few days later…
“Do you know what ‘First water’ is? What is ‘Second fiddle’ and ‘Third degree’? Do you have any idea about ‘Fourth estate’ or ‘Fifth column’? These expressions reflect our need to classify and put a value on items.”
She replied after a hiatus.
“No. I know none. What is the context? Thanks very much for sharing!”
“O silly girl! You don’t seem to be catching up with things. American chicks were very smart!”
She paused, probed herself deeper, and finally snapped at him.

“Why are you hurting me? Is there a problem with you? How could I help you for I see no reason why you kept insulting me?”
Subsequent months his notes smelled of a growing tendency to appreciate the girls, their dresses, how they behaved, how intelligently they conversed, and how freewheeling, logical, and practical they were.
It miffed her.
She felt dogged by this unrelenting. She stopped dwelling on his childish behavior and didn’t communicate thinking it might spur a change of heart in him. She was trying to estimate whether it was his own inadequacies he was projecting.
His notes had an air of disdain and reeked of pseudo-western youth. It was not satisfying the way things were turning.
His growing lust for girls in a bikini; the pronunciation of ‘K’’ as ‘Kh’ and that dramatic pronunciation of letter ‘R’ before a consonant, and many more snippets made it difficult to tackle the ennui.
She pondered, if he was so much in awe of the American gals, why the heck he returned?
She began to feel uprooted. Her insecurities grew.
Her internal guiding system seemed to fail. Besides stunting her creativity, it began to weigh her down.
It also warned her something is definitely amiss about his calculations. Why has one to dispense a wisdom nugget if it’s conveyed through a painful manner? But she didn’t know how to resolve this knot.
Love transitioning into a ghost-like memory haunted her. She felt abandoned. She remembered how he ridiculed her once when she pronounced Burger as ‘Burjer’.
The otherwise vibrant and happy girl raised in a loving environment alienated herself socially.
She began to meet herself more often. She wished he never wrote, again.
Whenever he wrote, it either had hints of sex and unspoken freedom or a mindless blabber as this: “With the onset of springs, the hearts of birds are turning to love. And what better way to woo a white complexioned girl.” Oh, how I wish I were there!
“Sheena, my feelings will revive once I meet up with you.”

It was circa 1997 when stinking showers stopped. He stopped writing.
In between, he visited his parents. Though her home was barely 10 km away, he didn’t care to contact. She missed him terribly. Her pain and anguish left her devastated.
It was annoying and painful. She was lonely.

She focused herself with an inner work agenda, read many self-help books, joined Yoga, and enrolled for a few professional courses.
Meeting new people helped, but it was indeed hard to keep pace with multifarious activities.
She drowned herself completely in the world that was never without Manu. He was his only friend, confidante, mentor, and love. She never shared her personal grief with anyone else including her parents.

She was seething. With the balm of time and loads to do and learn, she was able to see a life again – and this time – without Manu.
She drew strength and moved on.
Five years’ of hard work fetched dividends. She wasn’t who she once was.
The man at the main door nailed in her new nameplate, “Dr. Sheena.”
The moment called for a momentous celebration, but she was immersed in a self-talk.
She remembered Khalil Gibran’s quote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

Years rolled by. It was the age of Facebook. They hadn’t met for two decades!
One day, she was shocked to receive a private message! Her heart raced, but she controlled the beats.
“Hope you remember me. For wearing multiple winning hats of an author, writer, editor, and a motivator, please accept my heartiest congratulations.”
She felt an old time-aroma and a strong desire but restrained herself.
Was it a new beginning..? She wasn’t sure.
Neither of them asked about the inexplicable silence. Probably, they both reached a stage where other things looked more significant.

The sentiments of love-hate began to return.
It was only after his six failed attempts that she replied. She was just being humane, polite, and nothing beyond it. She didn’t enquire anything except what his status conveyed.
Once WhatsApp came into existence her visits to Facebook dimmed.

Due to the sour taste she relished all along, from the one she truly loved, she held no trust in love and relationship and hence, never married.
He admired her publication lists, read her articles, stories, and poems. He also reviewed her blog, her guest posts, and her LinkedIn profile.
She couldn’t care less.

He killed her completely. He clipped her wings. Thankfully, she could still fly with inner strength. Someday, she wanted to prove she too could be one of the girls he fancied and given the time, anyone can reach where one wanted…

It’s just a matter of time! In her case, perhaps the time took its own time…
They both studied in the same school, played together, grew together, but he turned fake and shallow. Somewhere in her heart, she still loved him. She admired him, but the way he made her realize her weaknesses was injurious. She couldn’t forget that.
She inured herself completely.

She was happy he found her but distanced herself since he was now married.
Sitting late at night, she would often think about their rosy days, of silent glances, of their private moments – of fun, playfulness, and loving pecks. Those memories were like deep engravings.

A couple of days later, Manu expressed the desire to meet her. She managed to evade.
He was visibly hurt.
After a long silence, she wrote.
“Thank you for your messages and phone calls. A bit swamped with work! Sorry for this rushed message. I’ll write soon.”
Here on, now her wait started….

She was so incorrigible and optimistic. Every time her phone pinged she thought it was him. Forty-eight hours had passed. There was no message.

Undoubtedly, she missed him and craved to receive one, even though her clear thoughts wafted out. After much wait, and tired eyes, she felt mentally exhausted and kept her phone aside.
The much awaited message arrived…
“I was just wondering –if I’d come back to you now?”
“Fat chance…” She said and wondered if he knew, it’s the ironic way of saying, “There’s NO chance at all!”
It was the voice of a writer. And when she spoke he went mute – forever!

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