Friday 5 October 2018

Short Story 2018 Longlist, Meera Venkatesan

All Their World Is A Stage

The countdown has begun. There are only ten numbers to count- from ten to one. But my heart is squeezing in a hundred beats at each count, bringing one impregnable memory after another. Each memory is more deeply etched than the other, probably competing with the other, for the winning spot. The winner would get the privilege of branding the new memory which will come in ten seconds with its own colours and emotions.

The first recollection, which arrived at the count of ten was a distant one. It was the night of the Ganpati Utsav in our locality, where Ranga and I were given the opportunity to present a two-hour dance program. Ranga, my friend, and a skilled dancer, had forced me to dance with him, because he had wanted a partner. I was no dancer, but I agreed to go along. Ranga had choreographed each piece painstakingly, with an ocean of hope riding on each step. He had spent days and night agonising over the order of each item, the seating arrangement of the audience, the stage, the lighting. It was probably the biggest day of his life. A famous TV producer, whom we had managed to invite, through some contacts, was the target of this feverish preparation. All it required was one appreciative word from the producer, Ranga had said and our life would be made. Ranga had always wanted to be a choreographer, who would formulate his own rags to riches journey using dance. I had played along for his sake, hoping that the day would turn out as my friend had wanted. I had danced with abandon and joy, the fearless joy of someone who had nothing to lose. Some even said that I danced better that him. Unfortunately, he heard it. That night, we, the two friends had our first big fight.
I hear the number nine called out.

The second memory, which had rushed in at the count of nine, was from another day, a month after the last one. Everything seemed to have happened as it should. Ranga had caught the eye of the producer, who had asked him to be a part of the new dance reality show, “Dance off-from the street.” They were coming to shoot that day, in our slum, in front of our house. Me, the level headed one had dismissed it as a fraud. Who would want to shoot a dance in front of a drain, I had asked. And the instructions from the program producers had been clear- no cleaning up. They wanted to clearly show life as it was, the dirt, the stench, the houses built on the drains and the drains overflowing into the houses. They said, the talent, Ranga’s talent, would shine through. In fact, they had asked that the designated shooting area, ‘the stage’ be made dirtier than usual. This was done by pouring slush on to the floor. As the van arrived, Ranga ran towards the vehicle to meet his dreams, unable to hold his excitement. He slipped and fell on the slush, his legs swinging to the steps of the most bizarrely choreographed step, he had ever done! I was rooted to the ground in disbelieving shock.

The third one was a whirlwind, rushing past moments and events, as if someone had fast forwarded the flow of life. I rushed in and lifted my friend in terror. I started running, unable to comprehend the crashing of my friend’s life dream. Everything was going horribly wrong. Someone had stopped me and called for an ambulance and Ranga was rushed to the hospital. 

Even as Ranga was being loaded on the stretcher, he had pleaded, “Please do something, anything. I can’t bear to lose this chance! Please do something for me. Please!!!” I stood shell shocked, till the screaming of the producer reached my ears. The producer, apparently, had a short fuse and was exploding at everyone, till his eyes fell on me. The shrewd weathered eyes took in the boy who had shone like a star, who twinkled without really caring to. “Hey you! Why don’t you do this episode instead of your friend? If you get through to the next stage, he can replace you. Nobody will know the difference. You all look the same anyway!” I agreed, only for Ranga. The shoot was wrapped up as I danced to my dear friend’s steps, literally wishing him in my shoes. Then, I rushed to the hospital and stayed there, till he came out of the surgery and give him the good news. However, I had not anticipated that I would become a national rage, when the episode aired. I was a reluctant star, a diamond in the rough. Many said, that there was a sheen in my dance, almost akin to devotion. It was true, it was devotion to my friend. The ratings for the show sky rocketed beyond anyone’s expectations. I seemed to have become famous!

The fourth memory was fresher by a month from the last one. Everything seemed to have happened as it should. Ranga had recovered well. Fortunately, it was a fracture that had healed and the doctors had assured us that dance could continue to lead Ranga’s life. I had faithfully kept the producer updated about Ranga. The producer had grunted his agreement, each time. The next shoot was the quarter-finals. I had driven Ranga to the studio on a borrowed bike, reassuring him that I had only kept the place that was rightfully his. I was just a follower, I had told Ranga, not the creator. I could not choreograph for nuts! Ranga was reassured, but he continued to be moody. Perhaps, he could not dispel the cloud of his friend’s borrowed popularity. Or perhaps, he was just tired because of the medication. 

As we waited in the hall, Ranga fully prepped and practicing feverishly in his mind and me, reading a 2-year-old gossip magazine in the waiting room, the assistant producer walked out and shouted at me. “Hey, you! Why aren’t you dressed? You people take everything so casually, that is why you never progress! Come quickly! Move it now.” I knew it was a mistake. Why, I had called the producer yesterday and reiterated that Ranga would be replacing me! The producer had grunted his usual grunt. I tried to convince the assistant repeatedly even as Ranga’s face turned white with the sting of betrayed friendship. It moved from surprise to anguish to despair and then anger. “What’s going on?” barked the producer, who had come out. “Come boy, your friend will get another chance next season. He is too short, anyway. Also, he still looks sick. God forbid that he falls and we get blamed! Come quick, otherwise I will throw you both out!” This, was not the plan.

The fifth memory rode quickly with the fourth, rushing along lest it got left behind. Everything seemed to be going horribly wrong. Ranga’s steely voice telling me to go ahead as this was my chance. But in the same breath, he had spit out, that I would never stand a chance without him. I was pushed into the studio, with the heat, the light, the garish and senseless costume, the judges who pulled on their smiles, the moment the camera was on and the shooting. Why hadn’t I walked off? Why hadn’t I refused the crown of fame? Why hadn’t I botched up the performance so that I would be thrown out of the program? I do not know, but I rode along as the wheels of time egged me on the top of the charts, a star in the making, everyone said. How could someone with no background of dance, whose life was a string of misery and who lived in filth, dance so well? The popular votes for me poured in through the social media, phone, and email. That memory, however, was the end of life as I had known it to be, the simple uncomplicated life of fun and frolic. The world loved me, but I was disgusted with myself.
The sixth flashback which jammed into my brain like a hammer blow, was painful. Ranga had avoided me and refused to let me explain. I was helpless, I had tried to tell him that. Everything seemed to be going horribly wrong. He failed to see my pain, my hand extended to preserve our friendship at all cost. He had made himself believe that he was the hapless betrayed victim and that my hand was raised to strike him. He accused me of many things. He told me that my popularity was only due to who I was and not due to dance. He told me that I was a disgrace to dance. I listened, hoping that the steam of anger would take off the edge of the fire of jealousy. But when one day, when he accused me in front of everyone, that I had planned to make him slip and fall, I couldn’t take it anymore. I threw a punch, which landed on his cheeks. I could never say if the cheeks were red with anger or with the punch of the fist. The blow dragged the shroud over our friendship, which was already in the throes of death and I mourned the death of my dearest life companion, my friendship with Ranga.
There was a roar and a count of four.

The seventh rewind was not very clear, because, it went past the previous memories to the time, when I wasn’t old enough to form concrete thoughts. Everything in life was simple either, “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” With a drunkard for a father and a spineless mother, most of my days were filled with, “I don’t like it.” I really don’t remember much from that time, except that I used to weep a lot and the boys in my street used to tease me all the time and call me a girl. I had then taken to weeping behind the broken-down wall, where no one ever came. The front face of the wall was the unofficial urinal and the stench was too much for anyone to bother to investigate the sobs that emanated from the other side. But Ranga had overcome the disgust of the stench to find me and had shared half a stolen chocolate with me behind the smelly wall. This had kick started our friendship where we had graduated from shared chocolates to bicycles, borrowed without permission to splurging on Shah Rukh Khan movies with money borrowed without permission, smoking on discarded cigarette ends. Isn’t it strange, what two best friends can find to share, beyond just friendship? Everything seemed to have happened as it should. Ironically, this, the happiest and sweetest memory of my life, was what bought the tears to my eyes.

The coolness of the recollection of friendship refused to cover and protect me. The wheels of my brain dragged me to me eighth memory, the most difficult one. It was still raw, the hurt, the shame and the senselessness. It had happened just three days ago, after I had sailed into the finals after I had become a household name in the country, the boy who had proved that anyone can dance. I did not mind it anymore. In fact, I enjoyed the attention, the fame, now that the guilt of Ranga was out of my mind. I was still uncomfortable in the new crowd, into which life had thrust me, but I enjoyed their effusive praise. Maybe I was really the better dancer? I was talented, but had failed to see it, I thought. I had begun to dream my own dreams for the first time in my life. One day, Ranga had suddenly dropped in to my house. We both sat quietly, because we really had nothing to say. We remained silent for some time, neither of us willing to give in. Then Ranga had burst into tears, much the same way as I used to, as a little boy, helpless sobbing with no promise of the other side, sobbing which would have no consolation. He cried about his collapsed dreams and listless life. When I had cried as a child, he had brought me around with a chocolate. I didn’t have anything sweet to say or give. Guilt wrenched inside me. In some convoluted way, I guess I was responsible for this sobbing, at least I felt so. I asked him, what I could do to make him feel better. He replied that there was no better for him anymore, only miles and miles of bitterness. He had stepped out to the balcony of my first floor and jumped. 

The count of two brought the setting of the same stage, two days ago. I was still hurting everywhere, but mostly in the part of the brain that stored love and loyalty. A year back, this would have occupied my entire brain, but now they fought with fame, pride, betrayal, but mostly helplessness. One of the judges had asked a question. What had motivated me to participate? I had tearfully told the entire story, from our humble start and all the way to my friend in the hospital, just holding on to life.
The judge asked me, “Do you feel bad about what happened?” What kind of a question was that?
I had replied, “More than my life.” I had broken into sobs again.
Someone had asked, “If you had the chance to see your friend alive again, what would you want to do?” “Oh! I would give up everything, just to see him alive and well. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. I wish I had said something more meaningful to Ranga that day to stop him from jumping. I wish I hadn’t danced so well and become so popular. I wish that I had run away from the shooting, when the producer had insisted that I should continue. Oh, how I wish I had not agreed to perform in his place, the day he fell. Why had Ranga, pulled a sobbing boy out of the stench of life. I wish I could turn time back to that point. I want Ranga back more than my victory.” I wept and my tears made their way into the audience’s mind in ways that maybe even my dance could not. Everyone in the audience cried. I think it was a forgone conclusion as to who would get the maximum votes for the finals. 

At last, it is time for the last count, the count of one. Fireworks are exploding in anticipation and the judges are at the edge of their seats. We the contestants are standing on stage, as we have been asked to. I hear my name being screamed out, banners are waving with my name. The presenter goes around with a mike and everyone says that they want me to win. 

I don’t think any of these can change anything. We are but powerless bystanders of time, like people looking out of the glass window of a train. We do not have any power to move things forward or backward. We can just watch as the scenery fleets by. We can take pictures and store them as memories, but we cannot reach out to touch and caress the memories and change them.

Unless you are driving the train, of course! As the announcement of my name is made, I secretly congratulate myself behind the curtain of joy and guilt that I run on my face for the world to see. Ourselves rather- Ranga and myself. I guess our little drama worked after all. I am not sure at what point we moved away from hatred and envy to hatching a plan for our joint success, but it happened somewhere along the way. Every price we paid was worth it, the dreams of fame and money were now shared between us in a bond which was built stronger than friendships. It was built of secrets. Eventually, everything happened as it should.

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