Saturday 15 August 2020

Mallika Prabhakar, Short Story 2020 Longlist


It starts like how it always does. A half-seen dream interrupted, faint sounds of the noisy alarm ringing, a mild cool breeze sneaking past the curtains, the sun’s warm rays and the sound of mother making breakfast in the kitchen. As usual, it takes an effort to bathe, to wear my school uniform, tie my hair into two plaits and start another dreary day of my life which will be devoted to listening to teachers drone on and on about some subject or the other. The breakfast looks as uninteresting as the day. Why couldn’t mother make something fancy like pancakes or any of those dishes she watched from those Masterchef shows. What is the point of seeing such a show religiously if she couldn’t even try half of something they make. After all, as she always pointed it to me, these men and women were not celebrity chefs but home cooks just like her. Though i think this, i know i would never say this to her, for the consequences can be dire. There will be an argument, maybe a slight slap on the shoulder or clutching my arm too hard and then days of radio silence. She will stop speaking to me completely till either I beg for forgiveness or father intervenes. But both such scenarios will lead to the same result of her throwing taunts and dirty faces my way till all is forgotten within a few days. And so I munch on my tasteless breakfast quietly.

Soon I find myself walking towards the school bus which, like everyday, is waiting at the same spot for me and a few other children who live close by. The monotony of life never hits me as hard as it always does at this particular time. It may owe its cause to my extreme disinterest in school or the fact that I am always forced to attend school. Getting into the bus, my misery somewhat vanishes on seeing my best friend, “T” (as i like to call her), sitting in our usual spot, saving a seat for me. She gives me a look of mock disapproval which serves as a cue for me to begin my transformation. In a matter of seconds, my pigtails are opened and I tie my hair into a loose ponytail. For effect, I take out some strands from the crown of my head and let them rest on my face as if fanning me. It gives me the devil-may-care-princess vibe I have so come to love. Quickly comes out the kohl stick which will be heavily applied on my eyes. The trick is to apply the correct quantity. Too much would make me look like a goth and very less would hardly enhance my eyes. The correct amount not only makes my eyes look appealing but also makes me look different from the other girls. Last but not the least, I fold my skirt from the waistband, which makes the enormous skirt look chic and shows my thighs. T always carries the transparent glitter lip gloss which completes my look for school. Now I am ready.

The school is a bore. Everything is the same though my appearance always puts me in a better spirit. There are two things I wait for, the lunch break and the free lecture at the end of the day. The lunch break gives me a chance to look at all the students in the school but i always look at “him”. He is a class senior to me, athletic and has a cute smile. I have never really spoken to him but I know who his friends are, what classes he takes, how he is the fastest runner in our school and how he always stands next to the water cooler with his friends during lunch time. The back of all my rough notebooks are filled with our names joined in a heart. My best friend also agrees that he and I would look cute together. We are both tall, lean and do not like mathematics. But like the rest of the good things in my life, this part of the day is always cut short too soon. With another barrage of countless minutes and teachers doing the mundane task of teaching us something valuable, I endure it all till the free lecture. Now this is another favourite part of the day because T and I like to bunk school and go wherever we please, do whatever we please and eat whatever we please. Today we decide to watch the new romantic comedy movie that was released yesterday. We go to the mall and buy our tickets from the pocket money that we have saved thriftily. Halfway into the movie, T is bored and wants to leave but I want to see it till the end. She decides to leave and I decide to sit there. Watching a movie alone is not a novel experience for me as our choices in movies hardly ever match but where i always watch T’s dreadful choices till the end, she always leaves.

I sit in the mall’s food court and am awestruck with the varieties of food on display. I am sure I can never get sick of a food court. After much thought and deliberation, i decide on a burger, fries and a coke. I know i can eat more but i have to be careful with my pocket money. While sitting on a table, I see a lady in her late 20s or early 30s sitting on the table next to mine. She is dressed in formals wearing a grey suit and pants, black pointed pencil heels and her hair is tied in a tight bun. There is a barely touched salad in front of her while she is furiously typing into her brand new phone. I know the phone is brand new because the model had just released last month. Her lips are pursed and there is a hint of pink lipstick on her lips. All in all, the lady looks all business. I mentally disapprove of her, her entire state of being and all that she represents. She looks all work and no play and I just don’t understand such people. My mother is the same. She always forces me to study, do extra curricular activities, doesn't let me watch television much or eat things i want. I am still deep in thought when I notice the woman looking at me. She has caught on that I have been staring at her for quite some time. Before she could ask, I quickly tell her that I had been admiring her mobile phone. She shrugs as if to say, this little thing and continues her work. Her life seems good yet she doesn’t seem to enjoy it. She has a figure I would kill to have. The shoes she is wearing were at the highest price in an exclusive designer’s boutique. She has the best phone ever made right now and yet doesn’t know how to use it well. Beautiful silky thick hair but a complete waste tied up in that tight bun. Looking at this woman, I instantly feel regret at a life being wasted. I know I am being judgemental, but this judgement is rightly deserved. I look at the time and realise I need to hurry in order to catch the school bus home. I finish the remaining Coke and leave without another glance at the woman who has not made use of the gifts bestowed upon her.

School life holds the same mundanities and my routine is unperturbed by any other activity. Giving 12th grade exams has given me relief and dread equally as this brings to fore getting admission into a reputed college. But the phase quickly passes in a blur and my much awaited journey in college begins. Life is completely different now. There are no restrictions on clothing, hair or even at the time. I can choose which lectures to attend and which ones to not. I can choose to sleep the entire day or wake up and go early to college. My mother doesn’t force me to do anything. Life is good now. Wearing lipsticks and kohl is a normal thing now. I don’t have to hide it from my mother. In fact, she encourages me to wear it. With lesser secrets now, i feel much more free. I've even tried my hand at cooking but no one told me it was that tough. When do you even know when the food is under-cooked or overcooked! Or the amount of spices to be put! I now reflect on my thankless attitude of how moodily i used to eat mother’s food earlier, never realising the work she used to put in it.

The 3 years of college whizzed quicker than my school years. Maybe this is why it is said that time goes by fast when you are having fun. Before I could realise it, I was already sending resumes to companies, begging them to take me and pay me anything. I was scared that I would lose out in the rat race and be termed as a loser. The Gods were smiling upon me and I had offers from more than 2 companies and without thinking, I accepted the one with the highest pay.

Working was hard! There was so much to learn, so much to be done. Getting scolded was the new norm. My day felt incomplete without my senior shouting at my ineptness but I loved it. I loved my hectic life, I loved having new friends, getting that paycheck, buying things from my own money, all of it. This phase of life was like a drug, I just couldn’t stay away. The more I stayed in it, the better I wanted to be. I worked hard in lieu of promotions and got them too. With an increase in the salary, I got other benefits like vouchers from the company or new phones. My life was a whirlwind. Office became my new home. I ate there, slept there and sometimes even changed my clothes there. There was no semblance of time but only deadlines. A few years ago, I was a part of someone’s team and now I have a team of myself to lead and give directions to.

Time was favourable to me but it got certain problems of its own. My parents were worried about finding a boy for me. Since I had no time to find love, they had taken it upon themselves to find their son-in-law. Every weekend, I was forced to see various bio-data of men who were excellent in their fields or exceptionally good-looking. I couldn’t help wondering how a person’s looks or occupation was supposed to be a criterion for marriage. What about his personality? What about the fact if he would love me, respect me? These considerations seem to fall on deaf ears and my parents continue excitedly looking one bio-data after the other. I would remember my long-forgotten conversations with T regarding the boy in school and how his looks were enough then. Maybe this is how naivete gives way to maturity.

Another change time brought was the change in my body. I found out that I could no longer eat or drink as before. The weight I gained would stick and it would take a lot of exercising on my part to maintain my shape. Burgers and pizzas gave way to salads and boiled vegetables, Coke and sodas gave way to lemon water or coffee. It was an unexpected and unwelcome but necessary change though I did occasionally indulge in sweet temptations and fast food.

My sense of dressing also improved a lot. In the earlier days, I could show up in a semi-formal shirt and jacket but now I strictly wear a pantsuit or a formal shirt with a skirt. Due to this change, flats gave way to pencil heels. Long hair seemed an inconvenience now but i could never find the heart to chop it. Without realising, I started tying my hair in a bun more often. Apart from the fact that it was convenient, it also gave a chic professional look.

A client I had been working very hard to impress called me to meet him in a shopping mall that he owned. I put on my best attire and left early anticipating traffic but surprisingly, the roads were clear and I reached much earlier. Rather than walk in the mall, I decided to sit somewhere to kill time and found the mall’s food court nearest to me. I sat in the chair and decided to answer some emails. Looking at the food surrounding me, I gave up the temptation of eating a pizza and settled for a healthy smoothie. By the time the attendant delivered the order at my table, I was engrossed in writing an email to my team and didn’t realise its presence. Suddenly, a faint memory triggered but I was unable to grasp it entirely so I decided to let it go. After some quick minutes, I realised that the time for my meeting was approaching and so I got up to go to my client’s office. In a distant mirror on one of the fast food counters, I caught a glimpse of my reflection and the encounter so many years ago came to life. The resemblance was uncanny or maybe the fogged up mirror was playing tricks on my mind but at that moment, in that reflection, I couldn't distinguish between myself and that lady from so many years ago. I had become her or rather I was her.

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