Saturday, 15 August 2020

Viplove Sharma, ShortStory 2020 Longlist

 



The Light of a Miracle


It was a quiet evening at Vaikuntha, the swankiest house in the entire Space Valley. Barring the two spherical lamps on the front gate, the rest of the masterpiece was still procrastinating in twilight. The roses, the lilies and the marigolds in the front yard did not mind the shadows as they could sleep without eye masks. If one could enter the living room, which was larger than the house of any common man, they would find nobody living in it.

The royal sofa chairs, the plush carpet, the spot-free teakwood table, the handcrafted Bidri flower pot, and the abstract painting on the wall, could all be mistaken for a scene straight out of a museum on any other day. But not that day. Well, not just that day. For days and weeks, the sparkling magnificence of Vaikuntha had been lost in the dullness of the gloom that had overshadowed it.

Beyond the living room, the white marble staircase still circled up, but the marble did not shine like before. The steps did not talk anymore, as they badly missed the heels that once tip-toed. The staircase that once livened up like a roller coaster was now more of a monument, as nobody slid on the steps anymore. Except for the two pairs of snail-paced slippers.

There was a noise. The monument happened to receive a visitor as one of the pairs of slippers dragged their way up. It was so quiet that the flapping sounds made by the slippers echoed from every wall of the living room. The sounds did not stop on the upper floor. In fact, they had not stopped on the upper floor for a while now. They didn’t have to. The three king-sized beds were no more made as they were not spoiled anymore. The slippers took the final lap and they were at their destination. The terrace.

Switch! Switch! The terrace lit up.

If the living room was a traditional luxury, the terrace was a modern classic. One would step on an elevated wooden floor that overlooked a patch of real grass with a collage of flowers along the boundary wall. To the left, was a charcoal grill that was big enough to satisfy the entire neighborhood, and to the right, was a little bamboo hut with a jute chair hanging from its ceiling that could comfortably fit two adults. At the far eastern corner, was a small, seamless swimming pool with four chaise lounge chairs looking out. All the jewels of the terrace had glittered up when Banke Bihari had switched the lights on.

The faint shades of orange could still be seen on the horizon but Banke was far from being a nature lover. In fact, he could hardly be called a lover of anything or anyone but his wife. In his youth, he was too shy to even stand in front of a woman, leave aside talking to her. His wife always teased him saying – “You would have remained a bachelor had your parents not hooked you up with me!” Never did Banke disagree with his first and only love. Radha could not have asked for a better man either. She wanted their son, Parth, to be just like his father. An honest, hard-working, family man.

Banke was the first man from his village to get his family to the city. And it could not have been possible without the help of his master, Gautam, who he had been working for ever since he was a seventeen-year-old boy trying to make ends meet in the city. From being hired as a part-time cook by a newly-married couple to becoming a part of the Bharadwaj family, Banke had come a long way. After all those years of dedication, he had now become the backbone of Vaikuntha. A day without Banke meant a day of utter chaos.

Meanwhile, it was awfully quiet at the terrace. The only faint sounds that could be heard were those of the kids playing in the nearby park. The usual evening breeze was missing so the hanging chair was quiet too. Banke walked on towards the swimming pool and stopped next to one of the chairs.

“Sir! Do you need anything?”

If it was anyone else, they would have certainly missed Gautam sitting on the chair, or rather sprawling on it. He was almost woken up by Banke’s question. He tried to sit back up, but he couldn’t. He was a tall man weighing almost a hundred kilos, so getting up wasn’t always easy. He was lucky that time though, as the short and frail frame standing next to him lent him a helping hand in his initiative.

Gautam cleared his throat and finally replied, or rather babbled.

“Do I need anything? Huh! Let’s see… What do I need? Do you really want to know? You know what… leave it. Nobody can give me what I need. You know why? Because what I need is no more!”

Banke could only stare back at his master’s meandering thoughts. The stare made Gautam realize that he should not have said what he said. He leaned back, took a deep breath, and said in an apologetic and melancholic tone.

“Sorry, buddy! I don’t know what to say. I am so sorry!”

That was nothing new for Banke. He was probably the last person to fall for emotions, especially when it came to handling Gautam, and more so when handling a drunk Gautam. In fact, he had started to forget how the sober Gautam once sounded like. The clouds of quiet, sobbing drunkenness had covered the otherwise bright, smiling sky of Vaikuntha for a very long time now.

At times though, Banke did feel bad for his master. There was this charming man who was always known for his bubbling energy. And now, that man was suffocating in his own bubble of depression. There was nothing that Banke could do about it. The only thing that he could do was what he always did.

“Don’t be sorry, Sir. Just tell me what you want in dinner.”

Gautam waived his hand at him, and said, “Nothing!”

“Sir, you haven’t eaten the whole day. Eat something at least. I will make some snacks if you want.”

That brought a smile on Gautam’s otherwise tired face.

“Banke Bihari! What will I do without you? Come, sit here.”

He gestured Banke to sit on the chair by his side. Banke resisted the request at first but Gautam pulled him by his arm and made him sit. Now they both were facing the almost dark horizon. Gautam continued.

“Banke. I just want to thank you for everything that you do for me. Everything that you have done for me and my family all these years.”

Now that was something that Banke had not heard from his master before. He knew that Gautam always meant it, but he never said it in words. Even though he knew that it was the whiskey talking, he let out a nervous, blushing smile and shook his head.

“No, Sir. It’s me who owes everything that I have today to you.”

A bigger shake of head from Gautam countered. “No! No! No! You have no idea, man! You are…”

Gautam’s high-flying thoughts were interrupted by a deep hiccup. An awkward pause followed. Gautam did not blink his wide-open eyes for a good five seconds. He did not move a muscle. Banke stared at him in anticipation of an accident, wondering where the mop was. But thankfully, nothing happened. Gautam was back. He blinked his eyes twice, swallowed an imaginary sip of whiskey, made a face as if the whiskey was too bitter, and then looked back at Banke.

“What was I saying?”

This could go on and on, thought Banke. He was half into his effort to stand up as Gautam stopped him.

“Come on, man! What is the hurry about?”

Banke looked and sounded a bit irritated now.

“Sir, I need to make dinner. It’s almost 8 now.”

“Okay, fine. Just five minutes. Sit here, my friend.”

Another stare from Banke and two seconds of silence led to Gautam deploy his final weapon with a long face.

“Don’t leave me alone, man!”

Banke let out a sigh so loud that it could have been heard by any soul on the terrace if there existed. He sat down on the chair with a thud. Without looking at Gautam, he said in a questioning manner.

“Okay, Sir. Now tell me what you want me to do.”

Gautam bent forward towards the whiskey bottle that was three-fourth empty. He twisted the cap open and poured a good amount of whiskey in the sparkling, crystal-cut glass next to him. The glass ended up almost half full. No rituals of drinking whiskey were followed as he gulped half of the whiskey in the glass down. He finally spoke, in a clearer and philosophical way.

“Actions are always responsible for what you get at the end of the day. At last, Karma has caught up with me. I totally deserved this. Isn’t it? A man like me had to end up this way.”

Banke interrupted Gautam’s chain of thoughts that would have otherwise not stopped.

“What are you saying, Sir? I haven’t met a better man than you, Sir.”

Another gulp, and the glass was empty.

“No, Banke. I know you are just saying it to keep me happy. You should go ask Veena.”

That time, Banke could not say anything. He looked for words, but then he decided not to speak. Gautam continued.

“Of course, you can’t ask her now. Because she is gone. You know why she had to go? Because of me. I was the one who killed her!”

“Why are you blaming yourself, Sir? There are some things nobody can control.”

That attempted pacifier from Banke spurred Gautam on.

“No! You are absolutely wrong! I could have controlled it, and damn it, I should have controlled it!”

Gautam’s face quickly turned red. He huffed like an angry bull. He picked the empty glass, looked at it with all his fury, and tried to crush it with his fingers. On realizing that it was not possible, he raised the glass above his head to smash it on the floor. But instead of doing so, he just let out a big and long grunt. Finally, he put the glass down. Banke, who witnessed the act from a safe distance, quietly picked the glass and placed it far away from Gautam.

Ding Dong! Ding Dong!

A much-needed relief for Banke. Someone was at the door. He rushed downstairs to check, as Gautam slowly retreated to his original position on the chair.

Switch! Switch!

The lights of the living room came to life as they led Banke to the front door. It was a tall, heavy double door. As soon as he unbolted the door, before he could open it, he felt a push from outside. The guest had announced himself even before showing himself up. Banke stepped back and aside to allow the guest to barge in.

“Where is our dear Gautam Bharadwaj?”

It was Kabir. Gautam’s best friend, who knew only one tone to talk in. High tone. He was so close to Banke’s ears when he made his entrance that his question reached the innermost layers of Banke’s head. But Banke did not show any signs of discomfort. After all, Kabir was the most favorite guest of Vaikuntha. In fact, he was a part of the family, and that too a pivotal one.

Before Banke could answer his question, Kabir had guessed the answer.

“Of course! Where else?”

The long legs of Kabir and the typical spring in his steps allowed him to sprint ahead of the lethargic Banke. By the time Banke reached the bottom of the staircase, Kabir was at the terrace. Banke was happy that Gautam had his friend for company, and more importantly, he didn’t have to be Gautam’s company for a while. Not that he didn’t feel bad for his master’s loss, but he just could not manage a conversation with the heartbroken soul. He went back to do what he did the best, in the place where he was the most comfortable. Cooking the next meal in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, the fresh sound waves had reached the terrace. Kabir announced his presence in his typical quirky style.

“Alright! What do we have here? Lovely ambience… pretty flowers… shining pool… and what the heck is that? Hmm… Something that doesn’t fit the scene… surely not!”

Gautam was back to his upright position by the time Kabir landed next to him.

“When will you be done with all your drama?” There was nothing dramatic in Gautam’s voice when he asked that question.

“I guess, when I will be done.” Kabir said that with a smile. It was not the smile that usually remained on his face. It was more of a smirk. A self-appreciating smirk that patted Kabir on his back saying “That was a good one, mate!”

Gautam shook his head in a disregarding manner and bent forward to the whiskey bottle. Kabir pounced on the bottle before Gautam could lay his hands on it. Gautam fumbled a little to snatch the bottle back, but he was too drunk to make a fight.

The smile on Kabir’s face vanished as he placed his hand on Gautam’s shoulder and looked straight into his eyes. “Dude! You need to stop. You have had enough.”

Gautam shoved Kabir’s hand off his shoulder, and in an attempt to show that he was not drunk, said calmly – “I am absolutely fine. Give me the bottle.”

The concern on Kabir’s face turned into anger, as he raised his voice and said, “What fine, man? It’s been six months. Bloody six months! You need to move on now.”

Gautam got furious as he shot back – “Move on? Move on from what? Veena was my life. How do you suggest I move on from my life?”

Kabir wanted to say something, but he stopped. He looked up at the sky, let out a deep sigh, and handed the bottle back to Gautam. He placed his hands firmly on the chair as if to get up, but he stopped. After a pause, he said at last.

“Buddy, I don’t think I can answer your question. Just like I haven’t been able to answer the questions of the board of directors in the last so many meetings. Not only them, all the employees want to know when you will be back. But I unfortunately, I don’t have any answer for them. And it looks like I will never have it!”

Gautam put the bottle down and darted his eyes at Kabir. His eyes were full of rage when he said, “You want an answer? Then here it is. I am not going back to the reason why I lost my wife!”

Kabir shook his head, then tapped his chair with his fingers, and finally spoke – “Fine! I will take care of the company. But what I am not able to take care of, and what worries me much more, is you, my friend. I am absolutely out of ideas now.”

He finally got up and quietly walked to the door. At the door, he turned around, and said in a voice that was just loud enough to reach Gautam.

“By the way, if Veena is looking at you from somewhere, she is most certainly not happy.”

Gautam heard the words, but they didn’t seem to make any difference to him. Kabir wasn’t surprised. He slowly turned back. His exit from Vaikuntha was quite the opposite of his entrance.

The quiet evening at Vaikuntha that vibrated for a few moments soon turned into a sleepy night. The almost-empty whiskey bottle and the half-empty glass stood still as they saw Gautam collapse in the comforts of the chaise lounge chair. The meal that Banke had cooked for himself – three rotis and a bowl of dal – was left to chill in the refrigerator. He just didn’t feel like eating.

In the store beside the kitchen, lying flat on his back on his bed, Banke stared at the ceiling fan and wondered if Radha and Parth were doing fine. After Veena’s demise, Kabir had asked Banke to stay with Gautam until he recovers from his loss. After months of Gautam’s grief and Banke’s separation, the light at the end of the tunnel was nowhere to be seen. Even if there was a light somewhere, Banke felt utterly helpless because he was not the one in charge of seeking it, and the one who was, was too crushed to even raise his head to look ahead. Tired of walking the gloomy tunnel for yet another day, Banke finally dozed off but not without saying his usual prayer. A miracle was wished for, yet again. He did not believe in miracles, but he badly hoped for this one.


[--- Next morning ---]


“Sir! Sir! Wake up!”

Banke tried hard to shake Gautam up but even his best attempts turned futile. The sun was beaming straight into Gautam’s eyes, but he was too stoned to feel any discomfort. On any other day, Banke would have let Gautam sleep. But not on that day. A minute back, Banke had got a message that made him pin all his hopes on that day to be the day when the long-awaited miracle would happen.

Banke announced with a spring in his voice – “Sir! Please wake up. There is someone special coming to visit you.”

Gautam just mumbled. He then turned away from Banke and waved him off.

Banke decided not to push the case any further and went down to the kitchen, to prepare for a perfect welcome to the miracle. For the first time in what seemed to be an eternity, Banke was happy. Not just happy but elated. If there was one person in this world who could lift Gautam’s spirits up, and throw his bottled spirits away, it was his only child. His daughter.

Veda was arriving in an hour. And Banke had something to look up to for the first time in what seemed an eternity.

He started from the refrigerator, and then went from shelf to shelf, container to container looking for the best ingredients to prepare Veda’s favorite recipes for lunch. Two years into college, whenever her friends missed their mom’s food, Veda missed the recipes that were specially made for her by her Banku Chachu. The kitchen was alive again with the sounds of clattering utensils as Banke nervously fumbled to attain perfection that his Vedu Beta deserved.

A little over an hour went by. The food was almost ready though Banke was still nervous. And then the moment arrived.

Ding Dong! Ding Dong! Ding Donggg!

That time, the slippers did not drag. Banke opened the door and found smiling Veda carrying her Captain America backpack on her right shoulder.

“Banku Chachaaaaa!!”

The greetings followed. A left high-five, then a right high-five, then a double high-five, and finally a double low-five. Just like always, Banke was left shaking his sore hands, but he did not complain, just like always. Not the same could be said about the following whack from Kabir on his back. But, of course, he could still not complain.

Veda dropped her backpack on the sofa on her way upstairs as Kabir and Banke followed her. The brief moments of joy had evaporated, and a sudden, uneasy calm settled over the inner atmosphere of Vaikuntha. The terrace however was bright and pleasant, with a band of sparrows playing subtle musical notes by the pool side. In what was otherwise a beautiful scene, there was just one odd man out who lied there lifeless but breathing.

“Dadaaaaa!!”

Kabir and Banke watched Veda trying hard to hug her father who was half hanging from the edge of the chair. Just a word from his darling was enough to wake him up. Gautam shook his head a little and looked up to Veda with squinted eyes.

“Puchki! What are you doing here?”

“Surprriiiissee!”

Gautam was up by now. “What about your exams?”

Kabir barged in, as he said – “Oh! You remember something at least.”

Gautam did not bother to react to Kabir’s taunt. Veda jumped in.

“I will explain everything later. Aren’t you happy to see me?”

“Of course, I am… but…”

“Enough, enough! Let’s get out of here first. And what is that smell? Eww!! Dadaa, what is all this?”

Kabir laughed as he said – “That’s the question I have been asking all these days, Puchku Jaan! Maybe you will get the answer.”

“Sure, I will. And one more thing, Dadaa. Please shave your beard! I want to see my handsome dad at lunch.”

There was a tired smile on Gautam’s face when he said – “Alright! Alright!”

They all walked down, and in a matter of an hour, they all convened at the dining table. Gautam did look a different man. Kabir was happy for his friend and Banke was excited to see the miracle happening. Veda told them everything about college and they all listened. Ever since she was a little girl, everybody in the house loved listening to her. She had always been the darling of Vaikuntha. And now that Veena had left their world, Veda was now the life of Vaikuntha.

Lunch was taken. Kabir left for work and Banke went back to the kitchen. It was quiet again as the father-daughter duo sat on the sofa, side by side, the smaller head on the broader shoulder. They did not speak but they both knew what the other was thinking. They both were thinking the same.

It was the first time Veda had come home without her mother welcoming her. Whatever distraction six months of college had been for her did not matter anymore. She stared at the painting on the wall, remembering the day when it had come home. Mummy was so excited on finally getting what she always wanted. Only she could explain, and she always loved to explain, why that seemingly ordinary landscape was so special and cut above others.

And then Veda remembered the painting that was next on mummy’s wish list – a pair of parakeets sitting on a tree branch with a squirrel climbing the trunk of the tree – or something like that. Mummy described it so well. And it sounded even better when she told Veda – “On top, would be your Dadaa and me, fighting with each other… and you’d be the squirrel jumping around.”

Every single corner of the house reminded Veda of only one person, the person she missed the most. But she had to be the brave girl that her mummy always wanted her to be. So, she decided to break the silence.

“Dadaa!”

Gautam looked at her, and said – “What?”

Veda raised her head, and with a glitter in her eyes, said – “Let’s go on a date this evening.”

Gautam smiled. “Sure! But where?”

“Our favorite place?”

The smile on Gautam’s face widened. “You got it!”

They both went back to their original positions. Soon, the coziness of the sofa made them sleepy as Veda’s head slid from Gautam’s shoulder down to his chest. Her head went up and down as his heavy snores sang her favorite lullaby. From a few feet’s distance, Banke peeked at the two from behind the kitchen door and let out a teary smile.


[--- Evening ---]


“What do you want?”

Gautam looked back as he walked towards ‘We All Scream’, Veda’s favorite ice-cream shop in the whole world.

“You know what I want. Silly Daddy!”

Gautam laughed as he went on to the shop.

Veda, meanwhile, started walking towards the main reason why she loved the ice-cream shop. It was the hillock by its side. Ever since she could remember, she came to the place with mummy and dadaa on the evenings. The ice-cream was just an excuse. She loved the chitchats, the catch-me-if-you-cans, the slides, the rolls and the best of all, seeing the sun go down by the cityscape. The fun usually ended with the guessing game of which building would the sun set by.

Her favorite spot was thankfully not taken. She sat on the grass which was dry and a bit prickly. The sun was still a hand above the horizon. Before nostalgia could hit her, she saw Gautam climbing up with a bowl of ice-cream in each of his hands.

“That was quick!” Veda’s right hand was already in a position to grab her bowl.

“I guess it’s your luck. Here you go! Lychee Melba sundae.” Gautam handed her bowl to her and sat by her side.

“The best ice-cream ever!” She raised her bowl and the two bowls touched.

No words were said for a while. They both looked into their bowls with occasional, appreciative nods of head. Finally, Gautam spoke.

“So. Tell me now. All of a sudden, you show up. What’s up?”

Veda continued to gobble the ice-cream until the bowl was empty while Gautam patiently waited. She kept the bowl down, cleared her throat, and answered.

“There is something I wanted to show you.”

“What?” Gautam stopped stirring his bowl.

Veda stretched back to reach inside the pocket of her jeans. She took out a paper. Before she could say anything, Gautam asked – “What is this?”

“This… is a letter. Mummy had written this to me last year. A month before she… For some reason, it did not reach me in time. And I found it two days back.”

Gautam’s bowl went down on the grass. His face went pale. He slowly took the letter from her. With trembling hands, he read it.


Dear Veda,

Hope this letter finds you in the best of your health.

You don’t know how much I love writing letters to you. But I don’t know how many more I will be able to. I just want you to know one thing that I will love you even after I am gone. You and your dadaa are the reason I have lived my life.

Now listen. You are a big girl now. I am more than sure that you can take very good care of yourself. I am just worried about Gautam. My sickness has completely drowned him. I am more worried about what he will do to himself after I am gone. He thinks that he is the reason behind my fate. I am tired of telling him that I would not have lived this long if he wasn’t with me. He doesn’t believe me, but I know you do.

Lying on the deathbed, I just have one wish and I want you to make it true. After I am gone, I want you two, my sweethearts, to stay happy. After I am gone, I want you to make sure dadaa stays happy. You are the only one in this world who can make him smile even in the worst of his times. And do tell him, that he doesn’t look good when he doesn’t smile.

Love you so much!

Mummy


Gautam chuckled on reading the last line which made one of his tears fall just beside the word “Mummy”. Veda was in tears too. She raised both her arms and they hugged each other tight. Gautam broke down and sobbed like a child while Veda tried to console him while wiping her own tears. Everything that had remained stuck inside Gautam since Veena’s sickness flowed out uncontrollably. The letter, that could not reach the intended recipient in time, had conveyed the message directly to the eventual recipient.

As the sun came down, which was now a thread above the horizon, the sobs had died down though the tears had not dried up yet. The tight hug eventually loosened up and they both sat back facing the beautiful scene. The father and daughter sat side by side without saying a word. Only that time, it was the father’s head that rested on his daughter’s shoulder.

The sun was finally lost. It was time to go home, or so the birds had decided. The sky was now a canvas full of strokes of orange, pink and purple. The clouds had formed patterns that prompted the onlookers to compare them with real-life objects. But there were two pairs of eyes that just looked on.

Soon, the city started taking over the show as street lights started twinkling. The chirps of the birds started getting lost in the horns of cars and motorbikes. The noises were just enough to bring Veda back to the real world.

As promised to her mummy, she decided to infuse some cheer in an otherwise somber date.

“Hey! Was that my tummy or yours?”

She succeeded in breaking Gautam’s trance by startling him. “What?”

With a mischievous smile on her face, she said – “I heard a tummy rumbling. Was it yours?”

He was clueless. “I have no idea.”

She placed her hand on her belly. “You know what? I think I am hungry. That was indeed my tummy!”

Gautam carried the empty bowls and said with a smile – “So what is your tummy saying?”

“Wait a minute. Let me take a hear.” She touched her belly again, but this time she lowered her head down. “Aha! I hear it very clear. Butter Chicken… with Masala Kulcha… Wait! There is more… Of course, a big bowl of Ras Malai!”

They both stood up. In a voice that sounded his happiest in years, Gautam said – “Let’s go! And this time… I will not ask you where.”

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