Thursday, 24 November 2022

Preetha Vasan, Short Story 2022 Shortlist

Producing Dattani                    

Old Monk

The song is in its famed last segment. The up tempo hard rock arrangements, highlighted by Jimmy Page's guitar solo and supplemented by Robert Plant's vocals, is picking up. It will end with the doleful a cappella line: "And she's buying a stairway to heaven."

I tap my fingers impatiently on the dark oak panelled table. The new pub is called Sherlock’s. The attempted decor to imitate the detective’s Victorian times is abysmally vapid.

My cell phone blinks. Another message from Vinutha; “Going to be late, stuck near the fly over!

My watch reads 8:30. My Old Monk and Coca Cola remain untouched, the condensation forming lazy beads of perspiration despite the nippy December chill.

Sherlock’s is Vinutha’s choice, supposedly to convince me to meet her here.

In the past my college friends used to call me 'firangi' because of my “correct” convent school accent. Of course I ensured I was incorrect in most other obviously noticeable ways. Yet they continued to jeer at me about being so “British”. And as if to prove my taunting friends right my father borrowed a cumbersome loan and packed me off to Oxford. I’m yet to clear the dastardly loan and cannot afford to spend it on Old Monk smalls sold at three times their market price. But here I’ am. In a pub named after a Nineteenth Century English detective that still plays Led Zeppelin on cold December nights

It is Sunday evening. I must not be drinking. I definitely cannot be walking into work tomorrow smelling like rotting fruit. But I have ordered it, and considering the whopping sum I will be paying for it I definitely cannot send it back .

I ask for ice and sip my drink watching the traffic, crawling and blaring unsuccessfully across M.G.Road, which, weighed down under the metro crawling above it and throttled on every side by multi-storey buildings flanking it ,runs like a confused asthmatic black ribbon. In its cosmopolitan zeal, my city- emulating its microbreweries that invent a new impossible mix every day - has changed; struggling, as it does, to remain trendy and up to date. Like the Pilgrim Fathers this city too offers “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to all who wish to seek these, either in the cold cubicles of software companies or in the winter that wraps one in its white and misty morns.

Then there are us, the locals, who seek out pubs that will remind us of bygone times by belting out, like good old pubs of our days, a Zeppelin now or an Allan Parson’s Project on other nights. And we listen to it with our characteristic quiet lethargy and leave well alone attitude.

I, however, still hope Vinutha will arrive before the dreaded 9 p.m.



The Girl

The play was a bad choice. Ms Shifali Tulani knew that from the time “the girl” had suggested it. The new recruit was no more a girl than she was. But Shifali always conceptualised her as “the girl”. It kicked her no end to think of that towering and swarthy woman, like that. She dared not call her that though, and tossed the letter Mrs Shetty had translated for her that morning into the bin.

“How dare they?” the shout cannon balled into her air conditioned principal’s office

Shifali could not catch the other voices. They were not loud enough. Thank God!

A little later, “Why did they?” ricocheted in.

Then the banging, which had been bringing on the migraine, commenced, “Send them back!”

The five senior boys (they were called “The Chorus/ The Mob”, Shifali shuddered at the word) on the raised part of the amphitheatre were joyously bouncing off the words like they were dribbling their basket ball. “The girl”, in her usual track pants and T-shirt was urging them to be louder.

Scruffiness was an unconstitutional offence in Shifali’s school; everyone was impeccably turned out. “The girl” had completely upset that apple pie order. Turning up with dishevelled hair and slept in clothes! And that morning Shifali was sure she had smelt alcohol! Only she had not been certain because “the girl” had opened her sanitizer after she signed the register. The smell had confused Shifali and “the girl” had gotten off the hook again. Not again- really, because “the girl”, except for her nonchalant dressing and attitude, was exceptionally good with her work. The only cog in the wheel was this insufferable play “the girl” had insisted on producing. Why couldn’t she do some harmless ones like “Lion King” or “Aladdin” like the other schools?

“Give her the sack!” Shifali’s husband had suggested.

You could not just sack the chairman’s niece, however far flung and distantly related they were. No! You recruited them and suffered the chaos they unleashed. In the wake of “the girl’s” casual and sometimes Bohemian dressing other teachers had followed suit. Last Friday the guitar teacher had turned up in jeans and a T shirt which said “DEEP PURPLE – come and be blessed by the Gods”. Well, she was certainly not allowing that even though it had sounded remotely holy and sacred.

The rehearsal was in full swing now. The Gandhi family was in the pit. The two Muslim boys, Javed and Bobby, were inside the Hindu household. This was when a rapid fire repartee occurred between Ramnik Gandhi and the Hindu mob outside about being right and wrong, and Ramnik spoke, what “the girl” called, the powerful line, “I have the right to doubt which is my own”. It ought to sound assertive and purposeful; it came out flat and shrill.

Anurag was not anything like the elderly and brave Ramnik Gandhi. He had a small wiry frame and his worried face looked mousier than ever as his beady eyes kept darting around suspiciously and his scrawny hands searched in his pockets for his inhaler.

“Precisely why he must play the part!”, “the girl” had insisted “It will help his self –confidence!”

Shifali did not think so. Nothing would improve Anurag’s self-confidence. The boy was a dim-witted dunce. All the tortures of remedial classes and teachers’ taunts had no effect on him or his parents. Thick-skinned Ragi Mudde eating buffaloes continued to send him to school. If only she had the powers to not send him up for the boards! But there was nothing to be done against a system controlled by the central government.

The central government!

Shifali stopped watching the rehearsal and sat down with a most un-Shifali like bump in her principal’s seat whose wheels spun over the tassels of her raw silk duppatta, tugging at their hemmed ends. Any other day this would have been Shifali’s immediate raging concern. Not now. No she must stop the play! It was political and dangerous and not at all “topical” as “the girl” had argued. After all hadn’t the central government won the temple vs. the masjid issue? Why rake up all the violence all over again? Godhra was over; Ayodhya won by the right side. Everything was settled .Everyone was happy. Why could not “the girl” just let things be?

“The girl” had gone on about sensitising the students about inclusivity, had the gall to quote the motto of the school “Humari Shakthi Samajik Chethana”, and had even suggested they add a local translation to the Hindi motto. Just to be more inclusive. She had quickly rushed on about the youngsters being the leaders of tomorrow. All a lot of poppycock! As if these things mattered! Shifali knew what mattered: Marks, Ranks, and Points. It was not for nothing she had always produced the top three ranks in the country every year.

Another Rehearsal

Anurag Gowda watched the rest of the cast huddled together in the amphitheatre, their pale skins, unlike his, forming red blotches in the Bangalore winter sun. It was not just their fair North Indian, NRI skins that shone out but their inherent privileges, the towering sheen of expatriate and corporate money.

Simran, the girl playing Daksha, was a tall spindly bombshell. She always arrived with a clique of very thin girls who hung around till the rehearsals were over. They wore perfume, played with their long silken hair and went somewhere between pink and vermillion in the mild heat of the amphitheatre. They all spoke English with a slight Punjabi accent, covered up by a put-on American accent.

The new drama teacher had struggled a few weeks to make Simran shed the nasal twang. And Simran had been most shocked that an English play did not require an American accent.

“Daksha lives in pre-partitioned India. You must accentuate your Punjabi accent and drop that fake American accent”, the teacher said in that clipped manner she resorted to when she was angry and did not wish to show it.

“It ain’t fake!” Simran went a pretty pink with anger, “I was born in the Bay Area”

Teacher, nevertheless, insisted, “Please don’t roll your R’s when you say a ‘terrible thing happened!’”

“Whatever!” Simran grumbled, taking care to roll the R a little longer than necessary.

She joined the clique as the teacher turned to the boys playing Bobby and Javed.

Anurag could hear, hidden as he was amongst the trees, Simran’s loud whisper, “The kaali talks like a BBC reporter and calls my accent fake!”

“Where is Anurag?” the teacher asked no one in particular.

“Saala Madrasi is always late” Jaspreeth, the boy playing Javed, quipped with his usual sauciness.

The teacher glared at Jaspreeth, but not for long; never for too long.

Anurag’s heart turned cold and sank like a big block of ice into his stomach.

Not sinking! Don’t go there!

Jaspreeth was the best of the lot. It was as though he was born to play Javed. He fitted the role like a key in a well-oiled lock. He was easily enraged, went from saucy to outright rebellion within seconds, especially when he turned to a withering Anurag and said, “Now tell me you don’t provoke me!”

“You are angry Anurag!” teacher had tried to convince him. “Javed has been playing the victim card and accusing you of being the victimiser! In reality he is the victimiser. The one who started the riots in the first place! Be angry, Anurag and don’t shiver when Javed ...er... Jaspreeth speaks!”

Anurag had nodded his mousey head vigorously, hadn’t he?

But something happened to Anurag in Jaspreeth’s presence. He did not at all feel very Ramnik; he went all squishy and jelly-like, exactly like a Bobby in the midst of the Hindu mob. Anurag did not want to be Ramnik. He did not want to be anything. He wanted to go home. He also wanted to stay. It was the teacher. Something soft and weird got set off inside him whenever she turned to him and raised her long and, what others called, “bushy” eyebrows.

“You are late, Anurag! Again!” she barked as she spotted him forcing his way towards the amphitheatre.

Final Solutions Whatsapp Group

“Hi! Everyone!”

“@ Deepali another group? Seriously?”

“@ Simran. This is only for the play.”

“Is the Kaali here?”

“No! Just the cast!”

“@ Deepali I think you must add two more members of the mob and S. K.”

“@ Adi thank you”

Deepali added S.K., Karan and Vilas.

“Hi bros!”

“@ Jaspreeth this group is only meant for the play.”

“@ Deepali f off”

Message deleted.

“@ Jaspreeth what did you delete?”

“Nothing☺”

“@ S.K. how do you like playing Bobby?”

“@ J boring bro. Just f...g boring!”

Deepali added Anurag

“‘Send him out!’”

“‘Kill the son of a swine’”

Anurag exited the group.

“@ J@ S.K.??? Really”

“@ Deepali chill babes. They are just practicing their lines.”

“@ Simran Yeah right! Great! Anurag has changed his security status. Now I can’t add him to the group. And he won’t accept my invite. You guys are truly the limits!”

“@ S.K. Saala Madrasi knows about privacy settings? Let’s show him tomorrow! Washroom? Break?”

“ @J yes☺)))”

“@ J@ S.K. Stop it! Gosh!”

“@ Deepali stop doing Kaali’s BBC accent!”


The Girl

When Shifali first saw the orange flags brandished outside her gates, on the eve of the final production, she concluded that her worst fears had been confirmed. They had found out and they were here to brand her school and her anti- national. She was not. She wanted a mandir, didn’t she? Unlike her silly husband who kept saying things like right wing fundamentalism and Hindutva politics And she had completely supported the no-burkah rule. In fact her insides tickled with a quiet joy at the way she had controlled the intake of minorities and others. But this changed everything.She would be called an “urban naxal” after this! She was anything but that! Oh “the girl” needed to be sacked. That’s it!

So when “the girl” walked into Shifali’s room that’s exactly what the latter said, “You are fired!”

A silence like a giant plume of dust descended on the room.

The disconcerted security guard, who had rushed in some time ago, his face ashen and pale, densely looked from one to the other.

“The girl” was about to respond to this absolutely absurd pronouncement, when she spotted the crowd outside. The security claimed he had locked the gates. But some of the men were scaling the walls and quite a few the wrought iron gates. The two guards, short and bandy legged, would be no match to the mob outside.

“Call the police!”, “the girl” urged.

The security nodded his head with excited earnestness. He was glad someone was talking sense.

The slogans were turning hard and guttural. Shifali could hear them, even though she could hardly make out their meaning. She grabbed the phone.

A stone came crashing into the room.

“The police are on their way”, Shifali, who was now completely terrorised, announced prayerfully. Then turned to “the girl”; “it is all your doing. I told you the play was no good from the beginning”

Despite the situation “the girl” laughed, “No. It is all your doing!”

A Dress Rehearsal

“That’s not horse shoe! That’s circular! What on earth did Vasu think this is for? A goddamned group dance?”

The Bhaiyya who had arrived with the ramp was clearly not Vasu because he scratched his grizzly hair and looked at her blankly.

“We are not paying for this piece of...”

Anurag was sure but for their presence the drama teacher would have sworn liberally.

The Bhaiya was still lost.

In a voice that would have sawed off all the furniture of the school, she said “No money. No paisa”

A dark cloud passed across Bhaiya’s face. If the magnitude of the situation had dawned on him, it quickly passed

He shrugged his shoulders and said in Hindi, “You talk to my boss!”

The two decided to place the call from the principal’s office.


Final Solutions Whatsapp Group

“ Bros !!!! Fuck the ramp! There will be no play tomorrow!”

“ Shut the fuck up Vilas! “

“ @ Jaspreeth he is right!”

“@ Karan about what?”

Forwarded Message from the P.T.Master:”Guys don’t step out . There’s a mob at our gates”

“ Ok! Give it up you guys. Stop fooling around!”

“No @ Simran look at these pics!”

Images: People with blood shot eyes and orange head bands . Orange and red flags unfurl in the background while they pump their free hand angrily into the air.

“Who are these people? The RSS?”

“@ Simran Naah!”

“@Karan, then?”

“P.T. sir says they are a local Kannada Sanga.”

“WTF is that supposed to mean, Karan?”

“No idea! Drama teacher should stop worrying about the ramp and be bothered about the mob”

“ Lol!!! You guys are the mob! Just ‘send them back!’”

“ Stop it @ J ! It’s not funny! Does anyone know what that means?:

Forwarded Picture : A close up of the slogan “Naavu Kannadigaru, Naavu Dravidaru”

“ @ Deepali you did Kannada in some state board school till fifth?”

“ Yes.. Er... ‘We are Kannadigas. We are Dravidians.’ I guess?”

“ LMAO ! You bet my pink Aryan ass I didn’t know that!”

“ Shut up @ Jaspreeth!”

The Dress Rehearsal

No , she should not leave the auditorium, Anurag was desperate. Jaspreeth had undone his darned dhoti a hundred times at least and she was worried about a ramp! Anurag watched the rest of them, busy texting each other, with a growing horror. Every time he went into the green room Anurag remembered how Jaspreeth and others had changed his privacy settings after pinning him to the bathroom floor. And he had also been warned against locking the greenroom door. Next time Jaspreeth removed the Gujju pleats around his waist and he must run to the green room , he would lock it. That would stop them barging in with their cameras and asking him about his Madrasi “private settings”. He was not a Madrasi. He had tried to explain that to them. He was from Bengaluru, this city. Not the capital of that state which fought with them, Kannadigas, about water and rivers. He hated being called a Madrasi. But they, just like the Chorus/mob, insisted he was “wrong” because they were “right”.

Final Solutions Whatsapp Group

“@ Simran I will not. @ Karan WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? And why are they at our school gates?”

A forwarded Image: more people in orange and red flags holding banners one of which reads“Hindiavuru Kannada Nadu Horacellu.”

“@Deepali?”

“Aryan people get out of Kannada land, I guess Karnataka.”

“So what are they doing outside our school?”

“@ Simran exactly what the teachers are talking to them about?”

“@ Karan teachers?”

“P.T. Sir, Mrs Shetty and Kaali too. Look.”

Forwarded Video: the three teachers are animatedly discussing with the crowd outside, which seems to have increased in number.

“@ Deepali when did Kaali leave the auditorium?

“ @ Simran sometime ago. To complain about the ramp. But where is Shifu? Such a coward, sending the teachers to face the mob while she is chilling in her air conditioned room!”

“@ Deepali of course she cannot go and face this crowd/ mob / whatever!”

@ Adi why not?”

“Ya @ Adi why not?”

“@ Deepali @ Simran you guys seriously don’t realise the issue here, do you?”

“@ Adi the all knowing one please enlighten us!”

“@ J @ Deepali @ Simran, Don’t you guys ever read anything other than your math and science books!”

“Of course we do! Now stop being such a show off and tell us!”

Image: It is the interior of a ransacked office with its furniture smashed, glass windows shattered to smithereens. And something is written across the beige wall in bleeding red.

“’Naavu Kannadigaru, Naavu Dravidaru’. Same thing. @ Karan isn’t this the picture of the attack on the film club because they were planning to screen non -Kannada films? What’s that got to do with us ?”

“ @ Deepali don’t you get it ? For the same reason! Our school does not even offer Kannada as a third language!”

“@ Karan so what’s the big deal! We don’t speak it anyway!”

“@ Jaspreeth precisely their problem. You are in their state and you don’t think their language is important enough to be taught!”

“Only Saala Madrasis would fight over something as ridiculous as a local language!”

“But @ Jaspreeth@ Karan how the heck would they know what our school taught or didn’t teach?”

“@ Simran good question!”

“@ Jaspreeth @ Karan remember that PTM when the Hindi teacher was berating Anurag to his livid mother?”

“@ S.K.yaaa?”

“@ J @ Karan she shook her fist in Shifali’s face and threatened to take action if the school forced Hindi on her son.”

“@ Karan I distinctly remember her screeching something about the school not offering Kannada as a second language!”

“But @ Simran she does have a point!”

“@ Deepali just shut up!”

“So @ Karan @ S.K. it’s all that Saala Madrasi’s doing? Bhenchod! Where is he now?”

“@ J He scuttled off to the green room after BBC left!”

The Girl

The crowd was dispersing. The police must have frightened them. Mrs Shetty was telling Shifali something about the letter she had translated the other day. The attack could have been avoided if the school had not ignored the Kannada Sanga’s complaints again.

Again? Had there been an earlier one?

Shifali sighed! After all it was just a question of a second or a third language! She might as well offer it. But there had hardly been any takers in the past. And she shouldn’t waste the school’s resources paying one Kannada teacher for a paltry few who might opt for it, should she?

For the moment she must put these dilemmas in the back burner. “The girl” had done away with the idea of the ramp because Vasu had insisted that his ramp was horse shoe and not circular. “The girl” sent it back and told Shifali they were not to pay for it. That was perfectly fine. However the alternative “the girl” came up with was worse: the communally frenzied mob was to come out of the audience.

“That would be very symbolic”, “the girl” had said.

“Symbolic, my foot!” Shifali had thought.

So they, “the girl” and she, were heading to the auditorium to see how that worked out.

Maybe it would because, “the girl’s” earlier reason to cast Anurag as Ramnik seemed to be paying off.

Shifali could hear him say with exceptional, almost close to hysterical, loudness and clarity, “I will not open the door!”

The mob heckled, “We shall break it then!”

Sounds of loud banging erupted from deep inside the auditorium.

The mob/chorus screamed “Traitor! You are all traitors!”

“They are good”, Shifali could hardly stop herself from beaming at “the girl”.

A door crashed somewhere in the auditorium and somebody emitted a muffled scream.

“Something is wrong “; “the girl” mumbled and broke into a run.

A Dress Rehearsal

Anurag had locked the door of the green room. All their banging would not make him open it.

After several hits, the door would finally give way, the bottom grating against the floor.

No! No! It would not.

The trailing dhoti completely stained with Jaspreeth’s boot prints was in a pile, and Anurag was back in his uniform trousers.

Jaspreeth said that the picture had gone viral!

It could not have, because after they had marched in behind him trying to click a picture of him in his underpants, they had all been chatting in that stupid play group.

Who do you think they were talking about?

A familiar sinking feeling filled his head.

It probably got 1k likes. More than even Jaspreeth’s profile picture. A proud moment, indeed!

Anurag was no longer sure about the picture. Did Jaspreeth take the picture at all? Maybe it was only a flash. Maybe they were only trying to frighten him. They had done that before; and then had laughed at his cowardice and inanity when his mother had stomped up to Shifali’s office. He should make sure he must not make a fool of himself this time.

At the bottom of the lake, the lungs emptied themselves of air letting the water in. Then they filled and ballooned up wiling it to burst out of his nose.

No! No! He was not at the bottom of the lake. But the sensation in his head would not go away. Anurag tried to take deep breaths, when they would not come he looked around for his satchel. The sinking realisation that it and his inhaler inside it were in the auditorium brought on the asthma with a sudden fury that caused him to collapse on the dusty floor, exactly when the door came crashing down.

Someone screamed “Oh my God Jaspreeth you have killed him!”

“Stop being dramatic Simran! The Saala is pretending he has one of his asthma attacks. Nice try you...”

By then Anurag did not mind grasping even Jaspreeth’s hands.

“My bag, my...” Anurag’s gasps were rapidly turning into hollow whistle noises.

Before he collapsed on the floor misty voices floated up along with the dust that entered his nostrils,

“What is all this?” boomed the loud voice of the drama teacher

Jaspreeth’s was dreamy and faraway, “He locked himself in the green room. He had an asthma attack .We were simply getting him the inhaler he had left behind in his bag.”

Old Monk

Ritchie Blackmore’s riff, a four note blues scale melody in G minor, begins, after the DJ‘s announcement that it will be the last song for the evening.

We never got around to performing the play, though Anurag survived his wheezing bout, bought on by claustrophobia was the school doctor’s prognosis Surprisingly Anurag did not contradict him. He went off on sick leave. I don’t know if he returned to that school. I certainly did not following Shifali’s continual undisguised suggestions that somehow I and Dattani were responsible for all that happened. Narrow minded, right wing lot causing schisms then blaming it all on the play!

I have moved on since then. An international school, Bangalore is full of these vampires that in the name of fees suck your money dry, grabbed me the moment I quit Shifali’s. It’s been a week. And the principal and the management are mighty happy that I will be producing Tendulkar’s Silence! The Court is in Session for the forthcoming Annual Day.

The hi-hat, the warped organ, the rest of the drums and finally the electric bass join Blackmore when Vinutha arrives just before Ian Gillan begins his vocal.

“That’s the last song!” I tell her accusingly and am happy to watch her fury rise. She takes a sip of my drink and marches up to the DJ.

She returns in a huff, “It is supposed to be hard rock night. The bloody DJ says that’s only till 9’oclock”

I give her my I told you so look.

“So what is it going to be after nine?” she wails, “Yo Yo Honey Singh? Udit Narayan? So all these bloody Punjabies can go ‘1 2 3 four, get on the dance floor?’”

“It does rhyme you know!” I laugh watching her lips, painted the band’s colour, form her customary sneer.

I would have liked to stay back and watch the prancing around, in the name of dance, which will follow once the music changes. But their rowdy noises and their toneless music really get to me.

I need to go home, catch some sleep. I look at Vinutha, “I have dad’s Hercules at home. And of course, my vinyl records.”

Vinutha curls her fingers in mine, kisses me on my lips-her purple blending with my subtle pink- and says,

“You are always a life saver.”

I wonder what Shifali would have said if she had seen that.

The idea is more intoxicating than the Old Monk.



References:

Mahesh Dattani is a Indian playwright in English. His play Final Solutions written and producing during the 1990’s, when the Hindutva fever was rising, is based on “ othering” and majoritarian politics of society. This story uses this play as a framework for other kinds of otherings.

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