Wednesday 25 October 2023

Short Story 2023 Longlist, Nirmala Kasinathan

Crossing The Bridge

It was a bright and sunny Sunday. The sun was directly overhead at close to noon making the weather a little uncomfortably warm outdoors. Shilpa was just finishing with her gardening and looked around her well-kept garden with pride and satisfaction. She had watered her plants, carefully pruned her bonsais and potted flowers, mowed the lawn and even trimmed the hedges. Shilpa had risen early that morning, gone for her morning jog and then started working on her garden soon after breakfast.

There was a lot on her mind these past few days. Spending time with her plants always gave her the opportunity to sort through her thoughts and find clarity. It helped her relax, and when she was distraught, it had helped her find solace and peace. This time was no different as far as the therapeutic properties of her gardening was concerned. Sweat trickled down her forehead.

She found her unshakable decision to break off with her long-time fiancé, Varun a little unsettling. ‘Why was life so complicated?’ she thought to herself. She had slept over her decision and mulled over it long enough. Still, she found no two ways about it. Their marriage had been put off too many times not owing to any of her faults. Then, two weeks ago, they had fallen apart after she found him cheating on her. Their fiery and heated conversations had dwindled. He had eventually come around after some time and had begged for a chance to explain the situation – to make it up to her. She hadn’t spoken. Life was overly complicated at times especially when they were already at the fork on the road for complex reasons. But somewhere deep inside, she felt her conflicting emotions rage within a knotted turmoil brewing and spewing hot steam. It’s like it was only a matter of time before a slightest trigger would unleash the dragon within.

Yet, she remained calm on the surface as always. She went to the back of house and was greeted by her german shepard with loud barks and a vigorous wagging of it’s tail. Instinctively she patted and cuddled her canine. Her loyal companion. She filled its usual dog biscuits dispenser, gave her a dish of fresh meat chunks and topped its supply of fresh water. Ranger, her dog happily lapped up it’s food.

Shilpa realized that she was hungry herself. She had ordered some food earlier that day to make time for her garden. Just as she returned to the front of the house, her food delivery arrived in good time. She collected the food and entered her house. Within minutes, she washed herself up and began devouring her lunch. It was from her favorite restaurant and tasted great as always.

After she filled up, she was drawn to have a nap. All the morning’s activities had worn her out, and now with the central supply of oxygen moving from her brain to digesting her lunch, and the cool air conditioning indoors only compounding her sleepiness, she lay on her sofa and rapidly dozed off.

She lived with her parents. Her parents were both retired chartered accountants. They had worked hard to build their lovely home. Often people referred to her as the chip of the old block. She resembled her dad and had acquired many of his characteristics. Her brother Thurai, was by far mummy’s boy.

Her parents were outstation at that time, visiting her brother in Singapore. She was a dentist by profession and her brother in Singapore, Thurai , an Opthalmologist. He was a couple of years older and had many friends and acquaintances in her hometown including Varun, a surgeon. He was seeing a Chinese girl – a colleague. Shilpa ran her own dental surgery not very far off from her residence, and she worked 5 and a half days a week. Saturdays was half day and Sundays was her off day. Most days, she started work at 8 ish and was home by 5. There was usually always time for a jog or for her garden, provided she didn’t cook. But sometimes she enjoyed experimenting in her kitchen too if she didn’t have dinner plans with Varun (before it all ended just recently) or one of her other friends. Her mom or dad occasionally cooked too and she enjoyed it) tremendously if she was at home.


Shilpa was deep in slumber, when the phone rang loudly bringing her back to the present. She groggily sat up and looked at her phone screen. It was a familiar number, she took a double take and recognized it immediately. It was Varun’s definitely. She had made a point of deleting his number from her contacts. But something had prevented her from blocking him altogether. Maybe just a tinge of doubt … her inner voice being sceptical as always and doubting her decision and perhaps some deep-down lingering horizon of hope. Her frustration, anger and reasoning thankfully took control of her once again, and she stubbornly refused to answer the call. She silenced her phone.

She wasn’t going to speak until she had made up her mind on Varun. It’s either it was over and they’re both moving on or it’s not and they will reconcile. But that’s where the huge imaginary rock in her mind sat and stretched her emotions, waned her patience and irked her to no avail. She toyed on the image of the giant rock for a while. She imagined Varun with Rainnah, his Malay colleague. A doctor like himself. She was in the Surgical training programme with him. Beautiful and from a well-off family. Then she envisioned Varun with herself. She recalled endearments they had shared, gifts and intimate moments. These images played on her mind as the imaginary rock orbited on its axis. ‘Ouch’ she cried. Something caused her an intense inner pain. The hurt was most profound. But, why couldn’t she just let go? Move on? There were better fishes in the sea?

Her thoughts returned to Varun. Slowly she sized him down in her mind. She recalled his tall, slim and fit demeanor, his good looks and warm smile that had always melted her heart – that was probably what kept her from this suspicion all this while. Then there was his sweet words and generous gifts. Were they all lies and treachery ? His promises. She’d even met his family, and visited his home. He lived not very far away. In a beautiful uptown neighborhood. He was Telugu, unlike herself. She was Tamilian. She was a Saivite and he was a Vaishnavite, they were Hindus of different sects. His parents were friendly and courteous. They were lecturers in a private college. His sister and brother, both lawyers, were out of town. Working. He’d met her parents several times. Had dinner with them on occasion. They were seeing each other for close to 5 years. Their parents initially had lots of questions and doubts but neither stood in the way of their relationship. What had transpired after that? Was it deception? That all there was to it? She couldn’t decide.

She wondered when exactly Rainnah got into the picture? Why was she with Varun in Cameron Highlands? Why had she received the images of them together that her brother sent her some time back? Her brother had received it from his friends. Why had she caught Varun having lunch with her at the hotel café in Tanah Rata? Why had she witnessed in person, both of them as they checked out together from that hotel in Tanah Rata when she happened to be having a family gathering in Cameron Highlands with her brother and cousin? She had informed Varun of her family trip earlier. Varun told her he had an important conference that weekend and he’ll catch up with her after she returns. What blatant lies. What coincidence that she saw them. He brother was furious. He was on the verge of giving a piece of his mind to Varun but Shilpa had stopped him. Somethings she insisted she had to handle herself. The rage built within her again. Somehow, her bladder was full and her bowels were churning. She felt like the little dragon within her was spewing out steam again. She ran for the washroom. Her irritable bowels had started acting up again recently. She thought it was over with after college. She had been like a bird set free after her graduation. Happy and energetic. Inspired. Looks like it didn’t last.


Malaysia was definitely a melting pot of cultures. As important as race and religion was in the formation of our identity and personality, it was often also a cause of complex national divides. History and evolution of the different races and religions sometimes got in the way justice and fairness in certain aspects of our lives, giving rise to discrimination, which ultimately robbed us of equanimity. Somehow, minority races find it increasingly difficult to sustain their unique cultural differences. Racial and religious intermarriage had gradually crept in becoming norm. But it still wasn’t easy.

They’ve known each other for many years. Varun was her brother, Thurai’s friend, school mate and university mate. Her brother and Varun studied together in Ireland whilst she studied Dentistry in Wales. Varun was a footballer and an excellent student like her brother Thurai. According to her brother, Varun and Thurai never really got into a serious relationship but occasionally dated. Had lots of fun in Ireland. Enjoyed the nightlife and the beer.

Shilpa enjoyed her years in Wales tremendously. Had lots of friends from all over the world. She had a steady relationship with a coursemate during her first year. Deepak, a Bengali boy from a wealthy family in Northern India. They enjoyed themselves exploring Wales, and cooking when they weren’t studying. They enjoyed the nightlife too occasionally. She enjoyed his company and had begun to trust him tremendously. However, after some of their occasional drinking, Deepak made advances that took Shilpa by surprise. She wasn’t ready for a sexual relationship. Deepak was irritated when she brushed him off. Suddenly, just weeks before her year end exam, Deepak told her it wasn’t going to work out. He’d found someone else. Shilpa was distraught. Emotional. She struggled through her exams and that’s when she developed irritable bowel syndrome. She passed her exams but never got into a relationship again for the longest time.

Once, during a break from college, Shilpa recalled having a serious heart to heart talk with her dad about his marriage to her mom. They spent hours gardening together and often had serious conversations. He had revealed something to her that took her by surprise. “My marriage to your mom was arranged by my parents. I met her once or twice before we actually met at our wedding. Your grandparents were old fashioned. They had refused to approve of my relationship to my christian sweetheart from my years studying in Brisbane. It was unheard of at that time. My parents were staunch Hindus. Our community was close knit. I was given the ultimatum - it’s either I married a hindu tamil girl or I’d be renounced from our family. I was heartbroken. But, I realized that my parents and family came first. I finally relented. Gradually, I fell in love with your mom. She is a good woman. Kindhearted, caring and respectful. She’s been a great wife and mother to you’ll.” Shilpa asked her dad at that time if he would approve of Thurai or herself marrying someone rom a different community or religion and her dad chuckled. “Maybe, maybe, let’s just cross the bridge when we come to it,” he had said. Looks like they were at that bridge.

Soon after her graduation and return to her hometown, Thurai got a job in Singapore and left. Once, she had run into a flat tyre while driving. Varun happened to be nearby and ran to her aid. She was most grateful. He’d even helped get appointments for her parents at the local general hospital when they had medical problems. Then, came the 25th birthday party of common friend of Shilpa, Thurai and Varun. It was then, that Shilpa found herself drawn to Varun. Varun seemed to reciprocate. Shilpa initially was sceptical about her liking for Varun, and they were both a little hesitant to acknowledge their feelings even at that time. But sparks flew nevertheless. One thing led to another. Dinner together one night, another few dates and parties, before they confessed to each other that they were seriously in love.

Every hour together was so precious to them. They usually spent their evenings together if both were free. They enjoyed their daily walks with her dog, Ranger under the moonlight sky after dinner, chatting, and holding hands. They had so many common stories of their years growing up. Same tuition teachers and art, martial arts, music and dance teachers and friends. They laughed at some of their jokes and all the fun they had. They wondered why they never realized they could be together all those years.

Even then, Shilpa wondered if both their family’s would accept their relationship. Doubtful if they would be able to pull it off well together. But, gradually their parents realized they were seriously in love and began to show acceptance. Both parents had known each other’s families for many years. Their boys were good friends since childhood. They maintained that the common religious principles they shared were far more important and meaningful than the differences in their beliefs. Both felt they could respect each other’s beliefs, cultural and religious practices while keeping to their own. They were once smitten with each other. Inseparable. What on earth had happened?

Varun had got himself into a messy situation this time. He was engaged to be married to me. And there he goes having an affair with a Muslim colleague??? He’d have to convert to Islam if he married Rainnah and he would be subject to syariah laws. But what would his motives be ? His offsprings with Rainnah would probably be accepted as bumiputeras and they’d be Muslims too with special rights? Was that what he wanted ? Her thoughts were a jumbled-up mess of sorts. Maybe Rainnah had put him under a spell. Black magic. ‘I know’ – she finally relented. ‘ Maybe she gave him the so called nasi kangkang’- specially prepared meal which holds black magic that could make him fall under her spell.’ It was something she remembered sniggering about from her school days. The thought gave her a slight headache.

Just then, the phone buzzed again. She decided to answer the call– forgetting to check the number it was from. Thankfully, it was her mom.

“Hi Shilpa, how’s everything back home?” said her mom. “I’m fine, doing great!” Shilpa tried to feign her cheerfulness. “Cleaned up our garden, mowed the lawn, pruned the plants and trimmed the hedges, watered the plants. Went for a jog too this morning. Everything’s good.” Shilpa answered chirpily. “Oh, that’s fabulous, Shilpa. Had your lunch? What did you have?” her mom inquired. “I had my favorite chicken varuval meal from Tamara’s, yummy as always. Just woke up after a snooze. How’re you and dad enjoying yourselves in Singapore? How’s Annai keeping? And did you’ll meet Shirley? Have they decided to tie the knot yet?” Shilpa’s words came rushing out. Her mom giggled. “We’re all fine. Had dinner with Shirley yesterday and going to meet her family this evening. Looks like Annai and Shirley are eager to tie the knot,” mom replied. “Wonderful,” Shilpa said happily brightening up at the thought. This time, she wasn’t feigning it.

Shirley was Singaporean Chinese, a Buddhist, an ophthalmologist like her brother. He’d been seeing her these past 3-4 years. Shilpa had met her in Singapore during her last trip there. She found her friendly towards her but generally reserved. A lot like her brother. They were well suited. Neither was particularly traditional. They shared good virtues but were not particularly religious. They had lots of common interests. Shilpa had taken a liking for Shirley. She was happy that her brother and Shirley had made up their minds and were going to get hitched.

“How’s Varun keeping by the way? Will you be seeing him today? Please convey my regards to him and his parents,” mom said. “Sure,” she replied quietly, deciding it wasn’t a good time to explain all that had happened. In her mind, she decided to have a discussion with Varun to clarify matters and to put an end to all her turmoil.

After she bid farewell to her mom, she went up to have a warm shower. In her mind, she quietly planned what she wanted to say to Varun, what explanations she was willing to lend her ears to and what she’ll not tolerate. She had it all mapped out. The warm shower was refreshing. She felt so much better. As she came down the stairs, she briefly made a mental note to have a salad for dinner after she contacted Varun. When she reached the living room where her phone was charging, she immediately reached for her handphone and placed a call to Varun.

Varun answered Shilpa’s call almost instantaneously. They exchanged greetings of the day and inquired on how each other was keeping. Shilpa finally got around to the matter at hand. “Varun, we need to talk. We need to clarify certain matters pertaining to our so called relationship. Can you come over? My parents are away in Singapore, it’ll be better to speak in person. Just for about an hour or so,” she said. “I’ve been trying so hard to speak to you these past two weeks. You’re the one who’s been cutting me off. But never mind. I understand, you must be furious at your end. But trust me, I can explain. I’ll be there at 6:00 pm. Shall I get some dinner for us on the way there? I haven’t had the prawn wanton noodles near your place in ages. Okay with you?” Varun answered. “Okay, see you at 6:00 pm. Prawn wanton noodles for me too. Thanks,” Shilpa replied. Her dinner plans had changed.


“Shilpa, please let me explain before you judge my actions,” Varun became defensive and emotional on seeing Shilpa in person. He handed Shilpa the packets of prawn wanton noodles, looking solemn. Varun looked strained and overworked. “Thanks, by the way, have you been working too hard, Varun? You look like you need a break,” Shilpa retorted. Varun gave her a quizzical look. The dark rings under his eyes deepened. “Busy as always” he replied.

Shilpa excused herself to place the food in bowls while still hot then ushered Varun to the dining area. She had put a pot of Chinese tea to steep to go with the noodles. “Let’s talk while eating or the food will lose it’s heat” Shilpa reminded him.

“Shilpa, Rainnah has been a good friend of mine since school days,” Varun began between mouthfuls of wanton noodles. “She completed her undergraduate studies in Indonesia, while we were in Europe. But our friendship resumed during our housemanship.” “How does that explain spending so much time with her at work, and checking out of a hotel with her, while telling your fiancé you’re away at a conference? Was there a conference, Varun?” Shilpa interjected, emotional, tears forming in her eyes.” Varun looked obviously upset. “We were at the conference, Shilpa. Is it impossible to believe that the Surgical Update Conference was at Tanah Rata? Rainnah was distraught. Her family was against her relationship with a ‘mat salleh’ she had met online. They were arranging to get her married to a Malay guy. I was helping her sort out her issues with her boyfriend. Somehow, she trusted me and I’m probably the only one amongst us in the surgical department who knew her family. Her older brother, Rashid, now a deputy superintendent of police, was my football team captain in school. She was afraid of rumors going around too. So I was keeping things hush. That’s actually what was going on. I’ve met her parents to try convince them to give Marcus a chance,” Varun shook his head in resignation. “Both Thurai and you were not answering my calls. I thought I was going off my head.”

Shilpa looked at him in disbelief. “Why did my brother receive photos of the two of you together from your friends? I’m sure there must be more to it. I’m sure there are rumors going around, Varun. No point denying. You helping Rainnah with that white skinned boyfriend isn’t what it’s all about. I myself thought Rainnah had mesmerized you with a spell.” Shilpa voiced out angrily. “Someone sent Thurai pictures of me with Rainnah?” Varun sounder appalled. “I think someone has misunderstood,” Varun was shocked. “Annai was going to give you a piece of his mind when we witnessed the two of you checking out of the hotel in Tanah Rata. I told him I’ll handle it myself,” Shilpa admitted. Varun closed his eyes, biting his lips, leaning back, controlling his frustration. “But it’s all a big misunderstanding, there’s nothing like that going on.” his voice was pleading.

“How are things with Rainnah and Marcus now, Varun ? Any change?” Shilpa asked. “I spoke to Rainnah’s parents last week. They remembered me from years ago. They seem willing to meet Marcus but expressed their concerns that Marcus isn’t really serious and would have issues with their religion. I suggested they speak to him in person first,” Varun replied. “Yesterday, Rainnah sent me a picture of her family with Marcus”. He showed Shilpa a picture on his phone. They were all dressed in traditional Malay outfits. “Rainnah said the meeting with Marcus went well”. Varun smiled his eyes brightening up.

“Oh, thank God for that, Varun. I’m sorry for doubting you.” Shilpa said reaching out for his hand across the table. “I can’t blame you, Shilpa. Even my colleagues at work have probably started the rumors going. I’ve got to clarify the mess there too.” Varun said gripping her hand tightly. “How’s Thurai keeping? Parents visiting him?” he asked. “Yes, they’ve gone to meet Shirley and her family. I think Annai and Shirley want to get hitched.” Shilpa explained. “Oh, that’s fabulous. I’m happy for them,” Varun retorted. Shilpa nodded smiling.

“How about us, Varun? Our engagement is stale news now. Our supposed marriage two years ago has been put off far too many times. First it was the surgical masters exams and rotations then your gazettement. Then rescuing Rainnah. Whatever’s next?” Shilpa wanted reassurance. Somehow, Varun had this coming. “Next, Shilpa, is our marriage. There’s going to be no two ways about it. I’ve completed my gazzetement and have received my papers. I’m officially a General Surgeon. I can’t pull out another excuse from my bag of tricks even if I wanted to. Which obviously isn’t the case. I’m not waiting till we’re both grey haired and wheelchair bound definitely. And believe me, not seeing you or speaking to you this past two weeks has made me realize how important you are to me. I need you in my life now,” Varun said as though he had rehearsed it. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small jewelery box. He opened it, in it was a charm bracelet with two charms with their initials in 3D separated by a twin hearts charm. “Varun loves Shilpa. Now and forever. Can I put it on for you?” he said. Tears welled in Shilpa’s eyes. She nodded, extending her right wrist. “I love you, Varun. Missed you so much these past two weeks. Thought I was having a battle with my inner dragons” she whispered, he voice raspy with emotion. Varun leaned over and kissed her on her lips. She kissed back. He then hooked the bracelet around her right wrist. They held onto each other’s hands for the longest time and stared into each other’s eyes.


Varun and herself were so caught up with each other that neither realized the passing of time. They had cleaned up the table after dinner, washed the dishes together and then habitually took Ranger out for a walk, commenting on the weather and the full moon. They came back in a high mood, laughing. They then at on the recliner couch in the living room together. There the sat next to each other, legs outstretched, each other’s inner handheld in the other’s, they spoke of everything and yet nothing. Sweet endearments and gossips, the weather and work, Shilpa’s Garden. Varun’s job, parents and car collection. Just then, Shilpa’s phone rang again. She reached for her phone, suddenly realizing it was already 10:30 at night. The phone rang again. It was her brother, Thurai. She immediately answered.

“Hi Shilpa, how’re you keeping?” Thurai’s voice was heard from the other line. “I’m great, Annai. Varun’s here with me. We’ve cleared things up. Varun was helping Rainnah with her relationship to a ‘mat salleh’ named Marcus. They’re old friends - I’m sure you’re familiar with Rainnah’s brother, Rashid? By the way, Varun has completed his gazzetement. Now, the only thing on his mind is supposedly our marriage. “Shilpa couldn’t stop talking. Thurai laughed. “How did dinner go with Shirley and her family?” Shilpa spoke in a rush. Thurai was obviously on top of the moon. “Well, that’s fabulous. Glad everything has worked out well. Shirley and I are getting engaged to be married in a small ceremony back home in Ipoh next weekend. Our wedding will be in a couple of months.” Thurai let his cat out of the bag. Shilpa cheered loudly, attempting to whistle. “That’s so nice to hear. Congratulations to the both of you,” Shilpa smiled genuinely. “Thanks. Let me speak to Varun” Thurai said. Shilpa passed the phone to Varun, saying “It’s Annai.” They spoke for close to 10 minutes. Both sounded happy.

Looks like Varun and Shilpa had found their way across a life changing bridge. Twenty minutes later, they bid farewell outdoors. Both Varun and Shilpa were working the next day and had tight schedules as always. As they walked out hand in hand, they noticed once again the full moon that lighted up the glittering diamond studded sky. They were once again happy and crazily in love. Shilpa was certain that it was affirmation of their belief that the moon and the stars had conspired to bring them back together. Varun smiled nodding his head in agreement. “Let’s seal our belief with a kiss,” said Varun bending towards Shilpa, for a passionate kiss. Just then, a cloud crossed, causing the moonlight to be hidden from them. It’s like even the moon shyly hid behind the cloud allowing them their private moment thought Shilpa, her heart doing a tango.


The last couple of weeks had been agonizing. Time and the truth are said to be good teachers and healers. It was on that magical Sunday night that Shilpa’s inner dragons went into hiding once again in the dungeons of the past. Her irritable bowel seemed to miraculously and instantaneously disappear. Shilpa felt happy and free. She slept peacefully all night having the sweetest dreams and woke up refreshed and energized after so long to the tunes of her favorite songs.

Varun and Shilpa later got married in a civil ceremony in the presence of their parents and families and were happily married for many years with their own little family. What was meant to be had its was of coming true.

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