My niece


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When my sister and I were small, we used to play these silly games where we would act like neighbours, bumping into each other in a park and talking about our imaginary naughty children. My sister would get angry if I made my child seem naughtier in description than hers. She always wanted the naughtier one. So if there was ever a measure of who was winning in the game, the one who picks sentences like – ‘My son actually rolled in the mud and cane home all drenched and dirty, with a couple of scars, a torn shoe and ripped bag’ – would have the edge.

This was, say, a decade ago. All of it came back to me on December 27, 2015, when my niece was born. I woke up that morning to see a very pink tiny human being’s picture on my cell phone. It was heart warming, like taking a big gulp of hot chocolate. I looked at her short needle-straight hair, pink mouth, and the fur-white cloth wrapped around her. Like a Russian nesting doll. But in a cute way.

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This is how the Russian nesting dolls look. Image courtesy: http://www.etsy.com

The first week, from what I heard from my mom, she did not let anyone sleep. Long spells of wailing, and then brief sessions of slumber. ‘She is crying like someone is hurting her’ – my sister said nervously on call. The next day, I woke up to a miraculous video – she was turning on her stomach, except for her tiny hand, which she couldn’t slip out from underneath her belly. ‘It’s just the fourth day, and she is already turning!’ – my father’s excited voice. I watched that video over five times that day.

She is a US citizen, born in the cold of Ohio. My mother holds her for me in the faint sunlight some mornings, during our Skype sessions. She looks like the swirls in the strawberry softy ice cream. So soft and pink. Two weeks old now. She only smiles in her sleep, but pays attention to claps and loud voices. ‘She is so cranky these days. Sometimes in the night, she suddenly begins crying, and it is almost like she has forgotten how to drink milk.’ My sister is tired, but never gets angry at her. She can’t. ‘She just asks the baby to ‘understand her’,’ laughs my mom.

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Courtesy, the hospital

One day, I told them to keep the video on as they dressed her for her first visit to the pediatrician. Her bed was strewn with a-little-over-palm-size T-shirts, and slacks. Finally, zeroing on a white jacket, my sister slides her tiny hands into each hole of the sleeve. But her hands get lost somewhere mid-way in the over-sized shirt. ‘Every dress is big for her,’ my mom says, taking a neat white thick blanket and wrapping her up. She looked like a momo then.

Sometimes, during the nights, after a long day at work, I wonder what her hair smells like. It just comes like a whisper of thought. Nothing that I dwell upon. Sometimes, even in the middle of work. Just the thought that a little of me, just a little, is in her – almost always cracks a smile on my aunt face. I guess it’s just a family thing.

It wasn’t a dream


Life is complicated. Generally. But it wasn’t then. We were under the stars, open shower, disco lightening and heavy rock inside our heads. Three drinks down, the rain drops seemed like one big blob hanging down heavily from the sky. Why can’t we just shoot up to the skies and remain there? Who wants to be on the earth anyway? I remember thinking then, trying to balance myself on my wobbly legs. My friends were at a distance. So insignificant. So earthly.

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I wanted to distance away from them. The spirit in my belly nudged the spirit in me, and I climbed the last narrow rung to the water tank. There I was, so close to the sky, so far from the earth, so far from my family, so far from the insignificant others. Life was good, life was normal. I remember feeling the hardness of my phone in my pocket. For a second I remembered by girlfriend. But she was far away. Was she insignificant too? 

The drops pelted harder and I felt lighter. Like a baby in a crib. What will my mother be doing now? What about my sister? Does she have a boyfriend? Suddenly, like a defunct radio, my brain switched to Rod Stewart’s Love is. He was singing in front of a shop that sold bananas. So funny. I remember laughing loud. I wanted to slap someone on the shoulder and laugh. I wanted someone to see me laugh, see me so happy and carefree. “You bastards…!” I remember shouting. No one turned, the rain stole my voice. Funny thing, the rain is. 

That was the last I laughed like that for months to follow.

……

Now, the stars have been replaced by fat blinding bulbs, the dark sky has been covered by curd white sheets. The drops have stopped drumming, instead, there is a tensed mix of whispers and rhythmic beeps. My neck feels heavy, and limbs rusty. I can’t laugh, I am trying. I am sleeping.

The sheet of rain was to blame. I did not see the contours of the tank. I slid slowly to the edge, slapping my thighs, laughing, shouting at the boys, laughing again.

I can feel warm fingers on my cheek, what I can’t feel is my front tooth. My head is a ball of iron. I see a man in white coat and stethoscope.

I am in a hospital.

From the corner of my eye I can see familiar faces. That same red shirt. It looked darker last night. Now, it is a bright shade of yellow. What made him buy that? I drift again.

I hadn’t been hit that hard and that fast ever. ‘Thud’ now had a clear definition in my head. I landed on the sunshade on my side, and rolled down like a pebble on to another.

Thud! again. My muscles wailed. Only I could hear them. The sky was suddenly getting farther, the ground closer. At a dizzying speed that too. Thud!. This time I hung on. My right palm bore my weight and fear.

Skin on cement. Scrapes and scratches. It was time for the final fall. 

This can’t be. I have an MBA paper to write next week. And that mail. What will my manager say? Wait, I haven’t called my girl friend. She will be worried. SIT UP! I can’t. I am frozen inside an ice cube. It’s not that cold though.

It’s comfortably warm. Peaceful, and warm.

My nose was inches away from the very wet ground. I could smell the cement and blood. Slowly, pain shot through my nape, along my collarbones and down my shoulders. Tiny sharp arrows released from a bow.

I wanted to shout, but I also wanted to lay there for as long as possible. Be one with the cement. Could the earth just split a little and take me in?

I see tears. I smell family. I see my mother with pink nose and puffy eyes. She sees me, and her brows cringe, eyes fill, and a kerchief covers her mouth. My sister stands beside her, with pink nose and puffy eyes. It’s awkward. Dad’s nose is not pink thankfully, but he has a vein popping out on his forehead.

The dream will soon be over.

But I had already fallen, and not woken up. I was scooped up by a set of hands. Not strong enough to carry my frame. I felt like a slice of butter melting out of their hands. Stretcher was a blessing, a cushion of clouds.

Had I finally reached the sky?

(The story is a work of fiction and includes no autobiographical elements. Fortunately, none)

Love in the time of friendship


Ten Years On by Alice Peterson is a love story involving three friends — Joe, who is forced to pursue medicine by his folks, Olly, an average musician and a wannabe writer and Rebecca, an artist who dreams of making it big one day. Olly and Rebecca are a couple, and everything is hunky dory until Joe enters their lives with his handsome looks and striking personality. The three bond well, until Cupid looses focus and strikes arrows on wrong targets, and Joe quits college and leaves town without any notice.

Why does Joe leave? — the author tries building mystery with this, but really, it is no rocket science. A love triangle is not hard to decode. What keeps the pages turning is the back and forth narration that Alice adopts throughout. After Olly dies (no spoiler; the book begins with Olly’s funeral) Rebecca, unable to cope with the tragedy and the anxiety of bearing Olly’s kid without him to support her, heads to her hometown in Winchester.

Here, Alice gives a generous peek into Rebecca’s childhood, her baggage of disappointment about always being the second priority after her sister, an ace Tennis player, for her parents. But soon, we read about a very pregnant Rebecca assisting Joe in his work. Then, it’s back to her halcyon days with Olly in Bristol, before the pages turn to a tensed Rebecca talking to the spirit of Olly, asking him to come back to her (yes, Olly’s spirit keeps talking to her inside her head).

The parts about the carefree hostel life the three share, works the best for me. There are references to songs like Bob Dylan’s Make you feel my love, George Michael’s Wake me up before you go and Supergrass. A whole chapter is dedicated to an eighties night party where Rebecca dresses as Madonna in blond wig, tight black jeans and lace corset and Joe as George Michael, in a leather jacket and ripped jeans. Among their friends are those sporting looks of Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Blondie and Boy George.

It’s a breezy read. While what Rebecca goes through is quite tragic, it doesn’t pull down your spirit, or have you all tensed about her future without Olly. The narration struggles to keep pace with the reader, who can more or less predict the next scene.

That Which Cannot be Spoken


That electric tension. It intensified as she walked towards him. The feeling was raw and fresh. Like the biting cold of the first snow of the season. It pierced in as he stood with a gaze that he kept casual – an effort that used up his last of muscles.

She walked towards him. He looked at her. Inside her head she could hear the thud of heavy prison gates closing, and inside his, he saw himself getting swallowed into the eye of a very violent storm.

‘Hello,’ he said, blood rushing to his lips, forehead and tip of nose. ‘Hey,’ she replied, her lips quivering a little, and feet picking up pace faster than normal. Am imaginary thread wove them like two pieces of fabrics. The needle pulled one to the other, but in vain, thanks to the scouring eyes in the room.

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A lazy-afternoon sketch

The last night’s conversations brewed and surfaced. It stayed over their heads like a gigantic cloud. Prick it with the smallest of pins and a million desires, feverish needs and unanswered questions would rain. No one dared to. The cloud remained, getting thicker and thicker with every gaze, voice and proximity.

He stole glances at her, from the narrow gap between two computers; never missed to look at her face as she passed by him; drank in her confusion and doubt as she spoke to her friends. He fantasised her in the well lit 10-people strong room on a Monday afternoon. Look or die. It came to that. He went inside a small dark room with transparent door, directed the seat aiming a full view of her, and continued watching, oblivious to the work stacking up on his table.

She smiled, more cautious than usual, stretched her neck longer than usual, popped her eyes out to suggest surprise, more than usual. She knew he was watching, and she was ready to play the game of Seek and Find. She saw him watching her from the dark room and felt a hundred spiders running up her legs. She saw him getting up from the chair and beginning to open the door.

The timing was perfect. He opened the door and walked in straight to her. There was a small halt. He took a generous look at her flushed face. She looked at him, put up a preoccupied face, and walked past him to her colleague.

The next day, the same continued. And the day after. And the one after that.

Yours lovingly


Nirmala blushed even before she grabbed the letter from the post master’s hand. She leaned on the closed-door behind her and read it aloud.

February 27, 2013

Love,

You are beautiful. Your grace can put the dawn and dusk to shame.

Yours lovingly

As if in reply, she ran to her balcony and smiled at the sinking sun.

Below, in the busy street, vegetable vendors were busy selling off their day’s stock, the chat shop was brimming with kids back from school and the cycle repair shop had a queue of bicycles in front, blocking the rest of the narrow road.

The claustrophobic atmosphere in the street reminded her of the stingy toddy shop of her dad’s, back in the village. She remembered dodging the sweaty dirty bodies who tried to touch her, while she hastily served them liquor. Extreme poverty had taught her resilience.

Later, she remembered crying out her worries to her friend, who would console her and say “Everything will be alright one day”.

Her bruised past now lay buried under her new dignified life as Mrs. Gupta, whose days revolved around her husband, serving him the best food, awaiting his romantic letters during the day, listening to his office stories in the evening and sleeping to his typewriter ticking away in the night.

You were right! Everything is perfect now – she smiled to herself and pressed the letter to her chest.

Picture Source: vermeer0708.wordpress.com

Picture Source: vermeer0708.wordpress.com

Arjun Gupta, on his way back to office stopped at his lawyer’s residence. He came out with a satisfied expression on his face.

Who would have thought it to end this way? He could still remember how her pale nervous face, with a child like innocence, had looked at him with anxiety, as he had put the garland on her neck. Though his marriage was a convenient arrangement between two families, he had loved her at the very first sight.

He enjoyed her chirpiness and laughter and the way she got excited by the smallest gifts. He would simply stand and admire her, while she told stories about her childhood, brimming with tears at one moment and shaking with laughter in the next.

How wrong was I to think she loved me too, he thought, as he brought his bike to a screeching halt.

Nirmala checked her appearance in the mirror for one last time, before she ran downstairs to open the door for her husband.

She had taken extra care to darken her Kajal and make her hair. She planned to talk about those lovely letters of his. What best way to show her gratitude than look the prettiest? she had thought.

“Is anyone home?” he asked, looking beyond her, across the hall, as she stood at the doorstep.

“Someone is in a bad mood today,” she giggled, trying to brush aside the disappointment.

He looked at her. That killing smile again. He cursed himself for letting her think he was upset.

“Oh nothing, how was your day, jaan?” he asked, trying hard not to think about what he had discovered the previous week.

My mysterious husband, she sighed. So romantic in letters, yet so detached in person. “Oh it was good, how was yours?” she asked casually.

“Good as well.”

Keeping his shoes aside, he went upstairs without another word.

Probably he had a tough day, she thought as she followed him.

Arjun Gupta weds Nirmala Ram, he smirked at the album which lay on the bed.

Clearly she set it all up to leave me no room for doubts. He unbuttoned his shirt, stepped into the shower and turned on the faucet in full force. He tried to find a reason, a fault or a short coming on his part.

He had found the letters stacked in the corner of the cupboard, behind the neatly folded saris, tied with a saffron ribbon. He had opened them thinking he was going to crack some new naughty surprise of hers.

He read the letters one after the other, convincing himself that it was nothing like what he thought it was.

Since then, he observed her actions closely. He would say he is leaving to office, but stand downstairs to see how she became someone else’ once he left.

He was appalled by the cheesy lines of the letters, but Nirmala as he had found, seemed to brighten up while reading those.

“Let the aroma of your skin reach me, love”, she would go to the balcony and catch her duppatta high up in the air. Her lover would look upwards through the spokes of the cycle wheel until she went inside.

She would hop down and take a stroll along the street, clutching the piece of paper which said, “Flowers would bloom on every inch of the ground where you walk,” while the cycle guy kept the rubber tyres aside to watch her.

The last letter took it a step further.  “Look at you. Your eyes would make anyone go speechless.” She sprinted to the streets, found the nearest shop and called out for some change. The cycle guy got up, wiping his tarred hand on his shorts, looked at her and asked, “Is everything alright?”

He had extended his hands to touch her cheeks. She had moved aside. But the sign of recognition couldn’t have been mistaken.

Arjun had left the scene, unable to take it further.

Later, he had sat contemplating the issue – I should probably talk to her.. No that would make her sad. I guess I don’t deserve her. Should I confront her? No.. She would die of guilt. Am old, she is so young… I think.. I think I should just move away from her life.

Convinced with his new decision, he had asked a lawyer to file divorce papers the very next day. Sooner the better, he had thought.

Nirmala lay on her bed staring at the new sealed letter, shocked by the turn of events in her own life.

Is everything alright?.. his voice carved out her past memories inch by inch. She recalled the long afternoons which they had spent by the beachside building sand castles, the whispering talks behind the temple and the promises they made while sitting under a dripping roof, too close yet scared to hug.

That was years ago. It was unfair that life had brought him to her life again.

Right then she craved to tell her husband about the only episode in her life that she had kept from him. She knew he would understand, and later give her a hug. The night would again be normal with the sound of his typing.

Through the heavy veil of tears, she opened the letter.

March 6, 2013

Love,

I mean no inconvenience to you. I thought you would be happy to see me. So wrong was I.

Yours lovingly

She read it again, trying to make sense of the words. She threw the letter aside, as if it had burnt her hand.

It was her friend all this while?

Confused and hurt, she wept.

Hours later, she numbly walked downstairs to answer the door.

It wasn’t her husband. Instead, a man introduced himself as the lawyer and told her to sign few papers. Along with those, he produced another typed letter from his bag – a letter, the first ever letter from her husband.

March 6, 2013

Hi jaan,

I was too much in love with you not to realise all this while that you loved someone else. Thanks to the letters.

Here is wishing you happiness for your new life with your old friend.

Yours lovingly

Arjun

How do I define this love?


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When darkness consumed the forest

It lit up and fluttered like a ray of fireflies;

Eyes couldn’t help but wander in unrest

Is it real or a mirage of lies?

 

How long can the wings flap,

How long can I see them shine before they take that curve;

Oh those who loved, please tell me how do I define this love?

 

Like the colors of rainbow painted after the rain

Which misguide a then new-born about the reality of the sky;

It tempts us to erase the possibility of hurt or pain

Sensuously parting its doors to say, “Wont you stop by?”

 

The sky was awash in blue before I could count the layers

So this is the only span of admiration I deserve?

Oh but why, can someone please tell me how to define this love?

 

It’s like the lure of the rafting waters

Which can make a man jump off the cliff

All wet, I search for the molecules; but it no longer matters

As I realize, they were gushing forward, while I had stood stiff

 

I couldn’t have followed the waters even if I wanted to

To jump off the height and swim with a freeze, oh boy I did have the nerve!

Now just tell me this, how do I define this love?

 

Why wouldn’t I let the wood get transformed to coal

I keep taking off the pieces and extinguishing the fire

It took a long night’s thought and interrogation with the soul

To realize that I was killing my own desire

 

I cut the woods anyway

and it burned to coal in the heat of the fire stove

Waited long enough, now let me find out how to define this love.