Monday, April 25, 2005

It’s Crummy Being Superman

3 words; The letter S, Matchbox, Revolver

A 200-word story

The matchbox was empty. That meant no cigarette. This was the last straw. Life sucked big time. Yeah, he could use his laser emitting eyes to light it; but the last time he did so, he set the whole living room on fire. Sigh! It wasn’t easy being Superman. He was tired of playing hero, wearing his underpants on the outside, and having an S emblazoned on his chest. S for Superman. S for Sucker. Sex with Lois Lane was getting to be a bore too. But all Jor-El could say was, “They need you son.” What about him? Didn’t he have a say in anything? All he wanted to do was have some fun, preferably with Sheryl Crow.

Meanwhile, Jor-El was ruminating over Superman’s last plea to turn him into a mortal human. He thought he had done the right thing, but now he was having second thoughts. Superman had had it tough. Jor-El sighed. Ok, he thought, let Superman have his way.

Superman eyed the revolver on the table. He had kept it as a souvenir from the last criminal he had pounded to pulp. He picked it up and put it to his head. “I can’t even #$%9$% kill myself,” he laughed wildly. And pulled the trigger.

As he lay on the floor with the blood oozing out of his brain, he thought, “Damn Jor-El.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

29 and the World’s Alright (Almost)

Hi. I’m Josephine. 29 years, single and loving it. A senior features writer for a city magazine. Working my way up to editor. Then my own newspaper. It could happen! Right now, on the brink of another promotion. 20 years of education. A post-graduate degree in Literature. Six years of payslips. Could have been: a cartographer. A character in a book I had read was one. Sounded fascinating. Is there money in it? But I would get to go around the world right? I mean, you can’t possible dream up maps sitting at your desk.

Hi. I’m Josephine. 29 years, single and loving it. Gregarious and optimistic. I can cheer the black mood out of almost anybody. I like people. All kinds. Have long conversations with the maid, watchman, and the man at the post office. Women in trains confide in me. Kids think I’m a pretty cool “grownup.” And dogs come bounding up to me.

I’m Josephine. When I get cranky, I get really cranky. Wear out the carpet in my room, pacing up and down. Can’t let go easily either. Weep for months after a hurtful word the person who said it has forgotten about. Try too hard, I’ve been told. Can’t say no either. That’s when I get cranky. Talk too much. But you’ve got that by now.

Josephine. A do-it-yourself girl. I’ve painted the walls of my room. One wall is all orange and flowers. Love music. Classical, jazz, Broadway, and the blues. Never got a hang of rock. Though Bono is umm…. umm… Sang in the church choir for a while. Can even strum a few chords on the guitar. Will soon sign up regular lessons. Honest. Love trekking. Nature and all the blah! Next on the list: rock climbing. I’m a mad mall moll. My credit cards are usually maxed out. Make resolutions to straighten up every time I get the bills. But it’s an addiction. If this was America, I’d do therapy.

29 years old. Hmmm. The face in the mirror seems strange. Can people tell who I am from just looking at me? Does my face have character? I’m having a mid-life crisis, standing on the threshold of 30. Yes, 30 is mid-life for someone who’s 29. Where am I going? I mean, really, where am I going? Is this it? Am I missing something? Or what if after all this, it all goes nowhere. Shouldn’t it be bigger? Shouldn’t I bring about world peace? Discover the grand unified theory (Or should it be invent?)? Achieve Nirvana? Or is it about the all the small things? Will they all fall into place? Or will the jigsaw remain jagged? Will I have a granddaughter perched on my lap, listening wide-eyed to my stories, while I rock in the chair contently? Will there contentment at the end? Will there be contentment along the way? Who decides? Do I? Can I? Oh, how can I? Lie down. Don’t think............Don’t think, dammit!

Twenty-nine. Single and loving it. My space, my time. My terms. Loads of friends. But they’re dwindling. Getting married; moving on. Maybe I should call up my ex and ask if he would marry me. But I couldn’t take six months of whining, how would I take a lifetime? I can just picture his face if I did ask him. Maybe I should. Lol (yup, an im freak. Only with people I know of course, cyber sex not my cup of tea.) . But there’s Peter. Had a really nice time at dinner last night. Got my fingers crossed. :-)

Hi. I’m Josephine. 29 years, single and loving it. Each day I get out of bed and know I’ll make it through the day. But sometimes I funk it. Then I call up mom. She usually drives me up the wall. But she knows when I need a hug and it’s best one in the world.
Hi. I’m Josephine. I’ll figure it out someday. Or maybe not.

Bedroom Window

I’VE never been to a pajama party. I’m not likely to either. Father says it’s not the done thing to stay over at somebody’s place, though they live just across. You can see Payal’s house from our window. Laughter is loud as the others run up the stairs. It’s the grand ending to ‘Camp Day’.

I’ve been standing at the window most of the day. Usually, I am down with them, playing, the noon sun burning down our backs. Today, they spent the day inside a tent made of bedspread. Shanti’s mother didn’t mind if the dark blue sheet patterned with big white flowers got too dirty. It had faded some time ago. By the end of the day, gulmohurs fallen loose from the branches were sprinkled on it.

There was a lot of shoving and giggling when all seven of them got in. A tape recorder, comic books, cards, and lots of munchies were added. It was such an adventure! I went in and read some of my own comic books. I got through them quickly. I had read them before. I wandered around the house a bit. Ma was busy in the kitchen.

After a while, I could smell the smoke of the burning twigs and papers. I watched from the window again. Vessels already blackened were balanced on three bricks to cook rice, dal and potatoes. Each trip back home to get something that had been forgotten – onions, haldi, kadipatta – was a noisy affair. Some chaos later, it was ready. Not as good as Ma’s cooking of course but the vessels were scraped clean. I’ve never tried cooking. Ma wont let me near the stove. She says it’s dangerous.

After lunch, they all retired to the tent. I could hear the faint strains of George Michael’s ‘Wake Me Up’. We loved jiving to that song. Meghna had asked me to join them for playing cards. But I didn’t think it would be nice to go just for that.

They were out again, when the sun sobered down, to play kho-kho. That was okay. I don’t like the game much anyway. I’m not too good at it. They stayed out a little later than usual before making their way to Payal’s house.

It’s a lovely night to stay awake. Payal’s mother makes those lovely coconut sweets for these pajama parties. She also sends them over during Diwali. Tomorrow they’ll tell me how Anil squeezed toothpaste all over Samantha’s face while she slept. That was last year. Maybe he’ll choose another victim this year.

I’ll watch some TV before turning in. I don’t think I’ll sleep much though.


His fingers stark white, reached into the pocket of his black windcheater. He dropped the coins he needed into his left palm and handed it to the paanwallah in exchange for two cigarettes. Slipping one into his pocket and another between his lips, he held out his hand again for a matchbox. His hand trembled a little in the wet cold as he struck a match and lit his cigarette. He moved to the bus stop next to the shop and leaned against the railing.

He took a long, satisfying puff and dangled his hand by his side, the cigarette held loosely between his long, sinewy fingers. He turned his hands over contemplatively. They were an artist’s hands. Would they have looked the same even if he had another profession? He liked to think not. Sensuality without purpose did not appeal to him. The purpose of his hands was to hold chisel to marble and so they were so.

He believed in destiny. Whatever path a soul takes, it would ultimately lead it to the destination it was meant to discover. He had reached his. The universe could reinvent itself infinitely but the energy that made up his soul would always create these hands to sculpt stone.

This consciousness didn’t make it easier to bear the chill of his third floor single-room apartment. Mostly, he worked through the night. It was when he was most free. Darkness flooded in and filled out all the ugly spaces and from that pool he could drink of beauty. He poured into his sculptures the sad, haunting wail of the universe. Sadness was the creative force. Happiness was too easy and shallow. Only sadness could reach the dark recesses of truth and beauty. Not gut-wrenching despair but the slow melancholy that builds ever so slow inside the bones, shaping them and fleshing them out in time with the rhythm of the universe.

He flattened the stub of his last cigarette under his shoe, pulled his windcheater in closer and ran across the road. It was payday, and tonight he would meet the gang for conversation and drink. It was it their monthly ritual. Painters, writers, actors -- all trying pitifully to mould themselves to the necessary stereotype of the struggling artist. A few had talent. Others would make it big. He enjoyed the ridiculous boisterousness and the numbness of his empty mind. It was a necessary cycle. One couldn’t fill what wasn’t empty.

The second-hand bookstore where he worked had that rundown, musty feel of an authentic bookshop that made promises of treasures waiting to be unearthed. The owner had stared at him with an unapologetic intensity during the interview and then cackled a cruel, satisfactory laugh that shook his gaunt and withered frame. The owner kept him in the shop for as long he could but he didn’t mind. He only claimed the nights as his own. He didn’t care for books much. He was merely thankful he could keep himself clean. Occasionally a customer would walk in. Rarer still, one stayed, savoured, and left with eyes shining. He would nod them an acknowledgment. Brief, and then gone. The warmth eternal.

The stars were still bright when he returned home. He climbed into bed without switching the lights on. He always slept soundly. There were no dreams to haunt and nurture him. They just slipped effortlessly in and out of his sub conscience without a sound. All this thoughts were formed, wide awake, in the clear light of the night.

The incessant ring of the telephone jarred his senses. His mind rebelled and then gave in. It was the gallery director. Two of his pieces had gone unnoticed six months ago. The director, however, had held on to them. Very rich. Great admirer of art. Likes to encourage young talent. He listened without replying. The director went on. Wants to commission an entire series on the theme “The Grand Passion”. Wedding gift for daughter. Recognition. Money. He listened patiently to the director’s anguished barrage, and then politely repeated his refusal. He kept the receiver back and realised his body was stiff. He let out a deep breath and walked back to his bed. He sat on the edge and put his face down to the sheets and wept.

Demon Rain

IT was the 25th day of rain. Raju, squatting on the branch of the neem tree, watched contemplatively into the distance as the waters swirled around the last visible beam of the roof of his house and finally submerged it. Who could tell that there had been his life? He swept his eye along the horizon. Water had taken over the entire expanse of land. Beyond it was the sea. Now land and sea were one.

It had been an exceptionally dry summer. The hot winds had left mouths constantly parched and lips cracked at every crease. There was prayer for rains. And they came, falling from the embrace of the magnificent black clouds that flooded the sky. Every leaf and bird was drenched. It brought the first smile on his father’s face that Raju had seen in a long time. Mohan was a serious man, as any man who had a family of five to take care of would be. He had set out to work immediately. The five-acre land he tilled held their fate in its hands.

The rain continued to fall. Raju watched his father, now almost constantly standing near the door and looking up at the sky. His mother Vasanthi looked at her husband with concern. His stoic face was incomprehensible to his children, but she had, in these 17 years, learned to read every emotion. Raju usually looked at his mother to know what was going on in his father’s mind.

Mohan’s mind was awhirl. This winter they would have to follow the rest of the village into town. He would leave Shankar to look after Raju and the baby. Gopal and Vasanthi would accompany him. As construction workers, they would get Rs 20 a day. Vasanthi would get only Rs 15. Till now, even a bad crop hadn’t forced them to leave. This time, fate had corrected that oversight.

The rain merged the night into the day; the waters swept into the houses. People salvaged what they could and began their trek to drier land. He would have to make the decision soon, Vasanthi thought, but, she knew, he would hold out to the very end. She rebuked Gopal and Shankar, who had been agitatedly insisting that they had to tell their father to leave now. Mohan would know when it was time.

Raju watched them wordlessly, dangling his feet from the cot just above the water. His family found him as incomprehensible as his father. He had none of the stoicism though. He let his mind loose, to discover and walk along its own alleyways, and kept those discoveries to himself. His mother despaired sometimes. His brothers teased him. His father, however, would merely nod an acknowledgement of the boy’s presence, whenever he came across him. Raju considered himself an oddity and his family a curiosity to ponder over.

Thunder rent the sky. He sensed things would never be the same again. The water in the house was ankle-deep. The two older boys threw impatient looks at their father. Mohan’s eyes were blank as he sat on the cot and stared at the rising water. Soon the cot lifted from the ground. An outburst from Shankar broke his reverie. He nodded. Yes, it was time to leave. Raju saw the puzzled look in his mother’s eyes. It was the first time Mohan had surrendered the right to decide.

They took only a bundle each. Vasanthi slung the baby high up on her back with a sari. She couldn’t keep the baby’s feet dry though. They would walk through the fields, on the walls of the irrigation channels as far as possible, and then climb up to the main road. There, they might be able to hail a passing truck to take them to town.

Raju looked back every once and again to look at the house. He wanted to imprint its memory deep enough into his mind to last him forever. He too had noticed the difference in his father. While Vasanthi was worried, Raju was merely curious. He was not asking why. Demon rain would not go without being satiated.

The water was getting deeper. Some time along the way, Gopal and Shankar said they would do better to go via the village school. Though it was a longer route, it was also a pucca road and safer than the muddy fields. Raju wondered if his father would give in. The boys stood stubborn. They believed their father would yield again.

Mohan merely fixed his gaze on an undefined point in the space behind the boys, and then turned and walked on. Vasanthi followed him, suddenly afraid. Raju waited for a while making up his mind. His brothers, furious at their father’s stubbornness, started out in the direction of the school. Raju decided to follow his parents. He could not thwart the beckoning of the rain.

The rain whipped itself into frenzy. It was hard to see where they were going. Mohan’s legs threatened to collapse under him, but he carried on, mumbling to himself. Vasanthi walked blindly, clinging on to Mohan. They stopped at the old banyan tree. They climbed on to the sunken platform around it and found nooks among the branches to rest. Raju climbed up to a high branch and looked at the house that was slowly sinking. He did not hope. He looked up at the sky. Overpowering and overwhelming, who could hold out?

They wrapped themselves around their tattered souls and got back into the water that churned around their bodies as they pushed against it. Above, the birds circled, bewailing the desolation with their shrill cries. Exhaustion ate through their bones.

Then Vasanthi slipped. Mohan, a few steps ahead, turned around and tried to rush towards her. Raju grabbed hold of his mother, but the water dragged his frail frame down too. She rose and fell a few times before Mohan reached her. She regained her balance and then went deathly still, her eyes piercing through Mohan. He turned her around slowly and took the baby out of the sling. He knew he did not need to but he checked the baby’s breathing and pulse. Darkness was taking over land and sky. He set the baby down into the water and walked ahead. He did not look at Vasanthi.

Raju waited back with his mother, watching the water embrace and swallow his sister. Then, they followed Mohan. Raju still felt the horrified eyes that had gone down into the water. Vasanthi’s shoulders shuddered violently with desperate, soundless tears but the rain washed them away as soon as they fell. Raju held his mother’s hand tight. The rain hadn’t had its fill yet.

The night was complete when they reached the main road. The ripples danced under the light of Mohans’ torch. A roar came crashing through the water. The van, arranged by the district office, was carrying people from the next village. Their bodies slumped in bitter relief against the sides of the van. They were taken to a community hall, where provisions for refugees had been made.

Nobody spoke. Vasanthi spotted Gopal and Shankar at the far end of the room. She ran to them and collapsed inconsolably into their arms. Raju heard in his father’s sigh, a sigh so soft that Raju had to imagine it, the rain proclaiming its deed done.

The next morning, Raju climbed to the top of the neem tree near the hall. There was nothing left to fear from the rain now. He stayed there till the sun came out to lay bare the pieces.