Friday, November 30, 2018

The Artist - a short story

1. To 38 Meadow Avenue

The weather that afternoon was pleasant and beautiful. The drive was smooth; the traffic was next to none; the music playing inside the car was soothing to Pradeep’s heart and soul, But he couldn't feel any happiness about any of that because his head and heart was overwhelmed with the grief of losing his closest friend Vikram and that too to suicide. He wanted to avoid this drive altogether because he was not in the right frame of mind to talk about his friend. But like how it happens for many, he said yes when he wanted to say no.

His car entered 38 Meadow Avenue, and he didn’t fail to notice the three vehicles, parked there in the driveway. The Silver Nissan Altima, he knew it belonged to Nithya, the black Honda Accord with the New Jersey registered number plate and the letter ‘R’ in bright red stuck on the rear, he knew it belonged to Neha. He was not very sure about the Toyota Prius though. When Ash had telephoned him last week about a meetup to talk about Vikram and the memories he left behind, Pradeep did not ask him about the people he was inviting. He did not expect Nithya or Neha to accept the invitation. Their presence now made him slightly nervous. When the sister and girlfriend of a deceased friend are in the same room, and the cause of death was suicide, tempers could flare. I hope it doesn’t get ugly!

Pradeep walked to the back side of the house which was the rendezvous for the congregation. On the deck, against the backdrop of a setting sun, were seated the men and women who were everything to Vikram. The people who understood his capabilities, shortcomings and the potential; the people that he did not think about when he decided to take his own life. The same set of people should now forget his betrayal and perform the ritual of talking only the good things about him. The people who will be ready to do that. How could you do this to all of us, Vikram!

2. Uncomfortable Introduction

The deck had five chairs with four placed in a semicircle, and the lonely one was on the opposite side. Ash was the first one to spot him. He got up from his chair on the single side of the gathering and shook his hands. Ash hugged him and said in his ears, “Thanks a lot for coming!”. Pradeep nodded his head and turned back towards the other three. A tall and broad-shouldered man with a french beard got up from his chair and introduced himself as Sharath. He did not get the nerve to look Nithya in the eye, and since she did not raise her head, he felt a sense of relief and walked to the empty chair. Neha, to his left, had her gaze somewhere else.

Now that everyone is here, I think we should start,” said Ash and began the proceedings. “I still can't believe that Vikram is not with us anymore.” He shook his head and continued, “The last two weeks feels like the worst possible nightmare I have ever experienced in life.” Pradeep was able to relate to every word in that sentence. “I did not want the last couple of weeks to be the memories we have about Vikram. The best way, I felt was to talk about the life he shared with all of us. He was the kind of friend that everyone will yearn for, and that is the image I want to have about him at the end of this day”. He looked at everyone, “I cannot thank you all enough for accepting my invitation.” Pradeep looked up at Ash, and he could see his mouth struggling to give a smile when he completed the sentence.

I know you guys are familiar with each other but as the host, I ought to give a proper introduction. Let me go from left to right. That is Sharath, Vikram’s therapist”. The way Ash used his left hand to point in Sharath’s direction, made Pradeep feel that Ash was taking the role of anchor quite literally. His left hand alone moved from Sharath to Nithya, “Next is Nithya, Vikram’s sister.” Pradeep turned slightly right to look at Nithya, who looked up to nod her head. “Next is Pradeep, Vikram’s closest friend,” said Ash. Closest Friend? Pradeep adorned a sarcastic smile. “And then we have Neha, Vikram’s friend?” The questioning way in which Ash ended the sentence made Pradeep look up, and he could see Ash looking at Neha as if he was waiting for her to give a response. The answer never came, but Pradeep felt slightly uncomfortable because he understood who was going to be scapegoated that day for Vikram’s demise.

3. Sharath talks

So, why don’t you go first, Sharath?

Pradeep was happy that Ash did not ask him to go first. He had several good qualities about himself, but this particular one was not one among that. He thought Sharath was probably the right person to start the proceedings since he did not have the emotional connect with Vikram as the others present there. At least as far as Pradeep knew.

Sharath adjusted his spectacles and started talking. “I generally don’t talk about my patients, but this is the first time, one of them has died. So this is certainly a unique situation”. He shook his head and then continued. “I don’t think he killed himself. We killed Vikram.” Everyone including Pradeep turned towards Sharath. Although they knew that Sharath did not mean it in the literal sense, the sudden utterance of that had taken them back. Pradeep wondered if that was a tactic to attract attention towards him by saying something sensational.

The briefest of pauses possible ended and the subsequent sentence from Sharath cleared the air. “I mean, our negligence to what he was going through, killed him.” said Sharath and he continued, “I remember the day he stepped into my office, and there was an instant air of likable arrogance about him. You know, his flamboyance is that of a celebrity, a movie star. I called him ‘The Artist’”. Everyone, including Pradeep, was nodding their head at that remark. “I have not seen a lot of people with that kind of a persona and a strong character.” Sharath paused again and then said with a sad face, “I can’t say how difficult and puzzling it is for me.You’re not alone there, thought Pradeep.

He did not have a fragile mind but,” he said and then hesitated to continue. Pradeep looked at him with interest and hoped that this wasn’t another moment of fabricated sensationalism. Sharath hesitated again and blurted the words, “He felt very lonely after coming here.” Pradeep was not entirely shocked or surprised at that, but he felt sad that Vikram never told him about that. Pradeep had tried his level best then to convince Vikram not to make this move, but all he could take was a consolation that he tried. I told you buddy, but you didn’t listen to me. Sharath continued, “He used to talk about his parents’ death and how he felt numb about it, the love he had for his sister, the role his friends played in his life, his past relationships, etc.

Pradeep’s mind was digesting everything that Sharath mentioned in that one sentence. As his friend, Pradeep never ventured into specific ‘no-fly zones.’ It was to ensure that he never put his friend in an uncomfortable situation. When Vikram had mentioned that his parents had perished in an accident when he was a little kid, Pradeep did not want to dwell more into that tragedy. Vikram was always comfortable talking about the people in his life like his sister, friends, ex-girlfriends. He, to Pradeep’s surprise, maintained a good friendship with his ex’s. But Pradeep had a hunch that there were many no-fly zones.

I was his talking companion for some time before he started canceling sessions suddenly. I never knew why but since his voice sounded cheerful on the phone, I thought he was happy and does not need our talking sessions. But when I heard about his demise and the cause of it, I felt terrible because I should not have relied on his words and should have insisted on him meeting me once in a while. The sad part is I didn’t, and I think this is going to haunt me for a long time.” said Sharath with guilt and sadness adorning his face. Pradeep could understand that part, and he had his fair share of the blame. ‘If only I had done differently’ is the phrase that caused the guilt for both of them. Pradeep could’ve kept in touch with Vikram even though a new person had come into Vikram’s life but like Sharath, he too didn’t.

Now thinking back, I think behind all the confidence and strength he exhibited there must have been a fragility that never came to the surface. All things said, he was one of the unforgettable people in my life and Ash, like you said, I don’t want to remember him as the Vikram who died by killing himself. I want to remember him as ‘The Artist’ and artists never die”. With that Sharath ended his speech. Pradeep looked at Sharath and everyone there. He knew how the mood was going to be but knowing it is always different from experiencing it first hand.

4. A Story that no one knows

Ash looked at Nithya and asked if she wanted to go next. Pradeep knew the loss is a lot more personal and tragic to her than anyone else in the world. He remembered Vikram saying that Nithya has a steel heart and Pradeep knew that the moment he saw her car parked in the driveway. A part of him was curious to hear her speak but another part was becoming nervous that he has to go next.

Nithya did not waste time with pleasantries, “I am not a diplomatic person, and the last thing I can do is sugarcoat my words. If you feel offended, then please do take offense because it was meant to offend you.” She had just got that congregation by the scruff off their neck with that opening statement.

She then addressed the scapegoat situation which Pradeep was dreading from the beginning. “He is right.”, she said pointing at Sharath. “Vikram did not kill himself, we did. One of us is responsible for it.”. She looked to her left, past Pradeep, at Neha, “If not for the idiotic and immature relationship that he got himself into, he would have been alive today.” Her voice went decibels higher when she shouted with anger, ”She drove him to suicide.

The accusation led to a silence among them that made sure that Pradeep was able to hear everything else around. He looked at the angry Nithya and then to his right at Neha, who was sitting there with a stoic face and lost in thought. The lack of a rebuttal surprised him. “Is Neha too blaming herself for whatever happened to Vikram?“, Pradeep thought to himself. The angry Nithya mellowed down a bit, “After two weeks of crying, even I started feeling numb about his death. You said he felt numb about our parents’ death, right?” She smiled to herself and said, “Of course! That should have been obvious to me”. She straightened herself and then started talking again, “I was anxious how Vikram was handling our parents’ death. Did any of you know how they died?“. Pradeep looked around, and everyone had a blank expression except for Neha, who still hadn’t shown any emotion on her face. Pradeep hesitated to talk but eventually bit his lips and said, “Accident!”.

Correct but I assume he never told the details?” responded she, thereby looking directly at Pradeep for the first time that evening. Pradeep shook his head.

It was indeed an accident, but you will never understand what it is to lose your parents in front of your eyes,” Nithya’s voice quivered, and the dumbstruck audience looked at her with a captivation that reminded of Vikram.

I can never forget that first of July when our parents were hit by a truck, right in front of our eyes. We both stood there like a statue unable to comprehend what had happened. In that instant, our life changed from a happy family to go through hell for a very long time. I was getting better after a month, but Vikram was not. Every night he used to have the nightmares of that moment. He used to wake up crying every single night, and I had to rock him to sleep.

Pradeep and the others could not say anything, and he could only shudder at the revelations. Every individual’s personality is just a facade to the world and deep down in the dungeons of their complex mind lies the real self. Pradeep wondered if he can apply that theory in Vikram’s case. Nithya then continued, “We were living with our uncle’s family, and I could have never pulled Vikram out of those nightmares without my uncle’s help.” Pradeep wondered why Vikram never spoke about his uncle or any of his other family members. “It took around a year for the frequency of the nightmares to come down and another two years for it for completely stop,” said Nithya.

He was a fragile person but not someone who takes his life. We mourn now but trust me, we will move on but what will never is the fact that we lost a great human being, a lovely brother”, she paused, and then corrected, “Well, more an elder son for me. I know I did say some harsh things in the beginning. I apologize for all that.

Pradeep could feel his eyes welling up with tears, and he wanted to hold Nithya and comfort her, but his body could not move an inch. Everyone around him including Neha was looking at Nithya, who had her face down and tears dropping down.

5. It’s Time for Pradeep

Pradeep wondered if he should ask for a timeout to regroup himself but his inner voice was urging him to go on with the flow. Nithya’s speech made him see Vikram in an entirely different light, and it made him guilty that he did not do enough to understand Vikram’s struggles. Every person’s life has a detail unknown to many of his close friends but knowing that unknown changes the way one perceives that friendship. If only he had known how much the death of his parents had affected Vikram, he might have tried to keep a bit more close watch. But he knew the pointlessness of retrospection and that pointlessness made him a bit stronger. Pradeep opened up without anyone asking him to go next.

Pradeep raised his right hand to the gathering and eyes started turning towards him one after the other. He then began his speech, “I don’t want to blame anyone for what Vikram did to himself. The most fruitless exercise, I feel would be to analyze what pushed him towards that decision. I will stick to what Vikram means to me”. Even in that saddest moment, he felt cathartic inside.

I never had the guts to express my thoughts without inhibition until Vikram came into my life and pushed me to talk. I always had an inferiority complex for people like all of you, and unfortunately, this country is full of ‘you’ people”. Pradeep did not think twice about saying that. Pradeep wouldn’t have dared to say a statement like that before his friendship with Vikram.

Pradeep, now, was not looking at anyone. His mind had gone back to the days of endless conversations with Vikram. “I used to say, ‘Every problem our society faces is due to the caste hierarchy,’ and he never disagreed with or countered my statements. Instead, his style was to probe me further with questions. I suddenly had someone in my life, with whom, I don’t have to think and talk. I didn’t have to fear that someone will misunderstand my words.” Pradeep could see Neha nodding her head with acknowledgment, out of his peripheral vision. “I would not say that he was a perfect guy. He did have a flawed judgemental attitude like many of his clan but where he differed was in his ability to unlearn and change himself. That taught me a lot.

When he got the opportunity to move here, I tried to persuade him not to take this, but he said he wanted some time alone. I never pushed him for answers. Perhaps I should have.” Pradeep paused to organize his thoughts and then continued with a smile on his face, “He came here for his me-time and ended up feeling more lonely than before. I still don’t know what to make of that.” The smile on his face faded, and with a serious face, he said, “That was the beginning of the end of our conversations. It was very gradual in the beginning, and I was too busy to take notice, but eventually, we were not talking at all other than the one time we met where he introduced me to Neha, the new person in his life.

Pradeep was looking down, not wanting to meet anyone’s eyes. “When I knew that he was in a serious relationship, I started avoiding him.” He smiled to himself and went on, “It is silly, but I thought she should have him for herself. I felt that she has to be the most important person for him. I know all this sounds stupid now, but that was how I thought then.” After every sentence, Pradeep couldn’t help smiling at the childishness of his thought process.

He then looked up to address everyone, “I don’t care how Vikram and Neha’s relationship went. That is none of my business, in fact, its none of anyone’s business. It is their private affair. But it makes me sad that, a relationship that I thought was so beautiful was cut short by his unfortunate demise.” The last few lines invoked within him, a variegated series of emotions that ranged from irritation that people are blaming Neha for his suicide to extreme sadness. Pradeep thought he delivered a speech that was true to himself and his beautiful friendship with Vikram.

He concluded his speech by saying that, “Vikram was not just an artist for me, he was much more than that. He lives in my words, he will live in all my future conversations, and he will always live in my memory as the one who changed my life forever.

6. The Scapegoat tells her account

Time flew by, and the first sign of dusk was settling in when Pradeep concluded his speech. Ash got up to switch on the lights. When he sat back again, he looked at Neha and asked her to go next. Pradeep looked curiously at how she would start her speech. Two of the four had already blamed her for Vikram’s suicide. It felt like the final concluding speech in the courtroom dramas. He was curious to know what went through Vikram’s head in the last few weeks leading up to the suicide.

Neha was silent for quite some time and suddenly asked for a glass of water. When Ash fetched the water, she looked at the glass for some time and took a couple of sips. She held the glass with both her hands and looked up. Her face registered a smile for the first time that evening. “Every time a boy dies, it’s always because of the girl he was in love, right?”, She smiled at that question and looked around for a reaction. Everyone had their heads turned towards her, but perhaps they did not see the funny side of it.

I am not angry with any of you because that’s what the society taught all of us, right? If a husband commits suicide, the first thought is that his wife had tortured him and driven him to suicide. How is that the physically strong male is mentally so weak? Or if they are mentally weak, how can they even be called as the strongest of the two sexes?” Pradeep did not expect Neha to start her speech on this note. He thought it would be emotional, but it was unemotional. Perhaps that was her current mental state. He recalled Vikram’s feeling of numbness about his Parents’ death, Nithya’s feeling of numbness and Pradeep wouldn’t rule out a numbness on Neha’s part as well.

But that debate is for another day,” she said. Neha took in a deep breath and then continued, ”You all have known Vikram for a long time? Do you think that he is like other men?” Pradeep and others were staring at her without answering that question. Neha’s face registered a disappointment at the lack of an answer to that question. She shook her head and said it with a confidence that made Pradeep hang his head in shame, “Of course, he isn’t like other men. I can bet on my life that he would have never resorted to suicide.

The positivity suddenly turned to gloom, and her face became devoid of any color. She responded to her statement, “But it happened, right? Police did find poison in his bloodstream. Looks like he had mixed it in his drink. It’s one of the cruelest ways to commit suicide. I can’t imagine him sitting all alone in his house, mixing poison in his drink and taking it in one gulp. Do you think he’s capable of that, Pradeep?” Pradeep looked at her and shook his head. She nodded her head and said, “Of course he isn’t capable of that, but it happened, right?” Pradeep just nodded his head. Pradeep wasn’t very sure what Neha was trying to do. It could be that she’s finally coming to terms with Vikram’s suicide.

Her voice and face were going through vicissitudes of emotions. “Of course it did happen. But Pradeep, have you ever seen Vikram drinking alone?”, she said with a tone that suggested that she is getting somewhere.

Pradeep thought for a second and said, “Nope. He never drinks alone”.

Ah! Now we are getting somewhere!”, She said with mild amusement. In that most fleeting of seconds, Pradeep felt like just looking at her. But that made him guilty, and he just threw that sacrilegious thought of ogling at his dead friend’s girlfriend out of his head. She continued with an energy that was absent until then, “Then either he did something for the first time, or someone else gave him company. So if someone did drink with him, isn’t it”, she paused to look at everyone and then said, ”Isn’t possible that he didn’t kill himself and someone poisoned him?

Pradeep heard murmurs of “What, No way, That’s impossible, Who’d have done it“ all around him but he did not look anywhere else other than at Neha. Even Neha was not looking at anyone other than Pradeep. “It’s technically possible isn’t it, Pradeep?” The tone was more of a implore than a question.

Yes. But Vikram did not even have that many friends, let alone an enemy who wants to kill him!”, answered Pradeep.

What if,” she responded to Pradeep, “What if it was a friend? What if that friend had a past with me? What if that friend was so disappointed in me that I rejected him and chose Vikram instead? What if that friend, whom I thought was so innocuous is capable of something sinister? What if that friend had covered everything so brilliantly that even Sherlock Holmes would have thought of it as suicide?

The world around Pradeep was going dizzy and black. His mind, though, was raising the most important question of all, “Is that friend present here?

As if reading his mind, Neha did an affirmative nod and threw the glass she held in her hand at the figure sitting opposite to all of them.

7. Epilogue

The next 30 minutes felt like an eternity to all four of them. The events of the day were not something any of them were going to forget for the near future. Vikram their brilliant brother, friend, and sweetheart was plucked away from right under their noses to the most trivial thing called jealousy of another man. It was a closure of sorts for Sharath’s heart who will be able to move on with his life. For Nithya, she will have to live out the rest of her days mourning the premature loss of another of her family members. Neha will have to start believing in life and love again. Pradeep will have to wonder if there will be another “Artist” in his life.

Monday, July 9, 2018

I like you - A Short Story

I like you. I never thought I would fall for you”. No. Not good.

I am crazily in love with you”. That's too cliched.

I like you and I think we are made for each other”. Is that the best you can think of? Not good.

Ok. So how about this. “We are different. You have your ideal and I have mine but we both respect each other and enjoy each other’s company. I think we should marry. What do you think?”. That's interesting but too many words. Can’t you think of something crisp?

And so the day started with him talking to his bathroom mirror, trying to come up with the perfect sentence that would sweep his girl off her feet. It was good that the mirror was not a real person. If it was then it would have got boredom long back. But that's the greatest thing about mirrors. It’s never judgemental and you always can see what you wish to see. It had taken him so many days to arrive at the decision to propose to her. The unfortunate part was the pessimism he had about her potential response. “If it’s a no, it’s a no. You cannot do anything. So it’s pointless to even think about” replied his optimistic side from across the mirror. Finally, it said, “Don’t worry. You will do good”.

He came out of the bathroom with a cleanly shaven face, well-combed hair that had wax applied on it & an ironed shirt that was tucked into his new jeans. His sister looked at him and wondered “what on earth is wrong with him?” When someone who never does these things while going to the office, walks out of the home with a sort of cleanliness that he had never showcased, it was bound to raise eyebrows. He smiled at her and said, “Yes. I have decided and I am going to ask her” and there was a smile on his sister's face.

The hardest part of a proposal is to know the right time to talk the right words. Most of the time, men do get impatient and all they want is to get it out of their system because keeping their thoughts locked inside them can become very overwhelming. If the other person too shares similar feelings and is waiting to hear it, then all the above does not matter one bit. But if one’s unsure of that then it does matter to convey it interestingly that would leave an impression. But unfortunately talking the right words at the right time happen only in novels and movies. The heroes there are so convincing that it’s impossible to give a negative response to them. But this is different and real.

Aravind is a real person who's a typical example of not having the qualities of a hero, not one among the impatient lot and also don’t have any clue if the other person shared similar feelings towards him. It can only be a coincidence if this lot are able to articulate the right words at the right moment. This lot, to their disadvantage, worry too much about their self-image and the biggest factor would be how determined they are to unfetter themselves from the clutches of their self-image.

While traveling to the rendezvous, Aravind’s pessimistic head was filled with every dark thought possible ranging from “What if she thinks bad about me?” to “Getting slapped by her!”. Thinking about getting slapped, invariably reminded him of what his friend Pradeep told him years back on a similar conundrum, “It’s high time you get slapped by a girl. That would be your emancipation moment”. From then till now, he hadn’t been slapped by any girl and he was pretty sure that slap was not going to happen today but his head was in that kind of a state where negative emotions were triumphing the positive ones.

To take his mind of all the negativity, he thought of the days when his heart and mind were in the euphoria of talking to a loved one and pessimism didn't have the guts to come near his head. It was exactly 6 months back when he met her during one of his daily journeys from Jersey City to New York City. The image of those pair of eyes looking at him from behind the black-rimmed spectacles was not easy to forget.

Thinking that today, he felt it was a freaking coincidence that the seat next to him became vacant on the train and she had sat next to him. He wasn't sure if he would've tried to strike a conversation if she had sat somewhere else. Nevertheless, rub of the green that never comes his way came that day and he was eternally grateful to the gentleman who sat next to him that day before her. If he had not got up, a lot of things would not have happened.

Hi. You're from around here?” was his first question to her for which he got a nodding of her head. He waited for a “What about you?” that never came from her. So he had posed his next question, “Indian?” and again it was the same nodding of her head. He had thought of saying, “Oh that is great, I am from India as well” but his better senses prevailed and he said, “Oh that's nice. You work in New York?”. And then came her first words, “No I don't”.

Some conversations are engraved in the corridors of our head and for Aravind that conversation was one such. The curt responses from her, in the beginning, that day made him absolutely sure that she was the most arrogant person he has ever encountered in his life. But little did it occur to him then that she encounters dozens of men like him every day. As a writer of this piece, I spoke more about Aravind's inabilities but the best thing about him is his ability to introspect his prejudices and try to overcome them.

Although I try to have a conversation organically, it can be a bit awkward at times. Don't think bad!” he had smiled and said. That had caught her attention. He remembered well how her head turned up towards him, temporarily discarding her mobile phone. “I am trying to improve though” he added. This time her lips parted slightly to give a smile and said, “You at least try but I totally suck at that”.

And there is your destination, brother!”. The Lyft driver broke his reverie. “Have a great day, brother.” He thanked him and entered the Hoboken waterfront that had the morning joggers, the dogs on leashes, the Hudson and the breathtaking view of the New York City Skyline. It's hard for many to romanticize the idea of a proposal with the skyrise buildings and the Hudson in the backdrop but Aravind had a gut feeling that his girl might like this idea and not to mention his zero confidence in his articulation abilities today.

The conversation that day did not become like a Richard Linklater movie if that's what you are expecting. I did give it a serious thought about taking both of them to New York and make them walk the streets of New York, talking from dusk till dawn, taking them to the observation deck of the World Trade Center or the Empire State building in the early hours where they get to see New York City in lights, make them kiss etcetera. The idea was so romantic to write but as I said this is reality and very rarely do two not so social strangers become so intimately involved in each other in a single night.

He stood holding the railings and wondered at the prospect of his girl accepting his proposal. That was the first positive thought he had had that morning. Perhaps it was the calming influence of New York. He couldn't help but smile at that thought and that simple thought made him feel cathartic. “She already knows why you asked her to meet you here.” said his inner voice. “If not she is as stupid as the heroines in mainstream films.”, chuckled his inner voice. He, like every other human being, took the part that he wanted to hear and dumped the other.

So what do you do for a living?” Aravind had to be the one to take the initiative in this. “I am an IT security Administrator” was her response. “Wow! That is interesting”. Aravind had wondered if she would ask the “What about you?” question. But it did not come for some time. Again her lips parted slightly to give a smile. Till date, he isn’t sure if she had sensed what was going inside his head and gave that smile. Nevertheless, the question eventually came out of her mouth. “I work for Infosys!” and he can never forget the “Oh!” that came from her.

Aravind flinched to the pat on his back and saw her standing next to him. “Hey! Sorry, I was thinking something and… ” he paused to which she completed the sentence with the question and trademark smile, “Got Scared?”. He replied in the affirmative. “Of course! I got scared”. “So what brings the ever lazy owl out so early in the morning and that too well dressed? Is it apocalypse already?

It’s been years since I slept earlier than midnight.” he had said after a month into the new friendship. “I think I have been institutionalized into this now. I don’t get sleep until 2 AM in the night” he said “That’s awful. Is that due to work?” asked she with genuine concern on her face. “Partly due to work and partly due to my interest in reading!”. She smiled and said, “Staying late for work every day is sacrilegious. You need to change your job soon”.

Not yet madam. We still have time for the apocalypse. At least, I don’t want the world to end now” he said with a smile. “And I wanted to tell you something!

How can you even say that restricting immigrants is a good thing, being one yourself?” he had asked with anger, two months into the friendship. She replied calmly, “Don’t get angry. Every society needs people to build it and they become part of that society. When they become a majority, they decide who is part of it and who isn’t. That is how the evolution has always been. We all come here for selfish reasons and we have to accept that we are creating an economic imbalance wherever we go.” He sat dumbfounded, unable to respond to her.

She looked at him with curiosity all over her face. “OK. Tell me”. She rested her arm on the railings, genuflected her body and twisted her head towards him. It reminded him of the head twisting she did during their first conversation. He took in a deep breath and looked at her. Words did not come out of his mouth. All the preparations in front of the mirror went void and he was starting to get really nervous.

I don’t believe in the concept of a marriage, really. I don’t see even a single good marriage around me. My friends are all on the verge of a divorce. My parents, well, No comments” she had said with exasperation when the talk was about marriages. This was around three or four months into the friendship. He laughed and said, “Maybe you did not see good marriages. Take my close friends for example - Gautham & Patrick have very good marriages. Vicky is getting married this month and knowing Vicky, he chooses well. So I don’t have any doubts. So there are good marriages around all of us. It is just what we want to see.” he had said with a confidence that he never knew existed within him. “Maybe your friends don’t share everything with you” and he did not have an answer for that.

She took her left hand from the railings and squeezed his hand. “It’s ok. You can tell me anything. I won’t get mad at you. Have I ever got mad at you?

How can you say that you had a nice time at a strip club?” she was furious at him. “Don’t you feel that she’s faking it?”. This was after he told her about his recent visit to a gentlemen's club. “I know she’s faking it but no one loses anything. I pay for her performance and she gives me that performance and pleasure. You know I am not even allowed to touch her.” He felt that he was having a level playing field in this conversation even though she was mad at him for saying that he had a nice time. “Agreed but how can you feel the pleasure when there’s no love!” And that’s how yet another conversation ended in her favor with Aravind unable to muster a reply for the umpteenth time. With each defeat in the conversation, he was getting to know her more and he was happily taking each and every defeat.

He chuckled a bit and said in a sarcastic tone, “You never got mad at me!”, “except when you talk Strip clubs and pornography”, interjected she. That reassuring touch made him feel extremely confident in his decision to propose to her. He did not worry about the coherence of whatever he was about to say.

I have never been the luckiest person. Good things rarely happen to me in life and when it happens, it always came with a cost and uncertainty. But your friendship is the best of all the good things that happened to me. I still thank the gentleman who vacated his seat next to me on the train that day. I have never been happier like these past six months.” he paused to see if there’s any emotion on her face but did not find any. “I feel so greedy to have this happiness all my life and that is possible only if you’re with me. Will you be with me forever and will you do that one thing that you don’t like?” He then uttered the words, “Will you marry me?

Her face still expressed no emotion and then the lips parted slightly and that caressing smile adorned her mouth. She nodded her head and he could see droplets of tears flowing down her face. He wasn’t concerned about the lack of words this time.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Bystander Effect - A Short Story

All of us are writers and directors of our respective lives. We script our life, direct them and give a bravura performance that Marlon Brando would be proud of. But why do we have to act? Can’t we live our life without acting? No. We cannot. Unfortunately we have to act when the limelight is shone right on us and an audience is keenly watching our every move. In those moments, more than the ‘you’ inside you, the ‘you’ that people want to see, come out. They cannot be criticised for wanting to see a particular ‘you’ because that’s the right ‘you‘ in their eyes. This is why I feel that certain noble acts of men should never be taken seriously when it’s done amidst many pairs of eyes. Only when a man is alone, the true inner self surreptitiously creeps out.

Let’s take this story of three young men living in three different streets of a particular suburb in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu. Our trio are in the age group of 19, 23 and 29. It was pure chance that their ages were all prime numbers. Now how they start their life every day cannot be chance. It involves a routine. They’ve been institutionalised in that routine. For two out of three that routine is not out of choice but something that was bestowed on them by the world.


Every name acts as an identity for a person. It's not just to identify that particular human being but a plethora of other trivialities. Those include the region, religion, caste, political allegiance etc. In this, the most conspicuous of names are Karl Marx, Lenin and Stalin. It's not rocket science to decipher the ideology of that kid's parents.

Lenin is the 23 year old of our story. For our Lenin, Bolshevik is a foreign word and October is just a month. He never talks politics with his parents and he’s proudly apolitical. You can find a lot of such people in our country and for them only one agenda matters - Development. Our Lenin is no different.

The Tuesday started like every other working day for him. When the clock was a minute short of a quarter to six, his mom woke him from the deep sleep where he was about to enter a room where a woman was lying on a bed. His eyes were reddish from the premature sleep he had been having lately. But his poor mom just followed his instruction, which was “Wake me if I don't get up by 5:45”. Another morning began with him hoping that he could have slept an hour or two earlier but hope is an hopeless thing and I trust in nature(or God or Fate, whichever suits you) to crush all forms of hope. Nature is indeed a tyrant. After waking up he remembered well the dream and the woman who was lying on the bed waiting for him. Digesting that he got up from bed and went about the routine.


The 29 year old of our story is bit different from the other two. Harish is a typical example of an adult desperately wanting to unfetter himself from the clutches of his family. Probably life long pampering creates a longing to be independent. When the family attempts tyranny, the rebel inside him can jump out with ease to quell it but when the tyranny comes in the form of love and affection, the individual becomes the centre of the tug of war, with the family on one side and the freedom on the other side. The unbalance in the tug of war was evident that the freedom side always has only one player but the family side seems to be stacked with so many players.

Harish when he was 21, which was the summer of 2008, when the whole world was gasping at Beijing, his freedom side took a momentary lead in his tug of war. That resulted in him falling playfully, joyfully, madly and crazily in love with a girl. He felt like he had unshackled the chains that had restrained him. He felt elated that he had rebelled against his family. But then when the balance of power shifted on the other side, it resulted in Masters, United States and Boston. All that has to go wrong went awfully wrong with substandard grades, a long distance relationship and the continued pampering in form of siblings now rather than parents.

The relationship experienced vicissitudes that even a stock exchange hadn't experienced ever. Whenever the relationship peaked, grades took a hit and when it reached its nadir, his mind and heart took a hit. However irrespective of the relationship status, grades taking a hit was unavoidable. But he had enough to graduate and land in a half decent job. One fine day, the vicissitude became one dimensional and never spiked. It was flowing consistently in a downward peak and the relationship hit rock bottom.

This is a key chapter in everyone's life. Some take the rock bottom as a motivation to become better in life but for many others they would want the earth to just open up and suck them in. Harish was in that chapter where he was waiting for everything to go awfully wrong. He quit his half decent job, befriended alcohol and came back home with next to nothing in his bank account.

As I had said earlier the routine for him was still a choice unlike our other central characters. Every morning he wakes up to realise that his heart is still aching for the person now living in another continent. So he dials her telephone number every morning only to hear the ringing to continue perpetually. Next activity is to get out of his home until his parents leave for work. Like every other day he got out that Tuesday morning to catch a puff or two of nicotine in his lungs.


Being the youngest in the family has its own perks and a story is not an exception. Akhil is the lovely kid of the three, the kind of person everyone want to be - chirpy, lively and always happy. He wakes up to Mozart’s symphony Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as his alarm tone, listens to music when walking to the bus stop for boarding the bus to his university, listens to music while travelling to his university and does the same while coming back home. When his parents realised that the time spent by him inside the earbuds is rather high, they ordered a headphone to protect their son from going deaf. The result was even more music but this time without the fear of losing his precious hearing ability.

Akhil is one among the several Indians who study computer science for bread and butter, and keep their passion as pass time. It would be harsh on my part to blame this on his parents though. Initially his interests were skewed towards becoming a musician but it took a good part of an year or two to realise that his real passion is listening, talking and writing about music. He felt that a 'music critic’ profession will not yield much remuneration in this country and it has to be kept as a side track.

He woke up around 6 AM that Tuesday and it took him exactly twenty minutes to finish off the morning chores and come out of the bathroom. I understand the envy here though for the countless lazy lot. Lunch was ready and packed as well. When the minute hand hit six, he walked out of his house waving good bye to his mother, promising her that he'll not run or use the headphones while crossing the road.


Every now and then, our lives are at crossroads. A decision has to be made on the path we have to traverse. Although people associate everything with fate I believe in the choices of humans. Fate does play a role but our choices matter too.

If that Tuesday had been yet another day, the need for choice wouldn't have come. It wouldn't as well if the person riding the Bajaj Pulsar had started his bike a little later. It definitely wouldn't have if the biker had hanged the call on his mobile phone and not had his head skewed to the left. It positively wouldn’t have if the car that hit the bike had chosen another route to practice. It wouldn't have if the driver had not applied the acceleration when the need was to brake.

So since none of the above happened the obvious took place. The driver of the Toyota hit the acceleration in panic and collided with the side of the bike. The impact wasn't thunderous, it wasn't glass shattering, it wasn't like how an accident is shown in movies. The impact was real and it created an unbalance for the biker. He fell to his right and his right leg got stuck under the bike. The more panic stricken car driver pressed on the acceleration to sped away from the spot.

Our protagonists aren't directly related to the biker or the car driver but are spectators of this incident. Unfortunately the only spectators. The smoking Harish threw his cigarette and rushed to the injured biker, the walking Lenin heard the injured fellow’s wailing and turned back in the direction of the cacophonous sound emanating from the injured biker. In case of our younger person, his headphones ensured that the crying outside was filtered out and only a mellifluous music could be heard in his ears. But something made him turn back but it was as if he was wearing screen filter, his eyes never noticed that injured biker. I'm not sure about the veracity of the above statement but that's what he'll say later when someone mentions this accident. This peripheral vision would be lost in his archives. He then walked straight without looking back.

Harish rushed towards the injured biker. This was the trigger point for Lenin, who thought of coming to the aid of the young man but decided against it and once again turned back. As a writer of this piece, I'm trying to place the thought process of Lenin in this situation. Is he the kind of person who'll rush to someone else's aid only when no one is around to help? Whatever may be the case it wasn't impulse that made him continue in his errand unlike Harish who I'm pretty sure did not think twice before rushing towards the biker.

Harish lifted the vehicle that was crushing the legs of the biker and helped the man get up on his feet. The swelling that was developing in his right leg was too conspicuous to miss for Harish. The biker experienced an acute pain when he tried to stand on his legs. It didn’t require an orthopaedician to understand the pain of the biker. Although the situation wasn’t life threatening, Harish didn’t want to leave him there.

He looked around for help and all he could see was two men walking in the opposite direction. He knew the futility of calling out to them. He checked his pockets for his mobile phone and found an empty pocket. He helped the biker to sit on the platform and was contemplating the next move. As if some divine power was listening to him and wanted to help him, the same Toyota car that hit the biker came to a halt in front of Harish. A young man with a budding moustache came out of the car. His eyes were puffed up, probably due to crying. He went to the biker and in a stammering voice said, “I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have run” and turned towards Harish, “Let’s take him to a hospital”.

When their car sped towards the hospital, Harish placed his hands on the young man to reassure that he needn't worry. The car passed another young man, wearing a headphone and walking with his head bent down. The walking young man looked up and his face gave a smirk. Harish couldn't help but feel nostalgic about his happier days and wished that everything could have happened differently.

Akhil saw a Toyota car go past him and wondered why the driver is rash. He continued his walk while from his headphone came the voice of Gerry Marsden, “Walk On through the Wind! Walk On through the Rain! Though your dreams be tossed and blown!” He reached his stop when Gerry’s voice hit the crescendo “You’ll never Walk Alone!

Harish helped the physically injured biker and the scared Toyota driver to their respective homes and went to his house to continue his mourning of his relationship. Now almost a world away from the scene, Lenin did not think again about the accident. With problems aplenty, his act that morning became one of those trivial things one does everyday. He immersed himself into his corporate world and hoped for an early return to home. Akhil boarded his bus to begin yet another day..

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Watch Shop


The kid dragged him into the bedroom. He knew it was a dream but it felt real and the feeling was that of a happy man wanting to relive a moment. With the swiftness of a good hiker, the kid climbed onto the bed. The kid looked at the air conditioner adjacent to the bed and screamed, “ON! ON! ON!” with more emphasis on the ‘n’ that felt like the ‘o’ became silent.

Like commands coming from a wand, the air conditioner obliged and switched itself on. It’s just a dream, he told himself.

The kid’s gaze was fixed firmly on the air conditioner, more specifically on the four watches that were left hanging from the air conditioner.

He started,”There are lot of…“; the kid finished, “WATCHES!”. He repeated, this time with more decibels; the kid responded in similar fashion with “WATCHES!” and called his watch collection as “WATCH SHOP!”

The kid pulled him close with his hands under the kid’s tiny shoulders. The kid smiled and shouted, “JUMP! JUMP! ”

“How should you ask?” was the question from him.

The kid revealed his finely arranged teeth and when the mouth went wide, the dimple in the check revealed itself to add to the beauty and cuteness of the kid. Then the kid came up with the answer, “UNCLE! PLEASE! JUMP! JUMP! ”

This time he obliged and lifted him off the bed and brought him down again, simulating a trampoline jump. It went on for twenty counts, after which he felt tired and asked the kid,



“Once More?”

The kid became silent for a second and whispered, “ONCE! MORE!”

It’s just a dream he told himself.


That moment came back to Vivekanandan again and again, every day and night, whenever he closed his eyes, be that for sleep or a nap or for praying. The recurring dream indicated the extent to which he missed the kid. The four weeks, the kid spent here, went in a flash. Time has this ridiculous habit of flying fast when you need it to be slow.

"I have to email my brother to see if he can come during the Christmas holidays" he noted it in the reminder pad inside his head. The Time he had spent with his nephew was probably the happiest he has had in a long time. It did help him in overcoming the grief that had plagued him ever since that fateful first of July when he had lost his wife, kid and his left leg to the garbage truck that ran over all three of them.

Everything in life wasn't the same until his brother gave birth to this little one. "You've to let go of the past", his more intellectual friends used to say. He could never let it go because he thought it was part of him and will go only when he kicks his bucket. He never looks forward to July but his nephew's presence made him yearn for it.

The first three years weren't same as this last month, when the attachment to his nephew went from good to great. "I'm his hero now like how my son would've looked at me and I should never disappoint him" he had decided. And so he spent the entire day with him, taking him to his shop to make sure that the kid is always with him. It turned to be more remarkable that they found that the kid loved watches. "How lovely was it to just look at him staring at the watches as if they were animals or birds or even cars!".

"He can differentiate the minute hand and the hour hand" he had proudly said when the kid identified the minute hand and the hour hand correctly. That was the moment when he had felt vindicated to have take up this watch business.

It was during that time, he saw a young boy, whose age he guessed to be around 12 or 13, clutching tightly the fingers of an old women, entering his shop. The boy's eyes darted around the shop and fixed his gaze on a particular section. There, his eyes scanned the collection of watches exhibited inside those glass shelves and zeroed in on a Titan ladies watch.

He was pointing at that watch to the old woman, who was curtly shaking her head. Without being rebellious but at the same time showing his displeasure, he dragged the old woman out of the shop. That moment aroused the curiosity in Vivekanandan, who walked up to the glass showcase that contained the watches and looked at the one the kid was pointing to.


That part of the shop housed the Titan Raga collection, a special women's collection that Titan advertised as “Inspired by the modern Woman”. He tried to put himself in the kid's shoes and glanced at the watches. Each watch was a blend of artistry coupled with opulence. The tagline had made him smile the first time he looked at that. Does the regality of their accessories determine the modern woman or Titan wants them to be like that?

Now to the more baffling thing of a kid looking at these watches. He wondered what a Kid sees in them. This continuing theme of watch loving kids - first his nephew and now this kid, surprised him. He remembered the look on the kid's face when he left the shop. Old instincts were screaming inside his head that the kid would come back another day.

His instinct was spot on and the kid arrived at the shop's entrance pulling the same old woman. He thought that she might either be the kid’s grandmother or a caretaker. She wasn't very keen to visit the shop again. Vivekanandan could see the kid on his knees pleading with her to allow him inside. The lack of empathy from her must have exasperated the kid so he unfettered himself from the clutches of the old woman and dashed into the shop to the shelf holding his much desired watch, to the obvious dismay of the old woman.

Vivekanandan walked slowly to the kid, taking each step carefully so that his prosthetic left leg is not so painful. The kid was staring at the collection of watches inside the circular glass shelf.

“You like them?”

The kid looked up at Vivekanandan and smiled. He followed it with an affirmative nod and continued his gaze at the rack of watches.

“Which one do you like?”

He pointed at the one in the front, that had an oval dial, that looked more like the eye of a woman although with a brown sclera. The centre point resembled a pupil and the sharp golden minute & hour hands were like nerves emanating from the pupil. Impressive.

“Hmm. Nice choice” he said with exuberance and when he told the price of the watch as one short of five thousand rupees, the kid's face lost its colour.

“There are some less expensive watches too, if you're interested.”

Again the face fell indicating his displeasure at the company’s pricing of his favourite watch at a not so affordable rate. Vivekanandan smiled to himself. Nothing can replace the innocence of children. But he was curious as well on whether the kid is seriously wishing to buy the watch.

“Will you give this one at a discounted price?” He pointed at the watch he had selected.

Ha. That's interesting. You want a discount? Hmm. How much money do you have?

His eyes turned to the old woman standing outside. On noticing his gaze towards her, she rushed inside.

How much money do you have, Grandma?” He sounded in an authoritative tone to her. Without giving her the time to think he continued, “I like this watch and would like to buy it for...”, he abruptly stopped his sentence and showed her his selection.

We can get it later. Come on! let's go” she dragged him out of the shop. Before leaving she turned back to convey her apologies to Vivekanandan. Unfortunately he didn't have the time to react to her apology too. When they were out of the shop, he could see the face of the kid staring past him at the watch.


Days were passing very slow for Vivekanandan’s liking. There was no sign of that kid during those days. He knew that the kid wanted that watch but he wasn't sure whether the kid's love has moved on to other things. If so then he might have seen the last of the kid but that helpless stare of the kid when his grandma dragged him out of the shop, will be etched in his memory. He wanted that kid to come back, just for erasing that memory and to ensure that the face that remained in his mind is that of a happy kid.

When you have almost given up on something, things happen to surprise you. That happened to Vivekanandan when the kid showed up alone. The kid looked at him for a fleeting second, when he got from his seat to walk to him. Perhaps the kid noticed the awkward walking style of his, as a result of the prosthetic leg.

Look who is back!” said the jubilant Vivekanandan and that brought a blushing glee to the kid’s face.

“You still want the watch, isn't it?”

The kid nodded his head in affirmation.

“Do you have the money to buy it?”

This time the negation was shown by the kid by simply shaking his head.

I'm sorry kid. I don’t give watches for free!” said Vivekanandan with a shoulder shrug and just continued, “Why do you want such an expensive watch?”

“I don’t know. I thought my mother would like this!” There was uncertainty in the voice of the kid.

Oh! You want to buy this for your mother? Good. She will love whatever you buy, kid. How much you spend is not important!

“Really?” he asked in a surprising tone with a face was beginning to look bright.


“Will she come back?”

“Come back? Come back from where? Is she out of town?”

No. I don’t know where she is. I have seen her only in photos

Now Vivekanandan was confused.

“I’m sorry, kid. She lives with you, right?” he enquired

“No” replied the kid.

“You live with your parents?”

“I live with my father and grandmother” said the kid.

Vivekanandan hesitated but asked, “Is your mother alive?

Grandma says that she’s alive but they don’t know where she is”, he started sobbing and said, “I want to her to come to me but I don’t know what to do. Grandma said mother loved watches. So I came to buy one. Tell me! She will come back if I buy one for her?

Vivekanandan could feel a lump in his throat. He knew that feeling of missing someone. He wanted to tell the kid that he can understand. But words wouldn't come out of his mouth. Is she really alive? Should I raise his hope or just bring him to reality? Questions were circling inside his head.

No. Reality will sink in at some point in life. Now let him have the hope that his mother would return to him. Should I give just give him the watch he selected? No wait! This is just a watch. He needs more than that.

He went back to his desk and opened the drawer. There, it was there, the ladies watch that his wife forgot to wear on that fateful day. It was the only remaining object that she had used. He had kept it hidden so that his nephew wouldn't find it. He was pretty sure that his nephew would've broken it if he had found it.

He took that out of the drawer and went back to the kid. His mind was protesting every bit to make sure that he did not part with an object that she used to wear when she was alive. But like every protest, it did not attain its objective.

“You like this watch?” he showed his wife’s watch to the kid.

The baffled kid looked at the watch and smiled at him. “Yes. It’s very beautiful.”

“Take this one. It’s my gift to you!”

The kid hesitated initially but nevertheless took it.

“But this is no ordinary watch. I've kept it till today because it belonged to someone whom I lost several years back.”

“Lost? You were able to find that person?” asked the kid with hope springing in his face.

“Yes” he lied. “You too can have it and hope for your mother to come back!"

The kid immediately hugged him and thanked him. Before bidding good bye, he promised to come to the shop if he comes to know anything at all about his mother. Vivekanandan was wondering whether he did the right thing. There was no feeling of guilt and surprisingly his mind too felt light and relieved.