A sketch

November 16, 2009 at 04:02 (Short Fiction)

Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rustina played in the background as yellow leaves drifted to the ground in the still winter air. He had long stopped noticing the leaves. As reality closed in a tighter frame when he went down the spiral staircase that was the centre holding up his decades old bungalow, he imagined his stock portfolio go up in vapour. He entered his study where his battered laptop lay – black and ugly. The screen glowed the jaded glow of innumerable startups and shutdowns.  He swept aside the bloom of porn pop ups and credit card promises to see the worm of the line that was his stock ticker. He watched the lines dip and then dip some more. Like a remorseless drunk seeing his nadir and taking another drink. Like a well with  sweet green coloured water whose depth you can only guess by throwing pebbles and hoping to hear the thump of it hitting bottom.

It was not always this way with him. He grew up sure of his destiny as a photographer of silences and a kite maker nonpareil. The market for kites was not big enough for that to go far. The market for silence was even more elusive but he held on to it as can be seen from the framed two feet by four feet blowups of gnarled tree trunks in the silence of Chandratal. Interrupting the fine crystal ware holding vodka mixed with Woodwards gripe water – a cocktail he had perfected to beat the long silence of studying the stock market.

Ajay: there?

Him: ya

Ajay: saw the tanking?

Him: yes…brb

He closed the chat window and studied the worm line of his stock portfolio. He imagined a zoom out from his location. GPS co-ordinates would pin point him on a map in cyberspace. He would then use the scroll bar of his mouse to zoom out –out of his lonely bungalow atop a hill, out of the valley, out of the hilly district, the state, the country, the world, the universe. He shut his laptop, his heart racing.

The advantages of living in a hill station are many. The air was scented with innumerable blooming flowers unlike the heavy air of the big city; walks were many and memorable; the sudden bursts of fog gave him a feeling of solitude and clear air gave him the feeling of vastness as he surveyed the valley beyond; secrets were rarely held which added to the intrigue of life among the handful of inhabitants around him. Most of all, he enjoyed the simple pleasures of tending to his home and garden – the annual flower show being a highlight where he would proudly display his home grown roses to an admiring audience composed of jaded city dwellers marvelling at the bottled up flora in temporary tents.

All that would be a distant memory now that his stocks have crashed. Where would he find the money to live? He looked distractedly out of the window when the cleaning girl came into his room. He forgot his worries as he smiled at her, rose, took her hand and twirled the startled girl to the music of Mascagni.

 

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Children

November 16, 2009 at 04:00 (Short Fiction)

The bungalow in Adyar was two minutes drive away from Chamiers Road. An old man lived there surrounded by the peace that only a life well lived can bring. Nikhil opened the gate and entered the drive that lead to the front door. The hibiscus plant that had made the space near the door its own brought a smile as he remembered his childhood days when he looked forward to visiting the house. In those days, when his Patti was alive, the garden was filled with flowers, mango trees and a tree whose conical, hard fruits hurt him as he stepped on the fallen cones. But now the garden was barren. The birds had survived those delights of the garden and their cooing broke the calm.

He rang the bell and the door was opened by the cook. She was new and asked who he was. Nikhil’s answer made her start.

“Where is Thatha?” asked Nikhil.

“He is in his study. Should I call him?”

“No, I will go to him.”

Nikhil walked through the hall and noticed that the displays on the display cupboard had not changed since he was here about five years back. There were photos of the family in the rich, fading tones of sepia, porcelain vases picked up by Thatha while working in Thailand and a stack of dusty gramophone records.

The cook brought him coffee on a tray. He smiled, thanked her to put her at ease and walked to the garden. Soon, his other cousins would come along with his uncles and aunts. The family got together once every year to be with his Thatha.

His Thatha – Raman – had been an engineer with the Burmah Shell Company and had made his riches while working in South East Asia. Raman was born in the small village of Chandrapuram in Palakkad. He lost his parents to typhoid early in life but there was the large joint family comprising his uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins to take care of him. He dreamed of moving into Madras and making it big in life. Nikhil came to know of all this reading Raman’s diaries which he came upon while browsing his library. He didn’t ask for Raman’s permission to read them – so he had to read them surreptitiously. The yellowing pages had to be handled carefully lest they crumbled and flew in the cold draft of the air conditioner.

Soon, the ambitious Raman moved to Bombay where he found employment as a geological engineer with Burmah Shell. His frequent travel meant he couldn’t set roots anywhere. This life of a nomad seemed romantic to him at first. But soon, he grew weary of a woman-less existence. He sent a letter to his uncle asking him to look for a suitable bride for him.

Nikhil went up the stairs to Raman’s study. Raman was sitting on his table engrossed in a book.

“Thatha” called out Nikhil

Raman looked up slowly. He was a healthy man for his age. He had gone bald and his face was wrinkled but his eyes were sharp and luminous. He smiled, rose from his chair and embraced Nikhil.

“You’re looking good. I’m sure you’re not indulging in unwanted activities in college.”

“No, I’m not Thatha.” smiled Nikhil.

“I don’t know what they teach you in college these days. Back in my time, they instilled discipline in us. We had a British headmaster who was tough as nails. He would ensure that we reached class on time – else it was a hard rap in the knuckles for us.”

Nikhil smiled and took his Thatha’s hands to reassure him. He smelled his Patti’s perfume on Raman and was surprised. He took Raman’s palm and smelt them as Raman tried to shake free of his grip. Sure enough – Raman was wearing Patti’s perfume. Raman pulled his hand away. Nikhil looked at his Thatha puzzled. Raman turned away from Nikhil and fidgeted with some papers on his desk.

Raman’s uncle sent photos of prospective brides to Raman’s place in Bombay. His uncle had taken the task of filtering out brides with unsuitable horoscopes. He sent the photos of only those brides whose horoscopes were aligned with that of Raman. Gazing at the solemn looking women whose frames were frozen in front of a mirror as was the fashion those days, Raman shortlisted two or three brides whom he would like to meet. He was drawn to their beauty but he mentioned that he liked their musical or other talents which his uncle had thoughtfully written on the back of their photos. He wrote to his uncle that he would arrive at his place in a week’s time. His arrival depended on his capricious boss giving him a few days off.

Nikhil went to his room to take a quick bath and get ready to welcome others when they arrived. He wondered whether to wear his red kurta-pyjama or his yellow checked shirt for the evening’s get-together.

Raman sat down on his desk and gazed at a picture of his wife. It was the picture that his uncle had sent him back when he was alone at Bombay. Their match had been perfect and Raman knew that all his achievements and all his wealth sprang from the love and kindness of the woman in the picture. Memories of his wife overwhelmed him as he rested his head on the desk.

 

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