One Friday, Jun 29 2007 

He held the little white marble statue in his hands. Did he just imagine it or did the Buddha really seem enlightened? He smiled and put the statue back on the bookshelf, from where he had picked it up. He let his eyes run along the spines of the numerous books stacked up in the shelf. My my, she did read a lot, he thought to himself.

He caught sight of a leather bound edition of the Mahabharatha, the golden letters shimmering in the light. With a questioning look on his face, he pulled it out and turned to the page that was bookmarked. He read out the first few lines aloud –

Na vaasudeva bhaktanaam ashubham vidyate kwachit |
Janmamrityujaravyadhi bhayam naivopajaayathe ||

He remembered the words from his grandmother’s shlokam recitals every evening. He’d always liked that verse, it made him feel protected and safe.

“Do you know what it means?”

He turned sharply at the voice behind him. He didn’t know how long she’d been standing there watching him. His expression might’ve been bordering on what a monkey would look like with it’s hand in the cookie jar, for she laughed. Damn, she was beautiful. And he was so utterly smitten.

“No, I don’t know what this means.”, he lied.

“Hmmm..so now you’re testing me on my knowledge, eh? You do realize you’re bad at lying?”

“C’mon! Tell me what it means. I’d love to hear a non-Hindu’s version of the Mahabharatha.”

“Ok..lemme show you what it means.”

She came to the bookshelf and pulled out another leather bound book. She appeared very familiar with the book for she went straight to the end, without bothering with the Contents or the Index. She found what she was looking for, and she handed the book to him pointing out the lines she had in mind.

He found himself holding a Bible.

“So the Bible has translations of the Mahabharatha? Wow, I did not see this coming!”

“Ok, stop being sarcastic and read the 4th verse in Chapter 21, will you?”

He sighed deeply, and read, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

He read the lines to himself again, and let the meaning sink in. And he looked up to see her smiling, smug in the realization that she just went one up on him.

“Great! When I try to convince my highly orthodox parents to let me marry a Roman Catholic girl like you, I should probably lead with this.”, he said, hugging her.

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Life, withered. Tuesday, Jun 26 2007 

The yellowing paper,
the frayed edges
fighting to hold the words together –
quite like her, one would think.
The shrivelling body,
faltering limbs
fighting to hold the memories
from disappearing
into the vast nothingness that had become her life.

The conquest Tuesday, Jun 19 2007 

I see you, mighty mountain towering above
Mocking me with unscalable heights
You, of hard stone and harder ice,
Of freezing climes and avalanching snow!

Behold now! I stand on your chest,
Frost bitten and tired, longing for
The warmth of a hearth and home.
But unbeaten nonetheless, for here I am,
Mere steps away from my conquest –
My conquest of not just your peak
But also your heart of stone.

Cringe in defeat, you gigantic brute!
For I shall overcome; the last few steps
Are harder still, but then so is my will.

I plod on, feet sinking in your ruthless slopes,
Skin burning with the cold from your depths.
A few more hours, I tell myself –
And then sweet victory will be mine.

That is when I finally see
Your master stroke, I believe, it will be!
A face as smooth as a skating rink,
Between me and your tallest peak.

I sink to my knees in utter defeat
I tell you, ‘I give up! Just let me be!’
Hot tears freeze on my cheeks, and the
Wail of a defeated spirit rends the air.

I gather myself for the lonely descent
And just as I turn, a small crevice, I see.
Just enough to gain a foothold
On your near blemishless wall of ice!

Fresh hope pervades a despaired heart
And onward I go in a newfound path
I slip, I miss but I scamper along
It suddenly feels like home, I wonder why.

At last as I stand on top of the world,
Alone and humbled, I kneel and kiss you –
For you won today, like you always will
For I won today, like I never have.

You made me fight, you made me give up
And then you showed me the way to your heart.

You put me through many a trial
And you pulled me out of many a trap.

You made me think you were impossible
But then you showed me how to get by.

My dear gigantic brute, I know
That I didn’t win over you.

My dear gigantic brute, I know
That I just won you over!

The Banyan Tree Friday, Jun 15 2007 

The tree was haunted. It was the dumping ground of embittered souls that hadn’t attained salvation. Souls like Chettiyaramma’s daughter Parvati, who killed herself when she failed in her tenth class exams. Like Manoj who was murdered in his sleep by the goons from the neighboring village. They were all there, in that banyan tree. Safe in its wizened old trunk, their hands entwined with the hanging roots. Sometimes one could even find their belongings scattered around – the other day, little Murugan found a gold nose pin that had belonged to Shailaja. Poor Shailaja, she was raped and murdered by those city dwellers who had come to the village for a cinema shooting. But then it’s not so bad, you know. A week ago, exactly 13 days after Shailaja akka’s cremation, one of those city guys was found dead under this same banyan tree. The village health officer said he had some heart problem. But we all know that was not why he died. It’s the tree, you know. It’s haunted.

Just yesterday, I was riding on Appa’s cycle on the main road and I hadn’t realized I was getting too close to the tree. The weather was so nice and cloudy and I had just heard my favorite song on the radio in Mani maama’s tea stall. I could see the tree looming to my right, the roots swaying as if in a trance. The souls must be feeling the weather too, I thought. It scared me a bit, so I started pedalling faster to get out of the place before anything happens. And I almost mowed down the Camera Saar from the film company. He did not have his camera today, and he was wearing shorts like me! And I don’t know why he was running so much. But I did like his shoes, they were nice. Did you know that this Saar was one of the suspects of Shailaja akka’s murder? He was. It did not strike me then, but after a few feet when I realized it, I immediately turned back to warn him not to go near the tree. But I stopped – it was none of my business anyway. And what if Shailaja akka’s soul got mad at me for denying her of another kill? (because I was sure he was going to be dead in no time) I got off the cycle and pushed it behind a bush and hid there to see what happened. He was catching his breath standing beneath the tree. The haunted banyan tree.

Dusk had begun to fall and it was getting darker. I was getting impatient, why didn’t Shailaja akka do anything? That man was still there, tying his shoe lace. I was watching the swaying roots, as if trying to catch hold of him in a vice. He was a strong man, but these souls were much stronger – my Paati told me that. The wind was howling and I imagined all those things they showed in the cinema I saw two days back. It scared me, but I was determined to find out what happened. So I waited.

The Camera Saar was still standing beneath the tree and talking to himself. Then I saw the glimmer of his shiny phone. (Magesh anna says they are small phones and we can use it like we use the post office telephone. I dont know how it will work if there are no wires and the circle thing with holes to dial the number.) I was crouched behind the bush and I did not notice my surroundings until I turned back to check on my cycle. In my hurry to hide myself I had parked it almost at the edge of a deep pit. I was not very comfortable doing that with Appa’s cycle. I slowly got up and tried to position it in a better way so it won’t fall over. And just then it happened!

There was a bright shot of lightning and a clap of thunder. I was frightened out of my wits! I didn’t even turn back to see what happened, I scampered onto the cycle and pedalled for dear life! I knew I just had to get home somehow. And then it would all be fine.

I don’t remember how I reached home, but I did. Amma was in a frenzy of worry, and Appa came running out to catch me before I fell from the cycle. I never felt so tired in my limbs before. I blurted out everything I saw to Appa and told him that the Camera Saar would probably be dead by now. They consoled me the way unbelieving parents would console a kid.

But it was ok. They did find the Camera Saar dead this morning. Under the banyan tree. Our school master said he was struck by lightning. But we all know that was not why he died. Shailaja akka had her revenge after all.

It’s the tree, you know. It’s haunted.

She tried Friday, Jun 8 2007 

It was at that moment she decided enough is enough. She was tired of longing for it…tired of waiting and watching..she had to do something about it now. When was the last time she ever did it? She couldn’t remember. It seemed like it was in another lifetime when things were so much simpler. She took a deep breath and got up – and felt a shiver run down her spine. Strangely, she felt exhilarated – that surprised her, wasn’t she supposed to feel scared? or alteast guilty? She didn’t feel guilty – she’d come beyond all that now.

Her first 2 steps were tentative – but then she remembered the pain and she wanted to end it – she walked out of the room. She opened the door and steeled herself for the first onslaught of the cold air. It almost knocked the wind out of her – she could feel her mind giving up and wanting to go back. But going back was not an option. She’d had enough and this was her revenge.

Half in doubt, she slowly extended her hand. She could hear her heart beat in her throat. Her hand got there before her mind did, she could feel the cold veneer of her long lost love – the love was lost, what remained was bitterness. She couldn’t defeat the lure of it and now she was giving in. Giving in? It hit her like a blast of a ship’s foghorn – giving in? She wasn’t going to give in. It just wasn’t in her nature to give in. She took her hand back as if she’d been stung. She shut the door hard and ran back into the room. It took her all of 10 minutes to calm down..she could feel her heart beat normally..she was sweating and her hands were shivering.

She heard the car in the driveway. Her husband was home – after what seemed like an eternity. She ran to the door and yanked it open even before he got out of the car. She felt so relieved to see him – he would understand why she tried to do it. He knew something was wrong when he saw her. He came running to her, ‘Honey, are you ok? Is something wrong? Why are you looking so pale?’

And she told him. She told him how she tried to give up on her diet and eat the chocolates in the refrigerator after all.

P.S: If it makes any difference, this was the first ‘short story’ I ever wrote. And now you can please stop sniggering. Thanks.

Growing up Friday, Jun 1 2007 

She sat down on the broad wooden doorstep and tucked her pallu in. She then lifted the shining steel vessel and poured out oil onto her well-calloused palm and began rubbing it uniformly on both her hands. Next, was the turn of the knife. The same knife that looked so menacing when it was lying harmlessly beside the other kitchen utensils, looked like a toy in her deft hands. The blade got a generous coating of the oil. There wasn’t a drop of oil on the floor where she did the entire exercise. Neither was there any oil on her clothes or her gold bangles. Five pairs of awestruck eyes watched her every move.

Turning to me, the eldest, she said, “Come, show me your palms. Let me put some oil.”

I was dumbstruck. I couldn’t believe I was going to be part of this! At a ripe old age of 10, that was an honor indeed. I suddenly felt grown up and ready to take on the world. Grandma had a way of doing that to you. Just the way she could make you feel like a toddler when she pats you to sleep on her lap.

It was difficult to say if my cousins were even breathing, seeing me get prepped. I was one of them, till moments ago. One whole week of anticipation and impatience had finally led us here, in that little room near the well. One week of incessant questions and doubts on when the right time is to cut the giant jackfruit that Uncle had carried home one evening from the fields.

You don’t get to see Grandma cut a jackfruit everyday now, do you?

She made me squat facing her and asked me to hold the fruit steady. I was nervous. What if I moved? Wouldn’t the knife find me, instead of the fruit? What if my legs can’t take all the squatting and I slip? What if the oil makes my hands lose their grip? While these questions were raking up a storm in my little head, the biggest of ’em all came up – what if I lose control and Grandma gets hurt?!

I still think she read my mind that day.

She looked me in the eye, and said, “Now, now, don’t be scared, naanna[1]. Just hold it the way I show you and it will be fine. Hold it here, like this.”. And she showed me how to hold the giant jackfruit that probably weighed as much as I did!

The knife sliced through the coarse skin, as if it were slicing through butter. (Not a big surprise, since it was Grandpa who had sharpened that knife a little while ago.) She let the knife go through till the end of the fruit, and then used her hands to split it wide open. The fragrance of jackfruit was all around us. It was a bright yellow, and looked absolutely delicious. Five pairs of triumphant eyes. Five pairs of little hands waiting to be let loose on that slayed fruit.

“Can we eat, Ammamma[2]? Can we eat? Now? Please?!”

“Can I take this big one here?”

“Why should he get the big one, Ammamma? He poked my eye today, you shouldn’t even give him anything.”

Ammamma, he’s pulling my hair! Tell him to stop!”

We made a racket, like only pre-ten kids can, but not once did our hands go near the jackfruit. There were some unsaid rules in my Grandma’s household and we knew them.

Grandma then painstakingly took out the little pieces of fruit and removed the seed from each and placed them in a big aluminium vessel. When she was done with the entire fruit, she called out to my Aunt to bring five plates. She counted out 4 pieces of fruit each for every plate and gave it to us, saying we could come back for a second helping if we finished all four.

And today, I look at the eight little pieces of jackfruit in my hand, wrapped in cellophane, that I picked up at the supermarket. They looked good enough, all cleaned up and yellow. But I know they can never be as good as the ones that Grandma gave us that day. And my hands can never hold another jackfruit for her to cut.

Will my children ever know these little joys of growing up?

[1] Naanna – Term of endearment in Telugu, literally means ‘father’.

[2] Ammamma – Maternal grandmother