Fiction # 3: The Bride

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There were two cars in front of theirs, and two following close behind – her own little motorcade of sorts, carrying her to her new home. Still sniffling quietly, she was huddled in her seat, beside the man she was married to. Her heavy lehenga shimmered whenever they passed under a street lamp.

The cars cruised along quietly in the early hours of that winter morning, and so did her thoughts. I am married now. She felt her stomach flutter every time she reminded herself that.

She raised her eyes, as they reached a huge society gate, and drove through it one after the other. Finally, they took a turn and eased into a halt before a multi-storey building. The veil of darkness had begun to lift off the world outside, but the gloom inside her still refused to budge.

Soon, there was a horde of groggy-eyed women rushing towards her from inside the building, jostling to have a look at her. Someone pulled open the door of the car, and held her gently by the arm. Blinking back her tears, she climbed out of the car cautiously as some little girls held up her lehenga from the ground, mesmerized.

Ahead was her new life, waiting for her. She breathed in a lungful of cold morning air, and stepped forward. She was ready.

Ready to deal with it.

***

Inside the house, after the couple had gone through the rituals, she sat among the crowd of women as they tugged, and prodded at her clothes, and jewelry. Her head was throbbing from exhaustion, and their vulgar jokes were making it worse.

She might have collapsed there if her mother-in-law hadn’t come to rescue her from the old crones who clearly weren’t finished with her yet. She whisked her off to her new room, and left her there to rest.

The room, she couldn’t help noticing, even in that drowsy state, was unabashedly decorated for a fierce night of lovemaking. The very walls seemed to be dripping of lust. The sight of the bed, though, delighted her beyond she could tell. So, without thinking much, she flung herself on it and closed her eyes. A relief she hadn’t experienced in ages washed over her as she drifted off to an immediate sleep.

Many hours later, probably five, maybe six, she woke up totally disoriented, with her throat dry, and stomach rumbling, crying for food. She glanced around for water, while trying to smooth down her crumpled lehenga and peel away rose petals from it.

A sharp rap on the door almost made her jump.

“Hey, you up!” beamed Sooraj, peeping in, dressed in a track jacket and lower. He stepped inside, and closed the door softly behind him.

“Yeah…” She cleared her throat, and began fumbling with her hair, trying to press them down in place. “Hi!”

“Was about to bring in tea.” He handed her a glass of water. “Or, you’d like coffee?”

Anything. Just about anything! “Tea will do,” she confirmed, “and… something to eat… if that’s no trouble.”

A moment later, he returned with tea, and a tray full of snacks, biscuits, and dry fruits. Then setting them on the side table, he left her alone to eat. A kindness, she acknowledged as she pounced on the food like a starved prisoner. Only when she had washed it all with the cup of tea did she breathe again.

Later that evening, having changed into comfortable clothes, she was keeping her stuff in the cupboard, when Sooraj came back. He lent her a hand, and both of them set about unpacking her bags, and arranging things around. In between, he tried to make a conversation, but she didn’t reciprocate much, mostly nodding and limiting her replies to monosyllables.

Never before had she felt so awkward talking to a man. But then, she never had to be inside a man’s room, before he was inside her heart. Perhaps, she should have given him more time during the courtship period, she thought. It would have been a lot easier for her to manage things with him now.

The last of the relatives, her mother-in-law’s sister-in-law, had left by the time it was dark outside, but not before ordering her to have sex without protection. Well actually, she told her to make a baby that very night, but that was what the implied meaning was. Wasn’t it? And, as if going by her plan only, they had an early dinner afterwards, and soon enough, she found herself pushed back inside the dreaded room.

The same bed she had so loved in the day now looked sinister. She was sitting on it, curled up inside the blanket, her mind racing in circles. Why the hell is he taking bath in this cold?” she thought, irritated, well aware why someone on his first night, might like to do that.

Okay, come on, focus girl. Focus! She breathed, and began to rehearse. “Listen Sooraj,” she whispered to her imaginary husband, “it might be our first night, but we need to know each other first before we could…” Hell,no! Not so direct. That’ll only… And the creak of the door broke her thought. She stared at the opening door, holding her breath. He came out, smelling of lemons, but fully clothed. And she let loose a sigh in relief.

“You wanna shower?” he asked, rubbing his hair with a towel.

“No! I’m okay, and it’s… cold,” she replied. “Listen… Sooraj…” She quickly assumed the solemn tone she used in her team meetings.

“Yes, Kriti.” He walked towards her.

“I think… ” she started, but froze right there as he kneeled down and took one of her hands in both of his. “I’m sorry Kriti,” he said, giving her hand a light squeeze. “I couldn’t bring you a gift tonight. It… got delayed. But I promise you’ll have it tomorrow.”

Gift? Oh, right, the first-night gift! She hadn’t even thought about giving him one. “That’s… okay. I didn’t bring you anything either.” She forced a smile.

“You didn’t need to,” he said, looking at her intently. “You… are my gift. And the best of them all.” Then he got to his feet, and circling around the bed, went over to his side. She was still looking at him suspiciously, when he turned to her. “I can take a different blanket if you wish.” He smiled. “But please don’t ask me to sleep on the floor on my first night.”

“Floor! No!” she blurted, and immediately bit her lip, regretting. But, what else could she say?

“Thanks!” He blinked, and slid inside the blanket by her side as she squirmed to the edge of the bed, widening the gap between them. “You must be tired,” he said, “plus all this sudden change in your life. I can’t even pretend to imagine what you must be going through right now. But I’m here to help you adjust. Just tell me if you need anything. Okay?” She nodded, and then he turned over the other side, and switched off the light. “Good night, Kriti!”

***

She woke up with a start the next morning, and quickly glanced at her left. He wasn’t there. Yawning, she stretched, and her eyes fell on the wall clock.

Eleven!” she clapped a hand on her mouth. Fuck, fuck, fuck! She threw back the blanket, and hopped to the bathroom. This was one thing her mother had begged her to avoid. Getting up so late. For the first few days, at least. And there goes my first impression into drain, she thought, splashing cold water on her face.

She came out looking around furtively, but her mother-in-law pulled her in a warm hug. “She is here!” she announced to the women sitting in the drawing room, as Kriti turned towards them.

“Didn’t let you sleep the whole night? Did he?” one of them cried out, and they all laughed.

“They are our neighbors, Kriti. I’ll introduce you.”

Later, she had the afternoon to herself completely. So she took out her laptop and checked on her work emails. Then having replied to all the congratulatory messages on WatsApp, and Facebook, she turned on some music, and began arranging her books on the shelves.

It was only in the evening, once she had taken bath, read for a couple of hours, watched a few episodes of Friends (yet again) and talked with her mother that she finally felt his absence.

She fiddled with her phone for some time, fighting an urge to call him. It wasn’t as if they had never talked over the phone but it was always a formal affair, moreover, she had never contacted him first. So finally, she decided to just leave him a message instead, asking him where he was.

He called back almost immediately. He was done, and on his way back, he told her. That, to her surprise, cheered her up a bit.

To pass away the time, she got up and made a round of her new home. It was a four bedroom flat on the eighth floor of the building. The two couples living in the house occupied two rooms, and one was a guest room. But she hadn’t yet seen the last one.

A cool breeze ruffled her hair, when she pushed the door open. She looked inside. It was an empty room. Probably the biggest in the house. The large windows captured all the sunlight they could, and the place was bathing in the reddish hue of the setting sun. She walked across it, and stepped out into a small balcony overlooking the society playground where children were playing. This is such an amazing room! Wow! A perfect place to…

The doorbell rang, and she turned back and headed towards the door. The door was already open when she reached, and her dad-in-law was standing there. He was guiding four men carrying a huge piece of packed furniture towards the same room she had just come from.

Curiosity got the better of her as she followed them inside the room, and stayed there while they unpacked and assembled it. It was there that Sooraj found her, staring at it, when everyone had left.

“That’s your gift, I was talking about.” He was standing in the doorway, leaning against the doorframe.

She wheeled around in excitement, grinning ear to ear. “A TT TABLE!” She looked at him in surprise. “How did you… ”

“I talked to your brother.” He shrugged. “And it was one thing I had been planning to buy myself. Made perfect sense to do it now that I have a partner to play with.”

“You talked to Avi?”

“Yeah… he was sure you’d like this more than a piece of jewelry. Poor kid. Doesn’t know women.” He smiled. With effort, he tore his eyes away from hers. “I was told you’ve missed meetings just to finish games, and won tournaments back in school too. You seem exactly the opponent I was looking for.”

“An opponent now, from a partner?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Yeah! As long as you stand across that table.” He fished out a TT bat from one bag, and held it out to her. “With this in your hand. You are an opponent. Yes.”

She snorted. Then swaying, she came closer, and snatched the bat from his hand.

“Let’s see if your brother was exaggerating,” he challenged, as she sauntered back to her position.

Then, the play began. And the sound of the Ping-Pong ball ricocheting wildly off the table, walls, and the floor, filled up the room. They were like two people possessed, determined to crush each other. And for the next three hours or so, their world consisted only of the nine-by-five feet of the blue field between them.

***

“So what do you think of my game?” she asked him once they were back in the room after dinner. She knew by now that he was a more accomplished player than she was, in that his backhand smash was dead accurate. But he was clearly out of practice.

“You can do better if you move around a bit more…”

“Now, come on!” She patted his back. “Breathe. Let go of your ego, man.”

He laughed. “Okay. You won fair and square. And seriously I can’t believe I have such an awesome player as my partner.” He held her by the shoulders.

Ahem. Partners again?”

“There’s no table between us anymore.” He grinned. “I’m gonna cancel that club membership now. I never used it, anyways. And if I had known you played TT like that,” he said, “I would’ve begged for our courtship to be reduced to a day.”

She lowered her eyes, as a tide of guilt rose inside her, and went away to sit down on the edge of the bed. Sensing her discomfort, he changed the topic, “Your brother said you love reading too.”

She nodded, and raised her eyes again. “Yes. A lot. You?”

“Well, I used to read a lot too before I got into a job, and then came a long dry period. But I’ve recently started reading again after watching Game of Thrones. I simply love the books it is based on.”

“Seriously?” she asked, “No, I mean I love the series on TV. It is something incredibly unique. But, reading those thick books after that. Don’t they have like thousand characters per page? Plus the show anyways is ahead of the books.”

“I don’t know…” He gazed ahead dreamily. “There is something… immensely satisfying in the books. You’ll have to read them to know that.” He then showed her the map of ‘Westeros’ he had pasted behind the door of his wardrobe, all circled, and marked.

“You know these are imaginary places, right?” she said, trying hard not to laugh. “And won’t really add to your knowledge of Geography.”

“Yeah. Mock me. You too,” he said, as he closed the door.

“No Sooraj… it’s actually… kind of adorable.” Then she held his hand. “And, thanks so much for the gift. Can’t tell you how much I love that.”

“No need to thank, really. If I lose one more game tomorrow I am gonna dismantle the bloody table and throw it in the park below.” Laughing, they jumped on to the bed. And they never really noticed when the night flew by outside their window, and the morning arrived as they lay next to each other talking.

***

The following day sped away fast, as they shopped and made final preparations for their honeymoon. They were to leave for Bali the next day.

The evening was spent in checking the lists, packing bags, and collecting ticket printouts for the flight and hotel bookings.

Post dinner, they went through everything one last time, before calling it a day, utterly exhausted.

“What’re you doing?” she asked, crawling across the bed to where he sat leaning back on a pillow.

“Pics.” He angled his phone towards her, as she settled right beside him. “The places we’ll be visiting in the next few days.”

He had the picture of the hotel swimming pool open on his phone. “Do you swim?” she asked.

“Yes. You?”

“Yes! That’ll be fun, swimming together.”

“Right. Seems like we have a lot more in common than we know.”

That sent her brooding for a few seconds. “All my fault,” she muttered, looking at her hands.

He turned his head to her. “We’ve had an arranged marriage, Kriti. And, you had the right to open up at your own comfort. Or, not at all, for that matter! It’s nobody’s fault, least of all yours.”

“No Sooraj.” She shook her head. “You’ve no idea. I could’ve managed our courtship better, if I wanted…”

“Forget about it. Will you?” He took her hand. “We’re married now. And we’re talking. That’s what really matters.”

“Right,” she agreed, and they sat there quiet for a minute. “Sooraj…”

“Yup.”

“The room, the TT room,” she asked, “is it like spare or you have some plans for it?”

“Plans? Umm… No. I mean it is… the TT room. Isn’t it?”

“It is.” Her face lit up. “Can we redesign it, if it’s alright?”

“Sure. What do you have in mind?”

“We can turn the room into a kind of study-cum-play area.”

“I’m listening.”

She sat bolt upright, facing him. “See, it’s a room with a lot of space, and natural light, so we could make a fairly large library there with shelves fixed on, maybe two walls. A heavy study table where the window is, with upholstered chairs. Only two… no… three at the most. A leather couch will sit at one corner, plus a recliner beside the table for leisure reading.

She was dreaming with open eyes. “We can keep one wall clean where a basket could be fixed for basketball. It’ll be fun putting the ball through it whenever we need a break from study. Then there is already the TT table. And proper carpeting would stop the noise.” She looked back at him. “What do you say?”

“Wow!”

“Thanks!”

“Awesome!”

“It is. Isn’t it? I’ll contact some interior designers, and see what they have to suggest.”

“Perfect! We’ll do it first thing once back.”

“Great! Thanks so much!” She sighed, and leaned back again, still thinking.

He slumped back on the pillow by her side, and wrapped an arm around her. “That’s an amazing idea, Kriti. It’ll be our go-to place. You are such an amazing person.”

She shook her head, smiling. “You haven’t seen the worst of me, Sooraj. You don’t know me yet.”

“I like what little is revealed to me. And I’m all ears, if you want me to know more.”

She considered him for a moment, and said, “I’ve had bad habits.”

“Like what? Picking your nose?” He chuckled.

“Smoking.” She drawled, giving him a look.

“Oh! Do you still smoke?”

“No.”

“It’s settled, then.”

“I…” She hesitated for a second, and then let it out. “I’ve had boyfriends.”

“Now that is one bad habit.” He laughed. “I’ve had none.”

“I’m not kidding, Sooraj.”

“Nor am I.”

“It doesn’t bother you, honestly?”

“Honestly, no. It was all in the past. You are in my arms now.” He winked at her. “And I’d have been shocked if a girl like you never had a boyfriend.”

“A girl like me?”

“Yeah! You want me to praise you?”

Her lips curled up in a smile, and she said, “Sooraj, can I be honest with you?”

“Absolutely, my lady.”

“My last relationship. It was serious.”

“Now you’re scaring me.”

“Please listen.”

“Okay.”

“So serious, we wanted to get married.”

Her words hung there heavy between them. “When was this?”

“Four years back.”

“Then?”

“My father didn’t approve of it.”

“Why?”

“Well. He turned out to be a lower caste. Whatever that means.” Her tone grew solemn. “Something we never even bothered to ask each other. But it was all my father was interested in. Not his education. Not his love for me. Not even his riches. And he was way richer than us. But somehow he was socially lower to us because of his caste.”

Sooraj sighed. “You guys didn’t protest? Fight for it?”

She smiled ruefully. “We did. Til we couldn’t, anymore. Things went from bad to worse as both families kept arguing who was higher. Then it kind of became physical, and we had to part ways. We couldn’t handle… all that… you know, violence.”

“Do you still think of him?” he asked hesitantly, his voice thick with concern.

She looked at him. He noticed moisture in her eyes. “No. I was past that stage long ago, Sooraj. Don’t worry. His getting married six months later helped immensely too.”

His face relaxed a bit, as he sighed with relief. “But you still feel bad about the whole affair.”

“Not because I couldn’t marry him. No. But because somewhere in all that chaos, I lost my father too.” She was struggling hard not to let the tears spill from her eyes. “You know, Sooraj.” She sniffed. “He had never let anyone stop me from doing anything, ever. Driving. Parties. Trips. Ours is a conservative family, but he fought with them all to give me the kind of exposure girls in our families can’t even dream about.” She paused for a moment, and breathed. “I couldn’t believe he was the same man, when he almost hit me. Well, getting a slap wouldn’t have been so bad though. I was dead stubborn, I agree. But what hurts me the most is that he never, even for a second, trusted my choice. He never even met him once.”

A tear broke free from her eye, and rolled down her cheek slowly. “I was under so much stress during that time. Convincing everyone, arranging meetings. Hearing insults. But, he never came to calm me down, hold me, and hug me the way he used to.” She pushed down a lump in her throat. “I didn’t even look at him when I left that house. I know he was crying, but… I didn’t.

“You know.” She glanced at him. “When I agreed to marry the person of his choice. No one bothered me even once. And things went so smooth. No convincing needed. No questions asked. And look at how my father loves you. He hardly knows you. But, then, you are the same caste. And I guess that’s enough of a certificate.” She paused. “It just feels so…”

“Unfair? I know,” he said.

She suddenly realized what she was saying. “I’m sorry, Sooraj. Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not about you. You’re a wonderful person. In fact, I regret that I didn’t meet you or talked to you enough before marriage. That was a mistake. I think I was still holding that grudge. That was so bad on my part. I’m so so sorry…”

“Hey.” He lifted her chin, and cupped her face, brushing away the tears with his thumbs. “You need not be. It’s okay.” She sank her face into his shoulder, as he rubbed her back. “Trust me, everything will be fine,” he whispered in her ear, “I’ll set it all right. Promise.”

She nodded, and raised her head from his shoulder. “I’ll just be back,” she said in a voice gone hoarse.

When she was back, her face was clean of tearstains. He handed her a glass of water. “You better?”

“Much better.”

“Come on, let’s catch some sleep.” He patted the bed, glancing at the clock. “We’ve to wake up in three hours.”

“Did I bore you that much?”

He laughed. “Hell, no! I could listen to you all day and night. Just thought sleep would do you some good.”

“Thanks.” She climbed on the bed, and lay down with her head in his lap. “I’m good.”

“Then, let’s continue.” He caressed her hair. “Were you done with your bad habits?”

She broke into a smile, and whacked him on the knee. “Hey!” she said, turning over to face him, “I’m not that bad. Okay! And I didn’t tell you this but I tend to swear a lot when provoked.”

“And I’ve always had a thing for girls who swear. God, they sound so powerful… so… sexy!”

“Really! No one on the receiving end ever confessed that to me. I’m pretty sure I was disliked for that.”

He shrugged. “What can I say? I like you.” Then brushing away a strand of hair from her eyes, he said, “You know, the way things were between us before marriage. I doubted you’d turn up in the end. In fact, I was prepared for a last minute call off.”

“I know.” She sighed. “I was such a moron. If I were you, I wouldn’t have tolerated such behavior. Seriously. Why did you?”

He looked away a moment and then back at her again, “Because I wanted to marry you. Ever since I first saw you and talked to you.”

She held his hand, and brought it to her lips. “Thanks, Sooraj. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel right now. You’re such a good man.”

“Hey!” he exclaimed, “I call you sexy, and all you have for me is ‘good’. That’s unfair.”

She laughed, her dark eyes dancing. “So the good man Sooraj wants to be called sexy. Okay. Then show me your sexy side Sooraj. Come on! And I’ll call you -”

In a flash, he got down and planted a soft kiss on her lips. Startled, she looked at him. “Sooraj…” He reached for her again, and shut her mouth. Reluctant at first, she slowly opened her mouth for his tongue, and he kissed her long and deep.

He paused just for a moment to let her breathe, and find approval in her eyes. Then he gently eased out from under her, and slipped down sucking at her neck. She clasped his hair, as she felt him down below while his hand was sliding quietly up her waist, under her T-shirt. The tips of his fingers hummed against her satin-soft skin and sent shivers up and down her whole body. It was hard to tell them apart now, arms and legs tangled together in a perfect fit. Her desires had almost gotten the better of her, when she felt his hand grabbing her breast, and she stiffened, and immediately jerked out of her trance. “No Sooraj! Wait… stop… ” she said, trying to push him back.

No,” she heard him whisper, his eyes unrelenting, full of hunger. She winced slightly as his grip tightened, his thumb working, now gentle now rough. She swallowed, her pulse quickening. His eyes were pinning her down, daring her to defy him. Sighing, she lowered her head back in surrender, as her resolve weakened. And when he pulled her T-shirt up after that, she kept her eyes closed, and let him, without protest.

“Please…” she gasped as she felt the wetness of his mouth, “… switch the lights off.” He raised his head, and took his time, his gaze sliding very slowly down from her eyes, past her curves, to her navel, drinking her in. Then he reached out an arm and flicked the lights off.

Half an hour later, they lay on the bed entwined, his arm anchoring her to his chest. She was feeling it rise and fall rhythmically with her hand. “Kriti.” He looked as she turned her eyes slowly up at him. So graceful, he thought. “I know the three magical words spoken at such times don’t really count. But I love you. I do.”

“Sooraj…”

“Please don’t say anything. Really.” He took her hand and kissed it. “I think we should get some sleep now, or else we’ll miss the flight. And I don’t want to miss it. Can’t afford to miss it. Not now.” He winked.

She checked her phone for time. “If we sleep now, we’ll not be able to get up.”

“No, we can still…” he began, but she put her hand on his mouth.

“Actually, we could use this time to do something… productive,” she suggested, her finger scratching a circle around his chest, awakening his skin.

“Don’t tell me you’re talking about TT. Because I am totally spent.” He grinned.

She raised herself on an elbow. “I know you’re spent.” Then sitting up, she moved her leg over and straddled him. “But I am not. And, it’s my turn. What d’you say?” she said, switching the lights back on. He stared at her, words failing him, as she loomed above him, naked. “Or you’d still like to sleep?”

Oh!” He found his voice back, as she started swaying slowly on top of him, “fuck… the… bloody flight!”

© Sundaram Chauhan

The Lone Tree

The lone tree

Standing alone

But standing tall

Shrivelled and stripped

Yet strong as a wall

 

They laugh at me

The greens in the distance

Huddled warm together

They pity my existence

 

Well-nourished they seem

In the company of their own

While I struggle for a drop

Chipped, flaked and wind-blown

 

To tell you the truth

I was green as well

Then a season swept by

And took away my shell

 

Now I burn in the heat

Waiting for the cool night

Then I shiver in the dark

Wishing back for sky bright

 

But a bird dwells in me

It flies far and wide

It tells me many tales

It’s my only friend and guide

 

You can fly, it assures me

So I stretch up on my toes

My roots scream, the earth cries

I’ll have to stay that shows

 

It pushes me to try and jump

And touch the glowing dots

To beat my branches in the air

To rise and untie the knots

 

I know I’m not made that way

But the fool knows that not

It fills me up with so many dreams

Now dreams are all I’ve got

 

I survive my days

Look down with hope

Want to fly for sure

Glide down that slope

 

But the roots hold me down

So I pray day and night

For a storm to pluck me out

And give me that flight

 

The bird calms me down

Do not despair, it says

Roots give you strength

To fly there are still ways

 

Spread your seeds in the air

Let thoughts grow their wings

Sow versions of you around

Imagine there are no strings

 

Imagine! There are no strings, indeed… says the bird that’s my heart.

© Sundaram Chauhan

Enough

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She must cook

And she must sweep

So packed she is

She can’t even weep

You don’t budge

And you won’t help

When asked for a hand

You let out a yelp

You go to work you say

Come on – so does she

Allow her a breather

Be a man – can you be?

When she is all done

You don’t even thank

Somehow being a man

You get a higher rank

I don’t think you care

She’s living or she’s dead

I know you love her

But only when in bed

It’s not a home for her

It’s more like a cage

I think she’s had enough

Just beware of her rage!

© Sundaram Chauhan
(Image Source)

Fiction # 2: Let’s Catch Up!

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Image Source

He had been waiting by the roadside for some time now. Perhaps fifteen minutes. Maybe more. The tin shed overhead did manage to shelter him from the scorching sun but he had no shield against the heat, smoke and dust that was swirling about in the air, filling his lungs.

Across the road, the heavy wooden bar at the gate of the building rose and fell probably for the hundredth time to let yet another car pass. But there was no sign of her.

He squinted up at the building again to confirm its number. Was he even at the right gate?

Intending to call her again, he unlocked his phone, and flicked a quick glance at the gate. And he stiffened. Was that her? Twisting aside, he peered through the crowd, again.

Yes!

Swaying past the guards now, in her business suit, there she was, with a purse slung over a shoulder. His heart started pounding as he quickly hand-combed his hair, and smoothed down his T-shirt.

She came out of a small side gate, and looked across the road, shading her eyes against the sun. He took a moment gathering some courage, and then stepped forward raising a hand.

She waved him a silent ‘hi’ as he came into view, and saw him hurriedly crossing the road, dodging a speeding bike on the way.

“Hey!” She extended a hand, smiling. He had been expecting something more dramatic and emotional like a hug, but he took the hand anyway.

“You… look stunning,” he said, shaking her hand a little too eagerly.

“Can’t say the same for you, I’m afraid.” She grinned.

“I know.” He wrinkled his nose, and scratched a cheek.

“When did you last shower, Sam?”

“Hey, come on now… beard is in. And long hair never went out of fashion,” he protested. “I look no uglier than I used to.”

“Agree. There was no scope left for that,” she said, and both of them laughed.

“Let’s go someplace else. A restaurant or something. Should we?”

“Sure,” she said, and led him towards a building, a few yards away.

Inside the café, they picked their seats around a corner table, and settled in the chairs. “I’ll go order,” she said, picking up her purse.

“No. Let me.” He stood up. “You need anything to eat?”

“No, no, I’m full. Just the coffee. Thanks.” And he headed off to the counter.

Sweet old memories flooded his mind as the smell of coffee filled his nostrils. The days when he would sneak away to a café during breaks to write. And she would always cover up for him. Always. So many times, she had to finish my work… to save my ass, he recalled.

At the counter, he ordered two cappuccinos, like old times.

“Sir.” The man behind the counter squinted past him to where she was sitting, and suggested, “Would you like to reconfirm? Shariva ma’am never takes a cappuccino.”

Before he could say anything though, she was right behind him. “Right you are! Make it one cappuccino and an espresso. Thanks!”

Back at the table, he was still glaring at the counter, fiddling with a sugar pouch while she was stirring her coffee. “When did you change the job?” he asked abruptly.

“A few months after you left, I guess.”

Wrong direction, he realised, and swerved. “Well… it’s been around three years now. You must be on a senior position here.”

“Yes. A Team Lead,” she said, sipping her coffee.

“A Team Lead!” he exclaimed. “Well, you’ve always been fast.”

She shrugged. “You know me well.”

“Yes. I do.” He nodded, and a moment of awkward silence followed before he met her eyes again. “How’ve you been, Shariva?”

“I’m doing okay, Sam.” She held his gaze. “What about you? Found wisdom in the mountains, yet?”

“Wisdom!” He laughed. “I was wise all along, wasn’t I?”

“Wise! You?” She joined in the laughter. “But yes. Actually you were. At least in breaking up I’d say. I was no easy maintenance after all.”

“Hey!” He went pale. “I’m so sorry. I… I didn’t mean…”

“Oh come on! Chill,” she said, waving a hand, “I’m not gonna cry over a breakup I had in my previous birth.”

“Right.”

“And I know it was all for the good,” she added.

“Sure,” he said, but he wasn’t so sure about that.

“Okay. So we were talking about you. What brings this lonely writer back to the materialistic world?”

He smiled broadly. “I just wanted to see if you’re doing fine.”

“Really!” She raised an eyebrow. “Well, I appreciate the gesture. Now, come on, the real reason.”

“I am shifting back,” he let the words out finally.

“Shifting back…” She leaned on the table. “What do you mean? You said you’d not until… does that mean your book is complete?”

“Book…” He winced. “No… not that. It’s for the doctorate program I’ve enrolled for.”

“Doctorate?” She seemed surprised. “Where did that come from? You went away to write a novel,” she reminded him. “What happened?”

He didn’t need reminding of that. He wanted to tell her how difficult these last three years had been. He got the solitude he sought, all right. But along came the frustrations of writing. His depleting bank account didn’t help much either.

Writing was a pleasure, as long as he did it alongside a job. But alone, the expectations weighed heavy on him. The burden of getting a novel published was too much for him to bear. It affected his writing.

It was indeed foolish of him, he felt, to have left everything for a life of such uncertainty. Just as she had told him back then.

But, instead he said, “I think I’ll benefit from literary research. It’ll only help better my writing.”

“Well…” she began, looking unconvinced, but her phone vibrated and cut her off. She picked it up. He stole the moment to scan her face while she stared at the screen, frowning. He couldn’t believe he really once held that beautiful face in his hands, and kissed those lips.

It all seemed a dream now.

He was about to dive into it, when she pushed back from the table suddenly, startling him. “Sam, I gotta go, now.”

“Hey! What happened?”

“Something at work,” she said, stuffing her phone in the purse.

“No, please stay some more?”

“I can’t Sam. This is urgent.”

“Okay then. Five minutes? Just five more minutes. I need to talk,” he pleaded.

She quickly drew back to the table. “Okay. What’s it?”

“Thanks,” he sighed. Then, hesitating a bit, he started, “Shariva…”

“Yes Sam,” she urged him on, impatience written all over her face.

“I wanted to ask…” His voice was barely more than a whisper. “If you… are you… seeing someone?”

The sudden change in her expressions told him that the question was not welcome, or she hadn’t expected it at all. “No Sam… no…” She shook her head, her tone no more friendly. “You can’t really be asking me that. You simply can’t.”

“Why not? If you have a boyfriend, tell me, I’ll understand, but if not, then…”

“…then what? I should come running into your arms, right?” she said sharply, “Yes, of course, now that you’re back in town, it’s so convenient for you.”

“It’s not that Shariva.” His voice rose slightly, but he lowered it immediately. “I’m saying that I’m here now, and not going anywhere this time. I promise.”

“You promise!” She stared at him, incredulous. “Oh, you promise! Right, and you think that’s what I live for – your fucking PROMISES!” She lurched to her feet, pushing the chair so hard that it fell back, and snatching her purse, she turned around and walked off. It all happened so quickly. Paralysed, he watched her pausing a moment at the counter, and then storming out through the door.

It all came out wrong, so wrong. He slammed a fist on the table, as his senses returned. That wasn’t how he intended to say it. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I need her. I can’t simply let her walk away. No.

He jumped to his feet, and hurriedly dialled her number. It didn’t go through. He tried again. But the call didn’t connect. Only when he dialled it the third time, did he realise, with horror, that he was blocked.

Shocked, he stood there motionless for a moment, not able to think.

Then sighing deeply, he began shuffling towards the exit, disoriented. I deserve it, he thought. After what I did to her, I totally deserve it.

“Excuse me, sir.” His hand had just closed around the doorknob, when he heard the voice behind. He wheeled around. “Sir, that’s for you. From Shariva ma’am.” He was holding a packet.

Puzzled, Sam took it, and without wasting a second tore away the wrapper. “Her book!” the man beamed, and with a puffed up chest said, “She wrote it all here sir. Just came out last week only. Why don’t you take a seat and read it? I’ll go steam your coffee again. It’s untouched. Should I?”

He nodded, lost in thoughts. Her book!

He stared at the book in his hands, amazed, as the man walked away. With fumbling hands, he flipped through the pages, and read about the author on the last page, then came back to the cover to see her name again. It was her book.

He ran a hand through his hair, his heart hammering inside. How was that possible?

He took a deep breath, and sat down on a nearby chair, the book in his hands. He ran his fingers slowly over the smooth cover, his fingertips tracing the slightly protruding letters that made her name: SHARIVA SEN. It still feels mine, the name.

“I need the first signed copy of your novel Sam,” she used to tease, “write it quick. If you don’t I will. You know I’m a blogger, right? Who knows you might have a signed copy of my novel first…”

He quickly turned over to the page where her autograph was scrawled. She did it. Even with a job, she did it. He felt a surge of pride running through him.

He adjusted into his chair, as the coffee arrived, and looked up. “Sorry. Could you bring me an espresso instead? I’ll pay extra if needed,” he requested apologetically.

Then flipping over to the first page, he began reading, with a smile on his face.

© Sundaram Chauhan

Depths

Don’t ever stop

while walking

the tightrope that’s life

for the fear of falling down.

As downward it may be,

depth is but a distance after all.

And who knows

you might get hold of

a few diamonds

on your way as well,

for that’s where

diamonds are found – 

in the depths.

© Sundaram Chauhan

Fiction # 1: The Trek

whatliesahead

Exhausted, and soaked in sweat, she decided to pause for a breath, and slumped down on a small boulder on the path. The rough-cut rock she leaned back on pressed hard against her back, but she sat there untroubled, looking out over the other side.

The world below had shrunk. Shrunk as well as expanded, she noticed, as her eyes swept across low hills, and unending forests, to settle on the horizon, light years away.

Up ahead on the winding path, the long straight line of the top announced the end of the trek. Not far now, she glanced up at the trees fringing the length of it, feeling satisfied. She’d be the first one to complete the trek, out of the group of fifty-odd people. An achievement, no doubt.

But… it could’ve been sweeter, she thought, had I been with my friends, instead. Far away this place might be from work, they were still her seniors, or rivals, and there was no way she was revealing her silly side to them. She just couldn’t trust them.

Yes, her colleagues, she had discovered in a rather short career so far, did not make reliable friends. And this sudden burst of camaraderie among them here was not going to fool her.

It’s all a fake show, she knew. Once back, they’ll forget all about the selfies they are clicking here, and return to what they do best – stealing credits, and backstabbing.

But for all her misgivings about the people it involved, she still couldn’t help loving each and every moment of the trip.

Up until the day she got a job five months back, her parents never even allowed her a night-out with friends, let alone an out of town trip. And a mountain trek was simply unthinkable. So everything here, including the very path, howsoever dangerously narrow or steep it might be at places, filled her with excitement. Even the jagged stones that constantly pricked through her shoes could not dampen her spirit as she pressed on with childlike vigour, leaving the fittest of them straggling behind.

Time to move, she nudged herself after a while, and springing to her feet strode ahead once again. It took her around fifteen more minutes of laborious walk to reach the place where the trek ended. The ascent from here was short, but very steep. So slowly and cautiously, she clambered her way up the slope, clutching the small rocks jutting out of its surface.

Halfway up she could hear the muffled sounds of laughter drifting from above. And soon afterwards her head pushed past the level of the ground. She straightened up, clapped the dust off her hands, and looked ahead. The trees fencing the place allowed only tiny incomplete glimpses through their leaves but that was enough to hook her.

All along the journey today, she hadn’t really thought about the top. Of course, she wanted to reach it, but that was it. The path itself was so fascinating that thinking of the end actually saddened her a bit. She hadn’t even cared to look at the pictures they shared on the office email. But once past the trees, she knew the pictures couldn’t have done justice to the place.

Before her stretching in all directions was a broad level field at least thrice the size of a football ground, its green surface mottled with hundreds of colourful camps amidst huge swaying trees. The place was swarming with people, laughing, playing, and crowding around shops, as if this was a regular picnic spot in the middle of a city. And, looming above it all in the background, piercing the sky, was a gigantic mountain range, staring her in the face, commanding attention.

It was so close she had to crane her head back to have a good look at it. Winking behind its high peaks, she saw, the Sun was struggling to stay afloat, throwing down great long shadows that swallowed the whole place.

Soon enough, she was walking, her steps leading her to the far end in the direction of the mountain. She weaved her way through a jumble of people, camps, shops and trees, until the last of them passed by, and all the noise reduced to a murmur, barely audible.

There at the edge, though imperceptible from the other end, the ground ended abruptly, and dropped hundreds of feet down to a narrow green valley kissing the feet of the arrogant giant in front of her.

She glanced down at the valley. Thick green trees tangled in a fight for space were crawling up the mountain that rose almost vertically like a wall, stopping only in the clouds.

The wind gusting authoritatively here was whistling in her ears and flooding her nose with the aroma of pine trees, making her eyes droop. Mesmerised, she let the backpack slide off her shoulders and peeled away the shoes. A stream of freshness shot up through her toes when her naked feet touched the grass below, melting all her tiredness away. She stood there, intoxicated, letting the wind caress her face.

It was running right through her, she felt. Cleansing her heart and purifying her soul. A vast sea of calmness seemed to be filling her being, drop by small drop. Overwhelmed, she lowered herself on the ground, shivering. There, she sat hugging her knees – sobbing yet smiling, famished yet somehow fulfilled.

The dusk had begun to settle around her when a sudden burst of music in the camps behind broke her reverie and made her heart leap up in delight. A latent longing to be among people – dancing, cheering, and laughing ones, rushed to the fore, and took hold of her as she gathered herself.

Just as she was turning to go back, the shouts of her name startled her, making her jump. Peering down the ground, she saw half a dozen people moving towards her, silhouetted against the campfires in the background. Their steps hurried, as they waved at her frantically, visibly relieved at finding her at last. She was surprised to find herself waving back in excitement too. Their voices, and their forms were all too familiar to her but she never knew they cared enough to come seeking her.

Maybe she was wrong about them, maybe not. But she seemed not to care anymore. At that moment she knew she wanted to be with them, and that was all that mattered – the moment. She would deal with everything else later on, but tonight she was going to be herself, even if that meant people judging her. She decided she wasn’t going to stop being herself for that fear. Nor was she going to judge them in return.

Forgetting everything, she just wanted to dance. And, if she was still hesitant, she had vodka inside her bag, she thought. But she knew she wasn’t going to need it.

She was already drunk.

Quickly, she scooped up her bag, and then ran towards them beaming, dreaming of the night to come.

© Sundaram Chauhan

Break the Jinx – Recommence

break the jinx

About a couple of years back, when I was very new to writing, I faced a difficult period where I felt a sudden and overwhelming indifference developing within me towards writing as a craft.

A conviction that my writing ambitions were futile grew so strong in me that I stopped hitting the keypad completely, terrified of the new state of affairs in my mind.

All this while, even if an amazing idea were to pop up in my head, I knew I wouldn’t go for it, quite contrary to my general approach where I didn’t let go of anything that was worth expressing. In the rare events when I found my life laden with disappointments and defeats, I used to write about conquering them or facing them or just about them as they were.

But not writing at all – was new, to say the least.

This confusion resulted in the longest stretch I have ever had without writing a single word. And, I still regret it.

But the period didn’t go without gifting me a lesson, a rather harsh reminder that writing, irrespective of how much you love it, is simply a habit.

You might feel you are effortless and natural, and writing is an integral part of your being – but for all that, it still isn’t self-sustaining. Try resting your faculties for one week, for any reason, and you will find it harder to come back.

The next week will present a much more compelling case for not sitting and stringing together words. Give an ear to yourself in such times, and it wouldn’t be long before your so dearly maintained blog goes defunct.

Interestingly you tend to somehow convince yourself that it is all for good – that you never really meant to write that often anyway. That you already have a job, or a career to look forward to, and a blog was just an experiment, probably a waste of time.

But no, it’s not, and it will never be, whether you harbour desires to author books some day or not. Writing is much more than that. It’s an outlet; it’s freedom. A friend, and the best one at that. You’ll always have an edge over others if you know how to write, whatever may be the field of your work.

Remember, just as writing is a habit, not writing is a habit too (and unfortunately an effortless one). So please pick up that pen again. Read your earlier works if you need reassurance, as you might after a gap, and write.

Break the jinx by writing anything, but don’t give in just yet. You know you are full of thoughts that need writing down. You know you have the talent, even if that requires years of honing to reach your desired level.

Just remind yourself of the reasons that forced you to take pains to understand how a blog works, and get going.

Happy writing!

Flexibility and Rigidity

When circumstances

pull you down,

be flexible like rubber,

not rigid like steel,

so that you can

bounce back on hitting the bottom.

For steel will only crack it further

and create a new one –

still deeper.

© Sundaram Chauhan

I Am Done

Starting from scratch
Yet again!
Why do I keep
Falling back to zero?
Was so far ahead
So quick that
They told me
I was a hero.

There perhaps
Oh God!
Is something
You want me to know.
I only wish
You’d use
A kinder way
Than pushing me so low.

Each time
I looked back
Connected the dots
And dug something wise.
But this time
Let me stay
A little longer
If I reach new highs.

Falling down
Getting up and
Clawing my way out
Used to be fun.
Give me back
My peace now
I surrender
I think I am done.
© Sundaram Chauhan

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