this is for those of you who do not follow me on facebook or twitter, or are not part of my contacts on my mobile or email but are still readers i appreciate and respect. i have been terribly lax on the blog, so as i make one more promise to get my act in place i also want to share a short story i wrote with you.
i recently participated in a short story competition organised by DNA and Out of print. my story made it to the shortlist. for me it was a great encouragement in a time of intense drought with very little work coming by way, and i felt inspired to write more, to write better and to continue chasing this elusive dream. since then, almost as if the tide changed, work has been flooding my inbox, and i even managed to take part in and complete the 50000 word challenge that is NaNoWriMo, but more about all of that later. for now, let’s talk about this short story.
the theme for the competition was erosion. (more about the contest here.) and my story (edited) was originally published here. do read and let me know what you think—a comment, a like, or an observation of yours or just some random thoughts.
Rock, Paper, Scissors
I stood on my balcony looking down at the basil plant that I had bought for an absurd Rs 350 just weeks ago. It was dying one leaf at a time. Suicide, I called it, wanting to absolve myself of blame for death and decay in my balcony. I re-checked every variable. The water seemed right. Soil adequately moist. Sun? Yes, ideal placement on the balcony. It was doing fine, then work called me away for a week and its life changed. I touched a leaf, running my finger across the central vein that held it together. The leaf was crimping up, becoming in death as small as it had started out in life. I touched another leaf, and whispered, dear one, I’m back. I know I left you with the maid, but it will be fine now. I won’t go away, please, please don’t die.
A phone rang through the morning air, the loud ringtone startling me. Before I could react the maid called out, Didi, aapka phone baj rahahe. I went in and picked it up. “Baba” flashed on my screen. I sighed, stretched my neck, twirled it around and got ready for a long call.
“Hi Baba. How are you?”
“Hello, hello. Am I disturbing you? Have a few minutes? I just…”
My father was building a house in a village near Mumbai. Just three hours away he claimed but some parts of the road were still kaccha, and it usually took me more than four hours to get there. After he retired, having nothing to do here in Mumbai, he decided to put a bulk of his savings in a “Vacation house for the family,” as he announced one Sunday evening. He would visit Mumbai every other weekend but a restlessness would set in and by Monday, he was off. The project began with great support from us, but as time passed and obstacles raised themselves from the ground, I feared for his health. My sister, who lived in New York, said, “It’s a post-mid-life crisis, Shamu, as long as he is happy, why interfere?” I could see her shrugging her shoulders with a lop-sided grin as she said this. The multiple oceans that stretched out between us made her worry less; perhaps it was proximity that made me worry more.
“Haan Baba, tell me. All on track?”
Baba is the great planner. He plans and plans some more, till every minute detail has been plotted to the nth degree. If it wasn’t plotted, it wasn’t happening, that was his motto. And yet, things rarely went his way. It wasn’t always like this though, the Baba of my childhood would make things happen. Maybe it’s age, wobbly knees can make a person think too much before leaping.
“It’s been delayed. The monsoons, so heavy this year, I had to stop construction, and now this whole bribe business. Everyone who has to sign any little paper wants something. How many people do I bribe?”
I could see his face, tilted to one side with a frown lining his forehead and his face limp with resignation. I had often asked him why he bribed. Baba used to have the strength of a saint; why had that changed? And if there were certain restrictions in place, why was he trying to evade them by bribing, I’d asked.
“You don’t understand Shamu. Things will never get done in this country otherwise. We have bought this land so what do you want to do now? Sit on it! All my money is locked here. If we don’t build a house the value of the land won’t appreciate.”
The word yeah was one of my favourites. It was a big part of my conversations with Baba these days. There was a time when I would counter, but that always lead to an argument, which ended with Baba saying, you don’t respect me. The modest ‘yeah’ protected me with a shroud of ambiguity that signalled neither concurrence nor disagreement. ‘Yeah’ stood for peace.
I retied my hair, stretched my neck, as he told me about the material he needed for building this house.
“Did I tell you about my neighbours?” I interrupted with excitement. “They are now composting organic waste in their flat. Imagine they are creating soil, their own little bit of earth!”
“Haan … I’ve bought another plot of land.” His voice cut through.
“Oh, but when? I…”
“Just a few days ago, you were travelling on work so didn’t want to disturb. It’s a few kms from here, in the neighbouring village. The agent told me I’ll never get another plot like this; it is the best he has ever seen. It is on a small hill with an uninterrupted view of the surroundings. Shamu, you will love it. If you visit, you will say, Wow Baba, this is the best! There are hills in the distance, and in the monsoons, the agent said, you will see waterfalls on them.”
“Oh, that sounds pretty.”
“You know as a child you loved going to the hill near Aji’s house in Pune. The one behind Fergusson College…. You would run up so fast, and the rest of us would be left far behind. When we reached the top you would be sitting on the tank, waiting, looking so bored.” He laughed loudly, bringing a smile to my face, and then said, “I’m sixty-four now, I don’t think I can climb any hill, even a small mound of mud has me undone.”
Baba had worked in the merchant navy, and during my childhood he travelled far and wide. We wouldn’t see him for months and then he would come back, laden with gifts that smelt of another world, another culture. And from every city he set foot in he would bring me back a stone; a small relic of the place he had visited that I hadn’t. When he was in town I would stay awake, listening to Baba tell me stories about the people he’d met, the cities he’d seen and the last port they’d docked at. At times, I would pester him to tell me stories through the night.
“Were you chatting late at night again?” Aai would yell in the morning. “She isn’t going to wake up for school now.” Her loud, shrill voice echoed across our flat in Mumbai. Aai would continue grumbling while getting ready for work, talking about how she managed two girls while Baba gallivanted around the world, and how having a job and being an almost-single mother was difficult, and that he didn’t appreciate her contribution. It would go on and on, till Baba went over and said sorry, which he did rather easily.
Many days had passed since my last conversation with Baba. The basil plant, as if given the gift of a second life, had sprung back from death’s door. The sun graced my balcony for a few hours every day, but that wasn’t enough for my chilli saplings or tomato vines. The large ficus though was content. It was my mini-tree, with roots sprouting from its branches that reached out like wobbly fingers to the soil below. When sparrows sat on its branches, my mind would imagine this to be a large tree, sitting on a small hill, with roots penetrating the earth.
Be patient with Baba, my sister said whenever I spoke to her. He likes to be independent, doesn’t want to encroach on your space in Mumbai. Let him be. But why can’t he live with me, be safe and happy with me? Baba’s ship had been hijacked by pirates once and as the captain of the ship, he was held for ransom. My memory is vague, and all I remember is extreme panic, my sister and I crying, Aai pacing up and down the passage and our grandparents moving in with us. I don’t know how many days he spent in captivity but he was rescued after a hefty ransom was paid by the company. Aai’s hair turned grey, I don’t think she ever recovered, and Baba went back to work for a few years until he retired. And me, I never asked him about his time with those pirates.
After ten days of silence, he came home today. In the evening, we sit on the balcony and sip our chai. Conversation veers towards the new plot, his plans to build a house. One more house Baba? He says the first house hasn’t turned out as he desired, so he will sell it. The land is being cleared now, he continues. Cleared of what, I ask.
“You know trees, shrubs … all that. It all has to go otherwise where will we build?” He goes on to say that cutting down trees is illegal so the chopped trunks have been dumped in the neighbouring plot to avoid getting caught.
But why did you, I persist, pushing for an answer which I know won’t placate me. For the view. The view? The view of the hills in the distance, he replies.
“But Baba … why did you cut trees, all the trees, your trees, for that…”
“Arre, what is the point of a plot of land like this one if trees obstruct the view of the hills? Didn’t I tell you about those hills? You love hills. I’ll ensure all the bedroom windows look out to those hills … It’ll be perfect.”
The sun has set, and the birds have all gone home. There are so many plants in my house. At last count, including those in water jugs, there are fifty-eight. They pour into the rooms and once a friend asked if I was planning to convert my house into a jungle. Baba describes how the roots have to be removed by heavy-duty machinery, Rs. 1000 a day, he exclaims, and how deep they go into the earth. He tells me how once removed you are left with a pit, that needs lots of soil to fill. A hollow pit. He shakes his head at those stubborn roots that refused to let go, and almost broke one hydraulic machine, and tells me about the big house with a strong foundation that he will build. There will be a landscaped garden, with a fountain in the centre, and flowering plants along the compound walls. “It will look pretty,” he adds, “Just like your balcony.” My ficus tree pours out of the pot, leaves reach out to the sky; it is crooked, leaning to one side as if trying to escape the boxed balcony that keeps it away from the sun. With every new branch it threatens to topple out, to reclaim its space on the earth below.
Over the years, the stones from each city Baba visited have found a home in my pots. Today he hands me one from the new plot. It is huge, smooth and sloping to one side, with an edge that looks like it could cut anything and its other side is curved, pock-marked and undulating. The stone’s surface has striations, the marbled effect of years of compression, of soil merging together and begetting rock. I hold it in my hand, turning it over, again and again, till the striations blur. The sharp edge scrapes my fingers, bruises my palms and absorbs the red that now seeps out.