Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Choosing freedom


© Vinay Nagaraju

(...a short story)

The clock crept towards 8 in the evening. Lakshmi picked up her laptop bag, signed off at the reception and hastened her steps out of the front lobby. There was an unusual sense of urgency in her gait this evening. No one else noticed. She was unaware too. She waved to the guard at the main gate, indicating to him to stop her cab, lest she would miss it. The driver had already started off towards the exit. She rushed towards the cab, climbed up the stairs with a lunch bag in one hand and a laptop bag in another, and gasped for breath every few seconds. There were a few frowns that greeted her inside the cab. Impermeable to all this, Lakshmi took her seat next to Rajesh as he stuck a smile with effort.
She said “Hi”.
He stared.
The RJ on the radio exclaimed “Welcome to Top 8 @ 8, with me …” The voice on the radio sounded all gay and merry. What an unearthly hour to be cheerful she thought. There was not a speck of joy on anyone’s face in the cab. It was as though they were getting back home after attending a funeral. There were some who had already immersed themselves in books, some working intently on their laptops and others frigid.
The cab careened through the chuckhole ridden roads. The voices on radio continued to shout mirthfully. Interrupting the monotony of chatter from the radio that had filled the air, Lakshmi asked Rajesh “How have you been doing these days ? How is your project going?” Lakshmi resisted silence. She resisted monotony. There was silence in the air. There was hollowness in all the noises around. Even when she was pensive, she wanted someone to talk to. Rajesh turned, as if woken from deep sleep and said,
“Well, good. Nothing significant though.”
The words nothing significant carried a lot of significance. He had snipped off any further conversation with those words, as if to say ‘Leave me alone.’ Lakshmi held the bags that were slipping away on her lap and pulled them close to her with both hands. She let out a deep breath and said “Today has been very draining on me. Just want to get back home soon.” Rajesh stared at her with half closed eyes and a coldness that would have put off anyone else in her place. Lakshmi insulated herself from such indifferences. She had seen enough of these to entertain them any longer. And today there were other things to occupy her mind than his petulance. She recognized his peevishness and sat muted.
She closed her eyes and gently tilted her head back to rest it on the seat cushion. Images of her son playing with a round red ball flashed by her closed eyelids. Her three year old had not been keeping well in the last couple of days. The boy had been sick very often in the last few years. The doctor blamed it on Bangalore’s capricious weather. She recalled her quarrel with her husband when they had chosen to move to Bangalore from Mysore. She had resisted. None in her family had found reason to turn down the fat paying jobs in this city then. She had taken issue. She had an inkling this was coming. There was little strength left in her to dispute with them. This time around, she had not even found courage to ask for absence from office. She knew her boss would never agree to her being away from office at a critical juncture of the project. She could have experienced indispensability at that thought. However, she experienced helplessness. An impuissance that she strongly believed was a woman’s karma. There was a tear that tried to escape her eyelids onto her temples. She immediately opened her eyes and wiped her tear off with a handkerchief.
The bus stopped in front of Iyengar’s bakery at 9. Bangalore’s traffic showed mercy on this poor lady this evening. Her house was ten doors from the corner of the street. She bought a packet of rusk for her son. He had always liked the idea of his mother dipping small pieces of rusk in warm milk and placing them on his little tongue. She struggled with the bags as she schlepped towards home. She wished a fairy would fly down from heaven to carry her home. There were no fairies. Only the sounds of the title song of Mukta that echoed across the dark street. It appeared as though every concrete wall on the street had started singing at the stroke of 9. She felt a shred of comfort in the company of that music as she took the next few steps to the gate of her home.
Her son Puneet stood there at the gate, frail and weak waiting for his mom. He was sticking his small face between the iron bars of the gate. A few days of fever had rendered him sapless. Her pity ran down as tears as she opened her arms for him. As her thin frame merged with his, the gulp in her throat carried her sorrow deep inside. Her left shoulder and her eye met to share the tears between them. She kissed his forehead. It was still warm and her lips sensed the pain in his body.
Bhushan just walked in to meet them at the gate after his stroll. It was his wont to go around the neighbourhood post dinner every night. Lakshmi embraced her son and carried him in her bosom as he threw his thin arms around her neck. Puneet planted a kiss on her cheek. Bhushan picked up her bags and followed. Bhushan’s parents sat there in the drawing room with their eyes glued to the television. His younger brother occupied the bean bag listening to music on his iPod. As they both walked across the drawing room, all the three glanced towards them for a fraction of a second before returning to their chores.
Lakshmi stopped, looked at her mother and said “Amma, I am back home.” In that statement she made an effort to acknowledge her own existence. And it was a futile attempt to assert herself, the ability of which she had gradually lost. At work, with her parents, husband and friends alike, she had lost the aptitude to cause communication. She had gradually forsaken the ability to be listened to. She had never felt so forlorn since the days of her adolescence. That was last when she was host to a plethora of emotions. These days she felt lost and vulnerable.
Today, life had brought her to a podium and asked her to recite the poem of future. And she fumbled like a five year old. She had forgotten the words. Words deceived her oftentimes. She wasn’t intelligent enough to create her own now, nor remember the poem from her mind that she had written long ago. A poem called the future of life that had evaporated in her dreams.
The three entered their room on the second floor. A cool breeze from the balcony cleansed the air between them. Bhushan placed the bags on the table and opened the snail mails one by one. Lakshmi stood there near the door surveying a frame on the wall. It enclosed their wedding card. And it read …
“In corridors of time, WE have reached a moment. The moment is delicious and the mood is intimate. The heart is filled with tender aspirations and an audacity to embrace life in all its colours. In this moment, WE choose to begin a new journey in OUR lives.
Join us on the 13th of May 1998 at…”
Lakshmi’s college classmate had written this piece for her wedding invitation at her behest. He was an aspiring writer, but had never made it big. His biggest moments were the joy he derived when he wrote something like this for his friends.
The frame hung there for seven years now. A witness to the changing times. There was a small crack in the azure wall that carried the frame. It started behind the frame and ran all the way down to the marble skirting. During the days that followed the house-warming of this new villa of theirs, every mark on the wall mattered. Not any more. The crack was there untouched for years now.
Puneet was half asleep. He locked his fingers around Lakshmi’s neck and pulled himself close to her. The tender warm skin of his face caressed against her neck. Lakshmi carried him and walked towards the table where Bhushan continued to read the mails. She placed her hand on his shoulder. He tilted his head onto the fingers on his shoulder and then onto her face. He saw Puneet resting his face on her shoulder. He was awake again. He started stroking his dad’s arms with his small legs. And then he played with the curls that hung on Lakshmi’s forehead with his fingers.
Lakshmi said, “Bhushan, Did you notice that crack on that wall.” He nodded.
“We should get them fixed.” She added. He nodded again. This time with eyes closed. His assent meant something more.
Her conversation had provided him the necessary avenue to broach on issues that were more close to his heart. Issues that mattered more than the crack in the wall.
He said, “Lakshmi, I have wanted to talk to you for long. It is important that I do it now. You have been slogging too much off late. It has started taking its toll on you. Have you looked at your eyes in the mirror ? They look hollow and pale. With all these long hours of work you are withering like a flower. I know you want to spend more time with Puneet and the family.”
Lakshmi sat on the cot next to him and slowly laid Puneet on it. He had fallen asleep again. She unfolded a blanket and wrapped it around him fitting it snugly around his neck. She then turned around to hold Bhushan’s hands in hers.
“Money is not everything Lakshmi.” He said. In a tone that shattered the shallow context that they had been leading their lives from all these years.
She held his palms in hers. “I know.” She said.
“Bhushan, I have chosen to quit.” She said in a voice that did not surprise him. It followed as a necessary thread of that conversation.
“I will take on staying with Puneet for the next few months. Puneet has also been missing me much. After that I am considering joining some of my friends with their social projects. That will give me a sense of belongingness. I have always wanted to contribute to people’s lives. I don’t find myself realizing any of that if I continue to work like this. I will also pick up from where I left at the music classes.”
“Is that okay with you ?” she asked.
“I may consider working again after a few years. But now, I want the freedom to choose. Is that fine ?”.
Their eyes met. They connected. Bhushan nodded gently as he held her head in his palm and guided it to his shoulder.
There was a sense of fulfillment in that conversation and a sense of setting out. They both stood up and walked towards the door. Lakshmi lifted the veil of her dress and wiped the frame on the wall clean. Bhushan looked back. Puneet slept in peace with the dark blue blanket tucked around his neck. They took steps out of the door and then down the stairs.
~ o ~
PS: All characters, settings and events are a figment of the author’s imagination. Any semblance to reality should be construed to the contrary.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Crossroad

© Vinay Nagaraju

(...a short story)

Prajwal sat there sipping his espresso at uneven intervals. He had never tasted espresso earlier. He had always enjoyed coffee with cream. Today was different. And he wished that it would be so, hereafter. He was distressed. An impulsive urge to change the predictable ways of his life, had prodded him to even have espresso, which did not fit into his fixed ways of being.

He stretched his crossed legs, with hands locked behind his head. He twitched his fingers releasing the tautness hidden in his knuckles. There was a certain weariness concealed in every corner of his body. And he resisted it. He resisted it because it reminded him of the conflicts in his mind. He protested himself, for adding meaning to these banal actions of his body. But somewhere, deep inside, they were all entwined. And he knew it.

The silences between his sipping were pregnant with thoughts. Thoughts, which he later classified as gibberish. There was hardly anything worth discerning in the cacophony inside his head. He closed his eyelids, vainly trying to erect barriers between himself and the world. Images of Bush, Iraq war, a coffee cup, Milosevic’s funeral, long lost girlfriend, soccer goal post, Jonathan seagull, a margosa tree on a hillock, Ayn Rand and all passed by his mind’s screen like the first reels in a movie hall. He experienced helplessness. In that moment there was a certain numbness in his experience. He opened his eyes. The only thing in control was the half-empty coffee cup in his hand. His impuissance in all other areas of his life was camouflaged, as he kept staring at the curve of the coffee cup’s handle. The waiter passed by wondering what profound thought must have engaged this young man. Prajwal’s imperviousness to the blaring music in the café was evident.

The setting in the café was perfect or rather not imperfect. Towards one end of the café, two chairs across a little round coffee table overlooked a busy street. He had last visited this place with Shreya, exactly a month ago. That was before she flew off on her first onsite assignment to Brno. What an unearthly place for software development he had thought then. He had started missing Shreya. Her round curious dilated eyes punctuating her animated conversations were no longer there across the table. They were now searching their owner’s destiny in Brno. How he had beseeched with her not to take up this assignment, before giving her a Good luck card. A card, a symbol of his disagreement of her choice. A card that was ordained to adorn her cubicle in far away Brno in Czech Republic. She had left with a huff, leaving behind a taste of her annoyance for Prajwal’s company. As he stared at the emptiness in the opposite chair, it slowly occurred to him that it was not a few moments ago that he had sipped the last cappuccino with Shreya. She had left him over a month ago. She avoided calling him or even writing an e-mail, for she thought she will be able to erase all her memories by doing so. She had failed miserably in that endeavor and she did not know that.

Prajwal tilted his head to cast a glance onto the street through the glass wall. He was fond of this table at the café. He did not know why. The view from the first floor of the café onto the busy street was always inviting. It put things in perspective. He liked to see life from a distance. And he intellectualised his outlooks. It gave him a sense of intangible control over life. A view of life that he construed to as the view of life. He could see his car parked against the curb at arm’s distance. He had this strange habit of keeping an eye on his stuff over and over again. He was on the fringe of being labeled as having obsessive stress disorder by his friend who studied medicine. He suddenly felt the weight of his laptop bag against his leg. He looked down at the bag with a sense of possession. And then he turned to see the car again. The footpath had started teeming with people. It was seven in the evening on a Friday. The time when software professionals in Bangalore, came out of their self-imposed hibernation to begin enjoying a weekend of unintrusive freedom. Some people were sticking smiles on their faces walking merrily on the pavements while there were many more who took frantic footsteps as they rushed to their next destinations. He could not stand that sight any longer, as if something inside him was provoked. He asked for the bill, paid up at the counter, picked up his bag in one hand and the jacket in another and took long steps towards the exit, not noticing the ‘have a nice evening Sir’ smile on the waiter’s face.

He reached his car, religiously buckled up and sped away onto the busy street to the next traffic island. The red digital countdown clock read 133. He switched off the engine leaving the radio alive. A young girl in ragged clothes was at the window. She curved her palms around her eyes with her wrists supporting her cheeks, blocking light and as if imitating a horse, as she tried hard to see through the tinted glass. Then she took a step back and started knocking on the glass with a rhythm that expressed her abandoned hope. He set aside his judgments and evaluations on why people ask alms and wound his glass down. He picked up a few coins from the ash tray and filled her small dirty hands. This was yet another instant that evening when he defied his usual way of being. Prajwal’s grandpa used to say “When you are happy is when you ought to be generous.” He smiled to himself at the paradox. The girl returned the smile with her own sweet one and a gratitude that she expressed as she raised her folded palm to her forehead and walked away.

As Prajwal parked his car at home, he heard his dad’s footsteps and the clinging of the garage keys in his hands. Even at odd hours, his dad used to wait for him, to lock the garage and the gate behind after the car was parked. Prajwal, picked up the bag, flung the jacket on his shoulder and walked into the house. As he walked across the drawing room, he gave a quarrelsome look at his younger brother who continued to munch chips as he sat transfixed to the television screen. Prajwal’s anger was not palpable to his mother who stopped by to give him a glass of cold water. Without a hint of what was coming he started yelling at his brother. “How many more days do you have before your exams ? Why the hell do you keep watching some nonsense movies on TV all the time ?”. The younger one, pushed the red button on the remote, flung it hard on the table and walked away to his room. That was his way of exhibiting rebelliousness to his elder brother. There descended an eerie silence at home soon after.

Satisfied with his moral victory, Prajwal climbed the stairs to his room. He did not know if it was his arrogance at play a while ago. It was rather his untamed disgust at his own life that kept erupting at regular intervals. He was always an emotionally guarded guy. He had barriers between himself and others. He rarely allowed anyone to peek into the realm of his emotions. He loved looking stoic and this pretense had ruled for long.

Prajwal’s room faced the intersection of two roads. On the inside, it lead to the staircase on one side and opened up as a balcony overlooking the dining hall on the other. Prajwal changed into his pajamas, came out of his room and looked down at the dining table. His mother sat there, waiting to serve him dinner.

He said “Amma, make some tea for me.”

“What about your dinner son ?” she asked.

“I am not hungry” came a quick reply.

She took to the kitchen uncomplainingly.

It was half past 10. Prajwal sat there crouched on his chair. His fingers locked in front of his face, supporting his goatee chin and his elbows firm on the smooth, polished teak table. There was stillness in the air. The laptop sat waiting for his commands. The only sound was that of the sultry air, being ripped apart by the blades of the ceiling fan. There were tiny ripples in the tea cup right next to the wires of the laptop. He cast a glance on that, picked up the cup and sipped in a spoonful of tea. The warm caffeine flowed down his throat into his body. It made its feeble attempt to pump in some life. He moved a bit, as if from deep slumber. He sipped another time. He clicked open the internet explorer and logged in to his mail box. There were no new e-mails. His eagerness to connect with people was unanswered. He thought to himself that all his friends were in their own worlds. Toiling and struggling hard to make meaning to life. He derived a sense of pleasure at these meanings that he attached. He opened the chat window. Some of his friends were online with a ‘Don’t disturb me now’ or ‘Busy’ message. He signed off, closing all windows and shutting down his laptop.

Taking calculated steps towards his bed, he looked around his room. The clock said 11:55 pm. There was a backpack lying on the floor. A small distance away was a bookshelf. The bottommost rack had a line of his college text books and the topmost row a collection of spiritual texts. There was a collection of Maslow’s essays too on that rack.

He moved his eyes onto the opposite wall. There hung a deep blue poster that read from Robert Frost, ‘Miles to go before I sleep’. Prajwal, smiled to himself. There was a certain glow in his eyes as he stood at a crossroad.

~ o ~

PS: All characters, settings and events are a figment of the author’s imagination. Any semblance to reality should be construed to the contrary.