In the 2016 edition of the Tata Literature Live MyStory Contest, we had over 1850 entries and 30,000 votes.
Below are the five winners picked by our jury on the basis of merit.
They are not in order of positions.
Kirti Swarup Rath
REGRET “Faster,faster”,I kept urging him from the moment I got on his rickshaw.There was no time for the customary haggling over the eventual price of the ride.I was just fifteen minutes away from missing the lone evening train to the city and the looming prospect of being left stranded in that dark,yet to be lit,ghost town till the next morning. ” But Babuji,at least tell me where to go.” With one leg on the pedal and a firm grip on the handle ,he asked me.Bushy grey eye brows and layers of wrinkled skin,is all I could see,all I had time for. “Take me to the station”.I ordered him without looking up much from my briefcase on my lap, which I was reshuffling furiously in search of my wallet. “Where are you from,Babuji”, he asked in a voice that sounded irritatingly calm to me. I looked up to sound him a nice warning about not wasting any effort in meaningless chat,yet I held back.The man’s flaking,ugly,bare back stared me at my face.He had already started picking up speed without bothering to rest his shorts- clad bottom on the rock hard plastic seat. Numerous beads of sweat had started to form all over his body,making that mass of bones,muscles and sinews glisten a bit.His feet were bare,slightly blistered.The calf muscles kept undulating furiously with machine like frequency and efficiency. “I am from the city and in a real hurry to catch the train.So please stop bothering me with your questions and hurry up.I will pay you double of whatever price you ask,if you reach there in time.” He looked back at me with a slightly tiring smile for a moment and turned his head again,increasing his effort gradually. I kept on my “faster,faster”, rant,sometimes loud enough for him to be able to notice,but mostly keeping it low to myself.The rickety tarred road had given way to a narrow dirt track ,which to make matters,even worse,was an up slope. He never stopped.Bathed in sweat,his body had started to emanate a stench ,which combined with the humid airlessness of that late afternoon,was making me increasingly nauseous.Shouldn’t I have got down ,for some time,at least for the climb.I should surely have,but I didn’t. The station was not very far now.The small crowded station market had just appeared in the distance.I glanced at my watch and was chuffed to find the amount of time,I still had,in hand.Yet,for some reason,I can’t decipher now,I still urged him to speed up as much as possible.Was it just needless fretting or an unusual urgency to leave the dreary place or was it a bout of sadistic pleasure at seeing the man,suffer.I wish I had the answer to that ,even if it’s the latter. Lke a marathoner,nearing the end,he started his final rush with a flurry of rapid pedaling,not even bothering to swipe the sweat off his face.I had my wallet in my hand,to quickly dispense with the payment and scamper for my reserved seat away from that place,hoping never to come back again.My thoughts had already started the journey,although the train hadn’t. A blaring horn from the parked train startled me out of my daze.I made a dash to the platform and ran all the way till my seat with my briefcase in hand and my wallet in the other.Just as I boarded ,the wheels started rumbling.Looks like I didn’t have that much of time,as I had thought.My watch was running a little late,three minutes to be precise. Glad that I somehow made to my comfortable cushioned seat,I opened the windows to let some air in.There he was,hunched awkwardly and coughing vigorously.Dripping with perspiration ,he sat on the dusty ground in a manner of collapsing.I looked away in unease.I started searching for the railway ricket in my wallet and stopped immediately.There was exactly the same number of notes and coins in it as when I had counted last.I had forgotten to pay him.I couldn’t believe it.I looked out,couldn’t see him anymore.The train had left the confines of that town. Hadn’t I promised to pay him double of what was due? Why didn’t he ask me when I got down?What must have gone through his mind,through those fifteen minutes and what might he be thinking ,when he had given all that his ageing and worn out body could muster,to no avail.Will he ever forgive me?Can I ever forgive myself?
I lit my best friend’s funeral pyre when I was fifteen. It was one of those dark and cloudy days, when the weather was somewhat confused between gloom and grief, and thus became a carrier for a sick mingling of both sentiments that drizzled down upon us in the wee beginnings of the dreary monsoon. I stood in the wake of the light precipitation, contemplating… something, though my mind could not seem to grasp exactly what. We stood, a line of grieving people, clad in white, as he lay on his wooden pyre, a bruise of brown against the grey water and skies that seemed to smudge at the horizon, like a badly painted watercolor. I had felt so disconnected then, with the whole cremation, when my existence entered the phase where it was elevated from the abject misery that follows a death, and suspended in an infinite limbo. His mother asked me to light the pyre. All I could think of was the sheer inappropriateness of it all- it was the family who was meant to light the pyre, it was tradition and meant to stay that way. Besides, family was everything, always the most important, taking precedence. But she said they couldn’t do it. Her voice broke, wrecked with sobs, and his father and sister simply stood there, saying not a word. The scream I expected to build up inside me and come bursting forth never did; I silently took up the wooden torch handed to me, flames flickering feebly in the humid breeze, and touched it ever so lightly to the wooden twigs where he lay, concealed, beneath them. In a small moment of bitter-sweet memory, it struck me that he would have liked the fact that we dressed him in his white shirt for this moment; he always claimed that it lent to him a feeling of greater importance and sobriety, the latter being a quality he sorely lacked. But it was what I loved about him. I watched as the oil that slithered on the twigs greedily met the flames’ embrace, the yellow and orange fire in their myriad hues dancing and leaping across the pyre, slowly building to rise in ecstatic, phallic ovation, spitting sparks into the wet air. It was not in the least daunted by the rain, and instead reacted to it with vengeance, hissing steam where the two forces touched, so mesmerizingly powerful as it consumed his body. It was a long, arduous process, feeling each of my memories with him being washed away just as the fire destroyed him, bit by bit. We’d known each other for about three years. Our friendship built up slowly, steadily, then all at once. I liked that our story didn’t begin as childhood neighbors and such; this way, there was always so much more to discover and the ability to appreciate, more deeply, what was discovered. I always admired, what seemed to be to others, his lackadaisical attitude towards life- but what I recognized as his simple wish to enjoy every moment in his own way. He brought out the best in me, and I became the one person who understood him, his every whim and fancy; the one who knew what he needed before he knew it himself. And slowly, incontrovertibly, we began to skim the line, as fine as a hair, between being best friends and lovers. I knew I loved him, but I didn’t know how. When we hugged, each additional second was hours and weeks of being in his arms and feeling his warmth coursing through me. I could see it in his eyes- those innocent black spheres had gone from looking through me, to looking at me, to looking into the very crevasses of my soul. Our love wasn’t passionate or filled with zealous desire. It was the smallest quickening of a heartbeat, reveling the safety and comfort of each other’s presence. We were both moving towards that line, but where I was afraid to cross it, he was eager to leap across and explore the realms of where we could go together. As the rain penetrated my clothes and skin to chill my very being, I realized that I did not want for another kiss, or another day, because I had enough memories to last me a lifetime. I just wanted him to be there to fill the hollows and empty spaces in me. I wanted to have someone to care for, to comfort, to love. But he didn’t come back and neither did the soul shattering misery and depression I so craved, to show to myself and to the world how I truly loved him, because I didn’t. I could not love him long enough and deep enough to feel that way, but enough to feel his loss like a scythe cuts through the top half of a crop to reap its flowers and fruit and leave behind the pale, jagged stalks to grow upwards, alone. Smoke and silence permeated the atmosphere like a thick snake, coiling, uncoiling in the suffocating space between us. A man stood aside, his soul so used to sights such as this, everyday, that it had been sharpened to feel nothing. Once it died, once everything died, he picked up my lover’s ashes and took them to the sea, to mingle with the ever shifting sands beneath the turbulent waves, to be scattered into innumerable, insubstantial flakes of matter, never to join and be one again.
A pair of shoes It was Birju, the cleaner, who discovered the body in the vat. Spread-eagled over the little hill of dripping plastic bags there lay a man in a crisp summer suit. His face was frozen in a contemptuous frown, eyes in wide stare with jaw dropped, and mouth agape. A hole in his left temple – ragged and charred, told the brief story of his death. Now listless and cold, cockroaches were creeping across his face. Rats scurried over the body nibbling at the plastic bags in search of food. For a moment Birju wondered why the hungry rodents didn’t find the dead body worth eating. He wished he wouldn’t have seen it. Now, he would have to face a lot of trouble once the news had spread. Police would start an inquest, summon him to the police station and if one of those snoopy journalists got a whiff, he would have it. Birju hated the night duty, but he`d have to bear it a couple of years more. Though he didn’t believe in ghosts, after midnight, he often had seen shadowy figures lurking in the dark. All the shops down their shutters by nine, except Sujan Singh`s tea house. It never closes. Youngsters drop in for midnight snacks; demand tea, coffee to wash them down. They are call centre employees; but he had never seen this man among them. Maybe he was killed elsewhere, and the killers found the garbage vat a perfect place to dump him. But in any case, before the truck comes at eight he would have to decide about it. All night he gathered the plastic bags dunked into the waste baskets for disposal. A tough job, made difficult by the wobbly wheel-barrow, which creaks and groans when pushed; perhaps the axel has gone dry and needs some oiling. Like other nights, when his work was over, he rested for an hour or two on one of the empty benches of the park. It must have been then, Birju concluded, those bastards had sneaked in. He took a hard look at the body. The man was handsome. The pair of shoes he wore wouldn’t cost less than a few thousands. He had seen such shoes in the mall, in the glitzy showrooms of Arrow and Allan Solly. The price tags read outrageous figures; more than his month`s salary. Birju looked at his own shoes – a pair of frayed sneakers, bought years back during sale. Mended twice, the pair was well past their lifetime. How about exchanging them? In them, he might look out of place, but who cares! He bent down from his waist and flicked the shoes off from the feet of the dead man. He looked around; there was none watching him. Hurriedly he put those shoes on, throwing his own pair into the vat. The new pair came for a snug fit. With the day break, the market came back to life. Newspaper hawkers, milk vendors cycled past the vat. He glanced at his watch; seven thirty. The corporation truck would come any time now. Unless he informs the police, the body would get dumped with the heap of garbage and discovered later by a pack of jackal or a wake of vultures. Or it might not get discovered at all; buried under the heap, it might just melt away, turn into earth after years. What`s bad in it? After all, that`s what happens to all dead bodies whether buried in coffins or fed into the blazing furnaces. On the flipside, the killers would get off scot-free and the justice would be denied. Who knew why he was killed? He didn’t look like a gangster. He could be a victim of some illicit affair, caught with pants down. Birju walked up to Sujan Singh`s tea house and sat on a empty chair. The waiter lowered a cup of tea on the table. “New shoes!” the waiter looked at him in suspicious eyes. Birju drew up his feet together to hide them from his freaking gaze. “Any problem,” he said lifting his chin. “From where did you nick it?” “I haven’t nicked it from anywhere. It`s fake – cheap, but looks like made of original leather. I bought it yesterday.” “Eh, don’t try to fool me! Look at the finish; it must be from one of those pricey shops out there in the mall.” “Get your eyes checked up, stupid!” Birju got off, leaving the tea half drunk. He placed a five rupee coin next to the glass and hurried towards the vat. He heard him swearing at his back. When he reached home, his wife was having her morning tea. “Want some Tea?”She asked. “No, I had,” Birju said. He put off the shoes and hid them under the bed. The one-room shack is dark; the only window opening into a narrow alley serves as a poor skylight. He changed into a lungi, dropped his night wear into the corner for wash and took a bath. “Don`t call me, I will get up on my own,” he said to his wife and dozed off. Soon he began to snore. After a couple of hours, Birju heard the sound of steps; clicks of boot made of pure leather against cement. Sharp clanks they were; tap, tap, edging near. He knew the source: The pair of shoes. The dead man has returned asking for justice. He jumped off from sleep. His wife was cat walking wearing the shoes, like the models on the shows. Caught in the act, she grinned. “Nice ones! When did you buy?”
THE SHOETELLER Magan was barely 14 years old when he stared dealing with used books. He could read a little Marathi, but English was completely alien. He’d tried to learn it by himself, but gave up, partly cause of a lack of a teacher, and partly cause of his frail eye sight. He’d figured out how to pronounce the names of English authors within a year of starting the stall though. 22 years into the business, he considered himself a pro at it. Direct sunlight hurt his eyes, so he barely looked up at prospective customers. He would look at their shoes instead, and try and gauge what they were more likely to buy. Bata wearers liked classics. The fancy leather ones liked New York Times best sellers. Sports shoes liked the thin ones with bright covers. The high heeled ones liked Mills & Boon… This queer shoe-stereotyping of his worked almost all the time. Sales dropped a bit around the time he started noticing people staring into their mobile phones more than talking to each other. So he invested in a weighing scale and charged Rs.2 for every weigh. It worked. On a sunny afternoon, a black high heels came by. He pushed a Mills & Boons towards her. No response. 20 seconds passed. He then noticed a drop of clear liquid fall near her right foot. It wasn’t raining. He looked up at the prospect, for the first time in months. He didn’t need perfect vision to spot a broken heart. He quickly scurried into his stall, came out with a book in his hand, held it up to her and said ‘Eat, Pray, Lou by Elijabeth Gilbert madam. Purfect for you now’. He heard a chuckle. She bought it without bargaining. He sat back on his tiny stool and again noticed the drop of clear liquid on the pavement. It was slowly evaporating. He beamed like the sun all day.
I sped my car, hardly glancing at the rearview Mirror, which flashed headlight warnings at me by the minute. I needed more than anything to get away from it all. Maybe Ashwin was right; I should have met the old fool earlier-not wasted time on it today. Suddenly the phone buzzed and I saw Ashwin’s name flash, my heart jolted out of control. Ashwin is my husband. He loves me, I know, but frankly sometimes I am not too sure, it’s scary and overwhelming. I am not your typical Mills and Boons starry-eyed romantic, don’t get me wrong I am passionate and I care about love, just not the kind that has me on a leash. With Ashwin, I feel like I am more a child than a wife, a child that has to constantly be watched over and scolded. Not taking that medication today (which I am sure is why he called to check now) felt good, like a little bit of my own defiance. Maybe I was a child somewhere. This weekend alone from everybody, away from Ashwin was my gift to me. I wasn’t taking any orders from him or that old goop. When I reached the cabin that had been booked for me, it had become very dark and it looked a little eerie, but I reminded myself of the gun in my backpack. A gun Ashwin had no idea I kept, he would have disapproved heavily, he disapproved of most things I did. I have even found him search through my stuff when I was away. I have no freedom. I have even seen him watch over me as I sleep, it’s not the least bit romantic, it freaks me out, because he has that wistful smile on his face as he does it. It’s almost as if he is planning something. My parents and friends think I have the most amazing husband in the world, a husband who cares about me so much, who has made so many sacrifices for me. That’s crap! He just likes being in control and keep tabs on me. I don’t tell people most things I know, because I don’t think they’ll believe me. Him, with his earnest eyes, they believe all too quickly. One day I confronted him and asked him if he was following me (I was certain he was) and he smiled that wistful smile and said he wasn’t. I still don’t understand why he lied about it, or why he lies about so many other things- like the other day when I saw him add something to my food and he lied that it was only salt, the food tasted funny and I threw it all away when he wasn’t watching, what was that? I had no idea. He has begun to scare me. To get this alone time I have had to fight, plead, cry and only then did he agree. Imagine having to beg for your own freedom. The Cabin is a tiny place in the hills near Lonavala but it was enough for me, it has a tiny backdoor, a small kitchen and a bed in one corner. I read for a little while, by the lamp by my bedside, sipping on the hot chocolate I had carried. In so many years I hadn’t felt this free. I had no idea when I fell asleep. I was woken up by the footsteps that I heard. I looked out through the back door and I saw a figure approaching, I rushed to my backpack and put the gun on the table behind me, as a precautionary measure. The footsteps came closer. The door started opening, I stood with my back resting against the table, clutching it. Who could it be at this hour? The door opened and he said “Surprise”. “Ashwin, why are you here?” “I came to check on you sweetheart” “Ashwin, are you following me? Again?” Fear was constricting my throat. “Did you take your medication?” he asked with a smile. “Yyesss” I lied, fear was overtaking me, there was something very wrong here. “Don’t lie, I found this by your bedside” he said, showing me the pill box. “Did you come here all the way to give me this?” I asked “Ashwin please don’t scare me, why have you come here really?” He didn’t respond, with that same wistful smile, he began walking closer. That smile more than anything else hurt me the most. I wasn’t going to stand there like a trapped animal begging for survival. I was going to fight for my freedom. I took the gun in that instant and rapidly shot 3 bullets in his chest, his surprised face was the last thing I noticed before he fell. I took the flask and poured me another cup of chocolate and drank it, “the blood stains the wooden floor while the chocolate stains my insides”, how poetic I thought. I thought of the old goop- my doctor, with whom my life is a series of boring confessions. Therapy they call it. He was against my solo trip today, he thought it was risky. He went on telling me today how important it was that I be safe and take my medication, how I must accept that life for a paranoid schizophrenic is not easy. Bah! They all think I am crazy! But well the world considers anything that’s not ‘normal’ by their definition to be crazy. I think they are crazy, Ashwin and all of them, to deny me my freedom. I let out a loud laugh! The old fool was actually worried about my safety? I don’t need anyone. I have my gun.
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