TATA LITLIVE MYSTORY CONTEST 2017
JURY SELECTION – PROSE
(3 winners picked by the litlive jury based purely on merit)
(All winners are in alphabetical order by last name)
Dear Mommy by Neveille Bhamgara
Do not cry because I died. I was scared and alone but I was thinking of you and how you love me so much. As the blood slowly oozed out I sat there and wondered why I was shot? I thought and I thought and It just would not make sense.
It was a boy I had seen many a time, and I am not sure but I think he has even smiled to me before. We had never talked for as you know I do not talk a lot. I was just sitting there and laughing and I heard a loud bang. I thought It was daddy’s car but It was not.
But mommy do not cry, for I know we live In a world of guns and we have to protect ourselves against animals and other humans and the government and terrorists and so mommy It Is ok. I do understand It Is necessary for life to have the occasional death, right?
But, mommy, I just wanted to grow up and I so wanted to play with the doll you had given me. But now the doll Is all messed up with my blood and also looks quite ragged. And mommy, I wanted to wear nice dresses and prance In the garden but my tummy has a big hole. And mommy Is love chocolates you know and now I will never get to eat them. But mommy I love you and I do not want to leave you but I cannot really breathe now.
I think I am now dead because mommy I can see you talking to aunty and crying and saying It was god’s will. Mommy, Is that why I died?? And I heard someone say that I will never grow up and never marry and how sad It Is that a life was cut short. Mommy what Is this life they talk of? Do not be sad, mommy. They are just mean; those who say you gave the boy the gun.
But did you mommy? They say the boy was my brother they say, just only five. I hope they are not angry all those men I see In blue who run around out here but haven’t a clue. Because I know you love me mommy, I know you do.
Clutter by Kanika Jain
She had always been too scared to throw things away. During that summer by the ocean, she filled the newly painted cabinets with crumpled up lists, half-scrawled letters, unread newspaper clippings and grocery bills. The house was empty enough, and she had the nagging feeling at the back of her mind that she would need them someday. Something would come up – she would need a record of what she had done one morning, or the details of a local theft, or a reminder of what she had been telling someone about. It felt good to have it all there; for her the growing piles of paper were the relics of the time she had spent in the cramped house, anchoring her place in the passage of days she had lost count of.
There was nothing much for her to do. By the days she would walk down to the beach and listen to music of the ocean. She watched it rush to embrace the shoreline, only to have its foamy white arms turned away and fizzle out into the blue drift. Beaches were a study in eternal rejection, she decided. She felt like quite an authority on the topic. At night she would try to write, and when she failed she would squeeze her eyes shut and imagine herself somewhere far away, maybe back in the city, pouring coffee into a pair of identical mugs as the singing from the shower drifted into the kitchen. It was just as she had left it – the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the cacophonic street, the mahogany table, the creamy walls. She saw the cracks that ran in rivulets across the kitchen counter, felt the spot behind the door where the floorboards were uneven. It wasn’t just a picture in her mind. She was there, and so was he, just as much as he was here with her right now.
It had been her decision to move to this stupid seaside town. They had always talked about it, not concretely of course, but in the hazy reverie people fall into when they speak of travelling the world, or quitting their jobs to paint; the way both of them had spoken about everything during the better half of their marriage. Now when she put the broken pieces together, it made sense that he loved the ocean. The ocean had a capacity for forgiveness as vast and unwavering as its appetite. It would take whatever you gave it – sand and debris and body – and hide it under its jewel cover, unflinching, uncomplaining. But even the ocean had its rough days – days of stormy skies and cloudy waters, of boats tossed around like a sulking child’s toys, of roaring waves that threatened to tear apart the very coast they kissed. The refuse that had once been swallowed so softly was hurtled back, twisted and broken beyond recognition or repair. Those were the days she loved. She would amble along the edge of the rocky cliff while the wind tugged on her hair, threatening to pull her off if she took one wrong step. The smell of brine never left her house and she could always taste salt at the back of her throat.
The townsfolk thought she was crazy. She had heard what they said about her – never talks to anyone, erratic behaviour, no real job, lives off her alimony. The truth was that the last she had seen of her husband was a white monogrammed envelope with a signed divorce agreement, posted from a five star hotel where the waiters knew them by name. She signed the papers, mailed them back, threw a jumble of books and clothes in a suitcase, and left the apartment. The first train tickets she found were to a small beach town known for its dwindling tourism industry. Her cottage had come with an off season discount and a landlady who was too new to the job to ask any questions. When she moved in, the sofas still had shiny plastic covers and her stomach churned at the smell of paint that lingered in the bedroom. It was three weeks before she unpacked; she loved to wander through the bare-walled rooms, to soak in the emptiness of sheets that had never been slept in, of crockery that did not know the warmth of food and touch.
She should not have tried to make herself feel at home. That was when she realised how empty it all was, the bric-a-brac she had brought with her – possessions, once entirely hers, transformed into the souvenirs of cohabitation. They cluttered her life like ghosts, made permanent by their lack of substance. Most of them were unnecessary. She could easily part with the copy of The Golden Notebook they had both read countless times, or the faded, holey t-shirt she wore as they curled up side by side under the heavy blankets they used all year round. But she had always been too scared to throw anything away. Who knew when she may need it again?
Irrecoverable Faces by Karthik Shankar
Sometimes in the silences, Arvind still heard the strains of strains of Aasai Mugam. Till today, he used Suma’s own words to explain the song’s meaning to his non-Tamil friends. The poet bemoans the loss of his mother whose face he can’t remember as the years go by.
After Apoorva, on her last visit, admitted to him that she had forgotten on which cheek Suma’s mole was, he started singing the song. Her stunned reaction turned to peals of laughter. Even he guffawed till he broke into a coughing fit. He felt quite lightheaded.
That was the last time Apoorva was home, almost nine months ago, when she came to collect some photos of her mother for an art project. Her visits were always brief, never for more than a couple of hours, and unplanned. No to dinner. Yes to a cup of tea. They would seat themselves carefully across each other like a ritual. Silence occasionally punctured by the slurping of tea, his ambiguous questions, and her monosyllabic answers.
Even after all these years, his eyes carefully studied the face of his inscrutable daughter. On rare instances, such as when they discussed Kaushik’s marital problems, he felt like the two of them existed in the same time-space continuum. During those ephemeral moments of connection, he would feel he would feel his chest expanding, like a musty airtight chamber suddenly getting a little breeze. His daughter and he didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeve like his wife. They were natives of Laconia.
It hadn’t always been that way. His children’s early years, even after Suma passed away, were a cavalcade of sepia-tinted memories. Sweaty Saturday afternoon naps. Sugarcane juice by the beach. Multiple visits to see Padayappa at Jayanti theatre. A drive to Mahabalipuram, the day he had received that promotion in Hindustan Petroleum.
It still surprised him that Apoorva was the one to drop out of college; the one to distance herself from family. He had pegged Kaushik as the unpredictable one. Apoorva, he mistakenly assumed, had inherited his conservatism and Suma’s sense of filial duty. Then, she had gone on to pursue art, of all things!
In her first year of college, a time when Apoorva still actively sought out his company, she dragged him to an art gallery. There was a retrospective of Anjolie Ela Menon, an artist he didn’t have a clue about. For a while he humoured his daughter even though the melancholic paintings didn’t do much to flicker anything in his mind or soul. For him, art was synonymous with Raja Ravi Varma, a medium to venerate kings and gods. It had no tangible function in one’s day to day life except as a rich man’s hobby.
Arvind started scoffing at each piece. He referred to the artist as a snake oil salesman who expected her audience to ascribe meaning to the artwork that it did not have. Apoorva’s disagreement with him was polite at first. Then she stopped at a painting called ‘The Magician’s Story’. When Arvind sifted through his memories years later, he simplistically selected this as the beginning of the rift between him and his daughter.
He still recalled the artwork’s vivid red and earthy brown hues and the solitary figure sitting forlornly by the window. Were her eyes closed? He couldn’t quite recollect most of the elements. There was definitely a pair of milky breasts. A disembodied hand? Another hand gnawing at someone’s skin probably.
That day, he had let out a mock groan. “See,”he’d said. “Abstract enough for you to fashion meaning out of this.”The vehemence with which Apoorva had disagreed egged him on. “There’s value in abstraction primarily because it allows you to access emotional responses that figurative art does not.”
The arguments got louder and more vociferous. It went from conjectures about the artist’s intent to his inability to look at the world beyond his realist lens and how her love for kitsch meant her head was in the clouds. He had always known her love for art. It had been something she had always shared with him. She was the excitable kid who ran to him anytime she drew as much as a cow but that day he took a cruel pleasure in trying to wrest her pleasure in it from her. It failed. After that day, her art became as impenetrable as its maker.
Their future disagreements were never as frenzied, even when it involved careers, life decisions and motherhood. Each time, he shouted, a small part of her retreated further into the armour she was building for herself.
Two years ago, on his yearly month-long trip to Delhi when he stayed with Kaushik, a piece of information caught his eye in the paper. Later that evening, he turned up at Vadehra Art Gallery, looking at oil paintings in a style that was almost nostalgic. The colours were earthy and their process of alteration quite visible. Apparently, that was deliberate. Visages of women stared back at him, their eyes dark and unyielding. For one split second, he could swear he saw Apoorva’s face in one of the artworks.