A Time of Champions

A Time of Champions, published in WIND (Issue 89) Winner of 2003 Short Fiction Award

 

A Time of Champions

 

by Inderjeet Mani

 

“Who’s running for Tata House?” Rahul asked Salman.

Salman handed him the binoculars. “It’s Tikki first, then Poggy Kapoor. Speedy’s running number two for Jaipur House.”

Rahul surveyed the field. He spotted Mr. Curtis, the Head Master, standing up and cheering. A sea of parents stretched behind him, heavily powdered mothers in sunglasses, and well-tended fathers in navy blazers. Beyond the far end where the field climbed into a rich green bank dense with neem trees, he could see saris and pajamas drying outside the servants’ quarters. A few chickens scurried about among the trees, and in their midst a red-shirted figure in dark glasses sat watching the race.

Rahul turned back toward the guest rows, where Reza’s sister Shirin was sitting in her salwar kamiz, her shoulders tense, locked between her parents. Her cheeks were pale, and there were dark shadows under her eyes. Her school was on St. Mary’s Road. He had gone there to meet her with her brother one day, and had become transfixed from that very moment. There was something in her eyes, wisdom and gentle laughter. She kept him up at night, and in Geography class he had looked out of the window towards the Himalayas, uttering her name over and over again. Then, suddenly, he had found strength in words, and he had written her a letter.

Rahul turned the binoculars beyond the lines of blue and gray uniforms. The four striped lanes curved steadily around the field. In two months, it would be time for cricket, and the lanes would be cleared away by the malis, and the canvas shells would be put up along the bank at the far end. Boys in white ducks would stand against the swathe of green, the batsmen casting heroic poses for the fans. Summer would set in then, and after the vacation, the field would be muddy and filled with footballs and boys running through the monsoon mud, some awkward and fumbling, others already moving smoothly with the ball.

The race was nearing the first station at one hundred meters. Jaipur House was in the outer lane, Hyderabad in lane two, then Kashmir, with Tata in lane four. In lane two, the Nepali prince from Hyderabad House reached the station first, a few meters ahead of lane three, but the next runner in lane two didn’t grab the baton fast enough, and lane three got a head start. Tikki, the new boy from Tata, made good time on the second lap, but he was still a good twenty meters behind lane three. Tikki held the baton out to Poggy, who began to accelerate; the baton seemed to hover like a wand between their hands.

Poggy was an academic star, unlike most of the sportsmen, and he had won the Shakespeare Prize twice. After the Prime Minister’s visit, there had been talk of de-emphasizing Shakespeare in favor of Hindi Lit, but the old boys on the Board would have nothing to do with it. And the HM, who lived for Shakespeare and sports, would have nothing to do with it, either.

Until the incident of the letter, Rahul had no reason to meet the HM. But then Dr. Singh, the Fourth Form Geography teacher, had found the letter in class, peeping out on his desk from the pages of Stamp’s Atlas.

“‘How do I love thee…Let me count the ways.’ Count indeed!”

Dr. Singh read the letter from a distance, holding it gingerly between two giant fingers. Then he said, “Perhaps, young man, you could restrict your counting to the Math class.”

A guffaw rose from the class. There was a pause in the flinging of paper pellets.

Dr. Singh’s hand twisted Rahul’s ear. As the pressure mounted, he caught a glimpse of the peaks glistening in the distance, and longed to ascend towards them.

“‘I love thee to the breadth and depth and height.’ This is Geography, young man, not Geometry! Who is the ‘thee’ you are thinking of — not a boy in this class, I hope?”

Titters. Raucous laughter. Rahul knew there would be endless taunting and thigh pinching all through the term.

“I’m afraid,” said Dr. Singh, his face turning gradually purple, “the rest is too shameful to repeat here. Filth, filth, and more filth!”

The ear was burning and throbbing, and Dr. Singh finally released it. Pellets came raining down, some with fresh ink.

“I wonder what the HM will have to say about it?”

The next day, the HM had a lot to say.

Mr. Curtis threw open the windows of his office. Ivy-clad walls looked out over a sunken garden. A mali was crouched over the rose bushes, watering them with a cracked hose. Behind him, a gulmohar tree was in bloom, its thick leaves bursting with scarlet flowers.

Mr. Curtis explained why he had left his Head Mastership at Gordonstoun to come all the way to this boarding school in the Himalayan foothills. Something special was happening here, a chance to shape tomorrow’s leaders.

He tapped his pipe on the desk.

“The moral foundation’s everything, of course. That’s why Shakespeare’s so bloody important. Cricket, too. And athletics. You’ll see — we British aren’t done with you yet.”

He began writing out the punishment slip.

“Moral qualities, my boy. Never forget that.”

Then he leaned close enough for Rahul to smell his pipe-breath, and patted Rahul gently on the shoulder.

“How’s the scholarship boy doing? Not giving you trouble, are they?”

“No sir. They are treating me fine.”

He peered inquisitively.

“I hear there’s been some teasing.”

On his first night, in the dining hall, Rahul had to give a speech introducing himself. It was a chilly evening, and he had worn the white wool sweater that his mother had knitted for him. He talked about their little home in Muzzafarnagar, about how his father’s teaching and precepts had inspired his own studies, about the little almirah in the kitchen where he kept all his prizes and certificates. He spoke a bit too earnestly. How they had laughed at his strong Hindi accent, at his pathetically unfashionable home clothes; they had called him names, asked him to go back to his Hindi medium school.

“Now, as you know,” Mr. Curtis continued, “it’s quite ridiculous for a boy like you to have all these fanciful thoughts. And General Khan’s daughter, too! What were you thinking of? Of course, we’ll have to let St. Mary’s know.”

Rahul felt the shame welling up. He wondered if Shirin would ever speak to him, whether she would consider him ridiculous, even offensive. He felt an unpleasant twinge in his stomach at the thought of having to meet her again. Reza had already given him the cold shoulder. Then his thoughts turned to her future, and he wondered if they would punish her, restrict her outings in any way. There was no suggestion in his letter that anything had happened between them; he had simply given free rein to his fantasies.

“I know you’ll straighten out and do well, my boy,” Mr. Curtis continued kindly, noticing Rahul’s worried look. “So many of our boys have done well. Even boys of your sort, who haven’t had all the perks from day one. Everywhere you look, in fact — politicians, industrialists, civil servants, even artists — in every field, you name it, our boys are the leading lights.”

Rahul had a vision of Poggy becoming Prime Minister, of Salman sitting in the boardroom of one of the big tobacco houses in Calcutta, his school tie fluttering proudly. He realized he liked Mr. Curtis, and resolved to attend the after-dinner meetings of the Shakespeare Society, at Mr. Curtis’s bungalow. He had conquered a lot after coming to the school, and he would add Shakespeare to the list.

By now, lane one had reached the second station, Jaipur last, but then the baton glided, even floated, into Speedy’s hand, and he was off, running as if he’d been waiting for it all his life. Speedy was expected to make it to School Athletics Captain one day, Rahul had been told, and Rahul felt a sadness in his chest as he saw how gracefully Speedy ran past the low green trees in the distance, then coming in between the cheering lines of blue and gray.

“What’s his fastest? Eleven point one?” Rahul asked Salman.

“Eleven point one eight,” Salman said, blowing a pink bubble and folding it in with a snap. “At the last District Sports.”

“Why didn’t they put him on last? The people with records usually come on in the last lap.”

Salman motioned to have the binoculars back. “Parents,” he explained apologetically. “Have to go sit with them.”

Rahul was glad his parents had decided not to come. His father would have felt most uncomfortable in that sea of navy blazers, with his ill-fitting brown school-teacher’s coat. His mother, he knew, would have become teary-eyed at the sight of him standing tall among all the other boys, but she had abided by his father’s wishes.

The race was nearing the third station. Rahul hurried up to Tata supporters on the pavilion terrace. The air smelt of perspiration. A fifth-former in dark glasses gave him a drink of lime cordial and explained the situation. Speedy had closed in first on the Hyderabad fumbler in lane two; then he and Poggy and the smart one from Kashmir had raced abreast before Speedy took off.  Speedy arrived at the third station with a massive lead, only to hand it to a dark-complexioned South Indian fellow who lost it just as quickly, allowing Kashmir to get ahead. Rahul saw the runners coming fast towards three hundred meters. The terrace floor was sticky with lime cordial, and flies swarmed around his stockinged legs. In the back, a group of prefects were sniggering and passing around a cigarette. Rahul shivered a little, in spite of the heat. Then the gun went off.

The crowd began to cheer and Rahul saw the last runners running furiously in position, their arms stretched out impatiently behind them. There was a flurry of yellow vests, and then he saw Reza in the inner lane reach for the baton and take off, his hand empty, then firmly grasped around the baton, his head pointing towards the finish line, more than eleven point one eight seconds away. Jaipur and Kashmir had changed batons together and were now leading, gaining speed.  Rahul could see the runners speeding up before the bend, and then they dropped out of sight, before appearing suddenly over the rise towards him, large and glorious and life-sized. Reza looked so much like his sister, except for the hair. Rahul had a recurring dream of eloping with her. They would be sitting on a large verandah, somewhere in the States, possibly Kentucky, with low white fences, a horse or two trotting by, the grass a funny color seen in celluloid or in dreams, Shirin sipping champagne from his glass, her hand resting lightly on his thigh, his heart thumping.

Now Reza’s brown knees were lifted high, his head flung back, his spikes pointing down, about to tear into the earth. The chanting had started. “1-2-3-4. Whom are we for?” “Reza,” the crowd answered, some saying “Tata” as well. Rahul heard himself shouting with the rest. A prefect called for order. Reza had caught up with the fellow in lane one, and then shot suddenly past, and the crowd gave a great sigh. He was now sprinting in hot pursuit of Kashmir in lane three, Kashmir was flailing his arms, running straight for the finish line without looking back.

Rahul saw Reza’s mother touch her husband’s arm, and they both stood up and cheered loudly. With the usually indolent General Khan up cheering, several other parents stood up as well, their voices joining his, their faces reminding Rahul of those ancient games photographs in the Archives, well-groomed but tired faces with their expressions frozen forever in time. Then the girl stood up between her parents, and Rahul yelled somewhat louder than the rest, and then the Kashmir crowd began to count, very angry, glaring at the pavilion, beating a drum in time to the chanting.

The crowd swayed for a second, then spilt out after Reza, who was walking slowly, hands on his hips, picking his way towards the pavilion. The prefects quickly formed a corridor for him. Rahul could hear General Khan calling in an urgent voice. Reza waved. He passed Speedy and gave him a slap on the buttocks. The games photographer broke out from the crowd, and began to click away. Reza waited patiently for him to finish, then asked for an extra shot shaking hands with Mr. Curtis.

Rahul burrowed his way through the prefects’ cordon and walked up to Reza, offering his congratulations. Reza smiled a perfunctory smile, hung out his tongue in mock exhaustion, turned and waved pleasantly to the crowd before at last climbing the pavilion steps. Dr. Singh made an announcement. Beside him, entries were being made in the ledger. Eleven point one six. The parents stood again and applauded. Shirin was standing there, clapping, next to her mother.

The crowd was swarming towards the pavilion entrance. Rahul saw the fellow in the red shirt making his way carefully down the bank with the neem trees, and slowly, very slowly because of his steel callipers, limping across the field. The breeze picked up once again, rustling through the grass. He noticed that Shirin was very relaxed now, her shoulders no longer stiff, her hair waving in the breeze. Her eyes were alive, as if with fire, and her face was turned towards him, and she was staring.

 He felt a growing excitement as he approached her. Shirin said something to her father, then General Khan was looking at him; as he reached out to touch her, he felt himself bouncing back from the blow that General Khan dealt him. He fell to the ground, surrounded by a whirl of peering faces. Then he saw Mr. Curtis hurrying towards them, and he stumbled to his feet, his ears still ringing. Taking one last look at the crowd, he found a gap, and began to run.

 

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Legacy

Published in Nimrod (October 2005 Issue) Finalist for Katherine Anne Porter Prize.

LEGACY

 

by Inderjeet Mani

 

My bedroom walls are white. I run my fingers along them, tracing the geckos’ footfalls. I like whitewashed surfaces, and patches of sky blue, and cobwebs glistening in the sun’s rays. I live here in this egg-white house on the outskirts of Coimbatore with Ma, her brother Uncle Krishna, and the servant-girl Laxmi. Ma has bad nerves, and is in and out of the hospital, so Uncle Krishna and Laxmi look after me.

The iron gates to our compound creak with rust, the walls and balconies crumbling, lizards scurrying over the vast porch. Below my window, the mali hunches over shriveled plants, while the watchman sits cross-legged on a bed under a palm tree, conversing with a cluster of children. Behind him, a wall topped with broken glass divides our compound from that of Chellappa, the textile mill owner; in the far corner there are a few more homes of retired people, and then dried-out wells, and empty fields filled with stones; beyond that, cropping up from a bunch of wild lianas, runs the dusty road to Coimbatore. And down that road one morning a strange woman comes walking, carrying a battered suitcase. She is stout, and very dark, and her hair hangs wild, like that of a madwoman. Laxmi hurries out to help her.

“It’s your Aunt Kamala,” Laxmi shouts, catching sight of me in my bedroom window. Aunt Kamala is my late father’s sister; now that her husband has died, she has come to live with us.

 

*          *          *

 

Aunt Kamala sports a thin moustache on a heavily powdered face that breathes strictness and precision. Her hair is somewhat incongruous, a dark and glorious mass that tumbles down to her shoulders, glistening with mustard oil. I find it hard to believe that this same woman eloped at the age of twenty with Uncle Thangarajan, a lower-caste man who dropped out of college to distribute flyers for the Communist Party. Her parents promptly disowned her for marrying a non-Brahmin, and Uncle Thanga could not find a job, so she taught school in Madras to make ends meet. And then, last month, Uncle Thanga suddenly died. He was forty.  Ma says it was due to cirrhosis.

 

*          *          *

 

Uncle Krishna and I like to lounge in the library, reclining on long armchairs with retractable arm and leg-rests. The afternoon of Aunt Kamala’s arrival, I lie there with my wasted legs stretched out below my shorts. Uncle Krishna lights me one of his cigars, and the smoke seeps slowly into my lungs. I lie back satisfiedly, blowing coils of smoke towards the library ceiling.

Uncle Krishna points to his own legs, the left one thin and twisted.

“Legs are not essential for us, Shankar. The greatest journeys are taken in the mind.”

Saliva trickles down his lip. His left hand dangles, the effete fingers pointing perpetually downwards. Like me, Uncle Krishna is handicapped; he drools, coughs, and is weak on his left side, the result of childhood polio. Whereas I was crippled in childhood by dengue fever.

He shows me a book of Chinese paintings.

“From the eighth century – the high Tang period. They had developed a fine art by then.”

I see women with intense expressions and delicate fingers sitting under a cherry tree. We leaf through pages scarred by silverfish, inhaling musty odors. I touch gnarled trees, grottos, bridges, waterfalls, together forming faraway landscapes where everything is suspended in a fine mist.

The library door creaks open.

“The boy should be studying, and not, may I say, reading girls’ novels,” Aunt Kamala declares.

She stands at the library entrance, her hair descending to her shoulders in dark ringlets, her arms poised menacingly on her hips.

“Works of art, Auntie, not mere novels,” I tell her.

“Books like that are nothing but dreams,” she says. Her eyes are hard, squinting through the haze of cigar smoke. She glares at Uncle Krishna. “Shankar will end up a dreamer — and girlish, like you!”

“He’ll grow up all right,” Uncle Krishna says, stroking my head. “He’s only twelve, give him time.”

“Not all right!” Aunt Kamala says. “He’ll grow like a weed” — she makes a quick sickle motion with her hands — “and he’ll be cut down like one.”

Uncle Krishna stares at her, shakes his head, then hobbles out of the room to fetch another cigar, clutching the waistband of his pajamas with his good hand as he limps along.

Aunt Kamala watches him leave, her disgust showing clearly on her face.

“Wait and see, Shankar — things are going to change around here,” she says, wagging her finger.

 

*          *          *

 

The next day I am awoken at dawn. I turn lazily, reaching out for Ma through the mosquito net, but then I smell mustard oil.

Aunt Kamala guides me firmly down to the dining table, my wheelchair banging on the stairs. I sit there watching the washerwomen as they crouch over wet clothes, their saris hitched up around their waists, their breasts dangling like breadfruit.

“Battle of Plessey?” Aunt Kamala asks, mercilessly.

“1757.”

“Good. Don’t spit when you speak. Impeachment of Warren Hastings?”

Silence.

“Arrival of the Aryans? Gandhi’s date of birth?”

The morning drifts on, with Aunt Kamala hovering over my exercise book, her thick fingers pointing out errors on every page.

At noon, it is time for me to bathe, before the water gets turned off. I sit in my wheelchair outside the bathroom, waiting for Laxmi to arrive. The bathroom is dense with cobwebs, some of which harbor large live spiders. Aunt Kamala suddenly appears, a rusty bucket in hand. There is no sign of Laxmi.

“From now on, I’ll be taking care of your bath.”

In next to no time, I’m sitting naked on the stone seat, while Aunt Kamala briskly pours a mug of ice cold water over my head.

“Auntie, use the hot water!” I point to the big bronze vat.

Be a man, Shankar! It would have made your father proud.”

She soaps and scrubs, pouring more cold water and humming to herself.

The water splashes over me, and I shiver. My aunt briskly wipes me dry, while continuing her interrogation.

“India’s second highest peak?”

Silence.

 “What is it you have learned all these years?” She twists my ear.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing that’s worthwhile, I’m proud to say, though Ma and Uncle Krishna hired many tutors and nodded admiringly as I lay in the library musing over books.

“You will learn the facts of life, Shankar! If not, you’ll end up in the Cheshire Home!”

I have a cousin Padmini who is mentally retarded and prone to delusions. She can’t take care of herself, and when visiting Coimbatore we sometimes drop in at the Cheshire Home on Sullivan Street, to watch her sitting in a drab room stringing beads and beaming foolishly to herself.

In the afternoon, as the heat mounts, I make my customary trip to the library, but Aunt Kamala bars the way.

“A room like that is not a healthy place for a young man. All that cigar stink. And the time-wasting books! The library is off limits from now on.”

I look up to see if she’s serious, but her eyes are sharp, burning with manic intensity. The armpit of her blouse is dark with sweat.

The long afternoon drags on. The air is hot and turgid. As I start to doze, she freely wields the ruler.

“Shankar — wake up and pay attention! Not getting enough sleep? A grown boy, twelve years old, still sleeping with his Ma!”

The mention of Ma makes me lose my temper and yell something clever at my aunt. She responds with a slap. I manage to get a good bite of her sweaty palm, which tastes sour and makes me retch. She wallops me hard on the head, and I cry out, and then Ma and Laxmi rush in.

That evening, I am forced to apologize. I mutter something, and stare off into space. We eat our dinner in silence. Later, sent up early to bed, I lie there swallowing my tears. I lie awake late into the night, watching the geckos and hatching my plans.

 

*          *          *

 

It’s early on a Saturday afternoon, and Ma is about to rest. I watch her take off her sari, a curtain of shimmering green, matching the lovely Burmese emeralds on her neck. She moves effortlessly out of her garments, familiar yet mysterious.

“Ma, why does Aunt Kamala have to stay here?”

“My boy, we are …. in a precarious situation. There’s the house, but not much else. With no relatives there to help us… except for Aunt Kamala.  And with Uncle Krishna weak and unable to do his part, the responsibility is going to fall on you, my little man,” she says, tousling my hair.

I nestle close, inhaling a whiff of jasmine that mingles with the odor of Odomos mosquito repellent.

 “Yesterday afternoon, Aunt Kamala took a bus all the way to Coimbatore. Laxmi said she was seen in town with a couple of low-class characters!”

“There are rumors, Shankar,” Ma whispers back.  “Maybe just rumors and innuendo, but who knows, she must have gone to dine with her late husband’s Communist cronies. If only my father were alive! Things would never have come to this.”

She starts to mutter, as she usually does. She gets calming injections every day from Dr. Sundaresan, but they don’t seem to help, the muttering goes on. Sometimes she goes away to the hospital and comes back looking very pale, as if she’s seen a ghost. It frightens me. But between the muttering, she talks about the past, giggling now and then as she remembers her childhood, in the dusty town of Bhavani by the Kaveri river.

“We had everything those days, before the war,” Ma says. “Father was so forward-looking. Loved books, made us read all the time. Mother, too. Father wanted me to be an advocate, like him. But then I met your poor Papa. He didn’t want me to work, just to cook and clean and entertain his friends.”

“But Laxmi does all the cleaning. Anyway, you’d have been a great lawyer, Ma.”

Nestling next to her, I feel as if a circuit is complete: I’m plugged in to Ma, her rhythms, and the memories that wash through her mind when it’s clear.

“Father had the big green Studebaker then. We would drive to Madras, all eight of us piled into the car, to attend parties and go to the club…Those were good days – if only you had been there – you would have loved it! And now it’s all no more, and I’m left here …what a life, Shankar!” She retreats into her world of nostalgia and sorrow.

I wonder about Ma’s life after the war, her life with my father, who died from the dengue at thirty-five, but she never talks about him, even though his framed photograph sits just a few feet away on the bedroom dresser. I linger over his face, with the lumpy nose and bright eyes that are almost mine, tracing those lips which hint at a smile. I have no memory of him, and it pains me to think that he’s come and gone without leaving me a hint of what I owe to him.

Ma has never done anything to remember him formally; his annual death ceremonies are performed away from home, at the temple in Coimbatore. I wonder what has passed between them, but whenever I ask, she tosses her head, and retreats into silence, as if the memory is too private to be shared.

 

*          *          *

 

On Sunday night, I hear screaming and commotion in the jewelry room. Uncle Krishna hurries me there, pushing my wheelchair as best he can. Ma is on the floor in tears, her baubles strewn about on bits of colored paper. The mirrored cupboard door is wide open, and Laxmi is rummaging about with her head inside.

“Ma — what happened!”

“Ma’s emeralds,” Laxmi explains, excitedly. “They’ve vanished!”

“Only you and Laxmi have the keys,” Uncle Krishna tells Ma, his eyes thoughtful.

“They were right here yesterday afternoon,” Ma says, shaking her head through her tears. “Remember, Shankar? I was wearing them with that green sari — I had taken them off, before we took a nap…and then, after I woke up, I put them away.”

“It’s all right,” Uncle Krishna says. “Jewelry, keys, Odomos — they all have a way of turning up eventually.”  He looks at me quickly.

“How can you compare it to Odomos!” Ma yells at him. “You know my emeralds were a gift from Father!”

Uncle Krishna isn’t perturbed.

“Maybe the window was open, and one of the washerwomen took it. Or even a crow. They’re fond, like women, of shiny things.”

Ma looks very sad, and I reach out to touch her. She lets me sit in the wheelchair next to her and stroke the back of her neck. I feel very bad about taking the emeralds, but with Aunt Kamala the way she is, I had to do it.

That night, Ma and Aunt Kamala fuss over me at dinner, making sure I eat, but neither acknowledges the other’s presence. The two of them glide past each other without saying a word. My aunt walks about with her head and hair held high, her moustache bristling.

“Have you checked under your pillow?” Aunt Kamala asks Ma.

Laxmi goes to look, but returns empty-handed.

“Don’t worry,” Aunt Kamala says firmly, but her voice is nervous. “It’ll turn up.”

Ma glares at Aunt Kamala, but doesn’t say a word.

“I’ll send for the police,” Uncle Krishna says.

Later, Ma tells me: “It’s that wretch Kamala! She doesn’t have anything to her name — her husband didn’t leave her a pie! She’s probably sold it already to her Communist cronies!”

Ma looks up at me. I hug her. 

 

*          *          *

 

Later, when Aunt Kamala is away in Coimbatore, I sneak into the library. We light up our cigars, and after a few minutes’ deep inhalation, Uncle Krishna takes me in hand.

 “You need to cheer up, Shankar. Your aunt’s been here no more than a week.”

I remain silent, trying to imagine a succession of weeks like this one, extending on for the rest of my life. 

“We made a vow to your father, Shankar. Ma and I promised we’d care for her if she ever were left alone. Then her husband died, poor fellow — he’d led quite a wretched life — and then, of course, we brought her here. She is such a help, Shankar, and she tries very hard. She’s devoted to you, you know. She’ll be there by your side, even after I’m gone.”

 “Ma called her a kleptomaniac.”

He laughs. “Shankar, she’s no more of that than you or I. And your mother gets carried away — she’s very nervous, poor thing. What would Aunt Kamala do with jewelry? She doesn’t even have a social life. No, I think we must look elsewhere.” He stares hard at me.

“Maybe Aunt Kamala likes to try the emeralds on at night, when nobody’s looking …”

Uncle Krishna lights his cigar, and puffs for a minute in silence. Then he turns to me, and speaks in a grave voice.

“Shankar, you must do your part. Remember, your aunt, too, has led a hard life.”

He pauses, then adds, thoughtfully: “You will have to put the necklace back. Nobody will ask any questions.”

I have a lump in my throat.

“One day the world of your childhood will be past,” Uncle Krishna tells me. “All of us will be gone. And you will remember it like a dream.”

 

*          *          *

 

One evening, after dinner, Aunt Kamala takes me out to the front steps, where we sit under the lamp looking out over the garden with shriveled plants. It is a nice evening, with the first stars glistening in the sky above our compound. It is still very hot, but a light breeze rustles through the palms.

A group of beetles are buzzing about on the hot stones. We sit quietly for a while, and then she puts her hand on my shoulder and tells me:

“When I was young, I was like you, I used to read. Harold Robbins. And Nevil Shute.”

“Never heard of them. Were they Communists?”

 “They were all Thanga’s books — he was so very well-read! Later, I didn’t have time. I had to work. But we’d see the films on weekends, MGR, Vijanthimala — what a beautiful actress she was! And the music — it was heavenly.”

            One of the beetles is now upside-down and writhing on the ground, as the other beetles start to work it over.

            “Thanga had known many famous people. He knew the Party Chairman. And the President of Loyola College. They were talking about sending him to Russia to study further…” She turns to me.

“Knowledge is everything, Shankar. Once we make up for all the lost time, I’ll teach you the practical skills — typing, accounts, ledgers. Don’t worry – you’ll be making a decent living in next to no time.”

            “Auntie, I know I have to help out, but I can’t work as a clerk.”

            “Not work as a clerk? Too infra-dig, I suppose? You’re talking just like your Ma! Going on about her father being a famous advocate! And owning half the land in Bhavani — I tell you, they owned very little!”

            “Auntie…. I want to write stories. And travel, maybe visit China. Or America.”

Aunt Kamala laughs. “America, China — wherever do you get all these strange notions! It’s like Thanga said — the most dangerous ideas come from books. If only your father had been here to guide you: he would have cleared your mind in an instant!”

This mention of my father as an eviscerator of minds is new to me, and somewhat alarming.

“Auntie, what was my father really like?”

A smile plays briefly on her lips

“Tall. And handsome, I must say. With a nose like yours. And a devoted family man. But so different from you. None of those girlish ideas – those come from your mother’s side.”

She pauses.

“Remember, Shankar, there are two kinds of people. The movers and shakers, and the rest. Your father e was in the first category. He worked very hard, right from when he was a boy, rising early to study. In his spare time, he read books about business leaders and other successful people. He had a gift for business matters, he didn’t care for caste or religion or ancient superstitions. He would have reached up there, high in the world, if only he had looked after his health.”

I try to picture him darting about, his mind brimming with practical ideas for his own advancement. He seems so different from me, yet I can imagine his hands reaching out, helping me take my first steps, before the dengue claimed his life and left me crippled.

Meanwhile, Aunt Kamala leans on my wheelchair, rocking it gently on the steps, her eyes, reminiscent of my father’s, gleaming under the lamp. She talks on about movers and shakers, but I don’t care to listen. The world I come from is not anything she can touch. It is one where Chinese women with delicate fingers linger under the leaves with their dresses rustling; where the universe moves at a leisurely rhythm, in time to the puff of a cigar. A world filled with inspiration; a clean and moral place. Unlike the other one, where people are often weak or cut down, and where a madwoman can come and turn everything topsy-turvy.

I rock gently forward, as her grip on the wheelchair loosens. The wheelchair topples, and crashes down the steps. I can feel myself falling on the cement, and then landing eye to eye with a dying beetle. My lip is cut and I cry out, calling for Ma. Laxmi comes running, and later I can hear Ma cursing at Aunt Kamala. Still later that night, Dr. Sundaresan arrives, and stitches the gash in my lip.

 

*          *          *

 

That was in May. It’s now October, and my thirteenth birthday has come and gone. Ma is away in the hospital. In the meantime, strange things have happened. A flurry of letters arrived addressed to Aunt Kamala, including one from the Communist Party in Madras. Strangers have been calling at the house, mostly young men asking for Aunt Kamala. They borrow books, act friendly and ask me questions, and hang around on the verandah talking to Aunt Kamala, who seems very chummy with them.

Aunt Kamala has started cooking non-veg in the house. Laxmi will have nothing to do with it, but a Muslim man comes and leaves mutton and other goodies in a bag by the kitchen entrance.

Aunt Kamala has, I must say, grown quite attached to me, taking me out on short walks outside the compound to reminisce about pulp fiction and her life with her husband. To my disgust, I can’t help remembering some of her facts: that an acre is .4 hectares, that amethysts are associated with sincerity, and emeralds with love.

I’ve also noticed that Aunt Kamala and Uncle Krishna have been talking to each other a great deal in private — it’s only when I’m around that they seem to argue. One night I hear them out on the front porch, their voices wafting up above the hum of crickets to my bedroom window.

 “The world’s changed, Krishna. A new order — science, economics. Modern gadgets, household appliances. No place for old-fashioned people, I must say.”

“I’m quite happy to be an old fogey, Kamala,” Uncle Krishna says.

“Skills will be everything,” Aunt Kamala points out. “A new world, the past left behind.”

“People with skills, and gadgets — but with less wisdom.”

“Maybe. But what will become of the boy, Krishna? He’s so rebellious.”

“It’s the age. He’ll soften over time.”

“Krishna, you know nothing comes in life unless you ask for it….Anyway, I think we can ask the Chettiars on Kuppusamy Street to take him on as a secretary. He doesn’t have a head for figures, but he can try taking in steno work.”

 “Yes. It’s time to start arranging all that. Eventually, of course, he’ll have to take rooms in town.”

“If only the boy will listen. He has such strange ideas — and expensive tastes, like his mother.”

She pauses. “If only Thanga were here. He took it very hard, being ridiculed by your sister. All because he was a non-Brahmin! He was an intellectual, Krishna — I tell you, a real intellectual!”

 There is a long pause, with the crickets rising to the fore. When Aunt Kamala speaks again, her voice is softer, and I have to lean out of the window to hear the words.

“These past months have not been easy, Krishna. First Thanga dying, then coming here with all my things in a suitcase — and then your sister. And then the boy — resisting at every step! Not to say I want to run away, but sometimes it seems I’m not wanted at all!”

“Come, now, Kamala, you mustn’t pay attention to him. I gave you my word everything would work out as planned.”

“The boy and his mother have been making enquiries about my trips to Coimbatore.”

“Little do they know. Anyway, you have every right to attend to Thanga’s affairs.”

“The life insurance will come through soon, I think. The Party official told me two months.”

“It will be very welcome, Kamala.”

“You know I have nowhere else to go, Krishna. My life’s work is over — there’s only you and I left. Right now, peace of mind is all I want. But she won’t leave me be, will she? Making my life a hell! Who would care for any of her old things? I don’t even wear jewelry!”

And then, her voice rising to a hysterical shriek:

“Krishna, I keep remembering things about Thanga. Forcing me to wear one particular sari in front of his friends, showing off to them with scotch and non-veg, while insisting that I eat idlis with a fork and knife! And always telling me, the breadwinner, what to do, when it was I who had to put up with him stinking drunk half the time!”

“Come now, Kamala, get yourself together. Think of all we have ahead.”

I hear murmurs, then silence. When Aunt Kamala’s voice is heard again, it is distraught.

 “Krishna — the day Thanga died was the happiest day of my life! He had made me so angry over the years, and he hit me so many times, with his chappal, right here! What hell I went through, Krishna!”

I know that she is crying on his shoulder, her sorrows gathering like leaves around an ancient tree.

 

*          *          *

 

I am in the jewelry room, watching Ma. She seems tired after her long hospital stay, and as she combs her hair, clumps of hair remain behind on the comb. But her mind is clear.

“How does it look, Shankar?” Her voice has a curious ring — it’s as if she is talking to her father.

“Ma, the necklace matches your sari hem.”

“Shankar, if only you’d been a girl — you have such a feel for things! Who will I give my jewelry to when I’m gone?” She shakes her head. “It was Father’s hard-earned money that bought it for me. Of course I don’t expect Uncle Krishna will safeguard it, he hasn’t bothered to look after any of our other things.”

She looks into the mirror, disconsolate. Her hair, I notice, has bald patches in the center.  It’s something I can’t bear to see, and yet my eyes linger on it.

“Ma, while you were away, I saw something. Aunt Kamala and Uncle Krishna … were together in the library …”

Ma is silent, staring into the mirror.  She looks very sad.

“I know, I wasn’t supposed to go there, but I wanted a book. She was lying down next to Uncle Krishna … her sari was high, up here.” I look straight into her eyes.

When Ma finally speaks, there is a sense of resignation in her voice.

“Shankar, I knew it would come to this. I’ve always told you things about our family, so you will understand who your people are. Now you’ve grown up, only to see the family ruined!”

Ma looks away, as she always does when recollecting a moment from the distant past.

 “Uncle Krishna had polio when he was very young, and Mother thought they would lose him, but he survived. He was really her favorite, her jewel, she called him. He’s so very fond of you, has high hopes for you….” She fondles the armrest of my wheelchair.

And then she turns, somewhat uncomfortably, back to the mirror, placing her hands on her eyebrows, smoothing them down.

“But he’s also weak, very soft, a dreamer. He doesn’t have the will, the self-control. It’s hard for him, imagine a life without someone ever to share it with.…”

Ma shrugs, a shrug which encompasses all the moral ambiguities of the universe.

“If only he had picked some other woman, someone who didn’t matter, like Laxmi! But he needed someone, poor man, it’s not his fault, there are very few men who can live without women, and I suppose that wretch Aunt Kamala wanted to take advantage of him, she happened to be there, in the right place, at the right time! One day, Shankar, wait and see: it’ll be she who rules the roost!”

Her voice quavers, and she starts to weep, and I wonder I’ve gone too far.

 “Well, she must have been eyeing your uncle for years, while her own husband drank himself stupid! My God — to think what shame she has brought to our family — I should have eaten my diamonds!”

She has no more diamonds; I am familiar with all her jewelry.

“Ma, there’s still us three left. Please stop crying!”

 “Shankar, our lives are over. And you’re the last of the family.” She sobs. “Yes, you, in this pitiful state! Not that I’ve been a great mother, Shankar, I know I haven’t been strong.”

“It’s OK, Ma. I know you weren’t well.”

Ma kisses me, covering my face in salty tears.

“You know, Shankar, I’m so proud of you. Of the way you’ve grown up, from a poor little crippled boy to a fine young man, in spite of all the odds, all the wretched doings in our family.”

That night, I sleep fitfully. I dream I’m transported to an entirely different house, with a drab grey room like the one in the Cheshire Home. The only books there are thick accounting ledgers, and one of them has my name on it. I sit there turning the pages of the ledger, on and on till the end of my days.

 

*          *          *

 

Uncle Krishna has become sick, coughing all the time. Aunt Kamala is always by his side. Dr. Sundaresan says it’s emphysema, and that penicillin or other injections won’t help. Each cough is a wheezing splutter, leaving Uncle Krishna weaker and gasping for air.  He has been warned many times about cigars, but he still steals a defiant puff with my help now and then.

Meanwhile, Ma has been sent away for a while. Seeing Uncle Krishna sick, and with the business of Aunt Kamala added to it — it was just too much for her to bear. Uncle Krishna and Aunt Kamala decided then that she needed to go back to hospital care.

This has been a time of great reflection for me. I really miss Ma. It seems clear that I helped precipitate her latest breakdown. To make matters worse, every time I’m around poor Uncle Krishna, seeing him struggle to stay alive, I get very upset. It doesn’t help that he continues to smile and act nice as if he’s unaware of my attitude towards his alliance with Aunt Kamala. 

But it’s seeing Aunt Kamala that really makes me wonder about life. She now sleeps in a bed next to Uncle Krishna’s, not caring what others say. She takes care of his needs, airs his room, changes the sheets and cleans the bed pan. She sits for hours stroking his forehead with a wet towel, and rubbing his emaciated chest and back with Vicks Vaporub. I can’t help admiring how devoted she is to him. He, too, looks up to her with gratitude in his eyes, even though he’s not quite himself any more, as he slowly succumbs to the onslaught of his illness.

With all those new responsibilities, Aunt Kamala still manages to supervise my lessons, my bath, and even my meals. Her eyes still have their gleam, but they also speak of sorrow, and long suffering. She is tired at times; yet she seems determined to push ahead and make a man of me.

I can’t understand where she gets the energy for all this care-giving. But then, I now know that it’s a family trait: my father’s people are all like that. Aunt Kamala has been telling me a lot about my father. Like her, he was prone to wrongheaded ideas but at the same time full of care for others. He too disturbed households, uprooted lives, turned things topsy-turvy.

 

*          *          *

 

They finally give Uncle Krishna morphine, though he has been demanding it for weeks. He asks to be put in the library, and he lies there half asleep in the long armchair, a plastic spittoon beside him swirling with red-and-green phlegm. The library smells of ammonia. Aunt Kamala opens the window, and we hear the tinkle of bicycle bells and the cries of vegetable vendors.

Uncle Krishna suddenly seems to wake up and starts to recite something, between long, rattling coughs.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,” he says, his voice tapering off.

“And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,” I fill in. “To hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour.”

Uncle Krishna smiles weakly at me. Tears glisten in his eyes. I close my eyes. There is a moment of sharp pain, and then that last image of Uncle Krishna fills my mind.

 

*          *          *

 

Uncle Krishna’s funeral was very quiet, with few relatives attending. Tongues were wagging, I’m told, even at the cremation. Ma is now back, but she keeps to herself, sadly, even at mealtimes. Her dentures keep clicking when she speaks, but she finds it humiliating to go about without them. She has become withdrawn, drifting about the house like a ghost, waiting for her time to come. She now speaks of Uncle Krishna in the reverential tones normally reserved for her father.

I now have a bed all to myself: I sleep downstairs in Uncle Krishna’s bedroom, resting my head on his pillow. His pajamas are folded away in the cupboard, under my own clothes. I like to lie there at night, listening to the crickets, running my fingers over the wall and feeling the bustle of lives that have come and gone. My heart is heavy, but through all the changes, the house itself seems solid, like other dwellings destined to outlast their inhabitants.

Actually, the house has been spruced up quite a bit. The front porch has been repaired, the kitchen has a fridge, and we at last have indoor toilets. As for the library, it had become cluttered, with thousands of disorganized books — one day Aunt Kamala couldn’t stand it any more and sold them all by weight to the kabbadiwala.

At bath time, Aunt Kamala briskly peels off my clothes, and then pours a mug of ice cold water over my head. The water falls in a splash, and I shiver, but her grip is firm. I look up at her, just in time to catch a trace of a smile under her moustache. As she leans to fill up a mug, her neck juts forward like an animal’s, her skin glistening and reflecting the light.

Extreme Sports

Extreme Sports, published in Word Riot

Ice

Ice, published in Kimera

 

ICE

 

by Inderjeet Mani

 

At the airport there were swarms of Sikhs, stocky, smelling of garlic and soiled shoes fresh from the wheat fields of the Punjab. Scruffy young Western tourists in beads and sandals lay stretched out on the floor, their faces sullen, as if India had promised them much but left them confused and weary. As Rafiq sat and watched them, his hand resting lightly on Monique’s knee, he recalled that each time he left, he’d felt the same twinge of regret. Kissing the cheeks and foreheads of aged relatives — wizened old folks who had somehow acquired traces of his face, his teeth and skin — he always wondered if it was the last time he would see them, but each time he returned they seemed to have survived.

Monique was drumming nervously on the armrest, the way she did when she was planning something. He did not relish the thought of the long flight with her. He resisted the idea of climbing into the plane — it was like entering a tube of toothpaste, from which he would emerge squeezed out, refitted for the box that defined their life together in London, everything organized perfectly like place settings for their dinner guests. He would have preferred to spend the Saturday alone in London, quietly drinking his beer and admiring his coin collection, or even playing with a pet iguana — pleasures he would reserve for himself once Monique was gone.

 

*              *              *

 

Once he got on board, he realized something was terribly wrong. Monique seemed oblivious to it, she was busy chatting to the stewardess, her gentle French cadences echoing calmly beside his own agitated thoughts. Then he began to feel the plane gather speed and rise, swaying giddily from side to side as it thundered into the air. Soon they were up above the clouds, out of sight of the earth’s curves and indentations. The plane was taking him across mountains and valleys of tufted cloud and ice crystals, stretching infinitely towards a pink horizon. He looked towards the emergency exit, the handle inviting him to step out, to slide across alabaster cloud and begin a journey into unknown terrain. He felt as if he was about to crash through glass and emerge out into the open, except that it wasn’t glass but a crystalline substance — ice, encrusted with rough mineral growth, glistening with patches of ancient gold and obsidian along with green turf mold. Hacking into it would bring a shimmering curtain of shards spattering across the air, sharp fragments that reminded him of the wretched ideas and images that filled up his mind, scripts from an unknown alphabet, maps of constellations, the Chinese characters for sun, earth, and rice field — and a scrap of toilet paper clinging to Monique’s shoe.

He moved his feet, allowing her to squeeze by into her seat, then fingered the cell phone in his pocket. He wondered if he would suddenly get a call from his parents, but that was impossible since they had died years earlier. The last time he had spoken to his mother, she was on vacation with his father, after which there had been a terrible accident. Now his parents’ journey was over, and the only one he was supposedly close to was Monique. All he could feel as he looked outside was a curtain of ice that he would have to hack through with his axe.

 

*              *              *

 

The axe had cropped up repeatedly, in nightmares, in daydreams, in moments of sheer vacuity. Once he had buried it. Another time it had reappeared in a dark alley outside a police lock-up. One evening in Hampstead, while getting ready for a party, he had received an anonymous call from someone who was trying to hunt him down. A sickening taste came into his mouth, along with a feeling of revulsion.

“Perhaps you killed quelqu’un in another life”, Monique had said helpfully. “Remember when you were inside of me when you said you felt like chopping my head?”

 

*              *              *

 

The axe had something to do with his mother, he was sure of it. In Delhi, he had slept in her bed, her collection of Japanese dolls staring down at him from on top of the dresser. He could smell her hair lotion on the pillow. Afterwards, she was no longer a voice, just a presence, an invisible depression on the mattress. A splinter of ice came sliding towards him, and he ducked. She had disappeared forever, like those mysterious faces on missing persons posters, foul play suspected, perhaps fated to encasement in a living tomb, the leaves growing over them, or even prolonged incarceration with chains, unspeakable tortures with probes inserted everywhere, the scalp set on fire, the victims of sick fellows who got even with their pasts by changing the present irrevocably.

 

*              *              *

 

The axe had a small handle with a heavy, glistening blade. It was hard to try and chop anything with it, least of all a head, for that was what the sickening taste told him: it was someone’s head he had cherry-picked off its stalk. He wondered if it could have been Rahul’s? Rahul was a blithering oaf from college with trembling, nicotene-stained fingers, whom Rafiq had apparently driven insane thirty years earlier by stealing his stereo system. Rahul’s parents had warned their son about taking such an expensive apparatus to college: he would lose it; his mother was very strict; they weren’t too well off. But that hadn’t mattered to Rafiq, had it? He had threatened Rahul repeatedly with the prospect of the theft, and he remembered the frightened look on Rahul’s face. When the stereo disappeared, Rahul had complained to the Dean, but there was no evidence. Rafiq had stolen it because he wanted to be like Raskolnikov, to commit a crime and eventually, in the very long run, to get caught. It had fetched a good price, enough for a week’s supply of mescaline. A few months after the sale Rafiq had left college, and soon after he heard that Rahul had a breakdown.

 

*              *              *

 

When his father hugged him the last time they had met, Rafiq had cringed, as if his father, familiar with his ways, was about to see through him. Unlike his father, Rafiq had been corrupted at an early age, and thereafter degraded himself repeatedly, not to mention the numerous infidelities to Monique. He had certainly hacked through people’s lives, his terrible tantrums ruining scenes of domestic harmony; he had forced young women into slavery; he had been uncouth in his actions, a giant hand stretching across the land swiping wildly at things that came his way. It was good to make amends, even if the people one made amends to had disappeared forever. He was sorry all right, sorry for what he had done to his friends, to Rahul, to his women, to Monique, to his father, and his mother, but he didn’t recall beheading anyone. Unless he had somehow done it and forgotten.

 

*              *              *

 

Milarepa had written of a great diamond thunderbolt, a vajra which cleaves through truth. Who all had he wronged, apart from himself? And what about all those throughout history who had been wronged by others, tortured, torn apart by dogs, left to die in airless containers? Who was going to make amends for that? Hopefully not him! Perhaps that was why someone was hunting for him through all his waking hours, watching, waiting for the final moment. He wondered what fate would await him. His therapist had given him the usual garbage: anxiety, paranoia, childhood abuse, guilt, one needed to accept, did one not, that it was not one’s fault, stuff about not needing to worry about others’ sins, his own being too heavy.

 

*              *              *

 

He loved the metal blade, he liked to run his tongue along its beveled edge, feeling as if he was stepping across an ineluctably smooth surface. He had hacked into the universe and now it was waiting patiently for him, he would have to face up to it, he could feel the blood pulsing in his neck. He wondered about his head, how startled it would be if it were to suddenly tumble into a basket. What a look there would be in its eyes, dumb amazement at the sheer fact of the universe.

The axe came sliding across the ice to him, and he bent to pick it up.

 

 

 

Story Sample: The Bull’s Eye

The Bull’s Eye Drunken Boat (2007-8 Issue) Finalist for Pan Literary Award.

Also, one of Story South’s Million Writers Award Notable
Stories of 2007