In The Sandbox

The mud is not inanimate as she had thought it to be; out of the corner of her eyes, she sees it move in a sleek file. Pushing back the mass of curls out of the way with her chubby fingers, she squats down in the corner of the sandbox. On closer look, she finds that this moving piece of mud is different from the rest. For one thing, it is green. She puts out her hand to feel the cylindrical body wriggle, protesting against her hold. She puts it back on the concrete path beside the sandbox and observes.

The worm makes its way quickly towards the opposite side of the narrow path, towards the swings and slides where the older kids play. The playground is usually filled with boisterous children of all ages. But not today; today, it is just her. The knowledge emboldens her, and she crosses the path to follow the worm.

There is a little growth of grass here, with weeds scattered here and there. The worm quickly scuttles over behind one of the weedy leaves. The leaves interest her more; they are different than the grass around, and different than the full-shaped ones in her book. They are carved and designed like the stencils that she has for her colouring books. Bending over the tiny plant, she carefully plucks out a leaf. The mud around immediately becomes a sea of motion; ants and worms all in chaos. She takes a few sharp steps back; they are all like Chico dog, unhappy to be disturbed from their slumber.

The swings are too high for her to get on by herself; she had fallen trying yesterday. Can she try again today? In his usual bouncing excitement, Chico dog had jumped on the swings last week, only to land flying on the ground; shocked that the seats moved. She had been amused by his horrified look.

She stands in front of one of swings, set slightly lower than the rest. The seat is in line with her chest. A rush of struggling limbs; arms tightened on the metal ropes, legs flailing about in the air, and she is flat on the ground. She settles down on the lower seat of the see-saw to rest.

worm

Photo by Jairo Alzate

 

The insect hole, hidden behind the shade of the small plant, has gone back to its peaceful existence. She sees lines of ants following each other in and out of the hole. The worm that she had followed has climbed over on one of the intricately patterned leaves. It is soon joined by a friend, and together, they cut out a pattern across the midrib, somewhat like the lace on the socks that she is wearing.

She is distracted by the sound of laughter coming from the street, and looks up to see two boys enter the playground. They are slightly older than her; she has seen them sit on the swings by themselves. They make their way to the see-saw.

“Get up, we want to play.”

She obliges, and toddles back to her sandbox, vaguely aware of the chatter behind her. One of the worms has escaped from its leaf house again, and joins her in the sandbox. Her shoes have left a pattern in the mud, and the worm follows the crevices. This fascinates her. She creates a gateway out of her shoe’s print, and begins tracing a path with her finger for the worm. The worm is slow, and by the time it reaches the gateway, she has already created an elaborate labyrinth over half the sandbox. Settling down cross-legged in the middle of the sandbox, she watches the progress of the worm, engrossed.

A heap of mud lands directly over the worm, burying it. The two boys are standing over her, their hands muddy.

“Go away. We want to play.”

She looks back to ground. The worm has managed to find its way out of the mud, and is gliding down the tiny mound.

Before she can point this out to the boys, she is showered in fistfuls of mud. The mud pies are strong, hard enough to hurt her. She covers her face, but her hands are already dirty. Tears spring from her eyes, streaking across her muddy face. She does not understand.

“What the mother must be thinking, leaving her girl playing about in the mud like that!”

She opens her eyes to find the women, the boys’ mothers scrutinizing her, distaste plain on their faces. She looks towards the gate for comfort, her red house visible on the other side of the pavement. Chico dog had been roaming in their garden, but now has come to the playground to investigate. He gives her a lick. The women look on in disgust. One of the boys takes a fancy to Chico and makes to pet him, but is pulled back by his mother.

She wants to tell the boys that Chico will not bite, wants them to know that the worm climbed out of the heap of mud. Chico tugs at her pinafore.

*

She is in the tub, telling her mother all about the worm, how she fell down the swing, how the boys were scared of Chico. Her mother smiles, asks her questions about the stencil leaves, and gently washes the mud out of her hair. Inwardly, she thinks of the articles she read that morning, about prestigious science awards going only to men, of glass ceilings that would not break. She thinks of her own hard-earned tenure, her patronizing colleagues, her difficult journey. She tries to quieten the guilt that is seeping through her; guilt of being a few minutes late, caught up in a work call. She looks at her bright, inquisitive daughter, and wonders if mud is enough to sow seeds of doubt and hesitation.

As the mother tucks her into bed, her daughter tells her that she will go and see the worms tomorrow. She hopes that they will have new patterns on their leaves. A relieved sigh escapes the mother. Today, at least, was not the day.

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Intoxicated

She runs her hand lightly on the spines of the books on her towering shelves. She picks one at random, reads a few pages, puts it back, picks another, puts it back. Her mind cannot stick to the story, or the characters.  When it does, she feels even more lost and trapped. All her books seem to be about inevitable pain, and helplessness in front of fate. Even the summaries on the back of the books talk about already “doomed” protagonists. When did her books become so depressing, and cynical, and tragic? She remembers when she started reading “grown up” books; books that were not in the Young Reader’s section at the book store. She was thrilled, she felt like a grown up. When did growing up become synonymous with tragedy?

Unable to settle, she roams about the house. Her grandmother’s room looks to the east, and the rays of the sun are slipping through the crack between the two curtains, lighting up the haze of dust. She draws the curtains aside, only to be blinded by the light. She cannot comprehend the emptiness of the room, but the utter silence is somewhat comforting. After days of endless chatter of her relatives, the necessary small talk, the societal rituals of mourning, the silence feels like waking up after a long harrowing nightmare.

The landing on the first floor opens to a terrace balcony. A worn out yoga mat sits in the corner, its navy color fading. She wants to smile at her innocently good intentions. She tries to ease the wrinkles on her forehead, but that is oddly uncomfortable. Her face struggles to get back to the new normal, unable to handle the momentary release from the strain.

Memories of this terrace flicker across her eyes. She remembers sitting her in the evenings, getting her hair oiled by her grandmother, eating almonds. She remembers endless games of carom, accompanied by lemonade. She remembers the frustration and sleepless nights, when she dealt with  her exam stress by walking to and fro in the cool night air. She remembers tears of joy and relief at finally getting admission to her first choice of university. She remembers dance practices and hard work. She remembers long discussions, the aimless chatter, the unhesitating laughter. She remembers the mechanical answers as she replied to variants of Congratulations on your first job! She remembers the loneliness that slowly sneaked up on her, as she became quieter and quieter. She remembers the months of guilt as she willed herself everyday to function, to show up at work, to pick up the pieces of her life, to switch off the autopilot, to do more than simply exist. And she remembers the phone call, the dread, the cold sweat breaking over her again and again, as she begged, and prayed, and hoped, that she had heard wrong, that Naani was fine, that it was not her fault that she had not been available to talk, or to listen.

The attic smells musty. No one has come up here since ages. The place is crammed with boxes, and knick-knacks lie scattered on the floor. She sees several dinner sets that they never got around to using, each gifted to the family by someone or the other every Diwali. She sees her old bicycle, stabilizers thrown into the basket. There are four huge boxes full of old photo albums, picture stories of three generations.

She has never been intoxicated. Always the model child, she never had the urge to try out something forbidden, to experiment, to experience. She never rebelled, never sneaked out at night, never had a secret party, never even painted her nails black. She wonders if she missed out on things, but she knows, deep down, that she never would have dared. She has been raised on a diet of obedience and guilt.

And yet she often finds herself thinking of the small bottle of brandy in the medicinal cabinet nowadays, fighting a mad desire to take a couple of swigs. She wonders, almost academically, what it would feel like to be drunk. Would she really forget for a while?

She finds what she is looking for. In this corner of the attic are boxes labelled Books. Here lie the stacks of Nancy Drew, the literal mountains of innumerable series of Enid Blyton, the Judy Blumes. These are the books that made her fall in love with reading. These are the characters that are brave, and never fail, and are always the heroes of their own stories. They are never hindered by things outside their control, they never feel helpless.

She is meticulous this time, and picks up the books in order of their series number. The characters wave at her like old friends, the familiar words ease the knots in her stomach. If she concentrates very hard, she can just taste her childhood. She tells herself this is healthier; at least she’s not zoning out in front of the TV.

It is dark in the attic. Her eyes turn red with strain as she devours book after book. The characters from all the series are getting mixed up but she doesn’t want to stop. As she drags herself down to her bedroom after several hours, her eyes nearly closed, her head pounding, and her body heavy with tiredness that comes from mental exhaustion, it strikes her that the brandy may not be the only way of getting drunk.

A Bookish Love

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla

It was a stupid decision, they said. You are wasting your grades; you could easily get a better internship! But they did not understand. They did not know the absolute need, the compulsion to be there, among all those long, towering shelves of books. It was there, amidst the musty smell of books, that he could breathe.

He had his table by the classics section. It was the best table; he could see the black penguin covers, even if he was not allowed to pick any and read it during the day time. Their being there in front of him, just existing, was such a comfort. He helped people find the books; rarely did he use his computer to locate any book; he remembered where each of them was. Tolstoy’s War and Peace next to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment… Bronte’s Jane Eyre besides the row of Jane Austen books. His  hands lingered on the books; the touch was both familiar and exhilarating.

*

She had not been to the bookstore for four months now; an eternity. The work at the make-up aisle was mind-numbing, and hardly paid for the bills. There was no extra money for books, no extra time for perusing the different sections of the bookstore.

But she was here finally; a Tuesday when the mall was unexpectedly closed for maintenance. She felt herself in familiar territory; there was an ease in her walking now. She had a fixed routine. First, she went to the New Arrivals, reading the back covers of expensive hardbacks that she could never afford. She kept in mind the titles of the books she liked, making a mental note to buy them once they were old enough to be paperbacks or second-hands. Next, she browsed the Fiction section. Here, she opened the latest John Grisham, and read about 50 pages, standing. She would continue it from there the next time she was here. Crime and Mysteries came next, after which she walked straight past the Romance section to the one she loved best; the Classics section. Here, she walked up and down the line of shelves, reading the titles and mentally ticking off the ones she had already read. In this section, she could transport herself back to older times, tragedies of the war and the pain of betrayal. Here, she could rejoice in the “happily ever after” of Pride and Prejudice and cry at the unresolved ending of Gone with the Wind.

*

He saw her take a book in her hand and put it in a different shelf below. He stood up to prevent her from messing the shelves, but stopped. The book was A Picture of Dorian Gray, and it did belong to the lower shelf; someone must have picked it and then put it back in the most convenient spot on the higher shelf. He was surprised; she was a customer, why should it matter to her?

He slid back in his chair and watched closely. He saw her picking up book after book, reading the back covers, reading the first few pages, smiling and nodding at times. Always, she put the book back in its right place. As she browsed, she straightened the books that were not in line. It was almost an unconscious action; she displayed no exasperation on her face.

He saw her picking up yet another book now. After deliberating for a moment, she put it back. Then she picked it up again. He strained to see what book it was; Wuthering Heights.

*

She opened her purse. There were only Rs. 170 in it. The cost of the book was Rs. 160. That would leave her with just enough money to buy a bus ticket to home. There were still four days before the month end. There were still groceries to buy and bills to pay. Reluctantly, she put the book back on the shelf. She would buy it the next time. Slowly, she walked out of the bookstore.

*

He saw her returning ten minutes later. She walked with purpose now. Hurriedly, she went back to the Classics section, picked up Wuthering Heights, walked to the counter and bought it. He saw her smile once she held the book in her hands, now her own. The tension in her eyes eased gradually. With lighter steps, she walked out of the bookstore again.

He had never seen her in the bookstore before. He did not know who she was. But sitting here on his hard chair, among piles of books, he knew he had found the girl he would love.

Broken

Download / By Sunset Girl

She stood waiting, unsure whether to sit. It was an empty room mostly; a green, old and worn-down sofa, a chair with a broken back, a small table. A small, grilled window looked out to the busy street; a lot of noise. But she did not hear the noise; the turmoil inside her was too great in itself.

It had been three years since Maya had last seen her father. A small time, really, but she had lived a whole new life during that time. Resentment, anger and shame had filled her in those initial days. Now, it was replaced by dread. She had a thousand questions for him, but no words.

The door opened and her father entered. He had not changed much, nothing that struck her. It was almost too easy; there was no shock that is usually present when you see someone after a long time. It was, as if, a continuation of the past, as if no break had taken place. It scared her more.

He shuffled over to the sofa and sat down with a grunt. She was somewhat hurt. Had she hoped for some change? Had she perhaps expected an apologetic behavior, awkwardness mixed with sorrow? Shame? Remorse? It bothered her that even after such a long time, this small act by her father affected her so much.

Positioning herself on the chair, she looked resentfully at him. She had thought that time would heal the wounds, or would at least make her detached enough for this meeting. But she was still so trapped into all those emotions. She wanted to get up and run away. She wanted to hit him. She wanted…anything, anything that would release that burden that had been making her shoulders, head, her entire body, ache for three years.

He broke the silence.

“Maya… You’ve been well…?”

Such a cursory question, something that she would have answered immediately at a social gathering; Yes, very well. Thank you! But she wouldn’t answer today. She hadn’t come here to have pleasant chats about the weather, ignoring the elephant in the room. She had come to…to… Why had she come here? She asked herself again. She still had no definite answer.

You have been well?” she asked, unable to keep her tone less accusatory.

“Ah, yes, well… The neighborhood is nice.”

A silence again.

He stood up and shuffled inside. A minute later, he came back with a glass of water and a plate of biscuits.

“You liked these ones… Marie biscuits…” he ventured.

A pain had now settled in her heart. This was difficult, more difficult than singular hatred for somebody.

*

Daddy! Look what I brought!” Maya shouted with glee, holding the trophy in her hands.

She burst into the house, but her father wasn’t in the drawing room. Impatiently, she ran back to the kitchen garden; her father was very big on home-grown vegetables.

Kitchen…Living room…Study… Maya rushed upstairs to find him. The door to her parents’ bedroom was half closed. She pushed it open. He was there…

*

The maid came running at the sound of the glass shattering.

It had shaken her, that she was still so possessed by old nightmares; incidences that she had thought to be buried. She wasn’t ready to do this, wasn’t ready to look into her father’s eyes.

The ride home was uneventful. Her taxi passed through familiar streets but she was lost in a whirlpool of her emotions.

She regretted her decision.

*

The girl was too scared to scream. And she was so tiny; she couldn’t have battled a man of her father’s size alone. In fact, both of them together could not have made a difference either. But Maya’s father stopped on seeing her enter the room. He didn’t say anything. Maya would not let him. She could not stop screaming. The girl rushed to Maya as soon as her Daddys hands loosened. She was trembling with fear and still couldn’t say anything. Maya couldn’t say anything coherent either. It was all a jumble of words; accusations and disgust.

*

The taxi came to a stop at her hotel, and broke her flow of memories; memories that she had locked deep within, and which were now open and unwilling to be subdued easily. She still shuddered to think of what would have happened had she not reached her house in time. More than that, she shuddered to think what would have happened had she stopped screaming and allowed her father to talk. Her father was never at loss for words. He was a lawyer; he would have made such convincing statements. And she knew she would have believed him. Like she had all her life.

She returned home the next morning.

*

Sitting in her psychiatrist’s office,  Maya could not help remembering the faint memories of her childhood… how Daddy used to wink at the waitresses, and then laugh innocently when he caught her looking…how he would stare at women who passed by them every morning while they went for walk in the park. Had he always been a pervert? Had she just been too trusting or too preoccupied to notice?

*

Her father acted as if nothing was wrong, as if the very basis of all relationships with him hadn’t changed. Her mother had been too ashamed to speak to her. The girl, her father’s student, hadn’t made any complaint. A lot of money was involved.

Why did her mother choose to turn a blind eye towards his follies? What happened to all her teachings about truth and pride? Why did the girl not speak up? Maya could not decide whose behavior troubled her more.

*

She promised herself that she would return again some day; when it would be less painful, less humiliating, less … personal. She would then return as just a researcher, merely curious to know the mind of a criminal. Till then, this story would remain broken.

Grief

It was her decision to abort the child. Her own. No one asked her to. No one advised her to.

Her husband wanted her to abort. He knew the pregnancy was dangerous. He knew he loved her too much to risk losing her. And yet, when she had told him her decision, there was…something. Surprise, a mild shock, or was it disgust? Did he want her to beg and cry to keep the child? Did he want to be that voice of reason in the midst of unreasonable maternal instinct? Did he want to prove that he loved her but he considered the fact that she loved herself to be unwomanly?

She saw these emotions passing through his face, but the final one was relief. She was relieved herself to find that emotion on his face. Relieved to know that despite all, he loved her.

The doctor came in then. He nodded when they told him, his eyes all the while on her husband. He was the one who must have convinced her, of course. He waited politely for her to shed a few tears, which she did. But the doctor looked on quizzically. She was in physical and emotional pain, no doubt. But she seemed composed when she signed the papers. No hysteria, no drama, no refusal, no changing the mind at the last moment. Perhaps she was in denial; this was all a bad dream.

 

Photo via Google Images

 

She felt every movement, everything that was being done to her. For all her years to come, she would be able to remember exactly what was done to tear her baby apart from her. Her husband said all the right things, did all the right things, and still, she felt he wanted to detach himself from it all. His comforting her felt slightly cold, his demeanour slightly icy.

The following few months were painful; the words and the sympathy felt forced. She wondered whether he blamed her for losing the child. She wondered if their families thought so too. His mother resolutely accepted when they told her, but she kept waiting for her daughter-in-law to break, to reproach him for making her do this.

“Maybe it’s all for the best. She isn’t…well, it’s difficult for women nowadays to appreciate the love for a child…” her mother-in-law broke off when she saw her standing at the doorway. She had been stricken by the words. Was she really not loving enough to be a mother? Did people imagine it was easy for her to let go of her child?

If she had wanted to risk her own life for the child, would that have made her a good mother? Wasn’t “sacrifice” the accepted standard for the society for being a good mother? Wanting to live, wanting to try again for a child, wanting a healthy pregnancy, wanting to be able to see her child alive and happy; this was perhaps, too selfish.

“I want to try again,” she told her husband one day. “We should see a doctor about the complications.”

He agreed, if only to make her happy.

“Do you think I’ll be a good mother?”, she asked him, five months into her pregnancy.

He nodded, smiling slightly, before turning away.

He didn’t ask whether she thought he would be a good father. Neither did his parents, who were very supportive of him when he wanted her to terminate the first pregnancy.

The girl was born healthy and on time. The family rejoiced. She was the perfect baby.

“Do you think I am a good mother?” she asked again when Tanya was a feisty seven-year-old.

He hugged her impulsively and tightly. She caught the words I’m sorry… breathed into her ear.

She grieved again, after all these years; this time, only for her lost child.

Mommy Trap

Blogtember Day #13

Thursday, September 19: Creative writing day: write a (very short) fictional story that starts with this sentence: “To say I was dreading the dinner party would be the understatement of the century.” The story does not necessarily need to have a conclusion – you can leave your readers wishing for more!

To say I was dreading the dinner party would be the understatement of the century. But my older sister was organising it and I had no excuse to miss it.

Shalini was 34, married and had a 5 year old son. The guests invited to the party were mostly her friends. They were all mothers with kids ranging from 4 to 7 years of  age. Needless to say, as a snarky seventeen-year-old, I wasn’t too thrilled at having noisy kids all over me, calling me auntie.

But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the Competition. Oh, it wasn’t called that, of course. It was called “Encouraging the kids to speak in public.” Which translated into “My kid recites poetry better than yours does!”

And thus, the torture began. For forty-five excruciating minutes, I was subjected to repeated recitations of “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “Twinkle twinkle” and “Hickory Dickory Dock.” Some kids were multi-taskers and could sing and dance at the same time. Action song, the enthusiastic moms called it.

The kids were enthusiastic too. They had no qualms in being asked to recite something that their previous competitor had just recited. Or maybe they were convinced that they could do it better. Oh, the winning spirit!

That night, I made myself a promise. I would never, ever make an exhibition of my kid like that, whenever I had one. I would always remember the plight of poor guests. More importantly, I would never try to show that my child was better than the others. My child would never be a rat-race contender.

*

12 years later.

To say I was dreading the dinner party would be the understatement of the century. I was organising it for the PTA members of the kindergarten school that my four-year-old daughter, Aisha went to. All the mothers were coming along with their kids of course. The dreaded Competition had come back to haunt me!

The starters were served and all the moms and kids sat in the living room. The room had the buzz of last-minute preparations before the beginning of a play.

The room began to quieten slowly. The stage was set. With a deep breath I braced myself.

competition

And said, “Aisha! Come and recite the “Baa Baa Black Sheep” poetry that you learnt in school!”, and to the audience, proudly, “She does it so great with actions!”

The Other Life

Then she woke up.

She didn’t want to. She really didn’t. For a few minutes, she tried putting herself back to sleep, tried to dream the same dreams that she had been having. But alas, that wasn’t to happen. Sighing, she got out of bed to make herself a cup of tea.

As the tea brewed, she sank back into the chair, closed her eyes and relived those dreams that had left eyes minutes ago.

Girl on chair

Photo via Pinterest

The girl was six. It is strange how in dreams you just know these things; age, feelings. She was sitting on a swing, laughing, while her parents looked at her lovingly. What was surprising that nobody told the girl to get down and let her brother sit. Nobody told her not to laugh so loudly. Dreams were so abstract sometimes, she mused. It was as if it didn’t matter that she was a girl.

The dream changed the scenes suddenly, as dreams usually do. One moment she was giggling on the swing, a mere child, the next moment, she was twelve. She wasn’t really afraid of the stain that she had found on her bed sheet that morning, just curious. Her mother was smiling at her, carefully explaining her the red, but she didn’t say anything about keeping away from others. She didn’t say that for five days every month, she would be untouchable. She didn’t say that her childhood was suddenly, brutally over. Dreams glossed over the truths of everyday life.

Time passed so quickly in dreams; it was the one quality that dreams shared with reality. The dream began to gather speed now. She saw quick frames of her school, her university, the scholarships, her office. Dreams had an uncanny habit of concentrating too much on the minute details while breezing through the major happenings. She saw her home, her own home, with cream curtains and bookshelves that scaled entire walls.

Only, it was a lie. All of it, the school, the university, everything. She never went to school after she got her period. She helped around the house, minded her younger brother. One evening, she was told to wear that new sari that she had got on her birthday. Some guests were coming. Six days later, she was married.

The dream didn’t show those initial days after marriage, nor the subsequent years of abuse that followed. It didn’t show that endless wait for something; anything; the wait for life to happen. She was still stuck in the same heartless, loveless, bourgeois marriage. It was strange; all she saw was an alternate life, the life that she could have had, but didn’t.

For five whole minutes, she allowed herself to go over each minuscule detail of that other life. She roamed about her house. Lovingly, she browsed through her books. She felt the smooth silk curtains in her hands. She admired the artwork on the walls.

Then the tea was made.

The husband woke up then. He came to the kitchen and grunted for tea. She poured him the cup and started brewing some for herself again. Her husband wasn’t an evil man. He just never knew any other way to live. She looked at him for a long moment before turning away with regret and helplessness.

She went to the window sill to feed the pigeons. Then suddenly, she gave a wry smile. At least she had her cream curtains.