Category Archives: Short Stories

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Robokutty

Chapter 1

Friday was Reverend John Kottapally’s least favourite day of the week.

It got dark by the time Reverend John returned home after the Friday special prayers at the Church. The road to his home wasn’t a proper road; merely a path forged by decades of bicycles passing through the wilderness.

Along the path were two shacks, frequented by drunkards who drank, sang songs and made merry through the night. If he didn’t get to the other side by 8, he’d have to hitch a ride from one of the drunkards. The previous Friday, they had crashed into a tree, and Reverend John Kottapally had had to limp back to his house.

Which would probably explain why his walk was brisk and hurried that particular Friday. That was when he heard the cries for the first time.

Low, muffled squeals, whimpers hidden between the tall, wild grass. Reverend John Kottapally stopped in his tracks, and bent down to inspect the source of the sound.

It was a small puppy – white and frail – its bony body accompanied by eyes half filled with fear and hope. The first thought that struck Reverend was that the poor thing needed a place to stay. The second thought was how his wife would react.

 

Fridays weren’t Sunitha Kottapally’s favourite day of the week either.

She had to wake up in the morning and set out to the vegetable market, as meat wasn’t an option on Fridays. It was also the day when their daughter Asha’s school was open for ‘half-day’. Asha brought her friends home and the little devils ran around the garden, digging up the mud to hide their treasures.

And when her husband was late from the Church, Sunitha spent an anxious hour walking from one end of the house to the other. Sunitha looked at the clock – 9.05 – and continued pacing around the house, the prayer beads in her fingers spinning furiously.

Sunitha Kottapally wasn’t very happy when she found her husband at the door, wet to the bones, a dirty puppy in his hands.

‘WHAT.IS.THAT.THING?’

Reverend John Kottapally had learnt very early in marriage that one needs to keep calm in tumultuous situations. He stayed at the door as Sunitha handed him a towel. ‘Don’t you wipe that thing with it,’ she hushed, and pointed at Asha, who lay sprawled on the sofa, the colours of the television flashing on her face.

This was how Asha went to sleep these days, watching cartoons till she dozed off. They had tried to wean her off the habit, but it had meant two hours a day of storytelling, so they let her be. As Reverend John Kottapally bent to put the puppy down, it let out a squeal, and Asha woke up and turned towards him.

The next few seconds were a flurry of blurry movements. Asha ran to the door, snatched the puppy from his hands, and ran into the room, spinning round and round while holding the petrified puppy up in the air, screaming ‘PUPPY PUPPY’ over and over again.

Sunitha Kottapally stared in horror, urging Asha to let go of the dirty little thing, causing her to spin faster and louder. ‘Put it down!’, she screamed, her words falling on four deaf ears. The puppy’s legs were sprawled out in the air, its ears flapping about, as it looked at him for rescue.

Reverend John Kottapally took off his coat and shook the water off his hair. He had learnt to keep calm in tumultuous situations.

*

Sunitha Kottapally woke up at five, like every other day. The days of the week meant little to her, as she went about tying her hair in a bun, and glancing through the newspaper. It was still dark, and Asha and John were still asleep in their beds. Sunitha walked to the kitchen, when a squeal brought back memories of the previous night.

She ran to the backyard, only to find the puppy wagging his tail and jumping up and down. The memories of last night swam back to her – Asha howling when she was told that the puppy would have to leave, John trying to cajole the two of them into an agreement, and Asha wailing her eyes out till she fell asleep.

Sunitha walked up to get a closer look at the puppy. As the first rays of the sun hit their house, she noticed two scars on the puppy’s stomach, and a few ticks on its body. Sunitha stretched her hand out, and the puppy sprang towards her and licked her fingers. Sunitha broke into a smile despite herself, and stood up to look for the broom.

As she swept the courtyard, thoughts began flurrying about in her head.

Keeping the dog was out of question. Their neighbours used to own a Pomeranian, and she remembered them constantly cribbing about the expenses involved – vaccinations, food, medicines. This year had been particularly difficult for them, and there was no way she would allow an additional expense on their frazzled balance sheet.

But there was Asha. She had become increasingly obstinate in the last few years, something Sunitha had been warning John about. Just the previous month, she had asked for a bicycle, and refused to eat her school lunch till she got one. One of Asha’s friends owned a dog, and it had been the topic of discussion at home for a week. There was no point talking to John about it, as he generally succumbed to whichever party applied more pressure.

And just like that, the little puppy became a part of Reverend John Kottapally’s home.

They did not sit down and talk about it. It happened rather suddenly, when Asha woke up that morning, walked up to the backyard, picked up the puppy and brought it to her room. Reverend John was reading his newspaper and looked up to see his wife’s reaction – she was glaring at him with a foregone expression.

When Asha’s friends visited her that evening, they bathed the puppy in the garden and tied a red bow around his neck. When they ran into the kitchen to inquire if there were any old clothes for the puppy, Sunitha shooed them away.

The next few days were spent in deciding a name for the puppy.

Reverend John Kottapally had no role to play in the process whatsoever. But Sunitha and Asha took up the task upon themselves. Options were thrown around – Rocky, Tiger, Daisy, and Roxy – but Asha would have none of it. She held her hands between her knees and sulked the entire time.

Sunitha nudged Reverend John to come up with a few names, and he looked up to find tears welling up in Asha’s eyes. ‘Kutty’, he said, putting the paper aside, ‘let’s name him Kutty’.

Asha beamed with joy, picked up the puppy, and ran out of the room screaming ‘Kutty, Kutty, Kuttikutty Kutty!’

 

*

In the next few weeks, Kutty had the entire household on their toes.

The little white devil would wake up before anybody else, and tug at Reverend John’s lungi, waking him up. He would then dance down to Sunitha’s bed and lick her face, only to be flung several feet away. A whimper, followed by a sprint to Asha’s bed, and the two of them would be at each other’s neck, laughing and screaming.

Reverend John Kottapally bought a shiny red collar for Kutty, and he had begun taking morning walks along with Sunitha and Asha. The three of them walked along the empty roads towards the park, as Kutty took turns running between their legs.

Sunitha grumbled about the time lost everyday, and gradually pulled out of the morning routine, which meant Reverend John Kottapally and Asha took Kutty out for a walk every morning. While the waking up was difficult, Reverend John Kottapally found that the rest of his day was spent joyfully.

After school, Asha’s friends came over to play in the garden, and ended up tying bows of various colours between Kutty’s ears. They would then continue playing ‘House-House’, where one of them (mostly the littlest kid) was a prince and Kutty the royal horse.

In a few weeks, Kutty had grown significantly. His belly had swollen thanks mostly due to the milk-rice he was fed twice a day, and the leftover bones and fish that Sunitha fed him after every meal. Those who woke up early looked at the man, his daughter and the little puppy, and they smiled and waved at them.

‘That’s a fine dog you have there, Reverend’ Mr. Srinivasan from AG Colony remarked to him one day. ‘It’s a Rajapalayam’. Asha looked up on the breed and they discovered that Rajapalayam was a special breed of dogs that were used by kings to guard their palaces and granaries.

Three months since the Kottapallys adopted him, Kutty had nearly grown to his full size. His legs shaped out long and strong, and his ears stood up majestically when he lifted his head and turned around. When he would try to get in between Reverend John Kottapally’s legs during the morning walk, he would kick him slightly, following which he would tug at Asha’s frock.

It was around that time that Reverend John Kottapally noticed something peculiar about Kutty. On some days, he would stop, turn to look at a morning walker, and growl. The first time he did it, Asha froze in her tracks. Kutty drew his teeth out, frothing at the mouth, and let out a fierce growl. It was only when Reverend John held him by the neck and pulled him away did he go back to wagging his tail and jumping about.

 

*

 

Chapter 2

As the days passed by, this streak of Kutty got more and more common. The milk delivery man for example, was at the receiving end of one such incident. He had opened the gate and walked to the door, when Kutty came running and pounced on him, tearing off a sizeable portion of his shirt. The man’s painful howls were carried over the entire row of houses, and Kutty’s reputation as a dangerous dog spread across the lane.

Kutty’s second victim was one of Asha’s friends – a pesky little girl named Deepthi. Deepthi was a frail, bespectacled girl who spoke for three people at once. She was adjusting Kutty’s collar one evening, when Kutty growled. The others ran away but Deepthi was stuck to the ground, frozen in fear. Kutty gnarled at her and circled her slowly, frothing at the mouth.

Everybody else stood frozen, till Asha came running and called out to Kutty, who turned to her, let out his tongue and ran, his tail wagging frantically. It wasn’t a shock when only two of them turned up the at Asha’s place after school the next day.

Sunitha had complained to Reverend John Kottapally about Kutty, but he had paid it no heed. ‘It’s a child ma. In dog years, it’s perhaps the same age as Asha’. Sunitha dropped the matter, but made a mental note to bring it up again that weekend. Asha had stopped playing at their house, choosing instead to go to another of her friend’s house. Asha explained that her friend had lots of books, what she meant was that she didn’t own a psychotic dog.

The final nail in the coffin was sealed in on a Wednesday morning. Asha was gulping down her food on the floor before leaving for school. When the auto-driver honked outside their gate, Asha stood up and ran. Kutty howled and followed her across the gate and began barking at the auto-driver.

Asha screamed at Kutty to return to the house, but he was a dog possessed. He sprang up and down, barking, howling, and charging at the auto-driver. He sped away, only to be chased for a mile by Kutty. Asha revealed to Reverend John Kottapally that her friends had begun crying on the way to school. When Asha had returned that evening, Kutty stood waiting at the gate, and jumped up to lick her face. Asha dropped down on her knees and began crying.

Reverend John Kottapally heard out the two sides and finally went with his wife’s suggestion. Kutty would be chained to the backyard, set free only for walks once in the morning and evening. He would be kept away from the postman, milkman, and newspaper delivery guy. When he dragged Kutty to the backyard, it stubbornly sat on the floor and howled painfully. Asha, whose temperament had become rather fragile, began to sob and cry. Sunitha Kottapally rolled her eyes, shot a silent prayer to the heavens, and went back to the kitchen.

What made the decision tougher for Reverend John Kottapally was the fact that Kutty had never misbehaved with him around. In fact, he had begun buying a small packet of biscuits for Kutty everyday, and as he sat on the plastic chair in the backyard, Kutty would walk up to him and sit in between his legs, just like when he was a puppy. The two of them sat in silence and watched the sun set, and Reverend Kottapally patted Kutty on the head and left into the house.

But Sunitha’s complaints had gotten louder. When she went to dry clothes in the backyard, she complained of Kutty growling at her. ‘He’s different when you’re around. I cannot even go near him in your absence, I swear!’ But Reverend John Kottapally did nothing about it. On the days that he returned from the Church early, he would spend five minutes with Kutty and then get back into the house.

 

*

 

Before he knew it, a year had passed.

Asha was now in Class 7, and the Kottapallys were debating the pros and cons of admitting her in the Convent school at Madurai. ‘How will she manage her food? You know how fussy she is’, Reverend John Kottapally tried to reason, but his wife Sunitha would have none of it.

Asha left for the hostel in the third week of July. As she wiped her tears and refused to pick up her bag, she heard Kutty let out a pitiful howl. Asha ran to the backyard and hugged Kutty so tightly, he had to fight off her grasp. He in turn licked her face all over, and the belt looked like it might snap from the pressure he was applying to break it.

As Asha boarded the auto, Sunitha Kottapally’s thoughts went to the backyard. She had been afraid to admit it to John, but the presence of the dog had begun putting her at discomfort. When she would go to collect the drying clothes, or to remove the pickle that had been set out to dry, Kutty would growl at her.

But it wasn’t the growl that disturbed her – it was the look on his face. His eyes seemed to get red shot, and his jaws opened up into a leering smile. She had mentioned it to John on a number of occasions, and he would nod and turn the other way.

Sunitha had heard that dogs are closest to the women of the house, as that’s where their food comes from. However, all of Sunitha’s attempts had failed miserably. She would leave aside the bones every day, but all she got was the terrifying growl. She had bought a packet of Pedigree by breaking into her savings, but that didn’t seem to break the ice between her and Kutty in any way.

It happened one day as John returned from his morning walk. John was vehemently against the idea of tying Kutty to a leash, but had to do it on Sunitha’s insistence. On that particular day, when John got back home and closed the gate, Kutty shot out of his grasp and came running into the house. Sunitha, who was in the kitchen, heard her barking and dropped the vessel she was holding in her hands. Hot water splashed all over, some of it landing on Kutty.

Kutty let out a howl and charged at Sunitha. Reverend John darted into the room, only to find Kutty towering over Sunitha, who lay sprawled on the floor. Kutty had her arm in his mouth, tugging away at it furiously as a thin stream of blood began to get thicker. John ran towards her and tried to shake Kutty away, but his grip got tighter.

John screamed and hit Kutty, but the stream of blood got thicker as Sunitha’s wails grew louder. Finally, John found a rolling pin and brought it down hard on Kutty, who turned to him, let out a painful moan and whimpered out of the room.

Sunitha lay on the floor, shell-shocked. Her eyes were glazed, her body still, her expression blank.

 

*

 

Chapter 3

 

The decision had been made. Kutty was to be given away.

Reverend John Kottapally had tried to avoid it. He had asked people around him if they wanted to adopt a dog. He got three positive responses. The first man left from the gate itself when he heard Kutty’s bark. The second man luckily found Kutty in a good mood. He patted him a few times on his head, as Kutty put on his best behavior and licked his hand. ‘He’s very healthy. But my daughter doesn’t want a stray breed,’ he said apologetically. ‘He’s not a stray dog. He’s a Rajapalayam’, Reverend John corrected him, but there is very little fathers can do when faced with the choices of their daughters.

The third man had walked up to Kutty gingerly, only to retrace his steps when he heard Kutty’s growl. The milkman, postman, and newspaper delivery had complained to John about the dog. Saleswomen who took old clothes in return for utensils cursed him as they ran out of the gate. There was no other way. Kutty had to be abandoned.

‘But what will Asha say?’, Sunitha asked meekly, only to be dismissed by Reverend John Kottapally. The plan was to drop Kutty in a deserted area in Ayyanarkulam. The postman had suggested a spot where another couple he knew had left their dog.  ‘It’s a very deserted place. We will have to take him in a car. I know this Omni Ambulance driver, I’ll contact him for you’. Reverend John was surprised by the postman’s enthusiasm in the matter, but he didn’t blame him. He seemed shaken from the time Kutty had bitten away a few inches of his arm.

The plan was in place – September 13th was a Tuesday, and the driver would arrive at the gate by 10. Reverend John would wrap up his work in the Church early, and along with the postman, they’d cross the Vaigai river, and drive up along the Madurai-Dhindukkal Road for an hour, till they reached the spot.

On the specified day, Reverend John returned to his house in a foul mood. He filled up milk and biscuits in a bowl and brought it out to Kutty one last time. Kutty walked up to him and sat by his side, quietly lapping up his food. When he was done, Reverend John patted him on his head one last time, and brought the leash out. Kutty assumed they were going for a walk and began wagging his tail frantically.

When they reached the gate, Kutty sensed something was wrong. The driver had left the door of the Omni van open, ready to slide it shut once the animal was inside. But Kutty would have none of it. He pulled at the leash, barked and flashed his teeth and everybody around. Sunitha, who was watching from the house, had her rosary in her hands, praying to God.

The gate was yanked open, and Reverend John Kottapally pulled Kutty towards the van. When it refused to budge, he tried to push it in, only for Kutty to emit a low, spine-chilling growl. Reverend John held on to the leash frantically, when all of a sudden, the postman came running from the back, lifted Kutty by his hind legs and threw him into the van.

Kutty gave out a loud yelp, and was shooting out of the van, when the postman slammed it shut. A huge yelp escaped the van, as the door slammed off Kutty’s face. Kutty continued howling, as the postman shut the door of the van.

Reverend John remained on the floor, shaking.

 

*

 

The ride to the spot was the most painful journey Reverend John Kottapally had embarked on.

Kutty alternated between howling and yelping, as Reverend John Kottapally avoided turning back. When he caught a few glances in the rearview mirror, he found that Kutty’s snout was bleeding, bright streaks of red across its white fur.

The postman tried to break the silence by offering his expert advice. ‘I have seen Alsatians and Dobermans, but never a stray dog so violent’. ‘He’s not a stray dog, he’s a Rajapalayam’, Reverend John Kottapally corrected him. The postman refrained from further pointers, and the three of them sat in silence.

They reached the spot in about an hour, as the Postman signaled to the driver to stop. The driver got down from the car gingerly, opened the door, and ran into the van again. Kutty continued looking at Reverend John Kottapally, his eyes pleading, his snout bleeding – but his resolve wouldn’t be shaken. They tried prodding Kutty out of the van with a stick, but it refused to move.

After spending fifteen minutes sitting in silence, the driver came upon an idea. They would leave the door open, as the driver snaked his way through the hilly road. At some point, the dog would jump out of the van himself.

They snaked their way up the hilly road, the driver maintaining a frightening speed, in the manners that ambulance drivers do. Kutty got slammed from one side to the other, as his yelps grew louder and louder. When the driver found Kutty clawing to the seat, he applied the brakes, the van screeched to a halt, and Kutty was thrown against the wall with a gentle ‘thud’.

Kutty slowly crept out of the van, limping, and turning to look at Reverend John Kottapally. Blood continued to drip from his snout, as the driver quickly turned the van around. As Reverend John Kottapally looked in the rearview mirror, he found Kutty limping towards the van, his shaky legs failing to keep pace with the van. Blood was dripping off Kutty’s snout, and Reverend John Kottapally wiped away tears as Kutty vanished from the view.

 

*

 

The next few weeks were spent in relative quiet and peace.

With Asha away in her hostel, Sunitha Kottapally spent much of her afternoons in silence – watching quiz shows on TV, or reading Readers Digest. She wasn’t sure, but John seemed quieter since Kutty had been abandoned. When they had called Asha that week, they’d told her that Kutty had been taken to the hospital for a stomach problem, and would be back soon.

Reverend John sometimes dragged his chair out to the backyard and sat alone, staring into the horizon. He refused to talk about it, but Sunitha knew John long enough to sense he missed Kutty.

 

*

 

Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months.

Asha had returned home for her winter holidays in November, and the neighbours told her about Kutty. She had cried for a few hours, but forgot about it when they stepped out of the house to buy new clothes. With Kutty gone, Asha’s friends visited her again, and the house was abuzz with the sounds of girls chattering.

Christmas slipped past unannounced, and Reverend John Kottapally got even more silent as the months trudged along. Sunitha stopped asking John about it, since all she got in the form of a response was a shake of the head and a change of the topic.

As March slowly crept into their lives, the Kottapallys had to face Madurai’s heat once again. Since Asha was away at the hostel, they had begun sleeping on the terrace when there were powercuts in the night. They would lock the doors of the house, and carry their mattresses to the terrace to sleep.

Reverend John Kottapally was fast asleep, when he was jolted awake by the sounds of moans.

He looked around to find Sunitha lying on the floor a few meters away, blood gushing out of her neck. The sky crashed on Reverend John’s head, as he looked around frantically. Sunitha’s breathing was heavy, and getting slower each time, her right leg twitching, the pool of blood at her neck spreading every second.

Reverend John looked around and screamed for help, but silence had enveloped the night sky like a dark blanket. He tried to hold Sunitha’s neck up, when he saw them for the first time.

Standing on the parapet, two bloodshot red eyes, a thin, white frame, and blood dripping out of the snout. Reverend John staggered back a few steps, as Sunitha’s head hit the floor with a low thud.

‘Kutt..Kutt…’ Reverend John tried, but only empty words escaped his mouth. He held his chest and tried to stand up, when he saw the creature walk up to him. Slowly.

It was frail and skinny. There were scratches and scars all across its body, and a metal casket held its bloody snout together. Reverend John Kottapally hobbled backwards, till he reached the edge of the parapet wall.

The creature was now a few feet away from him, when it walked up to him and stood between his legs. Reverend John was shaking with fear, his hands searching for the rosary that was normally in his trouser pocket.

When he realized the rosary was missing, Reverend John fell to the floor.

The creature walked up to him, the blood from his snout fell on Reverend John’s body, drop by drop.

‘Kutty,’ a faint whisper escaped Reverend John’s lips, when he looked at the face for the first time.

Bloody teeth spread out into a wide smile, as Robokutty opened his mouth wide one last time.

Light It

Sunday Short Story: Light It!

 

Harish had reached LCP an hour before the scheduled time.

LCP – short for Large Cement Pipe – stood a few metres from the National Highway that led to Fuladi. Below the pipe, the summer remains of a stream flowed under an old bridge.

Light It

The cement pipe was long and thick. Thick enough for three people to lie down, head to toe, along its length. Long enough for ten, if they lay down across the pipe’s width. Every week, Harish met Venu met a few times at this spot. They didn’t do much – just sat and smoked and spoke.

As Harish blew off the dust and sat himself on the pipe, he wondered how he could classify Venu. They had met through a common friend and discovered that they shared a common passion – pot.

Which led to their meets on the cement pipe, a few times a week. They did not behave like teenagers – going on about how awesome it was to smoke pot. Nor were they hippies – cribbing about the evils of capitalism and talking about world peace.

Their evenings were spent in sitting on the pipe and smoking a few joints, after which they’d go home. Sometimes one of them would play a song on his phone, and they would listen to the song and watch the sun set. And once it got dark, one of them would ask the other what the time was, and they’d both leave.

So was Venu a friend?

It was difficult to tell. The world was constantly putting much pressure on you – the pressures of friendship. Friendship, if one were to go by books and stories, involved embarking on great journeys together. And ended with a friend giving his life for the other. It had to be an extreme, till-death-do-us-apart sort of a thing. Harish’s mind went back to a story he had been taught at school.

*

 

Once, there were two young boys – Tippul and Bapuni. Tippul was two years older than Bapuni, and the two of them went to school together. Every morning, after their mothers had scrubbed, wiped, clothed, and fed them, the two boys set off to school, carrying a tiffin box with more food. There were two roads to the school – one went through the farms, and the shorter one through a jungle.

Tippul, the elder of the two, would make Bapuni walk ahead of him. Since neither would admit how scared they were, they decided to sing songs, or talk to each other to pass time. Tippul and Bapuni would sing a few songs, or repeat what was taught to them the previous day, and walk as briskly as their little feet took them.

One day while crossing the jungle, Tippul (the elder one) asked Bapuni (the younger one) to narrate a story. ‘But I already narrated a story yesterday, it’s your turn today,’ Bapuni said, using his stick to push away shrubs and branches from his face. ‘I don’t know any more stories,’ Tippul said, ‘could you please narrate another story?’ Bapuni thought about it for a while, and decided to narrate a story he had heard from his grandmother.

“There was a woodcutter named Sudrushti. One day while chopping wood in a forest, he found a golden axe. He was so smitten by the golden axe that he stayed at home the entire day and guarded the axe. All day he sat around it, and all night he stayed awake, dreaming of the wonderful ways his life was going to change.”

“This went on for a week, till he grew tired and weak. He hadn’t gone to work, and his children kept crying because there no food at home. They wouldn’t listen when he told them of the golden axe, and all the riches it would bring them.”

“One day, when he saw his children put mud into their mouths out of hunger, Sudrushti decided that he had had enough. He walked to the king’s palace and gave him the golden axe as a gift. The king was pleased and gave him a few acres of land as reward. Sudrushti grew his own trees on that land, and went to cut wood in others’ lands. With a normal axe. His children were very happy, and he lived a long, happy life.”  “The moral of the story is that we should always be happy with what we have, instead of wanting more and more,” said Bapuni.

But Bapuni got no response from Tippul behind him. The school stood in front of him, but his friend was nowhere to be found.  Bapuni shouted for help and men who were farming nearby came running. They looked for Tippul frantically, and finally found him inside the jungle. He had been bitten by a snake, but knew his friend wouldn’t be able to make it on his own. So he asked for a story, and let his friend walk away to safety.

*

“What a dumb story!” Harish thought.

The two of them could have run, or attacked the snake with the stick. Or one could use the stick, while the other could call for help. But no, it had to be heroic, else it wouldn’t be friendship!

And spare a thought for the poor younger boy. He had to live out the rest of his life with the sorrow and guilt that his friend had died for him. That he was so clumsy that his friend preferred to die alone, rather than seek his help.

“What a dumb story,” Harish thought again, as Venu reached the spot on his bike.

*

Venu got off his orange coloured motorcycle, and joined him on the cement pipe. The sun burnt a bright orange, its final show before calling it a day. The clouds near the sun gave off an orange hue too – like someone had dropped a blob of paint on a drop of water; getting lighter and lighter by the minute.

On the highway in front of them, people were returning from work. ‘I rolled one,’ said Venu, as he pulled a joint out of his pocket. Harish put the joint to his mouth, took a matchbox and from it, a matchstick. He struck the matchstick and there was a slight flame, which quickly vanished with a sizzle.

‘There’s too much wind, let’s turn to the other side,’ Venu suggested, and the two of them slowly turned to face the other side.

Harish took another match out, struck it against the side of the box, but nothing came of that.   He took out another match, struck it, there was nothing, he flicked it twice, and threw it behind him.

Struck it, sizzle, flicked it twice, threw it behind him.

Struck it, fizzle, flicked it twice, threw it behind him.

One of the sticks showed a flame for a brief second, but vanished again.

Struck it, flicked it twice, threw it behind him.

Struck it, flicked it twice, threw it behind him.

After what seemed like an eternity, one of the sticks spat out a small flame, he brought it to his mouth, sucked on it, the orange at its tip the only light around.  Harish took a long puff and passed it to Venu, a contended smile on his face, as they sat in silence, the night slowly enveloping them.

‘What’s the time?’

‘Seven thirty.’

‘I need to go.’

‘Alright. Bye.’

 

*

 

When Harish and Venu met the following Thursday, it was pleasant outside.  There had been sporadic rains in the last few days, the stream below the pipe now had pools of water. A few cows wandered about aimlessly near the water, while dogs eyed them suspiciously from at a distance – ready to bark.

Miniature men washed clothes in the water that was flowing along slowly. Seated on the pipe, Harish and Venu watched the sun set, as crickets began their orchestra for the night. They started with a short sonnet that began slowly and ended in a crashing crescendo, and they were just warming up for the night.

Harish took the joint out of his pocket, put it to his mouth, and took out the box of matches. Venu watched, a smile on his face. Harish took out the matchbox, pulled out a match, struck it to the side of the box, flicked it twice, and threw it behind him.

Struck it, flicked it twice, threw it behind him. Struck it, flicked it twice, threw it behind him.

Slowly, Venu slipped his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a shiny object. He stretched his hand out, as Harish stopped striking matches to look at it.

‘I got it for you,’ he said, a smile on his face. ‘It’s a Zippo.’ It was made of a brownish metal, so polished that he could see the light reflecting off it. He flicked the lid open, and found a thick wick, with a knob next to it.  Harish put his thumb on the knob and pressed. There was a spark, the wick burnt a little, and ever so slowly, a flame came to life. The flame shook a little, but slowly steadied itself, burning thick and confident. A flame of orange that was the only light about in the darkness.

Harish looked at Venu, the light shining off his face, his heart warm – ‘What a nice thing to do for a friend,’ he thought.

‘So should we light it?’ asked Venu.  ‘Absolutely’. Harish brought the flame towards the tip, and sucked hard.

He then shut the lid, flicked it twice, and threw it behind him.

There was a plonk! as the lighter hit the ground, then there was silence.

Harish and Venu stared at each other.

 

***

 

 

 

1892_ayyappa-hd-wallpaper-04

The Dark Lord

Rajesh’s biggest fear in life was sex.

It is difficult to imagine, yes. Throughout history, sex has driven men to outrageous lengths. It has made men build monuments for women they weren’t sure they loved. Sex drove billions of men around the world to do unreasonable things.

But sex was J. Rajesh’s biggest fear in life.

It is difficult to figure out exactly why and how sex became his biggest fear, but when J. Rajesh sat down sometimes in solitude to think things over, he realised it must have been that day in the second year of graduation.

We all have that one day in our lives when we realise truths about ourselves. A fancy dress that reveals that our parents aren’t rich, an encounter with a girl when she smiles politely at you. For J. Rajesh, it was that fated Wednesday.

It was a regular day by all means. He had woken up to get ready for college, and as he finished his bath and looked at himself in the mirror to comb his hair, the truth hit him like a cannonball – he was ugly.

It was the first time he had really looked at himself in the mirror. Most times, we aren’t looking at ourselves, we are looking at the person we want to be. A facial expression here, a tilt of the head there, and we look at ourselves for two seconds and move on with life.

But as J. Rajesh looked at himself in the mirror, the reality struck him like a ton of bricks. He looked at his nose, long and thick, and how it stuck out on his pale face, and how his hair – thin and wispy – fell lazily into whatever direction he chose for the day.

It wasn’t a sudden epiphany. Just a slow, steady realisation that dawned upon him as he combed his hair, and stayed in his head for the rest of his life. Ten years down the line, the thought had grown into an ogre in his head, and it determined how he lived his life, how he made his decisions. It was the reason he avoided company, it was the reason he stayed at home when his friends called him over to drink. It was the reason he stopped watching films, for he knew the leaps of fascination that they encouraged were far out of his reach.

But as his family finalised his wedding to Sukanya, the fear in his heart struck him a final blow. He had to work around the problem.

*

All his life, J. Rajesh had had friends who went out with girls.

He hated being the silent, quiet, bespectacled friend. He wanted to be the cool friend – the guy who cracked the funniest jokes, the guy who brought friends together at parties. But since the day he had seen himself in the mirror, his outlook of life had changed.

He had stayed quiet through much of his life, looking at girls from a distance, smiling if they spoke to him, and vanishing from the scene quickly. He sometimes wondered what his life would have been if he hadn’t looked at himself in the mirror on that Wednesday afternoon, but he knew no other way of looking at life.

As life sprinted across him, college came to an end and the ‘friends’ he had laid so much importance on, moved on with their lives. They would talk to each other once in a while, but it didn’t take J. Rajesh long to realise that they were all running their own races.

His friends would often speak condescendingly about arranged marriages. They would often tease him saying ‘What do you have to worry about? Your father will get you a bride and a hefty dowry!’ But he didn’t get what his friends had against the institution of fixing matches for children. The way he looked at it, it was the same system that forbade him from approaching women, and the system owed him something in return – that something was a marriage.

Life had moved on since college and J. Rajesh had taken a position as a junior project manager in his office. After working for three years, his parents found him a girl. He had met her once, and learned that her name was Sukanya, but he couldn’t speak to her too much.

Partly because he was shy. But mostly because Sukanya was way prettier than he had expected.

When his parents had told him that they had found a pretty girl for him, Rajesh assumed they were merely being polite. In the manner that Indian families call fat girls as ‘healthy’, he assumed she must just be a regular girl.

But it was when he saw Sukanya for the first that the predicament struck him. She was dusky, with eyes that shone like there was molten coal in them. She was draped in a saree that showed off her features, and when she smiled flashing her teeth, Rajesh blushed and looked down at his toes.

He imagined what his friends would have said if he went out with her in college. In his college days, Sukanya would have been an 8 on 10, a definite catch among the guys. Their plan would entail befriending her friend and then attempting to get to know her.

Rajesh wasted no time in informing his parents that he was OK with the match. When he went back to his room, he looked at himself in the mirror once again, after all these years.

‘You’re an ugly bastard’, he told himself, ‘but you’re a lucky bastard’.

And it was at that very moment, like a bolt of lightning on a warm winter afternoon, his biggest fear came back to strike him.

Rajesh’s biggest fear in life was sex.

*

As he tore the chapathis in his tiffin box during lunch, Rajesh wondered how sex had become his biggest fear.

It was probably the stories his friends told him – of unreal conquests, of girls who wanted more every single time – the stories were all probably bullshit, but that wasn’t the point.

It was probably all the porn he had watched – black men with penises longer than his arm – and the way the women’s eyes lit up when they undressed. He remembered going back to his room to measure his own penis, and the results saddened him like Shah Jahan on his deathbed.

It was probably because he had waited for love to strike him unexpectedly, to sweep him off his feet. It was probably the slow realisation that it was never going to happen, as every girl he mustered the courage to smile at seemed to look right through him.

And as he scooped up the remains of the aloo curry with the last piece of chapathi, a thought struck him. A plan that would help his case.

Lord Ayappa, at that moment, became his favourite God.

*

When Rajesh’s cousins came visiting during holidays, their grandfather would narrate stories of gods. Each of them had a favourite god, and Rajesh’s favourite god was Hanuman. He liked the adventurous streak in Hanuman, and all the stories ended with a huge climactic fight.

With a quick apology to Lord Hanuman, Rajesh began working out the plan that involved Lord Ayappa.

Among South Indians, Ayappa Deeksha is a 41 day long ritual that involves celibacy of the highest level. Rajesh had seen the followers a number of times – walking barefoot, dressed completely in black, addressing everybody around them ‘Swami’.

He had heard about the rules from a friend, and as the beautiful plan found shape in his head, he smiled and thanked Lord Ayappa.

His parents had begun finalising the date for his wedding. The initial plan was for September, but he cited office-related reasons, and it was pushed further ahead. Finally, the family pundit found a date mid October, and when Rajesh learnt about it, he smiled and thanked Lord Ayappa in his head once again.

As the date grew nearer, the house began to transform into a mental asylum. Relatives dropped in, children began running from here to there. Clothes, jewellery, food, and utensils were being purchased on a daily basis, the entire house seemed to buzz with activity right from the morning, till late into the night.

With a week to go for his wedding, Rajesh’s resolve was stronger than ever. When he realised his wedding was on a Wednesday, he smiled. It was God sending him a signal. Days zoomed past, and his wedding went by in a blur of yellow and saffron.

It was on the night of the wedding, after all the rituals had been observed, his relatives had stuffed themselves with food, the pictures had been taken, and the ceremonial fire had been put out, Rajesh called his parents to the room, and announced it in front of Sukanya.

‘I’m going to wear the Ayappa mala this year. It starts from day after tomorrrow’.

His mother held her hand to her forehead, she looked like she might faint. His father’s eyes were large and round, completely bewildered by the decision. Rajesh couldn’t muster the courage to look at Sukanya yet, and walked out of the room.

He could hear his mother wail, as he closed the door behind him.

*

The Ayappa Deeksha is a torturous ritual for the faint-hearted.

For six weeks, the devotee is expected to refrain from worldly pleasures. He is expected to wake up and bathe before sunrise, eat only satvik food, and dress in black. Vibhuti is to be applied on the forehead at all times, and there is to be absolutely no contact with anybody.

No touching your friends, so touching your wife was out of question. ‘Swamis’, as they are called, have to live by themselves, they are to wear no footwear for the 41 days, and sleep on the floor, no mattress (not even that soft Kurl-On that Father had bought for their wedding night!).

You are to refer to every man as ‘Swami’, and every woman as ‘Amma’. You are to harbour no feelings of hatred, anger, or lust. The 41 days culminate in a trip to Sabarimala to seek the blessing of Lord Ayyappa in person.

Of course his parents knew all of this. Which was why they stood shell-shocked long after he left his room.

As the madness of the wedding settled, and his relatives began to leave one after the other, Rajesh began to realise the gravity of the situation. It is a sin to take deeksha and then not fulfil it. Legend had it that those who strayed from the path ended up being maimed and handicapped, such was the wrath of Lord Ayyappa, the warrior God.

And there was no going back now. He had told his family about it, and going by the sorry looks his relatives threw him, the word had spread. Rajesh wondered if he had over-reacted. When his thoughts creeped up to Sukanya, he quickly drove them out of his mind.

*

The next few days were a hazy blur.

He woke up before sunrise, dressed up in black, and left for office before 9 AM. Sukanya had woken up and stood by the door, but he didn’t so much as look at her. When he reached office, he was called to the HR cabin about his outfit.

He spent the rest of the day going about his work, furtively working, refraining from anger and jealousy, especially when he saw how his colleagues spoke to women in the cafeteria. A few of them stretched their hands out to congratulate him on the wedding, but he folded his hands and replied, ‘Thank you, Swami’.

When he was done with his work for the day, he opened Facebook to check out Sukanya’s profile. Her DP was a teddy bear with a heart shaped ‘Love’ written on it, but when he clicked on ‘Photos’, three more opened up.

The first was a picture of Genelia D’Souza smiling coyly, uploaded in 2010. The next was a picture from a college picnic, where she had on a white cap and blue salwar-kameez. There was another girl, and three guys. Rajesh looked at the guys…and just as evil thoughts began to spring up in his head, he logged off and shut down his laptop.

If his colleagues thought he was weird, they never walked up to him and said it, so it wasn’t very difficult for Rajesh to go about his life. He was a shadow, and shadows have neither friends nor enemies.

But it was when he went back home that the actual turmoil began.

Sukanya hadn’t questioned him about his decision, but she didn’t seem displeased either. She woke up before he left for office, bathed and dressed, and gave him coffee. Rajesh barely spoke to her, but everytime he looked at her, he shot a silent apology to Lord Ayyappa.

This was going to be tougher than he had imagined!

*

In his grandfather’s stories, there used to be rishis who embarked on years of penance to please the gods.

More often than not, the gods would send apsaras to test the rishis’ resolve. While the rishis would meditate in the forest, anthills growing on them, the beautiful apsaras would sing and dance to distract them. Those who were tempted failed the test, and those who remained steadfast were rewarded with a boon from God.

Rajesh thought of himself as the rishi, and Sukanya as the apsara. As his mind conjured up the image of Sukanya, dressed like an apsara, dancing in front of him, Rajesh quickly banished the thought from his head and shot another prayer of apology to Lord Ayyappa.

The mornings were the toughest.

He wasn’t allowed to touch her, but touch is only one of the senses. He saw her everyday, and thought about her when he was at work. He could smell her perfume when she served him rice, and he had to pull his eyes away from her.

Rajesh couldn’t fight his body’s urges, and the sound of Sukanya walking about the house, her anklets clinking and jingling, drove him crazy. It was during these days of celibacy that Rajesh noticed little things about her.

Like how she would hum Illayaraja songs while bathing. Or that when she let her hair open, it reached well below her waist. Or how when she changed into new clothes after her bath, he could see…forgive me, Lord Ayyappa!

*

Three torturous weeks passed by, and Rajesh had acquainted himself to the routine.

His parents gave him no more grief, as they knew questioning his decision could invoke the wrath of the Lord. Since he wasn’t allowed to touch his wife, they hadn’t gone out anywhere, not even to a zoo or a park.

The only time they spent together was during dinner, when Sukanya would serve everybody in the house, and then have food herself. When she asked him if he wanted more rice, her eyes would dance like a sprightly child. When she hummed Illayaraja songs while taking bath, Rajesh would sometimes sit up and listen to her voice.

She had caught him staring at her as she left the bathroom once, and stood and smiled at him. His thoughts went back to the time when the girls in the videos would …forgive me, Lord Ayyappa!

*

It was on Day 37 that Rajesh’s world truly fell apart.

It had now been five weeks, and he was to leave for Sabarimala the next day. He had returned from office early, and was watching the news on television when he heard a faint whisper – ‘Swami…’

He turned to find Sukanya dressed in a green saree, her large black eyes moist. He stood up from his chair and walked towards her, as Sukanya quickly walked into their room and asked him to bolt the door.

She sat on the bed, looked down for a few seconds, and then back up at him again.

‘Swami, I am going to my parents’ house. I have spoken to Amma about it, and she has agreed’.

Her words came out slow and measured. Rajesh sensed the time and effort that had gone into mouthing those words. He couldn’t bear to look at her any longer, and quickly looked away. But he could feel her eyes boring through his soul.

Rajesh looked for the right words, frantically scrounging the insides of his head, but finding nothing.

He looked up at her, and saw tears streaming down her cheeks. He stretched his hand out, and quickly pulled it back again. Sukanya noticed this, and stood up to leave the room.

In a flash, Rajesh stretched his hand out to hold her. Sukanya turned around, and the two of them fell on the bed. The next few seconds flew by like a blur.

Rajesh held her in his hands, and kissed her lips. In a flash, their clothes were off. His fingers grazed her neck and his hands slid further down. Tears were still rolling down her eyes, as her hands ran across his chest.

He smelt her skin, and tasted her tears. They lay on the bed, frantic hands and furtive fingers, exploring each other. Sukanya slowly reached out and felt him, and Rajesh could think no more. In the next few moments, his fears and his desires fused into one single monster, as her tears and moans merged into one.

After what seemed like an eternity, Rajesh lay upon his wife, exhausted, as Lord Ayyappa flashed in his mind.

The Lord wasn’t unhappy.

The Lord was smiling.

 

*****

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f1/Kluft-photo-fireworks-Cameron-Park-June-2009-Img_2951c.jpg/1024px-Kluft-photo-fireworks-Cameron-Park-June-2009-Img_2951c.jpg

Waterworks

Shanti Nagar, true to its name, is a peaceful colony.

There are no bars or liquor shops in the locality, a decision that was taken when the colony was being built, to keep unwanted social elements away. There is a park at the centre of the colony where children play cricket in the evenings, and elderly couples take a walk on the winding roads, or sit down on the benches and watch the children play. The people of the colony had been living here for over a decade, and so knew each other well.

Until that night when they heard the explosion of crackers.

 

It had begun with a few solitary bombs, but in a few minutes, the sky was lit up with showers of gold and green. The bombs got louder and louder, and children begged to be let out of the house so that they could watch the fireworks.

A few parents stepped out of the house to see who was causing the ruckus, but the dogs who spent the night in the park had assembled near the gate, and were barking wildly at anybody who approached the gate.

In half an hour, the lights in all the houses had been turned on. The women watched from their balconies as the men grudgingly stepped out of the house, unpleasantness writ large on their faces.

The crowd outside the park’s gate had gotten larger now, and the terrified dogs had begun chasing the cows who were loitering around. People began craning their necks to look inside the park, till they found who it was – Satyendra Dubey.

Satyendra Dubey was the one person in Shanti Nagar who never spoke to anybody else.

In fact, most people knew his name only because the nameplate on his house said so. Dubey was a man in his 40s, short and stout, who went to work on his Kinetic Luna, returned at 6 ‘o’ clock, and stepped out on Sunday to buy groceries.

When a cricket ball went into his house, he promptly stepped out and gave it back to the children with a smile. When the youth of the colony went to his house to collect money for a festival, he gave them the money with a smile. But apart from these interactions, no one in the colony knew anything about the man.

But why bother about something that causes no trouble, the people of the Shanti Nagar thought, and they went about their lives peacefully. Until this night, when the fireworks disrupted their sleep.

 

It had been more than an hour since the fireworks began, and the children were running about on the roads excitedly. The cows ran about with their tails raised in the air, the dogs had turned jittery, growling at one and all. The crowd at the gate had grown larger.

A few of them tried shouting out at Satyendra Dubey. But it was of no use. Like a man hypnotised, Dubey bent down, picked up a cracker from a white bag, walked up a few feet, and bent down to light the wick. He then stepped back, and waited for the explosion of sound and light. When the residents grew tired of the commotion, one of them suggested they call the police.

The police van arrived in half an hour, and two policemen stepped out of it. One of them was old and stout, while the other was younger, and held a stick in his right hand.

The policemen asked the people to move away from the gate, and they promptly stepped away. But dogs have trouble understanding human languages, and they growled louder, flashing their sharp white teeth at the bewildered cops. The crackers, meanwhile, continued to light up the sky.

Another fifteen minutes later, the cops had managed to drive the dogs away. The children were the first to run into the park, as the elders followed slowly. Satyendra Dubey was bursting the last of his crackers from the white bag.

The cops moved in on him, asking him to stop. The crowd stood around him in a circle, whispering and muttering to each other. The children ran about the park, searching for any crackers that were left lying on the ground.

The cops took away the bag (which, by now, had only a handful of crackers left), and the crowd got closer. Dubey’s face showed no expression at all. He calmly looked around at the group, and began to pick up the litter from the floor. The cops, used to hustling people and screaming, looked around stupidly, completely befuddled by what was going on.

When Dubey had finished picking up the litter, he walked up to the group of spectators, and began to speak. He had a soft, wispy voice, and spoke in a calm, measured tone.

‘I have been living here for twenty one years. I moved in when I got a job after my graduation.’

The crowd looked at one another, and stepped a few feet ahead to listen to Dubey.

‘I got married within a year of getting the job, and in another year, my wife was expecting our first child’. The cops were now listening to Dubey too.

‘My parents kept telling me to bring my wife to the city, but I was against it. Back in the village, there would be people to attend to her. Here in the city, she would spend all day alone while I went to work. My wife requested me too, but I was adamant that she stay at our house in the village.’

‘When there were a few weeks left for the delivery, I used to visit home every weekend. And then, on a Thursday, I received a call from my village, asking me to rush home. I was new to the job, and didn’t want to displease my officers, so I told them I would leave the next day. She was safe with my mother and sisters, I reasoned with myself.’

‘I boarded the bus the next evening and reached my village early the next day. The sun was out, crows were cawing about happily as I walked down the brown road to my house. The first sound I heard, was of wailing women.’

‘In a few minutes, I learnt that the operation had been complicated. Both the mother and child had passed away a few hours earlier. When I walked into the house, I saw my wife lying down, her eyes staring at the ceiling.’

The crowd listened to Dubey in stunned silence. Not one of them moved a muscle.

Dubey smiled. ‘But that was twenty years ago. I spent every day of the last two decades thinking of them. I would imagine what my child would grow up to look like, what my wife would have cooked if she were living with me.’

‘I spent the last twenty years going about my work like a ghost. But a few weeks ago, I decided I had had enough. What was the point in spending my remaining years in sorrow? So this year, on the night my wife and child died, I decided to burst crackers.’

Dubey looked at the crowd for a few seconds, and bent down to pick up a few papers lying on the floor. The crowd stared at him in silence, while the cops looked about.

In a while, Dubey walked back to his home. The dogs returned to their sleeping spots in the park. The night was quiet again.