Last week a cousin recommended a movie to me when I mentioned how much I had enjoyed the premise of Island City. It was an excellent film about bullying, he said, set in a sleepy hill-station in the nineteen-seventies. I almost decided to watch it when he mentioned without spoiling the story, that the bullies do not get their comeuppance in the end. It was more of a whydunnit, the pleasure of it was watching the subtle nuances of the settings, characterisation, and dialogue among other things. I crossed it off my list immediately. The world needs more stories on bullies getting their due, and they always get it three times over, as per the law of karma.
Despite the absurdism, I loved how Island City hinted that a system which suppresses its members to the level of treating them like machinery will be eventually destroyed from within, by the very members who conform to it, a kind of fitting reply to the Orwellian notion of loving Big Brother. It was pleasing to see a tyrannical man rejected by his family and forgotten soon after his death. That they chose to replace him with a ridiculous character in a lowbrow soap added a layer of pathos to the otherwise happy ending.
So I told my cousin how as a fresh engineering graduate, I spent six months as an intern in a multi-national company in a godforsaken coastal town. It was my first exposure to the real world outside the safe walls of the college classroom, and it was not pleasant. It certainly had something to do with the atmosphere of that place, chockful of negativity and the rudest people that I have encountered anywhere in India. I saw co-workers being bullied and was subject to bullying myself. It has been long since I left that place and I never think of it anymore, but when my cousin talked about bullies and bullying, a few incidents and three characters come to mind – let us call them Daya, Joseph and Biju, names changed for obvious reasons.
Daya was a smug midget who along with another unpleasant woman would extort lunch coupons from the young interns every day. One morning everyone in the office found a hamper of Belgian chocolates on their desks. My desk was empty. I heard Daya telling her accomplice proudly that she had taken my hamper, along with that of a few others. A minor theft which could have been forgiven and forgotten if only she had not added that she was confident that I was too meek and mild to ask her for it.
Joseph, the ugly office bully who picked on the quieter team members in every way that he could, harassing people with bullying emails that were copied to his stooges, and pawing at the good-looking interns around him. He came from a murky background of student politics and talked ceaselessly in a fake accent through which his small-town origins easily slipped through. He was an interesting case study into the mindset of a bully – his bragging about the royal treatment that his juniors gave him at college was in sharp contrast with how his juniors among the interns dismissed him as a street dog who could only bark and would cower as soon a stone was aimed at him, turning away his boorish visage and lowering his yellow eyes that showed glimpses of his ratty soul.
Biju’s innocent countenance masked a character prone to making vulgar remarks at the female interns. A short chap bursting with attitude, he followed Joseph around like a flunkey, listened to him bitch about co-workers and then carried tales of what the fellow said around like leftovers, miming that street dog’s barks. Discussing software structures in a team meeting, he commented slyly that the girls of the team could do their structural analysis on the stage at the next open house. One of the interns, a feisty local woman from a nearby village was outraged. ‘Get your sister and your grandmother to come and do their structural analysis on the stage!’ she fumed. ‘And why not get your mother to fly down from Abu Dhabi and join them?’ He just stared at her with eyes as wide as saucers, making no reply.
I left that company and that town soon afterwards and never looked back until the talk about this particular movie brought back unpleasant memories of those three wretches. I wonder if Daya’s penchant for petty theft, Joseph’s criminal bullying tactics and Biju’s verbal harassment of co-workers and cheap backbiting got them into the hands of their human resource team or the legal system of whatever country they happen to infest. If not, I am sure that they will receive in kind what they once gave out, three times over. And if they don’t, they will see their children (assuming they have any) pay the price. For karma gets everyone in the end.
The world needs all the books and films that emphasise this.
How she had changed. I watched her, both fascinated and repulsed at how she ate and talked at the same time, indifferently cramming the multi-layered chapatis and korma (that took me two hours to prepare, I wished I had that time back) into her mouth even as she passionately berated her husband and mother in law. It seemed impossible to connect her with the girl whom I thought I knew, who had grown up with me. Could a person change this much in five years?
I had last known her as a bright young business analyst who could make herself at home in the corporate workplace, anywhere in the world. The customers loved her. Each of our regional offices across the globe asked her to join them, though it may have had something to do with the way she cultivated people, the way she would give them her full attention, turning her face towards them, head tilted just a little to a side, speaking in those murmuring tones which reminded me of a cat which purred as it calculated its next move. I had once mistaken the fire in her eyes for ambition to dance on the glass ceilings, but what she did later showed that it had merely been an average human’s lust for life. She was really a very ordinary woman.
I wondered if she was assessing me the same way I was trying to piece together the missing parts of her story from the way she slouched over the table, with that inscrutable expression in her eyes. But she seemed too preoccupied with the happenings in her life to talk about anything else. Who thinks of anyone but themselves in today’s world? Even I wanted to know her story only because I am a writer and people are part of my raw material.
Had I changed in five years? But I had stayed back on the fringes of life, observing, analysing, recording and writing. Each story brings me revelations as I type, flashes of insight into the many dimensions of truth, of life. The last time we met, she told me that those who seek the meaning of life often end up not living it. Depends on what you mean by living. If it was relationships, they were no longer reliable, I said, forget security. She had replied that what matters is the courage to forge relationships, to dare to put yourself out there, to take the risk, which was the key to make a life. Of course she didn’t put it like that, rather something to that effect in cruder words, and ungrammatical sentences.
I willed her to stop the melodramatic monologue as she piled salad, and then dessert on her plate. Even a pulp fiction writer of those appalling bored-housewife-finds-herself novels would have balked to plot the commonplace scenes of domestic woes that she was harping on. I wanted to show her out once more, shoo her away from my beautiful new flat and return to the comfort and excitement of the pages of my novel.
An asylum seeker about to migrate to another country: “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, no traveller returns. For so long it has beckoned me. This cliff upon which I stand today, this has been my little nest egg that I had tucked away for the future, my plan B. This little Himalayan town is the polar opposite of others, them where they go to renounce the material world for the abstraction, the endless light of an eternal life. Here where I stand, a poor priest once jumped into these swirling waters where the three mighty rivers merge into one. He was reborn as an emperor, they say, wealthy and handsome, kind and wise, surrounded by good family and friends, replete in the sixteen blessings of life. I too should like to return, someday. To the quietness of the leafy lanes that I have loved, the peace of mild blue skies, the unfailing joy of birdsong, to the hallowed libraries that I have seen, the blessed classrooms where I have been. To voices raised in laughter, to silent warmth of friendship, to glances, handclasps and words of love. In those moments, I remain. To them I will return someday. In another name, with another face.”
A watching stranger: “I see her from the bathroom window. Where have I seen her before? She stands close to the edge of the cliff. The wind blows the hair across her face so madly that now I see her, now I don’t. Hers is that sort of face which once seen, remains imprinted in the mind, as it has remained quietly somewhere within mine. Was it on that winter morning–maybe five, six years ago? The mass of humanity among the bright pink and yellow canopies, the overpowering smells, the muddy taste of cardamom tea in clay cups and the annoying anchor woman who was drooling over me so much that I had to shield my eyes by focusing on the audience. I knew my lines so well by then that I did not have to think too much to speak, and then she came in, midway and left early. I have seen her somewhere else too, recently. She is edging closer to the cliff. Stop, wait, don’t! It will get better, I want to tell her. Please wait. I open the window and shout, willing the wind to carry my voice across the river. She looks serene, hands clutched on the iron railing, eyes focused on the crystal waters. I suddenly remember where I had seen her last when with a graceful movement she steps over the rail. Suddenly she looks up and catches my eye as she glides like an angel into the streams the waters of which are bursting forever upon the rocks like fragments of stars. Unable to do anything else, I wave.”
On a cold afternoon at Rewley House, this agent approaches me and my classmate with a broad smile.
‘So, what do you write?’ she asks us warmly.
I give her a thirty-second elevator pitch on something I am working on, and mention that it is metafiction. Accessible metafiction, I want to qualify my statement. Because as a reader and as a writer, I believe in telling a story first and telling it well – ensuring that my characters are beings who breathe in the world inside the pages and who take their own decisions, irrespective of what my plot outlines want them to do. I also believe that the novelist’s pleasure of playing with the form is worth only if it reflects in the reader’s experience of the book. Above all, I believe that any story worth telling must reach out and speak to any kind of reader. All fiction is metafiction, at one level. I want to tell her all this, and more.
But she looks away at the sound of the M-word. I blink and when I open my eyes, she has vanished. I spot her at the bar at the far end of the room and wonder if she had been real.
From within the murky depths of the dating sites there emerged a charming Mangalorean with chocolate eyes and long hair, whose photograph evoked an Indian version of Rupert Brooke. A software guy who quoted Rilke and professed to adore Dostoevsky – in the background, Frank Sinatra began to hum a song that referred among other things, to turtle soup. While pondering virtually over the possibilities of walking through Regent’s Park on one of these Saturdays, he asked, ‘By the way, what do you do write?’
AtoZChallenge# on Favourite Authors: Q is being held, as I am yet to read an author with the surname Q.
A story-flake instead.
“You can read this if you like,” I handed her the file that had taken me a decade to compile. It consisted of printouts from various times and places so far away that they appeared to be scenes not from the past but from other lifetimes, the paper fresh towards the beginning and fading and yellowing within. At the end of certain stories, I had randomly added a few lines by hand, when I had revisited it after years. I had filed away these memories for no other reason except that they might go into a story someday, a story that I was yet to begin to write. But right then it was all I could think of keeping her distracted. I may not be able to dissuade her from her life decisions, but there was no way I was going to let her pop those pills while she was in my house. I sat down next to her and opened my laptop, resolving to drag the conversation through the night as in our college days. Come daybreak and I would send her safely away.
“You should write a book about this, Purna. Really. Everyone likes to read about marriages, so much nicer than all that heavy stuff about spirituality and philosophy,” she said as she turned through the pages slowly at first and then hurriedly. I was rewarded by the way the darkness on her face melted as she turned the pages, and was replaced with an innocent greed for gossip as her eyes pierced the lines, filing away bits and pieces in her own mind.
The Robotics Lecturer
An unpleasant surprise. The encounter with the robotics lecturer could be summed up in three words. He had a name, of course, a commonplace name. Call him Ramesh, Suresh, Naresh or Rajesh for he could have been any of them, yet another twenty-six-year-old Madras boy of his generation. I refer to him as the robotics lecturer, for his profession alone distinguished him from the stereotype that he was in every other way. I was repelled by the way he sat at our dining table, full-sleeved shirt buttoned to the collar, oily hair combed carefully over balding pate, wearing baggy trousers that barely hid a slight paunch and the smug expression of the ‘ideal boy’ as pictured in primary school textbooks.
His mother pushed a plate of cashew nuts to his side, and periodically gestured him to eat, her growing boy. She was dressed in what seemed to be her wedding sari, an antique Banaras silk in deep indigo with a silver border, and outdated jewelry that must have fit her once, but now squeezed her plump neck and wrists, creating small bulges of powdered flesh on either side of the dull gold.
The only thing that must be more tedious than making social conversation at a bride viewing, is to listen to it. I strained to keep my eyes from glazing or worse, dozing over while the fathers pontificated loudly about how marriages were the union of two families and not two individuals, and the mothers talked in artificially refined tones about the rising prices of gold and the difficulty of getting good maids in present times.
“Purna loves to keep a tidy home. Last week she cleaned the rooms and even cleared the cobwebs off the ceiling when the maid was on leave,” my mother simpered. I was glad she did not say that I had personally prepared each of the snacks on the table with my own hands, a statement which would have been both a falsehood and a cliché.
The woman in indigo silk inclined a gracious double chin towards me. I noticed that she had extended her eyeliner to make two short lines at an angle of thirty degrees on either side of her eyes. The fish-eye style must have been popular in her college days. Come to think of it, she was carefully and stylishly dressed from head to toe, except that her style was about thirty years old.
“Our maid stays with us. She has been with us for fifteen years, wants to retire now,” she gave a tinkling laugh. “I’ve promised to let her go, as soon as my daughter-in-law comes home,” she said to my mother, looking at me significantly while uttering the last part of the sentence. The look caused an unpleasant fluttering sensation in my stomach.
Thunderous laughter from the fathers and uncles shook the carved wooden partition which separated the dining and living rooms. I wondered if men employed loud laughter as a tactic to announce their powerfulness. Good girls were not supposed to laugh aloud, my parents had said while shushing my schoolgirl’s laughter a hundred times, driving me to forget the skill for the rest of my student years. When I started to work, the first thing I bought was a little library with which I built a wall around me, and within the safety of those paper walls I had taught myself to laugh once again. There was plenty to laugh about life, like the comedy that was playing out around me now. This occasion was likely to change the rest of my life but no one seemed to care about what I thought of the whole setup. I had returned from the office that evening, tired to the bone, to face this, and me an independent Indian woman in the twenty-first century. It was amusing, in a way.
“I suppose we should let the children talk now,” someone said and soon I found myself sitting next to the robotics guy on the garden bench.
“So, what are your hobbies?” He asked me after looking around for a few minutes, just when my eyes began to close again.
I had hardly expected an original question from him, but that clichéd opening line killed any possibility that might have grown from that conversation. Stifling a yawn I began to tell him politely about the books that I loved and the poetry group that I was running at the British Library, while he listened with a polite, interested face. As I talked, scenes of life with him played out in my mind. Sitting there, hardly an hour after I first met him, I could predict every single thing that he would say, and do. I could even imagine what and how, he would think. Some people conform so much to convention that they remain unaware sometimes until the end that they have morphed into stereotypes, and live their parents’ lives all over again.
I declined him because I did not dare to risk any chance of happiness that I might finally find in the future, if I moved away from the plodding, painful path upon which most people around me seemed so contented to walk.
In retrospect, he was a good man, kind-hearted, a gentleman. I could see that from the way he lowered his eyes respectfully from time to time, from the mild tone of his voice, and the intelligence that exuded from his few questions, except the first one. More than a decade later during which I continued to work and read and write and wonder about life and occasionally meet more unsuitable boys while he acquired a doctorate in robotics and a wife and two children, just once or twice I was to wonder if I had done the right thing by refusing him right away. For with time I found that not all clichés are bad. Like springtime and sunshine, the silence of the night, like the beauty of changing seasons, and the sight of stars in the sky. Even life is a cliché when you look at it.
The Silicon Valley Architect
The chief impression that I retained of the unusual encounter with the Silicon Valley architect (SVA) was the sense of entitlement that came through from him and every one of his family members. While a display of arrogance from the groom’s side is one of the many accepted traditions of a Tamil Brahmin wedding, SVA’s family took this attitude to new heights. For one thing, he refused to fly to Madras for a face to face meeting. He was too busy with work and can come only for the engagement, his parents said at first, and later that he could only come for the wedding, if and when it was finalized.
They lived in a palatial bungalow in a prime Adyar locality, set within an acre wide garden of flowers that was tended by two gardeners. The house had been originally built for some top officer of the British Raj, and was later bought by his great-grandfather, the Diwan Bahadur ___ from whom one of the famous streets of Madras takes its name. His family flaunted their riches of every kind, most of all they were rich in extended family and friends. He was the youngest of four children, three of whom were married into equally wealthy and powerful families, whose members were well known within the state, the country and some, even internationally. When they heard of the proposal, some of our relatives murmured with a sour look that they could afford to be arrogant, having condescended to an alliance with the likes of us.
But it was his horoscope that charmed my parents. Nine out of ten celestial aspects match perfectly, the astrologer had claimed, comparing the planets that stood around his horoscope with those of mine. It was a rare occurrence. This marriage, he said, if it happens, will be most auspicious and favourable. Why the element of doubt, my parents asked him worriedly. Because this marriage is likely to take place only if the boy and girl actually see each other, he said enigmatically. My parents sighed with relief. Of course they would see each other, they mused, how could a wedding in 2004 happen without the bride and groom having seen each other? But as much as I like to say that all astrologers are old frauds, he was right. I never saw SVA, even though I was engaged to him for about one hour, the longest hour of my life.
By then, I had grown used to unannounced bride viewings. On returning from office and finding SVA’s family descended in droves upon the living room, I reluctantly dressed in a sari and went out to meet them. Parents, sister and husband, brothers and their wives, a flock of children, and a few aunts and uncles, everyone except the man himself were present. The subtle elegance which masked the richness of their clothing, the perfect creases in their handloom silk-cotton saris and dhotis, and the sober sparkle in the diamonds upon them, all of which exuded a formidable aura. The excitement in their voices filled the room with a pulsating energy that overwhelmed the strong fragrance of several kinds of expensive perfumes, which was making my eyes water and my head throb in the combined, cloying odour.
The younger children clambered over me, calling me Purna Auntie and prattling about their SVA Uncle. I calmed myself by silently reciting sonnets from the book that I happened to be reading those days. I imagined that it was all part of a story, and I was watching a scene unfold before me. Someday I thought, I would write with great joy about these characters, including the apathetic cow who watched indulgently as her four-year-old devil caught my sari pallu smearing it with the remains of a ghee-soaked sweet from his greasy paw, her husband who looked like a politician satirised in a cartoon strip come alive and perhaps, even the mysterious scion of this genteel circus who trusted them enough to let them choose his wife.
The sounds of mantras came from the living room. I peeped and caught a priest squatting on the carpet. “On such and such epoch and era of time, to the South of the Meru mountains in the land of Bharat, in the spring season of the such and such month and day (a number of archaic names were mentioned in between all of which went over my head), it is decided by the elders that the immortal youth SVA and the auspicious maiden Purna are to be united in matrimony on …” Too shocked to process what he said next, I managed to walk into my room without screaming aloud. My mother followed me.
“How could you -?” I had intended to whisper, but I could not suppress the shrill cry that escaped my throat, which was lost in the buzz of multiple conversations that filled the house.
“We thought it was better to formalise the engagement so that the alliance does not slip away. Such respectable people, so elite, so wealthy. Imagine, you will be part of one of the best Madras families!”
“But I haven’t even seen him!”
“Purna, Purna! Where is the girl, let us have the couple talk!” A loud voice came from somewhere, as though on cue.
My mother refused to meet my eyes as she shoved me into the living room. The coffee table was weighed down with the ceremonial silver trays of fruit, flowers, and coconuts, along with baskets of exotic fruit (lychees, assorted berries, peaches) and boxes of imported chocolate.
“He is on the line. Here” his elder sister thrust her mobile phone into my hands. There was sudden silence in the room as everyone’s eyes turned to me, even the kids were staring.
“Speak!” my mother hissed.
“Hello?” I managed to say into the phone. Someone giggled.
“How are you Purna?” Filled with rage, I was ready to hate. But it was a friendly voice at the other end.
I muttered my way through conventional answers. The twenty-odd people in the room resumed their conversations and I suddenly found myself alone in the crowd, speaking with someone I had never seen but who was no longer supposed to be a stranger.
“You look very pretty in the brick red sari,” he said.
“In the photograph.”
When had they sent that to him?
“How is the Madras weather?” He persisted with banalities that go into kindling and stretching a conversation. He talked easily, with the poise and assurance of someone who was confident of being heard. He talked about life in the Silicon Valley, the healthiness of Japanese cuisine, his remarkable work-life balance. All the while, I felt nothing but a dull sense of having been betrayed.
“Do you have any questions for me? Tell me, are you excited about moving here?”
“I just read this book about Silicon Valley yuppies,” I said suddenly warming up to the conversation.
“Not impressed,” he responded cheerfully. “I only read magazines on flights, and the odd business book.”
That did it for me. “I did not say that to impress you. I have no intention of impressing you,” I shot back, “I am not impressed with you either,” I handed the phone to his sister and retreated to my room. I did not walk away in a huff, or slam the door, but the coldness in my tone was enough to cast an immediate chill upon the rest of the room. Half an hour later when I came out, they had all gone, having politely decided to revoke and hold the engagement plans until he was able to come down later, a euphemism for canceling the alliance. I was pleased to find that they had taken their baskets and boxes with them.
My parents glared and turned away when they saw me for the next few days. Thus marooned, I washed up on the shores of the British Library where I discovered the oeuvre of Hrishikesh Datta and his twenty-four novels about life in a little coastal town. It was from then on that those books with their gentle plots and lifelike characters portrayed with clever wit and kind wisdom, became my companions, my friends and family, a virtual home.
Much later still, my parents found out why SVA’s family insisted that he did not come before the wedding. Nothing serious or sensational like a secret prior marriage or live-in girlfriend, he just happened to be an ugly man who had been engaged twice earlier and rejected by the girls both times, once they saw his face. Fourth time lucky, he got married within a few months from that evening. Years later, I saw his face for the first time on my Facebook feed, cast there by some cyber acquaintance who had tagged or liked his photograph. I did not find his features too repulsive, but his eyes were bland, commonplace like his conversation and the expression on his face was of mere animal warmth devoid of intelligent thought, an expression that was mirrored in the face of the child in his hands. I shuddered at the sight. It had been a narrow escape.
- PAGE FROM A JOURNAL
I know a girl who fell in love with a poet who died seventy-six years before she was born. She carried a picture of him in her wallet, and his face was frozen forever on her laptop and mobile wallpapers. This sounds like a teenage infatuation, but the girl was twenty-nine and worked as a senior technical architect. I knew her well. We had been schoolmates for twelve years and now worked for the same company, though in different teams.
She was a technology wizard par excellence. Hardly anyone else in the office knew about this other, eccentric side of her. Whenever I visited her home, she transformed from her corporate avatar into a soft-spoken, traditional, almost stereotypical Tamil Brahmin girl from one of the priestly families in Mylapore. She once confided that she was unmarried as her parents were yet to find a boy whose horoscope matches hers.
In his time, the poet was hailed as ‘the handsomest man in England’ but more than his looks, it was his poetry that charmed her. A young man’s poems, full of the shades of life as perceived by a boy whose life was just beginning, they throbbed with reckless energy. Her voice quivered whenever she mentioned him. She talked about visiting his grave in Skyros on her thirtieth birthday and weeping there for joy that such a sublime spirit had once walked the earth. She once mentioned half in jest that she sometimes wanted to kill herself so that she would never grow older than him, for he had died at twenty-eight.
We lost touch after she was transferred to Singapore. Later I heard that she had moved to Manchester and was working at a client’s place. One Friday soon after I moved to London, she called to ask if we could meet over the weekend. I was beyond surprised when she introduced me to a man she was dating, a musician who looked like a slightly older version of the poet. It seemed unimaginable that a conventional girl like her would take such a step. Given her obsession with the poet, I wondered if she was chasing his shadow.
She still calls me sometimes on the weekends. We discuss work and life as old friends do: common friends, projects, latest software, the office dog, their forthcoming wedding, books, even poetry sometimes, but not once since that day has she mentioned Rupert Brooke.
- SCENE FROM A NOVEL
“It is an unhealthy obsession, Purna,” Vaidehi sounded exasperated. “Why don’t you crush on a living poet, if you have to? Vikram Seth, for example. He may be gay, but he is charming and more importantly, alive. Write a few sonnets to him and throw them away, instead of dreaming of a dead man.”
“Only Mr. Seth is old enough to be my Father,” Purna chuckled. “I do love him too. All poets are meant to be loved by the world. But Rupert, he is special. You won’t understand.”
“Hey, I love poetry as much as you do, poets too. But I don’t think of killing myself, or travelling half way around the world to weep on a grave.”
“Thanks for your concern, dear. Rupert is a peg on which I can hang my emotions. Though I speak of dying for him, it is more like I cling to the lines of his verse to keep myself alive.”
There was not a trace of self-pity in her voice. She continued, “Incidentally, I am not alone. There is a whole Facebook group dedicated to his ardent readers, where we discuss his attraction from beyond the grave.”
“Please, Purna, get married. Your mother was talking the other day about creating a new profile on Bharatmatrimony.com. Shall I help?”
“Not after the recent fiasco – my parents introduced us saying said he was a most eligible Iyer boy but he declined as I wear glasses, not before making the routine visit with his parents and stuffing his face with bajji and sojji. It was a clichéd scene right out of an old Tamil movie, how I laughed. Honestly, Rupert seems more alive than most young men who walk the earth. I am moving to Singapore, I need some quiet time.”
Four years later
Vaidehi sat in Regent’s park, waiting for Purna. She had been surprised when Purna called her, she sounded very different.
“Hey Vaidehi!” She was enveloped in a friendly hug, elegant perfume and a host of memories.
“Meet Sam,” Purna said. “Vaidehi is one of my dearest friends.”
Vaidehi shook hands with the man who might have been Rupert’s elder brother. If she was taken aback, she did not show it.
Later, Purna asked Vaidehi to be her bridesmaid. They still keep in touch occasionally, and talk about everything that friends usually do, everything except Rupert Brooke.
- BEHIND THE LINES OF A POEM
Rupert sat beneath a tree by the side of Byron’s pool, writing a poem.
‘I only know that you may lie
Day-long and watch the Cambridge sky,
Until the centuries blend and blur’
He had not known how prophetic the words would turn out to be when he wrote that poem, of how he would come to share the dawn-lit waters with His ghostly Lordship. Yet Rupert felt very much alive. He could have moved to other layers of the afterlife, but for now, he was content watching the Cambridge skies and writing a poem to a girl, something that he had often done while he lived there. One of the advantages of being dead was the ability to travel through thought. He liked wandering through the olive groves in Skyros, and the beaches in Tahiti which were so chockful of good memories. But he liked being in Cambridge, best.
“You writing poem to the Indian girl, Pupure?” Taatamata sat down beside him.
“Are you jealous, Mamua?” He asked her.
He looked at her. She was still the same girl that he had described as having wonderful eyes, the walk of a Goddess, and the heart of an angel. He had been a great lover in his time. Ka, Noel, Cathleen, Phyllis, James… so many names, so many faces. He had loved them all with a poet’s passion. He once wrote to Cathleen that he had left some of his hair in Canada, and one skin in Honolulu, and another in Fiji, and a bit of a third in Tahiti, and half a tooth in Samoa, and bits of his heart all over the place. But now he was safe with this unassuming woman whom he had met during his travels in the South Seas.
“You care for her, Pupure.”
“She is my reader, darling. It makes me happy that she sings my songs.”
“She more than reader to you.” Taatamata did not sound jealous, she was smiling.
“The child loved me once. Like I loved many others before I found you, Mamua. He who is with her was meant to be. Just like we were, though we had to first cross over to this side of paradise. I wrote this poem to bless her. Listen.”
Rupert leaned against the tree and began to read.
At that moment, the girl to whom he had addressed the poem was looking up at the clock of Grantchester church. She felt she heard someone call her and looked around.
“Are you alright?” Her boyfriend asked her.
“I’m fine,” she smiled up at him, but she heard the voice just once more, whispering to her through the echoes in the breeze.
A Dystopian Romance
Together they watched the olive coloured water lapping over the boundaries of the steel-grey contours of the software city, at the gates of which raincoated security men waded through water that was fast rising above their knees, to regulate the vehicles that were gliding out. The traffic on the main road had been frozen for six hours and showed no signs of movement. The queue of jammed vehicles had begun to resemble a single entity, a monstrous being rasping out its smoky breath, with myriad eyes that blinked wearily at intervals, the roaring sound of a thousand motor horns now reduced to faint whimpers and frightened moans.
The man turned to the woman.
‘The office resembles a castle now, with its own moat,’ he said.
The woman smiled at him. He noticed that as usual her face lit up like an instantly waxing moon when she smiled and then almost as immediately her lips straightened again, like naughty children caught breaking the rules standing back in attention. He wished he could say something funny, to see her smile linger for a few moments more.
‘Does it always rain this heavily in Chennai?’ He knew that it was a hot, humid place, having googled the city in particular, and India in general, almost as much as he had googled her name.
‘It never rains, except for a few monsoon showers around October. Rains are usually considered a good omen here, a blessing from the heavens.’
“No wonder the clients loved our presentation today, the good omens must have helped,” he wondered if she would take offence at the remark made in jest.
But she merely looked thoughtful. “Would you like some dinner?’
“Of course. Was looking forward to authentic Indian food before I return to London.’
They made their way out through the cold grey maze of open desks. The office was only half deserted for the late hour of the night. Stranded employees sat peering into weather reports on the screens before them. Some discussed the situation worriedly in groups, others curled wearily on sofas and beanbags in the think zone.
The food court was teeming with people from all forty other companies in the software city. The cashier of the Chinese kitchen where the woman usually had lunch shook his head as she approached the counter, they had run out of supplies. Shutters were coming down fast on the dosa corner, the salad bar, the pizzeria, the patisserie. The woman disappeared into the unruly crowd of techies who thronged the open Subway, vociferously demanding food from the cashier who stared back at them silently with a flicker of pity in his eyes. She emerged in a few minutes, clutching the last packs of potato chips from the display, which no one else had thought of buying.
The man and the woman retreated to an empty table. Through the glass walls they could see the rain outside, pouring down in a steady, relentless stream, rising the water levels. They talked about work. Their conversation flitted from the project and the clients to books and art, and finally they dared to talk about the perilous circumstances around them. They did not talk of escape strategies but about climatic changes, the truth behind global warming, the potential dangers of EMP attacks, the need for self-sustaining homes, the charms of a quiet life, pure air, naturally grown food, starlight on clear skies and birdsong.
“Sounds too idealistic though, growing food in the backyard would hardly make it easier to pursue jobs in fields like ours, when the technology changes every quarter. Leave alone the finer pursuits of art and literature,” the man said.
“It would be the opposite, methinks. Many people are already shunning the nine to six routine to seek themselves and their roots. Organic farming is now almost a clichéd solution to quarter and pre-mid life crises. But great books are more likely to be written in those cottages in the countryside, and perhaps, finer music than we have ever known.” The woman said, looking through the glass walls, as though the idyllic future lay outside it.
By then they had grown accustomed to the sounds of the rain that continued to cascade down, more like a waterfall than a monsoon shower. The man nearly placed his pale bony fingers above her hand before he caught himself in the act.
“Some more chips?” The woman asked the man. The question loosened the thread of the conversation that had tied their minds together, like a spell that wore off at the mention of something as mundane as chips.
“We call these crisps. Chips in England are fatter and softer. I heard you call them fries, like the Americans do.”
“Well, have some more crisps then” the woman said with a smile, moving the remaining pack towards him. Her action reminded him of a movie that he had watched with his four year old nephew a few weeks before. As an avalanche of thoughts had been sweeping back and forth through his mind, all he could recollect about the film was a hummable song, two lovable dogs, and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
Back at their desks they resumed work, he reading out the comments from their presentation and she cross-checking the client’s website to make notes. Suddenly a picture filled her laptop screen with such radiance that it lit up the entire bay where they sat. It was a photograph of a young family of four staring rapturously at a toy catalogue. A child sat on each parent’s lap, the boys’ flaxen curls mirroring his mother’s, the girl’s brown hair the exact shade of her father’s. For a while they sat in silence looking at the screen, the business scenario having receded to the background of their minds for the moment. That was when the cab driver rang.
Twenty one years later
The man was composing a tune at his desk when the doorbell chirped. No sooner had he opened the door than two young men pounced on him, just as they used to do back when he could carry them both in his arms. The twins were tall like their father. Ian had soft black hair and blue eyes, Ishan had his mother’s eyes and scraggly brown hair shot with gold.
The man answered their excited questions peaceably as they wandered about the living room, revelling in the feeling of being back at home. He drew the curtains open. The garden was bursting with flowers and fruit, a splash of glorious colours and smells, and sounds of birds and insects that collectively came across as one sylvan silence. How curious, he thought, that on that night so many years ago, when he had felt small and helpless against the forces of nature, in the shadow of doom cast by the rising waters that could have swept him away had he only stepped out, in that hour, everything that now made up his life had bloomed into being.
He heard the study door open, followed by the sound of approaching footsteps. The sound, which had once accelerated his heartbeats so wildly, now deluged his consciousness, flooding it with warmth and peace.
He turned to the boys who had jumped up, their smiles lighting up the room.
“Here’s Mum,” he said.