Category Archives: Fiction

Ten Lakh Rupee Haircut

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“Liked it? Cost me ten lakhs!” said my grandfather proudly, rubbing his left hand on his shiny bald head. A bowl of what appeared to be a murky dal sat in front of him, waiting to be cussed at. “Pimps!”, he snorted as an afterthought, looking at the television screen, as Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian cricket team captain got caught and bowled by a stunning yorker. “Can’t bat against pace, what are these kids getting paid for these days. You know! Gavaskar used to -”

“Bat without a helmet against the West Indians…they were the best team in the world…had the fastest bowlers….had Michael Holding….he was called whispering death!” I completed. “You’ve mentioned it to me once or twice, I remember over the past twenty years..”

Grandfather chortled which turned into a animal like cough. As he gasped for breath he pushed the bowl of masoor dal away and turned towards me, raising his finger. “I thought I’d get to eat some fat and meat when Sheela left us. This is worse than what they used to serve us in training.”

It had been a week since grandfather’s last chemo. My uncle, one of Pune’s best oncologists had taken me to a corner in the hospital and told me it’s my job to let mother know we probably have a month with him left. He didn’t have the heart to break the news to his own sister despite being her closest confidant. Today was my Sunday on the calendar. Grandfather, an ex-army man had changed completely since we told him he had stage four. It stripped him of his age by decades. He started resembling the man my mother had told me stories about since I was small. The man who was the centre of attention at army parties. The man who would laugh in the face of his biggest trials and the man who had turned into a shadow of his old self over years of battling debt, depression and marital problems.

“He was a really nice father”, my mother would tell me. “It was my mother who was a real witch. She would provoke him into a fight, and he’d lose his temper and oh god, he had a terrible temper.”

The last time I had visited grandfather at home, he had smashed a large wine glass on my grandmother’s face. We had found them sobbing in different rooms, their entire crockery cabinet in pieces in the living room. We had rushed her to the hospital, spent the entire night watching her wince as the nurse tweezed out bits of glass out of her cheek. I had vowed never to visit their house again post (I swallowed my pride after he was diagnosed) My mother, though furious at her father at first surprisingly blamed her… “She must have said something really terrible. She would always say mean things. Stretch him to breaking point” just before I left the hospital at dawn. My grandmother stayed with us for the rest of her days, till she passed away a year back. She was eighty. A week into shifting in our house, I saw our crockery cabinet combust similarly, this time at my mother’s hands. The temper that was so famed in the house had luckily by the grace of genetics not been passed to me. I never saw grandfather apologise for that day, you know. He continued to harp that she deserved it till…well…till the last time we brought it up before he –

“We haven’t played Ludo for so many days. Get the old set out. Let’s play some Ludo.”

“Eh Appu! Not Ludo. You always end up winning at Ludo. I know you cheat somehow.”

“You rascal, you accuse your old grandfather of cheating? I’ll show you today”

“Do you want to play chess? I can make you some tea and we can play till mother gets here.”

I got the old wooden board out from ‘my cupboard’. It was actually a single drawer where my grandparents would store all my toys when I was a kid. Out of habit, the first thing I do when I reach their house is open it to ensure all ‘my things’ are still there. There’s my chessboard, unused for years, an old whistle I had driven the neighbours silly with when I was five, a couple of Secret Seven books I had re-read till I knew them by heart and I have no idea why I’m so attached to it, but an old World Book I used to press leaves in during summer vacation. Press leaves? You know, keep leaves in an old heavy book in the Summer of 1999 and open the book again by winter to see them etched as a skeleton? I would love doing it.

“You want black?” I asked him.

“Nope. But I know you want white. Go on then.”

I moved the pawn in front of the king a couple of steps ahead. “Boring, boring. E4, E5, NF3, NC6. That chess class ruined you. You were doing so well sitting on my knee and playing. I keep telling your mother, you would have been the next Bobby Fischer.”

Grandfather taught me how to play chess when I was six. I used to sit in his lap while he would furiously explain what each piece was capable of doing in Marathi. By the time I turned eight, I actually started beating most of my family. My parents’ Indian sensibilities blazed to life, realising there’s a miniscule but very likely chance for monetary opportunity here. They shoved me into an archaic buddhibal gurukul where I would be forced to train for hours at an end on weekends till my head throbbed. In six months, I started hating the game eventually refusing to play it. Grandfather was furious his protege had become a guinea pig for slaughter. He tried making it fun for me, but something in my head just switched off whenever I saw a chessboard then. I don’t mind playing it now, I still get flashbacks about the musty smell of the cloth chess boards and the all too familiar irritating click of kids banging chess pieces out of the board whenever they were captured.

“I’ll make tea, wait. Do NOT touch the pieces! I remember where they all are!” I warned him.

It triggers memories whenever I wander around my grandparents’ house. It’s in the old part of Pune, where time stands still – almost infuriatingly sometimes. Theirs is almost a century old, largely made of stone. I remember it being cold. Really cold. It smells the exact same even today, of burning camphor and incense sticks. Except you can also smell the effort invested into keeping an old man alive. My grandparents brought a television way before we did. It just had twelve channels, but it did have Cartoon Network. I’d make excuses to come here and watch Tom and Jerry or any of the old Hanna Barbera re-runs, whilst grandmother doused me with variations of deep-fried, unhealthy snacks. I digress. Where was I? Yes, in the kitchen. Making tea. Boiling water and milk separately. Waiting for the tea leaves to settle down. “We aren’t savages, like them” my grandmother would say with a heap of disgust, referring to her neighbours from Delhi. Her years in the capital left her with a heavy aversion for how the north would make tea – mixing water, tea leaves, spices and ginger till they were well and truly butchered by the flames.

I used to find the reluctance of all my relatives to embrace my adulthood infuriating. As the youngest kid in the family, I would be spoken to like a small prize winning dog – worthy of attention, but no seriousness. In my grandfather’s case, it was the exact opposite. He made me feel important. I’d sit at his desk as a kid and stamp his bank documents, feeling like my involvement is his paperwork somehow mattered. He’d ask me for advice, which I’d find very endearing. I’d see most of my other defence kid friends have a strict hierarchical culture in their house, which was nice to see my grandfather not give a hoot about.

Grandfather slurped the tea. “Tastes a lot like Sheela’s…”

“It’s because mother makes the same tea. And I learned from her…”

“You haven’t moved any pieces for twenty minutes. Are you going to bother playing?”

Grandfather was a simple man. Post his army life, which I never thought he really liked too much, he became quiet and reserved. He’d always tell me how he missed death by an inch fighting the Pakistanis in ‘71, though grandmother had on safe authority that he never actually touched a rifle the entire stint. He distanced himself from all his friends in the regiment and sat at home post his retirement, immersing himself in hours of television and B-grade Marathi novels. He used to be a lot of fun, mom would always tell me. Always filled with terrible jokes

“I think she was having an affair.” said my mother.

“You know know, or you suspect?”

“Um. They never told me anything, but I always overheard bits from their fights. There would be this ‘uncle’ who would come up to our door and take her away in a car. She would never introduce him to us, so I kind of always suspected…”

Grandfather, like several of Pune’s tea drinking heavyweights, has an intricate ritual circling every sip he takes. He slurps each time to a crescendo and then follows it up with a low bass ‘Ah’ as if to reassure himself that it was a sip well invested. I had come to forget his little intricacies over the last decade I’ve spent working in Bombay. My home trips to Pune had become less frequent and the time I’d get at home to visit my grandparents, even less so.

“You want to see the garden?” he asked me, about eight moves from defeat.

“Let’s go.”

We sat on the swing. He chattered on about how his gardener is quite obviously a crook, since his fertilizer supplies having slowly been disappearing, always punctuating his sentences with a racking cough. We spoke in depth about how the rose plants were there just to show off, and no real botany connoisseur would want to have a plant as common as a rose in his garden. He even offered to field for the neighbours’ kids playing in the yard opposite his house, much to their horror. There was a time he would have been really mean to them when their ball crossed over to his fence, but this was a changed man in his last month. I think of his transformation like that ‘Selfish Giant’ story…we used to have it in our Radiant Reader by who was it? Yes! By Oscar Wilde.

“I wish I could have taken you to my Father’s factory!”, he said suddenly.

“Yeah, you guys would make glass, wouldn’t you?”

“And what amazing glass it was!” he reminisced. “Green, violet, orange glass. I used to get scraps of the colours for your mother and her sister all the time. They’d make ornaments out of it. It was wonderful.”

“What happened to it?”

“Oh, shut down in time. Once the borders opened, a bunch of all these foreign brands came in. They were better. Cheaper. We had to sell.”

“You must miss your village.”

“Terribly sometimes. I miss the small things. You know, throwing stones at the mango trees to eat kairi. Cycle races all around the fields. You wouldn’t know the simplicity in that life.”

“Ever feel like going back?”

“No. Not really. You miss them. But you move on. I don’t feel like going back to the army either. I hate meeting my old mates from there. Going on and on about the good old days. I’m quite done.”

We rocked on the swing for a little while. The skies turned a steelier shade of grey. It was just April. We call this rain ‘valvacha paus’ in Pune. The first rains. Just a premonition of monsoon.

“I think I was way more ready to pop it in 71’. This is just embarrassing right now. Tell your mother from my side. They’ve covered me with pipes. Throw it all away. I’m pissing out of a tube half the time in the hospital, if you haven’t noticed…”

“You’re NOT ‘popping it’!”

“Don’t lie to me. Even a duffer like me learns a few things by the time he turns eighty. This chemo and radiation nonsense is meant for people who want to live more.”

“I…you realise no one’s going to let you just wither away right?”

Grandfather ignored me. He began rocking his legs like a little child on the swing. At his most vulnerable, he always reminded me of a child. He was a simple man. He had always been one. With no ulterior motives. No ambition. No desires. It kept him happy.

“I hope it rains today. Been so hot this summer. I won’t need to water the plants too.” he said, as a gust of wind set the windchimes in motion, their clangs echoing through the garden.

“Whatever happened to those parrots? I completely forgot about them”, I asked him.

“You mean, the ones you forced me to buy from the cantonment? Those were love-birds. One of them died. And then the other one-”

“Oh right. It died as well?”

“No silly. We let it out.”

We sat for a while as he hummed a song I couldn’t recognise. “Right. I’m sleeping in for a while. Your mother’s coming here to make sure I don’t kill myself taking the wrong medicines. I don’t want to disappoint her.”

“Do you want your stick?”

“Let it be here. I don’t actually need it till I go outside. I wouldn’t mind a cigarette though? This weather is quite something”, his eyes hopeful.

“If you actually think I’ll get a man with lung cancer a cigarette…you have got to-”

“Yes. Yes. A simple no would have sufficed. I’m going to sleep.

He slowly walked into the house, balancing his drip. I sat alone, my attention moving to the the touch-me-nots he had planted right in front of the swing last spring. I touched one of them, just to make sure they still work. It closed.

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@sumedhnatu – Twitter, Instagram

Artwork: Aditya Phadke
Instagram: @artyaditya

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Christopher Nolan’s Magnificent History Lesson About Survival

In the tenth standard, we had an entire chapter dedicated to the Second World War. Amongst the several terribly written paragraphs, there were only three lines about Dunkirk’s famous retreat. Our professor had read them out verbatim to us without elaborating on any of them, without sharing any explanation about why the incident was important and had told us to underline one of the three lines. The line as I remember clearly was – Winston Churchill called the Dunkirk retreat a ‘miracle of deliverance’.  He reminded us it would come as a ‘fill in the blank’ in the exam and that was that. All I knew about Dunkirk’s evacuation was that single fill in the blank.

 

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I walked out of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ yesterday feeling cheated out of a history lesson in my school days. The movie is an exhausting watch and I recommend you see it as it’s meant to be, not on a digital platform, not on your laptops, but in a cinema hall; preferable IMAX. It’s one of the most haunting, involving films I’ve seen in a while and judging by the number of people who had their hands over their mouths in graphic horror shortly before the unnecessary interval, I wasn’t the only person who felt like an eyewitness to the entire tale.

In many ways, most of great war films are remembered for the human story behind them. Saving Private Ryan, Paths of Glory (my personal favourite), The Bridge on the River Kwai, Even Band of Brothers (which follows Easy Company from England to Germany) concentrate on the personal story of the soldiers behind the larger incident. In Dukirk’s case, I felt strangely detached from the characters. Nolan doesn’t offer you the time to build a connect with any of his ensemble, swiftly intercutting between the air, sea and land in three non-linear timelines to maintain the feeling of constant danger and panic at a high point right from the very beginning. That I feel, is the heart of why the film works so well, what makes it a ‘Nolan’ film, because we’re effectively watching what’s supposed to be an hour in the sky, a week of land survival and roughly a night of sea battle cut with the same degree of importance. Failure during any of these time periods has only one eventuality – certain death.

The film begins with an empty street in Dunkirk, propaganda posters falling silently through the air while British soldiers carefully make their way through. Hans Zimmer’s eerie notes almost preempt the start of violence, a constant pattern through the film, with each segment like a mini-movie within itself. Four of the Brits are gunned down by Germans, leaving Fionn Whitefield the only survivor; as he bolts into French barricades before heading to the ships. Whitefield, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles lead the subplot on the ships, as they hopelessly try to survive till aid reaches. Nolan never cuts to the Germans, he never at any point intercuts to who is firing from the ground, or inside their cockpits, or for the matter within the confines of their U-boats. We never see a single German face, or hear the word ‘Nazi’. The only interaction a viewer has with the German army is direct onslaught.  This constant presence of a faceless enemy is disconcerting to watch, because there’s no predictability in their attack. As a viewer you experience it only at the moment the Brits do.

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Nolan’s mastery grasp over technique is indisputable. The film belongs to his crew just as much as it belongs to him. The flight shots, which are some of the most minimalistic and surreal shots I’ve seen in a war film work in complete antithesis to the chaotic mess soldiers on the ground are in.  Hoyte Van Hoytema’s raw camera comes closest to virtual reality; working in tandem with Zimmer’s unique, jarring soundtrack. It works up a crescendo in every sequence slowly, building up a gradual fear arcing to panic. Nolan’s erraticness of action, his decision to actually show how random war is and the absolute uncertainty of who/what will be hit next, who will have an upper hand, who will luck favour in the next five minutes is what keeps you on the edge of your seat

In a scene where a torpedo strikes one of the rescue ships, soldiers have just been fed warm tea and bread and are totally off guard.  The resultant feeling of suffocation, as water bursts into the chamber is so intense, so sudden that you barely get time to adjust to it, to tell yourself that it’s happening on screen. Unlike a lot of directors, Nolan allows these moments of strike to play in wides without cutting to the actual projectile detonating. He makes sure one gets to view the chain reaction of soldiers reacting to a threat, never letting you know where exactly the damage will happen. He emphasises how much luck dictates survival in a war.

 

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Tom Hardy’s entire portion in the air is almost like a reprise of his stellar work in Locke, as he powers through a third of a movie with just his eyes and his voice.  You’d think that as the biggest star in the film, he’d be given more coverage. That it would be logical to show his narrative as the most important. Nolan doesn’t do that. He treats him as an equal to the rest of his characters. His soldiers are kids. They aren’t older men playing younger parts, they’re actually young.

To me the film belongs to Mark Rylance, who plays a British civilian sailor representative of the hordes of non-navy personally called to bail out the troops from the beach. There’s a strange inevitability of having accepted impending doom in his demeanour to try and help his country. Yet, his character is as much of a fighter as any of the troops. His storyline is a constant reminder through the film that its theme isn’t about war, but about survival and to me, that’s what makes Dunkirk unique. None of the soldiers in the film are looking out for the romanticised glory so typical of war films. They want to go home. They can see England from where they are and they’re willing to do anything they can to cross and reach there.

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Above: Mark Rylance playing Mr. Dawson.

Nolan’s the first director whose work I fell in love with in college. He was a posterboy for films we wanted to direct in our first year. There were a countless others like me. We all wanted to make a film where the top continues spinning in the end. We all fell in love with the ambiguity of his endings, the idea that we don’t owe our watchers an explanation to a concrete resolution. We also grew out of it, eventually coming to terms that his films do have flaws, and that aping the style of someone whose intentions you don’t understand isn’t the wisest thing to do. Dunkirk takes me back to the days where I was blown away by the audacity of what he was doing on stage. It’s not the greatest war movie ever made, but it’s certainly a modern masterpiece. Watch it in the theatres please! You’re going to be making a very, very strong long time memory.

 

 

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Uncle bought a Mercedes Benz today.

Half an hour before father’s evening prayers, the house unwillingly tries to adjust its mood to something more sombre. The television shuts down without fail, always disconnected from the main switchboard, never by only the remote. Nanda bai is given her daily reminder to not grind masalas in the kitchen. A dull silence takes over in fifteen minutes, broken only by father’s monotonous singing of selected verses from the Bhagwat Gita while he bathes. Our bathroom door doesn’t close properly, which allows steam to waft through the corridors connecting my room and his. As he reaches the end of the shloka, which I’ve memorised verbatim over years of hearing it again and again, he barks out my name where after I’m expected to fetch turmeric and sandalwood from the kitchen. Father needs the paste to be of a certain consistency. I grind the sandalwood blocks in the kitchen just as I hear the bathroom door open, to make sure it’s fresh and moist enough for prayers. By this time, the entire corridor is flooded with steam and one can barely see the door to the small prayer room at the side.

Our prayer room is the only room in our seventy year old house which hasn’t been touched by renovation. My father and his father before him were very vocal about this. As your cross the boundary of the room, the marble turns to wood, the cream paint that adorns most of my house, save the cracks that land up uninvited till you throw them out during Diwali – slowly vanish to red brick. One’s eyes immediately flash eastwards, towards the main statue of Ganpati kept there in a silver devhara, our only real family heirloom. It’s solid silver, but father refuses to let me clean it with acid because of which it’s become a dull shade of grey. I’ve often asked father how much it’s worth with the antique value of three hundred years backing it, but he refuses to tell me, sometimes even demanding how a son/daughter of his could dare put a price on something so valuable to the family.

Something strange happened today. My father didn’t go straight for a bath and rush to pray after coming home. Instead, he sunk himself in one of the sofas and handed me his wallet. He told me to walk up to the corner and buy a full box of pure ghee pedhas, the ones with powdered sugar on top of them. Years of asking questions and never getting answers from father has conditioned me to simply following instructions. I walked towards the corner where six shops have been standing for a decade without a hint of change to what they sell. The way was littered with Gulmohor pods, just about to flower. I made a mental note to stock these up for school tomorrow. They’re filled with water and make for excellent ammunition to fire mid way through Geography class.

There’s a dwarf that sits on the large stone slab separating Chitale Sweets and Joshi Sweets. He polishes shoes for the entire neighbourhood. I used to be really scared of him when I was small. There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t seen him sitting in his canvas shelter, never bothered by the weather, always flashing a smile to all the regulars. He overhears every conversation that transpires in both the shops, often wincing when people order the wrong things from both the places. He waved cheerily as I entered the lane and asked me if I saw Thursday’s match. I told him I had and added that Ganguli was indeed the star of the game. Pleased at my critical insight, he swore at Sri Lanka, who we had fought, threw a mango toffee at me and picked up the brush and a tub of very brown polish.

The two sweet-shops are almost sacred in Pune’s rigid culinary space. Chitale Sweets is known just as much for its eccentric and rude salesmen as it is for it’s paper thin saffron Jilbis, which people from neighbouring towns have been heard to make entire day trips for. A visit inside is never complete till you’re shown the sweets the servers believe you’re worth. They never greet you, they never smile at you. Over the years, people have warmed up to this show of arrogance. They don’t mind the stabs of humiliation one goes through while one begs and reminds the man behind the counter that a kilogram stands for a thousand grams, not nine hundred and fifty. Only the choicest regulars, the inner circle of buyers who have grown old along with the store get access to the fresh lot of sweets. Still, no one can deny how exquisite the produce from the place is.

Which brings us to Joshi sweets, owned by one of Pune’s oldest families. Every generation that’s owned the outlet has fought bitterly in a very, very public spat worse than the previous one. Every decade a rumour resurfaces where close friends of the family swear by their blood that the shop will shut down any day. It never does. The sweets have not changed in their taste in over a hundred years, a fact verified time and again by their oldest customers. The Joshis are the antithesis of the Chitales. One is welcomed inside with one’s first name. One is asked what one wishes to buy and subsequently taken to every other counter other than the one one wishes to carry out business with. As one is just about to leave the store with the shopping bags heavier and one’s wallet lighter, one is reminded – have you forgotten your so and so? And one has to buy a final item. The portions are always large and the taste is rustic and raw with flavour. There is never any delicate garnish, no sprinkles of dainty gold foil, just eight glass counters and barrels of the choicest food.

I have to admit, I’m loyal to neither. Father never touches anything post the doormat at Joshis, so it’s going to be me facing the Chitales today.

Almost to reaffirm what people whisper saying, the shopkeeper served three people who walked into the store after me reminding me each time – Old people are more important. I sat on a stool, listening to the unbearably monotonous chorus of ‘Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram’, which plays there on loop every single minute of the day. Father had once told me that  old man Chitale had been told to chant Lord Ram’s name ten thousand times a day if he wanted a male heir to his empire of sweet shops. Ever since, he’s played the cassette on loop. It never stops. He even has it as his cell phone ring-tone, just in case. After quizzing me with several questions about school, how my preparations for the terminal examinations were going on and how my sister was doing in college, he measured half a kilogram of pedhas, made sure the sum total was four ninety five grams and pushed the packet in my hands.

I thought about school. Today was an eventful day at school. Yellow house defeated green for the first time in six years to win the annual sports day overall championship. There is no way this could have happened without a certain amount of red tape involved, we suspect Anshuman Thombre, who was seen sneaking out of the PT sir’s house last Sunday. Yellow have had a terrible history at excelling in anything, so it was quite the day for anyone unfortunate enough to have been drawn into the house. I cycled home like any self respecting student, extremely indignant that we’d have to deal with all of them gloating for the next year.

Father was already standing in the backyard by the time I reached home. Our old Esteem was dripping water by the time I walked into the driveway. Our watchman Baban, an old wrinkly fellow with an awful amount of hair sprouting out from his ears and who, to be fair would have been removed a long time back if it hadn’t been for the fact he had served us for a while looked at me approaching and declared that my uncle was going to visit. It always bothered me that he was privy to father’s intimate days months before I was. He would share with me the less harmful details of the future he had overheard, just to remind me how important he was.

Father checked the contents of my purchase to verify if I had brought what he asked. He asked me if I got a receipt, followed by the change. He asked if I had counted it. I replied affirmative to all three counts. He pushed an open palm at my watchman, who placed a packet of 555 cigarettes in his hand. Father opened the packet and lit one up. He would smoke either while he was driving, or when he was having a great conversation with someone, or when he was edgy. He didn’t qualify for the first two right now.  I had no idea why father was so nervous about his brother coming over. Kaka used to stay in America, and had just recently shifted back to Pune. He was always fun to hang around, had hilarious stories about what it was like to be an Indian in America. He still spoke perfect Marathi, which I find really funny, because I can’t. Mine seems strange and foreign. He would switch from an American accent in English to a perfect Kokanastha Brahman accent in Marathi right between sentences, which was very disconcerting the the ears.

The first thing he noticed was that the car had wipers on its headlights. That was a huge deal. What an important vehicle this must be, if its lights needed wipers, he thought. He remembered all the scrap books he had made with entire pages filled with cut-outs of the Mercedes-S class, the Mercedes-M class and so on. The star looked exactly like one of those. It was raven black and shiny to the point where one could use it as a mirror if one wanted. As his uncle parked the car, the smell of fresh leather and foam started taking over the wintery smell of Gulmohor and Chapha. He looked at his father, who nodded before his son could ask the question.

He screamed and jumped on his uncle as soon as he got out of the car. Why didn’t you tell me? When did you get it? Why did you get black? Didn’t they have blue? How many people know? Does it have a phone inside like they say it does – were some of the questions he fired without a seconds pause for an answer.

The uncle touched his father’s feet. They hugged. His father reminded the uncle to offer the pedhas as a prasad to Lord Shankar, without whose mercy the father was sure this extravagance would not have been possible. The boy opened the door and sat marvelling at all the knobs and buttons inside. There’s a real phone here, he exclaimed looking at the car’s satellite phone, a device useless in Indian territory. The boy pressed the first button on the dashboard and the car whirred into life, its mirrors slowly coming out. We need to do this by hand, he reminded his father. He pressed a second button and the windows disappeared into the car, all automated. How many hours of his life he had spent wrestling with the rear windows in their Esteem, he remembered. He pressed the horn and the car blared out a sound so unique he was sure all the neighbours along the street would come out to take a look. He was wrong, for his neighbours were already watching. Some from their balcony like Mr Yadav, with a cup of tea and khari ready at the side. Some had walked to the porch almost disappointed to find out that it didn’t belong to a celebrity, perhaps from the television shows. The uncle pulled the boy’s cheeks and reminded him that the car belonged to all of them. The boy demanded they go for a drive. The uncle asked the father if he’d like to drive all of them along. The father insisted his son and the uncle go on their own, he would watch them from the distance.

The boy was anxiously watching through the car windows. He really wanted his school friends to see him. Of course, he would tell them about the drive anyway, but the actual thrill of having their jaw drop without any sort of warning was what he was hoping for. Neither Utkarsh nor JP were playing in their porch. He cursed their timing at being unproductive.

The car cruised through the lanes of Pune, orange with fallen Gulmohor. People craned their necks to look inside the car. The boy made sure he didn’t make eye contact. Other kids on the road excitedly jumped and pointed to their fathers and mothers, who ruffled their hair and told them not to point. At the signal, a college graduate of Pune’s prestigious Fergusson college poked his girlfriend, who assured him that he too would drive such a car one day. The boy decided it was time he showed of his vast knowledge about automobiles, and quizzed his uncle with a volley of questions about the BHP of the car, the torque and so on. He had no idea what any of them meant of course. The uncle knew this but complied. The boy made notes in his head, he knew he’d have to add this when his friends would argue about how powerful the car really is tomorrow in school.

They passed by Law colllege and went past Kanchan Galli, where the foothills of Pune’s hill start from. As they crossed Maggi Point, a spot made famous by its serving of India’s favourite instant noodles, the uncle asked the boy if he’d like to drive. The boy naturally wanted to but was very forthcoming about his lack of maneuverability in controlling the vehicle. The uncle chuckled and asked him to sit on his lap. The boy complied. Now keep one hand here, and keep the other here, instructed the uncle in a voice that resembled his father’s except it didn’t have the pages of safety instructions his father would have mentioned before.

The boy turned the steering slowly, his uncle making sure he didn’t turn to much. The car turned obediently. The boy was thrilled. He couldn’t wait to grow up and stop pedalling for a change. He asked his uncle whether he could put his foot on the accelerator and change the gear, but his uncle said no. A few more years and I’ll teach you he added, as an afterthought.

The father was still waiting downstairs when the drive was over. He invited his brother for dinner but the uncle refused, lying about a prior commitment at the Gymkhana. The father didn’t try to force him into coming. The boy demanded to know when they’d go out together, the uncle laughed and said they’d plan a long trip to Rajgad or any of the many forts scattered around the Maharashtrian countryside. He reminded his nephew to hang from the bar every day and stretch his spine, the boy promised he would.

Father stared at me again, and he pushed the box of pedhas I had brought a little while back at me. I passed it to my uncle. He opened it, finished one in a single bite and gave me the box back. I thanked him for the drive and he pulled my hair. You don’t need to be formal with me, he said. I’m your uncle, not an outsider.

The house was silent and dark when we walked upstairs. The lights in the prayer room, which are usually gleaming bright by now, had been forgotten. Father threw the house keys on the sofa and asked me how my day was at school. He asked me how prepared I was for the terminal exams. I said I had finished reading all my books once. I would finish reading them again by the time the exams started. Father told me he was very proud he had me as his son. He started walking towards his bedroom. I asked him if I should prepare sandalwood for the pooja later. No need, he said.

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Artwork credit: Aditya Phadke
Instagram – Artyaditya

Story by Sumedh Natu

Twitter, Instagram – @sumedhnatu

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Filed under Fiction, Media, Norms, Uncategorized

Look Brother! I can fly!

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One dull winter morning, the kind of a morning where nothing of significance happens, where the clouds are a dull grey and the colours of the peacock refuse to excite the eye, Rama woke up to find out that he had grown a beautiful pair of wings overnight.

His initial reaction was one of horror. As muscles in his body that had never been used began to twitch and his eyes saw the outline of this transformation, he wanted to scream in horror, though he did not feel physical pain in any part of his body. His shoulders and arms seemed intact but did not seem the feeble twig like extensions they used to be. He closed his eyes and touched what he could touch of his left wing with his palm and realised that they were made of several folds, and had a much larger span than what he immediately perceived in his mind. Their outer covering was of fur and the inner layer of tight bound muscle.

“How did this happen?” thought Rama as he proceeded to find a mirror to examine himself. His entire body seemed to have transformed to accommodate the wings. He had become toned and lithe, and the cut of every muscle could be seen prominently against his skin. As he willed his wings to open a little and the folds undid themselves, Rama could not remember seeing a sight that was so beautiful. His wings were pearly white against his bluish dark skin tone. He was a picture of perfection, a word that had never been used near or about him since his birth.

“Could I still be asleep?”

It was a perfectly valid question. After all, no one should fall prey to hallucination. He opened the knife he would keep next to his bed and delicately poked himself. A small dot of blood formed at the spot. The pain that came with it, was the sweetest thing he had felt. It was proof that a good thing had happened on an ordinary day.

It’s your turn to milk the deer” brought his elation to the ground. His brother, Lakshman had already woken up and was screaming his set of morning orders from the inner den. Milking the family deer was the least of Rama’s concerns, at this precise moment. How would Lakshman react when he saw the wings? Would he think of his transformation as a disease? And what use were these majestic wings, anyway? Why had he been gifted them? Questions such as these kept wafting through his head.

“Rama!!!!”

The voice intensified. Lakshman had always been the commanding one, though he was older by just a few minutes. The brothers were nothing like twins. Rama was bluish and looked underfed, while Lakshman was a handsome golden bronze oak in shade, handsome as a lion in heat. His legs were like mace irons and his voice sent the python scuttling away despite it being deaf and dumb.

Rama covered himself with his lijaas and walked down the twenty foot passage that connected both their rooms into the common room. The added weight of his wings, as a thoughtful reader might have thought, did not seem to bother him. He was walking with a grace no one who knew him would have ever thought he’d develop. As he opened the door to the common room, he realised Lakshman was nowhere to be seen. He was probably in the kitchen, slow roasting meat. Rama hoped it wasn’t hare. Hare tasted fine, but it didn’t agree with his stomach after a second helping. He would have to exercise control.

Rama cautiously opened the main door, and stepped outside. The sun was just starting to reveal herself, very shyly. The tips of the tallest trees looked scarlet. As he looked up at the sky and saw three hawks cruising through the air currents, he instinctively knew what he was supposed to do and flexed his wings out. The folds of muscle neatly packed to accommodate room for himself crashed outwards in a blaze and stood out in white perfection against his blue skin. He looked like he had been born to tame the skies.

Rama  flapped his wings. His heart gushed blood to every extension, it came to him like the creator had willed it. He began to see every air current like a different person, one calm, one angry, one particularly morbid, one energetic but short lived. As the pressure under his wings started building up and the weight he felt of his own body started reducing, Rama finally came to terms with his transformation. He could fly.

As Rama rose higher, the million doubts that had flocked his mind seemed so breeze away. The trees and man-caves around seemed so small. He could see thousands of miles around. The world was so big. Rama’s eye caught the glance of a current that seemed friendly, so he decided to lock his wings to it. What a beautiful morning, Rama thought, as he levitated peacefully above his door.

“Explain yourself right now!” Lakshman’s voice radiated through the cold winter morning. Rama felt the happiness ebb out of him. How was he to make his brother understand what he was going through. What if Lakshman decided to throw him out of home?

As Rama slowly lowered himself, he prostrated himself before his elder brother and truthfully recounted the events of the morning. Lakshman’s face was inscrutable as he asked an occasional question. As Rama finished the story, Lakshman touched the left wing with his palm, almost with the same look he would have whenever they managed to pan gold at the river bed. He felt his brothers torso, and how hard it had become overnight. He even compared their shoulders, to see which seemed better developed.

The settlement healer was called, to take a look at whether the demons had bewitched Rama. Lakshman didn’t want any bad spirits changing himself, no way at all. As the healer saw Rama fly, he too had nothing to report but bewilderment and awe at the beauty of Rama’s flight. He passed the transformation as the good grace of forest well –wisher. After all, who would gift someone as simple as Rama something so beautiful? The deeper question – why?

Days passed, and news of Rama spread across caves and settlements all around. People would come by making excuses to meet Lakshman in the morning hours where Rama would practise flying. He had become so good. He would be swooping in circles and suddenly dive-bomb to skim the grass. He would levitate like the lazy stream for hours and accelerate like a falling flake of ice the next moment.

Rama’s fame seem to have cast a spell of morbidity on Lakshman. He had become competitive in every small way. He would take small delight in proving himself to be superior in every small aspect, right from who ate more bee honey during breakfast, to who found the fresher catch, when the two went net fishing.

The brothers had felt a strange shift of power in the house. Of course, Lakshman was still utterly dominant. The right to obedience that he once commanded seemed subdued now. A small amount of tension seemed to emerge when Rama finished his hunts hours before Lakshman and always managed to prey on the choicest meat. Once Rama had walked into his bed early to find Lakshman trying to flap his arms in the same way Rama would ruffle his wings after a long flight.

On Lakshman’s twenty-fifth day of birth, Rama bowed his head low and asked his brother what service he could render as the customary slave promise?  Lakshman was quiet for a very long time and asked Rama if he was strong. Rama said yes. He would do anything for his brother.

“Take me for a flight” his brother commanded.

Rama had never been happier. In the two years since his wings emerged, Lakshman had never asked even once how it felt to fly. Rama knew that Lakshman was far too proud to ask him how it felt, thought the curiosity of seeing Rama fly high up amongst the heavens with his trademark arrow like silhouette marked in a haze of blue against the sky had send darts of jealousy through Lakshman every single time.

Gripping his brother tight Rama soared higher than he ever had before. It was a wonderful moment. They were one, for the first time. Rama manoeuvred through giant Aprico trees and hooted at the scabby vultures that would haunt the skies at every alternate hour during the season end. He showed him the spot where the three sisters of Chihara’s family would come to touch themselves.

When they were down, Lakshman started asking strange questions. Do you love me, Rama? He asked. More than my life brother, Rama replied. Would you do anything I asked?

Of course, brother, came Rama’s reply.

“Sit down on this chair and don’t move till I tell you.”

Rama sat. He tucked his wings back into their folds. He wondered what Lakshman could possibly want from him? Maybe he was to go somewhere far and get him something.

As Lakshman came back, he was carrying a strange looking object with him. It looked like a saw, but it had a double blade and a hinge in between. It was almost as if…

“I want your wings”

Rama stared in horrified disbelief at his brother. Surely, he hadn’t just heard what he had heard.

A surge of emotions thundered through Rama’s head. For the first time in his life, he considered physically striking his brother. He felt utterly repulsed at the very face of his brother, the low life that he was proving himself to be. Family were meant to celebrate each other’s triumphs. They were supposed to shelter each other’s faults. He wondered how insecure his brother’s mind was. And yet, Rama sat. He did not unlock his wings and soar away, to a land where family didn’t matter. He didn’t  pick his brother up and throw him from a point in the sky where his head would crack into small fragments if he was released. He didn’t leave and consider never being seen ever again. Rama was a good man and as the observer has frequently observed, nothing nice ever happens to a man who is good.
It was a bound rule of the clan to not deny a person celebrating his day of birth a gift. Rama was bound by family law. He sat in mute silence as his brother smiled to himself and locked his wings in the hinge blade, right at the joint. As he pressed deep, the blade went through the bone with a crunch, as blood oozed out. Rama screamed in pain, but the agony of sacrifice was worse, as he saw the remainder of his beautiful lying on the ground.

No sooner had Lakshman clipped the second wing, than Ram glowed white and returned to the human state he was in. The tight skin and muscle returned to flab. The cuts evened out. The gashes healed on their own and he became once again, what he was so famous for earlier- being absolutely average.

They were equals once more, but as a famous writer had once said – Lakshman was more equal than Rama.

The brothers continued to live together, but never spoke. They did not care about each other’s existence. They just continued to live.

Rama would often wake up screaming, and touch his shoulder blades, the ghosts of wings once present bothering him with their touch. His phantom wings would wince and his mind would ache with the thought of opening them and souring through the night sky with the bats and other creatures of the night.

One winter morning, Lakshman woke up to find out that he had transformed overnight. He had grown a beautiful pair of jet black wings, powerful and strong. As he flew his maiden flight, the cold winter air filled his lungs up like a drug, and he too, wondered what Rama had wondered – How did this happen to me?

As a quiet Rama opened the door to see his brother in the sky, Lakshman looked down at his brother and for the first time in two years, opened conversation with a smile. “Look brother, I can fly” he said.

All Rama could remember was that fleeting last image of Lakshman soaring through the sky, becoming smaller and smaller till he disappeared.

He would never come back…

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Originally published on Aniket Dasgupta’s dfuse.in

http://dfuse.in/fction/look-brother-can-fly/

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Filed under Fiction, Mythology