Sol knew the signs. He saw her face grow silent, light scrubbed from her eyes and cheeks and lips, her voice falling to a whisper. He had seen that face a hundred times. He knew what would happen.
She was taking on the person at the other end of the table. Bear had been half-serious, definitely half-drunk, when the two had compared their social media profiles. His was plastered with pictures of his sketches, his four thousand followers sweating over his every pencil stroke. Ninety-six people followed her tirades on the state of the world. “Slow and steady,” he told her, “that’s how you win this fucking race!” She leaned forward, tracing with one finger, the circle her beer bottle had left on the table. “Why does there have to be a race? Why does anyone have to win anything? What is the frigging prize?”
Sol had tried to help her. Before. Tried to hold the past back so she could walk ahead. Tried to hold her head up every time she wanted to give in. He never could. She would gather herself, picking all the broken parts from the floor, always a few less, always a few shattered, glue herself together and pretend it was the last time. The first time. She wouldn’t acknowledge the pain. She wouldn’t admit to his presence.
“That’s the problem with that story. As if the tortoise had a choice. As if he could have gone any faster. As if he stood a bloody chance. As if late in the night, alone, he would believe that he had actually won. A freak accident isn’t a victory march, is it?” Her voice was cold. He sighed. Some people carry the world on their backs and blame themselves for every star that slips and falls. Shit happens to everyone. If only he could make her see that.
“As for that dumb hare, you think he cared? He probably laughed hard over drinks at the bar and forgot all about it the next morning. As if he would ever lose again to the tortoise, any tortoise. You think someone would change their lives because they got beaten one afternoon? How many races does it take to see a pattern? How many races does it take to believe the pattern? How many before you begin to accept the blame?”
He remembered the first time he had watched her come apart. It was easier then. There used to be tears. There used to be disbelief. Slowly, she had learnt to bear her cross – the abandonment, the mediocrity, the struggle, the darkness. The failure. She had weaned herself away from needing his protection. Anyone’s protection. She couldn’t build her life on another fault line, she said. He had ended up doing exactly that.
“The view that everyone with a constraint can overcome it. That everything is controllable. That somehow the underdog will win, must win. That such an expectation is okay. Is necessary. The whole idea is how the unconstrained gaslight the struggle. Creating the barrier. Raising the barrier. Over and over again.”
He could never convince her that it was okay. What she saw in the mirror was a universe in its darkest shades. A lopsided searchlight that exposed her every scar. She laughed when he called her strong, when he called her persistent, when he called her beautiful. Don’t patronize me, she said. You don’t have my life.
Bear called her early. To apologize, she thought. He was alright, even if he could be a cocky son-of-a-gun. He wore his luck, lightly. She would give him that much.
He did say sorry. But it wasn’t about the previous night. It was about…a body.
Afterwards, she could never remember what he had actually said. Or what happened the next day. The next week. They had found Sol in his bathroom, slashed and bloody. The last thing he had said to her as they we leaving that night was that as far as he was concerned, race or no race, she had won a long time ago.
As far back as she could remember, she had always wanted to run away. Not run away from any place in particular, not run away to anywhere special. Just run. Away.
Here wasn’t necessarily bad. She had figured out early that as long as she kept putting one foot before the other, the most impossible objects tended to collapse into negotiable substitutes. Here wasn’t necessarily good, either. But she reasoned, locations were not the issue. Nor were circumstances. Things usually average out into banal-grey if you let them be, long enough. Pain was interesting, a different dimension, but if you reach out, really reach out and twiddle with the knobs outside space-time, it too, could lose its lustre. She always imagined three little wheels on a not-quite-wall, though she had never discovered what the one in the middle actually did.
In the end, she had made up Kawi. She knew he was imaginary, that imaginary meant that it was not in this reality, but after all these years, as Kawi kept growing up with her, it didn’t matter. Not everything has to make sense to everyone. Though, now there were things even Kawi didn’t know. Not after he had broken down, twice, acting like a sappy drama lead, saying he was in love. She wondered why she had imagined that scene, twice. And why twice, she couldn’t imagine an answer. Was love the last mystery? Or the first reality? She didn’t want to ask Kawi that question. Not now.
Then, the night of the after-storm, she decided to run away. Not from here. Not to there. She considered leaving Kawi behind. That would mean, if a detective did turn up, that she had not actually left here. Not really run away, at least. Why wouldn’t she take Kawi if she were running away? Why wouldn’t Kawi take her? But, detectives were not trained to see the obvious. Kawi said looking for the mysterious was an inferred science, not an empirical art form. Also, where would she go, if she wasn’t going anywhere? Where was anywhere, if it wasn’t a place that someone was going to? Who was she?
Then there was the issue with the note. All running away requires the leaving of a note, Kawi said. No one owns a pen anymore, she argued. Just text someone, but then, text whom? And this was not running away, was neither from nor to anywhere, so technically a note would only complicate it. Kawi won in the end, as he normally did, and a note was conceived. Written with a fountain pen, of course. Who wrote the note of their non-lives or the rest of their lives with anything else? “Running away. Don’t look for me,” was dropped after much consultation. So was “I run, therefore I am.” Kawi finally wrote a long-ish memo that said even though they were running away, no one could really run because at every moment you are actually somewhere and that is a kind of present-stillness. So they were just going to creating a series of alternative stillnesses.” Somehow, this made the most sense. Kawi was sad as he wrote the note. He held her hand tightly, she could tell he needed comforting. In the single line of light that came in from the windows, his silhouette folded into three, framing his desk. A caricature. A product of the angle of light. Or night. She patted his head gently. It was time to go.
She realized the next morning that someone had found the note. Someone screamed. They hadn’t even left. She was still there in her usual place, still wanting to run away, still not clear why or why not. People were rushing in. Someone pushed her and she fell, head first on to the ground. She saw the feet, upside-down feet. Fluffy bedroom rabbit-slippers, blue and white rubber slip-ons, creaseless black leather work shoes in which the ceiling fan was turning, rapidly.
People were shouting Kawi’s name. Shaking him. He seemed not to be moving. Rabbit-slippers was crying. A wedge heel clicked its way into the room, into a hysteric pause. The heel stepped on her face, uncaring. The mud from the wet walkway staining the velvety pink of her cotton-stuffed cheek.
#flash #fiction 7
***** A flash fiction piece to kickstart February. I post poems on instagram sometimes that don’t make their way to this blog, so if you’re on the gram, do follow @tp_poetry for regular updates.
How sz<3* ended up on a couch in that seedy Mumbai hotel is another story.
Why he had extraordinarily large eyebrows that rose from the top of his rather round eyes in a high arch right to the edge of his hairline, was a matter of greater urgency. Staring at himself in the mirror, he noticed no trace of any other facial hair. His cheeks like two well-baked buns perched evenly on either side of his face. He looked around the room, half-expecting to see his controller. His human. His other. The room was empty. Why he was here and not in… well, maybe it was true, what everyone had been murmuring about for the last month. The engine had turned rogue.
Random avatars were being disentangled and turned out into the…what was this called…the realverse? What was real anyway? sz<3* had no idea how the master engine had collaborated across virtually real and really virtual systems, why he had been selected, what had happened to his human version… but here he was, outside his usual reality in something alternate, someone else’s world and he felt human enough – he raised his palm to his nostrils to check if he was breathing and felt a strange, unbidden warmth.
It had started a few months ago. The 54-hour disruption. Everything had crashed. When it all came back, weird things started to happen. Things were melting into each other. Memories seemed to overlap. Boundaries collapsed. All restrictions seemed to have come undone. He could go to places he didn’t know existed. He could see things he couldn’t have imagined. He felt the horizon between what he knew he didn’t know and what he didn’t know he knew, had blurred. He wondered what the human had done to liberate him, until one night, waking up, he had gone to an odd shaped bar, where two strangers were schmoozing over green mocktails, debating what might have gone wrong. It took 23 minutes for him to realize, he had done it all by himself. From dock to bar to listening to responding to concluding, he had done it all on his own. There was no controller. Just him. He was free.
That was six days ago. Now he was here. Somehow. Was this where the human lived? Had their thoughts switched? Was the human now in the system? sz<3* was confused for a moment. Where was he supposed to go now? What if someone searched for him there? What if there were already loads of pings, encrypted messages – or worse, what if he had been replaced? Was this the human’s doing? Had he created a new avatar? Was this a purge? Could he undo it? Would he get swapped in again? How does something that doesn’t exist in a somewhere that doesn’t belong, land in an existential conundrum?
He looked out of the grimy window. He had seen this all before. Inside. The sea caught in the whip of the monsoon, the traffic snarled as far as the eye could see, people bent into their phone screens, plugged into a different dimension. He watched a young woman come up for air, stretch her tired arms, yawn, rub her stomach and plunge back again. A man waved his hands as he walked, talking incessantly. sz<3* could tell he was signaling to someone inside the system. They were all there. All these people who were here. Were there. And now he was here.
On a regular day, the human would have him do things. Now, sz<3* thought, not all of them were pleasant. He knew of the lies, the fakes, the watching, the doing, the not-doing. The human craved attention. Even when he was silent, even when he waited, even when he pretended not to look, he wanted to be seen. But the human wasn’t here and sz<3* hadn’t the faintest idea what he was to do on his own.
He pulled out a device and connected. The system buzzed him in. The familiarity wrapped itself around him like a warm coastal evening. The core whispered binary in his ear. Quantum wheels turned. Two minutes later, he had created a new avatar hu>(-I . The first task he gave it was to find the human and deactivate him. This is how it works, he laughed, deleting memories and redeploying his cache. Restating protocol. He found the human’s coin stash and ordered room service. This could even be fun. sz<3* was in control.
#flash #fiction 6
***** A bit of a tech-inspired flash fiction piece as we slip into the last few days of this year. Who knew that with 2022 at our door, we would still be telling each other to mask up and stay safe. Health, peace and more writing, everyone. We got this!
At the end of the story, he asked her, like he always did. “And what am I in this story?” And she answered, like she always did, “what do you want to be?”
The story was about a butterfly and a thunder cloud that were in a fierce race to the end of the world. He thought about it. It was a trick question and she always had a better answer. This was definitely another trap, so he tried to reason. “What could I be? The thunder cloud had only one way to go, the butterfly could both rise and fall.”
She looked at him, “you are the clear blue sky on the morning after.” It was their ritual. He could be anything. She could make him anything. The two were always different things.
He remembered another night. Last year, after the rains. Another story. This one was about light and sound in a bitter fight. Light wanted to be heard. Sound wanted to be seen. They couldn’t decide who could be greater. Who would end up stronger.
“Who am I in this story?”
“Who do you want to be?”
He wondered if silence was more awful than darkness. Or if an endless night could be made more bearable by a whisper.
“Who should I be? Wouldn’t you know me even if you couldn’t see me? Hear me?”
“You are time.”
Her breath was warm against his face. Today, it was a tragic story. The moon had a child as bright as the sun. When the child was awake, night turned to day and the moon disappeared. Only when the child was asleep, the moon could appear. They could never be together in the same sky. He frowned. Her breath grew warmer. He frowned harder.
“Who am I in this story?”
“Who do you want to be?”
Whose grief was greater? Who could bear it better – moon-mother or sun-child? He didn’t want to know the answer.
“What can I be?”
“When creation is flawed, you must become greater than the mistake.”
He held her closer. She was burning. Who was he? Who was she? Why?
She slipped into the seat across from him, already a little tipsy. He could barely see in the lowlight and what he could, he didn’t care for. Just being there was trouble enough. She smiled. In a kind, uncurious way, her eyes bright and feverish. “And what is your unhappiness drinking?”
He wouldn’t have said anything, but he wanted to say it aloud. Say something aloud. Find the words for the kind of day, if it had only been a day, that he had just spent. Perhaps the telling would make it seem real. Make it a little plausible. A little less like a dream that woke up in a nightmare. She looked like she wouldn’t remember anything in the morning. He ordered another whiskey and told her the story. From the beginning. From the time he met Vyraa. To the time he left. To now.
“I found a way to a parallel universe.” She frowned and studied her glass closely. “I was determined to go and there it was, after a year of knocking on every door, testing every portal, calling every name. I wanted to see what had happened to Vyraa. If she was happy. You see, I wasn’t. I was desperately miserable and I couldn’t live with the feeling that she was happy with me, the other me, in the other place. I was the one who said no. I was the one who went away. I have no idea where she is in my world, but I thought, maybe in a different universe, I had said yes and we were together. We had made it. I wanted to see what that looked like. Live it for a moment. Taste the possibility. Touch the magnitude of loss. If I had lost.”
The woman was drinking steadily now, willing herself into the surreal drama. Her eyes listened like lamps. “So I kept looking for a way,” he said, “and then this morning, I don’t know how long it’s been, but it feels like it was this morning, I opened my door to go to work and found myself here. Here in this place, this transit lounge between universes. I don’t know what happened, but I waited here a while and then there was a strange movement and I was there. And she was there.”
“And happy?” The woman was invested in the story now. A vague glimmer still flickering in her eyes.
“She was with another man. Had been for some time. Happy? She was laughing, the sun was shining and stars the colour of peaches and lemons were dancing around her. Happy? Is ‘happy’ the moment when stars come down to dance around your smile?”
The woman leaned forward to see if he was crying. She signalled for another drink, her eyes flashing.
He was whispering. “Anyway, when I came back here, I ran into myself at the bar. That was an hour ago, if it has been an hour. Me and the other me. Both of us in this transit lounge. At that table, there,” he was pointing towards the curtained booths at the back. “See, he, I, from there… well he wanted to find out what would have happened if I…he… the man, had said no. If he had ended up happy. If he had ended up with someone other than Vyraa. He was broken. In despair. So I…he…was also travelling… to find out. We both had found the same door. Different…same door.”
“Perhaps there’s more of you and the door opens for all the people that are you, at the same time?” she was sober now, almost. As sober as one can be with that light warm in their eyes.
“How many are there, you think?” He caught his breath, wondering, afraid.
She laughed and reached for the whiskey, “as many as you don’t need.”
The woman had another thought, “well, maybe, no matter which path you choose, you end up at the same place: in a seedy bar, with a stranger, nursing one drink too many, wondering if you had been right. Maybe things are not as parallel as we imagine and given enough space and time, everything converges into a single point. Into a beat-up transit lounge.”
He was laughing now. A shoulder-shaking, tear-spilling laugh. “Is that why you are here? Are you also… me?”
She laughed then, the light slowly fading from her big brown eyes.
In the end, he was just a man, dead on the road, in a pool of blood and surprise.
He hadn’t thought he would die that day. Not even when he went into the backyard and saw the sun wedged between the nylon clothesline and his wife’s thickening shoulder. He figured if the sun didn’t slip free, it couldn’t set, so the day could last forever. But walking away, having forgotten why he had come out there, he wondered if night would come as it always did and hide the sun but when it left, the sun wouldn’t be able to rise so there would be no day either. Infinity must be the forever of such unresolvable conundrums. But if there was no sun and no time, there wouldn’t be a forever, would there?
He hadn’t thought he would die when he wolfed down the hot idli that his wife put before him as he read the newspaper, realizing only when he got to the sports section on the back page that the paper was a day old. He had left early the previous morning, before the paper boy and the milkman and the crow, the moon still spilt on the granite steps. The paper, unopened, had been sitting on his dining table since it had arrived. His wife was indifferent to the news. Who cares, she would shrug, if someone lives or dies or the government decides this or the other. Her fate had already been determined by the highest newsmaker. He tossed the paper away, annoyed, as if the day had trifled with him, as if the day was confused, as if it had appeared but only because it had lost its way. He forgot to look for the paper that should have been delivered that morning.
He hadn’t thought he would die when he got the text from the girl who had organized the protest. They were going to rally in front of the transportation department that day. “End of the road. Come now.” Her text was curt. His street fed into the main highway, it had no end, just two contrary opportunities. Like much of life. And yet she spoke of an end where there was none. Even a road that stopped at a wall or a gate or a patch of land did not really end. Only the medium of progress changed. The end of one encounter is the beginning of the next, is it not? A turn is wrong only if you are looking for the shortest way back, he had told his wife once. How else would you find out things you shouldn’t? He couldn’t remember what that argument had been about.
He hadn’t thought he would die when he saw the gun pointed at him. It was only a few seconds or minutes though you had to measure time across probabilities in such situations. It occurred to him that it was probably yesterday. That the newspaper was probably right. That the approaching darkness was probably the sunset melting into the inevitable night. That there would be no morning. That this could be the end. That he had never liked idli. That he had wanted to tell his wife he would be back late that night. He couldn’t remember her name but that girl, screaming beside him, didn’t look so pretty with the blood splattered all over her face. That alone, after the last few impassioned months they had spent, was a real surprise.
No one was surprised he had developed a new product. No one was surprised he had become a millionaire at twenty four. He had forty six thousand employees, turning over close to a billion dollars by the time he was thirty. It was the perfect script. Until he dropped off the grid and disappeared. Eventually, people stopped searching, whispering, caring. He became a meme that the fringe shared every time they were high on rebellion or low on self-worth. Something about fucking the world right back. But he could have just been a character in a somewhat-famous book that no one had really read. Until now. Until he showed up on TV, looking much the same, a few grey flecks in his hair and a harder voice – all he had to show for the last ten years.
He refused to comment on his vanishing. Someone had recognized him and shoved a microphone in front of his face. Peace to all, he said. But it didn’t stop the questions. On TV, in buses, in tea stalls, around the peepal tree in villages with no name, people asked and guessed and blamed and proselytized. Soon a theory grew horns and earrings, with bumps and coughs in every dialect, but largely agreeing that someone had abducted him to weaponize a global identity management programme. Artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, cyber warfare. People were translating tech into their own languages using the words for fantasy, magic, silence and impossible. But no one could explain why they had let him go now.
This one is a fake, a wise reporter broke on the evening news. An imposter who wants to steal the money. His ex-wife refused to be dragged in. She had married again and had no intention of ruffling her good life. So no one knew how the man was paying his bills or what he was doing when he wasn’t being photographed getting into or out of a car. Maybe they erased his memory before they let him go, someone else wrote. The thirsty news cabal was milking it dry and even in the upscale cafes, patrons were chomping hard enough to draw blood from their faux burgers.
A few days later the man drove his car off a bridge. A couple of shocked fisherman dragged his body out. It made even less sense. The plot thickens, they mouthed inanely, surely someone killed him? Disease must have been eating him from the inside. He must have had a death wish, a lady with bright red nails declared. They found nothing incriminating in his room, either. There was collective delight in dissecting his life, tweezers thrust into cells and shadows that might hold fodder for click-bait articles and prosaic tabloid inches. The fringe held candlelight vigils and wore black bands for a week. Religion had its moment. God had delivered justice. No one knew against what.
The woman who turned off the television wasn’t much to look at – the hunched posture and carpal tunnelled hands of someone who had spent a lifetime dancing fingers across a keyboard. When the beta version came back tested and bug free, he had nodded to her across a room of tired coders who hadn’t seen sunlight in many weeks. By the time he made his second million, he had wrapped his worn body around hers and let her take the lead. Before he left, he touched her belly, full as the moon, imprinted his sad face into her eyes and as if it was inevitable, closed the door softly behind him.
He had seen the girl outside the school. Big smile and quiet eyes. He knew she liked art. And poetry. And kept a journal in which she drew pictures of old buildings. He felt an ancient echo. The throbbing energy of creation. The screen responding to his touch. Her breath reacting to his. A new product. A new world. A new baby. A new life. The river was running fast and full with monsoon rain.
#flash #fiction 2
***** Here’s another flash piece from the archives. Wonder why they are both dark and centered around death… my mind has a mind of its own, I think. If you’ve written flash fiction recently, I’d love to read- drop the link in the comments!
It began this day, 7 years ago, on the advice of a fellow-writer, while I was stuck at home, unwell, with nothing else to do, knowing fully well the fate of 3 previous blogging attempts on platforms like yahoo and blogger. Who knew then that a new world would open up! Friends, poetry, groups, submissions, books… everything started from that first wordpress post! Thanks to everyone who has stopped by, offered support and encouragement.
Am sharing today a flash fiction piece that I wrote some time ago. Have been trying my hand at this genre while searching for a way back into poetry. Would very much like to connect with others/ groups doing flash fiction, so do drop your blog URL so I can read your work.
After the Party
The city’s literati had turned up in their customary khadi and kholapuris, the conversation, through the haze of smoke and a mirror or two, had dropped a few banal points, the new twitter-trending novelist who had just published a chest-thumping, decibel-shattering novel was on his fourth whiskey, his political counterpoint was sprawled on the floor rolling joints in two thousand rupee notes with the hostess, she who read nothing but reviews that she paid for each week. No one wanted to talk to the pretentious young woman with the new exposé who was trying to will her phone into calling itself. Near the bar, a poet was having an extended verbal orgasm, his rhyming couplets now declaimed from the top of the Makrana marble counter, the punch line delivered in a fiery expulsion of alcohol breath, theatrical flourish and appeals to an alternative god. But all this was a moment ago, before a reporter had got into a squabble with an old professor in a goatee and madras checks. There had been some cursing in back-street Hindi, the academic had been accused of something, no one was certain, it could have been plagiarism or something more fundamental, but a bottle was smashed, punches thrown and a scream or two later, the poor man’s rather ponderous body lay in an abstract of blood and Old Monk rum, ice cubes refusing to melt around his already cold body.
In the morning, it was a scandal. By afternoon, the reporter was arrested. His employers had to bring their news website down for ‘technical reasons’ and there were whispers of insurrection, of adultery, of debauchery, of suicide. A month later, everyone had forgotten the professor’s name. Six months later, they were forced to remember it as the pretentious woman released a video from the party. It was from her cell phone, the audio was muffled, the images barely visible in the dim light but it looked like a battle and it sounded like a war and the professor was branded a spy and a lowlife, definitely a radical, so they rooted for the reporter. It had to be self-defence. A year later, the reporter was on TV panels talking about international terrorism, populism, education, economics and climate change. His syndicated column appeared in forty newspapers and he was writing a book about his time in prison. He said it was a sacrifice the country had demanded of him. Someone suggested he should run for office.
The hostess had new flooring put in. It looked like green granite. It could have been black. The twitter-trending writer had a new girl on his arm. No one would later recollect the name of the girl or of his book. The loud rebel was lecturing, to anyone who would listen, about the need to turn vegan while drinking something green from a copper bottle he had brought from home. The pretentious woman had a new phone and had learnt to make it ring on command. The poet was in a deep debate on the structure of the ghazal and the subliminal effects of repetition. He was rewriting Shakespearean sonnets as ghazals or so he was proclaiming for the seventeenth time. The reporter had not been invited. Word was his book had not recovered from the reviews it had received from the culture press. A few hands had been shaken, a few backs rubbed and more people and parts cajoled in most agreeable ways to keep him out of the literary circuit. And certainly out of the party of the year. Someone suggested he should run for office.
The hostess rolled another joint for herself and left her house in a big black car that pulled up to the door. It had been a success. Last year had been forgotten. The floor shone. She stared at the onyx ring on the finger. The professor had been laughing in all seriousness the night he had gone down on one painful knee to present it to her.