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Change

It wasn’t merely the oldest street in the city. It was older than the city too. It was called bazaar street then, when the city was a village on the river ford. It existed simply as ‘the street’ even before that. It had birthed the city and it sat in the city’s edge, unconcerned with the chaos, like an old mother relegated to whispering shadows.

It always wore a festive look. Opiate Flowers continuously fell out of trees. They had fallen on the mud, long ago, fallen fresh as tigers trampled them, licked the soft petals and lay drowsily, and now they fell on the road beneath, through a haze of dust and heat, sunshine and noise. Vegetables were piled in heaps; huge green pumpkins meticulously stacked in pyramids, muddy yams rolling by their base, baskets of ripe yellow bananas, careless mounds of green leaves all looking the same, long gourds hanging from tree branches and banana leaves underneath everything. Scores of little shops stood by the street, under the watchful eyes of the drowsy trees. The little shops sold everything. And the large homes sat behind the little shops, all their people drunk on the flowers falling on their courtyard. Outside the street, a country revolted, men killed and women burned. Changes slowly trickled down time and space to reach the street. The fruit sellers came first; with their exotic cold apples from the Himalayas and dates from across the ocean, large cantaloupes form the north and walnuts and almonds from Afghanistan. A large woman sat one day with fish from the western sea and the fish never stank, since they were perfumed by the falling flowers. Traders from the hot plains brought tamarind and cashew and from the far north, they got delicate saffron flowers. The traders also set up a tandoor and passed around crisp rounds of bread dusted with sesame and browned onions. Then the South Indian women came to live in the big house at the end of the street and brought with them the alien stench of jasmine. Jasmine and almost-jasmine, roses and tiny green leaves in their hair. They drew the men wild, teased the women and even woke the comatose fishes. Their coming ripened bananas and brightened stone-pitted applies. Dates oozed juices and the bees came to live on the trees, dropping honey on the mud and the whole street was mired in a smelly, sticky mess of solid air and languid dust. Then the opium flowers conspired to sit on the women’s heads, and drove out the jasmines and the almost-jasmines and the roses and the little green leaves and the street became liveable again. It was to such a street that winter arrived.

It arrived at night when the men slept and the women lay tossing and turning. The opiate leaves fell as usual but landed on a hard white surface.  In the morning the mists hid the white ground from everyone, until a child unexpectedly screamed, running on the street and shattered the veil. Frost and hard dew, clouds and knife-cold air. The ghosts of the tigers fled, and the ghost of old men that sat near the banyan tree fled. The cats turned to stone, the bees fell solidly, like so many fruits and the dogs ate the dead bees and died. The fish stank and bananas decayed, spreading death up and down the street. Only the opiate flowers still continued falling. In the winter when this land turned cold, and the trees were bare, there were no vegetables and no fruits, no gay festoons over the houses and shops, and the street still came alive. It lived in the vapours from the kitchens and on hot coffee from the little shops, bloomed by the old tandoor of the traders and moved about on gossip that circulated urgently and died by the smell of decaying fish.

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Fire

His mind has often burned. With single minded passion: anger, jealousy, loneliness, with unbounded ferocity. His mind has even burned with regret and guilt. And once, on a clear cold night, the very sight of the plump full-moon sent him burning with madness. Hence he knew all the ways in which his mind burnt. He recognized the onslaught. He knew the signs. He sensed the seed of the fire, the manner of its catching flames. He knew the marks it left upon his heart. For days the fire would burn steadily, consuming him from the inside. Eventually it would explode within, without warning in a bloom of torment. Outside he maintained his passive disposition. Walking among fallen yellow flowers, the walls of his heart wilted and walking over cackling dried leaves his arteries surged with red hot blood. He even knew who was burning within. Jealousy simmered. Anger flared. Loneliness waxed and waned, came and went, lingered when he was with company and mercilessly assaulted him in his solitude. Then there was the dragging flame of guilt, with ashen embers flaming suddenly, poking him in private corners of his heart, uninvited.

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Note: This as an entry for the short story writing competition at The Banyan Trees.

Monsoon

In the monsoons, coastal Maharashtra revels in lush greenery. Flora abounds with an obscene fluorescence. Every local hill boasts a multitude of waterfalls cascading in all their effervescent glory. Even the concrete jungle of the Mumbai Metropolis, unable to deter the onslaught of greenery lies decked with festoons of moss, garishly leaved branches and a confetti of a permanent light drizzle. Within homes tea was consumed in clattering china cups, steam wafting upwards before becoming one with the light morning mist. Dark mornings loomed with the promise of collapsing infrastructure and powerless nights, sweaty in their embrace with the promise of love, lust.

Aparna imagined all of this, envisioned as a rich tapestry of colours. A screen overhead displayed a map with a diagrammatic aeroplane flying in a wide arc over Iran. 47 dashes to Mumbai, Aparna counted on the map stirring awake. A few hours later just before the flight’s rocky monsoonal descent into Mumbai Aparna craned her neck to get that first elusive view of Mumbai from the air. She spied sheets of gossamer threads moving in symmetric waves and spotted far below a sequence of yellow lights. Landmark after landmark she postulated incorrectly and the aeroplane made a final lunge piercing through a pregnant cloud, looming overhead flimsy slums and landed with a mighty heave as a collective sigh left the passengers.

Sadly, Aparna was disappointed with her imagination, or rather with the fecundity of it. Life was undoubtedly the picture perfect monsoon she imagined, it also co existed with pools of fetid slush, never ending humidity (and besides, sweat ceased to be sexy immediately after lust was satiated) and damp corners and clothes that were somehow never completely dry. Distance romanticizes, she concluded. Even the people around her seemed somehow more intense in their flaws, and muted in their munificence’s. Moss however pretty did beget slime, cracked walls and made humans slip. And fall.

Early Winter

December was undoubtedly the best time to visit Tamil Nadu. It was merely hot, unencumbered by its nastier superlatives, dawn and dusk were actually pleasant and then there was the music. Setting out from Chennai the very atmosphere exuded mellowness. The normally fierce sun shone benign, the sea waves lapped softly, the delicate sea breeze was only broken by the clang of a distant temple bell. Aparna’s parents set out to appease multiple Gods, three planets and in the process enrich a few corpulent priests.

They travelled in a rented Ambassador, the symbol of a solid, accident proof India along a circuitous route all over Thanjavur district (the old district as Aparna’s father continually reminded her). Every town seemed to look the same; a tangle of wires dangling overhead, buildings looming over a narrow central street, a mammoth tample ‘gopuram’ suddenly rising into view. And despite this unerring familiarity every temple was different. Well of course they were different; what Aparna felt, or what she thought she felt was the soul of each temple. Despite the neck craning and subtle pushing to get a good view of divinity and the hurried giving away of a 100 rupee note for a few more seconds of gazing into a dark statue, despite the rotten bananas and comforting smell of camphor.

They camped overnight at an ancient relatives place in a village near Kariakal. In the evening as they ate by falling light, someone sang an apt Kalyani from within the dark confines of the house and the sun left with a final bright orange ray with birds flying over. Sadly for our city bred, foreign returned Aparna this postcardness was not to continue for more. The next morning saw her aghast at the thought of deposing her bodily wastes in a field with an old dalda can filled with dubious brackish water. When she finally did finish her task and rose, she realized with a creeping horror someone had been spying upon her. Disgusted and frustrated she made her way home as a pig broke into a run and happily gorged on the recently departed contents of her bowels.

Late Winter

January however is undoubtedly not the best time to visit any part of Northern USA. Airports, with their propensity to insulate one from the outside world, don’t help matters much. After perfunctory procedures Aparna squinted at the bright sunlight and a minute later frowned deeply, many lines etching her dark face. This sudden induction into coldness always left her flustered no matter how used to she was to it. She reveled in the crispness of the cold air and confidently crunched snow with her boots always sure of her step.

She felt comfortable with every increasing mile and eventually risked it to get off the freeway and step onto a country road. The small road had not been salted and earlier vehicles had left deep ruts in the packed snow. Slowly she inched across passing by a frozen expanse that passed off as a lake in the summer. The bright white ground contrasted with the blue sky, with the occasional scrawny branch bringing in browns. The ruts slowly disappeared with the advent of a light snowfall and within minutes Aparna was relying on blind instinct as she fought to stay on the road. At length she stopped knowing that she was lost. To her credit she only panicked after she discovered her cell phone wasn’t reachable in this wilderness. She desperately tried to reposition herself using her practiced geography but gave up, parked her car and began trudging back when it hit her. With a slow dread that turned her bowels to water she realized she had driven off right onto the frozen lake. She half ran, then went back, retrieved her cabin luggage alone and made the most arduous walk of her life, over ice and snow towards the nearest tree. Her fingers had almost frozen over her phone keypad, poised to hit 911.

Later she warmed her hands considering herself terribly lucky to have escaped. While her computer whirred to life, she thought of wording the incident and posting it on facebook, then decided against it. She settled down, logged onto gmail as her contacts flashed by, some green (available), some red (busy) and some orange (away). The screen showed a cluster of unread mails, and someone pinged her. Aparna finally felt at home.

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