Sunday, 30 December 2007

Receding Waters

(Prize Winner in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2002)

Sunder returned after having lunch in the mess and stood watching the receding floodwaters. As the Chief Rehabilitation Officer he would have his hands full distributing aid, for the Centre would now be accessible to more villages around the district headquarters. He eyed the sacks of rice and the tins of milk powder, a gift from the UNICEF. His clerk gave a measure of rice to every destitute who walked up to their office, but the tins of milk powder Sunder handed over himself after careful scrutiny. He had given one to Vimla the day before. A few boxes lay on the shelf behind him but the rest had been neatly packed into two crates. A city agent had offered six thousand rupees for the lot.
Sunder called out to his clerk who came in and bowed obsequiously.
“Did she…er…come back?” Sunder asked.
“Sir,” said the clerk, “your wife had phoned twice. From Delhi. She said it was very urgent.”
Sunder made an impatient gesture. “Had the…girl come?”
“Who?” the clerk asked.
Sunder got irritated for he was sure the clerk knew whom he meant. Savitri had been there in the morning and after collecting the rice she had stood before him and said: “Phowdar?”
“What?” he asked, running his eyes over her.
“Milk phowdar. I have two-year-old son. Yesterday you gave that lady, Vimla.”
So she knew! A greasy smile spread on his face as he got up and jerked his head towards an adjoining room. He went up to her and putting his arm around her waist drew her near. She looked at him with surprise and pushing him away, drew back, without any haste but decidedly, purposefully.
He was annoyed. He had no time to play games. There were many who would oblige for less.
“Go and ask Vimla about the phowdar,” he imitated her accent. “And when you are ready, come back.”
But after she had gone he felt restless and was overcome with a great urge to press her against him, explore her soft brown body. . . . .
The rain began to fall again and the clerk moved over and shut the window whose glass panes had been replaced with aluminum sheets. Sunder looked up and saw another Sunder looking back at him.
“That girl, Savitri?” the clerk asked, slipping the bolt in. “No, she didn’t come back.”
Then the phone rang. It was Sunder’s wife. In a shill plaintive voice she told him that their daughter was being harassed by her new boss who was a ‘jerk’. The job carried a good salary but Neha was sick of that man and wanted to leave. She had agreed. What did he think?
“Yes, yes, of course!” he barked and slammed down the receiver.
That bastard! He wanted to tear his eyes out! He looked up and once again saw himself in the aluminum pane. There were scratches running down his cheeks and blood was pouring out of his eyes. He stared in disbelief. It took him sometime to realize that someone was standing before him. He looked up and saw Savitri. He almost jumped.
He reached over and picking up a tin of milk powder put it on the table. Savitri’s black eyes had turned blacker and she was staring at him as if he were a hideous monster with festering wounds on his face. He dropped his head and buried his face in his hands.
“I’m ready!” Savitri said in a hoarse whisper.
He sat still for some time. Then he slowly lifted one hand off his face, pushed the tin towards her and waved her away.


Nazir Edul
A2-406 kumar Pinnacle
Tadiwala Road
Pune 411001

After the Accident

(Winner of the Asian Age Short Story Competition 2001)

Travelling across India, I have found that the best cities to live in are the ones with military cantonments. Here, at one end of a concrete jungle, you will find an oasis of green. Down shady avenues, you will pass sprawling bungalows, the way the British had left them half a century ago, each with its half acre of garden. Poona has changed not only its name but has transformed itself from a pensioner's paradise to a metropolis of teeming millions. But go east and walk down the Prince of Wales Drive on a winter's morning and if the day is clear you can see forever - from the Officers' Mess half a mile up the road, past the residences of Majors and Colonels, to the Centre for disabled soldiers. Here by the side of a parapet stands a Banyan tree and as a boy I remember swinging from its adventitious roots looking out for the horses that would come cantering down the road from a stud farm behind the Officers' Mess. Now my eyesight is not what it used to be and as I sit on the parapet for a while after my morning walk, I can hear things some time before I can see them.
Behind the parapet a little wood shelters a narrow lane on which paraplegics propel themselves on wheelchairs. Some are middle-aged, some are rather young, and after a while I begin to recognize them by their faces but I have never been able to get beyond a smile and 'Good morning!' Perhaps I am shy, perhaps I feel guilty - guilty that a twenty-year-old should have to push himself when I can run under the trees. And what can I say to ease their pain? I know this is not the right attitude and yet….
"I beat you this time!" he cried.
I had just come out of the wood and he with his bright T-shirt was waiting by the parapet. His shirts were always colourful and for the past few days I had been noticing him glide down the lane that dipped into the glade, but coming up was hard work. Once or twice I had the feeling that he was trying to keep up with my jogging and when he passed me by today I thought he gave me a sidelong glance and smiled.
"I beat you this time!" he repeated, panting.
"Oh did you?" I asked, sitting at my usual place. "I had no idea you were trying to race me."
"I had been doing that the whole of last week. I won today!"
I congratulated him. We shook hands and laughed. He told me his name was Jitesh and I gave him mine.
And then there was a silence; the uncomfortable silence between two individuals, both trying to think of something to talk about and at the same time wondering if it wouldn't be best to shake hands and be off.
I looked at him sitting in the wheelchair; looked at his striped white and blue T-shirt covering his broad chest; looked at his strong muscular arms holding on to the wheels and at a pair of legs that had deserted him and did not seem to belong to the rest of his body.
"It's a nice place," I said.
He looked at the Paraplegic Home. I pointed to the forest behind and he nodded.
"And a very fine morning!" I said.
"A very fine morning," he repeated.
And again there was a silence.
Little beads of perspiration had collected on his forehead. A faint smile hung on the face of that young, painfully young, face.
"See you!" he said and began to push off.
A stone had got wedged beneath one of the wheels and the chair wouldn't budge.
"I'm stuck!" he grinned sheepishly.
In a hurry to exhibit his independence, to show that he wasn't really stuck, he backed quickly to circumvent the stone. The inner wheel went off the road and ploughed a couple of inches down into the dirt tract by the side. It was difficult for me to keep sitting as he struggled to maneuver himself on to the road.
"No! No!" he cried as I got up and began to push.
"Really now," I said, " you must occasionally allow someone to help you for the time being. I'm sure you will be up and about soon."
He shook his head decisively. He lifted his arm and sliced the air.
"Slash! It's transected," he said.
"The spinal cord. It's shattered. Cut into two. Motorcycle accident"
He talked about the danger of just a little bit of oil on the road. He mentioned the day and time it had happened and then talked about his home and his parents.
Once again there was a silence but now it wasn't uncomfortable. It was a silence between friends, not strangers. With two people at peace with themselves and with one another conversation is rarely needed; at times it is not even desired. We knew we would be meeting now perhaps everyday, exchanging pleasantries and then giving ourselves up to the trees, to the wind that rustled the leaves, to the invigorating cold as long as it lasted and to the flawless sky above. He seemed happy and as that is all that matters in this world, my guilt dissolved.
There was a swish of branches and looking up saw a monkey swing from tree to tree. It was a red-faced mite, all limbs and tail. Every time it was airborne I feared it would fall but its judgment was unerring. I looked at Jitesh but the monkey had not attracted his attention. He had turned his head to the right and his eyes were focussed upon something at the far end of the one-way road. I could see nothing but after a while I heard snatches of a familiar melody and then the hum of an engine. The car had crossed Major Sharma's bungalow before I could pick it out. The boy was staring at it intently. I saw his fingers tapping the armrest of his chair. The car slowed down to negotiate the speed breaker opposite the Paraplegic Home and then shot past scattering the leaves, its stereo blaring.
The monkey had descended and was now sitting at the other end of the parapet watching me inquisitively. I had once brought a bag of peanuts but soon there was a hoard of monkeys around me and the bigger amongst them were not just bold but aggressive. The creature began to creep towards me, taking a few cautious steps and then stopping. I waved a twig at it. It went back a step and opening its mouth wide eyed me balefully. It didn't know whether to scamper off or wait for a treat. Jitesh barely noticed it, his eyes were fixed on the Officers' Mess at the end of the road. He craned his neck to the right and moments later another car went past. He did it again and again. Had the cars captivated his heart? He stared at them with alarming interest though once the cars went by he wouldn't - or couldn't? - turn his head the other way to see them disappear down the road. Did he wish himself in one of these sleek machines? Did he find himself cut off from all the future joys that could have been his had he not been crippled?
The silence once again became uncomfortable. After a few more cars it was intolerable.
"Look at them," I said, forcing disgust into my voice. "Yuppies, flaunting their parents' wealth."
"Are they?" he asked innocently.
I felt this wouldn't do. I wanted him to bare his heart. It is best to have such emotions off one's chest and I braced myself for some pep talk but he said not another word.
"You won't believe the cars one can get now-a-days for paraplegics," I said. "Gears and accelerator and brakes so well designed, you can zoom off just as fast."
He nodded.
"Yes, of course," he said. "I suppose I'll get myself something like that one of these days."
"I'm sure! There is no need to feel sorry, to feel….er….envious…."
"Oh!" He slapped his hands together and let out an explosive laugh. "I'm not jealous of these people in their cars, if that's what you are thinking!" And he threw his head back and had a hearty laugh.
I felt like a fool. People will confess any emotion except envy but I could feel the transparent honesty of his voice.
"No, no!" he choked. "I do not envy them."
He laughed again. He composed himself and looked at me. "It's like this. It's just a game I play to pass time. I must guess the make of the car as soon as I see it by the Mess. Not later than Major Sharma's house. I score a point every time I get it right. Today I've got five out of five!"
"You know cars well then," I said. "And your eyesight is better than most. At such a distance I'd give myself a point if I can tell between a car and a truck!"
He laughed and then snapped his fingers.
"Ah, listen!" he said. "Why don't we play the game together? That would make it more interesting. I'll make allowances for you, of course, taking into consideration your handicap!"
His eyes twinkled. I nodded and smiled.
"Good!" he continued. "Now I'll guess before the car gets to Major Sharma's. You are allowed another hundred yards, at the fifth electric pole from here - that's Lt. Col. Oberoi's. Ready?"
We waited. He was as excited as a schoolboy.
"O.K." he suddenly cried. "I've guessed. I won't change my mind now."
I was just beginning to see a red speck.
"Now!" he said, thrusting a finger at me.
"Esteem," I ventured.
"Opel Astra," he said confidently.
He won. He won every time, except once. We called off the game when the score was 4 - 1. He stretched himself lazily and grinned. It felt good to see him so relaxed and so happy. The little monkey was still scampering about and he been joined by a full-grown male, baring his teeth every now and then. The sun had risen higher and filtering through the leaves, a patch warmed the back of my head. I thought it was time to get going.
"I don't envy cars!"
I was startled by the anguish in his voice and quickly looked up at him. A chill froze my heart. His brows were knitted and the corners of his mouth dropped. He was looking down the road with the expression of a soldier who has just seen a friend blown to bits.
I strained my eyes. A shadow was approaching us, coming nearer every moment. When it burst into a patch of sunlight I could make out a cyclist on a racer coming on full steam, the bright blue shorts going like a frantic seesaw. He took the speed breaker without slowing down. Standing on the pedals he bounced over it and as his hair fell across his eyes he tossed it back with a quick easy motion of his head. The moment he had cleared the obstacle, the strong muscular thighs hit the pedals and he was off - a vortex of energy.
Jitesh watched him hungrily and for the first time I saw him turn his head the other way and follow the rider down the road. He kept staring into the distance for a long time.
And the silence grew heavy again.


Nazir Edul
A2-406 Kumar Pinnacle
Tadiwala Road
Pune 411001

The 'Quake

(Short listed for the BBC International Short Story Competition 2000)

"Don't stick to me Thomas," said his mother. "It's hot and sweaty as it is."
The boy sidled to the right.
"Don't jerk the camera," reminded his father.
There wasn't much place on "Elephant's Head", the promontory that looked down on the plains below. Alfred stepped back, put the camera to his eye, and zoomed until the landscape narrowed to a pair of silvery lines bouncing the sunlight. He turned the polarizing filter and cut off the glare. He shook his head. It wouldn't make much sense unless he included a part of the foreground, a bit of Lily and Thomas looking down as the train shot into the tunnel. But that was impossible unless he climbed up the Jambul tree at the edge of the cliff. He looked at it wistfully. Lily wouldn't allow him that little adventure. She had said that she was not too keen to see him fall a thousand feet on to the roof of a speeding locomotive.
He ran up the hillock to the right but there the sun was against him. He ran back and positioned himself at the railing. If his wife didn't allow it, he would have to be content with a dumb shot. Fortunately he had got a good picture of the Head as they were climbing up the mountain. When he projected his slides he would point out the tree and make his admiring guests understand the great photographic opportunity that had been denied him. He would make good the loss by a vivid description of the glorious scene. He was already beginning to arrange the words in his head.
Thomas seized his mother's wrist.
"Look!" he cried.
His keen eyes had spotted a black blob on the distant horizon.
Lily pulled her hand away.
"Thomas! I told you!" she expostulated in a shrill irritated voice, wiping the perspiration off her wrist on her dress.
His father had knelt down, and pushing the camera between the bars of the railing was watching the scene through the viewfinder. Thomas brought his hands together and folded his shoulders into himself.

They had come to Tilleri for the weekend. Up in the lap of one of the folds of the Sahayadri Mountains, it was a little-known jewel of a place during the monsoons when the hills and the countryside around turned a lush green. The Rest House at Tilleri had only two cottages and they had been rather happy and excited to have got reservations, when Lily's uncle had telephoned to warn them that the place was 'infested' with tribals, Katkaris and Phardis, who could break your neck with a flick of their fingers and a twelve year old boy, someone not much bigger than Thomas, could slit your throat. The Manager had reassured them and insisted that they walk up to Elephant's Head in the morning and do the Lake View Point in the evening.
The winding road to Elephant's Head went up a densely forested hill slope and more than once Lily wanted to turn back but Alfred had coaxed her on. It was hot and humid and she was exhausted by the time they reached the top. They had arrived the night before and she had tired herself getting the cottage cleaned and the sheets changed all over again. The Manager had frowned and grumbled but had let her have her way.
Thomas could clearly see the train that now seemed intent upon smashing into the mountain. The warm air carried the hoot of the train as it plunged into the bowels of the earth, and the clackety-clack, clackety-clack went on in a strangely disjointed manner even after the train had disappeared.
They turned back. On the way up Lily could keep her eyes on only bits and pieces of the road. Now she could see the entire path, desolate and sinister, snaking its way through the dark forest. They went their different ways. Alfred, full of photographic opportunities missed; Lily, thinking of slimy black bodies; Thomas, taking care to keep his sweating skin away from hers. For a long time nobody spoke as they hurried down the incline.
A sudden swish startled them. First one, and then another Katkari parted the leaves and stood on the path, ten paces in front of them. Lily's mouth went dry. She grabbed Thomas by the sleeve of his shirt and drew him near. Another figure, with a load on the head, joined the two half-naked bodies that had already begun to walk past them. The wizened hag with the basket blocked their path. She squatted on the ground with the cane basket full of karvanda in front of her. She twisted a leaf into a little cone, filled it with the black berries and offered it to Lily. She took it with trembling hands and understood enough to realize that the woman wanted a rupee for that. Before Alfred could pay her she made ready another cone that he refused but she insisted.
"Take it!" hissed Lily. Her voice was desperate. "Take it! Take as many as she wants to give."
The woman gave one more to Thomas and taking the three rupees with a toothless grin, hurried after her men.
Alfred looked at the karvanda, big and black and luscious. Occasionally a cartload of these forest berries found their way to Bombay, but they were generally sickly compared to what he held now. Lily, her heart beating wildly stared at the berries, stained white with the sap of the tree, and flung them into the forest. Thomas chose the biggest, its purple flesh ready to burst through its skin, and brought it to his lips.
Lily snatched it from his fingers.
"Are you crazy?" she almost screamed. "How can you eat without washing them? Washing them thrice over!" She turned to Alfred, her voice shaking. "Once to remove the sap and twice to remove the touch of those horrid fingers!" She shuddered as she spoke.
Alfred looked for something to put the karvanda in. There was nothing handy except his camera bag and he did not fancy putting the berries next to his immaculate set of lenses. He tossed the packet away. Thomas held on to his leaf for almost an hour until they reached the cottage. He tripped as he ran up the steps. He was already sorry to have lost the best one and he now saw the rest roll away as well. He knew his mother would scream: "Don't touch them!" if he tried.
Lily took an Aspirin and a Valium and lay down with a severe headache. She told Alfred that she would not be able to walk down to the lake in the evening.
"It's all right," he said, thinking of some more photographic opportunities lost.

Thomas had been permitted to wander about without leaving the rest house premises. There was a mango tree bereft of fruit and a number of coconut palms but no karvanda bushes. He moved around the courtyard. It had rained the night before and the morning had been sultry. He went behind the cottage to look at the conical summit of Tilleri, but clouds had begun to gather and the top of the mountain was lost in mist.
Soon the entire mountain was eclipsed as the clouds descended, and crossing the valley rose upon the plateau on which Thomas stood. A few wisps floated past, then the mist became denser and soon the entire body of the cloud was upon him. The cottage, just by his side, turned a faint pink and the mango tree and everything else disappeared. Only the top of the palm trees stood out dimly, like drooping giants, against a pale grey sky. The swirling mist left the plateau as rapidly as it had descended. The sun shone through and once again painted the cottage a vibrant red.
Thomas thought he could see a karvanda tree down the courtyard behind the kitchen. He was correct but the tree was a few yards outside the boundary. One of the metal angles that supported the wire fence had been deliberately turned down and held against the earth by a concrete boulder. He hopped across the sagging wires and reached the tree. Somebody had been there before. There weren't many berries left on the bush and those that had remained were green. He plucked one, looked at it thoughtfully and tossed it away.
"Hey ghey!"
He turned around. For the first few moments he could see only the whites of a pair of eyes and a row of perfect teeth. As the figure moved out of the shadow, shafts of light filtering through the forest bounced off little patches of a glistening black skin and Thomas could see that it was a boy his own age. There was a string tied around his waist and it supported a rag that covered his genitals. He dipped into a leaf full of berries and held them out to Thomas. Thomas looked at the fruits. He knew what would happen if he ate them without washing - thrice. He stared self-consciously at the boy and shook his head. The Katkari popped one karvanda into his own mouth, shut one eye, opened the other wide and danced his head upon his shoulders. They were simply delicious! How could Thomas refuse? Thomas took the berries and held them in his sweaty palm.
The boy turned and pointing south indicated that Thomas should follow him. Thomas let the berries slip to the ground and after a little hesitation took a few steps behind the boy. The Katkari ran up a small incline and beckoned urgently. Thomas climbed up the slope and on the other side saw the land fall away a few hundred feet before rising again to the perfect peak of Tilleri. From behind the edge of the mountain, Thomas could just see the blue lip of the lake in the valley below. But the boy was interested in the bare patch of sandstone between the two hills. It was riddled with craters and looked like the surface of the moon.
Thomas understood that the boy was trying to tell him that it was great fun to be on that lunar landscape. He shook his head. The Katkari caught Thomas's hand in a manner no one had held him before. A strange warmth flowed from the cold dark fingers of the boy into Thomas's vacant body.
They slid down the slope.
Some of the craters were quite large. There were a few that were three to four feet deep and partially filled with rainwater. The boy got into one of the hollows and called Thomas in. Thomas took off his shoes and socks and entered. There was just enough space for the two of them. Standing ankle deep in water they splashed about and laughed.
The boy suddenly held up a finger and was all ears. Thomas became slowly conscious of a nebulous presence and moments later felt the first vibrations. The ground trembled and a great terror seized him. He had never before been through an earthquake, but the memory of his ancestors was in him and his legs shook with fright.
The boy laughed and held him close.
The demon was now beneath their very feet and the air turned heavy with a great inaudible sound. Though Thomas could not hear it with his ears, he felt it with every fibre of his being. It pressed upon every square inch of his body before bursting out into the open. Even as the clackety-clack, clackety-clack hit his ears, the quake was over.
He found himself clutching the boy. The Katkari was holding him in an embrace and laughing away. And then Thomas understood and they laughed together. They held on to one another a little longer before jumping out of the crater and running to the edge of the cliff. The silver streak, racing across the plain, was already quite far away.
They clambered up the side of the hill and were back on the plateau. As they walked side by side, Thomas was about pass his fingers through those of the Katkari and hold his hand, when the boy ran off to the karvanda bush and brought out a clutch of berries he had hidden there. He chose the best one and gave it to Thomas. Thomas looked at the berry, bigger and more luscious than any he had ever seen. He put it in his mouth and as the delicious fruit released its flavour, Thomas shut one eye, opened the other wide and danced his head upon his shoulders.


Nazir Edul
A2-406 Kumar Pinnacle
Tadiwala Road
Pune 411 001
(Prize Winner in the BBC International Short Story Competition 2000)

Ajit Jinder threw off his jacket, whipped off his tie and slipped into a traditional kurta-pajama. He looked at himself in the mirror.
'I think this is better,' he said. 'After all I'll be making a case in favour of all things Indian. What do you say?'
'Yes, it's better,' said Mrs Jinder, carefully positioning the bindi on her forehead and barely glancing at him.
'Are you sure you cannot take Sneha with you?' Mr Jinder asked as the child toddled into the room, her fingers wet with chocolate.
'How can I?' said Mrs Jinder. 'I wouldn't mind if I were going to the club to listen to a lecture. But today I'm the speaker. She'd keep getting in the way. You've just to carry her in your car and she can sit with the driver whilst you have your talk with the Secretary.
Mr Jinder damned the Secretary and the Export Promotion Board. Until the day before it had been more or less settled, or so Mr Jinder thought, that he would win the 'Exporter of the Year' award. But late last evening he had got the news that Jagdish Bilwal had nearly made it. He had spent the rest of the day collecting proof that the Bilwal sales charts had been fudged. Bilwal Industries imported a large amount of locks, clips and buckles for their shoes and suitcases from South Korea and if that was taken into account…
'I'm surprised the Secretary can't see the import component of this Bilwal business. Perhaps he doesn't want to see. I wonder for how much the Bilwal fellow bought him?'
'You won't need dinner I hope,' said Mrs Jinder. 'The new Pizza Hut is a good place and Sneha likes their stuff.'
'And choco-chips ice-cream,' said Sneha coming up to Mr Jinder, her arms outstretched.
'Don't touch me!' Mr Jinder jumped. 'Go, wash your hands! And what is Bilwal's business? Killing cows and buffaloes! That unholy fellow! Can't the Board see how straight and clean our garment business is?'
'Don't forget to take the key,' said Mrs Jinder and some moments later he heard her drive off.
Ajit Jinder called Balu and made sure his car was in order. They had to go to the Chamber of Commerce to collect some more damning evidence and then almost to the other end of the city across the Harris Bridge to Kotwal Enclave and the Export Promotion Board. As they drove Mr Jinder began collecting his words. He got all his arguments ready; he went through the balance sheets again and again. He underlined a few more figures in red. He wondered if he should bribe Banatji, the Secretary. Should he promise him a car? A Hyundai would put him back by about four hundred thousand. But it was worth it! Or no? Was he going too far?
'When can we have the pizza?'
'Shut up!' said Mr Jinder. 'If you eat too much you'll get so fat you won't be able to get out of the car.'
The four-year-old sat back and sulked.
Mr Jinder hurried into the Chamber of Commerce and went through the files. Little beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead. He went to the toilet, combed his hair and wiped his face.
Sneha kept up her litany. Exasperated, he damned her and her mother and made the driver pull in at 'Pizza Hut'. He ran in, came out with a carton that he pushed into Sneha's hands and said: 'Now eat as much as you want and shut up!'
At the Malwadi Circle there was a traffic jam. The car honked and crawled along. Ajit Jinder swore at everybody and kept looking at his watch. He had to get there before six. He fussed and abused Balu who apologized and shouted out of the window at nobody in particular. There was chaos on the Harris Bridge. A fair had been got going on the open maidan in front of Kotwal Enclave. A giant wheel was whirling its occupants and their squeals could be heard over the roar of the traffic.
'What's this jamboree?'
'The annual Mahashivratri mela,' said Balu. 'Of Lord Shiva,' he added.
'Sponsored by whom? That unholy Bilwal?'
His teeth clenched, Mr Jinder stared at the scene. He wanted to get out and walk but Balu promised to get him there in time.
'Do you want a piece?' Sneha caught hold of his shoulder.
'Get your sticky hand off my kurta!' he screamed.
He rubbed it vigorously and asked Balu if any stains could be seen on his sky-blue shirt. The driver turned his head for a moment, stared at the three little greasy finger marks and then shook his head.
'Nothing at all,' he said.

The receptionist said Mr Banatji could not see him without an appointment. Jinder explained how important and urgent the matter was. He was about to win the 'Exporter of the Year' award. He laughed and joked and said he had had no time to get a box of sweets but perhaps Mr Dalim could buy one himself? And so saying he dropped a couple of hundred rupee notes on the table to 'share his happiness' as he put it. Mr Dalim disappeared for a while and was back to inform Jinder that he would have to wait for about an hour.
He sank into a sofa and went through the arguments again. Exporter of the Year award for a killer of cows? Mr Banatji was a Hindu. How did he feel about it? India had got so much foreign exchange because of Bilwal. How much did South Korea get? He took out a little pile of papers and rearranged them.
'May we go to the fair?' Sneha asked.
She had accompanied him to the lobby and Balu was standing at the door.
'Yes, yes. Good idea,' he said. 'Go.'
He called Balu and gave him fifty rupees.
'Spend wisely. I don't have any more,' he cautioned. 'Got to buy a Hyundai,' he muttered under his breath.

There was a long queue of devotees for darshan of Lord Shiva. The temple stood in the middle of a little glade. There was a line of shacks selling coconuts and flowers, offerings to the God of the Universe. Every few feet there were stalls selling 'thandai', bhang (cannabis) in cold flavoured milk. Balu hesitated, went past, stopped at the next stall and had a glass. He bought an ice-cream for Sneha and put her in a merry-go-round. He went up with her in the giant wheel and she shrieked and shrieked and held on to him. She wanted another ride but he hurried her to the toyshops. She bought a flute and a cardboard sword and then saw a Ferris Wheel but the money was over.
She stood and stared at it. It was battery powered and actually worked. It had a little lever and moving it right or left increased or decreased the speed. Little lights blinked on the metal frame. She watched fascinated and begged Balu to buy one for her. He was shocked when the attendant told him the price - Rs 320! He bargained but couldn't knock down the price below 280 rupees and he had less than a hundred of his own money with him.
'I like it very very much,' said Sneha. 'Please! I won't ask for anything more. You can take all these things back if you want.' And she held out the flute and the sword.
Balu went back to the lobby and told Mr Jinder who had begun to look tired and sick that the car had over-heated and he had found the fan-belt broken.
'God!' wailed Mr Jinder. 'How much?'
'About three hundred.'
'So much?'
'Labour and all.'
'Don't forget to get a receipt,' said Mr Jinder as he handed out the money.
Balu went to a garage behind the Enclave, slapped two tenners on the counter and said: 'Fan-belt with fitting. Three hundred. Cash memo.'
The man behind the counter stared at him for a moment, slipped the money into a drawer and wrote out a receipt.
'Think of a number,' Balu told Sneha. 'If you are lucky you can win the Ferris wheel.'
'Two!' cried the girl. 'Two!'
'Let's see now,' said Balu. 'Come!'
She held on to his hand and stumbled through the jostling crowd. They reached the shop and he bought the wheel.
'Do you need a receipt?'
'I've already got one,' said Balu and then surprised the shopkeeper even more shouting: 'Yes! Two! Two!'
'You won!' he said, giving Sneha the box. 'Tell your father how you guessed the lucky number and won.'
Sneha clutched the box, her eyes wide with pleasure, her mouth a round O. They went behind the temple in a little clearing and sitting beneath a Banyan tree she saw her Ferris wheel work. The engine whirred and the lights twinkled.
'You like it?' Balu asked.
Sneha jumped up. She held Balu's head between her little hands and planted a big wet kiss on his right cheek.
She played for a long time totally engrossed in her toy.
'You'll finish the battery,' Balu said. 'Keep some to show daddy.'
'We'll buy new batteries,' she said. 'You'll buy, no?'
Balu smiled and nodded and once again Sneha kissed him.
They went round the stalls again and Sneha ate bhelpuri and roasted groundnuts. From his own money he bought some more knick-knacks for her as they went along. Then suddenly she stretched out her arms, wanting to be carried and Balu saw that she was indeed very sleepy. He carried her to the car and made her comfortable on the rear seat.

Banatji took a long time to make himself available. Jinder put the case before him and he listened without a word. Looking at Banatji's mask like face he didn't know whether to offer the bribe and thought the better of it. He was to think of it later as four hundred thousand saved. He could always try again the next year. He pushed across all the data he had collected with so much trouble but Banatji merely flipped through the pile.
'Yes, yes,' he said. 'Everybody thinks he should get the award. Why doesn't the Board have five, ten, twenty awards? Under different categories. Like Filmfare awards. Make everybody happy.'
He appeared vexed and irritated and suddenly Jinder lost all energy and felt damp and exhausted. He didn't say half the things he wanted to say.
'Please try whatever you can,' he said stupidly, and left the room.
When he came to his car he found Sneha sleeping and tried to tuck up her legs and squeeze into a corner.
'Sir,' said Balu, 'you'll wake her up and she is very tired. Would you mind sitting in the front?'
But for the little cannabis in his system that somewhat numbed their relationship for him, Balu would not have dared to tell his boss where to sit and Mr Jinder would not have agreed if he were not feeling so utterly dejected.
Jinder flopped into the front seat and the car sped homeward.
'You got your work done sir?' Balu asked.
'He said he'll put it to the Board.' Jinder shrugged his shoulders. 'Let's see.'
He sat staring into the night, his brows knitted. He wiped his face with his handkerchief every now and then.
'You know Balu,' said Mr Jinder, 'in a way you are very lucky. You don't have to think about awards and all that.'
Mr Jinder made a short sharp sound like a bark.
'Have you ever in your life got an award, Balu?'
Balu shook his head. Then a smile broke upon his lips. He lifted one hand off the steering wheel and gently rubbed his cheek.


Nazir Edul
A2-406 Kumar Pinnacle
Tadiwala Road
Pune 411001
(First read on the World Service of the BBC in November 1999)

We all envy Dr Duggal who has bought a penthouse on a hill that overlooks the City. The terrace is a fine place to sit out on an evening. You can see the entire city falling away and then stretching out for miles in front of you. I stand on the terrace and get ready for the show for which I have been invited. It is Diwali, the festival of lights. Already I can hear the rapid fire of crackers going off in the heart of the city.
Then a star bursts upon the horizon, showering gold before fading away. Something goes wriggling up the sky and with a burst of light starts a graceful descent. Moments later there is a sharp crack. I have never seen a parachute before. I watch fascinated.
It is like sitting in a wide-screen auditorium. First here, then there, the show goes on. Light cascades down the sky. Waterfalls of every colour and size tumble out of the heavens. It is a grand sight. I wish it could go on forever. But then I am called away to the hospital to see a patient who has been badly burnt.
When I reach the ward I see a shrivelled roasted body, brown and black, with pink and yellow streaks and a patch of blue - bits of a nylon sari plastered on to a charred skin. I stare at her left eye. It is a coagulated mass. I can make out the right eye and looking into it I ask her name. There is a hoarse whisper that sounds like 'Sita'. She tries to say something. How is her son? The nurse tells her that her son is all right, but she wants it confirmed from me. I'll come back and tell you, I promise her. Will I bring her son along for her to see? Maybe, I say.
The odour of burnt flesh hangs heavily in the room. I step outside. The air in the corridor smells of gunpowder. The firecrackers won't stop. I see a woman cowering in a corner. Are you Sita's relation? I ask her. She shakes her head. She is Sita's neighbour. Does she know how it happened? She nods. She saw everything. She knows everything...

Sita comes from a village in southern Maharashtra. She was married when she was sixteen to a carpenter who worked in a furniture shop in the City. He was doing well and they could afford a two-room block. Soon they had a child, a son. Then the time came when cheap plastic furniture started flooding the market. He lost his job and had to work as a casual labourer. He started coming home drunk. They had to give up one of the rooms. Sita took up job as housemaid. There was a cow-shed opposite and she helped cleaning it whenever required. She never refused any job. She cut down on all expenses. She saved every rupee. She was determined to give her son a good education. She would send him to school. She had found out how much it would cost. In the nine months she had in hand she was sure she could gather the sum required.
Her husband would pester her for money and she would part with a couple of rupees now and then to keep him quiet. But he always wanted more. He knew she was putting away a bit but could not figure out where. He frequently threw things about, emptying the kitchen utensils and ransacking the one steel trunk she had. But he could never get his hands on her money. He swore at her. He called her names.
When she was alone with her son she would tell him of her dreams. He would listen to her but his face would be blank. Then he would ask money for marbles or a piece of chocolate.
When the festive season drew near, she worked overtime. She put the money away in her secret place. She was very near her goal. She felt content and the happiness showed on her face. Her husband's insults hardly affected her. For her, he had become merely an object with some nuisance value, like a leaking roof. She lived only for Rakesh. His blank face worried her at times. But she knew he would understand as he grew up.
On Diwali day she tossed a five-rupee note at her husband telling him to go out and get drunk. But he wanted more. She said she hadn't any. She had promised Rakesh ten rupees to buy firecrackers. How was she going to find money for Rakesh? he wanted to know. He shook her. She just sat down on the floor motionless waiting for him to kick her and go out. But that day he did not. He sat near the door and waited.
Rakesh began to pester her for money. She told him to wait. He wouldn't listen. She yelled at him but he wouldn't let her alone. She slapped him. He retreated to his corner and sat staring at her with his big blank eyes. Sita went out and sat on the steps that led to the river. After half an hour she saw her husband go.
Telling Rakesh to wait outside, she came in and shut the door. She pulled in the board of plywood that served to shut the window. She latched the door and looked around to make sure that she was unobserved. She could not see a pair of bloodshot eyes intently watching her every move through a slit in the plywood.
Sita went towards the wall that had a large picture of gods in gaudy colours. She took down the frame and reverently touched her forehead to the photograph. She uttered a short prayer. She twisted a couple of nails that held the cardboard at the back of the frame. Slowly she prised it up with her nails and pushed in her hand. Between the cardboard and the photograph, her fingers felt the crisp edges of currency notes. She pulled out a couple of ten rupee notes, pushed down the cardboard and began to twist the nails back.
He came in like a hurricane. The door flew off its hinges. He snatched the frame out of her hands and at the same time gave her a blow that sent her reeling. She crashed into the utensils and lay stunned for a moment. But only for a moment. She sprang up and bit his hand. He howled and backed away but she clung to him like a tigress, clawing his face with one hand and desperately trying to get her other hand on the picture. He pushed his legs between hers and tripped her. She lost her balance and fell. He raised the frame like a bat and swung it into her face just as she was beginning to get up. Shards of glass flew across the room. There was a queer look on her face and blood was pouring out of her left eye as she slumped.
Raghu prodded the frame and the gods gave up the treasure. He stuffed the money into his pockets. He saw Rakesh standing by the door with some of the neighbours looking in. He tried putting the door back on its hinges. He showed Rakesh the money. See how much money she had, he said, and she wouldn't give us anything. He gave him thirty rupees. Buy lots of crackers, he said. He gave him twenty more. Are you happy? he asked as he went out. Rakesh smiled and nodded.
Sita became slowly conscious of a pain tearing through her head. She saw Rakesh standing clutching the money. Father gave me, he said, to buy crackers. Good, she said. He bought a bagful and showed her. She smiled. He smiled back. He asked her if she wanted to play some and she told him to keep just one sparkler for her, the last. He remembered and called out to her at the end.
You are all wet, he said. Yes, she smiled. She held him close to her as she lighted the sparkler. There is a strange smell coming from your sari, he said, like kerosene. Yes, she smiled.
She went up in flames with amazing speed. Rakesh cried out to let him go. She pressed him to her bosom and kissed him. Leave me mother, let me go, he shouted, I'm sorry, forgive me. Father, father, he cried piteously, save me, save me.
Anjali, their neighbour, seized a bucket of water from the cowshed and splashed it over them. It made no difference to Sita who burned as if she were a petrol bomb. But the coarse damp cotton clothes of the boy were slow to catch fire. Risking her own life, Anjali caught hold of the boy's forearm and gave him a frantic tug. She succeeded in pulling him away. By that time a crowd had gathered. They did what they could and then brought the mother and the son to the hospital.

I enter the boy's room. He looks at me and then at the man who is standing by the window. I ask him to leave, as I have to examine the boy. He goes out giving me an insolent look. He is reeking of alcohol. Rakesh's hair is singed and his back will need long and painful treatment. But his life has been saved. I ask him if he has any pain. He does not answer. He is about to cry but the nurse comforts him.
I ask him if he wants anything. He keeps quiet. My mother tried to burn me, he says suddenly. There is terror in his eyes. I don't know what to say. I ask him if he knows that his mother has been badly burnt? He knows. God has punished her because she tried to burn me, he says. I ask him if the person who has just gone out is his father and he nods.
I tell him how much his mother loves him, how much she wants to send him to school, to educate him, to make him a big man. I tell him how she has been saving money only for him. He keeps staring at me. Do you understand? I ask him. Yes, he says, my mother burnt me. She is a bitch.
I leave the room. Anjali has been outside the room, listening. Sita has been asking for you, she says. I do not want to go in but I must. Sita has received some intravenous fluids and a bit of life has returned to her temporarily.
"How's my son?" she asks. I can distinguish the words.
"He's all right," I tell her.
"You haven't brought him," she says.
I don't know what to say. "He would not want to see you….so badly burnt….when you are a little better…"
She shakes her head. "I did not want to leave him alone in this world with that monster….He will teach him bad…he will marry again…my son…."
"We'll talk about this later," I say.
She shakes her head again. "I know I am not going to live. You must tell my son I loved him very much. I did everything I could for him. And to die like this…He thinking…"
"He knows you love him very much," I interrupt her.
She fixes her sound eye upon me, hungry for more.
"He knows that," I repeat. "He told me what all you used to tell him…about his going to school and becoming a big man and all that. He understands everything. Children don't show it but they understand. He told me now that he loves you the most. He wants to live up to your dreams. He is just waiting for you, praying for you to get well."
"He said that?" she asks.
"Yes," I say. "He said that."
She alarms me by lifting her head and half getting up from bed. I don't expect the burnt mass of flesh to be able to move in that way.
"Lie down!" I cry.
"No," she says. "Did he really say that? Are you speaking the truth?"
"Yes," I assure her. "Yes."
"Put you hand on your head," she says, "and say: 'I swear by the God I believe in that I am speaking the truth.'"
I look out of the window. It is well past midnight but the show is still on. Gold and silver showers are raining down upon the City. It is Diwali. I look at Sita. She is sure I cannot lie in the name of the God I believe in. She knows I will not be able to tell a lie in the name of the God who made her and her son and all the misery of the world.
And so I put my hand on my head and say what she wants to hear.


Nazir Edul
A2-406 Kumar Pinnacle
Tadiwala Road
Pune 411 001
(First read on the world service of the BBC in December 1998)

Mr Rodrigues wondered what the matter was with Neville. When the boy came home from school at the beginning of the Christmas vacation, his father had his reasons ready - Why they could not buy the biggest Christmas tree and what was fair to ask of Santa Claus and what just wouldn't do. Neville had been rather insistent, almost troublesome last year. But this time he was behaving as if he had never heard of Christmas. He was silent and thoughtful and did not seem keen to go out to play with his friends. His mother asked him if anything was bothering him. Neville smiled wanly and shook his head. Mr Rodrigues thought that perhaps the boy had done badly in school and checked his books, but found 'stars', 'goods' and 'very goods'. In fact, in his rough book, the seven year old seemed interested in solving problems involving numbers that even Mr Rodrigues found rather intimidating.
Finally it was he who asked Neville if he would like to have the Christmas tree they had seen in Uncle Philip's shop. The boy indicated with a slight nod that it would do but showed no further interest, and when his father asked him if he had got his note for Santa Claus ready, he reddened and quickly looked away.
Mr Rodrigues had other things to do and quite forgot about it all until one morning when he realized with a start that it was Christmas Eve and nothing was ready. It seemed to him now that he wanted the Christmas tree more than Neville, and he was not doing the boy a favour when he sat with him decorating it. He enjoyed giving presents more than Neville enjoyed receiving them! So he put everything aside, called his son, stood in front of him like a benevolent genie and declared that he might ask whatever he wished. The boy stood with a slight frown on his face. Hadn't he as yet written his letter to Santa Claus? his father wanted to know. Neville blushed, looked down and said: "No".
Then without warning he shouted "No!" at the top of his voice. This brought Flora running into the room, her hands covered in dough. She looked from her son to her husband who stared back at her blankly.
"Why did you tell me lies?" Neville cried savagely. "Everybody laughed at me! Everybody made fun of me! Everybody knows that there is no Santa Claus! Why did you tell me lies?"
He was trembling violently. Flora rushed out, wiped her hands and came back. She tried to take him in her arms but he pushed her away. Then he began to sob. Big sobs shook his little body as his anguished soul that had locked it all up within itself for days cried out to be heard, cried out to be comforted.
"Everybody….laughed at me. Even the PT teacher….laughed!"
He went on sobbing and spluttering. Gradually his parents heard that on the last day of school, before the holidays began, he was playing in the field with Ajit. A little distance away a group of boys had gathered around the PT Instructor. Somebody was handing around leaflets and there were exclamations and squeals of delight. Jeroze called him and when he went over somebody asked him if he believed in Santa Claus. He said, "Yes" and there were howls of laughter. Jeroze who lived upstairs on the sixth floor called him a simpleton and Anush said he was a sissy. And everybody laughed, even the PT teacher laughed.
As the words tumbled out, Neville felt relieved of some of the misery that had taken away the joy of Christmas. Flora took him in her arms and this time he allowed her. As he buried his head in her bosom there was another flurry of sobs. She pressed him close saying kindly: "Nobody can be sure there is no Santa Claus."
He quickly looked up and in a strange voice declared: "There is no Santa Claus. It has been conclusively proved."
"Conclusively proved!" echoed Mr Rodrigues, stunned. The words sounded so queer coming from the little boy's mouth.
Neville pushed himself away, pulled out a paper from his pocket and gave it to his father. It was a computer printout. Anush's father had made a number of copies when he first saw it on the Internet. It was a mathematical dissertation on Santa Claus's Christmas journey. The number of Christian houses all over the world had been ascertained, and giving Santa Claus five seconds to go down the chimney and five seconds to come up, the writer had calculated that if Santa Claus were to deliver his gifts in one night, he would be travelling at a speed faster than that of light. And since nothing can travel faster than light, this proved that Santa Claus could not exist. Q.E.D.
Neville told his father that his teacher had said that the man who had put it on the Internet had real brains. Mr Rodrigues nodded slowly. "Yes", he thought, "the man has a very big brain and a very small heart." He tapped the paper and looked at his son.
"There is a mistake here," he said.
Neville looked up with hope in his eyes but then frowned and ran off. He came back with his rough book where he had struggled with numbers exceeding the speed of light. Mr Rodrigues laughed. "Come!" he said.
He took Neville to his room and switched on the computer. They went through the steps of the equation. It was all quite correct but at the very end there was a serious mistake. The man had forgotten to take into account Santa Claus's assistants. And when they divided the monstrous figures by the number of assistants Santa Claus had, what they got was a speed that appeared quite sensible, in fact it was exactly the speed at which reindeer went. And how does Santa Claus choose his assistants? Neville thought that they should be wearing Santa's dress. But his father said that that was not the most important thing. To be a Santa Claus one had to possess something quite different and if Neville wanted to know what it was, they would have to go to Main Street right away. And so Mr and Mrs Rodrigues and Neville stepped out of their East Street residence, took a short cut down Brigadier's Lane and were on Main Street right opposite Mr Philip's store.
This year Philip & Co. had decorated not just the front of their shop but the entire building. An enormous star had been suspended from the roof of the third storey and the words 'Merry Christmas' twinkled in red and green and yellow. Neville pointed at the flashing lights and then at a powerful beam of light sweeping the skies, seeming to come from D'Costa Electricals down the road. Then he cried: "Look!"
There was a Santa Claus in Philip's store and a treat waiting for all children - a packet of Philip's famous shiny chocolates. There were games with prizes to be won that kept Neville busy while Mr Rodrigues exchanged greetings all around and chatted with Mr Philip. When they came out of the store, Mr Rodrigues was holding a brown paper parcel. Neville was clutching his shiny chocolates and was very excited about a little battery operated car that he had won. Anush had asked for just such a car from Santa Claus the year before but what he got was a 'push-and-pull' car, naturally, because there was no Santa Claus.
They met Jeroze's mother who had just bought a few leaves of a stamp album because she could not afford to buy the whole book even though Jeroze had been pestering her for weeks. Everything was getting so frightfully expensive! They walked on and then Mr Rodrigues told Neville of his plan. They would buy a whole stamp album, and Neville dressed up as Santa Claus would tiptoe to the sixth floor, ring the bell and run away leaving the album at Jeroze's door with a note from Santa Claus. What did Neville say to that? Neville laughed in delight and it did Flora good to see him so happy. He could hardly wait to get home.
After dinner Mr Rodrigues opened the brown paper parcel and showed Neville Santa's costume. He tried it on and it fitted well.
"Am I a Santa Claus now?" asked Neville.
"Almost," said his father. "But not quite. First I have to see how well you do your work."
Neville wrapped the album in red and white paper and slipped in a note signed 'Santa Claus'. Shortly before midnight, he stole up the stairs, put the album against Jeroze's door, rang the bell and flew back down the steps. He enjoyed the mission so much that an idea took possession of him even before he had got back home. He took his little battery-powered car and asked his father if he could leave it at Anush's door. What fun that would be! Would Anush call himself a sissy?
Mr Rodrigues lifted the boy on to his chair. Looking into his son's eyes he said: "Now you are Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a person, any person, who has a kind heart, a loving heart, a giving heart. Do you understand?
The boy nodded quickly. So quickly, that Mr Rodrigues wondered if he had really understood. He laughed, lifted him down, and got ready to accompany him to the Greenacres down the road where Anush lived. When they came back they told Flora that the job had been done in spite of a rather inquisitive dog whose name, fortunately, Mr Rodrigues had recollected just in time.
Neville went to bed but the excitement of the evening made sleep impossible. Gradually the stamp album and the battery operated car and the speed of light and Jeroze and Anush all started getting mixed up. He was half-asleep. Loving heart….Giving heart….Suddenly he pulled back the sheets and jumped out of bed. How could he have forgotten!? He sat down at his table with a sheet of paper and his crayons.
Mr Rodriques too was awake. He lay in bed with his eyes open, rummaging through his brain for words, choosing a few, dropping them, pulling out some more, trying to make them fall into place, but they wouldn't oblige. He wanted to cross swords with that man on the Internet. Verses often came to Mr Rodrigues in the middle of the night. Limericks, couplets and sometimes very profound poems indeed! He would get up and write them down but when he read them in the morning he would often squirm with embarrassment and hastily tear up the paper. Some verses did get through and then he would show them to Flora. Once she had said "Very clever!" but the next time she had wriggled her nose and he had wriggled all over.
Some time after midnight he got it. He jumped out of bed and wrote down the words. Flora was peacefully asleep and he did not want to wake her up. But he didn't want to wait until morning and he didn't want to make a fool of himself on the Internet. He wondered if he should ask Neville what he thought of his poem. And so he opened his door at the very moment Neville opened his and peeped out. They laughed.
Neville ran to him with his card - the best he had ever made. 'Merry Christmas, Daddy' it said, 'Merry Christmas, Mummy'. And pinned to the card was a packet of shiny chocolates. 'From Santa Claus' it read. Mr Rodrigues knew then that the boy had understood.
He told Neville that he had an answer ready for the wise guy on the Internet and showed him the keys he could press if he liked the poem and wanted to put it on the Net. Neville was now wide-awake. There was going to be a fight and he was going to press the buttons that would knock down Goliath. He stared at the screen as his father began to type the words.


Know, all ye Ignorant, that the Mathematics of Santa Claus is the Mathematics of Love

Hundred pounds of Love mighty
And you give away ten,
What remains is not ninety
But a hundred and ten.

You have Light and you have Love
Between them there's no fight,
Santa goes the speed of Love
And not the speed of Light.

On turning his head Mr Rodrigues saw Flora and blushed like a schoolboy. She put a finger to her lips and sitting down besides him rested her head on his shoulder.
"You are a genius!" she whispered.
Mr Rodrigues could not imagine a more beautiful Christmas present.
Neville too liked the poem. It rhymed. He slew the ogre with a press of the keys and sent their Christmas present flying across the world.

Nazir Edul
A2-406 Kumar Pinnacle
Tadiwala Road
Pune 411001
(First read on the World Service of the BBC in August 1998)

It was dark when he got up. He couldn't tell the exact time but guessed it was around five. Slowly he eased himself out of bed taking care not to disturb Sam. It wouldn't do if he got up now. He would want to know the time, he would want a glass of water…and Joy would have to wait until he went back to sleep. And he had no time now…no time…
He picked up his shoes, glanced over his shoulder and slid out of the room. Out on the terrace of his flat he looked down the sixty feet that separated him from the Western Expressway. Why not here? he asked himself. Why not now? But he rejected the thought as he had a hundred times before. That was not the way he, Joy, wanted to do it. He would stick to his plan.
He thrust out his arm and as his wrist caught the light he saw that it was 4:12, much earlier than he had imagined. For months now he had been getting up at odd hours, lying in bed with a brain that slowly turned to lead, heavy with thoughts flowing through his mind and pressing down upon his body. His muscles felt full and heavy with congealed blood. Every step required an effort of will. It was difficult even to move his fingers. That reminded him - Should he leave a note? His fingers closed on the piece of paper he had folded and put in his pocket the night before. He pulled it out and tipped it over the edge of the terrace. It went down incongruously motionless, until a few inches above the Western Express it suddenly turned over, opened itself up and pursued an oil tanker in agitated fury.
These monsters with blazing eyes groaned and screamed as they tore through the night. They were in a hurry. Creatures of the dark, they had to flee before daylight or take a long diversion after 6am, when the Great Western Express that sliced the City into two would be closed to them. Then it would be buses and scooters, Jeeps and cars, one blaring horn flowing into another, metal into metal. And he would find himself like a mouse in a trap, eyes darting, hoping for some release, some rescue, some spark of kindness, as the smoke and the sound and the spittle and the curses struck him unceasingly. He sucked it all up like a sponge. But now it was saturated, much too saturated. The stench and brutality of the City and the strain of the College he attended had got into the pores of his skin. It was painful cleaning them and pointless. There was always more stench, more brutality, waiting to get in. It was not a battle one could win. There was no way out. No way but one.
He pulled a strip of tablets out of his pocket. He wondered if he should take one - his morning dose to combat his depression. One by one he pushed them out of their foil and saw them going down. They disappeared before they hit the road. That was the way one fell. Slowly at first, then faster…faster… The last of the monsters were fleeing. A bus, more than half-empty went by. But he wouldn't take the bus. He would not know where to put the conductor's ugly look. There were no pores left vacant.
He had never walked right up to the Robber's Cave which was at the top of the hill he could even now see from the terrace of his flat. An indistinct purple-brown mass against a dull grey sky. He would take three or four hours to walk all the way. And then the climb to the top. He had been half way up, many years ago with his parents and Sam. A long winding path that took the best part of an hour. "Recipe for sun stroke!" his mother had said. "Recipe for sun stroke!" his father had repeated.
He came out of his flat and took the elevator. Soon he was on the Great Western Express. He found walking difficult, almost painful. His body moved awkwardly. It wouldn't go of its own accord. It had to be pushed. He came to the square where he had to turn left to the Robber's Cave. The road was narrow and deserted. Daylight was breaking and he could see wisps of smoke rising from a village in the distance. He passed a few locals carrying firewood or milk-cans. The road disappeared once he left the village. It was now a trail that went straight for about a mile and then curved to the right through a grove of mango and jambul trees.
He walked on breathing the early morning air heavy with scent. The sun had not yet risen and hardly any light got in through the trees. Something rushed out of the undergrowth and barked furiously. Joy froze. The dog was hideously white and sharply outlined against the dark foliage. Joy looked into its hostile pink eyes. Slowly the animal edged back into the bushes and disappeared. For some time Joy could not move. His legs shook and a band constricted his throat.
He pushed himself on. It would all be over in a few hours. He had never been to the top of the cave but he knew that the drop down the cliff was a sheer eight hundred feet. He wondered in what posture he would fall to his death - how he would be lying until the tide came in and carried him away into the boundless sea. Boundless sea, he repeated to himself. Into the boundless sea.
He was surprised to find himself half way up the barren hill. His muscles seemed to be thawing. He was where he had been before with his parents, a flat expanse of land that turned green in the monsoons and was a fine picnic spot for those who did not wish to contend with the steep climb up to the cave. The path to the summit looped thrice across the face of the mountain. The first zigzag was a circuitous mile or so and as Joy looked up he saw it wind its way just twelve or fifteen feet above him. It seemed a long way to walk for so short an ascent and so he began to climb straight up the face of the mountain. Half way up, his fingers clawing into the earth and his feet searching for toeholds, he wondered whether it was really he who was stuck to the side of the mountain. He looked up but could no longer see the path above him. As he neared it he realized that he was faced with an overhang, a few inches of rock obstructing his ascent. He got one of his arms round it and then the other and hung from the rock, his feet in thin air. Exerting himself as never before, using his chin, chest and arms he pulled himself up. He managed to get over and lay down panting, his heart going wildly and his shirt, drenched in sweat, sticking to his back.
It was hot and sultry. In the distance, through the haze of dust, he could see the City shimmering in the hot air. It seemed to advance towards him. He got up hurriedly to leave the place. He looked around, confused. There was no way to go.
What he had taken for the path, was just a rocky ledge, a few feet square in the side of the mountain. Now he could see the path clearly going round the mountain and coming up sixty or seventy feet above where he stood. He couldn't imagine clambering up the slope. But going down seemed impossible. There was not a soul around, neither man nor beast. The heat was beginning to get oppressive as the pre-monsoon June sky darkened ominously.
His mind was in a state of unaccustomed excitement. Without any clear idea of how it could be done, his body slowly began to climb. He went up a few feet. Suddenly a rock under his foot gave way just as he was about to raise the other leg. He yelled though no sound escaped his lips. He managed to secure a foothold and remained clinging to the hillside, his chest thumping and his mind a confused whirl.
He moved on more cautiously, pulling and pushing himself with brute force, clinging to the ridges and crevices of the mountain and learning to make sure that three points held his weight securely before he advanced. He looked down after a few minutes. It made him giddy but he was surprised to see that he had covered quite a lot of ground. He felt a sense of achievement.
Suddenly his body and mind latched on to one another. Now he picked out the route after careful deliberation and made no mistakes. He began to enjoy the climb. As he gained the path Joy felt triumphant and grinned.
There was another half mile to go and he began to run. He felt strangely exhilarated. The climb had altered his body chemistry. Something had broken the shackles that had so bound his muscles and immobilized his joints. Gusts of wind were blowing the dust all around him but he went on heedless exulting in his newfound freedom. Suddenly he came upon a large hollow in a rock and realized that it was the Cave. It was much smaller than he had imagined and it was empty. Some half-burnt firewood and ash lay in a corner. A plastic bag, caught between the stones, fluttered wildly. He released it and saw it fly across into the valley and then shoot straight up like a rocket.
Far below him, the sea, a dirty brown, lay shimmering in patches. He walked to the edge of the cliff. The surf was lost in a white haze. On the other side, towards the east, a dust storm raged. The City, the Great Western Expressway and the village through which Joy had walked, were a whirling nebulous brown. The sky rumbled and rumbled again. Lightning leapt across the leaden sky and the crack that followed shook the earth. Large drops of water hit the ground and the smell of the good earth rose in the air. Little blobs of wet chocolate pattered to life all around him and more and more joined the design. Then the deluge began.
Joy sat in the cave and watched the demonic dance of wind and water. The mouth of the cave was an impenetrable curtain of rain. Cloud upon cloud burst and the raging wind carried the sheets of water from the sea, over the cliff and across the great plain that bore the City. It went on for more than an hour. And then it stopped. Abruptly. Completely. The immediate stillness that followed was total before a gentle drip-drip impinged on one's consciousness. And then the murmur of rivulets making their way down the mountainside.
Joy stepped out of the cave. The first thing that caught his eye was the sky - an unbelievable flawless forget-me-not blue. Just one solitary cloud hung above the city like a forgotten waif. In school, in happier times, he had once painted just such a sky, mixing cobalt blue and white from his box of water colours. And his drawing instructor had said that it was too artificial. He now rejoiced in a sky that vindicated his art. The City, struck by sunlight, stood like an architect's model. He could make out every landmark. He traced the pencil-sharp path on which he had walked that morning until it was lost in the trees and emerged again at the foot of the hill. Holding his hands in front of him like a movie director, he clicked frame after frame. Perfect shots. Though once he raised his fingers a little too high to get the waif in and his thumb eclipsed the City.
Joy saw the sun getting ready to dissolve into the sea. Some hours later it would rise again over the City. He decided to come back early one morning to see the sunrise.
Come back!? He had almost forgotten. He walked to the edge of the cliff. It was a long way down but he could now clearly see the waves breaking and the surf advancing, as if in slow motion, over a crescent of golden sand. He felt a tremendous urge to run barefoot on the sands and to splash about in the aquamarine waters. He waved his arms about. He had never before felt so alive. He had just been born. He was only a few hours old. And now, to die!? He wanted to climb the mountain again! He wanted to see the sunrise! He took off his shoes and began running down the path. The soft moist earth felt wonderful.
Half way down, when he came to the meadow, he saw the City. The sun had almost set. Only the dome of the University glowed - a speck of gold above a cluster of olive green trees. He smiled. He thought the City looked rather pretty. He was no longer frightened of it. A city, the size of his thumb.


Nazir Edul
A2/406 Kumar Pinnacle
Tadiwala Road
Pune 411001