Short Story – Hungry

This is my latest fictional piece – and I was very lucky that it was published soon after it was written. Read it in the October 2016 issue of ‘The Madras Mag’ (http://madrasmag.in/article/hungry/). It is much longer than my earlier pieces, but I do hope it will keep the reader interested until the end. 🙂

jalebiindia

Nothing else bothered her as much as the hunger. Not the headache, the grey feeling that settled over her, the tight knot in her neck—none of it was as crippling as the ferocious growling in the centre of her stomach that would not be satisfied until she had shovelled in food enough for three meals.

Four slices of bread with jam, ten biscuits, a Five Star bar, a packet of Maggi noodles, some wafers, a couple of murukkus, two dosas with leftover fried potatoes, and a glass of Horlicks made with five heaped teaspoons of the sticky, beige powder.

The growling seemed to subside but she still felt empty inside. She rummaged in the cupboards, desperately searching for anything edible. She put a couple of appalams in the microwave and waited until they puffed up and the smell of cooked urad daal filled the air. As she pulled them out and blew on them impatiently, she felt a wave of disgust pass through her.

She wondered if she would—heaven forbid—vomit on the kitchen floor.

The vomiting sensation passed. The disgust remained. She hastily bit into the appalams and stuffed them into her mouth, lest there remain any evidence of her gluttony.

She quickly left the kitchen; a desperate measure to avoid eating more. As she turned on the fan and sank down on a chair, she ran a hand over her stomach. Why couldn’t she be like her cousin—that skinny bitch who claimed to eat tonnes of food, but never seemed to add an inch to her perfect frame? ‘She probably puts a finger down her throat and vomits it all out,’ her mind spun out a soothing explanation. She giggled at the thought of where else a finger could go then looked around hastily to ensure that her dirty thoughts were not given away.

Not that anyone was around to look at her. She thanked her stars that her parents weren’t home—if not, she would not have been able to lay her hands on the food. Her mother would have stared her down if she had so much as crept near the kitchen cupboard. And then, she would have had to endure the continuous string of insults.

“Why do you need to eat so soon after lunch? So that you can add a few more inches to your stick-thin frame?”

“Stay off the food for some months at least—if not, any boy who decides to go past your photo and come to this house will run away.”

“As it is, girls get fat after marriage—who will marry you if you look this now? And, if you are this fat, you will find it very hard to get pregnant.”

“You can’t cook one decent meal, but you like to eat for two.”

The comments should have hurt. Like rusty blades being drawn across her skin. Like acid poured down her throat. Yet, they never seemed to touch her. The words just glided through the air like puffs of toxic green smoke.

She went to her room and looked at the mirror that hung from a rusty nail. What was she looking for? All she could see was a pudgy face with sagging cheeks, lips drooping downwards. Her nose did not compensate for any of her flaws, and her hair looked dry and lifeless. She did not take off her clothes and examine her body closely, like she did on some days.

Not for her the carefree toss of her hair or the wilful smile when she wanted to display her feminine charms. She had waited desperately to become less awkward. To become the person who did not blend into the crowd. Yet, while her three female cousins seemed to transform from average ducklings into attention demanding swans, she had watched from the side-lines. She alone seemed to elude the sprinkling of fairy dust that nature seemed to pour by the bagful on her teenage cousins.

There were her father’s sister’s daughters—two of them—who seemed to have breasts that were rounded to perfection, and a waist that curved beautifully into shapely hips. Not to mention their big eyes and radiant skin which more than adequately compensated for being a shade less than the acceptable ‘wheatish’ complexion. And there was the skinny bitch—her mother’s brother’s daughter. A lithe beauty who stood at 5-feet-8-inches, with coltish long legs, and slender arms that she showed off in fancy puff-sleeved blouses. Her glossy, straight hair was much loved by all women in the family, and she was often compared to former film actress Amala.

**

Her parents had gone to the skinny bitch’s house to join in the fanfare that resulted from an ‘informal visit’ by a prospective groom and his family. She had been asked to stay at home. Oftentimes, sisters (even cousins) were asked to stay away from such events lest—horror of horrors—the guy fall for a girl other than the one he had come to ‘see’.

She knew that such flattery was not meant for her. As if in a cruel reminder, she overheard her mother saying:

“Let’s leave her at home. The boy is said to have some cousin who is working in Singapore. I will somehow convince them to try and visit us when he comes to Chennai. By then, I will make her look presentable. If we show her now, the lady might not even pass on the information to her relative.”

“What if they call us next week and tell us they want to come over? Can she lose weight at such short notice?”

“Why are you saying such inauspicious things? Let us first find out more about the boy and his family. And, even if they do come next week, I will starve her if I have to and make her look normal.”

They had not said anything much to her when they had left. She, too, had pretended to be more interested in reading film gossip in a Tamil magazine. The hunger pangs started as soon as she heard the sound of her father’s motorbike being started, and the clang of the gate as it was closed.

**

They had come back late in the evening. Without saying anything even by way of greeting, her mother had gone in to change, her saree rustling and emanating the fragrance of jasmine and agarbatti smoke. “They sent us some food,” her mother announced to no one in particular as she came out of the kitchen with some plates and set them on the table.

They sat around the table and served themselves the idlis, bondas and coconut chutney, the jangiri and onion pakoda. Her mother had made some thayir saadam – the ‘final course’ to every meal, no matter what the meal was made up of.

Silence reigned but it was not uncomfortable. In fact, her mother seemed more amiable than when she had left the house. “The boy is not all that great looking,” her mother commented. There was a hint of a smug smile on her face. She looked up; she didn’t know how to react, so she tried to smooth her features into a neutral expression. “After all that fuss she made over the two guys who had come to see her earlier…she has learnt that she is not some Aishwarya Rai who can keep waiting forever…Still, they could have found someone better looking…”

She remained quiet, unable to fathom where the conversation was headed.

“Looks like they fell for the money and the high position… and the American Green Card. Not to mention, he is quite tall… six feet, I think,” her father grunted.

Her mother’s face hardened. She bit a piece of green chilli, but it was bitterness that filled her mouth.

She reached for a second jangiri. It was a startling shade of orange, and covered in a thick white coat of hardened sugar syrup. She tried to cover her tracks but her mother suddenly said in a raspy voice, “Are you having a second jangiri?” She gulped, even as the fiery red blush of shame threatened to creep up her face. The rich orange of the jangiri seemed to taunt her. She quickly crammed the sweet into her mouth but it seemed to dissolve into nothingness.

**

A week later, her aunt swept into their house, laden with sweets and good news—the skinny bitch was to get engaged to the guy from the USA; that tall, well educated, well salaried man with the Green Card. Her aunt’s eyes sparkled on par with the diamond earrings that clung to her earlobes.

“We are going to look at mandapams tomorrow. Who knew that the marriage would be fixed so soon, and that too for a date that is just two months away?” her aunt gushed. “We have so much work to do, and Nithya—poor thing—has to go shopping for all her saris and jewellery as well.”

“We would be glad to help. You can come here for lunch tomorrow—why cook when you have to be running around all day?” her mother offered, unable to grudge her sister-in-law a token kindness.

“Of course, I knew you would offer, but our son-in-law wants to take us out to lunch tomorrow. We refused, and said the young ones can go out alone, but he is insisting so much!”

By this time, her mother’s lips were set against each other in a tight, straight line. Thankfully, her aunt left soon after. Before leaving, she went close to her mother and said, “The boy’s cousin is coming in two weeks’ time for some conference, it seems. I will somehow arrange a meeting between your family and theirs. God willing, things should work out well.”

She should have been filled with hope, but all she felt was a sense of dread for what the next few days would bring. She went into her room and pretended to read a book. Her stomach began to growl. There was nothing she could do; her mother was in the kitchen.

**

She was draped in a dark maroon saree, one that her mother hoped would blur the lines of her figure. Her hair was rolled into a bun, and a strand of jasmine flowers was wrapped around it. Lipstick, kaajal, powder. She felt as if her arms were made of wood and stuck to the sockets with superglue. Yet, they did not fail her­—she was able to easily sweep her palms into a ‘namaskaram’ to the guests.

The room was crowded with people—her relatives and his. She sneaked a glance at the ‘boy’. He was dressed in grey pants and a blue-and-white-striped shirt. Probably a couple of inches taller than her; his paunch spilled over the belt and strained against the buttons of his shirt. The hair on the top of his head was thin, and threatened to reveal a bald patch soon. He just stared ahead, and did not seem to want to look up at her. She felt a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach; her head began to throb lightly.

The next half-hour went by in a blur; years later, she would try to recall what they had said to her, but fail to remember anything but a hazy scene that resembled a photo taken with a trembling hand. He supposedly asked her what she had studied and what her hobbies were; his mother had asked whether she could cook well. What had she told them? She would never know, for the responses she gleaned from some of the attendees changed with each retelling.

**

Her parents had gone to the prospective groom’s house. They had received a phone call earlier in the day, and all she had gathered from the brief conversation was that they had been asked to pay a formal visit. She was to stay at home. Her mother smoothed down the pleats of her saree one too many times, while her father combed his hair carefully. They argued for a bit about where they could find good mosambi and bananas on the way. They had called for a taxi. “I have made coffee for you; it’s next to the stove,” her mother told her before leaving the house.

She walked into the kitchen but knew better than to rummage through the shelves. Her mother had effectively removed very trace of ready-to-eat food from sight two weeks back. She was made to eat less rice than normal, and sent on walks around the block twice a day. Her hunger had given way to a persistent dull ache in her abdomen and head but she dared not complain.

She would get used to it. Just like she would get used to the guy they would marry her off to. She wondered though, what he thought of her. Did he think she was fat? Would he tell her to eat only one ladle-full of rice at each meal? Or would he mock her rotund figure? Maybe he would completely ignore her? ‘He is fat, too!’ her mind replied angrily but she shushed the thought hastily. He was working in a foreign country, had a decent job.

And they had yet to know for sure if the marriage was fixed or not.

The bell rang. She wondered if it was her parents; they had been gone for less than 15 minutes. Maybe they had forgotten something at home. She could see her mother climbing up the stairs hurriedly, beads of perspiration lining her tense forehead; her father following closely behind, chiding her mother for the lapse.

She opened the door. It was the prospective groom who had come to see her. He was standing there, looking highly uncomfortable. She was taken aback to see him. “My parents have gone to your house…” she said, her tone conveying doubt and accusation at the same time.

“I know…I came to a friend’s house. He lives two streets away, near the police station…” he pointed his hand vaguely towards the right. “I…I knew it was near your house…I came to give you this.” He extended a plastic bag. He didn’t look at her; he looked shy.

She reached out and took the bag mutely. He smiled briefly, nodded and then quickly ran down the stairs. She saw the hint of a twinkle in his eyes before he turned away. It was only when he had been gone a few minutes that she realised she should have called him in, offered him coffee. Yet, she did not run after him or call out his name.

She closed the door and went into her room. Inside the plastic bag was a small box bearing the label of a prominent sweet shop in the neighbourhood. The smell of ghee wafted into the air when she opened it. Badam halwa. She stared at it for a long time. Then, she pulled off a bit of the sticky concoction and savoured it. It melted on her tongue, leaving behind a trail of saffron-scented satisfaction in its wake.

(END)

*Picture taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/feastguru_kirti/2213698239/sizes/o/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6931416

‘Serendipity’ – Featured in ‘Love Across Borders’

‘Love Across Borders’ is an anthology of short stories about human relationships across the border, conceived and published by Indireads as a literary and civic initiative. My short story, ‘Serendipity’, is one of the stories included in this anthology. The e-book can be downloaded for free.

Given below is a blog post written by me, as featured on the Indireads website – a brief synopsis of the story and the inspiration behind it.

When Indireads asked me if I was interested in writing a short story for an anthology that focused on the India-Pakistan theme, I was more than happy to jump on board. I tried my hand at two or three different plots, but it was a romance that finally turned out to be the best fit.

Neha, an Indian, and Riyaz, a Pakistani, meet at Changi Airport in Singapore, while they are en route to Mumbai. Sparks fly (the good kind), and Riyaz insists they should forge ahead, but Neha is troubled by the rift that divides their countries. Later, Neha decides that matters of the heart cannot be impeded by lines on a map and tells Riyaz that she wants to meet him. However, their hopes of a happy reunion are thwarted when the Taj, where Riyaz is staying, is bombed in a terrorist attack. Whether their romance is burnt to cinders, or if they meet again is the crux of the plot.

The idea of getting the characters to meet at the airport of a country foreign to both appealed because Indians and Pakistanis are often a lot friendlier when they meet on grounds away from both homes. I wanted to stress the notion of how, when you strip away the burden of social restrictions, bonds can be forged a lot more easily. I wove in the Taj Hotel bombing (2008) to show that such attacks claim the lives of people—no matter which country’s passport they hold. Above all, I wanted to write a story that touched on differences, but in a way that sought to highlight that they are largely in our minds.

– Read more about the anthology on the Love Across Borders website. To read my short story, and others in the anthology, download your free copy.

‘Beautiful’: Winner of Indireads Short Story Contest, 2013

My short story, Beautiful, was picked as a winner in the ‘romance’ category in the Indireads Short Story Contest 2013. The story is centered on the memory of a teenage boy’s first love, and the recollection of it several years later. An extract is given below – you can read the full story at this link.

“You are sitting across the table, smiling at me. The candle placed between us, and the overhead chandelier cast a beautiful glow over your kohl-lined eyes. Or maybe it is your happiness that lends that sparkle to your eyes. Your lips are full and pink—beautifully contoured, and sparkling with lip gloss.

You love me. Do I love you? But you never asked. You just lowered your eyes and asked if I have ever loved anyone. I smile back at you. You always did have a way with words.

I would see her every morning, sitting on her haunches, stooped over to draw a kolam—a traditional pattern made with rice flour and nimble fingers. She would begin with a dot, a line, a curve. Within minutes, an intricate pattern would evolve.

The entry to her house was opposite mine. I was staying with my grandparents for the summer. My father needed to travel for work, and my mother claimed she was going along to ‘take care of him’. At 13, I knew it was not the full truth. But at 13, I didn’t know it was their last chance at making the marriage work.

I loved my grandparents’ house—it was small and functional, with a garden that my grandmother tended to religiously. There were a couple of trees and some flowering plants that grew in a neat line along the wall. At one end was the gate where I would stand each morning, a cup of coffee in hand, waiting for her. I was tall for my age, so I could easily peer over the top of the gate. When she emerged from the house, I would pretend to be lost in thought, and therefore, not notice her smile. 

For the next ten minutes or so, I would stand at the gate, watching her embellish the design with little details—a flower here, a dome there—until it all came together in an artistic piece. When she finished, she would look up and smile again. This time, I would smile back. She would pick up her bowl of left-over flour and head back into the house. I would drain the dregs of my coffee and head back into the house. We never spoke.

(The story continues – read the rest of the story here)