The Top Floor

7:00 A.M. 16 – Jul – 2007 Monday

Lift was falling down into an abyss. I heard screams, “Wake up!” I was trying hard to open my eyes. My heart palpitated. The more I forced the more difficult it was to open my eyes. Limbs felt paralyzed, frozen. I lay like that battling till a drop of water fell from the roof of the lift. I jolted back to my senses.

”Wake up! Your phone’s been ringing for a while.” I came back to life from a dream that now faded fast into a distant past before I could grab it. I tried to close my eyes tightly in a last ditch effort to reenter the dream but simply couldn’t. It slipped away from me. Exasperated, I left the dream and opened my eyes wide. Tenth day after my girlfriend’s death and I was not out of my depression yet. My dreams were getting crazier by the day.

Another two drops of water were about to fall from my roommate Madhu’s hands to my eyes. I had one or two seconds to beat gravity and block those. “Dei, your dad had called. 16 missed calls till now.” I jumped up and shouted, “Why did you not wake me up before?” We were in my first year out of college, our first job and five of us college-mates were staying in a rented apartment.

“Psycho, you were sleeping like a stone! Completely unresponsive to my shouts.”

“Alright. Leave it.”

I rang back my dad. As soon as he picked up the phone he shouted, “Where were you all these while? Get ready and run to the Railway Station. Advance reservation for train tickets for September holidays starts today. Booking starts at 8:00 a.m. and the tickets will be over in 15-20 minutes. It is seven already…” I didn’t wait to hear the rest. I threw the phone down, grabbed my towel and rushed inside our single bathroom apartment. I didn’t have much belief in the online portal. My credit card request was yet to be approved anyways. I had no other way but to go to the booking office in person to get this done.

My roommates started banging on my door. “Fucker, it is not your turn.” I ignored the loud bangs and bathed as fast as I could. Still it took 5-10 minutes roughly. On that day, one guy would miss his office bus, another late for his office meeting, another one late for his entrance coaching, and the last one would be late for his newspaper reading slot on the toilet. The moment I came out, there was a big fight with my friends. While each them were taking turns cursing me, I quickly dressed up and escaped to the bakery beneath our rented apartment. I checked the time on the clock precariously perched on the shop wall.

7:23 A.M.

I grabbed a newspaper, a sweet bun and asked for the directions to the ticket booking center enroute to my office.  Waving an autorickshaw, I shouted, “Multi-Utility building”.

“Meter + 15 Rupees, Sir.”

With no time to argue, I jumped in and asked him to rush.

I felt bad having quarrelled in the morning. I should have woken up early. I thought about sending a “Sorry” to my roommates. Searching for the phone, I realized that I had left it on the bed in my hurry. Purse, ATM card, watch, medicines? Good lord, those were inside the laptop bag. Saved. I checked the time. Shit, missed my morning dose. Water bottle? Empty! I should have taken my morning medication by now.

7:38 A.M.

“Ok. So where is the building?”

“Right behind you.” The driver said stopping the vehicle as I jumped out counting the currency notes.

“The 28 floor building! This one?”

“Yes sir.” I paid him and dashed into the ground floor lobby. This was one of the tallest building that I had seen in my life till then. The building looked archaic and unmaintained. I could smell urine right at the entrance itself. Typical of public places everywhere in India but not expected in this huge building!

There wasn’t much crowd in the building. Luckily, there was a direction board with all the floors and the offices on each of them. I scanned it. I couldn’t find the ticket booking center on it. The top three floors’ information was smudged, partially gone due to paint erosion. More than the paint it felt as though time had corroded the entire building. It was peeling off from everywhere possible – walls, top roof, grill doors, every inch of it. It hasd last seen a fresh coat of paint probably a decade back. I checked the time.

7:45 A.M.

I had 15 more minutes. Not an issue once the floor was found. I approached the lift and waited. It was an ancient chain lift, 4 of them side by side. It looked old, and rickety when compared to impressive OTIS lifts at my office. I could hear the noise of one coming down. Lifts were placed parallel in a narrow lift lobby. Each lift opens to a small space in front of it and the lobby wall behind. The end of the lobby was a really narrow fire escape. I wondered whether anyone could escape from this building practically. It took long 5 minutes for one to come down. An senior gentleman somewhere in his 70’s walked out of the tiny lift when it opened.

“Train ticket booking office?”

“The Top Floor!”

I jumped into the lift and pressed the top floor. After 27th the rest of the buttons were again dissolved by time. I wondered why the rest looked new. Three other folks came running and got into the lift before the door could close. They pressed the respective floors. One of them seem to press the top row – May be the top floor – booking station perhaps.

7:53 A.M.

Lift struggled to move up. It was excruciatingly slow. I could hear the mechanical noise of the chains lifting us above. The katrak- katrak-tak noise sounded like those roller coasters being pulled up the elevation before the first big drop. My heart paced as if I were literally on one of them. There was no fan and we started sweating. It was completely shut from all the sides with no transparent glass sides for the lift. I felt claustrophobic.  The lady inside the lift got down at the 10th floor and the middle aged man on the 18th. I noted that there was the 13th floor in the building and thought Indians never had these the fear of the number 13th. Then there was only another man in the lift. The lift slowly approached the top. The small display on the top showing the floor was functional but some LED lights were out.

21 – I

22 – Inverted C

23 – Again Inverted C

24 –

25

26

27

28

29

The lift opened. I jumped out. As I turned around I noticed the other man had not got down but went down again with the lift. A helpless look remained in his face as the lift door closed in front of him. ‘Strange!’ I wondered ‘Where was he going? It did not open anywhere between 18th and the top also! Hmm…’ I checked my watch and turned around to the room entrance.

8:01 A.M.

The room was locked with a determined 8-lever lock and a certain chain. Confused, I turned around. I skipped heartbeats 2, 3 many as I realised there was no staircase. immediately, had went to the lift button, I got a mild shock. Button was missing! and the lift display was flickering as it was inside the building.

No lift button, no staircase, chained room. I ran towards the lone window. I could see entire of MG Road all the way until Chinnaswamy stadium and the rising UB city skyscrapers beyond. I felt a sweat drip start right from head down my neck through my spine until I could feel no more. I was numb and in the window sill I could see my face turn pale.

Trapped!

———————————————————————————————–

What happens now?

Does he get out?

Or all this imagined?

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Signs

 

Kavitha murmured the second lesson of her Malayalam Textbook titled the “The journey of a brave kid.” It spoke in over four pages a fictional story about a boy and his adventurous journey in search of his mother. Kavitha’s wide, beautiful eyes, resembling her mother’s awaited someone. They often wandered away from the book towards the porch. In the distance, a playful sun hid behind the wavering plantain leaves. The blazing yellow coloured incandescent lamp on the porch attracted the pestering insects, the rain flies born from the evening drizzle and the omnipresent mosquitoes. They buzzed behind her neck, humming their irritating, yet mysterious anthems that bothered her.

“Amma (Mom), light the mosquito coil, no. I am unable to study!” She shouted out while her hands frantically shooed away the air near her neck and ears. “When is Achan returning?” She added in the same breath.

“Girl, within an hour… Mosquito coils are over. Call Achan and remind him to get some. Also, ask him where he has reached”. Kavitha’s mom replied.

“For now, I will burn some coconut husk and the roots which we brought from the village.”  Her mom added.

“Acha, where have you reached?” Her sweet voice asked inquired over the mobile phone.

“Kavithoo, I am nearing the temple bus stop. What are you doing?” Her dad inquired.

“About to study. Don’t forget mosquito coils. And…(pause) Did you buy it?”

“Of course. I have got both. Ok? Ask you mom to lock the grille till I come.”

“Fine. I will tell mom. I am impatient to see the gift. Ciao.” She reported the matter to Mom and settled back at her table.

The front door of their three room rented house on the outskirts of the town remained open but the grille on the exterior was safely locked. Her mom would often repeat, “To close the front door during the late evenings is considered inauspicious”.

Kavitha sat watching the setting sun snacked by the hills in the distance. The scattering light soon painted the sky in an “Orangish” hue on a canvas of floating clouds and a faint moon. Light was fading fast and the street lights flickered to life somewhere in the distance. It was nearing half past six and she thought that the clock face with its outstretched needles made a sad face.

Meanwhile, Mom emerged clean and fresh from the bathroom and proceeded to light the greasy oil-lamp in front of the glass-framed pictures. There were a dozen different gods precariously perched on the shelf inside their kitchen. After applying Tilak above her Kumkum, she decorated the pictures with a shoe flower on top of each of the wooden frames and placed a garland strung out of jasmines near the lamp. Its fragrance immediately filled the room. Then she lit a few incense sticks and stuck it in to an empty nail hole in the wall. Closing her eyes, she prayed silently for a few minutes.

Kavitha joined Mom without the usual invitation. She silently thanked the gods for reminding her dad about the doll. Returning to the dinner table that doubled as her study table, Kavitha resumed her lessons.

“Meow… Meow…” A black cat trotted on the porch. It was a bad omen. Her grandmother used to tell her that if a black cat crossed the path then something terrible was about to happen. She signaled her Mom to shoo it away immediately. Mom quietly took the broom, turned it upside down and drove it off the porch into the vegetable garden. The cat sped away, its tail upright! A few more agitated Meows and then its sound died.

Mom kept another lit oil-lamp outside the front door on the verandah and switched on the Vedic chants on her mobile phone. Meanwhile, she had found enough time to burn a couple of coconut husks with some medicinal herbs and place it near the entrance. Winds toyed with the flame creating shadows of many kinds. Kavitha despised shadows, all of them. The dancing, waving, flickering, shapeless ones, those resembling animals, birds, dancing serpents, the ones with human-like heads devilishly laughing on formless bodies like genies emerging out of its bottle of entrapment, or those with headless bodies, sharp, moving, approaching, mocking, running, faint, fading, limping and the like; all of those frightened her.

The seven year old mind of hers did not have the courage to inspect the source of those strange shadows. She would rather run away and hide under Mom’s sari, or cover her face with Dad’s large reassuring palms. She forced her thoughts back to the story of the lone boy sitting under a tree by the side of an empty road.  “As he sat weeping underneath the small banyan tree, the tree quietly grew behind him. The branches morphed into wicked hands and the leaves turned blood red. Branches swayed menacingly and the shadow danced like a witch. From the monstrous tree emerged a “vicious looking” lady. The setting sun bounced off her silvery white hair and the edges of the protruded teeth shone devilishly. Her blood colored makeup with the fearsome figure grew to an enormous size in no time. She grabbed the boy and flew up on to the top branches.”

Kavitha’s heart palpitated and a sweat drop wet the text book. From the corner of her eyes she checked out the shadows. This time it was a woman dancing with her hair locks open. The spectre reminded her of the frightening Mudiyettu kolams, an eerie figure with a blood colored makeup spinning wildly to the tunes of the percussions, her hairs loosely bound, with a sword in her hand, performing in the nearby Bhadrakali temple.

“Meow… Meow…” She cowered startled by the noise. She was about to blame the cat when she noticed that it was just the SMS ringtone on Mom’s mobile. She opened the message. It was Dad. He had got down from the bus and was near the temple.

Her dilated eyes returned back to the text book, to the boy under the tree and the terrifying witch. “Surprisingly the small boy was not the least bit scared. Neither the tree nor the witch bothered him. He looked at her unperturbed. The witch hissed, ‘Aren’t you scared? ‘No’, the boy managed a reply. ‘Then why are you here?’ she questioned. The boy bravely responded, ‘You see the past, the present and the future? You have the answer to my question. Where is my mother? What happened to her?’  The witch grinned revealing her long bloody canines. ‘I won’t tell you. I shall show you some signs to find her.’ The witch added”.

“Kavithoo… Dad’s baritone voice echoed in her ears. She instantly looked towards the front door. There was none, not even a shadow. The conspicuous absence of shadow felt mysterious.

“Amma, is Achan home?” asked a perplexed Kavitha.

“No. I told you, right? He is on his way.” Mom sounded a bit terse and angry.

“But I guess I heard him…” Kavitha was unsure.

“Do you want to eat dinner or not? Let me cook. You read something for tomorrow’s class and do not disturb me.” Her mother responded from the kitchen.

A few slow minutes unwound and she heard it again – “Kavithoo…” This time it was louder. She was sure. As she turned her head towards the entrance, the familiar shadow of Dad holding a doll in his hands approached the front door. She fleeted towards the grill door, shouting “Amma, Achan is here. Open the door.”, only to be disappointed upon reaching the door.

There wasn’t anyone outside. It was just the shadows of the plantain leaves and the flame, she thought.

Her mother came with the key to find no one in the verandah. “Kavitha, don’t play with me. I have many a chores to complete and it is already late.” Mom rebuked her.

The little girl was confused and dejected.  She settled down at the desk and grabbed the mobile phone to play the snake game. She could hardly concentrate on her lesson. She ran inside the kitchen to check on her mom. Kavitha’s mom was tidying up the kitchen. Kavitha pestered, “Amma, I saw Achan’s shadow on the porch. I am not fooling around. He might have gone upstairs to check the water level in the tank.”

Her frustrated mom scolded her and dragged her out of the kitchen to the table and sat with her.

“Where did you stop reading?” Mom asked. Switching off the mobile she started out reading the lesson to Kavitha.

“Amma, he might be there on the terrace watering the flower pots on the low roof. Let us check it out.” Realizing that she was getting cranky, Mom grabbed the phone and followed her upstairs to the open terrace.

It was empty!

Then they inspected the backyard vegetable garden and outside the main gate of the compound. There wasn’t anyone around. Not a single soul in sight. Not even that spooky cat.

“Kavithoo…” Her dad’s voice again floated into her ears with the evening breeze as she started walking back from the gate. Kavitha became uneasy. Her thoughts ran wild. She was not able to comprehend the events? Was it just the story playing on her mind or was it her imagination? Whatever it was, she couldn’t quite comprehend what was going on! The black cat, the eerie shadows, the strange story in the text and the voices in her head frightened her.

She snatched Mom’s mobile phone and pressed the fast dial. Irritated and angered by her actions, Mom snatched the phone back, cut the call and gave her a not-so-soft slap. Kavitha bolted into the house with tears swelling up her eyes. Immediately overwhelmed by regret, her mom followed her and tried to solace her, all in vain.

They both sat restlessly on the table, one reading the text book and the watching the clock. After 10 minutes, there was the noise of metal hitting metal. It was from the gate. They paced to the verandah. It was Kavitha’s dad. Kavitha noticed in the street light that Dad was limping a bit. As he neared them, she noticed his soiled and torn clothes’. His bag was also missing. He had only a white polythene cover with him.

As soon as he entered the house, both of them in one concerned voice asked, “What happened?”

“Get me some water, cotton and after shave lotion.” her father said, taking off his shirt and revealing a bruise in his left hand and a gash near the navel. He lifted his trousers up till his knee and a few specs of dried blood showed up near the knee cap.

Mom instantly disappeared into the house only to appear with the dressing material for the wounds. She started cleansing the wound.

Dad heaved a sigh of relief and said, “We will change this house soon. We will move back to our previous apartment inside the city.”

“Again!!!” Mom looked at him, surprised.

“It has barely been 2 months since we moved in here. And living inside city is expensive, isn’t it? But that can wait tell me what happened to you?”

“Robber.” The moment of silence pronounced by their own missing heartbeats!

Her dad took a deep breath and explained, “I was on my way from the bus stop. I couldn’t get an auto-rickshaw. So I decided to walk all the way. I took the shortcut near the temple – the road with huge temple walls on both sides. I was near the bend before the temple pond where the street lights are notoriously missing for a small stretch. Suddenly, a guy appeared with a handkerchief tied over his face.”

“And…”

Kavitha tightly gripped Dad’s arm. She could feel the heightened pulse in her dad’s arms and the sweat in his palms as he narrated it. His eyes flashed the fear he had experienced.

“And, what else? He flashed a knife and asked me for my belongings.”

“Oh my God… Krishna… The next time I visit you…” Mom started.

“Enough. Now don’t you start praying a list of pujas to all the temples around?” Her dad cut her mother’s prayers short.

“Be happy and thank God that nothing much happened. We have to do some Puja and give offerings at the temple for sure.” She insisted.

“Alright. We will go this weekend.” Dad agreed.

He continued with the incident, “When I tried to resist he shoved me on to the road. I gave our wedding ring, purse and the bag. He wanted this cover thinking that it was some costly stuff. It has Kavitha’s toy packed in a gift wrap. I told him to spare this at least as it was just a toy for my daughter. He threatened to stab me and flashed the knife very close to my body, accidently cutting my arm and belly. I dropped the cover on the ground and backed off. He then asked for my mobile phone.”

“And…”

“As I was giving him the phone it rang loudly. So loudly, that he panicked and darted off in the opposite direction. I am not sure what would have happened if you had not called.” he finished; his breathing returned to normal.

“But, I never…” Before she had completed that sentence it dawned on her that, Kavitha “speed dialed” his number from the terrace a few minutes back.

“Kavitha…” She had opened the gift wrap and was carefully winding the singing doll. Kavitha raised her head to find her mom and dad staring at her!

~Trilok~

Selected words with meanings

Malayalam – A South Indian language

Amma – Mother in Malayalam

Achan – Father in Malayalam

Acha – Dad (colloquial)

Tilak – A decoration, often a white sandalwood paste, traditionally worn on the forehead of a Hindu believer.

Kumkum – A decoration, often a red dot, traditionally worn on the forehead of married Hindu women and now also by other Asian woman and girls

Mudiyettu  kolams – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudiyett

Bhadrakali – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhadrakali A violent and angry form of an Indian goddess.

Krishna – Indian god

Puja – Hindu rituals

The Lucky Pencil

Birthday celebrations in my home are minimal and predictable. The day would not differ much from the rest of the days in the year except for a few additions to the food menu, one pack of chocolates for my classmates, a handful of toffees for me and a mandatory visit to the nearby temple. I would be forced to wake up early in the morning, have a hot water bath and visit a few of the nearby temples. By the time Appa and I were back from the temple Amma would have made some sweet rice pudding besides the usual breakfast. There were not any birthday gifts in all those growing up years. However, my 7th birthday was a bit different. I remember it vividly. I had decided to feign illness and skip school on that day to enjoy a relaxed and princely lunch. However, amma was not feeling well on that day. Therefore, there was neither the sumptuous meal in the offing nor the rice pudding in the morning. After the usual temple visit, appa packed some curd rice and tender mango pickle in the tiffin box and dropped me at school. I tried to resist but my efforts were in vain. “It is better if you are at the school. She cannot take care of you today. She needs to take care of herself first!” prescribed appa as I got down from the motor bike at the school gate. “OK”, I moaned gently.
Just before I took off to my class, he surprised me by giving me a new pencil. I had asked him for a new pencil a week back as mine was almost reaching the end of its life-cycle. It was the first time I had seen a pencil like that. It was written S-T-A-E-D-T-L-E-R. I did not know how to pronounce it. It felt different from the Nataraj and Apsara pencils that I had used until then. I grabbed the pencil and ran off to the classroom. I desperately wanted to try out the new pencil. Borrowing a sharpener from Arun, I carefully sharpened it. By no means, I wanted to break the delicate graphite head on the first try. Amazingly, like butter the reels of wood peeled off. I collected the long ones and carefully placed them inside my pencil box handling it delicately like the wings of a dead butterfly. It would find its place on the “hall of fame” inside my pencil box. Green-eyed folks on my bench gazed at me. Slowly but surely, my grip on the pencil tightened.
Our class teacher, Miss. Marina had just walked into the room by then. The first period as usual was English. The Gulmohar textbook for English learning was turning out to be a difficult one to master. The words were getting tougher with each passing day. It was Lesson 2 dictation test and my heart palpitated. I had not studied a bit since I had planned to skip the class anyway. My palms too perspired and the pencil slipped in my hands. After the attendance check, and when the dictation test sheets were being distributed, I brought out the toffee pack filled with 100 Cadbury’s Éclairs, stood up and announced that it was my birthday to the teacher and the class. I wanted to slow down the scheme of things deliberately. My friend, Arun’s eyes lit up with glee as it meant he would get a few more chocolates since there would be more chocolates than the strength of the class. For some unknown reason, I started giving two of them to each one of them, leaving the toffee pack nearly empty. Arun was visibly disappointed. I gave him and my bench mates whatever was left in the pack after saving three for me. Meanwhile, the determined teacher proceeded with the dictation. An irritated and mood-off Arun decided not to let me have a look at his answers. He bent his head over the answer sheet and blocked my view with his body. I tried to peek into his answer sheet but then his handwriting was unusually illegible to my trained eyes. Each letter resembled the legs of strange birds and animals running away from the paper, scratched so fast that the sheet nearly tore in between. I had no other choice other than to guess the spelling of most of the words. I had that bad feeling in the lower part of the stomach of familiar butterflies flying after screwing up an easy exam. ‘If I ended up in the last five today I had to either suffer caning or write all those words 10 times by the next day. In the worst case both!’ my mind worked out the probable outcomes. I prayed that the new pencil would work some magic and save me from embarrassment!
After 10 minutes, Miss. Marina announced, “Time up. Swap your sheet with those of your neighbours and correct it. The solution is on the blackboard.” and she started writing out the answers on the blackboard. Arun, squint his eyes and reviewed my answers. He started striking every written word with a repressed anger. I clasped my hands and breathed a quiet prayer. I decided to use my trump card. Opening my pencil box, I let Arun have a good look at the extra chocolates that I had saved and pushed the box towards him. To my surprise, he did not yield. Focusing his head back to the textbook, he continued correcting the paper with a cold face. I corrected Arun’s paper matching it with the solution on the board soon realizing that he had everything right! ‘What a mean-spirited fellow!!! What about me?’ The only solace was that the teacher would not cane me since it was my birthday. Instead of caning, the punishment was an unwelcome and unavoidable imposition – write each of the words ten times by the next day.
“Any full marks?” ma’am inquired. “Arun”, I replied hesitantly. She gave her toffee to Arun. Then, she asked, “Who all are below 4?” A few hands shot up. The names of the regulars were announced. One by one, she caned each one of my classmates who scored below the cut-off. To my utter disbelief, Arun did not announce my name. “Good god! How did that happen?” In a flash, I took the still unconsumed toffee and dropped it on Arun’s lap. He looked back, perplexed and collected the toffees happily. We exchanged back our answer sheets and I stared at the answers for a long while. ‘Surprise!’ I really had six correct answers out of the fifteen. Correct in the true sense, that is without any help from Arun. My guesses turned out to be perfectly right. I had only one thing to thank – My New Pencil! Otherwise, why would I have any of those baffling spellings right without reading the text even once! ‘But, my toffees…?’ They were gone.
After that incident, I had only one tale to narrate during the lunch break and I had only one tale to narrate at home that evening – “The awesome power of the yellow and black striped lucky pencil”. Of course, none believed me. My friends were initially eager to hear to about the incident, but laughed heartily when I told them that it had some special powers. My parents dismissed the entire episode when I told about this incredulous event. It was on the last day of the comprehensive exams that year would I come to know the entire truth. Meanwhile, I wrote my notes, shaded the pictures in the textbooks, drew many new pictures, added horns and moustaches to the illustrations in the text and ask what not. I did everything with a confidence never before felt for I had this wonderful new pencil! A few days after a problem of a different nature arose. Before I realized, my pencil had become the size of my index finger. “Now what?” Soon it will be unusable. I was not ready for this. I complained about the waning pencil at home every day. My frustration compounded when my friends started mocking at me alleging that my marks, my performance and enthusiasm were just by-products of the new pencil and would vanish with the pencil. I wished that I had inherited a magic fountain pen and an ink bottle instead! That would have at least lasted longer.
After much thought, I decided to discuss this with my parents. “Appa, my pencil will become too small to use in a few days. What to do now?” Although initially he tried to console me saying that he would get me a new pen, once he realized that I was inconsolable he bounced the question to amma. She found an opportunity in this and coaxed me to recite the prayers in the evening without fail, keep the pencil near Ganesha statue before I went to bed after completing the homework every day. “Rest everything leave it to Ganesha. He will help you out. After all he is the remover of all obstacles.” Reluctantly, I agreed to the suggestion, though I despised praying and studying for long hours. There was no other way to regenerate that pencil like a lizard’s tail. Nothing happened the next day and for a few more days. I was getting impatient with every passing day. The pencil had become half the size of my finger. I attached a broken pen to its back and continued using it. I made it a point to use the pencil only for the most important exams that year. My handwriting that had improved began its retreat to older ways, so were my marks, all south bound. It was the day after Ganesha Chathurthi. By then, I had given up all hope when on the morning of festive day the unbelievable happened.
“Boom!” There was a new pencil near the statue similar to the one I had kept yesterday. The one I had kept there was gone. It had my name etched on one side just the same way I had done on my previous one with a razor. One letter looked a bit different. Rest all the same. “Brilliant!” I thanked god, looked around me. Having ensured that no one was around, I recited a silent prayer. Amma was in the kitchen. I ran elated and told her the superb news. She smiled at me, patted my head and whispered, “See I told you, no. If you have faith in God and recited the prayers faithfully he will help you out!” I grinned ear to ear and ran to the veranda where appa was scanning through the newspaper. I somehow felt that he was expecting me at that moment. I beamed, produced the pencil and jumped in front of him like a circus dog on two legs waiting to catch a bone. He responded rather oddly, “Enough of fooling around. Now that you have your pencil go and study!”
From that day onwards, I started studying with a renewed vigour devouring my textbooks. To my surprise, the whole activity of learning and spending time with books was increasingly pleasurable and rewarding. My mark sheets reflected this renewed interest. I was cracking every exam out of shape. My friends and teachers were amazed. My parents would just nod and continue as if there was nothing new. Every month I would continue getting the new pencil until the last exam of that year. On the last day, instead of the pencil I got a strange hand-written note. It read, “You have done well this year and proven that you are a good boy, smart and well natured. Therefore, I have moved the powers from the pencil and moved it to your brain yesterday night. You would not need the pencil any more. Go ahead and write this exam with any pen or pencil. Good Luck!!!”
I was heart-broken. I had no other way other than to believe the slip. It was too late to find a way out of this new conundrum. The handwriting looked very familiar to that of appa. I ran to him with the note and shouted, “Did you take the pencil and leave the note there?” Was he pulling a trick on me? He acted ignorant about these and added that he would not come between me and the elephant faced god for these silly matters. “Silly!” ‘How could he call this silly?’ I thought. To my biggest surprise mom had nothing new to tell me other than to convince and reassure me. She furtively glanced at appa in between the conversation. In the end, I just sharpened my old Nataraj pencil and hurried to school since I had no time for a debate. After getting the question paper, I recited the prayer once and peeked at the paper. Questions looked familiar and answers seemed possible. I started to believe that the letter was indeed right. I wrote the answers double checking the final answers before submitting it. I did that exam far better than the earlier ones.
Appa was waiting in the veranda when the school bus dropped me back. He held a cardboard box. I jumped, grabbed and opened it expecting a new toy or something else interesting for being an exceptional student this year. As I tore it open, inside I found all the finger-length pencil stubs that I had kept near the Ganesha statue yearlong and the sheet of paper that I had read in the morning! I stared at him astounded. Amma came out and asked, “How was today’s exam?” “Good” I stuttered. She explained, “See. We wanted you to realize that it was nothing to do with the new pencil but your own effort. You had never put so much effort earlier. This year you had put so much of effort thinking that it is the magic of pencil but then you had studied so well that you do not need the help of that stupid pencil anymore. You can write any exam with any pencil and clear it pretty well. That is why we planned all of these! Now come inside and have the Ghee Dosas before they are cold. I will tell the complete story then!” Appa brought out a pen box. It was engraved P-A-R-K-E-R on it and looked a lot classier than the other pens that I owned. I threw my bag on the sofa and rushed to wash my hands before trying it out. It wrote on the paper as my fingers rode on amma’s silk saris. In a few minutes, I had all but forgotten about “the lucky pencil” and was feasting on the delicious dosas. I had many more questions and it would take me a few more days to grasp my parents’ master plan to get me interested into learning! The Parker pen was safely clipped to my shirt and the thirst for knowledge to my heart. It would stay that way for a long time to come!

~ Trilok Rangan ~
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Appa – Dad
Amma – Mom
Dosa – South Indian Rice based dish

Published – http://www.indianruminations.com/contents/fictions/the-lucky-pencil-%E2%80%93-trilok-rangan-karnataka/

The Annoying Phone Call

Lights flickered to life inside the 9.30 p.m. express from Velachery MRTS Terminus to Beach. Two young men boarded the empty compartment; their shoulder weighed down by the laptop bags; their faces were dreary and exhausted; Economic Times and The Hindu peeped out of the outside pockets of the bags; their office tags like loose dog collars hung from the sweat-stained collars; they sat down on the seat closest to the exit like school kids hoping to jump off the bus even before it reached the destination. Their office ID cards had a big logo of System Tech International and a grim-looking official picture, which reminded you of the felony convicts under life sentence. Near to that, in a customized font were their names printed in black, “Vikram Kumar Software Consultant’’ and ‘’Rahul Krishnan Software Engineer”.

“Vikram, usually you are pretty lively once on the train. What’s the matter today? Anything wrong?”

“Oh, nothing, Rahul.” Blame it on our regular day job, my manager and that pestering phone call.” Vikram sighed. He took a long, deep breath until his lungs could hold no more. He liked the smell of fresh paint; its peculiar odour soothed him a bit. The renovated coach looked bright in the light of the newly fitted fluorescent lamps.

Seats filled in pretty fast. Bored engineers, tired workers, withered fruit and flower vendors, and ever-energetic beggars made their way into the suburban rail. A few I.T. and B.P.O. folks squeezed their oversized asses on to the seat much to Vikram’s and Rahul’s displeasure.

“A Phone call?”

“Dude, don’t ask.  A credit card girl, one Chitra called me up today morning, just ten minutes before my presentation to the team. Remember the one I was talking about the other day – the quarterly presentation on strategy for our new business. I was doing the last-minute check on the strategy slide and she…” “How could she spoil my entire day?” Vikram’s voice rose in anger and helplessness as the train blew its deafening horn and picked up speed.

“Yeah. I had asked her to give me a ring later sometime. But who in the world had imagined that she would end up calling me at the worst possible time of the day.”

“And, what happened?” Rahul pushed him to tell hoping Vikram’s mood would improve if he shared it with someone.

* — * 10 hours back * — *

The phone rang. An irritated Vikram picked it up after eight painful rings. An uncaring hello escaped his mouth. His eyes remained fixated on the data on the slide. Microsoft Outlook popped up a meeting reminder. He had only 10 more minutes for the meeting, which meant only 5 more minutes to adjust the software delivery projections and complete future strategy slide. Another 5 to rush to the booked room.

A bubbly lady’s voice played a rehearsed line on the receiver, “Sir, I am Chitra calling on behalf of IDIDI Bank. As you are an esteemed customer of our bank you have been selected for a pre-approved personal loan of 5 lakhs. Could you please confirm and give me your details so that I can process it further?”

“When did I ask you for a personal loan? Who told you to approve the loan? Who gave you my number?” screamed a furious Vikram at the defenceless voice as punishment for disturbing him smack in the middle of his work.

“But sir, you only no asked me to call today!” Her voice stuttered.

“Is it? You have all my details, right? Why didn’t you process it yourself?”

“But, Sir, you will have to confirm it for us to proceed ahead.”

“Well, here take down the details. I am a manual labourer. I earn Rs.100 per day. I do not own any property and I may or may not repay the loan. O.K.?”

“Sir, why are you trying to fool me? Our records say that you work for System Tech as a consultant and you also have an F.D. in our bank.”

“Now you will tell me my wife’s nickname, my ex-girlfriend’s address and what not! What else do you know about me? Tell me what is that you do not know about me! I guess, you will even know what I had for my breakfast also!”

“No….Sir!” Her words broke and began sounding heavy.

“If you know all of my details then why are you bothering me, Miss… whatever yeah…”

“Chitra, Sir”

“Why don’t you just send me the cash? Remember, the next time I get a sales call from your bank I am going to file a complaint in the consumer court.”

Vikram had completely lost his temper by then. He banged the phone almost breaking the receiver. The coffee cup near the phone got disturbed in the process and a drop or two spilt on his painfully jotted notes. He was running five minutes late and his work of two days was undone. He cursed the credit card girl. Using his MBA skills, he quickly cooked up some good-looking numbers and ran to the meeting room with his laptop. He entered the meeting room hurriedly with the smudged notes decorated with coffee brown stains. The entire team with his impatient manager, Ashish was waiting for him.

The presentation was projected on the big screen and the numbers fleshed out. A veteran of Excel sheets and PowerPoint presentations himself, Ashish was left unsatisfied with some of Vikram’s ingenious yet impossible numbers. He asked Vikram to work on it again and give a new projection by E.O.D. (End of Day).

A frustrated Vikram got back to his cubicle and sank in his chair, glaring at the phone furiously. His eyes wandered to the table calendar. 25th January was circled with a red marker. The footnote read –“Wedding Anniversary – Movie – Book tickets”. He had promised his wife that he would be early enough to catch a late night movie at City Centre Mall. He rang up home and pacified his disappointed wife. Looking up from his phone, he saw a nearly deserted office. Returning to the messed up slides, he started making fresh calculations all the while murmuring, “That stupid phone call and the wasted minutes! I will kill her if I ever meet her.”

* — *Mobile Buzzed – A Screech sound* — *

Brakes were applied. “Screech……” The slowing train neared Thiruvanmiyur Station.

“That was a really rough day, Vikram!!!” Rahul tried to sympathize with Vikram, “Take Care”.

Vikram suspired, “That one phone call screwed up my entire day!!!” Balancing the laptop bag on his left shoulder, Vikram took a few steps towards the exit.

“Sorry, Sir…” suddenly came a shockingly familiar voice. Vikram, with dazed face, turned around to notice the chocolate coloured, pinkish salwar-clad lady, who was sitting right opposite to them all the while, silently listening to their conversation. “I too had a phone call that screwed up my day!!!” Her office identity card dangled from the neck. It read – “Chitra – Cambridge Solutions, Business Process Outsourcing, Velachery.”

Before Vikram could respond, he was sucked in to the determined crowd moving to the exit, like a purposeful escalator, throwing him to the platform. By the time he steadied himself and moved to the window of the compartment, the train had started moving. For a second or a little more, his eyes met those of Chitra’s staring through the window. Vikram looked on as the train left the platform and its red tail light dissolved into the night. Inside him remained the weight of an unoffered apology.

 

~Trilok~

 

Dedicated to the B.P.O Folks – those telemarketing calls, the voices and the real people on the other end of the phone calls!

Velachery – a place in Chennai, India

MRTS – Elevated suburban train system in Chennai (Mass Rapid Transit System)

 

Very Short Stories – Part 2

Fallen Flowers

Everyday evening, Meera would get off 278E, the bus from Shivaji Nagar and would religiously buy flowers from the flower vendor sitting outside the temple. The florist woman would measure the artfully strung flowers placing the free end to the tip of the middle finger measuring it up to the elbow joint – ”Oru Muzham – Patthu Roopa!’’ After buying the flowers, she would quietly take the road next to the Krishna temple. One day, the curious woman asked, “Amma, whom are you buying these flowers for?” Her eyes were moist with tears as she bravely replied, “For my husband. He died in the valley of flowers fighting for the country”. Meera’s answer lingered in the air for her Krishna to respond…

Diwali

To see unfeigned happiness is a rarity. On that Diwali day, I was lucky enough to witness unadulterated joy. Crackers were going off in all directions, diyas lined the walls of houses and the balconies, joy filled the bright faces. I was bursting crackers and that was when, “Anna, anna oru pattaas kudukkaraengala?” (Brother, would you give me a Cracker?), a feeble but excited voice asked. Turning around, I saw a shabby looking kid probably from the nearby slums. Before even he could have completed the sentence, my mouth had uttered an unpleasant “No”. It took me just a few seconds to realize my mistake but by then the kid had disappeared into the festive crowd. Later in the night, I saw him digging into the cracker rubbish. He was collecting crackers that had failed to fire. With remorse, I approached him and tried to make it up for my inglorious act of the evening. I gifted him a small box full of sparklers and crackers. I also gave him a few unused T-Shirts of my nephew hoping that they would fit his frail frame. He quietly collected the packet and ran away without expressing any visible signs of gratitude. Five minutes later, I saw his cheerful eyes lit up with joy as he held the color sparklers wearing one of the T-shirts that I had gifted, which drooped halfway down his forearms! Happy Diwali, I told myself.

Naranga Mittayi

Stopping his car at the Pettikada the Man asked, “Naranga muttai undo? Randu Roopaikku!” (The cheapest sweet that one can get in the villages and pettikada is the small shop by the roadside esp. in villages). The Man looked at the glass jar filled with colorful sweets. Shopkeeper looked quizzically at the man and took a handful, wrapped it in a newspaper and handed the pack to the Man. As the windows of his BMW rolled up, he popped one mittai into his mouth and closed his eyes slipping into a trance. There, he became “Anthonikutty” wearing “Valli” trouser and wheeling a punctured cycle tyre through the mud roads.

Lost and Found

“Enji mittai, Enji mittaai”, “Choodulla vartha Choodulla vartha Mullaperiyar Anakettilil Villal, Vyapari Vyavasayi sammelanithil sangattenum 5 paerku parikku”. Varghese double checked the zip of his bag. The private bus to Pariyaram was about to start. 15 minutes of incident free journey to Pariyaram from Chalakudy, he prayed. He heard a whistle and the engine came to life… **** “Pariyaram…” He woke up startled. The bag was gone. His heart skipped a few beats and he felt short of breath. He had two lakhs of cash in that bag taken as loan for his daughter’s marriage. “Chetta… Here, your bag. You had slept off and the bag had fallen off.” He did not know how to thank that man. He just said, “Thanks…”

Unanswered Questions

“Heeeyya.. Heeyya…” Ramu hid behind his dad’s Mundu tightly gripping his hands. It was his first week in India. The Oracle clad in a red cloth and a waist-let of jingling bells (aramani) paced in frenzy in and out of the temple courtyard. He carried a sword in his right hand and an anklet in his left. His family and other devotees stood in a circle. In the red oil lamps of the Bhagavathi temple, the Oracle resembled a mad man, jumping and dancing hysterically to the sounds of drum and illathalam. Then all of a sudden, he hit his head with the sword and blood oozed out of his head. Ramu’s grip on his dad’s fingers tightened. Then the drumbeats eased and his pace slowed. He approached Ramu’s grandmother and murmured something in her ears.

On their way back home, munching the tasty Prasadam, Ramu inquired his dad, “Acha, who was that? That was pretty frightening!!!” “Kuttaa, athaanu Velichappadu. Bhagavathi, through him answers all the questions we have in our minds. Once he gets possessed he speaks god’s voice”, his Dad explained to a wide-eyed Ramu.

“Really? I had one question in my mind. But, he didn’t answer that!” Ramu was sad as he said that. “What’s that?” asked his dad. “Where did Mom go?” Ramu looked at his dad’s gloomy face and his head drooped. Behind, in the rufescent lights of the flickering oil lamps, the exhausted oracle was stripping his makeup off.

The Last Banyan Tree

There used to be a Banyan Tree here and a few old men sitting under it. Now what remains is an emptiness staring into the open sky through the gap created by the uprooted tree and the missing conversations of a few all-weather friends. Sipping half-tea, sitting under the lone surviving Banyan tree in this lively part of Bangalore they had been discussing many a passionate topics over the last 10 years… By “they” I mean Iyengar, Krishnan, Sharma, Mani and a few other irregular members who comprised that informal sabha (or a group) of old men. Most of them, in their sweet seventies, did not have any major expectations out of their simple yet satisfying life. Each one of them eagerly looked forward to the daily late evening meetings when the make-shift chaat shops on push carts retrofitted with cycle tyres crowded the narrow lanes near the park below the Banyan Tree. Men and Women in all sizes and shapes assembled there to savour the spicy chaats (chaats – common name for snack items from North India). People from all walks of life, from the humble peon to the BMW riding real estate trader frequented this chaat-joint sharing the same rainbow coloured plastic plates. Eager kids, enthusiastic parents, cigarette smoking bunch of young men and women, newly married couples and many a hoi polloi visited here. Amidst this cacophony, these antique souls used to gather to discuss what they have heard through the grapevine. Crispy and spicy stories were shared with enthusiasm. But often mundane and boring issues used to surface in the sabha that needed to be debated nevertheless. However, every evening, invariably, the changing face of Bangalore and the invasion of the young brigade would feature in their lively discussions.

Sitting on the rectangle shaped boundary laid with granite slabs around the Banyan Tree, they would try to ingest the changing life before them. Iyengar’s newspaper stall used the north side as a ledge; the seniors used to occupy the west side facing the road; the south was unoccupied and East remained inaccessible. The Banyan Tree would optimistically stretch its aerial roots from the branches in an attempt to reach and root to the ground, for increasing its spread and stability. Tar roads were impenetrable and would never let it in. The roots which hovered over the shops and tea-stalls were hacked to facilitate hassle free trading. The great old tree stood trembling with failing age on the heavy main stem filled with the girth of experience, in many ways synonymous with the gaffers who sat underneath making it a regular member of the sabha!
I distinctly remember that day – the one before the Independence Day when the balloon-wala was selling our national flags and tricoloured balloons under the Banyan Tree setting his shop on the South side of the granite boundary.
Krishnan brooded, “Iyengar, monsoon has been weak till now. Government has already stated that there will be scheduled power cuts. Water supply too is going to be scarce. Did you ask your son to build the underground sump and get the inverter? What happened to that plan of rainwater harvesting that you have been talking about? Otherwise, it will be difficult for you this summer.” Iyengar, an L.I.C agent, a newspaper agent, a railway ticket-booking agent, the owner of the Xerox machine and many more small businesses, had his share of struggles as a young man before he could settle down in Bangalore. His son works with an IT company and his daughter is happily married off to an MBA graduate working with a foreign bank in M. G. Road.

“Krishnan, the other day I was walking by the Scientific Research Organization. Suddenly, I recalled that the building is standing on a lakebed. Do you all remember the huge lake that used to be there? Those buggers are filling all the water bodies and building huge IT parks on top of those. Tell me, how will it rain in Bangalore? Anyway, what is the point talking about that? Leave it. To answer you Krishnan, I have asked Ramesh to take care of the water problem and buy an inverter. He said that he would do it. Rainwater harvesting requires investment of almost a lakh. Ramesh says he will plan it for the next year. Seems he is short of funds. These days I continuously have to remind him of all the homely affairs. He is so busy with his work that I still have to handle everything at home. I hardly get to see him. I think that after recession his work pressure has doubled”, Iyengar sighed. Krishnan, a retired college professor, he was the eldest of the group. He was the most learned man of the group and an active participant in the local area affairs. He always used to take stock of what was happening in the households of his friends and keeps himself informed. He would give his sincere opinions and suggestions to the problems faced by his friends. Both his sons are settled in the US but he never yearned to join them. He was at peace with Bangalore.

Mani changed the topic abruptly, “Look at that girl having Pani-puri and the guy she is with. See where his hands are! These people do not seem to have any social manners. God knows whether their parents are aware of their conducts! Being so far from their homes and with nobody to keep a close watch on their activities, today’s kids are getting spoilt day by day.” The ever-critical Mani, a former employee with H.A.L. is always judgmental about the way his city has metamorphosed to.

“Obviously!” As always, Sharma wanted to have the last say in any topic. After all, he worked at the highest of the positions compared to all the others in the gang. He was the personal manager to the former director at B.E.L. His only son an electrical engineer runs a lucrative electrical parts supply business. “Did you hear about the murder in Ganga Nagar?” “These IT people are immature and do not have any values. Money has screwed up their heads. The love marriages that we often hear are mostly due to infatuation than true love. Educated and so-called sensible people are committing these brutal murders. I think Bangalore before IT was a lot better.” Consensus meant a long silence, and a sigh.

“Krishnan, day after tomorrow is Avani Avittam. Vadiyar (priest) came to give the hymn booklet, Darba (special grass) and the Poonal (holy thread), didn’t he?” Mani wanted to make sure that the Darba and Poonal are ready for the upcoming occasion. (Avani Avittam or Yajur Upakarma is an annual ceremony when Brahmins change their holy thread, chant vedas and pay homage to one’s ancestors) “Good that you reminded me Mani. I have to get a few extra sets of Poonal. My relatives will be there this time.” “Next week my pension will get deposited. After that, I am planning to book a trip to Kasi and Haridwar, then take a break and go to Rameswaram. I have never been to any of these places. Vivekananda Travels is organizing a tour to these places. I am planning to block my seat tomorrow. Who all are joining me?” Krishnan’s face brightened as it looked quizzically at others for an answer.

Each of them wanted to join him but then they all came up with some excuse. Besides, none of them trusted their health fully to embark upon such a long and tedious pilgrimage. Krishnan had the tough job of convincing each one of them. With much difficulty, he managed to coax everyone into the trip. The toughest part was not about convincing his friends, but them getting permission from their kids. Come to think of it, a few decades back their kids used to beg for consent from them to play in the fields, to go for an excursion, to buy a new property and what not. It was all the reverse. Getting a few thousand rupees for personal endeavours was becoming tough. Nevertheless, they all decided to give it a shot. As expected, Iyengar initially backed out since he had a shop and a business to care of. However, Sharma suggested his driver; a trustworthy fellow could be assigned the job of handling the shop in his absence. “After all, there is mobile phone to contact him in case of any issues,” Krishnan reassured Iyengar. They were all excited. Their excitement could only be compared to that of school kids planning their first outing. They decided to meet the next day evening to discuss the status, schedule and further details after getting their “freedom” back from their kids. Though none spoke about it, at the back of their mind they all realized that this might be their first and last trip together.

Mani had no one to convince except for his wife. Once he informed her about the trip, she argued that either she would accompany him or he had to drop the plan. He felt it unsafe to leave her alone in the duplex house. He decided to take his wife along with him if only he could arrange for some money. Sharma’s son wouldn’t care about his father’s friends or their emotions. He rejected the whole idea and told his dad that if he wanted to visit the places then he would take him by flight but would not let him travel in the train. God forbid – but what if anything happens to him? After much thought, Iyengar too decided to drop the trip due to some religious reasons. All throughout the night, the three of them thought about how to convey their decision and problems to Krishnan without hurting him. Everyone respected him so much. They considered him as their elder brother. To say NO to him was simply unthinkable.

It poured that night. Rains continued unabated all throughout the night. Gale winds knocked many a trees down. Chilly winds crept into their houses through half closed windows and crevices never seen earlier. The city slept uncomfortable and disturbed but sleep deserted Iyengar, Mani and Sharma.

It was nearing six in the evening. After their usual evening walks, one by one, they reached the banyan tree only to find the great old Banyan tree lying on the ground, half uprooted and the granite slabs where they used to hold the meeting completely dislodged. Corporation workers were using an earth mover to sever the tree off completely off the ground. However, the deep roots refused to come off. Three of them found a low wall of a clinic nearby and sat there waiting for Krishnan. They felt distressed when the fallen tree fought the machines trying to uproot it completely from the ground.

An hour and a half passed by without any sign of Krishnan. Concerned, they decided to visit him at his house. After a five-minute walk, they reached his house only to find the gate locked from outside. On enquiring with the neighbours, they came to know that their friend Krishnan was admitted last night into the Ramaiyah Hospital with some respiratory sickness. The previous night he had suddenly developed some breathing problem and had to be hospitalized. The three looked among themselves. Old age and respiratory infection did not augur good news. They immediately called up their acquaintance in the hospital and enquired about Krishnan. They heard “Sorry” on the other side and a long, painful pause. His body was already on its way back from the hospital. He breathed his last in the ICU an hour back, they were informed. They all recalled his smiling and beaming face from yesterday evening, his eyes were gleaming with the expectation of a trip with his beloved friends. He had left them with an incomplete dream. A vacant seat remained. One down from the group. There was an hour before his body arrived. They returned to the low wall never wanting to believe the news.

Iyengar felt his prosthetic leg. He shuddered imagining an engine horn from a distant past – a Railway crossing, forty plus years ago, the accident where he had lost one of his legs but had found 3 new pairs – brave Krishnan who had pulled him away from the speeding train risking his own life, Sharma’s Rs. 10,000, Mani’s A+ blood and a priceless friendship of more than forty years. He turned around and looked at Mani and Sharma. He saw the same scenes rolling in the moisture laden eyes of his friends.

“Krishnan never took a ‘No’ for an answer. He didn’t let us disappoint him. He didn’t wait for our No.”, Iyengar suspired. There, they vowed, come what may happen they would go for this pilgrimage as homage to Krishnan. His soul will now accompany them. The Banyan tree finally gave away completely and kissed the longing earth. An ambulance siren echoed in the distance and the friends started walking towards Krishnan’s house to pay their last respects.