The face jumped out at me while I was flicking channels. I froze and quickly returned to the news I had just passed, where two images were still displayed on the split screen. The reporter announced in an uninterested tone that the death had taken place that morning. It was sudden. Heart attack. “He was forty-eight.”

The image on the left showed a man with salt and pepper beard, pensive, looking outside the frame of the camera. The right hand photo was from a performance on stage, with the orchestra behind him, his eyes half-closed, his brow lined and lips parted in song. “Award winning singer and composer,” continued the dry voice of the newsreader. The images slid away and she came back on screen, talking about something else. But I didn’t hear another word.

Those were familiar pictures. I had seen them, even when not intending to. Even when I tried not to. These snaps always popped up. He was famous. But he was not, when I knew him.

That faraway look in his eyes in that salt and pepper photo always brought a pang of guilt. Was there a sign of something lost long ago? Was it the remnant of an unexplained, never-understood phase in life that had hardened over time?

At some point in time, should I have called and explained?

Through the years, I had always wondered. Maybe I should have. As time passed, it became difficult, and then impossible. Twenty years later, what guarantee was there that he even remembered?

Of course he remembered. Probably not word to word, probably not to the last tiny detail, and definitely not as vividly as I did. But oh yes, he remembered.

And I remembered because though it seemed the right thing to do at the time, it came back to me day after day, reminding me that I had not handled it well. My decision was justified, my action was not.

I should have explained. If not right away, later, when I came to my senses. Or much later, after things had cooled down. Or maybe, when the first wave of retrospective wisdom washed over me. Perhaps years later, when we met again briefly.

I never did. And now I never will.

Strange how the moment you think nothing is happening in your life, something completely unbelievable turns up. Strange how no matter how hard you try to foresee all possibilities that could happen in the next twenty-four hours, something comes up, totally unpredictable. Every day is unexpected, even when you’re prepared for all kinds of eventuality.

We all know death would come, by and by. We even imagine our lives without the important people of our life. A separation. Grief. Unbearable longing. But when it happens, every preparation seems inadequate. There is a void where a person was. A clean cut. There are no more conversations, no more laughter, nothing more. There are only memories. Everything that you had planned to do with them will not happen, ever.

I could have called.

I should have called.

And now it is too late.



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The visitors had informed prior to their arrival. So there were snacks and tea waiting for them.

The old woman sat by the television which was switched off, her back supported by a pillow. The guests observed her without blinking and watched for any change in her behaviour. The old woman watched them without blinking, her eyes running from one to the other.

She asked each about their families, their children, their sick parents, their dead grandparents, their estranged siblings and their divorced spouses without any apology. She had always had the authority to ask questions. Now she was as old as she was, her authority had become her right. They replied, as carefully and blushingly and mildly as they could, sometimes keeping their eyes away from each other, sometimes trying to change the topic. The old woman made sure her questions were answered. Sometimes she pointed to the biscuits and asked them to eat.

They left after an hour, their duty as relatives done; they could visit now when she died and speak about how lucid and coherent and healthy she had been at their last visit, despite being so old and withered.

“She has no memory problems,” they said.

“I think the daughter had just made it up. She was asking us all about our families, and the people she had known long ago. She has no problems.”

“I suspect foul play.”

“The daughter doesn’t want to take care of her, it’s the same story with all old parents. Pathetic.”

“But what does spreading stories do? She has to take care of her anyway.”

“Yes, but it will make others think she’s doing a sacrifice.”

“What was that she said something about the girl being locked up?”

“I didn’t get that either. That was after the television was turned on for the news. I couldn’t hear.”

“Yes, me neither. But I thought she said, the girl is locked up and she cries at night to be let out.”

“Which girl might that be?”

“Her own grand-daughter. Who else?”

“Oh, no.”

“I didn’t see the girl anywhere.”

“The daughter said she had gone out.”

“Could be a lie for all we know.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Well, I don’t think the old woman is lying. Why should she?”

“Anyway it was a difficult and unpleasant visit, I am glad it is over.”

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The Fly

It was the Fly.

I knew for a certainty. I knew it when I saw the gigantic, black, gleaming eyes at my window – and their cold, unblinking stare.

I knew it when I heard its shriek from across the years. And somehow deep inside, I had always known it would come looking for me.

When I opened my eyes – or maybe my eyes were already open, how can I tell? – it was gone. There was nothing at the window. Merely the night, and the lights from the streets. But I knew it was there, biding its time, watching me, waiting.

The worst of it was knowing that it was not my mistake – it was not a mistake at all, it was intentional.

I had left it to die, and when it screeched, I had poured water over it.

My Mother always said that we’re allowed to kill only one being in this world. Well, she said we shouldn’t kill any living thing, of course, but I pestered her with questions: What about the cockroach? What about the mosquito? What about the fly?

Scare off the cockroach, she said. We can’t kill it anyway. It is built to survive nuclear bombs. Our poisons would only send it into a trance. Let the housefly out, she said. You can’t kill all of them – they have this employment exchange where when one is killed, the other gets the job. Just let it out.

But isn’t it unhygienic? Aren’t flies the ones spreading diseases, and so on? I didn’t want to let those creatures free.

Yes – for that we need to keep our surroundings clean, my wise Mom said. Give no chance for the flies to come. That’s how we solve that issue, not by killing one at a time.

What about the mosquito? I said.

Well, I think that’s the only creature we are allowed to lay our hands on. She didn’t explain any further.

So we killed mosquitoes every evening, in large numbers. The mosquito army swarmed in as soon as the sun set. We would wave the electric hunter bat, and hear the click-click-click of mosquitoes getting electrocuted. We were fascinated first and then infatuated with the operation. We fought for the possession of the bat. We took turns – every one got five minutes with the bat – and we would compare numbers, who was the best mosquito hunter? There would be a pile of dead bodies at the corner of the house every day, and a smoky smell of burnt life. When the day’s assault was over, one of us would jump over the pile to ensure that any half dead ones were finished.

Never before or since had I found such joy from massacre.

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A Medal from Once Upon a Time

“Until a few years ago, I worked as a mother.”

I raised my eyebrows and she chuckled. “Worked? you ask, incredulously,” she said. “Worked? As a mother? Worked – did you say?” More chuckles, more mirth, and more deliberation.

I waited. Surely there was more where that was coming from.

“But of course, I agree with you. How can one ‘work’ as a mother – when there is no payment in return? Moreover, how can I be a mother ‘until a few years ago’? A mother is a mother forever from the moment a certain someone makes her one.

“I know what I am saying; and I know why I say so. You may not see it the way I do; of course, you do not live the life I lived. You would argue that the payment is the little moments of joy, the little bouts of love that you receive now and then, and all that crap the world deceives you with. Only a mother gets those, you say. Dads hate to hear it, but it is the truth!

“I would not debate, for I would rather not ruin your belief in the existence of good in the world. After all, if all mothers begin to think of all the ingratitude they have had to face, the rejection, the indifference and even the insults they receive – from their children as well as the others around them – the unkind references to her parenting skills, sneaky and direct; if all the mothers of the world decide that they cannot take it anymore and just abandon their motherhood and leave, human race would be headed straight down the drain and into the ocean. What will happen to the ‘reproduce and survive’ directive from the Darwinian God? So it is an evolutionary requirement that mothers convince themselves they are the backbone of humanity, that they need to be selfless, that their child’s ill-behaviour is a reflection on their parenting skills, and that if they close their eyes for a second, homo sapiens could all fall apart. It is an evolutionary requirement that mothers kill themselves raising their kids.”

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The ten-year-old

The ten year old was unusually quiet during dinner that Dad had to ask. Ten-year-olds, especially those like her, did not sit quiet during dinner until they were yelled at.

“Anything exciting happen today?” he asked.

“No,” she said, thoughtfully examining a piece of roti before allowing it to vanish in her mouth.

“Tell me about your day.”

She paused for a long time and said, “It was as usual.”

“All the actors and extras behave themselves?” he tried to prod her. She nodded.

This was curious – it was evident that something was occupying her mind, but she was not willing to share it with him. For as long as he could remember, there was nothing she did not share the moment it happened, in excruciating detail. His little girl was growing older, and learning to keep secrets. In a few years, she would be so good at it that he’d not even notice she was concealing something. He rambled on for a while about other matters, about his work and about the people he met, pretending not to notice her silence. It was at bed time that she finally decided to disclose her thoughts. He was sitting by her side with an unopened story-book.

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Let’s Move On

This is not my story.

Any similarity between any of the characters and me is purely coincidental. Now look away from me and look at them.

For the convenience of telling this story, we’ll name them Ajay and Sangita. Let’s move on.

Move on, dammit.

Sangita lives in an apartment, the place where the story begins – the story actually begins way back; like everything else, it has a past and buildup and history, but for the sake of focus, let us assume it begins one rainy afternoon in her apartment. Things would have turned out so differently if she had not opened her door at the precise moment when her neighbour Mr Das was passing by. But she did, and he saw her agitated face and disheveled dress and, more importantly, he saw Ajay behind her, looking every bit guilty as he was, buttoning up his shirt.

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The man glared at the ten-year-old as he passed.

The boy cowered behind the Police officer.

“I’ll get you,” muttered the man, under his breath. His fist curled inside his handcuffs. “I’ll come back and get you if it’s the last thing I do.” His eyes glowered in astonishment and disbelief at his own words.

The look went far beyond the evidence and the murder, and it terrified the boy. Continue reading

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