Wednesday, February 4, 2015

It's a freezing cold night....

Prompt:It's a freezing cold night. Shiela finds a family on her doorstep and invites them into her home to sleep. The next day the family does not leave.


It was freezing cold outside, the temperature had suddenly dipped below zero. Sheila had gone to check on the main door, a habit she had acquired when her daughter, Nitya left home for further education.


She was now living alone in the house, her husband, being an army officer was posted to different parts of the country every three years. Initially, as a young bride she had accompanied him but later for Nitya's school education and her own job at the local college, she decided to stay permanently in one place.


Sheila, was just about to switch off the light of the entrance when she heard the sound of a child crying outside her door. She opened the door to find a young couple with a small child in their arms.


The mother had covered herself and the child in a thin shawl and the man in a torn kurta and worn out pajamas was shivering in the cold. Shiela immediately told them to come inside her house. She switched on the heater and ran in for a thick blanket to cover the little one, while Anita the maid was told to make hot tea for the couple and organize a hot water bottle quickly.


The next hour was spent in warming up the child who had nearly stopped breathing. Luckily the child was fine after sometime and started sucking at her mother's breast.


By the time Sheila settled the couple and the child, it was nearly mid-night. Herself, feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, Sheila told Anita to put them in the spare bedroom across the garden, which had been occupied by the live-in gardener, Ram khush. Ram Kush was away for a month to get his daughter married.


Shiela woke up in the morning to the voice of the child's whimpering and remembered the incident of the night. She got ready for college and went into the kitchen for breakfast and found the couple seated on a mat on the floor and Anita was serving them tea and bread.


Anita, quietly came over to her and whispered, "They say they have nowhere to go." Sheila had not prepared herself for this situation, she had housed them for the night not realizing what she was getting into.


Not knowing how to deal with the situation, Shiela, acknowledged the couple with a nod, said quietly, "We will discuss this further in the evening," and left for college.


When Sheila returned home that evening, she was in for a big surprise. The front lawn had been mowed and cleaned, the pots and the gate had been freshly painted. The man was washing the leaves of the tree with a pipe. Anita, took her quietly to the back of the house and she saw the woman cutting mangoes for making pickle while the little kid crawled on the floor.


The house appeared to be bursting with energy, as if the couple had always been a part of the house.


After eating dinner that night Sheila with an envelope that contained cash, walked to the couple's room and thanked them for their hard work during the day.  


The man promptly replied, "We are poor but we still like to earn and feed ourselves." The woman folded her hands and mumbled her appreciation for providing them with shelter for the night. "Our child would have died if you had not taken care of us last night," she said quietly, with tears in her eyes.


Sheila was wondering what to do next, when she felt a tug at her shawl. She turned around to find that the child, had crawled up to her and was pulling her shawl with her tiny fingers. Sheila looked at her smiling and innocent face and was suddenly reminded of Nitya's childhood. Nitya too would pull her sari when she left for college every day. Often, Sheila had to bribe her with a piece of chocolate to distract her. 


Sheila, bent down to hug the child and closed the door behind her. She walked back to her house with the envelope still in her pocket.


Sheila could hear her phone ringing in the house and she knew it was a call from her daughter Nitya. Sheila was suddenly excited, there was so much to tell her daughter. She knew Nitya would understand and would be happy to find someone to share her chocolates with, when she came home next week for Christmas.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Prompt: They came back every year to lay flowers at that spot.

They came back every year to lay flowers at that spot.

From the day we lost dad, our mother was never the same person. Her plants lay neglected in the balcony, the half knitted cardigan with the wool and needles seemed to have been forgotten. All her interest in the kitchen and other household chores was over. She even stopped chatting with her neighborhood friends when she went for a walk. Her transformation from a lively and energetic person to a dull and listless one shook the family completely.

Saddened to see the change in  her, we even consulted a doctor, who advised us to give her time to heal herself. The situation remained the same for many months and nothing seemed to interest her till one winter afternoon when she saw a small puppy abandoned near the gate of the colony.

Her grand-daughter, Pallavi, who was spending the day with her, quickly suggested, "Let us take him with us. He looks starved and so dirty."

Pallavi was right, a bath, a bowl of milk and bread revived the little pup completely. Mom seemed to be suddenly  in command. "We should consult a vet and get him his inoculations", she suggested.

Mother being an animal lover we always had a pet dog while we  were growing up. "It makes you a better person and more compassionate", she felt.  Whenever she found time she would sit with our dog, "Kitty", and remove her ticks and brush her coat.  We were encouraged to take Kitty for her daily walks.  As children we often complained, "Kitty is mom's favorite child".

The little stray puppy was named "Shadow" and in reality he lived up to his name. He would follow mom everywhere. He slept on the stool next to her, would sit at her feet in the living room and wait outside her toilet when she went in for a bath.

Slowly, mom appeared to be more like her old self. We could hear her talking to the dog and . disciplining him when he was naughty. Pallavi who had begun to spend a lot of time with mom, would giggle and say, "Shadow has now started misbehaving like us. I enjoy hearing the way he is being scolded by nani all the time." Not only her, we too were reminded of our own childhood.

Shadow had become mom's constant companion. All her waking hours were spent with him. . When she visited us for lunch or dinner, the dog was also extended an invitation. He continued to hog all her attention for her remaining life.

During her brief illness while she was confined to bed, he did not move from her room. It was difficult to even take him out for his daily walks. 

When we lost mom, Shadow refused to eat for several days. I took him home and he lived with me till he died some years later. Every year on his death anniversary we lay flowers at the spot where we buried him in our backyard. However, we all realize that we can never thank him enough for giving our mother a purpose to live for, during the last few years of her life.                    

Monday, January 5, 2015

The garden was overgrown now (writing prompt)

The garden was overgrown now and hid the cottage completely. The unpruned Bougenvillia had spread and a  web of thorny stems, leaves and flowers had grown all over the gate and the boundary wall. I could see dirty green moss sticking out of the grill and there was a rusted iron handle staring at me.

"Is this the Red and Blue cottage you told us about", asked my nine year old daughter, Ananya.

"Oh mom you were so lucky! You grew up in a house surrounded by a jungle", screamed, Ajit, my 6-year-old son, running towards the old gate.

My husband, Ajay, and I had settled in San Francisco ten years ago and our visit to India had brought us to this old house in the outskirts of Shimla. It was true that I had grown up in this red and blue house, where my father, a writer had written most of his award winning books, and mom had worked in the local school to keep herself busy.

My parents had moved into the cottage when I was a couple of years old. My younger sister was born in  this very cottage. My earliest memories are of mom sitting in the bright sunshine in the open verandah and me on the swing hung from an old tree near the boundary wall.

 My Red and Blue house had been a delightful place. Clean wooden flooring with rugs from the local market spread all over, an old but functional fireplace in the living room and the warm, large kitchen with Maya, our maid, always eager to shoo me out. Of course, I never went away without a few cookies in my hands.

A wooden creaking staircase took us to the three bedrooms on the first floor of the cottage. I remember the branches of a tree peeping through my window. Mom always found it difficult to shut that widow because the branch had grown many more branches, and pushing them back to shut the window was quite an effort for her. The window sill was my favorite spot. I loved the tree and envied the squirrels dancing on their toes and birds chirping away happily.

I often imagined wild things in the night. One night I dreamt I had climbed out of the window and a bird with large green and pink wings had carried me into the hills with full moon keeping us company. I woke up that morning to Maya's banging on my bedroom door disappointed that my journey had been cut shot. The whole day I had been cranky and upset till night came and with the darkness some more exciting dreams.       

Some of the stories I tell Ananya and Ajit are the ones I had dreamt as an eight-year-old and were so lovely that I never forgot them. 

In school, I was a day boarder, but children came to study from all over the country and they stayed in the school hostel. I had plenty of friends who stayed there. Often I felt sad going back home and leaving them behind to their exciting lives in the dormitory. However, my devious mind found innovative ways to contribute from behind the scene. Once I left a Christmas gift for the warden on the doorsteps of the hostel. It was a beautifully wrapped shoe box with a semi conscious frog inside. We had dissected the same frog in the Zoology lab in the morning. The whole hostel was in splits but only a few had been let into my secret plan.

I was a born leader but not really a bossy type. My friends were proud of my risk taking ability and depended on me for advice. I had this wonderful story telling talent. I managed to make every situation hilarious and sound real. Often I forgot the original plot after weaving so much imaginary stuff around it. I plotted with my friends all through my years in School. We did get into trouble with our school teachers and get punished on various occasions. However, most of it was harmless mischief done to get over our day to day class-room boredom.

I so very much wanted to be a boarder like my friends that I wished hard that my parents would move to some other city. My parents stayed put and it was I who moved over to Delhi to study Economics after finishing school. All my friends had left for different places and the cottage was not much fun anymore.      

Coming back to the red and blue cottage with my children Ananya and Ajit had brought a flood of memories. My mother had moved in with my sister in Singapore, after we lost our dad. She visited me often but never spoke about our life in Shimla.

I think she felt a deep pain when my dad died suddenly of a heart-attack and she could not get him to the hospital in time. For miles and miles around the cottage there was no medical facility available. Both being in good health had somehow assumed they would never fall sick.

Standing outside the now rusted cottage, I felt an urge to break open the past and enter my forgotten childhood again. Ajit and Ananya had never seen their grandparents home. 

A couple of months later, I had a surprise for my sister. I sent her a mail with pictures of our freshly painted and renovated childhood home. I had spent all the money my mother had left us both to get the job done. Luckily I  had traced an old friend of my father who lived in the city. His son was an interior designer who had recently converted an old heritage property into a five-star hotel in Shimla. He was now interested in working for himself and we thought he would be the right person for renovating the cottage for us.

I had given him only one instruction, "Let the soul of the cottage live".

With the grass around cottage gone so are the cobwebs in my mind that had tormented me for so many years. I had always felt awful that we were so far away when my dad died, leaving my mother to deal with it alone.  I feel I have begun to live again. Whenever, I visit the cottage  I can feel the warmth and presence of my parents there.                

Even in San Francisco I dream about the red and blue cottage. The tree peeping through the window and the squirrels and birds dancing on the branches.  In fact, my story telling ability has matured and has become more real. Only my audience is different. Earlier it was my school mates and now it is Ananya, Ajit and little Suhani, my sister's daughter whenever she visits us.

Every  year, both me and my sister spend a month in the cottage, reliving our childhood with our children. I do not know how long we will be able to manage these vacations but till the time we can we want to make the most of it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

letter in the alley

Prompt: Waiting to catch the bus you see a young boy look both ways before entering an alley. When you follow him into the alley, he has disappeared. Instead, there is a note lying on the pavement. What does it say and how do you react?

I picked up the note wondering where the boy in red-check shirt had disappeared all of a sudden. It was  a narrow, badly lit alley and to read the note I had to go under a street light.

The night was windy and I clutched the piece of paper scared I might lose it. The note read, "I have run away from 'Uddhar', the orphanage I was sent to after my parents died. The warden is a bad man and wants to catch me so that I do not go to the police for help. My name is Ramesh. Please save me."

The handwriting was of a ten year-old child. I wondered what I should do. Should I go to the police and ask for their help in tracing the boy or come back later in the morning and look for him myself.

I decided on the latter. Next day I was back with my friend Usha, who worked in urban slums and with street children. We decided to move around pretending to be conducting a general survey. In our khadi kurtas and jholas and with cameras hanging over our shoulders, we looked the typical volunteers from an NGO. The next move was to get all the children out of their homes on some pretext.

"We are making a film on children and want all the children to participate. Each child will get a gift for attending the session", announced Usha, to the women near the hand pump. There were several children around helping their mothers and they ran excitedly towards Usha. In a couple of hours we had fifty children auditioning for various roles. As the cameras kept rolling, we waited for that one boy  whom we had come to rescue.

Both Usha and I grew worried by late afternoon. Had we taken too much into our hands. We were not sure whether going to the police would have been a better option. Just when we were about to wind up for the day, we heard a voice, "Will you audition me"?

From behind the tea-stall a small head appeared, "Is it going to be like the Slum dog millionaire?" he asked. "Of course, it could be something similar," replied Usha, happy to be the next Mira Nair.

I knew instinctively that the head belonged to Ramesh, the boy who had written the note. He had been there right in front of us, hiding, watching us work with the children throughout the day, taking his time to trust us. He came forward slowly, and looked into my eyes and smiled. His face looked  innocent but the bruises on his neck, hands, feet revealed the torture he had experienced. Usha, looked at me and whispered, "Should we now go the police?"

For some unknown reason I could not reply. "Let me take him home for now. He needs to take a bath, eat food and sleep comfortably. We can decide tomorrow." I heard myself say after a few minutes.

 Being a single forty-year-old woman I had been chasing adoption agencies to adopt a child for the last six months. Here was Ramesh, a child who needed a home, a mother and love. Was it  destined that I find Ramesh and take him home away from the cruel, and unsafe world into which he had been thrown after his parents died? Usha, guessed my thoughts from my expression. "Let me take a picture of you both together."

 The next morning there was a post from Usha. She had sent a picture, she had clicked the day before, with a message that read, "Letter in the alley has finally reached its right destination." In the frame were a smiling Ramesh and me looking like a family already.        

Friday, July 25, 2014

First snowfall

Prompt: It was the first snowfall of the year.

Much to our delight, the weather throughout the week had been sunny and bright. The first snowfall of the year, as predicted by the weatherman, seemed nowhere in sight.

So when my daughter, Sonali, called up to tell us that she was driving home over the weekend I saw no reason to dissuade her. The three hour drive from college to our house was something she had got used to doing over the last couple of years.

"There is no chance of a snow storm at least this weekend," I had told her jokingly on the phone.

I spent the morning baking her favorite banana cake and some spicy chicken curry for lunch. She was going to start after breakfast so I was expecting her home by lunch time. However, I had barely finished cooking that I realized, it had become dark outside, there was a sudden strong gush of wind and within minutes it started snowing.

I immediately tried to reach her on her mobile but there was no signal. Finally, I gave up after trying her several times. By now my nerves were on edge as I knew she was still an hour away from home.

Meanwhile, I noticed a car had pulled-up near our house and a young girl with a bag and umbrella stepped out of the car looking completely lost. I waved to her to come in. She looked a bit hesitant and then decided to accept my invite.

"I am Angela. I was feeling scared driving in so much snow. Thanks for letting me into your house", she said as she entered.

I realized, Angela was my daughter's age and she too was driving home for the week-end. We spent the rest of the day chatting about the college she attended and her family. In the night, while I prepared the guest room for her, I prayed to God to take care of my daughter too.  Sonali's mobile had not responded from the time the storm had started and there was no other way of contacting her.

Surprisingly, by morning it had cleared completely. Angela was packed and ready to go. She thanked me and left a note with her phone number and a picture of her family.

Angela had barely driven out when I saw Sonali drive in. I rushed out to greet her. She looked cheerful and happy as if nothing had happened during her journey. Once inside the house she excitedly told me about the family with whom she had spent the night. She recounted how her car had suddenly broken down in front of a house and the lady of the house had invited her in.

"There are still good people left in this world. She was so kind to me. In fact, her own daughter was stuck in the storm and she could not reach her on her mobile," she said.

I was about to tell her about Angela when Sonali's eyes fell on the picture Angela had left behind. "Oh you know them? This is the family I spent the night with,"  she exclaimed.

"I was about to tell you. This is Angela, the girl who spent last night with us. Strangely, she too had stopped in front our house as she was scared to drive in the snow," I heard myself say.

Sonali and I looked at each other completely dazed at the co-incidence.      

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Prompt: He hadn't seen her since the day they left High School

Dinesh was sitting with his iPad in the coffee shop, trying to complete the article he had to submit in the afternoon. But despite, drinking two cups of  hot coffee, he was unable to concentrate on what he was writing. "Was it a writer's blog", he wondered.

Dinesh closed his eyes and tried to listen to the conversations around him. This was a habit he had cultivated from childhood whenever he felt lonely or tired. He had seen a group of girls walk in and from their chatter he knew they were sitting right behind him. He could not see them and nor could they see him. Best position for  eves-dropping.

"Oh you remember the guy who sat next to me in school, wasn't he a big show-off?" he heard a female voice from behind his chair. The others in the group giggled. "Wonder what happened to him?" asked another. "He belonged to the rich Jain family from Prithviraj road. Must be driving around in a BMW or Mercedes with his trophy wife," exclaimed someone in the group, sounding a bit jealous and irritated. " "Hey! don't make fun of him. There was a terrible tragedy in their family? I don't remember exact details, but it was all over the papers," interrupted a voice sympathetically.

The voice was so familiar, the same softness and sweetness, Could it be her? thought Dinesh excitedly.  After school had got over, she had joined a medical school in the South, while he had left for US for an under-grad program in computer science.

"Vandy, I remember you had a crush on him", he heard the irritated one say. "I think I did Anjali. But he belonged to such an affluent family. There was no future in such a relationship," replied the same sweet voice.

"Vandy, you lost Arpan five years back. How long are you going to grieve over him? You are still young, pretty and a good doctor. Isn't it time to find a companion?"asked the girl addressed as Anjali. The other voices agreed.

Dinesh, knew they did not remember his name, but he was boy they were talking about. He suddenly remembered his sprawling house on Prithviraj Road. It was in this house his father had shot himself dead. His father, a proud man, had never revealed to his family about the business debts that he had accumulated over the years, and was unable to repay. Fortunately, Dinesh had finished college by then. He came back to take care of his  mother, whom he sadly lost within a year of his father's death. The one sister he had, was married to a doctor in US, and she was busy with her own family. 

After settling his father's debts there was little left for him to do. He hated the corporate world that had taken away his father from him so tragically. So when a job offer came from his friend's father to write a column for his new publication, Times News. Dinesh gladly took the offer and soon got involved full time.

He loved the freedom he enjoyed at Times News, Delhi office. He built their development news section from the scratch and was now heading it. The job entailed long trips into the interiors of the country, to report on development issues, and many opportunities to attend international seminars and symposiums.

However, he was experiencing a strange loneliness for quite some time now. The work place seemed colorless, his one-room apartment seemed dull and even the summer break he had taken to the Caribbean had not rejuvenated him. In the last ten years, so much had happened. His best friend, Aujun Patel had decided to settled down in California. Another friend, Arvind had married his college sweet-heart and moved to Bangalore, where his parents lived, and recently his office buddy Brijesh Kumar had joined the electronic media.

The cafe where Dinesh was sitting had become quiet. He woke up from his day dreaming and realized that the group of girls, sitting behind him had already  left. He could now only hear a mother pacifying her child who was throwing a tantrum. 

Dinesh felt irritated with himself, then thought, "Oh! I  lost one chance but surely there will be many more", and pulling out his i-Pad, he went to Face Book, and searched for Dr. Vandana, Delhi. The face, he hadn't seen since they had left high school, popped up.

Looking at the pretty and smiling face on the screen, he knew she was the one he was waiting for to complete his life. He had always liked her but was too shy to tell her in school.    
Dinesh felt rejuvenated, and scolding himself for being lazy, he went back to finish his article.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The toy train

Prompt: Every morning it was the same thing for Martin Hedger. He had put on a pot of coffee and get dressed as he waited for the coffee to brew. But today, things would be different.

The toy train

Every morning it was the same thing for Martin Hedger. He had put on a pot of coffee and get dressed as he waited for the coffee to brew. But today, things would be different. His son, Kevin was visiting him after twenty years.

Kevin had left home after he lost his mother in a car crash. Martin, had been unable to hold him back. "There is nothing left for me in this house," he had told his father the night before he left for Australia to do college.

Martin had not protested as he knew he had little in common with his son. Kevin had been their only child and while Martin, a marine engineer, was always at sea, his wife Julia took care of him. The brief vacations that he took with his family were nothing to write home about. Martin seemed to be restless and bored, the sea being his first and only love.

The old man, had been skeptical when he received a cable from his son that he and his family were visiting him in a week. The house in which Kevin grew up stood neglected. Julia had been a perfect housewife but Martin after her death had been least interested in the upkeep of the house. The curtains were faded, furniture unpolished and rugs were in tatters.

Suddenly Martin felt helpless. He had no energy to do anything. The doctor had repeatedly told him to keep a check on his alcohol intake, eat at regular hours and go for walks. Martin had done nothing about it. His unshaven look made him look like a hermit.

Kevin arrived early morning with his pretty wife Jennifer, and five-year-old son, John, as he had indicated in the cable. Both father and son looked at each other confused not knowing what to say.

The disheveled state of the house had brought a frown on Kevin's face. "You knew we were coming and bringing along our son. Couldn't you get the house swept and dusted," he remarked angrily. Martin did not react immediately. "I am an old man, I just about manage my life. You have come after twenty years. It is a long time," he said softly.

Kevin saw his father's eyes brimming with tears and for a moment felt guilty. "Don't cry dad. You never wanted me here. I wrote to you several times but you were always sailing. I did not know you had retired until a month back when I met uncle Patrick, your old colleague," consoled Kevin.

Jennifer, had withdrawn quietly from the father-son duo and decided to make herself busy in the kitchen. As for John, it was an interesting house. Perfect place for a game of treasure hunt. He was sure none of his friends would find what he hid in a mess like this. He was excited as he climbed upstairs and checked-out every room.

The small room with the bunk-bed and un-painted walls was quite fascinating . The wall paper had peeled off but there were still remains of cartoon characters on the walls. Sitting in dust under the bed was a toy train. John excitedly pulled it out, pressed a few buttons, and to his surprise the train jerked into motion and made a sound like a whistle.

Martin, Kevin and Jennifer ran up on hearing the sound, fearing something had broken. Martin rubbed his eyes at the picture before his eyes. The boy kneeling beside the train was his little son Kevin.

He remembered he had got the toy train for Kevin and before they could assemble the track, he had got orders to leave with the ship. For a second his son's disappointed and sad face flashed before his eyes. Kevin never played with the toy train again and it lay abandoned in one corner of the room.

In the emotional encounter with his son, he had not noticed his grand-son, John. Martin smiled at the boy, knelt beside him, unmindful of the dust on the floor, and started building the track he had left unfinished. He knew this was his last chance to ensure that the track was restored, for the train to run smoothly, despite lying neglected for so many years.