Hari Stories – Part 2

His heart raced and palms sweated in anticipation of the punishment he was going to receive. His father had never gotten so angry with him before. He wasn’t entirely sure why he was angry either. In his head, he frantically searched for a reason. One moment he was proudly showing his parents the little transistor radio he had bought, and the next his dad was shouting at him, and raging into kitchen to get the chooral out. His mother had immediately followed his father, trying to calm him down, and placate him, while Hari stood transfixed.

It was of no use. Twenty agonizing seconds later, his father stormed back into the hall, the chooral in hand. “Put your hand out!” he barked. Hari instantly obeyed. As terrified and confused as he was, it never occurred to Hari to not obey his father. His mother was still trying to reason with his father, but Hari couldn’t really hear it. In that moment, it was just him and his father; the chooral ready to give, his hand ready to receive. There was a low whistle, and then SMACK! It hit his palm. His palm stung as though he had touched one of the smouldering pieces of charcoal in their wood-fired stove. He winced, his hand flinched involuntarily, but remained outstretched. Tears streamed down his face, more from not knowing how he had caused his father this much anger, than from the pain.

“Stop it! That’s enough punishment!” Hari heard his mother saying. “Don’t you see he’s hurting?” His father looked at his mother, then looked back at him. Hari was still looking up at him, still with the silent tears – no sobs, no drama. He looked at Hari’s mother, and after a brief while, threw the chooral behind him, turned, walked over to the settee and sat down, glowering. Hari was still standing there, rooted to the spot. “Go to your room, Hari,” his mother said, gently lowering his hand. He turned to look at her face, searching her eyes for some explanation of what had just happened.

“Go on. It’s alright. Go to your room,” she coaxed him, softly, wiping his tears. She held his shoulders and gently pushed him to help him move from the spot. Hari lowered his eyes, sniffled, and crossed the hall to his room.

The chooral lay against the wall, looking benign. It had never been used before. It was kept on the shelf above the stove in the kitchen as a potential consequence of disobedience or bad behaviour. Just that was enough.

“He’s a good boy, you know he is,” Hari’s mother said to his father.

“That does not mean he can do anything he likes.”

“No. But he doesn’t know what he did.”

“What is there not to know? He spent money. He didn’t think it was necessary for him to ask me if he could. He didn’t even tell me he wanted a transistor. He is big enough, is he not? He doesn’t need me anymore then. He thinks the vishu kaineettam he got is money he earned, for him to spend as he likes. He’s independent now, is he not?”

“You don’t mind so much when he is independent about his studies, ” she retorted, sharply. Then she softened immediately. “Look,” she continued, “he doesn’t understand that. He probably thought that by using his vishu kaineedttam he was trying not to burden you. He’s 11 years old, still a boy. He adores you, looks up to you. He’s doing what he thinks is right by you. You need to let this go. He’s heartbroken that you are so angry with him. You saw that. I know you are upset too. Just let this go.”

His father sighed. “I know his love for music. I would have bought him a transistor. A better one. Why didn’t he just tell me? He never asks for anything. Why couldn’t he just ask me?”

He got up from the settee, walked over to where the chooral lay in the corner. He picked it up and looked at it intently. “My father…he always preferred the chooral over a simple scolding when we were growing up,” he said quietly. He walked into the kitchen. Hari’s mother heard the sharp snap of the cane breaking and the sound of the pieces being tossed into the stove. His father then walked out the back door. “I’ll be back in some time,” he said as he crossed the threshold.

Hari sat at his study stable looking out of the window, absently stroking the welt on his left palm. His books lay open in front of him. The new transistor stood on the right top corner of the table, against the wall. He was still hurt and confused about what had happened a mere hour ago. The transistor didn’t matter anymore.

Outside, the light had faded, and the crickets were coming to life. Somewhere close to his window, a frog croaked, Hari broke out of his reverie. He had homework to finish, lessons to revise. He picked up his pencil and restarted the math problem that he had been working on unaware that his father was watching him from the door of the room. “Hari,” he said, as he walked in, “homework nearly done?”

“Not yet, acha. I have two more problems to do.”

“Hmmm…Are you going to show me your new transistor or not? Tell me how it works,” his father said and sat down on Hari’s bed and smiled slightly.

Hari quickly brought the transistor to his father, explaining this and that feature. His father listened with interest, and nodded.

“So it runs on power?” he asked.

“No acha, batteries.”

“Then I guess you’ll need these before you can listen to music,” his father said fishing out a couple of batteries from his shirt pocket.

“Yes! Oh, thank you, acha!” Hari’s excitement made his father’s smile wider. As Hari was taking the batteries from him, his father got a glimpse of the angry, red streak on the boy’s palm. He took Hari’s hand gently, stroking it, “Does it hurt really bad?” Hari was silent. His father looked at his boy’s face, and after a moment, leaned forward to pick up the little bottle of coconut oil from the window sil. He poured a few drops on Hari’s palm, and spread it with the lightest, most tender touch. A single tear drop fell on the back of his father’s hand.

“It’s alright, acha. Doesn’t hurt all that much.”

“Hmmm.” His father got up from the bed and walked to the door. “Make sure you’re done with your homework before dinner,” he said without turning and walked out of the room.

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Hari Stories – Part 1

He stood at the very edge looking at his toes, wiggling them slightly.  The earth felt damp under his feet. He was standing on the wall of the irrigation channel that his father had built along with the other farmers. Five feet deep, he had heard them say, and three feet across to the other side. Usually there would be at least a foot and a half between the surface of the water and the top of the channel. Not today though. Today the waters had swollen and lapped gently on the top of the wall as it flowed down the channel. And it was flowing quite rapidly too. A paper  boat would be out of sight in less than a minute, he estimated as he stood there following the man-made stream with his eyes.

Although it looked like half past six in the evening, it was only two in the afternoon. There had been warning of a thunderstorm and they had let all the children go home before the rain started. He’d come home, happy that he’d get to eat a warm lunch at home with his parents. As always, he’d changed out of his uniform and into a pair of shorts and a vest, washed his hands, feet and face and gone into the kitchen to eat. His father was already at the table set up on one side of the kitchen, along with his sister. His mother was serving rice in all their plates. He sat down quietly in his seat, and waited for her to serve him the morukootan and vegetable, and sit down to her own plate. Once she started eating, he started his meal. He was the first one to finish. As he was washing up, his father asked him to check on the cowshed and the coop to make sure all the animals were fine. “Come straight back in after that,” his mother warned him. He nodded dutifully and went out the back to first check the coop.

The cows were his friends. And now there was a little calf too. He talked to them, and patted their backs. Just as he was refilling the hay for them, the calf licked the back of his neck. A big wet sloppy kiss. He laughed loudly and playfully smacked the calf on his head. As he stepped out of the shed to head back to the house, he glanced to the fields. They were at a lower level, and from where he was stood near the shed, the paddy looked like the waves of a rocky sea. The channel snaked through the fields, dark and glistening, even as the clouds gathered overhead. “Just a few minutes,” he thought to himself.

And that’s how he ended up here – standing at the very edge of the channel, following the path of an imaginary paper boat. “Hari!!” His mother’s voice broke through the wind and his thoughts. “Hari!” She sounded worried, he thought. “Amma!” he called back. “Come back…..” The wind took away the rest of her words. “Coming, amma! Just one minute!” He looked up at the sky. It had become really overcast now. It didn’t worry him though. It was the monsoons, and he didn’t understand all this fuss about the rains.

He looked beyond the channel, beyond, as far as his eyes could see – where the paddy fields ended and the coconut groves began. The leaves were swaying wildly the in wind. It looked like some of the trees were bending all the way towards the ground. The clouds were in conversation, in their deep rumbling voices. CLAP! He saw a streak of silver strike the ground beyond the trees. The rain was starting towards him now. In that instant, he decided he would stay ahead of it and reach the house before it. He turned around – it was a good 200 meters to the slope that led to the cowshed. But the rain was still in the coconut grove, he had enough time.

He ran. As fast as he could. He knew the bunds well, knew the slippery parts, the portions where the mud was squishy wet, and jumped over them. When he reached the slope, he glanced back towards the rain. It was approaching quicker than he thought. He scrambled up the slope, using his hands to pull himself up faster. Once on top, he started running again, and didn’t stop till he reached the steps at the back door. His mother looked up from washing the dishes from lunch, and took in the panting, the grazed bleeding knee, the cuts on his hands, the soaking wet clothes, and the triumphant look on his face. “What kept you?” she asked.

“I ran ahead of the rain!” he said, grinning. CLAP! This time it sounded closer home, and the sharp drizzle turned into pouring rain. Mother and son looked out, and up at the sky.

“Go, wash up, and put on some dry clothes,” she told him, turning back to the dishes.

“Yes, amma,” he said, and walked towards the bathroom.

 

Boori-Masaal

If you are Indian, you’ll probably wonder why this, of all things, deserves a blog post. Well, I’m feeling nostalgic. And when you are feeling nostalgic, there’re very few dishes that will transport you to some part of childhood like this one. For me, its train journeys, as may be evident from the way it is referred to in our house: Station Alu. Puri with potato or Alu Masala was something we got when we were on our oftentimes-longer-than-24-hrs train journey from wherever to our “native place” Kerala. As kids, we rarely ate this combination anywhere else but in trains; at most in those train station restaurants. Mostly because the alternatives (Dosas or Bread-Omelets served with suspect-looking chutneys or ketchups) looked distinctly less attractive, and also because, Puri.

Puri was a family favorite. It was a family tradition – Sunday breakfast was always Puri unless extenuating circumstances (like not being at home because of vacations or social events) prevented its making. But, at home, we always had it with Chole or Rajma. The literally handful of times my folks made Puri with Station Alu, my brother and I frowned and grumbled through the entire meal. Station Alu was a compromise, one we were willing to make in a combination involving Rotis (again, because alternatives. In an effort to make us eat all vegetables, my folks invented some pretty ghastly dishes. For example: there was one thing they called “Red Kootan,” meaning red gravy, that was an unholy  combination of potato, carrot, and beetroot, and optional ingredients, peas and beans). Puri-Chole and Puri-Rajma were sacred combinations, not to be messed with. There are several stories in our family around this combination, including one oft-repeated legend of a 6-year-old me eating 18 Puris and a substantial amount of Chole that my mom had packed for me and my friends, by myself.

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Puri-Station Alu, ahem, Puri-Masala is a more regular component of S’s childhood. While it wasn’t a family tradition like our Sunday breakfasts, it was still one of those special dishes that they looked forward to as kids. He would make what he calls “Puri dogs” and consume them by the ..er..half dozens. Which is a lot if you consider the size of the Puris his mom makes – slightly bigger than your average hotel Puris. He still eats them like that at home actually, because its fun and because why the hell not.

Of course, with all this Puri in her parents blood, there is no way the love of them has escaped A. She is puri tarah se mad about Puris! (See what I did there? Hyuk hyuk) As much as love eating them by the 1.5 dozens, I’m not very fond of making Puris at home. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is my level of skill at making them. We shall not get into those now. Instead, we shall focus on the fact that I did make Puri-Masala tonight. A ate more than she usual would, because Puri. S enjoyed some Puri dogs inhibitions-free. And I sat sniffling (because unexpectedly spicy green chillies ok!) reliving some memories and thinking this could be a blog post.

He Slept Through It All

“What?!”

“Taken!”

“Cake and what? I didn’t hear the last bit…”

“Aargh! Will you just come out of there?!” The angel was really not used to all this stooping. “This is ridiculous! I’m too tall for this…bending and stooping…to look under the bed!” She muttered to herself.

“Err…I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I can’t anyway. I’m, how do you say, allergic, to light,” the monster replied, trying not to sound apologetic.

“What? It is still night. No light out here. Look, we don’t have time. Either you get out on your own, or I pull you out.”

“Yeah, but you folks glow, so…”

“Ugh! Fine, hold on.” The angel snapped her fingers and a moment later her brilliant flowing robes turned a deep maroon like a rich curtain falling in front of a bright movie screen. “Now can you come out?”

After a few minutes, and considerable shuffling and grunting and scratching, the monster finally appeared from under the bed. The angel had never seen a monster before. He was squarer than square, with hands and feet sticking out directly from his torso, it seemed like. His long dirty nails were a tangled mess, with bits of threads and bedding stuck between then. “That explains the scratching sounds,” the angel thought to herself. And there was like a greenish…aura, for lack of a better word, around him.

“You know, it’s rude to stare,” the monster said, looking a little abashed.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve never met a…err…one of you before,” she said, “Anyway, we don’t have much time. As you can see, the child has been taken.”

“Oh! That’s what you were saying – “Taken.” I was wondering what was with all the cake…Hold on, wait – you mean, you lost the kid?! But that’s your one and only job! Being the GUARDian angel and what not.” The monster was grinning, and picking the threads out of his nails as best he could. It annoyed the already annoyed angel.

“Not like you were successful in your duties,” she snapped.

He shook his head and tried to wag a finger. “Well, I’m only supposed to make sure they don’t walk around after being put to bed. So, technically…”

“Look, it doesn’t matter now. The point is, the kid’s been taken by the Zeigls. We need to get him back.”

“What?! You Let Aliens abduct your charge? Hahaha, this just keeps getting better and better.”

“I didn’t Let anyone do anything. And are you Actually happy about this, you…?!”

“Monster? Yeah, that’s what I am. Anyway, I don’t see why you dragged me out of there to tell me You failed at Your job. Aargh! Now I’ve got to report this…and oh! the paperwork. And here I thought angels were not supposed to be cruel.”

The angel was having a tough time trying to control the range of emotions she was feeling: anger, irritation, humiliation…“Look, please. I need your help.”

“Wait, what? Did you say you need my help? Why? You lot are as fast as thought…I’m sure that’s enough speed to catch up to the Zeigls. And then you can do your blinding light thing and…”

“That’s just it. I’m only as fast as the kid I’m with. And proximity is essential. No kid, no speed. Unlike you guys, who are, you know, independent of your charges.”

“Yes, that’s true. We are superior…”

“Different…” the angel tried to correct.

“Superior…like that,” the monster continued, “but what’s in it for me?”

“I don’t know…you’d be helping someone in need. Isn’t that reason enough?”

“Err…no. That’s a good reason Not to do it,” he shuddered and continued, “just think of all the jeering I’d have to face…”

“How about bragging rights? You’d be the monster to get closest to a child And an angel. Without getting burned or crushed or whatever it is that happens to you all when you get close to angels or children.”

“Hmmm….”

The angel brightened up, “yes, yes, appeal to his vanity,” she thought to herself. “Imagine,” she said, out loud, “you’d be the greatest, most fearless, and undeniably, the most formidable…,” here, she paused and looked down at his square one-and-a-half foot form, tangled nails and all, which reminded her of a ball of yarn after a cat was done with it, more than anything else. But she saw that her words were reaching his brain, so continued bravely, “MONSTER of ALL time!”

“Hmmm, yes. That does have some appeal,” he said, “Alright, fine, what the hell. I’ll do it. I’ll help you, out of the…err…superiority of my race.”

The angel cringed. “Great! Thank you!” She said, “Alright. Here’s the plan – you take me to the Zeigls ship, and when we are close enough to the child, I should be able to sense his thoughts. Then, I can use my powers to extract him and bring him back home.”

“Sounds simple enough, except for the logistics of How I’m to take you.”

“Yes, well, I know the height difference is a bit…umm…awkward…”

“No! Not that,” the monster said, impatiently, “the problem…is not…the height difference.” And as he said that, the room filled up with green smog. When it cleared, the coughing, sputtering angel saw the square-shaped monster had transformed into a creature almost as tall as her – still greenish but nice to look at. “Almost dapper,” the angel thought.

“As I was saying…height is not the issue. It’s how to take you without getting, err, sick,” he continued, “and by the way, it’s still rude to stare.”

“Ahem. Yes, s..sorry,” the angel blushed, “well…how about if you touched the very end of my robes? Would that work?”

“I guess so,” the monster said uncertainly, looking at her flowing robes.

“Here, I could make this bit longer…,” she said, holding up one end of her sash, “as long as you wish. I mean whatever’s a comfortable length for you.”

“Alright. Let’s give it a shot.” The monster gingerly held one end of the sash with the tips of his fingers. A jolt passed through him, and the monster hoped he’d keep his dinner down. Thankfully, the feeling passed, and he felt better than he remembered.

“Are you alright?” He could hear her voice asking him, but it sounded fuzzy or hum-y – like a song.

“Yes, I think so,” he said. He was starting to feel a bit confused. “Let’s do a trial. I’ll try to take us out of the room.”

“To the roof, if you don’t mind. Don’t want to scare the parents,” the angel said.

“Of course,” the monster, agreed. “What?!” a little voice said inside his head, “why wouldn’t you want to scare the parents?! That’s what monsters do!”

He shook his head, this was getting very muddly. “Stand still,” he said to the angel. He concentrated, and closed his eyes. The air around him buzzed.

Nothing.

He opened his eyes. They were still standing in the kid’s room. The angel was looking at him expectantly. “Let’s try one more time.” Again he concentrated, closed his eyes. This time there were a few feeble sparks. But, no movement.

“Alright,” he sighed, “I guess you need to be closer.”

The angel inched a little closer to the monster. He shuddered; he felt weaker and stronger at the same time. “We don’t have much time left,” he could hear her saying, or singing. Everything sounded like singing all of a sudden! And that irked him and made him feel good.

He’d never be able to explain what he did next, not even to himself. In a second, he was standing beside her. “Just don’t start glowing,” he said to her as the air around them started crackling. His fingertips touched hers, and then, in a flash, they disappeared.

The angel felt dizzy and then everything, including her thoughts, turned black. She fought through and slowly the darkness started to fade. When her mind finally cleared she found herself, complete with glowing robes, floating in space. She could see the Zeigls ship a little distance away, and more importantly, feel the boy’s dreams. “Good, he’s still sleeping,” she thought to herself, “but where’s the m…”

She turned around to find the monster, as though thrown away from her, face and body contorted with pain. She realized it was her robes, and instantly turned them maroon. She went as close as she dared to the monster, “Are you ok? How can I help?”

“A little better now you stopped glowing,” he said irritably, “gah! It’s the one thing I asked you NOT to do!”

“I’m so sorry,” she said, “sometimes it’s involuntary.” She felt really terrible. He seemed to be in a lot of pain. She wanted to do something to help, but didn’t know what.

He gurgled something. She leaned closer, “Sorry, didn’t catch that. What?”

“Ugh! Didn’t you say something about time running out?” he snapped, with some effort.

“Oh! Yes, of course! I’ll go get the boy.”

“Yes, go!” he muttered, as she flew towards the ship, “Give me some space.” He heaved a sigh. She was now out of sight. “Those Zeigls don’t know what they are in for,” he thought. Then he gathered his scattered, confused thoughts and screamed. As he screamed, he felt strength spread through his limbs, healing his body, toughening his muscles, extending out of his fingertips to form razor-sharp talons; till he was his full glorious self – a monster to fear.

When the angel returned carrying the sleeping boy, instead of the crumpled heap she had left, she found the almost-dapper monster floating about lazily as though on a hammock, whistling a tune, or something that sounded like a tune.

“Took you long enough,” he grinned, “Shall we back to bed then?” And before she could respond, he took her hand and flashed back into the boy’s room.

“Don’t drop him now,” she heard him say through her disorientation, and she just knew he had that obnoxious grin on his face.

She put the boy back in bed gently, pulled the covers over his arms. She turned to look at the monster, now standing a respectful distance away from her.

“Thank you,” she said quietly, and smiled.

“Oh no, thank You for screwing up at your job. Or I never would’ve had this adventure,” he said in a way that grated on her nerves.

Still, she smiled. “Happy to help in any way.”

They stood there for a minute in silence, looking at the boy. He’d, incredibly, slept through the whole thing. Probably thought it was some amazing dream. Both the monster and the angel, in their own minds, thought about how this sound sleeper had changed everything without doing anything.

“My name is Gwoirah,” the angel said, “My friends call me Goopy.”

The monster sniggered. “Goopy.”

“Moanclaw,” he said, a moment later, “I’m Moanclaw. So I guess back to work then?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Gwoirah said, as the room began filling with green smog.

When it cleared, she found the squat, square, awkward-looking monster standing at the end of the bed.

“What? Work clothes,” he said, “you know, you really need to stop staring.”

“Yes, of course. Sorry, Moanclaw. Will work on that,” she said.

“Also, yeah…ermm…my friends call me Moopy,” he said, and shuffled on under the bed.

Gwoirah smiled. “They’re not so bad,” she thought to herself as she drifted away.

 


In response to this prompt.

Hiding in Plain Sight

“Until the day I die, I’ll never forget those glassy, unblinking eyes,” she said, pausing. Then, after a moment more of looking out of the kitchen window in front of her, she sighed and resumed cutting the vegetables for dinner.

I looked around. I’d heard the story before.

“Come on, Shirl,” I said, getting up from the breakfast table in her kitchen and moving towards the bookshelf. “Let’s talk about something else. Who are the new guy and company?”

She turned around briefly to look at the picture I was looking at. “Oswalt,” she said, “Do you like him?”

“Looks alright. Married, I’m sure, judging by the ‘ready-to-run’ look in his eyes,” I said, turning around. She burst out laughing, and I remembered why I came to see her year after year. It was that laughter. Not that it was elegant, or like tinkling bells, or any of those other mushy romantic things they write about a woman’s laugh. But it was…it was honest, like everything else about her. And after a year of breathing the lie that was my life otherwise, I would crave a whiff of that honesty.

Maybe it comes from growing up together. Technically, we only ever spent summers together. The rest of the year, we lived in two different worlds. But when you’re a kid, your whole life is that summer vacation. We never talked about the rest of the year. Just picked up where we left off, as though someone had just un-paused us. The only time that unwritten rule was broken was when she first told me the story six years ago, over a bottle of vodka and three boxes of tissues.

“Another drink, Dani?” She was standing next to me, looking at my face intently. I realized I’d been staring at the collage of painting cut-outs over her desk.

“Yes, I’d like that, thanks,” I said, smiling at her.

She took the empty glass from my hand and poured me another drink. “Why don’t you sit down? You look really tired.” She handed me the glass and motioned me to the sofa. It was a small apartment, with the rooms melting into each other. The only doors were the bedroom and the bathroom doors. I looked around again. The apartment was full of her, it was her open book.

She sat on the other end of the sofa and started telling me about what she’d planned for us for the next few days. I stopped listening again. Instead, I heard a 17-year-old Shirley sobbing. It was how the summer started that year. I’d just met her parents out on the beach, and they’d said she was in her first-floor room. I found her between the bed and her nightstand on the far side of room, hugging her knees and shivering and sobbing. I felt a sharp pain in my chest and then my heart broke. Later, as I sat there next to her having moved the nightstand more to the corner, holding her, I looked around the room trying to understand what had happened. Nothing seemed out of place.

I snapped back to the present. She was still talking about plans for the next few days, and all I wanted was to sit squeezed between the bed and the nightstand, sobbing, with her holding me close.

“Or we could just stay home,” I said.

“And do what? You hate the indoors.”

“We could talk.”

She smiled. “About what? What do you want to talk about?”

We could catch up. We never catch up. We only meet and do things together. We could talk about what happened in the meantime, I wanted to say.

“You never told me why you stopped sketching.”

She laughed again. “You never asked,” she said playfully. It made me smile.

***

I couldn’t sleep. I got out of bed and found myself once again staring at the collage above her desk. A portrait of the man of sorrows; a pair of hands; the feet of a kneeling man, the portrait of a Venetian woman, another old woman, a few self-portraits of an intense looking artist. And there, almost covered by all the other pictures, was a sketch – a half-finished female nude.