Fuelling ambition | Fiction

"Get the inventory in order!" I heard the manager bark as I busied myself before the long line of customers.

I glanced up at Marianne for a brief moment, in between getting the change for the middle-aged, portly man, who leaned heavily at the counter, clutching packets of Marlboro in his short, stubby palm.

“Fasst…hon…you think I’ve all day?” He winked at me, his breath reeking of alcohol.

Repulsed, I banged the coins on the counter and waved him away.

Marianne held the inventory chart clumsily in the left hand, cradled a phone between her neck and left ear while simultaneously ticking off the items on the list with her right hand.

“Yeah, Sweetie..today’s when we get your baseball cap and gloves” Marianne now spoke breathlessly over the phone. She hung up a little abruptly, pushed a few Coke cans back and forth on the shelf.

“Something’s always missing,” grumbled Marianne, her frown deepening as she counted and re-counted. "Shit, I need the money!" She swore loudly.

I had a déjà vu at that moment when I was the new junior attendant at Costco. I'd patiently wait for salary day and feel a stab of pain to find the already paltry sum reduced, to compensate for the items that would routinely go missing during my shift.

I kept looking for something more than the missing item.

I’d pour the frustration into my cello lessons and draw out melancholy notes that, my faithful listeners insisted, tugged at their heart. I chose to believe them. Music filled out the empty spaces in my life.

When Marianne joined six months back, I found someone I could share the work misery with. We savoured our 15-minute lunch break outside the store. It provided us downtime, enough to simply breathe and recoup for the next few hours of stifling work and humiliation at the hands of the always harried and often entitled customers.

The foil crackled as Marianne tore opened the packet. She frowned as she took a bite of her cold tuna sandwich. Sweat had stuck her front curls to the forehead like a sort of headband. She looked at my box of hash browns and some salad with extra mayonnaise dressing. It wasn’t the usual fare of bland rice and stew. She raised her brow at me and I quickly explained,” made a few extras at the musical gig last weekend.”

“It helps to have some talent or at least brains to escape this,” She jerked her head at the store.

“Say, Marianne…” I hesitated while fishing out a crumpled piece of a pamphlet from my overcoat pocket. “What do you think of this?”

Her eyes opened wide as a saucer and she snorted, her entire body rippling with laughter. “You serious? Had I the patience…would’ve finished high school long back.”

I felt a hot flush rise to my cheeks. “Yeah..bad idea, maybe,” I mumbled and hastily thrust the piece of paper, now smudged with the remnants of cream from my fingers, back into my pocket.

I turned to my cello that night. Every right note spoke to me about perseverance and passion.

*
My stomach lurched at the smallish farewell gathering on a crisp morning a month later. My voice trembled slightly as I spoke about finding a job as a part-time cello teacher at a high school.

My manager and colleagues clapped like automated robots as I took a deep breath and added to say that I also planned to finish school. I glanced at Marianne and she wore a blank expression. My throat went dry and I wondered if it was too late to laugh out loud and say, “Gotcha!” Yet, hearing my own words gave me strength.

I placed the battered pamphlet on Marianne’s desk, grabbed my keys and dashed out of the station before my knees crumbled under the stress.

***


Seeking little joys


Anjana’s stubby fingers bristled as she caressed the edges of the woven straw hat. A thin red satin ribbon was wound at its base, with a neat bow. The hat was two sizes large for her. But, she didn’t mind. She simply loved to touch it or see it hung over the nail above the rectangular mirror in her room.

“Whose is that?” Ma asked. They rarely owned pretty things so it stood out.

“Oh, Mary Amma gave it to me,” Anjana lied. Fortunately for Anjana, her Ma had more pressing duties like making sure the next meal was on the table than cross-verifying facts.

“Sajita Chechi has had a girl,” Ma updated as she rolled out chapatis.  She muttered to herself, “Again. .Ah, poor Chechi, God knows how she’s going to fare with 3 girls now!”

Anjana looked up quizzically at Ma. She wondered how Sajita Chechi’s news was relevant to her.
“It’s been a rough delivery. I've been asked to help her out. I’ll get double pay,” Ma continued. Anjana nodded.

Double pay meant overtime, although the pay never seemed enough. Ever since Pa died at the construction site two years ago, Anjana’s conversations with Ma meant exchanging important information in bits and slices. Worry lines creased Ma’s forehead and her mane was streaked in silver. Anjana had learned to befriend silence.

Anjana walked up to the mirror. She reached up on her toes to place the hat on the nail. As she looked at the hat, now settled crookedly on the nail, she felt a stab of shame and guilt wash over her.  It was Mary Amma’s daughter’s hat. But, neither Mary Amma nor Suju Chechi had given it to Anjana.

Suju Chechi had arrived that summer morning. Brightly coloured suitcases dotted the living room. Excited chatter filled up the spaces. Chechi’s girls bumbled in and out of the corridors, clamouring for attention. Sugary fragrance wafted through, followed by the scent of crispies fired in aromatic coconut oil. Delicacies were being laid out one by one on the kitchen counter. Ma was a superb cook and was usually summoned by the locals for special occasions including annual visits of their children from foreign shores.

Anjana had accompanied Ma that day at work, a rare occurrence. Mary Amma had insisted that they partake of the feast and celebration.

The bewitching headgear was lying in one corner, almost abandoned. Anjana’s eyes lit had up at its sight, a pinkish shade of sunset; it was beckoning her. She imagined her to be a little princess, adorning the hat, astride a white handsome horse. 

Her heart had pounded in her chest as she slunk away with the treasure that day.

A harmless trick, she thought. Soon her wooden chest was filled with knick-knacks that had all called out to her with equal urgency. She vaguely felt a sense of wrongdoing each time but also got emboldened and revelled in the merriment.

“It’s not my fault. They hypnotize me,” Anjana argued with the voices in her head that shamed her.

“The Gods will be angry!” the voices bellowed this time and Anjana felt a cold sweat trickling down her nape. She decided to seek mercy, at the local temple.  She woke up early and washed her hair. She wore the cleanest and best dress she owned, a red and brown checked hand-me-down frock with a brown belt.

Ma had been surprised but agreed to let her go to the temple. Anjana stopped to buy a string of Jasmine for the temple deity. " 2 strings for 30, buy 3 for 50." a voice behind the crowd called out. Silks swished, bangles jangled, as women jostled to get their bunch of fragrant flowers.

Anjana stood rooted to the spot, her hands were hooked in the belt, as though she could prevent them wanting to roam. The sunny Chrysanthemums whispered, casting their spell on her. They sat in neat bunches along with the Roses and Polianthes just behind the bundles of strung Jasmine and Oleanders. How they glisten with the dew!They must feel like silk..noo..I must not touch

“And, what does this young lady want?” The flower-seller turned towards Anjana, her wizened face crinkled with a smile. 

Anjana answered truthfully, “Just a bit of joy.” In her right hand tucked behind, was a single stalk of a yellow Chrysanthemum.

***


Rewind. Pause. Play


“Let’s see if you can imitate well.” His eyes would twinkle as he’d challenge me to a game he liked to play with me.

“Yesss, let's!” I loved to play with thatha.

He would then hum or whistle a series of complex notes and urge me to reproduce it. He’d listen to me, as I sang with near precision, with pride-filled eyes. As a child, I always refused a direct request to sing for an audience, even if it was family. This was his way of making a diffident young kid break out of her shell and find wings.

Ironically, I won my first ever award at a music competition the year he passed away. The void he created can never be filled but thatha’s presence lingers. Each time Amma makes Jeera rasam, I'm reminded of his musical parody about this comfort food and my face breaks into a smile. Every time I sing or listen to “Jagat Janani”, the kriti in his voice plays in my head; I’m aware it’s the only recorded song, a precious souvenir we have, in his melodious voice.

But, the years have piled on heavily and created a foggy path between me and memories of thatha. It’s as though a videotape of yesteryears has grained out except for bits of clear scenes: His serene face during the daily and elaborate morning poojai; his slender frame supported taut against the wall as he rested his almost bald head on the soft mattress, his supple body belying his age; his easy laugh revealing the slightly crooked line of teeth as he’d narrate funny stories or played silly games with me as I sat on his lap. I’d count his worry lines as they stacked up tall when he raised his eyebrows. I’d look on with a silly grin as he stuck his tongue out blowing air and making it vibrate. He could bend his palm easily enough for the fingers to touch the back of the hand. And, this would fascinate me to no end. He never denied a “once more” request to the inane games I loved and which, I now realize, can exasperate an adult.

When he left without a warning, I felt cheated, robbed of a doting grandparent who could’ve easily lived for many more years. That night of intense grief and unending tears is etched forever. I had slept from the sheer exhaustion of unrestrained sobbing and the shock of seeing the lifeless body of a person I so dearly loved. In my semi-wakeful state, I dreamt that he was still alive and the whole thing was a mistake. It was a dream that recurred in the many months to follow.

Years later, my mother confessed to experiencing a similar dream as mine. Many a time, I’d catch Amma’s eyes go all misty when an old photograph, a song or a recipe scraped at the scab of a wound that never healed completely.  She had lost a parent and her pain was deeper. Her stories of him shine a light on the person who quietly did his duty never expecting anything in return. I can completely imagine him being that person. When extended family and friends speak of thatha, it is easy to believe that he had touched them all, in many ways, by his genuine goodness. I’m bitter about not having an exclusive story to tell.

The pain has been numbed with passing years. But, the fragmented memories spring upon me when I least expect, bringing on a dull ache. I imagine how it would have been to watch my son play in his arms as I once did, to trust his sapience during my troubled adult phases in life, have him cheer me on, or watch his face erupt in joy at my small achievements.

I cup the sepia-tinted impressions together, worried they might crumble to powder. I’m desperate to piece them all together for eternity.


Choosing perfect pots and pans



To some, moving houses come as naturally as shedding skin to snakes. I admire the former's ability to wrap themselves with the new and blend into established territories like they have always belonged. I think of myself as someone who craves for newness but equally loath to part with the familiarity. The uncertainty of the foreign fills me with apprehension as well as anticipation. Fitting in has never been my favourite activity and I wonder if disparate elements can be fused together to create an agreeable flavour.

As I prepare myself to detach myself from the veneer of my home, I spend my time mentally stripping it of the memories it holds. I gather my belongings, the collectibles, the memorabilia that speak of the many travels, a shared life with my family, and a keen love for all things colourful and antique. In my head, I imagine various empty houses, not mine, where they will be placed to recreate an environment I call home.

I care less for the polished white interiors that gleam of a perfection I’m afraid to touch. I crave for warm hues to intertwine their fingers with the cracks in the wall winning me over with their conspiratorial smile. For, they are witness to our secrets, our laughter, our worries, and our decisions. I like to meander in long corridors, tracing out the dust collected on the frames of our candid photographs hung in random order. I allow the vacant spaces to be filled before they are infused with the aroma of love, laughter, coffee, and marinated with a mixture of friends-new and old, of mindless banter and serious debates.

Sometimes you have to give up the labour of love because it’s time for new birth pains. And yet, at other times, the creations do not turn out as intended; much like my trysts with cooking in the initial years of my wedded life. Armed with all the right ingredients, I’d try to add the flavours one by one as I remembered my mother doing it for years. Yet, the result would be vastly off. I had once lamented to her about how my cooking does not taste like hers although I use her spices and follow her recipes. She smiled, her eyes twinkling with a secret she was about to reveal. “Sometimes, the pans and pots are not right!” I looked on incredulously. “Yes,” She continued in a tone that meant she wasn’t joking. “It takes some experience to know that a shallow pan is usually the culprit behind curry mishaps and that a pot of sterner mettle is the best accomplice to dish out that perfect biryani. Sometimes, our love and energy need to find the right home to create the ambience we are seeking.”

As my thoughts meander, my mother’s words seem to ring with newfound meaning. I’m fuelled by a new surge of enthusiasm as I look forward to making newer connections and friendships. I’ve been wary of the latter as I find myself cocooning into a space that very few people are able to enter. I make acquaintances but I’m careful in choosing my friends. Growing up, I'd always worried about the kind of impressions I made on people. I hesitated before asking for help for I worried about imposing myself. Social gatherings had me looking on from the fringes, waiting for a smile, a nod or acknowledgment before I extended my own hand. Not surprisingly, I was never a part of any cliques.

I later went on to experiment with my true nature and feelings many a time until they found a solid home in the hearts of a handful of friends that are almost my shadow now. They have my back as I have theirs at all times, good and bad. Yet, setting aside these, I’ve failed to recreate the delicacy of friendship. I have fewer friends today than in my younger years and cliques are as elusive as ever. Despite my best intentions, I’ve ended up burning my fingers or licking the vestiges of friendships gone sour and bitter. However, today, I’m content with knowing that my methods weren’t incorrect.

It’s all about choosing the perfect pots and pans. 

****

Of self-respect and other things


R was called a loser by his best friend today. I was standing right there. I instinctively told the friend (nicely) that it wasn't a nice thing to say. The friend looked embarrassed and mumbled something. I let it go. It kept playing at the back of my mind, though. My son showed no signs of having felt bad but when I later spoke to him about the incident, he confessed that he did not like it. Why did he not, then, take offense? I asked. He simply shrugged.

How do I even begin teaching an eight-year-old about self-respect? I wondered. In many ways, I realized, he is like me when I was his age. Or perhaps, many kids this age are like this-holding friends in high esteem, eager to please and anxious to enter their good books. Even at the cost of getting hurt, literally and otherwise. He might eventually learn, without my intervention, that this is not the best thing to do and that his self-respect should always come first.

"Stand up for yourself," I sermonized to the boy who was now looking keenly at me. In my mind, several voices spoke out. "Am I over-reacting? They are after all just a bunch of 8 and 9-year-olds," said one voice. "Whether you're eight or eighty, you cannot have anybody trampling your dignity and self-respect," spoke another, aghast at the first. Call it a mother's heart, I felt a need to sensitize R towards his feelings. I realized the key to it came from within you. For, even before you learned to take a dignified stand or fight back as the situation demanded, you needed to identify the red flag situations.

I softened my words to convey that no matter how important the friend may be in his life, he/she had no right to say mean things or make him feel small and inadequate. When that happens, it's a clear indication to put his foot down even if that meant letting go of a friendship. I resisted the urge to add that not just in friendships, you should always find the courage to walk away from people and situations who do not value you. But, some lessons would have to wait. Others could be taught only by life.

R did not look too convinced. Perhaps, the last bit of having to forgo a cherished friendship bothered him or maybe the whole conversation didn't make too much sense, as yet. I had to contend with letting it go at this stage. I'd have to, in all likelihood, revisit this lesson many times in future. Some kids are equipped with sensors to effectively deal with threatening situations. Others, like mine, need extra fittings because they are too eager to please.

I've been, of late, a witness to many a disturbing trend amongst kids. Conversations are always about being one up on the other. Sample this:

"Know what? I'm reading 'A' book." says one with obvious pride in his voice.

"Oh, what's the big deal? I already finished that one last grade! The boy in the end...." replies the friend squeezing all the emotions out of the first and also spoiling the book without remorse.

"So, do you know what happens to this character in this movie?" asks another gloating over the fact that he had watched a movie that wasn't exactly meant for kids.

"Ya, of course, it's...." says the second not wanting to be left behind.

"Dude, you know nothing. It's nothing like that. I don't think you even watched it!" the boy smirks and laughs aloud.

Tender feelings are unceremoniously hurt by one, the victim then generously passes on the baton to another. For, that's how they all learn it. Meanness is more contagious than goodness. Kids being mean and forming cliques is age-old. But, this is something else. Even a silly tete-a-tete about the activities at school results in mindless debates about who has it better.

I can't even begin to wrap my head around the general obnoxious bragging about brands and gadgets. Who's teaching them the difference between a Mac and a Windows 10? How do they know about owning an iPhone is considered high amongst other status symbols? We do not discuss gadgets at home or own anything fancy other than a mid-end smartphone. I suspect (although I reckon that the peer education system is far more effective and up-to-date) R has no clue about a Mac or the latest high-end smartphone in the market.

I sometimes feel like the world has leaped two generations ahead when I was not looking.



The cosmos and I


It's a usual day in the household. I wake up after hitting the snooze button a couple of times. The inky blue sky outside is about to burst into a bright shade of daylight. I know it's only a matter of a few minutes. Is the darkness aware, I wonder, of the simmering ball of fire underneath the surface that's about to erase its identity? The rays either sneak its way, without a fuss like a blushing bride, casting a warm glow all over or scream for attention like a melodramatic model, throwing generous doses of orange and pink kisses to the night that gracefully recedes into oblivion. Does the night ever resent the day for its ability to make heads turn its way each morning?

On some days, my mind is free from the mundane clutter and I receive the bounty of nature with a smile, my hands cupped in gratitude. Most other days, I ignore the drama in the sky.  A teasing interplay of the cosmos, filled with life lessons for those who care to seek. It would never matter to the day or the night whether I partake in their intimate discussions. I could choose to be a part of their clique, but if I did not, I certainly wouldn't be missed.

As I set the milk to boil on one stove and watch the veggies sizzle on the other, I take a deep breath, a reminder to myself. I could afford, today, to sip my coffee in the quiet darkness, letting the caffeine work its way slowly into wiping off the traces of sleep-induced lethargy. I savour these brief moments of languidness before I get consumed by the regular drill of routine life.

I play the roles of a mother, wife, homemaker. These are impressed finitely upon my person like the thick primary lines on my palm. The other fine lines criss-cross and intercept the primary ones but taper off abruptly; an eerie reflection of my life. For, every so often I seek out the person who might be someone other than these titles. Not out of any feeling of inadequacy but perhaps a curiosity to find out if there was a person ever waiting to be discovered. I fancy calling myself a person of importance - a freelancer, a blogger, a writer- at various points but they remain transient. They tempt me with a sense of purpose but I find myself retreating to the familiar and comforting territories of my primary roles each time these turn into shackles.

It is then, I realize, the feeling of importance that appeals to me. The ego bloats up in the know that my contribution makes a difference to someone out there and I add value. The fallacy of it all dawns sooner or later and I realize that I'm just a speck in the sea of humanity. I could be flicked away and just like my place in the cosmos, the world will only carry on in my absence, cleaner and lighter.