The Definition of a Short Story

I’m a writer. I write short stories. They generally fit into the genre of science fiction. That sounds pretty simple, right? No wiggle room or anything. Before reading any of my stuff, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into. Generally, a you would expect my stories to be prose fiction running from 1500-7500 words. But what if that isn’t what you got?

A few months ago, I wrote a story that was meant to be read as a transcription of an interview. It looked like a script with dialogue and some short “stage direction”-like description in [brackets]. It was not prose. It was effectively a script. But was it a short story? I think most people would agree that it was. It wasn’t a very good story, but that’s beside the point.

The point is that you can play around a bit with form in a short story. You probably won’t have much luck trying to sell a 400-page avant garde experimental novel, but you might find a magazine willing to print a few thousand crazy-as-all-get-out words that the editor thinks passes for ‘artistic’ writing. So, yes, there is a bit of wiggle room to that side of the short story definition.

What about word count? The range I gave, 1500-7500 words, is not by any means a standard thing. At the low end, someone somewhere will make the argument for your story being ‘flash fiction’. At the high end, you start getting into the grey area of a novella. What really counts is what your publisher says. If you are trying to get a story into a magazine that defines a short story as 1000-5000 words, then that is what a short story is. You don’t get a say. But still, different magazines have different standards. So again, wiggle room.

I think the best way to define a short story is by what it DOES rather than what it IS. What do I mean by that? I’ll explain by way of a story.

Back at Christmas, my father-in-law was talking about his recent trip to Spain where he stayed with an old friend/colleague. While there, they talked a bit about the definition of an essay. The friend defined an essay as ‘an attempt’. An essay, in this definition, is an attempt to explain, express, or convince. I love this definition. It’s concise and to the point and completely perfect.

The concise, to the point, perfect definition I have come up with for a short story is AN IDEA WITH CONSEQUENCES. A short story should start with a single idea and explore it somehow. It shouldn’t delve too much into character, plot, or setting. It should just focus on a single idea and the consequences of that idea.

I had an idea a while ago: What if spontaneous genetic duplicates of humans started appearing? Put another way, what if you were walking down the street one day and you ran into your clone–someone with identical DNA who was completely unrelated to you, someone who had turned out just like you as a completely random biological event.

So that’s my idea. Now what are the consequences? What would a reality like that mean for politics, religion, science, and just basic human interaction?

I could probably develop this idea into a novel by adding compelling characters, a gripping plot, and a dynamic setting, but I’m not interested in that right now. Right now I want to write short stories. I have an idea, and I’m going to explore it. If the short story is successful (as a story, not commercially), maybe I will develop it further. But first, I need to see if it works on the small scale. I guess a short story, like an essay, is really just an attempt. Go attempt something.

A Short Story on a Travel Theme – Strangers

We arrived more than two hours later than planned, but the west of England summer light had not yet faded even to dusk. A soft golden glow was just growing across the sunset, which had just tinged a flat-calm sea beyond this tumbling village. We were tourists here, strangers in this small, tightly-knit place.

For us it was just part of a tour, a long weekend snatched in common from the clutches of our combined, ever demanding careers. I felt utterly liberated, that beautiful evening, as we walked the quarter mile or so down the steep dry cobbles from the obligatory car park into the car-less village, the deadlines and demands of advertising for once confined outside the limits of this small place. And I could tell from the spring in Jenny’s step that her battles with bottom sets in Lewisham were now further distant than our three days on the road.

There was a small gift shop, a tourist-trap trinket place, just a hundred yards along the lane. I bought the newspaper our early departure from St. Ives had denied me, my daily fix of political gossip now long established as an essential feature of my adoption into London life. I explained that we were strangers here, had driven down the side road in the hope of finding something interesting and had nothing booked.

The shopkeeper said we had just three options – the Old Hotel just down the lane, a bed and breakfast at the bottom by the harbour or the farm near the junction with the main road, back where we had turned off.

“It was different years ago,” he said, “when lots of people used to stay over, but now it’s all day trippers and holiday homes. Ten years ago we had half a dozen guest houses, but they’ve all closed down.”

The Old Hotel was just two hundred yards from the shop, at the head of the steep cove that housed the tangled triangle of the village. It was a bit beyond the price we usually paid and had AA stars framed over its reception desk, but we fell for the place and checked in, just for one night. It was the kind of mock Jacobean black and white inn, whose lack of a straight line just might have suggested it was original. But the beams were hollow and the plaque above the entrance said, “Refurbished 1958.”

“Do you have any luggage to bring from the car park?” the receptionist asked. The name tag pinned to her blouse said, ‘Hilary, Manageress’. “We have a man with a donkey and sledge who will bring it down for you.” She wasn’t joking.

I lifted our two hold-alls and said it was all we had. She smiled, offering politeness but communicating knowledge tinged with judgment. It was in an era when it was still unusual for a couple to sign in without obviously trying to appear married.

We took the key for room number six. There were only eight and the other seven keys were still hanging on their hooks when we took the lift – yes, the lift! – to the upper floor. Number six was at the back, of course, right above the kitchen extractor fan and overlooked an enclosed yard with a yellowed corrugated plastic roof. It hid an array of lidless dustbins, from which a hint of an aroma sweetened the still air when we opened the windows to encourage the previous occupant’s cigarette smoke to leave. We dropped the bags and walked down to the sea to absorb the last of the late springtime sun at its setting.

The beach was shingle and small, hard-packed against a harbour wall that extended a good fifty yards into the shallow sea. A couple of clapperboard buildings, largely rotten, clung to its prominence, their profit long past, but their structures all but remaining. There were doors missing and one structure had no interior, the uncovered entrance revealing merely sky beyond. At one time, clearly, the locals had something of a living from this place, fishing perhaps, maybe small trade, smuggling in poor times, salvage by design, who knows. And then came the tourists, the stranger trade of nineteenth century invention that evaporated when the trunk road widened and rendered the place no more than a day trip from anywhere this side of Birmingham or London.

As we walked back up the deceptively steep single track that bisected the village, we passed several open doorways seeking air on this unseasonably balmy evening at the end of May. After London everything here felt so cosy, so small, warm and unthreatening, as if the place itself were welcoming us into its embracing fold.

We saw just two other people, both descending the path, and independently both offered greeting. “Isn’t it pretty,” said Jenny. “Don’t you wish you lived here?” I declined to answer.

We ate at the Old Hotel. There was nowhere else. We ordered the grilled sole with parsley butter. Potatoes and broccoli were the ‘legumes de saison’. It took over half an hour for the food to appear. We finished the bottle of house white we had ordered to go with the fish long before even the smell of cooking wafted through from the kitchen. We got significant giggles speculating on how far out into the Bristol Channel the boat had to go to catch our order. We ate. It wasn’t bad, and then we moved across to the bar, the four steps needed to change location effectively redefining us from guests to locals. A concertina glass partition separated the areas in theory, but tonight it had been opened wide for ventilation. The rest of the evening became a tale of three women, Hilary, Sue and Sandra, all of whom have dreamt.

The hotel bar is the only place to drink, so it’s a pub, complete with its regulars. A half a dozen men are collectively and determinedly engaged in preventing the oak top from rising, their planted elbows firmly ensuring its continued sojourn on earth. They are passing the time of night with what seems to be a predictable set of platitudes. “I bought the D-reg because I thought it would work out cheaper in the long run, what with the smaller servicing bills and the like… …But you ought to do more of that sort of thing yourself and then you wouldn’t have to pay anything at all… … Yes, I know, but I just don’t have the time. Have you, these days?… …Give us another, Sandra… …You go just beyond the first turning… …Down past the egg farm where my brother used to work… …They are really cheap if you buy them by the sack… …bloody heavy, mind you…”

She is forty going on sixty, utterly contemptuous of what she sees before her, yet utterly resigned – or condemned – to servicing its every need. She is rather large and quite square, both in face and body. She’s been like that ever since she can remember. Black hair, cut quite, but not very short and swept to a wave at the front showing that she has spent not a little time tonight cleansing and preening herself before starting work behind the bar at the Old Hotel. On the other side of the argument is a series of slobs, one of whom we only ever seem to see from the back. His head is triangular with apex at the base. A pair of key-in-keyhole ears protrude. He was probably called ‘wing-nut’ by his classmates at school. I resist the temptation to grab an ear-key and twist it to see what it might unlock. From the bar talk we can clearly hear, the answer surely is not much.

Mr Ears is something of a leader, he thinks. He rarely lets any conversation that is shared by the others to pass without his own inserted comment. He wears a boiler suit, heavily stained, and a pair of Doc Martins that have seen better decades. His skin is rough and darkened, but probably not by sun. His head is shaved, but shows a shadow at the edge of his baldness. He seems to lead with his head, which he sticks out to emphasise every voluminous word he speaks.

At one point there seems to be a lull in the conversation. Mr Ears picks up one of the wet cloth runners from the bar and throws it at Sandra. He thinks it’s very funny and nudges his neighbour in the ribs as he flings. Sandra is hardly amused. She tries to say, “Please don’t do that” just as he raises his arm, but she is only half way through the “Please” by the time he has flung it. To say that she is not amused is to understate the utter contempt that fills her eyes. But still, it’s a living.

Her son has been helping out with the washing up in the under-staffed kitchen. He is fourteen, at least that is what Sandra immediately chooses to tell us the moment he appears. She gravitates towards our end of the albeit small bar, placing the maximum distance between herself and the group that we now learn includes her husband, Mr Ears. Darren, the son, is just like her, the same shape, but with brown, not black hair. I sense Jenny concluding that the mother’s is dyed. Darren is still very much his mother’s boy, not yet his father’s threat. Knowing that she will have to put the place to rights tonight before she leaves, she has him wipe down the tables and stack the stools, destined to be unused this evening. Mr Ears, he of the triangular head and key-in-keyhole ears, smiles a mild pride a little as he drinks whisky chasers at some rate.

He orders a round of drinks for himself and his mates. He almost theatrically flips open his softened leatherette wallet and then pulls a face deigning surprise when he finds it empty. Sandra’s expression is both knowing and tired as she, reluctantly, scowling when she turns her back to him, writes out an IOU and places it in the till. It’s no doubt in her own name. She takes some pence in ‘change’ from the chit, which she offers and he pockets, rattling the coins against a set of keys in his deep pockets, as if ensuring that it has fallen to the bottom. A few minutes later he needs another refill costing eighty-five pence, but he produces only twenty-five from his pocket. Sandra makes up the rest from her purse, her lips pressing a silent curse as she operates the till.

A minute later Hilary appears from the kitchen. She hands Sandra a brown envelope. A slight smile confirms that these are wages, perhaps for the week. Sandra immediately extracts a note, places it in the till and retrieves her IOU, which, after attracting her husband’s attention, she pointedly tears into small pieces and ditches into an ashtray, an ashtray that she will have to clean out later. Mr Ears barks and growls a little, maybe sensing a put down in front of his mates, but later we are told that really wants to have the paper intact so he can read the amount to check that Sandra’s not fiddling him and arranging to keep something for herself. “Never trust people in business,” he says, loudly to his mate, “but never vote against them!” He laughs.

Sue follows Hilary from the kitchen. We know her name immediately because Sandra greets her, as if she has not seen her for weeks. Her white, side-buttoned jacket identifies her as the person who grilled our fish. She is a very good cook. We enjoyed our sole, I tell her. She says thank you, but then immediately delivers a bout of self-deprecation, apologising for the fact that she has never had any training. Her words are like a magnet for the other women, who immediately move to our end of the bar, as far from the locals as it gets. Sue then tells us of a coffee fudge cake that prompted one guest to propose to her. The ladies laugh, including my Jenny. Her husband, however, was the one who taught her how to cook fish. It’s all in the salt. After all, they live in salt water, don’t they?

Perhaps because we are strangers, Sue wants to talk. Clearly the locals at the other end would not be interested in the fact that she often has to cook for thirty people in a kitchen that’s the size of a dog kennel. Hilary, Sue and Sandra are clearly not happy with their lot. Hilary, especially, seems tense and dispirited as Sue tries to explain the facilities at the back. When she invites us through the bar to inspect where she works, Hilary looks perturbed, even threatened. “Look”, says Sue, with a wave of an arm, “there’s one piddling microwave, a gas cooker from year dot and a freezer that wouldn’t service a family of four. And when the place is full of trippers, I have to do twenty bar meals an hour at lunchtime.”

Hilary ushers us back the right side of the bar There’s not much work around here, she tells us. Having us visit the kitchen was clearly more than her job was worth, so she changes the subject. “It’s nice here, but I feel that life is passing me by. I’m a city girl. I’m from Walsall. I’m not used to living in a small place like this. I envy you two. I’d really like to be in London, but my boyfriend is a herdsman and there’s no call for them in Mayfair.”

But she does make sure we register that Sue is slaving away in the kitchen for next to nothing. And the owner who often supervises rang in to say that he would not be around to lend a hand this evening because he was sick, when she knew full well that in fact he and his wife had been invited out to dinner by the Cowan’s at their farm.

“At this time of year, when the sky is clear and the air is fresh and the weather’s nice, you would think that this is a really nice place to live. But just go and have a look at the backs of these places. Go round the side and have a look. Give me a modern bungalow with double glazing and central heating any day. They are falling to bits. In winter you can have the heating going full blast and still have a gale blowing in around the window frame. On nights like those I’m almost glad to be working here. At least it’s warm.” The words were qualified by a nod towards the regulars. “But then you have to sit here and put up with the rubbish that lot talk about all evening… Honestly in winter, in the dark nights, there are times when you wish you were anywhere apart from here. And this is the best work in the village, despite the fact that the owners never want to put any money into the place. And the people from here can’t get it into their heads that it’s in their own interest to invest in the place, to make it more attractive.. But then you get up in the morning and the sun is shining and the sky is blue and you can see across to Lundy Island and you walk the dogs across the cliff top and everything seems fine. I don’t know.”

It was then that she changed. An overlooked duty resurfaced from a forgotten cell. A moment later she returned from the reception. She had another brown envelope for Sandra, who smiled as she took it. The word ‘bonus’ could be heard, but there was a question mark of sorts. By then we had decided to go to bed and, as we left our bar stools, we only had time to bid her goodnight.

The following morning we walked around again. There really wasn’t anywhere to go, except where we had already been. You could go up or down. Up was back to the car. Down was to the sea. We chose down. Up would come later. We walked along the harbour wall, past the dilapidated clapperboards to look at the flat calm lying below a grey but light sky There was a buzzard, an intruder, screaming as it was shepherded away by pecking gulls. We watched the pursuit for ten minutes or more as the local nesters made sure that the unwanted foreigner was well and truly escorted off their patch.

As we stepped off the rampart and back onto the shingle, a British Telecom van appeared from the town. We assumed that he must have special dispensation to drive the main street, a privilege afforded only to the corporate. At the bottom the driver sped to a halt and then engaged reverse. This was clearly only a change of direction, there being nowhere along the main street to turn once you had entered the village. A group of men to our right noticed the noise and broke off from their idiotic task of trying to move a rusty old hulk across the shingle with makeshift crowbars. It was the hint of wheel-spin that attracted them Here was someone who did not know the place. Here was potential profit. A hint of forward movement in the van dissolved into an engine race as the rear end sank as far as the body into the loose stones.

Crowbars discarded, the blokes surrounded their captive in a matter of seconds. “He’s got that well and truly…,” grumbled Mr Ears, who was one of the first to arrive. He recognised us from the bar and actually spoke directly to us, but the words were for the van driver’s benefit. He scratched his head a few times as his mates appeared. They too mumbled as they crouched to inspect the depth of the problem. The van driver and his companion had got out of their seats, their doors scraping into the shingle. Mr Ears then said quite a lot, but I caught only an odd word. He scratched his head again. “It really isn’t my day today,” he said to me as he passed.

After a few minutes our little crowd still surrounded the prey when the Land Rover appeared. Mr Ears told us that it normally does the ferrying back to the car park for those trippers who can’t bring themselves to walk back up the hill. “It doubles as a tow truck for the boats,” he said. He tied a small thin rope to the tow bar and then selected a suitable place to attach it to the Telecom van. A whistle to the Land Rover produced a crawl. The rope broke, of course. Mr Ears scratched his head again. He was clearly having to work hard today. A mate went off to find a heavier rope, which was duly attached. The Land Rover growled as the van driver raised a scream from his engine. There was a splutter at the back end of his van and then it was free. There was a round of applause. A note was offered and Mr Ears took it, but clearly expressed a belief that it should be bigger. “The things I have to do to earn a living,” he said as he shuffled past the two of us, pulling and rewinding the rope that probably belonged to someone else. As British Telecom whined its way up the hill in second gear, we set off towards the Old Hotel to retrieve our bags, check out and get under way. Jenny and I shared a joke about Mr Ears, referring to elbows and arseholes.

Sandra was waiting for us. She had a cloth bag in her right hand and her son’s hand in her left. He really was a very young fourteen. Clasped by her thumb, and pressed against her son’s grasped fingers was a brown envelope, presumably the envelope that Hilary had passed to her just as we left the bar. The envelope was torn and a single sheet of paper flapped loose. Jenny stayed with her while I paid the bill and got our bags.

“She wants a lift into town,” said Jenny when I returned. She got the sack. They have accused her of taking money from the till. She’s leaving.” I cast a glance back down the hill, but there was no-one in sight. Mr Ears was still down there, earning, when the four of us, all strangers now, set off towards the car.

A Journey to Remember, a Short Story, Part 1

Vacations always get over sooner than one realizes.

Our vacation is over and has come to an end. But the point of fact is, even to this day Strong, Arindya and Sati couldn’t take this in their stride even as it has driven them furlong into the realm of mortifying nostalgia. Nothing can now bring them back to the real world, or so it seems.

Naturally, to be able to get away from the grime and tussle of life in the city is a jubilant feeling like no other, thought Arindya, himself forlorn in deep nostalgia. Alas, another vacation wasn’t anything nearer to happening anytime soon, so therefore learning to live with it, not surprisingly, is hard enough. But that’s another story though, for another time.

Not satisfied with a nice full week’s fabulous expedition, they were still craving for more. Such was the torrent of their newfound addiction. Arindya’s college buddies Strong and Sati corroborated having come across the same alluring feeling that never let go of them even after the precious trip taken all those years ago – a little more than a decade ago – is now far behind them, lodged in the labyrinths of their collective memory. I guess good friends all think alike.

Our journey, The-Three-Musketeers’ journey, had turned out to be the most special mention of our lives. The journey that we undertook more than a decade ago, at the start of the new millennium: 2001, has always been a high-point of our collective remembrances. We often find ourselves chatting away over cups of hot tea and pakoras, and sitting lazily in the wicker chairs on the sultry terrace bathed in dusky evening moonlight cascading down upon us, and tenderly recalling those wonderful, younger days of our lives.

Burning Driftwood

All the highs and lows of my life’s first friends-only vacation came into my nightly dreams like burning driftwood that always remained aglow. The glowing embers of memories kept on burning in my heart as the early morning sky began to rescue its warm, sweet, hopeful Sun from the mystery pools of the dark night. A new dawn of life then shines upon the horizon ending its nightly escape from the clutches of unrepentant darkness. Golden memories are like warm glowing embers that settle inside the spaces of your heart.

If not for the endless days and nights of consternation that went into planning our first outing – a chance at as they say ‘getting away from it all… ‘ – to get away from the daily grind or routinely boring sort of sclerotic lives we were living, than we would have found ourselves slowly seeped out of life and hung up to dry like washed linen on a wiry receptacle of juvenile delinquency. Thank God we saved ourselves from turning into lazybones and just do nothing. Getting to be peripatetic is such fun.

For Strong, Sati (our very own Kumbhakaran!) and Arindya things were not looking up bright nor were they really leading ship-shape lives. But at long last, when things began falling into their rightful places, they struck wanderlust and simply packed and moved. We sung together in our throaty voices, emulating the mellifluous voice of Kishore Kumar, our made-for-the-occasion friendship song while travelling all the way towards finding freedom and abandon:

To be one with the world…

We are in heaven…

In the lap of Mother Nature…

We are in heaven,

O sweet feeling…

(Arindya wasn’t aware of what was to come upon him when after he returned home from a life altering journey to Nashik. The three wanderlusts have travelled to Aurangabad, Ellora, Nashik, Tryambakeshwar and Shirdi.)

In my heart of hearts, I knew this is it. The beginning of one of those things that maketh a friendship last long, for life long. The vacation was probably meant to do that. We were known to be best of friends and we wanted to give it a touch of emotional appeal: a fine companionship fetching its own little permanent space in our hearts, for memory keepsakes. And that’s what exactly has happened besides Arindya’s falling in love with an elegant stranger.

Speaking of myself, I would say it was our one great outing, more of a pilgrimage to be sure, that had washed up ashore something of a philosophical musing which, oddly, to this day, is still quaking in my unaccustomed heart. In fact, it never let go of me ever. It still quakes inside me. Like a chronically emotional guy I would constantly have myself believe that ‘things’ have ‘changed’ and that there’s no way to find out whether it was for the better or for worse; even as it went on to carve a secret alcove in my private life. Why worse? Because I knew for a reason that my journey, especially from Shirdi to Hyderabad, would turn out to be extraordinarily heart-wrenching for me and I’ll have to live my life heart-broken. So here goes the tale.

All love stories have one thing in common; you have to go against odds to get there. For me the temple town of Tryambakeshwar was the greatest allure of all my life’s worth could hope to get honoured with. So great was the sweet atrocity of the lost love that Arindya thought a tell-all memoir was all that was left to do and relive those moments all over again. His sense of loss, his seemingly decadent life was waiting to be relieved for the purposes of getting it written and ultimately retold in a manner that would bring him some kind of relief. To unburden. You know, the worst feeling in the world is when you know that you both love each other but still you just can’t be together.

That Thing Called Love

Yes, you said it right. Indeed, it was love at first sight! Or was it a false alarm? Or was I being a darnedest fool? Didn’t I have ever had a proper handle on the two thinly-veiled, albeit different, paroxysms: Infatuation or Love? Turns out, I never did. I never knew it clearly enough though, not then, but surely, now I do know. An idea can change your life. But ‘change’, a brooding change at that, (if not the real Love itself) can make a hostile bid on your way of life! A thing of beauty is a joy forever and I have lost ‘something’ on my return trip back home and I am left undone. I know not what to do, how to do in order to be able to get it all back into my life. This is a mystery (I simply call as ‘change’) which failed to warm up to me with any evidentiary feeling of what it has ‘changed’ after all. I am unable to place that thing properly amongst the bare necessities of my life, but am feeling it all right in the empty center of my being with a great sense of remorse.

Is it a kind of passion that strangely afflicts lovesick puppies all the time? Or is it something to get serious about and needs a little personal scrutiny? Was it love? Or was it supposed to be a plain human reaction after all that rushes up your psychic mind some kind of hormonal hara-kiri when you see a beautiful face, a thing of beauty? Whatever it was, it surely came by slowly and beautifully, that old sweet feeling of – I dare say – love? Oh! Is it all about that good old culprit that goes by the sweetest name in the world called Love? If it is so then it will kill me on a regular basis!

It indeed does weird and wonderful things to your heart, I strongly believe that. The ‘change’ that I was so proudly kept repeating over and over again in my mind is known by nothing else but Love. Pure and untouched. Warm and Cozy. Humble and Secure. That thing called Love slowly spread within me like wind-rippled sand in a forlorn, forsaken desert, and little by little the deeper meaning of the word got me totally baffled and confused. Afterwards, I grew very restless on account of such emotional stirrings and I knew not what to do except accept my Destiny as a one-time readymade parcel service from the heavenly counters of The God Almighty. Oh yes! I am eternally thankful for that service!

Call it thrill or the regular drill, the other side of falling-in-love coin is an unchartered territory of emotional warfare. You can deal with it if you think you really can, or else you lose your love and go home in several pieces. Your heart is felled first, always a ready victim of ‘unrequited love’ and longing, considering the circumstances.

After having lingered on such a thought-process in my mind that began materializing like a zany commotion of deep-seated melancholia, I came to realize that it was indeed the mysterious workings of the persuasive power of ‘Love’ that suggested itself by, both subconsciously and feelingly. Furthermore, the matter of such a delicate nature was so tellingly mystifying that I was finding myself shy and uncertain in equal measure to be able to get a comprehending grasp on its unmistakable magical power. I felt I have been given this evident opportunity to figure it all out, and so I will I thought.

Somewhere in my heart Love was being bucolic.

It slowly came to light in Arindya’s minds’ eye that he has been touched by an Angel; that lovely species whom one unstoppably falls in love with. And there was never a name for her, for name didn’t really matter I suppose. As if transfixed I stood there with unblinking eyes looking her way. Realizing my eyes on her, she turned towards me for a fairly long moment and looked up at me. Her eyes, lips, cheeks twinkled a bit; then knowing that I had still devoted my attention on her, her face broke into a saucy smile. After a moment or two, with a calming poise she fervently put her hands together in front of the deity praying.

The clear light of day of the afternoon Sun and the serene October air appeared to be blending together to bathe her beauty with divine loveliness. Heavens opened up their doors and windows and Gods and Goddesses assembled together to have a precious look at their loving creation; even a grant of a tiny glimpse at her would no doubt continue to reassure and comfort them of their blissful eternity and immortality. They were being jealous, apparently! And I merely an Earth-dwelling mortal dared to romanticize the lovely sight I was likewise being treated to, and standing right there transfixed I fell into a trance I never seemed to have got out of. A serious bout of daydreaming crept up my soul that completely stirred my living being! I was being as if zealously ‘guarding’ her from something I could never know of what. Gods and Goddesses? Possibly. They too were looking at her, remember?

Holy Moly! No… ! I remember Adam and Eve’s satanic mistake in the Garden of Eden before they were necked out of unceremoniously!

Indeed, I opened my heart at the main entrance of the temple to yield a precious place for her to step right in. No doubt, I treasured up her memory (including her divine angelic smile) in the deepest vaults of my unbidden heart ever since.

A Journey to Remember

A journey to a holy place can sometimes make you feel profoundly rejuvenated and transformed; especially when you find that the journey you had has rendered a new dimension of poignancy to the basic perception of your own life.

One doesn’t just go and fall in love in a temple. It doesn’t happen that way. But you can’t help it when it happens, can you? Love can subtly suggest itself anytime anywhere, whether in a temple or in a park, or in a train or in a bus. I thought to myself, in my limited understanding, that for me Love will always be something that cannot be ‘set up’ to ‘gain’ something from it, but which is ultimately intensely natural and a thing that can only be felt deep within and treasured for a lifetime. Love makes life live. Love makes you feel enormously optimistic at heart. It makes you smile secretly and satisfyingly in the assuring fact that she is the one made in heaven for you, Then again, when others see you smile without obvious reason, they think you are kind of… ‘myyaaad’. So what is Love after all?

“Love doesn’t mean to win someone,

But it means to lose yourself for someone.

It is not done by the excellence of mind.

But it is done by the purity of heart.”

The great novelist Eric Segal’s immortal lines “love means never having to say you’re sorry” conveys as much of what lovers practically feel all the time but hardly ever can utter in those very words. That’s one way of looking at it. Yet Love manages to get conveyed; if not in words then the eyes do the trick.

All this were personal definitions that Arindya gave to his newfound feelings that were compelling enough for him to freely believe in love at first sight. And this hell of a feeling was met with approval by the Angel he met at the Tryambakeshwar temple in the picturesque district of Nashik.

As apposed to Strong’s suggestion of “infatuation” that I might possibly have been a case of, I had nothing short of The Bard William Shakespeare’s lines to counter his (Strong’s) sly riposte with:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove… “

I have believed that this piece of sonnet explains everything what Love has been, what Love is, and what Love will always be.

When does such a thing affect you? Does it affect you especially when you find yourself atop a precipice of your life and you have nothing better of your own but to claim that it was NOT infatuation? No doubt, she was an exalted species of pure feminine beauty, and I had to hanker after the girl only because of a so-called ‘exterior’ quality on her – her eye-catching beauty? No, I don’t believe so. And that’s exactly what didn’t happen to Arindya at all. People might say different things, for they are, well, people; they are meant to say things: uncharitable or appeasing. But in the end you are the only one to know for sure whether or not you were in love and what really happened to you. For me it was Love all right: Love at first sight, Love for ever and Love forever after.

He knew it was far from anything what some people never really get to acknowledge when someone happens to fall in love. Arindya was not travelling alone but he sure was feeling very lonely for the first time among his friends. He had Strong and Sati for good company, yet why does he have to want for something that was not at all his in the first place? Strong and Sati were great friends, but Arindya’s dilemma was nobody’s business but his own heart’s catch-22 situation to get around and deal with it. Does he have to draw a line somewhere considering that this complicated question, which is writ large on his face like a dark shadow, is showing no sign of leaving him alone? What does Arindya, the chief progenitor of all things immaterial, think about this entire quandary of his own making? Pushing oneself off the precipice, and end of the matter? Flat on the rocks below?

Or finding something to latch on to, setting adrift on a grand new boat of hope, against the time and tide of luckless foreboding, even tackling the normal wages of one’s daily life should become the normal course of action for him? Which one? Which goddamn one? Where is Arindya’s once-glorified “enormously optimistic” dramatic feeling gone? Cut its way off to a better soul, which was better than Arindya’s? Oh well O well, probably, it is here; it is here, somewhere, trampled. Arindya will find it. He will have to.

En Route to Tryambakeshwar via Nashik

Booking a room for us three lads at a local hotel was, thankfully, not a tricky business to deal with. During the tourist season, naturally, getting even a single room is a big trouble, but we eventually found one in a nice hotel not very far from the Maharashtra Tourism office-cum-hotel plaza on the main road. To tell you the truth, we enthusiastic bunch of all-guys travellers did get lily-livered sometimes when faced with indigenous, maddening signboards hung on hotel front offices such as “Sorry! Rooms Not Available”, “No Rooms”, “All Full”, “Houseful” or even “No Vacancy”, as if we were looking for jobs! We have been pretty much up to facing whatever challenge was popping in front of us. But we sure disliked these ‘unwelcome’ signboards where ever we spotted one.

No wonder Sati (our very own Kumbhakaran!) was the one who went to the bathroom first to bathe and spill over some cologne fragrance under his tropical rainforest-like armpits, and I and Strong smiled sheepishly at each other to resolve who would go next up! Sati’s childlike enthusiasm to always be the first one to use our hotel’s bathroom was no less legendary than Strong’s preference for window seat whether in bus or in train! I was more like a confused mute, a concerned spectator sandwiched between their ever-amusing comedy of errors (always-use-first bathroom and window-seat preferences included). Must say I hardly ever made any attempt to get out of my reverie, for watching them do their own thing in the pocket-sized, beige-toned hotel room was hilarious!

And yes, not to forget Sati’s insatiable penchant for rounding off his meal with a huge bowl of curd-rice was laughed out loud over Strong’s all-weather-always-better garam garam idly, sambar, rasam and rice preference, never mind curd-rice. I didn’t exactly dream of McDonald’s or Domino’s platters, but my mouth did remember to flood at this unexpected suggestion of a well-tasted hemlock that I have drunk not very long ago! Umm.

Before we embarked upon this journey, Strong let out a secret of his to me that if he doesn’t eat rice in the dinner, he doesn’t get sound sleep at night! I nodded: possibly! Of course, all three went out to dinner and sat in a vegetarian-only restaurant to eat a belly full of sona masoori rice.

Our first leg of journey was a long one to complete. We travelled from Aurangabad to Ellora caves and back. After a night’s intervention, we alighted from long-dead King Aurangzeb’s kingdom Aurangabad and traveled in a MSRTC (state-owned local bus service) bus to Nashik’s central bus station via several unmanned railway crossings, roadside shacks, and quiet villagers, who faithfully lived with their precious cows, hens, cocks, goats, and buffaloes and bulls, even an occasional donkey or two. I spotted several cows grazing and mooing blissfully in the grassy meadows; the hens playing with their tiny chicks in the open yards and goats braying in the vicinity of their human caretakers. The bus ride was bumpy but we enjoyed the bumps with shoulders colliding with the passengers seated next to us; we slammed, banged, crashed all at once into the front seats knocking our breaths out of our lungs, and bounced several inches off our scruffy seats before our heads bashed on the overhead bunkers pounding on our senses.

Apart from all that bumpy encounters we experienced, our bus ride to Nashik was pleasant enough. In fact, in Aurangabad, though a nice little place to visit, we hardly found any other option in the name of good inter-city bus travel apart from the one we decided upon for our journey. That was the year 2001; things might have changed a lot now. These days, when we find each and every city of our country taking a turn for good economically, old things being replaced with the new and how: city squares, shopping centers, fine dining restaurants and all coming up like crazy. I am sure Aurangabad city too had transformed itself now into a fine tourist destination that it was always bound to be.

Strong and Sati (our very own Kumbhakaran!) were jousting with each other to look at the seat occupied next to a hulking woman travelling with her fair and fine-looking daughter. They (Strong and Sati, that is) craned their heads, flashing their gazes at the object of their attention, tried several tricks up their sleeves to get her attracted to them, but all their actions came to a naught. She was far ahead in her own dream world but apart from looking at their general direction, she was, apparently, way out of their league. And Arindya, he had already gazed at her for a moment longer than necessary, tried to be really interesting and all that, but it seemed that he was met with a rebuff.

The bus ride through the countryside had us totally rattled and disheveled, but we took no notice of that. We were on a mission here and totally up and about to accomplish it, so who has the time, you know, for things that don’t matter much.

After reaching the central bus station of Nashik, we took a bus to the great Tryambakeshwar Temple. Tryambakeshwar (Tryambake�vara) is located around 28 kilometers from the urban center of Nashik, tucked away into the pacific greenery of the wonderful countryside of Nashik. The ancient Hindu temple is situated at the bottom of the Bramhagiri mountains, where the river Godavari is said to have originated from.

The first day of the October month was agog with beautiful indulgences of the blushing cottony clouds ambling across the blue expanse of the Gods above…

I still remember the shimmering countryside meadows sparkling under the veil of moon-struck light illuminating everything from the sky above. I recollect the face of a serene-faced girl with lotus-like eyes I had never seen before or ogled at. Dressed in a soft yellow salwar with tiny ashen-grey polka-dot like flowers spread all over her lovely attire that greatly embellished her graceful countenance; she looked a million bucks. Without hesitation I resolved that she might be the very embodiment of a dream-like, unheard-of Angel that hardly often do we ever get to see in other normal circumstances. It tugged and pulled at my heart when she found my eager, will-you-be-mine eyes and winked impishly. She winked her huge eye-lashes at me. At that moment my heart forgot to beat. I saw her at the Tryambakeshwar Temple offering prayers and trying to hand over her casket of coconut, red kumkum, agarbatti and yellow Marigold flowers to the Sanskrit-chanting purohit, entreating him to break the coconut and flowers be put at the jyotirlinga of the presiding deity Lord Shiva.

Leaving Tryambakeshwar was hard enough for Arindya. He realized that he has fallen in love, really hopelessly and leaving the pilgrimage town of Trymbakeshwar meant bidding goodbye, farewell, and adieu to her, perhaps forever.

While journeying back on a bus to Nashik, my plain lunatic heart began to thump furiously at the thought of not having to see her ever again, perhaps, never in this lifetime. No wonder my days of being an eternal optimist were gone. What am I to do now without even an ounce of it? What a life I have!

The chimera of optimism anyway doesn’t work in such a circumstance, does it? I had no way of knowing her, and finding her again at the same spot is a foregone conclusion even if I come back looking for her. Life doesn’t treat us that way. It isn’t that easy to get excited about. It has its own exigencies to care about first. Besides there are so many other unknowable factors that come into play, whether you like it or not almost all of them will be pitted against your wish and will. Mankind is always left in the lurch to enthuse themselves by indulging in the mucky discourses of defunct challenges and useless competition. No wonder, in a dog-eat-dog world such is the twisted fury of God’s own creation!

I can’t even expect a ‘co-incidence’ thing to take place and then somehow I come rushing back to find her. Life, it seems, has its own book of destiny to keep. The thing is a brave man makes his own destiny, but the question is: Was I brave enough to be undertaking a task of going back to Tryambakeshwar and find her – all by myself? Perhaps, I might as well just do it. There is after all a wee bit chance, an opening, for anyone who knows where to look and how to look. But Arindya could not possibly have fathomed that secret, for he was not in Destiny’s good books. If passion is what it appears to be in Arindya, then the desire to find her, to see her, to touch her, to embrace her, will always remain a desire, no matter how vaguely life leaks away thinking about her. I couldn’t believe what I was feeling for her. I was dying inside to touch her, hold her. Never will come that moment when I can get close to fulfilling it. I am not in a position, Oh! Dear Lotus-Eyed Angel, to fulfill that passionate desire of mine… It will stay that way.

Eternal passion!

Eternal pain!

Not in this lifetime, my love. Not in this Hell that I am being bludgeoned through and still managing to survive with my besieged chest full of memories. As far as Arindya’s future prospect is concerned, howsoever well-deserved or even if there was one in the first place, it had dead-ended, stopped dead in its path, prematurely. That has come to be known as his portion of sad destiny ever since!

If there is any hope to know what she thinks about our little, private rendezvous at that old Shiva Temple, I would drop everything and go rush in her general direction. On second thoughts, that won’t be necessary because I understand for the same sacrosanct reason that she understands: we have been destined and decreed to be together only in our next life, not in this one. Compromise appears to be the darker side of man’s Destiny, full of twists and turns and blind corners. Such is God’s will. Take it or leave it.

Love Is a Sad Song

I remember how the silvery white moon had shone from high above wandering somberly in the largely cloudless, inky October sky like a loving soliloquist soul, peeping at us lovingly through the tinted windows of the bus we were travelling in, wishing us a silent goodbye after we reluctantly bid adieu to the temple town of His Holiness Shirdi Sai Baba.

“I swear to you

I will always be there for you.

There’s nothing I won’t do.

I promise you,

All my life I will live for you;

We will make it through… “

Then out of nowhere a forgotten strain of an old Hindi song decanted into my mind. I was instinctively humming it aloud in my heaving chest thinking about the lotus-eyed girl I saw in the sanctum sanctorum of the great temple:

“Dil ke aasman pe gam ki ghata chayee

Ayee ayee ayee teri yaad ayee…

Teri yaad main sari duniya bhulayee

Ayee ayee ayee teri yaad aye… “

The tail-end of the journey was a heart-pounding experience for all three of us. Strong, Sati and Arindya were still awake and far away from any sign of wanting to get some sleep. All that trekking, hiking, climbing mountains and forts and circling historic temples in faraway places like Aurangabad, Ajanta-Ellora Caves, then visiting Panchavati and walking on the streets of Nashik did not bog us down. We were fatigued no doubt, but kept up our tempo in full gear. Strong and Sati were still afresh with keen energy and so was Arindya.

“Oh figure about those younger years

There was only you and me

We were young and wild and free

Now nothing can take you away from me

Even down that road before”

End of Part 1

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