Games Ghosts Play

This story is a translation (not word by word) of an original in Tamil authored by Venkatesh Radhakrishnan, a prolific writer of, among many things, interesting short stories like this piece. His stories have a certain indescribable quality that pushes one to read more. It is difficult to capture in full the ingenuous charm of his words and the local color of the original. This is as close as I could get.

Here we go:

**

Well, there’s no place like Tambaram, if you ask folks here – I’m one of and with them. The fog in the morning, the cool breeze, entirely unknown to the citizens of Chennai living not too far from here.

Returning last night after a month of as much sweat as of toil out in Madurai and Trichy, abs oppressive if anything, it felt nice to be back and, out on a walk this morning with, on my wife’s insistence, a muffler wrapped chic around my neck.

In the caress of the gentle breeze, I craved for the warmth of a cigarette. Walked up to the tea-stall near the Kamarajapuram bus stand.

Awash with a hedonistic first lungs-full, I dreamily gazed around looking but not looking until…

it was such a shock to see him, Victor! The cigarette slipped from my hand. My face turned pale, mouth agape – a ripe uncut Alphonso would have had an easy passage, and goose bumps in full bloom (horripilation is the word for it? Sounds bloo#y pedantic, wouldn’t want to be caught live saying it).

Victor was my class-mate in college. We joined the air-force together and, at the expiry of our Short Service Commission, we opted for discharge at about the same time. Back into civvies, I took up marketing in the corporate sector and Victor set up a computer sales and service shop and later extended himself to mobile phones and devices. A fairly big outlet doing brisk business near Tambaram Camp Road.  Over the last seven to eight years, we had not kept in touch except for an occasional unplanned contact.

‘All fine, but what made you go pale?’ I hear you asking.

Well, last evening, over dinner, the lady of the house brought me to speed on happenings in and around during my month’s absence, trying as best as she could not dropping the thread, and me distracted by a succession of phone calls urging me to buy stuff we didn’t need – like a gadget that would read off from a news paper held in one’s hands, in 5 different languages and, what more, 12 different voices/accents! Had to sadly stop the poor kid mid-way in his script to say I had stopped reading news papers long ago, the world, since, looking a much better place to live.  Am digressing – getting back to where I was, the update from my wife included the sad news she had just heard: Victor was no more, he had passed away some months ago in an accident. Or was it some ailment, she said? Couldn’t be sure what it was, those dam#ed phone calls. Felt sad for him – a pity we had not seen much of each other over the years.  The lady further decreed I visit his house without delay and convey my condolences along with the reason for my tardiness – she had already done it for her part. Human mind being what it was, he was soon crowded out by other mundane matters demanding my attention until…

Now you know why my legs turned into jelly.

Knew a bit about ghosts and their ways of life from the stories I had read in my younger days; also, real life accounts from people who have exchanged ‘Hi’ and more with the denizens of the ‘spiritual’ world and lived to tell. Informed as I was, I did not put it past a ghost wanting to catch up with an old friend. They are often known to make amends for lapses in their living lives.  

‘Hey dude, when did you return?’ Victor (italics for the reason you know and quite a bother actually to keep it up) inquired, moving closer; strange, this again was completely at variance with my knowledge of them – they always kind of ‘floated’, walking firm-footedly was for us, the lesser mortals. Reasonable guy I was, I let it pass, putting it down to their evolution with time – they can’t be denied in the days of equal rights.

Pausing in his stride, he turned back to the shop-keeper to ask for a cigarette.

Again, an inconsistency. These folks are known – authority has it nailed down – to shun flame and fire. And here this guy was lighting up and smoking a cigarette with utter disregard and supreme nonchalance! What to say, this was Kaliyug when norms and rules did not hold – all foretold in our infallible sacred books; did this apply to Victor too, a non-Hindu? WTH (What The Heck), I wasn’t going to let the thought bother me, as I already had enough on my hands, you’ll agree. The situation demanded a clear head and that’s what it was going to be.

‘So, when did you come back?’ he repeated ‘himself’. ‘Didn’t know you had. And, sister (my wife) didn’t tell me either.’

Struggling to maintain equanimity – the circumstances were very trying, as you can see, I said: ‘Came yesterday evening, Victor. Was planning to visit your place today.’ Stopped short, with an effort, of adding ‘to convey my condolences over your unfortunate death.’

Victor: ‘It’s all fate. Who would’ve knownit was all because of that dam# car coming the wrong way

It was quite creepy – here I was listening to him describing the incident leading to ‘his’ transitionweird.

He continued: ‘Why do you look so ashen? Did you see a ghost or something? So how is sister (my wife) doing? Please do convey my regards to her. Why don’t you come home, say, sometime after eleven? One more thing, pal: Don’t have change on me. Pay for my cigarette too, won’t you? See you then.’

Before I could untie my tongue, he was gone – disappearing into the morning fog.

With a demeanor of a chicken under a spell trotting in a daze, I went up to the counter and paid the shop-keeper for the two cigarettes.

OMG, it seemed ghosts were common place in these parts. And to be transacting with them, selling cigarettesno one appears to sense anything untowardit didn’t matter time-tested laws of physics were being seriously challenged. How could they be facilely hobnobbing with roving ghosts? Though, to be fair to all, in some of those stories and anecdotes, ghosts do come across as well-behaved social creatures.

Suddenly my hands, palms and fingers went cold. I shoved them into my trouser pockets for warmth andfound my cell-phone.

I called up Victor’s residence.

After a few rings, ‘Hello!’ It was his Dad.

‘Uncle, it’s Venkat here, Victor’s friend, you remember?’

‘Yes, Venkat, I remember you. You sound flustered. Are you alright?’

‘I’m fine, Uncle, a little short of breath – it’s just the walk and the chill out here. Called for Victor. No particular reason. Is he around?’

Victor’s Dad: ‘Don’t know how you air force guys are so alike. He said he’s going out for a walk and would be back within the next half-hour. I’ll tell him to call you when he returns.’

I felt sorry for the old man. Must have been in his seventies. Still living under the delusion his son was very much alive and going about his routine as always. Sad.

I signed off politely and turned homewards curtailing my walk, not feeling up to it.

The aroma wafted in pulling me to the kitchen. Thanks to my wife. Hot coffee was just the thing for this weather. Took a couple of gulps (we don’t sip in the south of this land – coffee tastes so much better, we believe, when poured off the lips of a metal tumbler, hot and bitter, straight onto the back of the mouth),  

To my wife, ‘I met Victor on my walk. Had a few words with him.’ (not in italics!)

She was far from startled: ‘I suppose it was all perfectly inane remarks that he could perfectly do without. You never pay attention to what I say. And I suppose you didn’t express your condolences over his father’s demise in that unfortunate accident. What would he think of you

The still-half-full tumbler fell from my hands wasting good coffee on the floor.

**

End

 

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Archimedes, Take This: You Don’t Always Need A Lever To Move Things Around!

It is part of the routine morning walk – collecting flowers on the way, from plants jutting out over the peripheral fences/walls of apartment complexes lining the streets. No trespassing committed. And no one minds it’s only a few flowers.

The flowers are for offering at the temple and also for pooja at home, supplementing more fragrant ones like roses, jasmine, tulsi, sampangi, etc. bought from vendors.

Pinwheel flowers (Rajanigandha/Nishagandha) are the ones most commonly found at these places.  In season, they follow a cycle of about 3 days of blossoming in profusion followed by another 3 days of the next succession of buds to mature. Surprisingly the cycle seems to occur fairly synchronously across plants growing in different apartment complexes!

This was the first day of the blossoming cycle with just a few flowers peeking out here and there on the bushes. Even those ones and twos could not be missed out on the days when the collection ran thin.   

A heavy hand reached out to the thin stem of a solitary pinwheel flower appearing on one side of this bush. What followed…well, plucking was not to be!

The hand withdrew like it touched hot coals.

It wasn’t any muscle or machine power that caused the hand to go empty, moving back to where it belonged. Nor any ready-to-strike insect lurking around.

It was a mere butterfly…that flew in and settled on the lone flower, folding and unfolding its wings, uncoiling and sinking in its proboscis quite unmindful of the hand and its human.

What option then did the poor hand have but to get out of the way?

Since then the collection process stood modified to leave as much behind on the bush as was being taken.

End

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Source: amazon.in and thoughtco.com

Did He Get It Right?

Real-life fiction:

**

Time and place: Morning at the temple.

It was goshti time after receiving theertham (sacred water) and sadari.

[Goshti is when at the end of morning rituals, prasadam, usually thayir sadam (curd rice) is distributed to the assembled on plates or small bowls (dhonnai’s) fashioned out of leaves stitched together]

Many sat down and some of us with stiff joints stood to one side.

One of the staff (kiankaryaparars) distributed the dhonnai’s to all in the assembly to receive prasadam (a small part of the food offered to the god is returned to the devotees with blessings).

The cook in his traditional attire followed him from the kitchen carrying on his hip an anda (a big brass vessel) containing thayir sadam. With practiced efficiency, starting at one end of the small arc, he took a handful of sadam, dropped it into the first dhonnai held out, quickly moving on to the next man and to the next…

When he came to G – I see him once in a while at the temple – standing next to me, I noticed him slowing down with a deference, not par for a goshti, and a hint of a smile on his face. And the recipient acknowledging it by gesture and nod.

As the cook moved on to where ladies were, I asked in hushed voice: ‘What gives?’

G whispered back: ‘Only yesterday…he wanted some monetary help for his daughter’s college fees studying back in the South. I gave him’

‘Oh,’ so that was it.

Distribution over, the goshti was dismissed.

As we did the customary pradakshinam (circumambulating the sanctum) together, completing the last round, G went up to ring the kitchen bell!

When the cook came out, he asked if there would be some extra thayir sadam available.

A little strange, it was. This man many a times walked away without waiting for the goshti and the prasadam. And when he did stand in, he would specially request for a small portion. And today, he took it in full in the goshti and now was asking for more!

What was the matter? Perhaps he’s taking it for some guests visiting him?

He saw my nonplussed look and made a gesture for me to hold.

The cook, a bit surprised likewise, appeared too happy to oblige him.

A short while later he returned with a neatly wrapped and tied parcel.

As he handed it over, I noticed – the cook appeared pleased with himself and his demeanor going back to the formal, what it was always, without the deference, even if only a wee bit, displayed visibly earlier in the goshti! Not that he was rude, at any time.

Something nagged me nevertheless. Was gratitude so evanescent?

As we exited the temple, G turned to me: ‘I see you noticed it. Upset?’

Wasn’t he upset? And, here he’s asking me if I were.

Didn’t feel up to responding.

‘You see, my friend, I certainly did a favour to him, he too did one to me, whatever was within his capacity. Now the ledger is balanced, his self-respect has re-asserted itself.’

Weird! Interesting! Is that how it works? No student of human psychology and behaviour, could not agree or differ with G’s insight and intelligence in this matter.

Now outside the temple we were ready to part.

‘Here, take this, I’ve no use for it. Am single,’ he thrust the parcel into my hands and took off leaving me standing.  

When he was a few steps gone, he turned to me: ‘Don’t lose your peace over it, my friend. That’s precisely why I asked for it!’

May be, before I meet him next, I will have sorted this out in my head.

End

Source. deskgram.net

A Matter Of Give And Take

A real-life fiction:

**

Dinner time.

Bhindi (okra), again?

No surprises there – the girl was asked to eat vegetables. A short sermon on importance of the greens for her health, as always, fell on un-listening ears. For, it is bhindi tonight, spinach yesterday…yuk, and not potatoes, yummy. These folks never seem to understand or ask – it wasn’t she didn’t like vegetables. It was just that cauliflower and cabbage smelled, bhindi sticky, beet-root scary scarlet, spinach sticking between her teeth, beans tasteless, peas squishy, carrot hard to bite…and heaven knows why potatoes didn’t count? By the way, aren’t there any green potatoes? Why, she liked cucumber too, in the raw.

Finally on the promise of a cup of her favorite ice-cream, the task was accomplished……like how – her eyes closed, face screwed into a grimace, the morsel put out on the tongue like vom## and then taken in, mostly swallowed…

All done and over with, they – the father and the girl – set off to the market, he had some chores to complete, she to claim her reward.  

At the shop, another scene was averted – fortunately the mango flavor was in stock. Gleefully consumed – some, dribbling from the corner of her mouth, onto the counter.

On their way back – the girl in good cheer – he paused at a street-side vendor’s and got two vada-paav’s with dry and wet chutney’s parceled.

The girl looked at her father quizzingly.

‘There’s a sight-impaired young man near the bus-shelter. Whenever I come this way, I usually get this or samosas for him.’

Her face did not clear completely.

The father knew enough to add: ‘On the days I don’t, may be the vendors give him or someone else like us buys him something to eat – I don’t think he starves.’

The girl became more at ease – if her father said the man did not starve, it must be so – and soon was distracted.

**

At the bus-shelter, there he was on the bench.

The hot vada-paav’s were given and accepted gratefully.

The girl looking on nervously keeping herself on father’s far side.

The deed done, the two quickened their steps homewards.

Nearer home, the girl broke her silence: ‘Appa, how do you know he likes vada-paav and samosa’s? Asked him?’

**

The following days saw new sources located for idli/vada and roti/sabji.

End

Source: Image from hungrydeal.com

Moments In The Morning (A Vignette)

A glorious morning to make one happy to be alive.

The rose bushes swayed a little in the gentle caress of a breeze.

The butterfly deftly balanced itself over the rose: ‘OMG, the man is coming to us here with his basket.’

‘Let him,’ said the rose unruffled.

‘Let him, eh? You very well know why he is headed here.’

‘Yes, he’s going to pluck those of us in full bloom – me included.’

‘And you’re not worried? How could these humans do that? Can’t they enjoy the beauty, letting you live and look gorgeous on the stem?’

‘Listen, don’t grieve for us. In any case we have only a couple of more days to go before we begin withering away. At least…’

‘What ‘at least’?’

‘If the man takes us with him, yes, that’s end of the road for us. But we go out in glory….you know we’ll adorn his deity, god…in the crown!  What better way to…’

The conversation ceased suddenly without goodbye’s said. A teary butterfly took off swiftly, getting out of harm’s way; for, the man was already up on the bush.

With his basket almost full up, the man was set to go when he spotted it.

As his fingers closed around, the butterfly made a valiant attempt to distract him.

To no avail.

All the same, buzzed by the flying insect, he lost his balance for a moment and the rose fell back into the bush.

Could see it lodged deep inside the bush on a bed of thorns, a few petals shed in the fall.

Like the great Kuru, Bishma?

‘So be it,’ the man walked god-wards, the loss tinging him for a moment.

The butterfly never in its life returned to the bush.

End

Two Crows On A Forage – A (Real) Story

Charcoal drawing from Etsy

**

Two kinds of people, in a day,

‘often come your way.  

Lo and behold, I saw them both today,

‘eyeing at where the eats lay.

Away and towards, slanting their heads,

‘rolling their dark suspicious eyes.

‘who here? friends or foes?

Thoughts racing in their minds…

Cookies crumbled for easy eat

‘proved far too much to resist.

Their escape could always be swift.

‘any time they saw a threat.

So they gingerly stepped up to it.

To human presence, ever alert.

The nervous one quickly stole one treat,

‘and made away without a regret.

The other took one and then one…

‘until there remained none,

‘not dropping his guard until done.

And, no looking back… was gone!

Two kinds of people, in a day,

‘often come your way.  

For always, right or wrong, who is to say

‘but this: while the sun shines, make hay?

**

End

Who In The Room Screams First?


The Dinner Party

by Mona Gardner (1942)

The country is India.  A large dinner party is being given in an up-country station by a colonial official and his wife.  The guests are army officers and government attaches and their wives, and an American naturalist.

At one side of the long table a spirited discussion springs  up between a young girl and a colonel. The girl insists women have long outgrown the jumping-on-a-chair-at-the-sight-of-a-mouse  era, that they are not as fluttery as their grandmothers.  The colonel says they are, explaining women haven’t the actual nerve control of men.  The other men at the table agree with him.

“A woman’s unfailing reaction in any crisis, ” the colonel says, “is to scream.  And while a man may feel  like it, yet he  has that  ounce  more  of  control  than a woman has.  And that last ounce is what counts. “

The American scientist does  not  join  in  the  argument but sits and watches the faces of the other guests.  As he looks,  he  sees a strange expression come over the face of the hostess.  She  is staring  straight ahead,  the muscles of her face contracting  slightly.  With a small gesture she summons the native boy standing behind her chair.  She whispers to him.  The boy’s eyes widen: he  turns quickly and leaves  the  room.  No one else sees this, nor the boy when he puts a bowl of milk on the verandah outside the glass doors. 

The American comes to with a start.  In India, milk in a bowl means only one thing.  It is bait  for a  snake.  He  realizes there is a cobra  in  the room.

He  looks   up   at  the  rafters-the   likeliest   place – and sees they  are  bare.  Three corners of the  room, which he can see by shifting only slightly, are empty.  In the fourth corner a group of servants stand, waiting until the next course can be served.  The American realizes there is only one place left – under the table.

His first impulse is to jump back and warn the others.  But he knows the commotion will frighten the cobra and it will strike.  He speaks quickly, the quality of his voice so arresting that it sobers everyone. 

“I want to know just what control everyone at this table has.  I will count three hundred – that’s five minutes – and not one of you is to move a single muscle.  The persons who move will forfeit 50 rupees.  Now!  Ready!”

The 20 people sit like stone images while he counts.  He is saying “. . . two hundred and eighty . . .” when, out of the corner of his eye, he sees the cobra emerge and make for the bowl of milk.  Four or five screams ring out as he jumps to slam shut the verandah doors. 

“You certainly were right, Colonel!” the host says.  “A man has just shown us an example of real control.”

“Just a minute,” the American says, turning to his hostess, “there’s one thing I’d like to know.  Mrs. Wynnes, how did you know that cobra was in the room?”

A faint smile lights up the woman’s face as she replies.  “Because it was lying across my foot.”

End

Source: “The Dinner Party” by Mona Gardner, 1942, 1970,  Saturday Review from here. Image from here.