Old houses have always intrigued me and have caught my fancy. There is something about them that fascinate me to no end. They witness countless moments of the lives of the inhabitants and while the dwellers move on, they stand steadfast with their quiet presence like mute spectators. So, when I chanced upon the trailer of Netflix’s latest offering called ‘The Watcher’ I was hooked. The show which falls into the horror/thriller genre revolve around a palatial house in the suburbs which is bought by a typical American family of four in a bid to move away from the hustle- bustle of city life. But things go awry and what follows is a terrifying depiction of the family’s bizarre encounters in the imposing but eerie precincts of the house.
The mini series is created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan and it grabs you from the word go. The show commences with the introduction of the Brannock family which consist of parents Nora (Naomi Watts) and Dean (Bobby Cannavale) and their two children, the chirpy Carter and your average teenager, Ellie. The Brannock family has put in all their savings into buying the luxurious abode and so they are overjoyed when they finally buy the house. Little do they know as to what lurks behind the opulence and the grandeur which reflects through the shiny walls of 657 Bouelvard.
Just as the Brannock family begins to revel in the surroundings of their plush house, an ominous letter makes its appearance in their letter box. The sinister letter is supposedly written by someone who calls himself/herself ‘The Watcher’. The letter has malicious contents which unsettles Nora and Dean and they are petrified. ‘The Watcher’ as the one writing the letters calls himself writes things which are bound to unnerve and make anyone ill at ease. He welcomes the Brannocks and states that in the 1920s his grandfather watched over the house and now its his turn. He mentions that the house wants young blood and also expresses his displeasure in the fact that the Brannocks are looking to renovate certain parts of the house. Fair enough the letter runs shivers down the spine of not just the Brannock family but even the viewers.
To add to the creepy undercurrents, we have a number of oddball neighbours who are eccentric and each one a possible suspect as probably the one writing the letters. But it is the house which is an entity in itself, a unique character per se with distinct features, be it the quaint Dumb Waiter, the secret rooms or the unfinished basement which gives you the heebie-jeebies. With each episode the mystery deepens and we are left with more questions than answers. Karen Coulhoun (Jennifer Coolidge) provides some comic relief in her portrayal of Nora’s friend and the realtor who sells them the menacing house.
It is hard to fathom that the show is based on a true story. But it further lends certain credibility to the otherwise bizarre series of events that unfold in the show. It is based on a true story of the Broaddus family who bought this house in Westfield, New Jersey. What I liked about the show was how it was able to throughout maintain a sense of dread that ceased to leave me even after I watched the show in its entirety. The protagonists Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts played their parts to perfection in depicting a terrified yet frustrated couple who are stuck in a horrid situation. It was interesting to see Bobby Cannavale grapple with his role of the protector who is almost on the verge of paranoia because he could not keep his family safe. The show is layered and attempts to delineate the seemingly structured role of the ‘man of the house’ in the family set-up to watch out for the other members so much so that it drives him to the brink of losing his mind. Naomi Watts plays the vulnerable wife yet she is not depicted as someone who moves into the role of a woman in distress. She is a strong woman who is a successful artist and who does not stand behind the shadows of her husband to protect her family from the impending dangers that the letters pose.
The ending of the show may be a dampener of sorts for most of the viewers though. Open endings are not relished by all and many a times it feels that the audience has been taken to a point of crescendo and then made to fall flat. The same stands true for ‘The Watcher’. But the only justification one may be able to offer is that the actual case is a cold case too.
Having said that, it doesn’t take away the brilliant atmospheric scare-ride that the show manages one to take on. As the plot thickens with each episode, the adrenalin soars. ‘The Watcher’ is a perfect example of how a menacing newspaper article can be made into a gripping show that not only takes us on a thrilling ride but also makes us look hard at the depravities of the world we dwell in.
I stared at the white icicles which drooped down in multitudes creating a chalky wonder of sorts all around me. Nature was at its alluring best here in the Arctic region. The frozen lake though surreal and magnificent, yet again made me think of my life. The haunting stillness of the lake was symbolic of my life. But my existence did not shriek of beauty or magnanimity. On the contrary, I was one of those wretched beings who was bereft of love, from the day he materialized on this land. Yes, I materialized and was not born out of a woman’s womb. Being procreated organically was not to be my fate. I was the outcome of a scientific experiment spearheaded by my maker- a mortal human.
As the cold Arctic wind pierced my grotesque body, I could not help but peer at my bleary reflection in the frigid lake. It was an unsavoury sight and one which never ceased to repel me. My face was contorted at one end and yellow liquid oozed out of my flesh like ants trickling out of anthills. The colour of my skin was as white as death itself. The white pallor though seemed one with the snowy surroundings which was my home for some time now. So much time had elapsed since that dreadful day. My maker had died and here was I the ‘monster’ he created, stuck somewhere between the circle of life and death. What was the purpose of my existence? Why was I still alive? Even the harsh and unrelenting weather of the Arctic did not seem to obliterate me.
For the world, I was just a ‘creature’, an experiment gone awry. I did not even have a name! But I had emotions aplenty like these mortals. I could feel angst and despondency and I too yearned for love.
The muffled thoughts swayed in my brain like any other day. Little did I know that today was no ordinary day.
The hooting sound woke me up from my slumber. I opened my eyes, which were stuck to the sockets like two unsightly pieces of flesh. Perched in front of me was a big white owl. His head rotated in a complete circle and the hooting aggravated. A shiver ran down my spine (did I even have a spine?). You see monsters get scared too. Monsters too have within them unnamed phobias. They too jump at the sight of that grimy lizard and they too can in their desperation commit the most heinous acts. Just like humans!
“Here’s a message for you Frankenstein. You are summoned to serve as a jury member for a rather important trial. Here’s the message. Read away”. The soft muttering of the owl quietened and before I could react, he dropped a scroll right in front of me. I was flabbergasted, nevertheless I screamed out, “My name is not Frankenstein for God’s sake! It was my maker who was called so. I am..well I am nameless. But, still don’t call me by his name. He created me but I am ‘me’ and…”
The weird-looking owl flew away paying no heed to my rant. It did not affect me. I was accustomed to people and even lame owls treating me so. No one ever wished to hear me talk. It was easier that way. It was simpler to howl and run away at the mere sight of me than to lend me an ear. Probably that’s why I was never christened. A name makes you whole. It makes humans look up to you in the eye and see you as a living and breathing being.
After banishing me eons ago, what on earth did these humans need me for? The red-coloured scroll suddenly shone in the sun, reflecting a gallimaufry of colours. I was stunned. Was this thing magical? Did I envision everything which transpired a minute ago? Was this world a phantasmagoria of images that run amok or was it for real?
I no longer knew.
With trembling hands and a sense of trepidation gushing over me, I unclasped the scroll.
We solicit your presence to serve as a jury member in an ongoing high-profile case. This apropos to the case no 231 called ‘The Unnatural Selection’. The case under trial is MW Shelley vs The State. We believe your presence on the jury would be pertinent. Please find attached the details of the case along with this note for your reference.
I stared at the words too dazed to even blink. It took me a few moments to go to the next bit of pivotal information. As per the additional information that was supplied to me, the State had pressed charges on a woman named MW Shelley for planting the seeds of something which can lead to ‘blasphemous’ aftermaths.
I did not understand much of what the letter entailed. But, for once I felt a little spark of joy bubbling within my gnarled body. I was needed in ‘their’ world. They had beckoned me. The one they had shunned all those years ago was now going to hold the seat of power. Was I being overly excited? My detestation of the humans had made me develop a propensity towards trusting anything that came out of their land.
Yet, I felt deep inside me that it was time. Like humans, I was curious too.
I took a deep breath. This was it. The moment had arrived. I was jittery and my elongated palms sweated profusely. What if I am abhorred yet again? What if they oust me out at the sight of my grisly body? These thoughts ran through my mind in tandem as I stepped inside the courtroom on that fateful morning.
The court was brimming with people and on a whim, I squinted my eyes. The spectacle unnerved me. After all, it had been a while since I saw a human being in flesh and blood. And here I was standing as a center of attention amid a room thronged by men and women.
To make matters worse, all heads had turned in my direction and all eyes were set on me. But, wait! They did not bat an eyelid as they witnessed me take centre stage. They looked intrigued but the one expression which never ceased to escape their faces ever since I first appeared was conspicuously missing.
They were not afraid of me. Yes, they did not run the other way seeing my deformed shape. What had changed, I wondered. Maybe the years I was gone robbed these humans of their naivety. Maybe they had seen it all.
With slow and steady steps, I strolled past the crowd. A man dressed in impeccable attire beckoned me to be seated. Few other seemingly distinguished people sat next to where I was supposed to be seated. These must be the other jury members, I presumed.
Just then a bespectacled man dressed in a black robe and a yellow wig made an appearance. Everyone stood up and an uncanny silence pervaded the room. I stared at the powdered wig that adorned the man’s head. Who would have thought, a syphilis outbreak and apparent baldness would lead to such a bizarre fashion? I was wise beyond my years. But wait, that phrase was not deemed fit for me. I had lived for more years than I could count.
I turned around to sneak a peek at my fellow jury members. Perched on a cosy black chair was a sheep. It bleated in boisterous tones and I looked away at once. What was a sheep doing here? It was getting curiouser and curiouser.
“My Lord, the defendant Ms. MW Shelley is sued by the State for birthing the idea of cloning. The case which is famously known in the elite circles as ‘The Unnatural Selection’ has sparked appurtenant debate on the cloning issue. The State has accused MW Shelley of creating the first cloned creature thereby giving rise to the ‘It’s All About Cloning Corporation’. This Corporation cloned an animal and now even claims to have cloned a human- the first of its kind. The State abhors the concept of cloning and holds that it can bring nothing but mayhem in the natural order of things.”
I heard the accusations dumbfounded. It explained my presence on the jury. I felt a sense of anticipation thinking of myself as an integral part of such a crucial ‘one for the ages’ kind of trial. My erstwhile ebullience which had been submerged under the icy exteriors of the Arctic gradually began to come back. Crikey! I was suddenly as excited as a bumblebee.
“I would like to hereby call upon the defendant MW Shelley to the witness box.”
I craned my neck to see a petite woman dressed in a black maxi frock ambling towards the witness box. Her face bore a steadfast expression and I could not make out what went through her mind at that juncture.
“Ms. Shelley, do you plead guilty? You created Victor Frankenstein and the monster, thereby rendering upon the world an abominable concept that is bound to disrupt the natural order of things. The State deems you responsible for the ideation of this preposterous concept of cloning. Do you have anything to say in your defence?”
There was a sudden clamour in the court and the bleating of the sheep reached its crescendo.
“Dolly, hush! You are the first animal clone, the pioneer as they say. Better behave like one. Don’t be the black sheep of ‘It’s All About Cloning’.” A woman who sat in the front row looked daggers at the sheep as she shrieked out these words.
My mind was a jumbled mess by now. So, the woman in the witness box was the one who created my master and me? Was I merely a figment of her imagination? And the sheep, the one which didn’t seem to stop bleating was a clone? Was she like me too? I had heard my master say it several times. Were there more human clones or ‘monsters’ like me in the world? Before I could think further, the lady in black, cleared her throat and began to speak. There was a pin drop silence all of a sudden and all eyes were on the woman- a Ms. MW Shelley.
“Thank you, My Lord, for allowing me to take to the stand and speak out my truth. Well, the truth is that I am the creator of Victor Frankenstein and the monster. But it is a travesty that for most of my life, I wasn’t credited to be the one who shaped these characters. I am jubilant that for once, I am not just a woman but an author who at eighteen years of age, literally made a monster of a character. Do not think that I am boastful. I am not, trust me. I am merely being a self-advocate so that the world does not take me for granted. Over the years I have realized that I was a trailblazer, I was someone who was a pioneer of science fiction. As for the accusation that I propagated cloning, well I did introduce a path-breaking phenomenon. But I did leave a warning. It was Victor Frankenstein’s hubris that led to such a disaster. Science is a pandora’s box that once opened can lead to utter pandemonium. As my monster had put it quite succinctly- I ought to be thy Adam but I am rather thy Fallen Angel. So, the onus of this mayhem lies with you.”
Soon there was a commotion and my fellow jury members immediately began to cast their votes. I sat there still reeling under the impact of the recent revelations.
An hour passed or may be more perchance.
“Mr. Monster, you need to cast your vote. Your vote is going to decide who wins the case- Ms. Shelley or the State.”
I suddenly felt tears trickling down my cheeks. Was I crying? I had always felt that my existence was worthless. But today after listening to my actual creator, for the first time in my life I had a feeling that there was a purpose behind my existence. I was part of a higher order of things that forayed mankind to greater heights. I promulgated a warning of sorts that the road to scientific discovery needs to be tread cautiously.
Prompt: Your MC has lived an uninteresting life. But, for the past month their life has changed dramatically. They have been invited to serve on the jury in a high profile trial involving two famous personalities. The press and public have made up their minds about the verdict. But, the jury is tied and the MC has the deciding vote. Write a story with this premise and narrate it as bizzaro fiction.
Beads of sweat trickled through his forehead as minutes turned into hours. His heart was pounding as if ready to leap out of his ribcage. But, his eyes were fixated on her- like always. She looked at him as tears trickled unabated down her cheeks. Sounds of gunshots reverberated through the low ceiling of the café and groans of people enveloped their senses. “Just breathe,” he whispered to her. She closed her eyes.
Just a couple of hours ago the dainty café had presented a different picture. It was just another day at the Beans Escape Café. As usual, it was bubbling with the caterwauls of a rather awkward musician and the laughter of a bunch of people who were at their exuberant best on a bright Saturday afternoon. There was nothing unusual about that afternoon. But, sometimes the most mundane and ordinary moments whirl into something sinister in a split second and, life, as we know, ceases to exist.
Dhaka (One year ago)
He squeezed further on his seat as if hoping to become invisible. If Zain could get a superpower he would have wished for an invisibility cloak, not because it would render him with boundless power but because he genuinely wanted to be pushed away from the everyday brouhaha. His mom proclaimed that he was an introvert but somehow he couldn’t wrap his head around the fact as to why people were demarcated into such categories. What was all the fuss about?
Zain had been born and brought up in Bangladesh. His grandparents were Muslim migrants who had settled here following the partition of India. Both his parents were doctors and he was their only son. Growing up he heard stories of partition recounted by Dadijaan, his grandmother. His parents were busy and as surgeons, they had a demanding job. So, Dadijaan was his sole companion. Zain was always fascinated by these tales but it also unnerved him. Stories of religious strife and bloodshed left him numb. His grandmother passed away when he was fourteen and Zain was crestfallen. Dadijaan felt like home. It was as if suddenly the ground beneath his feet had moved away. He was eighteen now and had just started college. His life was almost perfect or so he thought.
Arianna was brimming with excitement as she walked into the classroom. It had been a few months since she had moved to Dhaka with her family and though initially, she was apprehensive, she was now trying hard to fall in love with the city. She did miss India many a time. She missed her friends, the dusty lanes of old Delhi, and the warmth of home. Her uncle had a thriving business in Dhaka and his father was more than happy to join his brother and leave his rocky marketing job in Delhi.
If Arianna could get a superpower she would have chosen to be happy. She used to laugh at the drop of a hat, she made friends wherever she went and she smiled shamelessly. Her life was almost perfect or so she thought.
Arianna slipped into the classroom and quietly sat on the last bench. The professor was busy explaining the difference between macro and micro economics to a class of fifty-odd first-year students. Arianna sighed. She looked sideways. Next to her sat a lanky boy who was scribbling away in his notebook completely oblivious of her presence.
“Hey, I am Arianna,” she looked at the boy smiling from ear to ear.
“Hi”. He replied seeming disinterested.
“And you are?” she stared at him for a few seconds.
Zain merely gaped at her as if she had asked him the code to flip open his cell phone.
The class ended and Zain sauntered towards the canteen as his stomach growled unabated.
Peering at his phone he bumped into her again as she turned around carrying a glass full of vanilla shake.
“Oops, that was close. Sorry,” Arianna mumbled.
Zain was too stunned to say anything. He was wearing his new Nike shoes and he seriously did not want them to be turned into a rather grotesque pink.
“At least now you can tell me your name. I didn’t spill it on your shoes as you can see. It was a narrow escape for you.” Arianna smiled.
There was something about her that made Zain notice her. Was it her smile that showcased her gums a little too much or her hair, those curls cascading like Maggie noodles onto her shoulders? He could not fathom. But before he knew, he found himself answering her.
“I am Zain.”
“Zain! How cool is that! Great name. I am Arianna. I told you before too, right?”
“Aria..He uttered, stuttering as he tried to pronounce her name correctly”.
She corrected him.
“Arianna… I know, I know, you must be wondering why I am named Arianna. Well, it is an interesting story. My parents loved Arianna Grande a little too much. Do you know the American singer? How cool is that.”
Zain looked at her puzzled.
“Got you. Just kidding ya. My parents don’t even know who Arianna Grande is.”
Zain couldn’t help smiling.
“So, you do smile. Anyone could mistake you for a vampire. I mean white-faced and expressionless, not the menacing-looking version. In fact, you do look like that Twilight guy. Do you like to play computer games? There is this new zombie game I have been playing. Let me show you”.
Zain stared at her phone despite himself.
In the coming days, Zain and Arianna were more often than not found rambling in the college precincts and sitting next to each other during classes.
“Why do you smile so little? Lighten up Zain,’ Arianna would often tell Zain.
“Why do you smile so much. It is odd. How can someone be happy all the time? It is annoying Arianna,” Zain would retort.
It had been four days since he had heard from her. At first, he tried to feign that it didn’t matter to him. She did mention she was planning to visit her cousin for a few days. Still, he sent her a casual message but he didn’t hear back from her.
So on the fifth day, he found himself staring at her small cream coloured house. He had never been to her house before. They had always met at the college and it seemed strange that they didn’t think of meeting outside.
As he pressed the bell he felt strangely nervous. A woman stood in front of him looking at him questioningly. She wore a blue salwar kameez and had a pleasing demeanor. Her eyes looked familiar and it took a few seconds for Zain to figure out that those big hazel eyes were exactly like Arianna’s.
“You must be Zain, right? Aru has told us so much about you that we practically know you. Come inside please. Aru is unwell. Mild fever, nothing to worry about”.
After a few minutes, Zain was standing in Arianna’s room. She didn’t look pleased to see him. Her face looked as pale as her front door.
“Woahh you look like a hot mess, Arianna. Why didn’t you tell me you were sick?” Zain looked into her eyes.
“Well partly because I am not sick.”
“But, your mom said you are running a fever,” Zain said putting his hand on her forehead.
“I told her so. But, I just needed to lay low for a few days. Then I will be ok. Don’t worry”.
Zain’s eyebrows furrowed as he cracked his knuckles.
“You are doing that thing,” Arianna quipped.
“The thing you do when you are upset,” Arianna grinned albeit with a twinge of sadness.
“I didn’t know that. Is that what I do often?”
“Yes. And you also are quick to believe what people say about you Zain,” Arianna smiled.
“And you try to be goofy even when you are low Arianna,” Zain exclaimed.
He continued, “Don’t try to veer the conversation around something else. Why are you upset?”
“Zain, the truth is that ever since we moved here, I have been lonely. I had friends back home. I had a life. And suddenly I was displaced from the place I called home. There are days when the pain gnaws at me and distresses me more than I like to acknowledge. I don’t tell my parents because they cannot possibly go back. They are finally happy here. And so, I feign happiness. I pretend to be this person who is full of zest. I come across as breezy but it is an act most of the time. But, this wall of pretense kind of cracks whenever I am with you for some reason.”
“I know how you feel Arianna. I felt like that when Daadijaan passed away. She was like a bridge between my past and present. She understood me. After she left, I felt alone. And then you walked in and suddenly I wasn’t lonely anymore.”
Arianna looked at Zain agape.
“Yes Arianna. You saved me. And don’t you dare say that you are alone. You have me”.
Zain took Arianna’s hand and she slipped in his arms as if she was meant to be there. A few minutes elapsed and as she moved away she smiled.
“You are not as boring as I had first thought. You sure know how to say those toe-curling stuff to girls. How cool is that! Not bad, at all,” Arianna said with a glint of mischief in her eyes.
Zain blushed as he looked sideways.
“Oh, my God. I should be the one turning all red. Look at you.”
Zain kissed her before she could say anything else.
“Do you ever think about visiting India,” Arianna asked.
“Why do you ask?” Zain answered as he sat upright. The university gardens appeared to have descended straight from a picture postcard. A cool breeze blew as the young lovers sat next to each other.
“Today is your Daadijaan’s death anniversary. You told me she used to tell you stories about India. She told you about partition and the turmoil that it brought upon people. I mean, you must be curious to visit your homeland,” Arianna uttered with an unusual fervor.
“Honestly Arianna, I like it here. Home is where you live with your loved ones. The boundaries are blurring now. And religion ought to be bringing people together not breaking them apart.”
“My Gosh Zain, you should have opted for Philosophy I tell you. You are so good at these discussions,” Arianna quipped as Zain chuckled.
“Well since we are on this subject, I have been meaning to ask you something. I mean I was wondering if this religious difference is an issue with your family. I hope you know what I mean,” Zain looked down.
“I know what you mean Zain. Come on, it is hardly an issue. Fortunately, my parents are educated and not religious bigots and neither are yours I know for sure. The fact that you are a Muslim and I am a Hindu is a non-issue.”
“How cool is that,” he said mimicking her.
“Ha ha. Very funny! But Zain don’t you think our story is going to be quite boring. I mean I don’t mean to mock those who go through these trials and tribulations. But, we are going to be sitting in our favourite café for years together. And by the way, this is not how you tell a girl that you intend to be with her forever. Such a bore you are,” Arianna contorted her face as she smirked.
“I know, I know. I am sorry. But, good to know you don’t object,” he winked.
Arianna pushed him and they giggled away to glory.
“It is such a pleasant Saturday afternoon. Let us go and get a cup of coffee at Beans. I am famished.”Arianna blurted.
Beans Escape Café, Dhaka (Present Day)
Blood splattered on the floral wall of the café as five armed men stood facing a group of terrified people. A woman sobbed quietly reeling under the shock of seeing a man die. Just then armed men rushed to the lone washroom. As expected, it was locked from inside. One of them banged the door for a while before dragging the cook to the café area.
“What is your name?” the armed man screamed.
“Sharmin…Sharmin,” the cook muttered trembling with fear.
“You are a local it seems not a foreigner. Good. You will be spared. Go and cook something fancy for all of us…Go!”
Sharmin stood up and ran towards the kitchen area.
“Yes, you, the boy in that red jacket. Come here,” the armed man shouted.
The boy shuddered.
The terrorists at the cafe were religious extremists and by now Zain had gauged their intention. They did not want foreigners to reside in Bangladesh which was primarily an Islamic state. This siege and attack was just a way to exhibit their displeasure to the new secular government and its policies.
“Yes, you in the red jacket. And you the girl next to him, you also tag along. You two seem like lovebirds. To be happy and in love! Not much to be happy about kiddos when your own country is encroached upon by outsiders. Come here quick!” the man with the gun howled.
Zain stood up as he clutched Arianna close to him and both of them rambled towards the gunman. The moment they dreaded was upon them. He could hear his breath and Arianna’s palms were cold as ice.
Arianna was scared and it had first seemed unreal. To her mind, such things happened in movies. It could not happen to them. But, as she saw a man being shot in front of her eyes, she went numb.
“Yes, you, what is your name, girl,” one of the five terrorists shouted.
“Are you a Bangladeshi?”
“Yes, she is a Bangladeshi. She is my girlfriend.” Zain spoke with urgency.
“Did I ask you fucker?”
The terrorist kicked Zain and he fell face down on the floor.
“Check her ID. It must be in her purse,” the tallest of the five terrorists screamed.
Zain blacked out for a moment and when he came to his senses, he felt as if he saw images of people running amok. People who were once brethren were now killing each other in the name of religion. Boundaries were drawn and people were unearthed from their roots. Daadijaan’s stories reverberated through his mind. Nothing had changed, even after so many years.
A sudden jolt brought Zain to his senses.
“You pig. You were lying, huh? She is not Bangladeshi. This is an Islamic state. No foreigners allowed here.”
Before Zain could react, a loud gunshot resounded through the walls of the café.
Tears ran down Zain’s cheek almost blinding him.
Suddenly, there were multiple gunshots and an army of commandos marched inside the café. All six terrorists were shot within a span of a few minutes.
At a distance, Arianna lay covered in blood.
One year later
The café had reopened today to commemorate the memory of the people who had lost their lives on that fateful afternoon.
A lot had changed in a year. Zain had founded CARE (Citizens Against Religious Extremism) and it had garnered unprecedented support from people. He intended to take this cause forward and work for it till his last breath.
Zain sat at their favorite table. He was still haunted by the ghastly memories of that day. But, he had to come here today. He had to come here for her. Arianna’s words lingered through his mind, “We are going to be sitting in our favorite café for years together”.
Sitting at that table, he could almost feel her sitting next to him. Zain closed his eyes as an errant tear trickled down his cheek. The afternoon sun splattered crimson rays inside the café making it warm and shiny.
He could almost hear her say, “Zain ours is not a boring love story after all. How cool is that”.
I have known Shalini through Womensweb and have always admired the sensitivity she brings to her stories. In fact, I have been fortunate enough to have shared space with her in a couple of WW anthologies. So, when she published her debut book, I was looking forward to reading it as I was certain it would be an immersive experience. And I wasn’t wrong.
‘Stars from the Borderless Sea’ is a novella that explores the concept of love which is beyond the jaded concept of mush and ‘happily ever after’ often attributed to love stories at large. Shalini treads the unconventional path and brings to the fore three stories wherein the protagonists’ love for each other does not find an ideal culmination. And yet love transcends all and is an abiding force never to be obliterated.
The first story ‘Sayonee’ begins with a beautiful quote by Rumi and we are put into the world of Geetika and Shekhar, two star-crossed lovers. Following an epistolary format, Shalini delineates the love between the two characters with an inherent subtlety that is endearing as well as engaging. A sense of longing lingers by the time you reach the end of the story and read about how Geetika and Shekhar ventured through the crests and troughs of life all the while feeling the silent presence of each other in their respective lives.
The second story is called ‘Hamsafar’ which is the story of Rachna, Venkat, and Rajat. Herein Shalini treads the tricky path to explore betrayal and infidelity while navigating the lives of the three characters. It would have been easy to take the moral high road here or even pass a judgment of sorts but what I liked the most about the story is how the author tells the story sans any character assassination. There is no black or white when it comes to life and thus we feel for the grief-stricken Rajat as well as for Rachna and Venkat who are brought together by fate only to be entwined in each other’s lives in more ways than one.
The third story is called ‘Humraaz’ and it would be my favourite story from the book. Humraaz takes us on a journey wherein we become a part of the lives of Mahima and Sanjay the two protagonists who are yearning for love and find themselves finding each other when they both need an emotional anchor and a true companion. I loved the way these two are drawn towards each other, deftly described by Shalini in a manner that seems real and doesn’t seem contrived at any juncture. Here love is not merely physical attraction but an all-pervading sense of surrendering your all to someone and feeling everlasting bliss.
All three stories are evocative and the language though simple is peppered liberally with beautiful imagery which is even poetic at places. The women protagonists are layered and I especially loved peeking into the mind of Mahima the protagonist of Humraaz. To conclude I would say that a book is a lived experience if the characters speak to you. And in this case, they certainly did with all their follies and foibles proclaiming that love has shades aplenty and it cannot be put into boxes. It goes beyond the chartered lanes set by us and therein prevails the beauty of love.