The Real Monster

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…”

Whoosh…

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.

 Dear Frankenstein,

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.

I stood up and smiled. My vote goes to….

                                **************

Further Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clonaid

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/13/frankenstein-at-200-why-hasnt-mary-shelley-been-given-the-respect-she-deserves-

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.

First Published here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/the-real-monster/

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Zain-Arianna and a Thing Called Love…

Beans Escape Café, Dhaka (Present Day)

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.

She frowned.

“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?”

Zain nodded.

“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.

“What thing?”

“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.”

Zain smiled.

“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.”

Zain nodded.

“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.

“Ariaa…Arianna”.

“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.

“No…!”

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”.

The mere thought made him smile.

Some love stories were cool indeed.

*****

Image Source: Pexels

Posted in love, Short Story, Social Lens | Leave a comment

Stars from the Borderless Sea – Book Review

Book title – Stars from the Borderless Sea

Publisher –  Readomania  

Author – Shalini Mullick

Available on – Amazon.in

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.

A must-read through and through!

Posted in book review, books | Leave a comment

Bow Down

Bow down in obeisance- shoulders drooping, spirits dissipating,

brows tense,

Sense of self meanders like someone searching his way out of a maze,

pushed against a fence. Zig Zag, Zig Zag…

Society’s grisly gaze pierces through her making her gag.

Smile– never sardonic but a generous grin,

Be a ‘good girl’.

Lashing out undeterred is a blasphemy- a sin.

Surrender-you must, your happiness comes last,

A woman is defined by her sacrifices,

Not her sincere intentions or how she has been steadfast.

Pretend-at every step of the way,

It is not terribly taxing to put up a face,

A dainty doll, you must obey.

Reminisce– more than you like to admit,

Of times gone by,

The old tape’s black curls turn and rewind, and you sigh.

There standing in a green garbed land is a little girl,

Untarnished, unscathed and unburdened

by the world’s sinister snarl.

Rewind– travel back to the summery sojourn,

When you could be yourself,

And when your journey had just begun.

***

First Published on : ArtoonsInn

Image: Pexels

Posted in Poetry, Social Lens | Leave a comment

The Wall Between Us

Somewhere in West Germany, 1961

I stretched my hands and stood upright, wiped the beads of sweat as my skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, I continued digging again – my passage to freedom. 

I along with my friends had started digging at dawn. As audacious as my plan was, we all were brimming with excitement and nervousness in equal proportions. It had taken us hours to dig out a small heap of mud and create an opening still not big enough for a man to pass through. I looked up and squinted at the beams of harsh sunlight coming in from the gaps of the bombed-out roof of the factory. I signaled at everybody to carry on.  And though the odds were against us, we persevered. 

 ***

1960, East Germany

The room filled with the foot-tapping music of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ as I got myself a cup of coffee and reached the window. My humble cottage overlooked the river Spree and it was a beautiful sight to wake up to every morning.

“Wake up Peter,” I shouted out looking across the bedroom towards my best friend, who was sleeping as if he had no worries in the world. 

I smiled. We were the eternal optimists. I was often both amused and disconcerted by this. How could hope spring unabated, considering the times we were born into?

Both me and Peter were born in the times of rife and destruction, in a country which was still bruised. The Second World War was long over, but the splinters still hung in post-war Germany, constantly squashing the German spirit apart. We had lost our parents to the war and had spent our childhood in orphanages. We had witnessed the bombings, the billeted soldiers, the hunger, the destruction that the war brought upon us. 

Post-war Germany was hounded up like wolves by the winning countries. The Allied powers had their stranglehold in the western part while the eastern part where we lived, was run by the dictatorial rule of the German Democratic Republic or ‘bloody GDR’ as we usually referred to it with gruff disdain.

But, we lived through it all. Today we were twenty-five-year-olds with dreams both for us and for our country.

As I sat at the window, lost in a reverie of sorts, Peter called out in his usual sing-song voice, “Good morning Henry, why didn’t you wake me up sooner kamerad*?”

Du faule Socke, du!* I did. But, someone likes to sleep in. We ought to hurry. We have to open the book store too. It is eight already.” Quickly I switched off the radio set which was still playing the song by this new American sensation, Elvis Presley. 

“Presley will have to wait. We have our own Jailhouses to rock.” Peter winked. 

 ***

We reached the bookstore and started with our everyday drill. We owned ‘Bloomstain’s bookstores’ in East Germany. Though we didn’t earn a lot, it kept us going.  

As I sat at the reception of the bookstore as usual, poring over a book, she entered. The scent of her perfume transported me to lavender fields, while I gaped at her like a fool. 

Herr *…,” she uttered.

“Henry…Henry Schmidt,” I introduced myself.

“Uhh, Herr* Schmidt, do you have the book ‘Farewell to Arms’ by Ernest Hemingway?” she asked.

My head jiggled up and down in excitement and I dashed through the reception to get the book. This was one of my favourite books. Like a child who could not contain his enthusiasm, I blabbered about the book and the author. Her interest was piqued.

From ‘Farewell to Arms’ our conversation moved on to other books and time flew. Her name was Angela and she was from an upper class East German family. I did not want the conversation to end, but we were soon interrupted by another customer. As she stepped out of the bookstore smiling, her eyes glistened like the Blue flower. I was smitten.

She became a regular visitor at the book shop from then on and I couldn’t be happier. As she browsed through the books, flipping pages, I would shoot furtive glances at her, all the while pretending to be engrossed in my work. At times our eyes would meet and both of us would look away blushing like two dewy-eyed teenagers.

And then on a dark and cloudy day, my world shone like that rainbow which appears when one least expects it. She entered the book shop and as always my heart skipped a beat. She spent the better part of an hour sifting through the racks of books. And as she was about to leave, it started pouring. She frowned.

Fraulin* Angela, can I help you with something?”I could not resist asking her.

“I have an important commitment. I need to reach home. And the way it is raining, I fear I won’t be able to make it.” She pulled back a couple of stray hair that fell on her forehead and looked out the window.

Just then a deafening noise of thunder caught us off guard. She shuddered.

I immediately pulled out my umbrella and she looked at me bemused. I could sense her fear of walking home in such menacing weather.

“I can come along with you and walk you home. It is quite dark outside.” 

She nodded.

Underneath a big yellow umbrella, we sauntered through the lanes. None of us said a word but how I wished that we could walk like this forever.  Soon enough we arrived at a big blue mansion. 

“Thank youHenry,” she said.

“I will see you tomorrow.” The words escaped my mouth and I hesitated for a moment.

“Yes, you will”. She blushed.

And at that moment, as we stood under a yellow umbrella with rain splattering around us, I knew that we were both in love.

The coming days were the most exciting days of my life. It was as if my life ebbed and flowed ever so gently and I was in a state of trance. Yes, being in love can intoxicate you, they say. It can lull you into rapture and you feel that until now you were just surviving. You have begun to live only now. 

Angela soon became the axis around which my life revolved. We met almost every day. Huddled together at the banks of the river Spree, we would gaze at the stars while weaving the dreams of our future.

Life did not look so bleak now. 

Peter somehow never warmed up to her. He often told me to rein in and not reach for the stars. 

“You give yourself to people too soon,” he would often say grinning away in typical Peter fashion.

But, she was my Perle* and I was her Barchen*.

Little did we know that in a few days, our world would come crashing down around us.

 ***

13th August 1961

I woke up and it felt like just another day. But, that’s the thing about fiendish days, they seem mundane and then hold you by your neck and you are left grappling for air.

“Henry, the bastards have built a wall. They have cut Germany into two. They did it all in the dead of the night. No one had an inkling of their devious plans. Bloody GDR… ” Peter fumed with anger while I stared at him in disbelief.

“This seems like the GDR government’s last-ditch effort to isolate the people of East Germany,” he cursed under his breath.

And then the realization dawned on me, leaving me numb. I was in West Germany and my home was in the East. A wall now stood between me and my home. Angela, my precious Perle* was in the East too. 

As fate would have it, both Peter and I had come to the West to attend a Jazz festival and stayed back for the weekend. How were we supposed to know that a wall was about to be thrust on us imprisoning us and taking us away from home?

The next few months were a blur for me and Peter. We were stranded in the West and though it was a good place to be, it wasn’t home.

At nights, I would sit and stare at the sky spread out in varied shades of blue, sans any man-made borders. I missed Angela and I missed home. 

The Berlin Wall had wreaked havoc in the lives of everyone. Families were separated and people were stranded. A pall of despair loomed large as people struggled to come to terms with the ‘wall’.

Peter had become stoic and did not let his emotions get the better of him. But, I knew that under the tough exterior he pretended to display, he too was a broken man.

It was at this juncture that I decided to do something preposterous. Peter called my idea, ‘blod’*. But, my yearning to be home and to see Angela dissipated all that one could fear. Yes, I planned to dig a tunnel from West Germany to the East.

“Digging a tunnel isn’t as easy as you think it is Henry,” Peter’s disgruntled tone wasn’t encouraging at all.

“I do realize that Peter, but I want to go home. I want to go to…” 

Peter looked away. 

“You should spread a word amongst your trusted group of friends here. I know you have friends on this side,” I reassured him making an effort to calm his nerves.

He nodded.

The first good thing that happened was, soon we had three trusted tunnellers who were ready to help us in our daunting mission. We skimmed through maps, trying to chalk out a route for our tunnel. After months of thorough planning, we were ready with a solid plan. Our tunneller friends helped us get tools from a cemetery. Now we had rakes, hammers, and wheelbarrows. 

After hunting for many days, we found an abandoned, war-ravaged factory and planned to start from here. With much trepidation, we began digging. We were supposed to dig our way through this tunnel and reach the basement of a friend’s cottage in the East. I had met this friend during one of the peasant movements and knew that he was dead against the GDR government’s regime. 

In the coming days, the digging continued. It was tough but we were relentless. As we nursed our blisters, Peter would often shout out, “Sind wir verrückt”.

But, there was no turning back now. Peter knew that I wanted to be with Angela and that was what kept me going. He did not say anything though. He was a good friend.

I had already written a letter to Angela and told her about our plans. She was ecstatic.

Finally, the day arrived when we were to crawl through the 80 meters long tunnel that we had clandestinely dug. The trickiest part was when we would be under the Eastern part, close to the cottage. If caught, the Stasi* would not spare us. It was a known fact that Stasi had thousands of informants all around East Germany. They were constantly on a lookout for miscreants and were notorious for being ruthless. But, we had taken the plunge. 

The group screamed, ‘Die Freiheit’ and we went in.

 ***

Present Day (East Germany) 

The end was visible. I had crawled my way through the underground tunnel, all the while in imminent danger of being caught. Just then I heard muffled sounds coming from above. On a whim, I looked back. Peter, who was just a step behind looked at me, white with fear. Was it the Stasi? Was our end near? I had already hacked my way up to the cottage by now. This was the last lap and I could not give up- not now. Right outside the window of the living room, I saw a group of armed men, carrying machine guns. I froze. 

And then I saw her. She stood with one of the armed men, pointing towards the cottage. 

The next few minutes went in a daze. Peter came up and pushed me back. He looked at her and cursed, “That bitch, she ratted us out to the Stasi.”

I turned around and ran as tears welled up clouding my vision.

The men barged in.

Boom…

Peter was shot. 

I ran back and crawled inside the tunnel. I kept going.

I had escaped. 

But, what was left of me?

I had lost my love, my home, and my best friend. Why did she betray me? I would never know.

***

Epilogue

2019, Germany

A frail wrinkled woman sat in front of a TV screen. An exuberant reporter was talking animatedly, “Today marks thirty years of the fall of Berlin Wall or ‘The Wall of Shame’ as it came to be known as. It was a historical day indeed that paved the way for the unification of Germany.”

Just then a peppy teenager barged in the room.

Oma*, what was it like? You know when the Berlin Wall was built?”

The woman looked listlessly at a lone corner and everything came back rushing in like a giant waterfall. Those memories were still etched in the crevices of her mind.

Everything flashed through her mind like a kaleidoscope- On that bright sunny day, how she was taken in by the Stasi. They asked for the location of the tunnel. She cried. She denied. They promised her that if she told them the location of the tunnel, they would not touch Henry. 

So many times she had replayed those moments in her mind. So many times she wondered if she could have done things differently.

He was safe. She never heard from him. But, she knew. 

And even after so many years, that’s what mattered to her.

The love of her life, her Barchen* did not die.

The reporter still screamed through the TV and a picture flashed in front of her eyes. The teenager clapped with excitement, “Oma*, see they are showing the Berlin Wall.”

The old woman stared at the picture as tears trickled down her wrinkled cheeks.

“If only they had not built a wall.” She cried.

 ***

Author’s Note: The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by East German soldiers, by stringing barbed wires and making concrete barricades. It was built in the dead of the night, ideologically and physically cutting off West Berlin from East Germany. On the morning of August 13, 1961 people woke up and were terrified to find themselves on one side of the wall. Over the years, multiple attempts were made to cross the border and a number of tunnels were dug on both sides. 

Glossary:

Kamerad: Mate/buddy in German

Du faule Socke, du: You lazy sock(German slang)

Herr: German word for ‘Mr.’

Fraulin: German word for ‘Miss’

Perle: German word for ‘Pearl’

Barchen: German word for ‘Little Bear’

Blod: German word for ‘Stupid’

Sind wir verrückt: ‘We are crazy’ in German

Stasi: Secret East German Police

Die Freiheit: ‘Freedom’ in German

Oma: ‘Grandmother’ in German

***

First Published at ArtoonsInn

Cover Photo: Joel Overbeck

Posted in Historical Fiction, love, Short Story | 4 Comments