Historical fiction journal ‘Circa’ showcases my story

I love historical fiction. How intriguing it is to try to reconstruct a moment in time – like solving a puzzle and getting into the minds of a long dead cast of fictional characters. How satisfying it is when you’ve put the known facts to work for your story and created a unique perspective, a prismatic lens into long gone times.

So it is with especial pleasure I announce that Jen Falkner, editor in chief over at ‘Circa: a journal of historical fiction’ has just published the fall issue of her fine journal and my story, ‘The Scallywag Miner’ set in 1860s San Francisco is a part of it! Please check it out and along with my story, enjoy the other superb little jaunts back to the past featured in this edition.

http://circajournal.com/currentissue/

TheHobbitFilm13Dwarves

The Hobbit: a movie

Every moment that I’ve been introduced to a good book and author, stands out in my mind like mile markers in the journey of life. ‘The Hobbit’ by Tolkein is memorable for another reason apart from its excellence as a piece of fiction. I was twelve, and an art competition in the children’s page of The Statesman was announced. The dwarves poem was printed in the children’s page and the competition asked for an illustration that must include the dragon, the dwarves, their treasure and the moon to qualify. The winner would take home Rs. 500, and the consolation prize winner would receive the three books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

You have to understand, at this time art and drawing in particular, had developed into one of my main interests thanks to a talented art teacher, and I’d displayed a fair modicum of talent so that my reputation as the artiste of our family was quite solid. While not particularly money minded at that time, I was very keen tHobbito win, winning was key. First order of business was to read ‘The Hobbit’ – just the song in the paper would clearly not be enough to inspire me. My mother produced her old copy of the great little story and I spent a happy afternoon following Bilbo on the first adventure of his hobbit life. Next came the composition of my entry – hand made paper cut to size, sharpened drawing pencils and my water colors, brushes and jug of water were laid out on my desk. I went to work. I worked on my piece for a few days and finally decided it was ready. My mother was brought in to inspect my work and I waited for her words of praise. To my consternation she frowned and then said, the colors are a bit faded, can you make it brighter? I looked at it again, my rendition of the mountain, the dwarves, the glowing jewels and my bright green dragon seemed inspired to me, what was she talking about?

Then she showed me. My sister, couple years younger and not at all artistic up until then, who in fact never displayed the slightest ambition to win anything, had decided to enter as well! She’d used crayons and created a picture that made up for drawing skill with color. Her sky was a deep midnight blue in which the moon hung startlingly white and full, she did not have enough space for the dragon so all we saw was a curving green spiky tail in that sky. Humph. I looked again at my pale pink sky and shook my head, stubborn in my artistic pride, I cannot change it now. Off went the entries.

Weeks later the results of the competition were announced, and seeing everyone excited over the children’s page my smile widened, I should get used to winning national competitions by now, I’d done it before with my fairy tale.

Staring up at me in the spot for the winning artwork was my sister’s crayon piece on the Hobbit’s song. My sister, who complained about the long art lessons, who could not draw anything so it can be recognized for what it is, had won! My mother said nothing, she knew my pain. I was so grateful she did not point out the value of the vibrant colors my sister had used, or her stylistic rendition of the dragon. My father pointed to the list of consolation prize winners and I saw my name – first of the three listed. I felt happier – I’d get the three books! Needless to say our summer holidays were spent devouring the classic stories, and imagining the fantastical worlds painted by Tolkein. Above is my rendition today – which attempts to copy both our styles – my sister’s colors and my sketches. The originals from when we were children are gone, probably in some dusty newspaper archives.

Years later, the movies were made and I had nothing to complain about – thoughtful well made films that did the books justice.

This year I caught up with ‘The Hobbit’ – I was blown away. The success of a book adaptation into a movie depends heavily on the cast and whether they fit the images I have in my mind, from reading the book . In this case Richard Armitage played Thorin Oakenshield to such perfection that I believe Tolkein himself would approve. Richard’s eyes smoulder with nostalgia for Thorin’s lost past and his nobleness is apparent.

the_hobbit_armitage

Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf : perfect casting.

I didn’t expect the movie to end where it did and it’s quite ingenious: it has definitely left both readers and non readers agog for more. My ten year old son, who hadn’t read ‘The Hobbit’ when we saw the movie, is hooked and I am proud to report he bought a copy at his school fair which was providentially held in the next week, and has read it. He is reading the Fellowship of the Rings now. Oh, those extremely few moments of glory that come with parenthood. Next, we shall watch the other movies together but only when he’s read all three books.

Apsaras

To Scorch in the Sun

To Scorch in the Sun‘ – by Brinda Banerjee

Mahi sighed indolently stretching her slender body on the soft billowy clouds. Her skin glowed golden,  in built protection against the strong sun; her hooded eye lids shielded her powerful eagle eyes; her hair was long, all the way to her knees and it shimmered with additional screening powers.

Mahi was composing an ode to enchant the king’s youngest son who was turning into a very handsome strong fellow. Eyes closed, she hummed, her mind whirring in concentration. She turned on to her stomach, and waving one foot in the air, she began to write on the parchment with her quill. The clouds she lay on shifted with the winds and she smiled in pleasure: it was like living on a soft swing.  She was an Apsara now. Old myths had Apsaras as frivolous beauties who graced Indra, the thunder god’s court in the heavens; but when she was recruited into their legions after her fatal accident on Earth, Mahi learnt otherwise.

ApsarasA cry broke her concentration and she frowned. Looking up she saw Urmila in full war gear, astride her favorite steed the white owl, flying toward her.

“Mahi! Get ready at once – there is a breach at 30 degree latitude and 45 degree longitude. And we are assigned – you and I. My luck – stuck with a newbie. But it is a full mission – we have exactly twenty five minutes to close the hole.”

Urmila was strong, some said harsh, but with her muscled limbs encased in leather and her lean taut features framed with her short cropped raven black hair, she was simply thrilling to watch when in motion, like a sleek jaguar. Older and more experienced than Mahi, Urmila was born to the Apasaras and had always lived in the clouds, unlike her. Mahi had been training under Urmila for the last few months and it seemed the test was now. They’d warned her it would be sudden.

She rose and tucked the parchment and quill into the cloud. She could find it again at her next relaxation time, no problem, it was like storing your belongings in a  database, you’d find it if you were  the rightful owner and knew the password.  She blew into her conch shell, summoning Faluda, her own eagle. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship and for many days Faluda had disobeyed and humiliated her. Urmila had assigned taming Faluda as her first task and after falling dangerously close to ground, fainting and scraping herself on Faluda’s talons Mahi had finally discovered that Faluda loved to eat pomegranates and her flight was bound to be smooth if Mahini positioned herself exactly in the middle of her roomy back. These birds were much larger than their avian kin that flew closer to the ground.

With a screech Faluda swooped onto her cloud and patiently waited for Mahini to settle herself.

The cold air felt good against her face as they flew, Urmila ahead of her on the owl. She could sense it before they got there. It felt desolate and cold: a whistling sucking sensation like warmth seeping away.

With their extra sensory sight they could see it – the ragged hole in the atmosphere about ten centimeter wide and seven centimeter long above them – the universe beyond looked terribly forbidding – inky black shot with dazzling gold.

Urmila drew her arrow and standing upright balancing on her owl shot it into the hole. Blue lightning zigzagged from the arrow to the ends of the hole and resisting her impulse to cover her eyes (she knew her eyes could bear this powerful light now), Mahi saw the hole shrink just slightly. Urmila kept shooting arrows; with each shot her face grew strained – the arrows drew from her own body reserves of ozone that Apasaras specialized in manufacturing.

Mahi stood on Faluda, eyebrows knit in concentration. Her weapon was a bolt of the same blue lightning, meant to stitch the hole close. She threw her first bolt and almost screamed in frustration when it fell short of the hole. She had tried convincing her trainers that as a human she had been abysmal at throw ball, volley ball, any sport to do with throwing balls over nets. But they had ignored her and focused her training on the lighting bolt throwing.

“Focus!” shouted Urmila her voice sounding threadbare.

Mahini tried again. Her entire being honed in on the blue ozone energy within her. Cupping her hands she felt the neon ball forming. Next she drew her hand back, fixed her gaze on the hole and threw with all the force she could muster. The ball thundered into the hole and great arcs fizzed tightening the hole! Without pausing to revel in her success, Mahi continued the deluge – she put her energy into the aim and the force of the throw, every ball that fell short was a waste of ozone. She found herself remembering her physics and curving her arm to maximize the shot.

Just as she thought she would collapse and fall into nothingness, the hole closed with a final clap of blue lightning and thunder.

Urmila lay back on her owl’s back her strong muscles quivering. “Newbie – that was great. We did it.”

Mahi lowered herself on Faluda her arms shaking. The vast expanse of atmosphere stretched above them transparent yet protective. The inky space beyond looked far away again. Then she gasped. Had Urmila just praised her? She turned toward her a huge smile on her face, to be met with Urmila’s usual taciturn expression. Urmila cocked one eyebrow as if to say, What?! Enough with the gushing.

The two apsaras turned to fly back to their clouds, their world safe, for now, against the sun’s burning touch.

***********

And that completes the fifth of the ‘senseless’ prompts hosted by A.M Harte – thanks for a fun month of flash fiction!

BubbleGumBug

Of bubble gum and other cravings

BubbleGumBug‘Of bubble gum and other cravings’ by Brinda Banerjee

Noor grimaced.

The creature raised its multicolored head and waved its antennae, as though greeting them. The stalk it clung to swayed. Its head was larger than its body, which was splashed with purple and red over leaf green. This five-inch life form blended into the tropical greenery like a flower. As they watched, its mandibles extended and it chomped on the petals of the hibiscus flower. Within five seconds the flower was gone, and the insect had already dropped onto the next leaf.

“Come on, Mummy please…” Mishi’s eyes were huge in his round face, his cheeks streaked with grime, and hair clumped with sweat and mud.   He clutched at her hand and yanked, his hungry gaze on the insect.

“Wait, Mishi.” Noor sought Calvin’s eyes for reassurance. She swallowed, her dry mouth painful. Calvin’s hand shook as he extended it toward her. The three of them stood hand in hand surrounded by the jungle, panting as the vivid greens jolted and blurred. They had been trekking in circles through the foliage, breaking large leaves, thick branches, and creepers that snaked around their necks and pushed at their faces.

They’d disregarded every survival rule after crashing; their panic had trumped sense. In any case there was no aircraft to stay close to, no paraphernalia to cleverly reuse, no one to spot their rescue flares. They were lone wanderers in a strange cosmos, and crashing their ship was just the start of their misfortunes.  Hunger pangs gnawed, beginning to overpower them and the future looked bleak.

“Wait, what was that?” Calvin raised a hand. The undergrowth-crushing thuds grew closer each second, till they heard a bone-chilling screech like some crazed creature’s war cry. They turned and ran for cover, still holding hands. The monster thumped past them as they crouched under black lava rocks. It was enormous as a truck and hideous, with an exoskeleton and the longest menacing mandibles they’d ever seen.

Noor’s voice shook as she whispered, “How are we going to survive this?”

Calvin pressed her hand, “We’ll make it hon, this is some freakish insect infested place, and we’ll figure it out.”

“Mom, Dad, I’m hungry!” Mishi reminded them.

“We’ll need the strength, Noor, you know the protein content in these things is massive,” Calvin always sounded nasal when he wheedled. It was not an attractive characteristic.

Mishi crawled forward, his eyes transfixed on the prize. The same colorful insects they’d seen before, grazed in the flower patch before them. As Noor watched, Mishi grabbed one and bit into it. Another one seemed to wink at Noor as she shivered in revulsion.

Mishi’s face contorted as he swallowed. “Mom! That tasted stupendous! It was minty and fruity and cool, the flavors splashed onto my tongue like bubble gum.”

Calvin hardly waited to hear Mishi’s endorsement, before he found his first fruit bug. They decided to call it the bubble gum bug and found it filled their stomachs and tasted delicious. Even Noor gave in eventually to the hunger pangs scraping mercilessly against her insides.

Mishi ate the most bugs – he felt unusually happy, and whooping with joy, he raced to the top of the rock.

Noor screamed. Blotting the light from the sky stood the exoskeletal monster bug, his antennae waving and mandibles clicking. He advanced on Mishi.

Calvin and Noor scrambled to shield their son from death by bug.

At first Mishi did nothing, he seemed transfixed on his rock, looking forlorn and tiny beside the big bug. Then, he began to grow, his nails grew, his teeth sharpened, his hair shrank and he grew scales. The scales were purple, pink and leaf green. Within seconds, Mishi stood transformed into a massive version of the watermelon bug they’d just eaten. Armed with his mandibles and claws, Mishi stormed down the rock toward the monster bug. It stood, waving its antennae for a second more, and then it turned and scuttled away. Calvin cheered. Noor glanced back at the little bubble gum bugs, horrified: the one that had winked at her before merely looked bored, and continued to chew its way through a rose.

Mishi resumed his regular boy shape over the next hour, much to his parent’s relief. Maybe, just maybe, they’d make it?

***

No. No way. Noor shook her head, opening her eyes. Calvin was at her elbow, still hoping to entice her with fried grasshopper. They stood before a stall loaded with rows of insect based delicacies at the teeming Hong Kong market. Not even if we were dying and these gave us super human powers.

Ok. Suit yourself, I’ve heard they taste good. Noor grimaced at the nasal twinge in Calvin’s voice and turned to go. The little being inside her tummy kicked and she smiled.

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

Fumes of Love

“Fumes of Love” by Brinda Banerjee

The most handsome boy I’d ever seen in my life was staring at me with plain disgust – his beautiful, aquiline nose wrinkling slightly. I swallowed, wishing it would stop but there was no question I was stinking. Distinctly malodorous fumes rose from my body – I swear there were actual grey wisps in the air. Kids were stopping and staring at me with frank displeasure, and then hurrying on to escape the smell.

I stuttered, “I..its not me..” My mind swirled, how did I get here, again?

It was only yesterday that I stood outside Zeenath’s building on a busy street junction. The apartment building  was sad looking, complete with peeling plaster, chipping gargoyles and stone garlands. We were told she lived on the top most floor. Sarita and I clutched each other’s hands tightly as we went up the lift, we could not help it, the lurching lift and flickering light in the dim foyer were enough to spook us out.

The smell was the worst – it was dank, reminiscent of the garbage landfill nearby – the apartment was located off the turnpike.

“Zeenath can fix your problems. Trust me, she will look into your eyes, all deep and soulful and bam! just like that she’ll give you a solution,” Morgan had sounded serious, her plump cheeks quivering. We inspected her – not a trace of her terrible acne. One morning Morgan had bounced in looking like a new person, the complete opposite of her usual measly self. It took a lot of coercing before she spilt her secret – she’d taken a magic potion.

Sarita and I were here for Zander. We wanted to ask Zeenath for help with making Zander fall in love with me. I wanted him to take me to junior prom. Zander’s smile and crinkly eyes always make my heart skip a beat. He looks on me as his good friend, but junior prom was mere days away, I just had to take action.

The bell chimed, endlessly, it seemed to us as we stood at Zeenath’s  door, looking at the peeling paint.

She opened the door dressed in a glittery costume complete with harem pants. (I imagined her scrambling to change from sweats into this more atmospheric outfit, while we waited at her door). A veil was pinned across her face so all we could see were a pair of heavily made up, dark eyes.

“Kom in, girls”. Her eastern European accent was very pronounced. We followed her into a sparsely furnished room, totally devoid of character, she was the one splash of color in her circus costume. A couple of straight backed chairs sat next to a massive table loaded with all kinds of boxes, bottles, books and a striking brass lamp. She listened as I begged for help with Zander.

Then, in complete silence, while my heart hammered, she rose and went to the table. We craned our necks to see – she was mixing things in a beaker and then she poured liquids into a tiny blue bottle. Was it a love potion?  OMG – now here was an experiment we’d all go for in Chem lab.

“Here” – she held out the bottle.

“What do I do – slip it into his drink at lunch?”

“Drink?” Her kohl rimmed eyes widened. “No, no, silly child. This is a perfume. Wear it and go to school – the first boy you speak to on the day you first wear the perfume, will fall in love with you. Drawn in by the power of your perfume.”

“OK got it. Wear perfume, talk only to Zander. Easy.”

“Are you sure about this Zander?” She asked next, bangles clinking gently.

“Yes I am, why?”

“Because if you change your mind, Zander and others, will smell a very different perfume. Not nice.” I hardly heard her in my thrill, as my fingers closed around that cool, deep blue bottle.

When I woke up in the morning I had a great feeling about the magic in my bottle. I dabbed the perfume on my wrists and behind my ears, singing to myself. I breathed deeply – wait – I could smell nothing – nada. A tiny sliver of doubt cut across my consciousness – what if it was all bull? Nah. I had faith. Getting rid of Morgan’s frightening acne was nothing short of miraculous.

I made it to school without speaking with any boys. I spotted Zander slouching by the lockers as soon as I entered through the main doors.

I walked over to him, laid my hand on his arm and smiled. “Hey Zander -how are you?”

Zander smiled his slow wide smile as always and nodded. “S’up.” He said, already turning away to slap another friend’s raised hand.

I could not help the feeling of disappointment that began to turn my stomach – was it all lies then?

And then, it happened. Zander turned back to me and his eyes were moony and fixed on my face. “Zoe,” he said, looking confused. “You look great today.” I beamed back, hardly able to believe what I was hearing.

How could I help what happened next?

He walked in, that’s what happened. The most handsome boy I’d never imagined existed. He was new, I’d never seen him at our school before, yet he walked with easy confidence, smiling at kids along the way. He stopped beside us, and opened the locker right next to mine. My heart began to pound and I can swear, I had no control over my limbs, they just propelled me over to his side. “Hi! I’m Zoe, you must be new.” I said, summoning my most charming smile ever.

“Yes, New at your service, Zoe.” He smiled, tossing his great hair back. We laughed. “Its Matt.” He said.

In that moment, it began. The putrid garbage-y smells that I’d smelt beside Zeenath’s apartment yesterday were everywhere around me, but worst of all there was no doubt that the smells came from me! This was what Zeenath must have been trying to warn me about – but who can explain my fickle heart – Matt was so much better for me, than Zander.

Unfortunately, both of them were edging away from me, with Zander looking quite devastated at my sudden transformation.

Bunty hears a snake

There it was again, a soft, scraping sound. It came from the store rooms, over there beyond the kitchen. Bunty jerked fully awake with a grunt. Bending her silver haired head to the right, she listened hard.

There! Again! It was a distinct slithering noise. She rose and crept toward the store-rooms in the back of the kitchen. It was dim in the cavernous kitchen and cool in the store- room at the back. Bunty crouched outside the narrow room, face scrunched in a mou of concentration.

She’d heard this noise every afternoon in her brother’s bungalow since she’d arrived – a series of soft creaks and shuffles. Bunty prided herself on her cat like, sharp ears. It was the onset of the monsoons and all manner of snakes and jungle creatures could be advancing on them in this lone bungalow, deep in the Assamese jungles.  Everyone ignored her warnings, claiming she is city bred and there was no reason to get over excited. Monty, her eleven-year-old nephew was the worst – teasing her, scaring her with plastic worms and spiders. Humph! Over excited. We’ll see about that. Bunty marched back toward the bedrooms where the family dozed, enjoying their afternoon siesta.

She woke her brother first, then his wife and then their children, then the maid and the servant. With everyone gathered in the courtyard outside the kitchen, blinking and wiping sleep haze from their eyes, Bunty directed the servant, Soura, to arm himself with a stick. “A long sturdy one,” she said.

“Now advance,” she waved Soura forward. “Step back children,” she called, arm outstretched. “It could be dangerous, snakes are quick as a whip”.

Soura advanced as instructed, his face a mask, concentration tautening every muscle in his ropy legs and arms.

But didi, began her brother, and was shushed peremptorily by Bunty.

Soura began to make a curious clicking sound. Bunty pushed her steel rimmed round glasses up her nose: “That is how he lulls the rodent or snake and then Bam! Splat goes the creature.”

“Soura’s call is hypnotic indeed,” her brother’s wife sounded wry. “Poor snake,” she mumbled, wilting under Bunty’s biting glance.

“Ma, maybe Soura knows Slytherin speak,” piped her older niece. And she too was silenced by another of Bunty’s sharp looks.

Soura disappeared within the bowels of the kitchen and they all waited outside. Bunty’s excitement at her long awaited redemption was infectious, the children fidgeted.  They could still hear the Soura’s ardent clicks.

THUD! They heard the stick hit the ground with a resounding crash. Little Putli jumped. Bunty swallowed. “Soura!” She called, her voice quaking a bit.

Soura emerged from the kitchen his face scrunched as though trying to hold in his emotions.

Behind Soura came Monty, head hanging down, feet dragging making a scuffling sound on the cool polished cement floors.

“No snake, madam. It was this young babu – dragging the bags of wheat aside and climbing the ladder shelves to get to the pickles and sweets stored up there,” Soura announced. As he slouched away they could see his shoulders shaking in merriment.

“Well, that is settled then,” her brother strode off to resume his siesta.

Monty’s mother led him away by a reddened ear  – “No wonder your tummy hurts just before dinner, back to your room right now.”

Bunty felt the inevitable prick of disappointment – she was used to being right. Sighing, she smoothed her silver hair down. Tilting her head, she drank in the sounds of the peaceful tea estate, the humming heat, the melodious kokil and the harsh squawk of the occasional parrot. Perfect time for a cup of Darjeeling, Bunty smiled in anticipation and proceeded toward the bedrooms to rouse her brother and sister in law.

Aura of Gold

They say I have the sight, they whisper about it and avoid my eyes. They could be right, I cannot deny it.

When he walked in that day to the roadside inn where I was kitchen maid, I was sorting gravel from the dried peas for the night’s soup. It felt as though a luminous glow had gently touched my bent back and spread its warmth through my chilled bones. Gold, his aura was gold, it hung about him in a misty haze and dissembled his person with irresistible allure, so that even his dusty travel weary ragged clothes looked handsome.

He strode in, and greeted the customers gaily, but his relentless gaze skittered everywhere, searching.

I started, as the stranger came to a stop before me, the sieve clattered from my hand to the floor, its clang drowned by the guffaws of the villagers.

She is nobody sir, why tarry with a dirty scullery maid. Come, sit with us and have some hot soup, called the innkeeper.

I pulled the scarf over my head and around my mouth with trembling hands, and stole a few surreptitious glances, drinking in his beauty. He sat with the men and accepted a tankard with a nod of thanks. His gaze blistered on my skin even as he slurped his food and drink and conversed with the people.

I’m looking for the visionary seer, he said, still staring at me. I blocked out the innkeeper’s crude responses, busily absorbing that stranger’s beautiful gold aura.

When he rose, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand my eyes rose with his and for one moment, locked with his. The frisson of excitement that cleaved through me then is incomparable to any sensation I’ve ever felt.

My mouth fell open and my protective scarf slipped from my head as he walked straight toward me, the crowd parting to make way. All I could sense was that dazzling shimmer of warm gold and all I could feel was the powerful tug of his mesmerizing eyes. My usual caution fled me at this, my moment of need and I rose, the lentils scattering to the ground.

You are she, are you not, the one I seek? His voice was liquid amber, his calloused finger on my chin, so gentle. You can predict the true intention of all who approach the king, you can protect our king with your sight.

All my life I’ve seen things. Things other than what another normal might see. I can tell from the color of the aura around a person whether they approach with evil intent or not. The whispers reached the king and he often summons me to his court to stand by his side, unnoticed, and counsel his minister on the true resolve of the petitioners and noblemen.

I stood mute as the bustling inn fell silent around us, the innkeeper’s eyes were wide with shock at his wretched maid’s double life. I only wanted the stranger to keep looking into my eyes, and I wanted to keep seeing the dancing life in his. I never noticed that I hadn’t yet assayed this stranger’s aura; I did not know whether he was evil or good. Not in all that time since he walked in.

Striking my unseeing eyes that were so fixated on his beauty, was too easy for him and with one fluid swoop, his short dagger cut my eyes. Still, no sound escaped my lips. I must have fainted.

Now the king will not have the easy protection of your wily sight, I heard him mutter before the crippling pain overcame me.

Time creeps with aching tardiness while I wait for my wounds, both visible and invisible, to heal – my grief at the stranger’s careless beguilement has cracked my tender heart open. I heard the king had set men upon him, but to no avail – the stranger with the false golden aura had escaped.

The day the bandages on my eyes are removed, the world looms dark and my spirits sink with fear. The life of a blind maid – what horrors await me? I can hear even the slightest rustle of cloth or the softest fall of a step, my ears are sharpened, small relief there. How could I be pleased with that prize – I, who so treasured the rainbow colors only visible to me, now banished into a lifetime of blackness?

The widow, who’d taken me in and nursed me, sets down a bowl of broth and urges me to eat. I wipe my tears and struggle up from the straw pallet.

And when I turn toward the widow I discover – my own miracle – I can still see – I can see the warm orange glow my benefactor’s soul emanates – although I do not see her flesh and blood person. I see her goodness as plain as I could before. I eat my soup, my mind churning. I will heal, I resolve, I will go to the king and in secret, resume my duties, all so that one day, I can strike back at the enemies and my cruel tormentor. Let him soften, safe in his false assumption that he has blinded the seer.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

The ruthless artiste

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Image courtesy Wikipedia

I recently watched the movie ‘Hemingway and Gelhorn’. Clive Owen did a great job portraying the larger than life, manly writer extraordinaire Ernest Hemingway. Nicole Kidman was quietly brilliant as always: she did something with her voice producing a deep drawl for the whole movie playing Martha Gelhorn, a 1940s war correspondant.

Do writers have to have an innate ruthlessness to be great — whether it manifests as something ugly that hurts the people close to you as it was for Hemingway, or whether it simply is inside you and manifests in your writing – the writer has to be ruthless to put on paper words that expose matters as they are, or as he/she sees it.

Hemingway was cruel with Martha Gelhorn- he loved and admired her, he encouraged her to write, but she must not become better than him, she must not get more glory than him. Agreed this is only a cinematic interpretation however, it was shocking to see how he humiliated her and he snatched away the one thing she had all to herself just to spite her. He was furious when she left. The third woman he attracted did not understand him and though she was by him in the end, the actor delivered a chilling portrayal of how much she disgusted him and how out of touch she was with him. Hemingway died a lonely man.

Self destructiveness appears to have been a common trait among writers of repute such as Hemingway, Wolfe and others. When the muse descends and creativity takes off perhaps there is no room for other human beings, no ability left to care and love for another, and eventually that creativity swallows the artiste himself in a self destructive turn.

All quite depressing, but nonetheless the charge one gets watching (in the movie) a young Hemingway standing at a dresser, pounding away on his typewriter, full of great passion for creating and building worlds, is quite enticing one cannot help wanting to be like him, even a tiny bit, and to welcome writing powers into one’s life like some sort of poison.

Hemingway and Gelhorn chose Havana in Cuba for their haven together – and in the movie, the spacious house with the fabulous tropical greenery around and the bluest sea so close by seemed like a writer’s paradise. Calm and beautiful. The whole thing was spoilt for Gelhorn, by Hemingway’s urinating cats and his insouciance regarding any semblance of cleanliness.

Both writers chose to launch themselves into the tumultuous world around them –  Hemingway’s interest was in filming war movies in Spain whilst in the thick of the action, and Gelhorn developed her career as war correspondent in parallel, eventually breaking away from Hemingway’s stifling influence. The danger, the thrill of being in the midst of the unfolding war scenes, and being a part of the stories of the people around them, inspired the writers greatly. Great writing is not the result of solitary confinement to a desk, rather it occurs when one throws oneself wholeheartedly into life and living.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Hemingway did seek danger and action – he was a great fan of deep sea fishing. I’ve read the book ‘Old Man and the Sea’; after seeing this movie I understood how he’d transposed his own experiences grappling with the fishing line while exposed to the elements, to this story. He also created an unforgettable character who wins the reader’s sympathy with his stoic nature and passion for the sea. This old man has become redundant, no longer able to withstand the hardships of deep sea fishing and yet, he goes out one day and his fabled luck returns and he hooks a massive swordfish. So massive that the fish drags his old boat out way further than he should go. Then its a waiting game between the old man and the dying fish, will the approaching storm catch the old man out forcing him to cut the line and flee or will the fish give up first? Even if he does subdue the magnificent swordfish, how will he tow his catch back to land in his small boat? The odds are so great, yet the reader understands that compulsion deep within the old man to redeem himself and his reputation and bring back an unbelievable catch. The simple story is a thrilling drama carefully crafted with Hemingway’s expertise and fully deserving of the Pulitzer.

The film ends with a sprightly, white haired, straight backed old Gelhorn hoisting her back pack onto her shoulders and heading out to yet another war ravaged country. What force of spirit and passion for her writing that keeps her going, seemingly forever. Although her dreams of writing fiction never materialized to  the extent possible, Martha Gelhorn was able to revive herself after her toxic relationship with Hemingway, and still have a long successful writing career.

Cutting for Stone

I will not cut for stone..

Doctors make house calls on a regular basis in India where I grew up. Special relationships develop over time beween the physician and the family members, as he or she, treats whole generations of people from the time they’re born to adulthood. One such doctor I always look back upon with fondness was our family doctor on whom we bestowed the unimaginative but respectful moniker of ‘Doctor babu‘. By the time I grew old enough to remember, he was approaching eighty years – a wizened tiny person, dark as a walnut, with sharp beady eyes and a few wisps of snow white hair. In spite of his age he commanded any room that he entered. To my child’s mind, the whispered answers from the adults who were hanging on his every word, were amazing. I particularly remember his famous bedside manner – his first question in his raspy voice would always be about bowel movements – he’d prod the patient’s tummy and demand to know all sorts of terribly embarrassing details about their bodily functions. This was the stuff legends were made of – our Doctor babu provided the grist to many a family joke.

Most of all though I remember his piercing gaze as he considered my face and as he pressed his cool fingers against my wrist and diagnosed my ailment.  He’d confidently scribble his prescriptions on his pad with his fountain pen. He was always right. He ordered us to drink spoonfuls of tonics that he himself concocted, he bullied us into eating the right foods and into recovering from a myriad of childhood ailments. He healed us and provided my mother and easily nervous grand mother with much needed confidence that we would of course spring back to health and be none the worse for the wear.

Doctor babu was no surgeon though, and among physicians surgeons are the rockstars, because they undertake the most difficult tasks and produce the most impactful results.

Such was the awe with which the young Keralite novice nun regarded the young English surgeon and his ability to completely immerse himself in the business of healing the sick. Her devotion to him and his passion for medicine brings them together in a missionary hospital in the Ethiopian town of Addis Ababa and there the story of ‘Cutting for Stone’ begins.

Cutting for StoneI’d heard the buzz about Abraham Verghese’s novel ‘Cutting for Stone’ before I got my hands on a copy – its about medicine and the lives of two doctors in Ethiopia and it is an awe-inspiring testimony to the powers of medicine and surgeons. One friend warned me it is unputdownable. She was right. I deeply enjoyed Abraham Verghese’s language – his writing is musical and truly capable of invoking powerful emotion. He manages to make a birth scene as thrilling as a car chase sequence. Which in a way is very fitting because after all, what is more exciting and worthy of inducing nail biting than the miracle of birth? Yet labor room drama is hardly ever featured in page after page of a novel – no writer dares to tackle the subject. I’d say its probably right up there with sex and death and war scenes — if you dont have a very unique perception on those three topics and assuming you’re not writing a pulp thriller or soft porn – avoid it.

The story is told in the first person and from the start each character grips the reader — the trick I think might be in the way each character lays their soul bare for the reader to examine — their fears and their weaknesses with no pretense, no hope to make us like them. Stone, the talented surgeon is not likeable from the beginning – in fact the whole story spins on the lynch pin of his unexplained cowardice and retraction from life and love. Ghosh, the internal medicine doctor frustrates us in his inability to muster the courage to propose to the woman of his dreams, Hema the obstetrician.

“..I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art..” so goes the Hippocratic oath that every physician must take. When Stone flees the missionary hospital after an unexpected tragic death, he leaves the hospital without any surgeons. Worse, he abandons a set of conjoined twins whose heads are connected – this was the reason for their unimaginably difficult birth – that ultimately turned into a delivery by c-section that obstetrician Hema performs. The task of saving the babies and performing that Siphylean task of separating them must be performed by internal medicine practitioner Ghosh, who teaches himself and ultimately succeeds. He then finds he must take on the dubious mantle of hospital surgeon for the trusting patients and for the beseeching, hapless Matron who is desperately trying to keep the missionary hospital functional;  and with steadfast courage and patience he teaches himself to perform surgery – in effect going against his Hippocratic oath – and over time he becomes very good. As the twins, named Marion and Shiva grow, they display unusual affinity to medicine and specifically surgery, and are Ghosh and Hema’s assistants and students, from a tender age.

The special bond between the twins is another euphoric theme woven throughout the book. Then there is friendship between an unlikely trio of children growing together – the two twin boys who are part English doctor and part Keralite nun, and the Ethiopian girl who is the daughter of the family maid. Ethiopia, Addis Ababa to be specific, provides a colorful backdrop and almost acts as another character in the book — with its history , customs, people and the restless times of change and revolution. Bringing all the drama to the climactic conclusions are the multiple threads of unrequited love, parental conflict and the clash between the idealistic youth and age old traditions.

The magical realism is apparent in the generous doses of spiritualism, the connection between the twins especially when they’re younger and they know each other’s thoughts. There is also faith – in God and a variety of religions. Each time the surgeons, both trained and self trained, pick up their scalpels and send soundless prayers up to the Almighty, small and large miracles come to pass on the narrow operating tables.

There is a lot of medical information interspersed through the book which is oddly – crystal clear to the reader – I feel privy to specialized information about colons, and fistula, that terrible condition arising from genital mutilations, and complex surgery like liver transplants. Each medical challenge is described in the same beautiful language with no confusing jargon and the fascinating process of the doctor’s diagnosis is laid bare for us to see, so that we may rejoice in every medical triumph and grieve for the inevitable losses.

The journey of this particular surgeon Marion, is captivating with all the ups and downs, hardships and struggle, yet what I most enjoyed in this novel, is that throughout there is the magic of hope and faith and optimism, that makes the impossible seem possible.

Hide. It’s Holi.

cardboard cut-out  ::  exhale  ::  brittle  ::  gleam  ::  acrid

‘Hide. It’s Holi’ – by Brinda Banerjee

Radha exhaled, longing in her drawn out breath, as she slumped on her queenly mahogany bedpost and stared at the cardboard cutout of Kanha. She had made it one afternoon while locked in her tower, waiting for Swami to return.

Where are you Kanha, she sighed looking out the window at the burgeoning spring countryside, it is Holi today and I am still shut away in this tower. Was she strange, she asked herself, should she be thinking of her childhood friend Kanha, why was she not falling in love with Swami, her husband, like a good grown woman of fifteen that she was?

She wished desperately she could return to being that wild child in the village again, carefree, and single minded in her pursuit of Kanha and in her goal of besting him in racing, swimming, or in making their wonderful music together. She could not stand another moment of her life as a married woman – this prison was awful! She groaned and held balled fists upto her eyes.

Oh, for those spring days filled with heady romance and bright colors when she and Kanha stalked one another, each trying to get the colored water and powders on the other’s face, and ending up in one another’s arms. Kanha’s arms cradled her as gently as the wind itself, so unlike her husband Swami’s demanding touch. A breeze wound its way into her room and Radha lifted her face to it.

Someone swiped her cheeks from behind and she gasped. Opening her eyes, she saw in her mirror, her cheeks were red with aabir. “Kanha!” she laughed.

Swami stood before her an injured expression on his face. “What?! I came to fetch you – we will play Holi in the compound below with the rest of our people. Your Kanha is miles away. When will you stop thinking about that village boy?” Radha saw the breeze had flipped the cutout to the ground and Swami had not noticed it.

“No Swami! I said Swami, you misheard!” she rushed to cover up.

Swami her new husband of thirty days was insecure, and insisted on locking her up each day, but at least he filled the circular tower that had but one window, with all manner of things to amuse her with – musical instruments like flutes, harps and sitars, paints and brushes, stacks of hand made paper, embroidery threads and silks. True, all those items were meant to encourage industry and creativity, but at least he had considered she might be bored.

She had used many rolls of the paper to make drawings and paintings to show Swami in the evenings as proof she was busy and happy, as he so desperately wanted her to be. But her secret project was the cutout of Kanha she made from the cardboard rolls that the hand made paper came in. Each day after Swami left, she pulled out the cutout from its hiding place behind her wardrobe and placed it in the center of her room. Each time she caught her cardboard Kanha’s eye in passing, she’d smile. She talked to the cutout all day – he was still her companion, even in captivity.

Radha often remembered Kanha’s last words to her before Swami helped her into the chariot and the wedding party rode off, leaving her village and Kanha behind. “I will come play holi with you in spring – you will not escape me just by marrying somebody in a far off land!”

Swami grasped her wrists and led her down to the courtyard. His village people milled around, dancing singing and playing holi. Swami brought her some frothy bhang and drinking deep from the brass tumbler, she relaxed; then, feeling the infectious holi spirit around her, she let her feet carry her into the dancing crowd.

Seconds later separated from Swami, Radha was dancing with the other women. One gopi sashayed up to her her chunni covering her face, “May I, oh beautiful Radha?” the gopi smeared some yellow aabir on Radha’s other cheek and laughed. Radha smiled, and leaned in to return the favor. Stunned, she drew back, those mischievous eyes, she’d know them anywhere! Kanha, she breathed.

Did you think you’d escape me? It is Holi! I am here to play! The gopi whispered as they matched their steps to the music.

Radha smiled, and flung color into the air and her laughter rang in the courtyard.