I am very happy that they selected my entry for a special Consolation Prize! Here is the story I submitted.
Nayantara sat still. The sun put on a final display of its splendor, its golden light shining over the waves of the sea. Birds were flying home, their graceful forms dotting the sky. The sea was lazy, waves moving silently towards the shores. People walked on the beach, some chatting and others lost in their own world.
No one noticed this lone woman sitting by herself. Lines of worry imprinted on her forehead, the lone witness of her travails.
She took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. A wry smile curled her lips. She had made her decision. The plan was on. Getting through this would decide life and death for her. She got up, slowly picked her belongings and made her way home.
Before she went to sleep that night, Nayantara picked up the old box that had her favorite things. There were paintings, poems, photographs, doodles and tiny things that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. These things represented a part of her life. They reminded her of the girl she used to be… happy, curious, full of wonder and trusting. She wanted to pick that girl and hug her… if only she could find her again.
The next morning was like all mornings, hurrying to work, the rush on the bus and the traffic. She worked in a huge campus surrounded by hundreds like her. Yet there was no connection with anyone. She felt like an island in the ocean.
Time at work was dry and dead. The hours flew by, work pressure to meet deadlines, lunchtime with some colleagues who tried to make conversation, waiting for the day to end, the bus ride home.
On the bus she noticed young girls conversing with abandon. An old woman sat gracefully. Her white hair reflecting peace and tranquility. She looked longingly at the woman, trying to find the secret behind the poise and peace of mind.
‘Peace…’ she thought to herself, ‘When will I find peace? How can I make peace with myself and my life… after knowing what I know?’ Her eyes revealed the pain she felt but no one noticed it.
She made herself a cup of tea. The steaming cup welcomed her to relax. She perched herself in her favorite corner, hugged a pillow and picked her cup. She decided it was time to work on her plan.
She pulled out her journal and started a fresh section.
ONE. The girl in the yellow dress admiring the flowers. She described her memory and relived every bit of it. At the end of it, she could see herself as a little girl with short straight hair smiling at her through the page.
TWO. The adventurer. She smiled as the recalled the trip to the mountains when she was a teen. She and her friends were walking up the stream, singing songs and enjoying the clear sweet air. Up on the top of the mountain they found an old abandoned church. The walls of the church had cracked open after an earthquake centuries ago.
She peered through the glass windows, wanting to see more. “Let’s go inside,’ she told her friends. No one liked the idea. She took a round of the place and found a way to go inside the church. Her friends decided to come along. What a treasure they found! There were old newspapers of World War II, ancient looking candlesticks, wooden stools, jewelry holders and things of an era gone by. She and her friends carried mementos home to remember this adventurous trip. Her heart bubbled with joy. It was a great discovery.
Nayantara smiled remembering how free she felt that day. She had so much zest to live. Tears formed in her eyes as she sensed the change that came over her. ‘No! She is not dead. She is alive!’ she reminded herself and wiped those tears away.
THREE. A challenge. Nayantara loved to play badminton. She would play with her sister and father. She won most of the time. One day at school, she saw her PT teacher play badminton with some students. He beat them all one by one. She stood in line and waited for her turn. Soon it was her turn to play.
She surprised her teacher by winning the game. The teacher didn’t give in, he wanted another game. She won it too. One more game later, he lost again. ‘Ok! You are selected for the team!’ he said and quietly left. She was happy and surprised. She had played effortlessly and won!
Nayantara looked out of her window. Her eyes caught the sight of leaves dancing in the breeze. If only she could live her life with such abandon and joy.
FOUR. The self-learned rider. She longed to learn to ride a cycle. She had watched her father teach her elder sister how to ride. He had not offered to teach her so she decided she would learn herself. Her best friend in school was excited about the idea. They decided to learn to ride the cycle after writing their exam when no one was around. They checked to see which cycles were unlocked and borrowed them for riding. They fumbled and fell and almost got hurt too but soon learned to ride the cycle.
She decided to take it a step further and took the cycle for a ride on the main road. Since it was near school’s closing time, the main gates were open. She had an exhilarating ride on the road that afternoon. It was victory over fear. Her best friend and she celebrated that moment secretly. They returned the cycles to their places and went home.
Nayantara hugged her pillow tightly. She now knew why her father had not offered to teach her cycling. Her mother told her that he had rejected her at birth because he wanted a boy. Memories played hide and seek with her. Some memories were unpleasant and painful. She tried to come to terms with them but her pain persisted.
She remembered a session she had with a therapist a few months earlier. It was then the truth reluctantly revealed itself. Tucked away in her psyche was the memory of something terrible that robbed her of her innocence. It was something that she could not come to terms with at the tender age of six. Her mind put it away to protect her.
Tears flowed down her cheeks and a cry tore through her being. She shrieked, ‘I hate my father!’ ‘What happened?’ enquired the therapist. She described the pieces of the memory she had found. The act that her father committed that desecrated her personhood, robbed her of herself and her purity.
‘Now it makes sense to me,’ she thought to herself. ‘Now I know why I felt odd and out of place in my family. Unlike her sisters’ she always felt odd around her father. She could never feel free with him.
The sparks of who she really was could be seen only when she was with her best friend. She could be silly and laugh like crazy at mindless things. She could be curious, adventurous and naughty too.
FIVE. Fearless Nayantara. One day she and her best friend were wandering through the school when they heard the sound of flapping of wings coming from the top of the stairs. She realized some bird was trapped there. They rushed up and found an owl struggling to get out. The huge windows were closed so it couldn’t fly away. The owl was frightened. “How can we take this bird out of this place?’ she wondered. Just then a helper passed by and they asked him to help them catch the bird. He got a cloth and caught the owl with it. He gave the owl to her. She was excited as she held the bird.
As they wondered what to do they spotted the Vice-Principal coming that way. He was shocked to see her holding an owl! She said, ‘Father, we found this owl trapped upstairs, what should we do with it?’ ‘Take it to the mini-zoo’, he said. She and her friend went to the mini zoo and handed over the bird to the caretaker there. Both of them laughed a lot as they remembered the look of fear on the VP’s face when he saw the owl.
Nayantara kept the paper down. What would have happened if she had a normal life like others? All her life she tried so much to fit in and be accepted without knowing why she felt out of place. She even tried to give up things that made her ‘different’ so she would be acceptable. It only made things worse for her. She could not remember herself any more. In all the years, she did not feel at home even within herself. She took a deep breath. A sigh escaped her lips and she closed her eyes.
SIX. The class monitor. Some boys in her class liked to cause commotion. The Discipline In-charge had already given a warning. Nayantara was the monitor, minding her class in the absence of the teacher. The boys refused to listen to her.
The Discipline In-charge was soon at the door. He was angry. He asked her to name the boys who were making noise. She knew that he would give the boys the spanking of their lives if she told him their names. She kept quiet. She hoped that the boys would understand that she was saving them and would not make noise any more.
The Discipline In-charge wouldn’t budge. ‘If you will not tell me their names then you will have to take the beating yourself! Put out your hand!’ Trying to keep herself calm as much as possible, she slowly brought her hand out. Swish! The sound of the flying cane followed and in seconds, she was in terrible pain. It was a sacrifice but that excruciating pain was worth it because the boys didn’t cross the line after that incident.
Brave girl! No one told her that. She had done something for someone else’s sake and borne the suffering and pain silently. Some of her classmates would surely have thought she was a fool but she didn’t think so. She remembered passing a corridor where the Discipline In-charge was punishing some boys. It was unbearable to watch it. She didn’t want her classmates to go through that pain. She cared.
SEVEN. The little birds twittered away happily as they ate the bajra grain she spread on the wall. She loved watching these tiny sparrows. Every day she would feed them and relish their company. It wasn’t just the birds, she had other friends too. They included dogs, cats, a squirrel, a parrot, a few turtledoves, pigeons, a colorful bird and any creature who needed help.
As long as she could remember, her family always seemed to have pets. She remembered the time when she would feel alone and cry on her own. Her pet dog would come and sit by her side during those moments of sadness.
Nayantara stood before the mirror. Her eyes asked her a question, ‘Who are you?’ She kept staring at herself and then quietly went to bed. As she lay on her bed, a thought crossed her mind. If she died this night, would anyone know about her life and who she was? Would anyone miss her? Her eyes were fixed on the ceiling. A blank wall stared back on her.
Her days were empty, there were no voices or smiles. There was hardly any difference between days. She began to detest the mind numbing routine. She craved for some distraction, something different to prove to herself that she was alive.
The next morning, she received a call. It was an unknown number. She felt skeptical. The phone rang and she didn’t move. Just as it was about to stop ringing she picked it up.
‘Hello! Is it you Nayantara?’ the voice of a man asked. ‘Who is it? What do you want?’ her voice was impatient. She was in no mood for anyone playing a prank.
‘Oh You seem to be angry! Madam… please cool down! I am your friend, your classmate. Don’t you remember me?’ ‘Which friend? What is your name?’ she asked irritated.
“You won’t know by my voice, we were in school together. The one way you can possibly remember who I am is – just one thing – I am the boy who punched you on the nose! We were in the 8th standard then…’
‘Punched me?’ she thought. Oh yes! There was only boy who had done that to her. Yes, how could she forget?
‘Well, all that is fine, but you still have to tell me your name!’ she said smiling.
‘It’s me… Viraaj! I’m sorry I actually forgot you were a girl when I punched your nose. You were my buddy! I just got your number and wanted to find out how you are doing,’ he said eagerly.
Nayantara was beaming. ‘Oh Viraaj! It is really you! I am so happy to hear your voice!’ she said.
‘What are you doing these days?’ he asked. ‘I’m…. I’m on a project, a personal project,’ she replied. ‘What kind of project is it?’ he asked.
‘A search for a missing person,’ she said.
‘That sounds interesting! Can I help?’ he asked.
‘You already did Viraaj,’ she thought to herself. That would be EIGHT.
‘Yes. Of course! You can help,’ she said.
‘Let’s meet! Priya is also with me. If you are free we could have coffee together,’ he said.
‘Sure. That would be great! Let’s plan something…’ she was excited.
The next evening they sat at a table reminiscing their school days. ‘You were good in studies but I was better than you in some subjects,’ Viraaj said smiling. ‘Do you remember the time when we both were selected to represent the school at an elocution competition?’
‘Oh yes! I remember….’ She mentally made a note. NINE.
‘I wanted to ask you something… if it is not a problem,’ Priya said.
‘It’s okay… you can ask me,’ Nayantara said.
‘After sometime you became very quiet and reserved. It felt like something had gone wrong. I missed my old friend… the way you used to be. I always wondered what had happened to her,’ she said looking at her intensely.
Nayantara’s eyes were wet. She could feel a lump in her throat. She said, ‘Someone robbed her from me… I am searching for her. I feel lost without her… as though I am not me.’ Her tears streamed down.
Priya bent forward and held her hands. Nayantara felt comforted.
Viraaj looked at her with concern. ‘Is that the search for the missing person you’re on?’ Viraaj asked. She nodded.
‘Then I am sure we can help… You see, we used to know this girl… many years ago,’ he said with a smile.
(Copyright Henrietta Decruz 2016)
|Receiving the prize at the Rama Varma Club in Ernakulam, 2nd Oct 2016|
|The Special Consolation Prize I received|