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Voice of the lambs

 I wrote this short story for the Times of India ‘Writeindia’ contest. The following was Chetan Bhagat’s prompt – it could be used anywhere in the story, imaginatively. There were a few rules to be followed, though!

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf….     

                                

“I don’t like the taste of milk and it’s for the cow’s baby, so my tummy says ‘no’. I will not have it.” This was Tarini at 5.

Her mother had to invariably listen to her and over the years she knew that this girl was different from her elder sister and she has to just let her be. She was fiercely independent, requiring no help from anyone with things which kids of her age were still struggling with. In school she did fairly well, not in the ‘first five’ in her class, but bright in her own ways. Her questions to her teachers were different and not always answered to her satisfaction. She did not mind that because it happened with her all the time.
Today Tarini is an adult with a mind of her own. She’s a girl with dreams and vision but that rebel streak is still very much alive. She loves travelling, travelling alone. For a fiercely independent person like her she always found this the best option. A veterinary science final year student, Tarini is an ardent animal lover. Her choice of profession was her own and though people advised her of more lucrative alternatives, she could visualize her future only here. Tarini kept pursuing her dream in all seriousness hoping to provide solace to all the animals who couldn’t speak but ‘talked’ to her (she was a Dr. Dolittle of sorts!). Her feelings for animals were very strong and genuine and for the betterment of their lot she kept roping in more and more like minded people; be it in her college by starting the ‘Society for the four legged’ or through posts on her blog ‘Be the voice’. She regularly met people in coffee shops on weekends to brain storm on issues that came up from time to time. It was a wonderful way of bringing a solution to any problem (coffee just made it easier!). The active participation of the members of the Society created by her and responses to her blog entries gave her the confidence that change is possible.

It was the last day of her course and most of the students were planning a trip to some ‘happening’ place or the other to spend time on the last weekend before going back home. After some deliberation, Tarini decided to go to a nearby hill station which was at a four hour bus journey away. She just had to arrange her back pack and set off – no need for booking tickets, making lodging arrangements and things like those. She was sure that in the hilly town she would be able to find a place to stay – and she just needed it for the night as she had plans for trekking the entire day. A charged up Tarini couldn’t even sleep properly and was up and about much before dawn, all set for her trip.

She came out of her hostel as soon as the sun rose and decided to walk the 2 km till the bus stand. Walking alone always gave her that adrenaline rush and before she realized she found herself at the bus stand. Since it was very early in the morning there weren’t many souls around. After a few enquiries at the ticket counter she was guided to a bus which was ready to leave in the next 10 minutes and was told that she would be given the ticket in the bus only. After having a good look around Tarini settled in the window seat of the second row. The bus surprisingly started on dot, and her journey began.

The view outside was a photographer’s delight and Tarini was busy clicking pictures almost continuously. She realized after sometime that a young boy of about 15 years had occupied a seat next to her. She began chatting with him and found out that he was a native of the same hill station she was going to. Amongst other things, he told her about an ancient temple and an annual fair coming up there. “Wow! perfect time for my trip”, she thought. Her head resting on the window, the cool breeze put her to sleep. She woke up only when the boy tapped her on the shoulder to say “bye”. Waving him goodbye, Tarini alighted from the bus, stretching and looking around. She thought of first fixing up a place for her to stay at night and planned to explore the hill station later. After a few chit chats at a small eatery, she was guided to a lodge owned by a widow. The room was small but neat and clean – so typical of a hill cottage. This lady had a motherly persona and young and old alike called her ‘aunty’. Aunty loved her hometown so much that nothing and no one could take her away – not even her two children who failed in their attempts to lure her to the cities where they worked. She was self sufficient by whatever she managed to earn from renting out the rooms of this cottage that she and her husband had most lovingly built for the two of them to grow old in. Tarini immediately felt comfortable with the hot masala tea offered by aunty as a ‘welcome drink’ (she would have preferred coffee, though!). It had a rejuvenating, almost magical power and Tarini was energised in no time.

Thanking aunty for the wonder potion, she set off on her trail. The place was much more than she had expected in terms of unadulterated nature spread across the acres. The local people along the way were her ‘GPRS’ and a fairly steep trek of about two hours led her to this temple which her co passenger in the bus spoke of. The path leading to the temple was decorated with hand-made triangular paper buntings. Her camera was overworking again as she didn’t want to miss anything. There were quite a few people on the way, though not a major rush that needed the control of ‘security men’ as is visible in most of the temples of the urban areas (there were a few volunteers, though). The temple was a beautiful stone structure with intricate carving that was reasonably dull due to moss overgrowth. One thing that struck Tarini in this luscious surrounding was herds and herds of mountain goats and lambs. “A perfect abode for the Gods” was the first thought that crossed her mind. She stroked and ‘spoke’ to many of these creatures, but noticed a fear in their eyes. “What could be the reason for this fear?”, she wondered. It was nearly evening and time to call it a day. The main puja in the temple was the next day and she didn’t want to miss it. Tarini was a little uncomfortable while returning as those fearful eyes of the lambs kept haunting her.

On reaching her room, she tossed her shoes and collapsed on the bed.

Waking up fresh, Tarini readied for the visit to the temple. She wore a bright yellow outfit with a blue silk scarf to go with it.  Today there were more people going up the cliff. Men, women and children dressed in colourful attire with their puja thalis were walking in groups with a lot of enthusiasm. It was a local holiday as well, so a festive mood was evident.

The temple bells could be heard from a good one kilometre away and the hypnotic tinkle increased everybody’s excitement and steps automatically became faster. Today she took less time than yesterday. The temple was decorated with flowers and it was a perfect celebratory setting. But the lambs frolicking around were nowhere to be seen.

 The puja began with loud chanting of the mantras but Tarini wasn’t there completely – there was something in the air that was disturbing her. As soon as the puja was over, the crowd started moving to the rear of the main temple area. Tarini followed them, as if in a spell. She will never ever forget the scene that was before her eyes – all the lambs were lined up, tied with barely a 12” rope to a stump. They all had a flower garland around their necks and tilak on their foreheads. Sacrificial lambs – yes, that immediately explained those fear filled eyes she saw the day before.

Tarini knew at the spur of the moment that she had to stop this – she was their voice. She cannot be a mute spectator to the ritual. No religion, no God beckons a sacrifice of its innocent creatures to please Him. She feared that she might be the only one there with this thought, but was confident of stopping what was not right. Tarini was an intelligent girl who was aware of her inner strength. As soon as the announcement of the sacrifice was made over the public address system, Tarini ran in that direction, and snatched the mike from the person making the announcements, asking everybody to stop and listen to her. The crowd was in silence, stunned by this unexpected turn of events. She reasoned with everyone present, refuting whatever they had to say with her logical approach. She told them about the laws, animal rights and that how she was an aspiring veterinarian whose job would be to help and protect animals in pain and trouble. The people were silent, but the temple authorities were not ready to listen as they felt that by not following this ritual their village will have to face the curse. She promised to adopt their village, pressurise the government to improve its condition with schools, healthcare and sanitation only if they stop this cruelty forever, right there – today. She grabbed the knife lying nearby meant for the sacrifice and made a gash on her finger to prove to them that she meant what she said. The crowd was spell bound – by love, passion and commitment of this young girl. Her grit was enough to earn their faith and support. Slowly she moved from there and opened the rope with which the lambs were tied. They ran helter skelter……braying and jumping, searching for their parents. Their eyes were bright and shining now and the air was filled with countless ‘thank yous’ from the lambs and their parents which Tarini could clearly hear. Her eyes were moist and heart overflowing.

Tarini took the blood stained knife, covered it with her blue scarf, put it in her bag and started walking away. She had to catch the first available bus back, connect with people on social media, approach the government for a ban on animal sacrifice and  give this village all that she had promised, not the villagers but herself.

Her return journey was her planning session. She sent messages to members of ‘Society for the four legged”, fixing up a meeting at the Starbucks. Tarini also penned her latest entry “Voice of the lambs” about her recent experience on her blog. She expected a lot many suggestions for further action from the rest of the members at the next meeting. By the end of her journey, her purpose lay crystal clear before her – she knew whom to meet and how to move ahead.

 The next day, waiting for the members of the group to arrive, she sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf…. She clicked it, made it the cover picture of her Facebook page, wallpaper of her phone and background of her blog – it was to be her propeller henceforth.

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Keeping the faith

“Trrring…..trrrrring…..trrrrrrring”, the shrill doorbell woke up Sujata that hot and humid afternoon in June. “Why are doorbells always irritating?” wondered a sleepy Sujata as she glanced at the alarm clock on the side table by her bed. “Who could that be?” she wondered as she stepped out of her room and walked towards the door to check. As she opened the door, a gush of hot air rushed in and she saw an anxious, sad and tired looking Sundari sitting with drooped shoulders, a hung head and both hands on her head. Anyone could imagine something was seriously wrong – and so did Sujata at that moment. Sujata was very fond of Sundari, the washerwoman and almost everyone in the locality appreciated her calm demeanor, her devotion towards her children, her respect of her profession and her self respect and dignity. Seeing a limp, almost lifeless Sundari frightened Sujata. Anticipating a bad news, Sujata held her shoulders. She stood up, hugged Sujata and broke down. Gently Sujata brought her to the dining table and poured a glass of chilled water for her. The water did soothe her parched throat and perhaps, the hug her parched soul, for she was more in control after it.

“What happened, Sundari?” Sujata asked, her hands still on Sundari’s sweaty shoulders. “Raghuveer has not come back home after his paper, memsahib….he’s neither in school nor with any of his friends” she spoke as if in a trance. She was blank with grief and despair was written all over her red face. Sundari lost her husband two years ago and she was bringing up Raghuveer, 12 and Suryaveer, 8 entirely on her own since then. Her source of income was the small laundry business that she and her husband had set up in Sujata’s colony and she was continuing after he passed away. The residents appreciated her hard work and determination to educate her sons. But today seemed like shattering of her dreams, her plans, her life – her entire being.

Sujata opened her diary to look for numbers to contact and immediately started calling people for help – the police, the school, local authorities, the newspaper offices, television, and radio stations for alerts on missing persons. All were cordial and empathetic but none was hopeful and did not promise anything positive. Sujata went with Sundari and helped her close her little shop, took her to her home where Suryaveer was waiting for her. She had packed some bread and fruits for him because seeing Sundari; she knew she will not be able to cook for Suryaveer and herself. Making both of them eat, Sujata began walking back home. It was late evening and a dark one too.

The next morning was as normal as could be for everyone around except Sujata and Sundari. After completing her chores for the day, Sujata left to meet Sundari in the next block. Her shop was open and she was at her work – she had to. Suryaveer had left for his exam. “Namaste memsahib” she greeted her, just like on any other day but something was missing from her voice….her life, actually.

The routine continued….Sundari continued with her work, she greeted one and all but her eyes were different – they were searching forever….searching for a lost treasure. She went once daily to the police station expecting good news but it was not to come. Summers ended, monsoon arrived and this year it was as if the sky was weeping its heart out for Sundari. She did not miss the customary visit any day though. Days, weeks, months and years passed and Sujata watched her aging fast. “What all can grief do to a person”, Sujata wondered…. “It can add years faster…..”

Sujata’s husband got posted to another city and she had to leave with her family. Sundari was most upset about her leaving. To her losing, perhaps, the only friend she had was a big blow; but it seemed she had learnt to adapt by now to whatever life had to offer her. Her routine remained unchanged – she focused more on her work and Suryaveer. Days, weeks, months and years passed and once again after 10 long years Sujata came back to the city and her house. She had not forgotten Sundari, though the memories had become a little hazy, but they came back into focus as soon as she saw her at the same old place, diligently doing the same job. Both met again and Sundari’s pleasant “Namaste, memsahib” greeted her as if those ten long years in the middle never existed. Sujata saw a young adult (which she assumed was Suryaveer) of about 18 lending her a helping hand. Sujata immediately thought how much Sundari must have desired to have two pairs of strong hands by her side. But she was not complaining, though her eyes still had that empty look of a mother searching for her child in a crowd. She introduced Sujata to Suryaveer and then Sujata asked her if she ever got any news of Raghuveer in all these years. “No, memsahib….”she mumbled. “Must be painful? How did you cope?”Sujata questioned. The simple lady’s answer passed on precious wisdom to Sujata along with a cup of tea – “I bless and wish all kids who are with their parents and all those who aren’t, memsahib – it adds another good wish and blessing for the kids who are with their parents; and for those who aren’t, maybe, my wishes and blessings will help in uniting them with their families someday.”

 

The decision

The weather today was perfect and Sudha thought of staying at home and not going to work. Actually it was vacation time at the small village school where she worked but Sudha went there each and every day planning with volunteers who were there doing their projects, internships etc. She absolutely loved her work and the satisfaction it gave her to be able to contribute a miniscule amount to a greater cause. Sudha lived alone in this small hill town. She was a practical lady and never complained or cribbed about things. She had chosen the work and the place and also the decision to be here far from her family managing life on her own. After passing out from a premier Institute, she had offers from multi nationals and biggest names in the country but her plans were different – she wanted to make a difference!

Enjoying a relaxed and lazy morning Sudha wanted the day to remain like this for the next twenty four hours. Just as she was about to switch off her mobile phone it started ringing…..It was a call from her mother – she had to pick it up. There was urgency in her mother’s voice – she wanted her to come home as early as possible. Sudha did not waste time asking useless questions as she was sure that her mother would never ask her to come back for anything trivial. She packed her backpack, called up a colleague, informed the maid and left for the bus stand. The earliest available bus was after an hour. Things at the bus stand were warming up for the day…..she badly needed a cup of hot coffee or tea to unwind….. A small kiosk was just about opening and Sudha grabbed the opportunity of becoming their first customer by ordering a cup of tea and biscuits. They tasted divine… “Simple pleasures do not cost much”, thought Sudha. She also bought the day’s newspaper and some magazines for the hour she had had to spend waiting and it really did pass fast, she realized as much on hearing the shrill horn of the bus. Sudha was the first one here too and she quickly made her way inside and others started following fast. “People can be so exact in their estimate of time”, she mused “perhaps frequent travelers….”

Sudha slept through most of her six hour journey. She never ate while traveling by road. The journey was nearing completion as she could smell her town.

The bus maneuvered its way through the town and finally screeched to a halt at the bus stand. Sudha disembarked and headed towards an auto rickshaw to take her home. Without much haggling, as is usually the case, she with her bag made herself comfortable on the rear seat. It took her another twenty minutes to reach home. Her heartbeat became faster as she approached. After paying the auto, she rang the bell. Her daschund, Chotu, was the first one to greet her as her mother opened the door. Petting, stroking and satisfying him Sudha moved in. She still was very eager to know why she was called home all of a sudden. No one else in the house seemed as eager to tell her, though…. Just then she saw her brother, Salil, who was settled in America, coming out of the bathroom. “So, this was the big surprise waiting for me!” Sudha was delighted. Her brother gave her a warm hug and sat with his cup of tea at the dining table. “But Bhaiya, you never mentioned this visit in your last mail” Sudha asked Salil as she took her cup from the tray. “Actually it was a spontaneous decision and I wanted to surprise you.” Sudha found it a little odd….you don’t come from America just like that….unplanned…anyway….

“How’s your work?” Salil posed a casual question. “Good, bhaiya, my dreams are taking shape. I like what I do and I’m sure that I’ll be able to make a difference soon” Sudha replied, sipping the tasty home made tea. “I have decided to take the three of you to America along with me after selling this house. I have found a buyer who’s ready to pay a good sum for this old house. The tickets are for Sunday, so there’s just about a week to do the needful. I had told this to Ma some weeks back and in the mean time she has done a lot that needs to be done. So, you complete your resignation and other formalities and inform all concerned of your decision.” Sudha was not able to hear clearly after this …… “crash” was the sound that kept ringing in her years…a crash of broken dreams…..she was not asked, not consulted…not taken into confidence while her future was being decided by her family. She loved all of them but she had a life of her own. She always thought that her family respected her decisions as they let her pursue her dream but today the picture was different. Sudha was dumbfounded. She could not argue…could not protest. She needed time – time with herself, for herself. She went into her room with Chotu who she felt understood her the most.

She did not want to be a rebel – her family meant a lot for her. But she needed to be respected…her line of thinking appreciated and above all not being taken for granted. In all this pain and anguish she spent a few hours and then emerged out of the room, in control and confident. She had her backpack on her shoulder and as she came out she announced, “I’m returning by the evening bus. I need to live my life. I love and respect you all very much but I have made a commitment to myself which I cannot break midway. I will take my dream to where it is headed to and when I feel I have achieved what I set out to I will come to America, Bhaiya.” Sudha hugged her parents and brother, stroked Chotu’s neck and moved out of the front door.

Waiting for a sunny day

It was one of those days when Madhu accompanied her mother Meena, who was called early for work at A- 240, the flat in the posh apartments where she worked as a part time maid. Usually 6 year old Madhu stayed at home while her mother went away to work but on longer days like this one Meena took her along. A big car screeched to a halt just when both of them were rushing towards the gate. The mother and daughter stood aside, wide eyed at the size and shine of the car that had just halted. Three children and their mother alighted from the car as the chauffeur opened the doors. Madhu couldn’t take her eyes off the kids – two boys and a girl. One seemed much older to her, one younger and one must have been her age. “Oh! They all look so nice – so fair and wearing such good clothes and shoes” , Madhu thought while unconsciously  pulling her old, faded frock and hiding her rubber chappals. Nobody was noticing her but Madhu suddenly became conscious of her shabby self. The residents of A-240 came out of the lift to welcome their guests. “So, these are the people because of whom we are here early today”, Madhu’s little brain reasoned. Madhu and Meena were asked to help in carrying the luggage to the lift which really excited Madhu. She ran to select the ones she could manage from the big heap of fancy looking bags and suitcases. Madhu could only respond with a nervous, shy smile to the enthusiastic “Hi” of the children who had just arrived.

All of them reached the flat in the lift and Madhu quietly went behind her mother into the kitchen while the guests spread around the living room and excited conversations followed. Gifts were being opened and exchanged and so were the hugs and the ‘thank yous’. Madhu perched herself in a small balcony adjoining the kitchen. She was able to hear chirpy tones from the house and was wondering why such guests never visited their place (they had come from America, her mother had told her). Meena had always made it a point not to allow Madhu to work at the places she went to. Engrossed in her own little world Madhu fell asleep as she was sleepy because she had woken up early that day.

“Madhu….wake up….it’s time to leave”, she opened her eyes at her mother’s call. She mechanically sprung up from the floor and started following her. The living room was full of stuff that looked sparkling and new. The kids were tired and asleep and their mother gestured to call Madhu and asking her name (and not waiting for an answer!) handed over a 100 rupee note to her. Madhu hesitatingly took it and moved out of the house with Meena. From the door of the house to the lift (which must have taken not more than two minutes) when the note was in her hand Madhu’s long list of what she would buy was ready – a pink frock, a doll, multi -colored bangles, blue slippers, a chocolate and a fancy hair clip for her mother! They entered the lift and Meena taking the 100 rupee note from her hand tied it to the end of her sari. She couldn’t hear the sound of Madhu’s dream shattering. .…. “But it was mine” wondered Madhu.

On their way back home Meena stopped at the ration shop to buy rice, dal, aata, sugar (her list was longer than Madhu’s), proudly handing over the 100 rupee note to the shopkeeper. “A good baksheesh today it seems”, murmured he, passing the packet to Meena. Meena then gave him a one rupee coin and asked for two toffees which she gave Madhu as a treat. Unwrapping them happily Madhu’s wait for another such day when similar guests will arrive at some other flat began. In her life of 6 years her dreams, desires and lists had learned to wait for a sunny day.

The house with the red roof

It was a landmark, it stood out – it was the small house atop a hill and had a shiny red roof. When Mr.Good ( his wife had given him this name and now people had almost forgotten his real name!), 75, and his wife decided to build this house in this small, sleepy hill station twenty-five years ago they knew it will be their abode till the end. His wife left him suddenly (one morning Mr.Good woke up to find her lifeless body next to him). They had no children and as both of them had planned, with fondest memories of his companion Mr.Good continued to stay here. He loved the place – truly.

Mr.Good was the doctor, the vet, the teacher, the councilor, the mathematician, the scientist, the plumber, the architect – in short an advisor to anyone in need of help. He was always ready to help – any time of the day – no one ever was turned away. Over the years he had acquired the reputation of providing solutions to all kinds of problems. When stuck, everyone knew where to head for – the house with the red roof! An injured cow, a wailing baby or a leaking tap – he could handle all and perfectly too. He truly lived up to his name and his motto was – Just be good…..

The house with the red roof was the only one on the hill – Mr.Good and his wife had purchased a huge plot of land and built a small house so that they could have lots of open space which both of them loved. It was Diwali night and the town was celebrating. Mr.Good had lit a candle in front of his wife’s picture and was enjoying his solitude on his favorite cane chair when there was a knock at the door. He was a little surprised as being Diwali he wasn’t really expecting anyone. He opened the door and saw two young men, unknown faces ( in the small town you generally recognize all) standing. Thinking they might be in need, he let them in. They locked the door behind him and pushing him, tied his hands and feet and taped his mouth before he could react. They kept asking about his ‘wealth’ (they had apparently heard that a ‘wealthy’ man stayed all alone in ‘the house with the red roof’ ). They however, could not understand the ‘wealth’ being referred to – the ‘wealth’ of goodness! It was sad that at the moment the ‘wealth’ could not be shared as the hands, feet and mouth of the wealthiest man were not under his control.

Very strangely, too early for a snowfall, it snowed that night….In the morning the roof of the house was white with a layer of snow and inside Mr.Good had left his house with the red roof, leaving all the ‘wealth’ behind.

Eerie blessing

Sheetal was all alone in the room of the lonely resort that stormy night. She, her husband Rajiv and her one year old baby had arrived at this resort for the weekend. The baby had not been keeping well for the past week and Sheetal was stressed out and in desperate need of a change. They reached here after a three hour long drive at dusk. The air here was cool and calm and alighting from her SUV she could feel its gentle caress. There were about ten cottages but none of them were occupied. “Even better”, she thought. They settled in the room and relaxed with tea and some snacks. The baby, too, was quiet and they decided to retire early for the night. She woke up early next morning feeling rested and totally relaxed.

Leaving Rajiv and the baby, both of whom were sleeping soundly, Sheetal moved out of the room and starting walking in the emerald green lawns. “This was what I needed”, she felt. The daily morning chores over, they set out for sight seeing. At around 2pm Rajiv received a call from his office asking him to attend an urgent meeting at 7pm. “The mobile phones are such a nuisance” was Sheetal’s reaction. Having faced situations like this time and again this time Sheetal was better at handling it. “We will have to leave”, Rajiv announced. She was in no mood to cut short the trip. She wanted to stay back. Though Rajiv was not comfortable at the thought of leaving her and the baby alone here, but seeing that both of them were having a good time, he agreed. “In any case I’ll be back by night”, he said and dropping them back at the resort left.

After putting the baby to sleep, Sheetal was relaxing with a book and soft music in the room when suddenly the sky started turning dark and it looked as if a storm was approaching. The baby woke up with the noise of thunder and lightning and started getting cranky. The electricity, as expected, went away and in no time it started raining cats and dogs. Normally Sheetal would have loved such an evening but the baby’s condition was troubling her. The medicines were not working. The lone man managed reception desk was a good 500 meters away and no way could she go there at the moment. The phone lines were dead and her mobile phone’s battery was not charged. Completely alone, with a sick, wailing baby, Sheetal started losing her nerves. “I should have not stayed back”, she thought. She was pacing up and down the dark room frantically when she heard the doorbell ring. Without thinking twice, she opened the door to find an old man with a flowing, white beard and white clothes. His clothes were dry and suprisingly he was not carrying an umbrella. With a pacifying smile he asked in a very gentle tone “Is the baby unwell?” and put his hand on the baby’s forehead. “He’ll be Ok” said he, and moved out into the rain before Sheetal could react. She was numb and closed the door as if in auto pilot. She was breathing heavily but the baby was calm and about to sleep in her arms. The storm started subsiding and the current came back. She looked at the watch – it was 12 midnight. “Trrrrng”, the doorbell rang and she opened the door to see a wet, tired and worried Rajiv standing there. “Hope all is Ok”, he said. “Yes, now it is, because of the eerie blessing”, Sheetal replied.