9 days ago
— Rahul Jha
The sun came up sluggishly over the hills, like a child who doesn’t want to be woken up, revealing the great plains that stretched in every direction. Iqbal stood at the front of his unit shuddering a little in the cold wind. Right in front of him stood the enemy. Thousands of foot soldiers from the neighboring kingdom of Azar that they would battle today. Commanders of various units rallied around, shouting war cries that filled the air. Iqbal and his unit had one job: to protect the king.
Iqbal remembered the days before this war. Long back, when the kingdoms were united and he used to visit his relatives in Azar. He remembered running off into the numerous hills of Azar with his cousins and friends playing made up battle games. They didn’t know at the time that they would continue the games as adults.
Then came the division. A feud in the royal family, some tactless moves, then the final stroke: a murder, and a kingdom that had lasted for three thousand years was suddenly divided into two. Iqbal was too young to understand when this happened. He wondered for a while why they stopped making the long trips to the cousins, but soon they forgot. War became part of everyday life.
The war horn rang loud. Soldiers leaped at each other as arrows from both armies filled the sky. Iqbal and his unit went into the formation making a long arc around the king. The plains were soon red with dead soldiers lying everywhere.
Iqbal surveyed the field anxiously in every direction. Suddenly, he noticed a man making a circuitous way towards the king. He was dangerously close when Iqbal intercepted him and threw his sword at him with its full weight. The man was alert and met his sword with a spar. They engaged in a duel. As their swords clanked, Iqbal noticed a familiarity in the face, then with horror realized that this was Sarfaraz, his cousin from Azar. Sarfaraz smiled at the look of recognition, he had recognized Iqbal long back.
Iqbal was torn. A thousand memories leaped across his mind as he mindlessly battled Sarfaraz. It felt like one of their games from long back. But this was real: someone was going to die.
Sarfaraz smiled mischievously, Iqbal didn’t understand. Suddenly, Iqbal saw an opening in Sarafaraz’s defence. Was that an error or a deliberate move? Iqbal couldn’t tell, but his years of training made him instinctively aim his sword towards the open area. He made contact, blood gushed from Sarfaraz as he dropped on his knees. He looked at Iqbal, his smile unfazed. Iqbal didn’t know if the drops on his own cheek were blood or tears. He raised his sword and severed the head in one final blow. He looked back, a maddening storm of emotions blinding him. The king was safe. He had done his job.
23 days ago
— Rahul Jha
Challenge: In 2000 words or fewer, weave a tale using these threads: rain, banana, acceptance.
ish called yesterday. He is in the city on a business trip. He called to say he wants to meet. I said yes. We didn’t talk much. He’ll be here in fifteen minutes and we’ll go out for dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant he picked.
It has been raining intermittently all week. I look out of my office window. Rain drops hang from the ends of barren tree branches, glowing in the damp sunlight like so many little bulbs. Departing light of the sun is caught on the few tall buildings in strange angles making them look like corners of an unfinished painting. I am always uncomfortable after these spells of rain. There is something about it that fills me with sadness. It’s strange for me because I remember loving rain as a kid. Those memories stick in my mind distant and formless, like clouds in summer. I must have been four or five years old. Now I am jumping in the puddles with Vish. Now I am making the challenging little run from under my mom’s umbrella to the bus while the sneaky little raindrops make every attempt to drench me. Little paper boats make their doomed journey in the endless little streams by the road — I am running alongside. Vish is running with me. He is always there in these memories.
I haven’t talked to Vish in fifteen years. What happened to us? I rake my brain. We somehow drifted apart. That happens with friends, doesn’t it? It always happens. I remember our last fight. It was just before college. I remember telling him about Maya, this girl I had started falling in love with. He said I was being stupid. He said I shouldn’t try to start something when we knew we were going to different colleges. He said he had been in relationships and I hadn’t and that’s why he knew a lot and that made me mad. Yes, that was it! His self righteousness. It annoyed me. He always made me feel small, insignificant. He criticized everything I did. I hated it. But then he wasn’t always like that was he? No not always. When did he change? When did he start to become so caustic?
I get a call from my secretary. Vish is here. We say hello and hug; I can see he is uncomfortable too. I show him around the office. He makes useless remarks about drab paintings we hang around in office for exactly these remarks that save you from having an actual conversation. We finally get a cab that crawls through the busy traffic. The driver is playing some sort of flamenco guitar music. I look outside at the street lights go by and drown again in my thoughts.
I remember how Vish and I became friends. It was the first day of school. Let me clarify. It was the first day of school for me ever, my first day being outside of home by myself for an entire day. I had never attended pre-school, we moved around too much in my early years. I missed home, I labored through the classes, then there was the lunch break. Students from my class had already started forming groups, I didn’t have the heart to talk to anyone so I found a table for myself and started eating alone, crying a little in my heart. I missed home terribly. Suddenly I saw a boy waving his hands towards me. It was Vish, he was part of a big gang, he asked me to come sit with them. I was shy but grateful.
We reach the restaurant, but they need some time to prepare our table. We sit waiting on the benches next to the receptionist as she heroically deals with the slew of customers and their ridiculous comments. An old lady negotiates:
“How much time did you say for waiting?”
“40 minutes ma’am.”
“Why that’s just too much. I am a regular customer!”
“I am sorry ma’am, you can reserve ahead of time on phone.”
“Unbelievable, Unbelievable! I come here all the time …”
A man unsure about the number of friends he has:
“So party of ten sir?”
“Actually, it could be twenty.”
“Could you give me a smaller range sir?”
“I don’t know, I can’t remember everyone who said yes. I didn’t keep track. I invited twenty five people though. I am sure at least ten said yes. Did Mark call? Oh damn …”
We get our table and are relived to be finally freed from the craziness at the waiting bench. We order some wine, Vish reminisces old days.
“Hey man, do you remember the unevenly shaped hands of our hindi teacher? He was like a little Popeye!”
“Do you remember the day Sid took that girl during break and asked her to explain the chapter on life processes to him and she slapped him?”
“Do you remember the day when you came into my house and created all the havoc with the priest. That was the most awesome thing, I still remember it and laugh sometimes. What a joker, that priest!”
I am suddenly very tense. I remember the day he is talking about. I had forgotten all about it. But I remember now. We were coming back from the playground after a game of cricket when it started raining cats and dogs. Vish’s house was closer, so we went to his place. He went in to get towels to dry ourselves. I was sitting on their dining table. I was dying of hunger and on the table lay two bananas. I was sure Vish wouldn’t mind, so I ate them. He called from the other room telling me that he is still looking and I should turn on the TV because our favorite show was about to start. I sat on a chair in front of the TV and tuned it to cartoon network. Suddenly, I heard a shout behind me.
“Where did the bananas go? I put them here when I left the house! Mrs Bhardwaj! Vish!”
I turned back. A priest stood next to the dining table, fuming. I didn’t understand. Vish came running. His mom arrived soon after.
“What happened Panditji?” she asked. I stood up, petrified.
“I had kept the bananas here that were supposed to be the prashad for today evening. I went out to get some other stuff and now the bananas are gone. Puff! Just like that!” he snapped his fingers.
“We have more bananas in the kitchen Panditji,” she said, trying to calm him down.
“No no no! The ceremony for blessing all these fruits took half an hour. I don’t have the time.”
“Panditji, I’ll pay you a hundred rupees extra. Can you please do the ceremony again?”
“OK OK Mrs Bhardwaj. You are a good family, so I’ll do it again.” the priest said. A little cash seemed to be the perfect anger management for him.
“Vish, do you know where the bananas went?” Vish’s mother asked him when the priest had left.
“No mom, I don’t know.”, Vish said lowering his eyes: he looked like he had eaten the bananas himself. She turned to me. I was scared to my bones. But she only said, “Nevermind, come on you two, I’ll give you something to eat. You must be hungry, you played all afternoon.” As we walked to the kitchen my eyes met Vish’s. He seemed to be judging me. He didn’t say anything all through dinner that day. I knew he knew my guilt and hated me. I went home in anxiety.
Next day I missed many catches during cricket. Vish shouted at me in front of everyone. “You incompetent moron! Can’t take a catch. And then you don’t score a single run also. What’s the use of having you in the team.” He always shouted at everybody in the field, but I could see a new disdain in his voice now. He thought I was a thief and an insult to him. From that day on, I heard the disdain in everything he said to me: when he scolded me for not paying enough attention in writing exams and losing marks, when he taught me how to ride the scooter, even when he gave me birthday presents. And we drifted apart. I could now see the invisible trails that all connected everything to that first strain in our friendship: when he judged me for unknowingly eating two bananas.
Vish continues, “That priest was a first class idiot! But what was I to do yaar? I had to look sad, if I didn’t do that my mom would think that I was the culprit and then scold and punish me. That’s what always happened. If I looked sad she would say nothing even if she thought I had made a mistake.”
So the disdain in his eyes was just affected despair? Something to get around getting scolded from his mother? But the next day in the ground? And so many times after that?
The air is suddenly clearing up around me. I feel like I have only been half breathing all through the meeting. All those times, Vish was just being himself. He just cared for me. The scoldings, the fights, the mean comments — there was nothing new in them after the incident. He remained the same. I changed and added new colors to everything he did.
Vish keeps talking. I feel a weight lifting off my shoulders. He’s making those little jokes and laughing uncontrollably way before the punchline, just like he used to. Now I am laughing too. My eye wanders outside for a second. It has started to rain again. Raindrops fly off cars and signboards and people and the sound of our laughter plays in the background. I love rain.
30 days ago
— Rahul Jha
Challenge: In 500 words or fewer, imagine a scenario in which a pirate discovers a trove of treasures
he man stood calmly with a sword at his throat as the captain spoke, “So you understand, I cannot carry you on my ship. We have little food left, and we must find a new loot soon. Which by god, we will!” The crew hooted and shouted as the captain raised his hands to calm them down, “You must be given to the sea.” As two pirates held him at the edge of the ship, his tattered shirt fluttering in the air mimicking the ship’s flag, the man turned his head to the captain and shouted, “Captain, do you like gold?”
The captain turned around. He loved gold. “I hid a large box of gold coins at the island that I was trying to escape.” the man continued, “I can lead you there.” The captain turned, looked at him for a moment, then gave the signal. The man went into the sea. Did the captain see fear in his eyes? No, not fear. A strange glitter.
They sailed for many months on the endless sea, but found no merchant ships. A mysterious disease spread through the crew, and in time the crew was reduced to half it’s size. Food reserves dwindled. They would soon have to dock at a town. But once in town, how will they survive without money from loot? The captain pondered as he looked at the horizon speckled with black clouds. A storm was coming. There was only one choice left.
“But captain, how do we know if the man was telling the truth? It might be a last minute trick to save his life!”, the quartermaster protested. “That is a risk we have to take,” the captain said in a tired voice, “prepare the course.”
And so they sailed back to where they had found the unfortunate man in his little dinghy. Soon enough, they saw the island a few miles away. It looked barren, covered with nothing but rocks and sand, uninhabitable! It raised their spirits however, and they now sailed in excitement. But as they were within miles of the island, the storm caught up with them. Darkness covered the sky as heavy rain poured over them, strong gusts of wind violently swaying the ship. Suddenly, they hit a rock at the shore of the island and went down down down.
The captain awoke on the shore, every bone in his body aching. He found some of his crew on the shore, none alive. As hunger and thirst grew within him, he searched the island desperately for food and water. He found nothing. As he sat down in despair, he noticed a little mound with rocks huddled around it like a sign. He ran to the mound, dug in the sand and found a chest full of gold coins. He fell down, remembering the strange glitter in the man’s eyes. He now knew. It was revenge. He would happily give away all this gold now for a loaf of bread.
38 days ago
— Rahul Jha
Written in response to the challenge: In 500 words, imagine a scenario in which the only way out is to dance. Dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut.
he earth was destroyed. I was on a little spaceship like a few thousand others searching for life. The ship had twenty to begin with, now only I remained. I had lost all hope. But one day, as I ran the exploration routines and stared at the familiar messages run past the screen, something new appeared.
“Planetary systems: 1 system detected.”
“Distance: 2 light years.”
“Suitability for life: 68%.”
I sighed and fell back on my seat. So it was me that fate chose, to find the planet that will be the Medina of long lost inhabitants of earth. I programmed my ship to route to the planet, went to my bunker, and opened the last bottle of wine. The planet appeared on the screen and slowly grew larger. It was beautiful.
As I walked for a few miles on the planet, I saw them. They looked like humans. They had eyes, but no mouth! The flesh where their long trunk like noses ended connected straight to their neck. On seeing me, they started hopping from side to side in a rhythmic fashion. As I tried to shout at them in vain, they grew nearer wielding their strange weapons. As fear grew inside me, I started mimicking their tap-like dance. Suddenly they stopped and looked at me curiously. Encouraged by this, I did some of the moves of tap dancing I had learnt in high school. At this, they grew very excited and started hopping vigorously. So these pathetic creatures communicated using dance!
I spent a few days learning basic phrases like “I am hungry”, “I am going to sleep” etc. as I collected information about the planet to send to the other ships. One day I was studying the soil as a few of them arrived with a new and obviously important person. He looked very amused to see me and asked me, “Why are you here?” I respectfully danced “To study you”, even though I didn’t exactly remember the dance for study. You see, I had not seen any other word even closely resembling study, so I figured it’ll work out.
But they started doing the dance that unquestionably communicated a lot anger. Before I knew, one of them used his blade to cut my right hand off. The world went dim as I looked in horror at the blood gushing from the stub on my right shoulder.
I now spend my days in a cellar. I have no hands and legs and am hung from the wall with metal chains attached to my shoulders and thighs. They have kept me alive.
In due time, I found that instead of saying “To study you.”, I had said, “To kill you.” Obviously the word was so offensive to them it wasn’t ever used in daily life, so how would I know? Thus I learned my lesson, even though I have little life left in which to use it. You must be careful with language. And dance.
160 days ago
— Rahul Jha
reat Sunday morning! Sun in the sky, not the useless winter sun we got used to: it was warm! Spring this year teased us far too long, but I figured it was here now. I was walking down the road from the coffee shop to office. Yeah, working weekend this one. Don’t mind them much myself to be honest. Got no wife, no kids, can spare an extra weekend working. Pays pretty good too — the overtime. Whoever thought of that idea deserves a medal. My old man used to work like a slave all the time and never heard of that thing.
But yeah, the cafeteria was closed so had to walk a mile to fetch my morning caffeine fix. Annoying, but weather’s nice so don’t mind much. Most of the snow had melted, finally could see the grass. It’s still brown, but makes me happy. Light wind blows, by god it’s fantastic out here! My eyes wander around and spot something weird: a fork on the road! No, I mean a piece of silverware, right there in the middle of the road. It was funny, I mean they try to keep this area pretty clean. Wasn’t it Yogi Berra who said “if you see a fork in the road, you pick it up”, or something like that. I mean I love the man, but ignored his maxim. Had to hurry, was worried if Jess already reached office.
Jess my colleague, who I am supposed to work on this new project together today. She’s great: one hell of a coder, and doesn’t mind putting in a few extra hours to get the job done. Quite a looker too, if you ask me, but never tried anything. She’s got a boyfriend, for one, but wouldn’t try it even if there wasn’t, too close! But do enjoy hanging out with her after hours sometimes, so I guess we are kind of friends.
Took out my key, opened the office door and there she was.
“Hey morning, I was about to call you”, she said rising in her chair. Her cubicle is opposite mine.
“Good morning, just went to get my coffee, the damn cafeteria is closed”, I said putting my cup on my desk. “I can start whenever you’re ready.”
“Yeah I got breakfast too. But I can eat that in a bit. Let’s work from my machine.”
I nodded and rolled my chair to her desk. That’s when I noticed her face. “By god Jess, you look awful. I mean, sorry, but what’s up?”
“Yeah nothing, I mean, I broke up last night.” she said with a blank expression, I wasn’t exaggerating, she looked wretched.
“I am sorry to hear that. What happened?” I thought they were about to get engaged or something.
“I don’t know man, what always happens when things get serious. He freaked out, couldn’t commit. And he keeps travelling all the time, so we don’t get to spend as much time together anyways. I knew this was coming for a while, so you know, it is what it is. No big deal.”
“Oh well, none of my business, but you look like you’re dealing with this fine.”
“I am fine, yeah, I’ve had enough experience to let this bother me. I mean life is just shit sometimes you know, you just gotta go with it.”
“True that, okay may be we can go get a drink tonight.”
“Yeah sure, let’s see what we’ve got to do for the project here”, she said and opened her email. We spent the next thirty minutes going through all the mails and creating a list of things we needed to get done. I hate these big projects with external clients, always ends up getting more confusion than work done. But sometimes you just gotta roll with it.
“OK, I guess that’s all the things we have to do, four to five hours of work, I think” I said stretching my arms, “I am gonna get a glass of water. You want?”
“No I am fine, I’ll eat my breakfast, it’s getting cold.” Jess said, yawning a little. Should have gotten her a coffee too. Oh well.
I came back from the water station and saw Jess just staring outside. Went to Jess’s desk and sat at my chair, “That water is so damn cold, hey you’re not eating?”, I looked at her. She looked miserable.
“Can’t eat, I forgot to get the silverware. I am so forgetful these days. Jeez Mannie, I am a mess”. She looked so angry, I couldn’t understand, just stared at her. She continued, “I mean we have to work on a Sunday because of my fault, I didn’t reply to Monica’s email on time and now she has us working. I keep missing little things everywhere, and everyone suffers. Oh god Mannie, I am so sorry.”
“Hey Jess it’s okay man, you don’t have to take it so hard on yourself, no one’s blaming you.” I said. Honestly, I had no idea what to say.
“No Mannie, I am going to screw everything up. My code sucks, I haven’t had a promotion in two years, the upper management hates me.” She was in tears now.
“Listen Jess, relax man. Let me pick up a fork and knife for you from the kitchen. Then you take a break and we will continue after that, okay?” I said as I ran out the door to the kitchen.
I was clueless, but I guess forks in roads can lead to all sorts of misery.