Really Short Stories: ‘The River Sings. Listen.’

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Verdant green forests, craggy white mountains, gurgling rivers and roaring seas.  Who would not be tempted to explore these?  He set out with empty hands and a heart filled with wonder at what lay before him. Every step a sacred communion.  Every breath in – one of joy.  Every breath out – a reverent sigh. Such that he began to feel he himself was sheer transparence, light.

Until one night he arrived at a village.  The fire in the square burnt brightly. Shadows danced and stretched behind the performers.  The loud voices and impassioned gestures had everyone riveted.  The traveller was no exception.  Drawn in by the power that the ‘villain’ appeared to exhibit, he could not help but forget his way.  He forgot all about the journey and was bewitched by this unfolding drama.  Instead of moving with the winds, he seemed to grow roots in that place.  Returning every night, again and again.  Finally, his unspoken desire was given opportunity.  The actor had failed to show up.  He had been a silent understudy long enough and could step into his place.  For several nights he played villain.  Reveling in the reactions he provoked.  The gasps of fear.  The whimpers of subjugation.

Till the beauty caught his eye.  No matter what he did, she would not even  look his way.  She was bewitched by the brave ‘hero’ on stage.  Slowly he began to regret his choice. He began to wonder what she saw in that beleaguered lead.  Now bravery and honor began to look appealing.  Perhaps that was not a bad part to try out for after all.  The first chance he got, he changed roles.  Now he could play a human God.  This was even greater fun and the enchantment complete.

Within a few days he was off the stage.  He became the helpful hand.  The voice against injustice.  He owned the role so well, that soon they all forgot who he really was.  It did not stop there.  These exciting, wonderful tales – of color and vivacity – they had him completed addicted.  The laughter, the tears, the coming together of hearts and the falling away of friends.  The alternating gains and losses of the adventures he underwent.  The makeup had been on so long, it became his skin.  The costume no longer his temporary attire, but a defining part of him.

In the meantime, the weather changed.  The forests were cleared, the rivers were running dry.  The sun was scorching.  The winds were high. They were all calling out to him in their own way.  But he could not hear them.

He was lost in his play.  When he grew tired of being the leader, he played the sage.  In true identification with his role, he set off back on a mountain trail.  After days of penance, fasting and prayer, an unease arose.  He did not admit this to his followers.  He led the meditations every week.  In between, he continued to be verbose.

But one full moon night, he looked up and felt the cool breeze.  Through the cloth, the covering skin.  It touched his heart again. He could smell the forest despite the incense.  He could hear the leaves.  The sounds of the village drama, the actors, the audience – none of it deafened him anymore.

It was the waters that finally reached him. The resilient babbling of a dwindling river sang him awake.  He walked back to the neglected track.  He returned the way he came.

Quiet.  Attentive. Grateful.

And slowly but surely, with his return, the landscape blossomed once again.

Image Credit : Flikr Trey Ratcliffe (under Creative Commons)

Really Short Stories: A Clean Sweep

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She swept her garden clean, wiping the sweat off her brow. It was hard work, maintaining this place.  Rising before daylight, diligently raking fallen leaves from the ground. When she was done, the courtyard was a pristine clean. Visitors would pause, untold, at the doorway.  Hesitant to drag in mud with their shoes.  One quick look and it was obvious. The space was not just clean but sacred. She poured her heart into the grounds with every stroke.  They would speak more softly, more gently here. Time would slow down. They would savour the modest tea she offered.  Join her as they watched fresh flowers and leaves float slowly to the ground. They would shake their heads and say, “More work for you”. But she would smile and respond, ‘That is life. We are never done.’

One particularly hot day, the winds blew in a stranger. Towering, commanding on his steed. He was tired and hungry, wanting shelter and shade. He bustled into her space, too flustered to notice the dust he carried in. He brazenly led the horse right to her stored water and let it drop its head in. She emerged from the kitchen to protest but stifled her scolds. Her eyes took in his exhaustion and self occupation. She thought to herself, ‘This soul needs some rest, however rich his robes.’ So she silently offered them both sustenance for the body and spirit. They were too needy to realize the inconvenience they caused. How they stretched her meagre possessions, the messiness they brought. She didn’t mind it either. The horse was as grateful as the Master.  After three days had past, he gruffly thanked her and left.

Only to return again. This time he was less exhausted but more demanding than before. She pointedly told him he could rest a day, no more.  Annoyed, he attempted to buy her hospitality. Proffering silks and spices in lieu of rest. She laughingly gave them back and suggested, “Try more respect instead. I have no need for your riches. But if you tell me a tale of two, that may be more interesting. Perhaps more useful too.”  So he told her about his adventures and grew prouder with each tale. She listened attentively,  but wasn’t as enchanted as he expected.  His tales got more exaggerated, his demeanour more arrogant and proud.  But the further he got from truth, the more impatient she became. Finally she told him, “Its best you leave in the morning”.   Seething he snapped, “What would you know of the world? Living in this isolated, dead town. You know nothing about life. And turn away a chance to learn!”  “It is late, you are weary. I will let you be. But tomorrow be gone Sir. It is best you leave politely.”

She slept early that night.  The next morning she said not a word as he left.  Putting in some extra effort with her broom, she recreated her tranquil place.

A few days later, he returned again. This time he was not ignorant. He knew what his soul was thirsty for. But she was also wiser. She commanded him to stop right at the door.  He bristled in anger, surprised. He had been expecting the same quiet hospitality as before. She firmly refused and repeated, “No more.”  He rankled and accused her of being selfish and unkind. Turing away weary travellers was a crime.

She wasn’t surprised at this lack of grace. “When you did not notice how I nurture this space, how can I expect you to realize it’s sacredness? The first time you were weary, your eyes were blind with not knowing what you want. You were given freely. You received fully. That was done.  You came once more, without wanting to pay the price of simple respect.  You were told to leave because of that. But you still did not get it.  Do not think you can come back here and take any of this by demand. It was not my weakness that hosted you the first time, but my understanding. The second one was a chance to learn.  A third time would be an error on my part. Turn and leave now. The first time was self occupation. The second ignorant arrogance.  This time it is pure selfishness. Of that, I will entertain none.”

The truth stung his pride and he raised his voice. Within minutes there was silence. She had turned away and gone inside. But there were others who came up to the house. The daily visitors, who knew what she was about. And they said not a word to the stranger, but simply pointed him on his way…

Only one old lady walked up to him and declared, “Son, to receive gracefully is an art. If you had understood just that, you would never have been turned away. This woman doesn’t give in from fear. She is unafraid of listening to her heart. That kind of courage cannot be threatened.”

Really Short Stories: “How Can I Help You Today?”

Rights reserved Mark Hillary

“How can I help you Madam?” he asked politely.

“I want a new SIM card. Here is my PAN card.”

“I also require a completed application form and address proof Madam.”

“What?! Why didn’t you tell me earlier?  Here, take a copy of my driving license!”

“We cannot accept this as proof of address!  Government rules do not allow this anymore.”

“What are you talking about?  I was here myself six months back. Someone told me to come back with a PAN card.
How many times do you expect me to come back?
Am I supposed to keep bringing documents at your whim?” she exclaimed.

“Madam the rules have changed.  We cannot help it.”

“Don’t tell me that!  Call the person who dealt with me last time! I demand to know why the information was incomplete!”

“Please understand.  The rules changed last month.  Whom did you speak to last?”

“Do I know all of you by name?  Do I care to?  How dare you speak to me like this?  Is this anyway to speak to your customer? Look at your tone!
Now I will have to travel another two hours back and forth and you are asking me who I spoke to?”
The lady ranted on.

Vikas’s face was red, his ears were ringing, but he kept his mouth shut.
This was not unusual. It was one of the things he hated about his job.
He reminded himself that he needed the pay.
His mother’s medical bills were piling up, the rent was overdue and after a sleepless night, he was nearing a breakdown.

The lady stepped aside to make a call.
Her volume suddenly fell and the tone became defensive,
“But Rakesh, I didn’t know! I am sorry I delayed it so long.  What can I do if the rules changed in the meantime?
I know, I know… I am sorry.”
She turned away to hide the tears that were springing to her eyes.

Vikas paid no further heed to her.
He was stewing in his own frustrated misery and was relieved she had left the counter.

Aarti stepped up and noticed his sweating brow and aggrieved expression.
‘He will simmer like this till the end of the day.   For no real fault of his,’ she thought.

She respectfully requested, “Please help.  There is no network signal in my area.”

Something in her tone and expression caught his attention.
His eyes widened as his soul felt seen again.
He paused, uncertain. Then Vikas’s soul snapped back into place.

His faraway look was replaced with acute attentiveness.
Silently, he looked at Aarti searchingly.
She understood his confusion and smiled.
Validating to him that she knew.

She knew that all the goodness and sincerity in him had fled in exhaustion for a moment.
But her compassionate presence had called it back.

“Let me lodge a complaint in the system.”
He took his time and was careful in his work.

She could see he was still soaking in the momentary oasis of peace he had just encountered.
So she waited patiently.
Allowing him the time to recover fully.
To be willing to deal with the outer chaos again.
There was no mention of the earlier confrontation.

Just a quiet recognition of the unsaid.

“They will call you within 3 days Madam.”
“Thanks for your assistance Vikas.  Have a nice day!”
She smiled and walked away.

Vikas watched in silent gratitude.
‘She will never know what she did for me.’

The irate lady was back in front of him.
She looked more strained than before.
In a loud voice she demanded, “So give me all your requirements once and for all!
Make sure I don’t have to go through all this again!”

Vikas was a different man now.
He looked at the phone she was nervously tapping, her red eyes.
“Yes Ma’m.  I will help you as well as I can.
But whether you go through this again or not, that is up to you.”

She began to argue back, but the meaning of his words hit home.
She went quiet, absorbing what he meant.
Reluctantly nodding in agreement, she started again, more softly, “My husband is really upset about the delay and I need to get this done…”

He nodded and continued his job.

One can help in more ways than one.

Photo Courtesy Creative Commons: Mark Hillary (Flickr)

Against the Grain

If your kindness has left you feeling foolish, any generosity has been taken advantage of, or your vulnerability has been used against you, you may wonder what you are doing in this world.

You may suspect ‘others’ are right in their assessment of your ‘impractical’, ‘out-of-touch with reality’, ‘naive’ and ‘gullible’ nature.

Worse of all, you may be tempted.

Tempted,
To meet the need to fit in.
To be driven, blinkered and ruthless in the rat race.
That takes you to places you don’t even want to go.
But must, because that is where everyone ‘who knows anything’ is headed.

Tempted.
To be who you are not.

Pause.

Take a deep breath.

And ask yourself:

Who do you really want to be?  

And how do you want to express this being in the world?

How authentic are you being right now?

I love stories and the powerful impact they can have on us.  Perhaps this short Zen tale may help you find your answers:

Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they noticed a scorpion that was drowning. One monk immediately scooped it up and set it upon the bank. In the process he was stung. He went back to washing his bowl and again the scorpion fell in. The monk saved the scorpion and was again stung.

The other monk asked him, “Friend, why do you continue to save the scorpion when you know it’s nature is to sting?”

“Because,” the monk replied, “to save it is my nature.”

I would add, “Because the wound of going against my own nature would be more painful than the sting from the scorpion.”

Photo Credit: Chinmay Kulkarni

Really Short Stories: Answered Prayers

“I always knew it.  This has confirmed what I have felt all along.  My son is special.  He is here for a reason.  God will not let him leave his work incomplete.”  The elegantly dressed lady epitomized poise and courage.

I listened in silence.  There is little one can say in such a situation.  Her twenty-three year old son was lying passively in the I.C.U.  His bike accident two months back had left him comatose. Nobody dared to speak about it openly, but there had been murmurs of “alcoholic”, “irresponsible” and “no hope” amongst the visitors.  The mother appeared to have heard none of all this.  She remained positive and stoic. During the brief visitations we were permitted, I would hear her whisper encouragement to the passive boy.  There was no sign that he could hear her, but she never gave up.

Later that night, a loud wailing pierced the eerie silence of the ICU..  The tension was acute.  Who had received the fatal news now?  But that was not the case.   This was another mother.  Another desperate, exhausted soul who cried out in sheer misery.

“Why? Why?” she sobbed as she was led to a chair by a nurse.  Everyone’s eyes had turned to her.  Another visitor gently reached out to pat her hand and console her. “Don’t worry.  He will be alright.”  That worsened her cries.  “No!  Don’t say that!  Enough!  Enough! Please let him die now. I cannot take this anymore.”   There were a couple of startled gasps.  Loud enough to reach her.  They seemed to ignite the anger raging in her.  “I shock you, do I? What do you know?  What do you know about how much we suffer every single day!  For the last three years.  Every day a battle to be fought.  Every breath a struggle.  You can sit there and judge me.  But if you only knew!   If you had only an ounce of compassion in you, you would join my pleas. Let him die.  Let him die now!”

The pain in her voice seared every listener in the room.  No-one wanted to know more details.  No-one wanted to answer the questions that arose in their mind. About themselves, their patients, the lady, her son.  None of them. For the first time in months, a crack appeared in the controlled veneer of the poised lady.  She grew white and one could see the churning within her.  Disgust, pity, anger, judgement – they all left a visible trace as the distasteful frown.  But as she continued to watch the helpless tears flow, she began to change.

She watched transfixed.  One mother seeing another.  One woman recognizing another.  One soul understanding another.  Just one tear appeared at the corner of her eye.  She did not wipe it away. Moving slowly, she went across to sit beside the weeping lady.  Sensing her intensity, the second lady grew silent.  In one long look  they exchanged stories of a lifetime.

Steeling the tremor in her voice, the first held both hands out and said, “Come, let us pray. I have prayed for my son to live and you – for your son to die.  But God has been trying to take away mine and keep yours alive. Perhaps we are not hearing the answer he has for us.  Let us change our prayers today.  Let us pray for grace.  Let us pray for the strength to trust.  For once – let us pray for us.”

Really Short Stories: Saving Grace

“But he has completed his work!” Pacing around with her cellphone stuck to her ear, Shalini was exhausted.  She weakly concluded the call. “There is nothing more I can say.  Your conscience will speak up some day.  God help you to live with your self.”

Neha rushed up to hug her.  Mother and daughter quietly sobbed from all the week’s misery.  The maid continued sweeping the floor, being as unobtrusive as possible.  But she could not help overhearing Neha’s insistent questions.

“When will dad be home mama?  What do the doctors say?  Was it the doctor?”

She was silenced by the ringing phone.  With a sigh Shalini faced the same questions.  “He is still critical.  He is in the I.C.U. .   Yes, I know… the hospital has been calling me.  I have to arrange for funds  by evening.  The deposit has run out…  I don’t know Anish!  I don’t know where to get the money.  In seven days, all the savings are gone.”  She listened silently with growing frustration as the caller gave her unwanted advice.  “Yes, you are right.  We should have been more careful.  Yes, we don’t have any business sense and we are naive to believe in people.  Does that make you happy?”

She shook her head as she received even more admonitions.  Eventually she shouted, “Yes!  You were right!  The partners have turned out to be con-men!  They think Manish will be dead tomorrow so they aren’t paying up his dues.  Manish and I were foolish to believe it’s a fair world.  To believe that when you are good, others are good with you!  I was wrong alright!  How is this helping Anish?  Can you give me fifty thousand by 4 pm?  Because if you can’t, then I don’t want to waste my time hearing about how impractical we are.  I have no time for this!  I have no energy, I have no faith – right now Anish – I have no hope of seeing my husband alive tomorrow. So unless you can help me, spare me!”

Shalini threw the cell across the room.  Seeing Neha’s terrified face, she felt even more miserable.  Hugging her tightly, Neha cried to her, “ You can have the fifty rupees from my angelbank Ma.  Don’t worry.  Haven’t you always said we are looked after?”  Shalini nodded absently as the maid took her leave, torn between despair and awe over Neha’s reaction.

The minutes ticked away and so did Shalini’s hopes.  All the calls were in vain.

When the doorbell rang at 3.00 pm, she was eyeing her gold wedding ring and wondering how much she would get for it.

She opened the door to find her maid handing her an envelope wordlessly.

“What is this?”

“The fifty thousand you had lent me two months ago.”

 “But… how could you?  Where did you get it?   You said it would take you two years to repay this!”

The maid shyly replied, “Don’t worry.  It is yours. Right now you need it more than me.  I borrowed it from another employer.” .

As Neha clung to her, Shalini smiled through her tears.

“You have not given me back my money.  You have restored my faith.  In God.  In life.  In people.  I can never thank you enough.”

Neha smiled happily, “Didn’t I remind you?  We are always taken care of!”

Really Short Stories: Time for Change?

He began, “I am terribly upset.  My boss is impossible.  It is time.  I must change jobs.”

She softly asked, “Do you really want to change?”

Taking the question as disapproval, he justified himself, “I do the best I can, but it’s never good enough.  I feel I should quit.”

Her silence was discomfiting.  Dropping the complaining tone, he became defensive.

“I was late for the meeting.  So I rushed through the presentation.  That didn’t work very well.”

 Still there was no comment.  He hastened to add, “I was late because the car was punctured.  It got late last night, and there was no way I could take care of it then, so….”

As he trailed off, he realized that his mid-week party had not been a good idea.  He could have put in a better effort on the slides, if he had not been in a rush to leave for the opposite end of town last evening.

Speaking as though he had said all this aloud, he explained himself. “It was my classmate’s surprise birthday party.  The one I have talked about before – the celebrity singer.  My friends don’t understand why I have to work so late.  They are all doing well.  Losing my father early caused a gap in my education.  And then the break between the last job and this one.  People don’t recognize how my personal problems damaged my career.”  He scowled bitterly and reflexively shot a guilty glance towards her.

Though she did not reply, he had heard from her often enough in the past.  So with a sigh, he spoke for her:  “Yes, I know.  All that was a long time back.  I can choose to carry that complaint forever.  Or move on without making it an excuse every time something goes wrong.”

He felt helpless now.  “Even if I were to do that, it doesn’t change the truth isn’t it?  I am nothing compared to others from my class.  I keep trying.  But it can never happen.”

He looked up in frustration as a memory flashed before his eyes.  “I have known this for years.  Right since that day in school, when I slipped and lost the relay race for my team.  All the abuses I received!  Everyone told me how I would always slip up when it matters most.  And they were right!”  Tears of pain and helplessness filled his eyes as he repeated to her: “They were so right! I have been proving them right again and again.”

He looked down to wipe his tears and mumbled again, “I have been proving them right again and again.”

He looked up startled by his own words and for the first time, her face showed some expression.  The quizzically raised eyebrow and a quiet smile confirmed his profound insight.

 “I have been proving them right!  I believed them and so all my life I have done nothing but expected to fail.  To struggle.  To slip up when it really matters! To make poor choices like I did last night.  A voice inside me always says ‘Why bother? You know how this will end.’”

He shook his head in amazement.  “Does this mean I can change it all?” he asked her.  Fresh hope and courage flowed into him.

With sparkling eyes, he smiled as she asked him once again, “Do you really want to change?”