Online Open Mic – 2021
With the season of Valentines Day in the air, Chitra Goplakrishnan’s work of fiction from India is the perfect bit of romance to sink into. She immediately takes you with the character, feeling both the tension and the excitement. It is a fantastic love story with colorful layers.
A corner for the fool
By Chitra Gopalakrishnan
“I will jump from the platform onto the approaching train and all that will be left of me will be a sludge of substances,” I threatened.
My voice billowed like my flowing clothes. It rose from a creak, like the protest of hinges on a rusty iron gate, to a bleating, to a bellowing, and then to actual shrieking, like a cascade of wounded hailstones, swelling from a fizz to a roar to a fanatical clamor.
I first met Akash one March morning when I threatened to reduce myself, thus, into slush, under the wheels of a train.
No, not on account of him.
My intent was to chase away a persistent beau who faffed on forever about, “You are my true love, I swear”. One who was beginning to repel me, his untruths setting my teeth on edge. I do admit he was keen on me but understood very soon that he was more upbeat about my ancestral family fortunes.
He had followed me all the way to the New Delhi railway station, snapping at my heels, when I was bound for a brief, day-long, official trip to the outskirts of the city. Mostly, I think to stutter his lines all over. But he missed hearing my threat, drowned as it was by the shrill cacophony of hawkers, the bedlam of coolies, and the base hum of the railway station noises that are peculiar to India.
But a man on the opposite platform seemed unnerved by the ridiculousness of my proposed action. It was he who was affected by my high-pitched theatrics, and by my intended blood-sport. Did he hear me all the way from there or was he reacting to my gestures, my extreme non-verbal melodrama?
He was separated from me by six, gleaming parallel lines of rail tracks, that looked like beams of flowing sunshine. I had a glimpse of his torso growing rigid, and his neck bracing against his swift and sharp head movements as his eyes craned to see whether I would totter headlong, heels and all, into the abyss beneath the platform. Whether his concern was on account of the frightening conjectures of my impending fate or because of the danger of the line being blocked, and a possible subsequent delays to other trains in the area, it was hard to say.
A train whooshed past onto the middle rails with the speed of summer lightning, instantly clouding his line of vision and mine. My train came in within a hair’s breadth of this, and I was swallowed into its rail rhythms, its jolting and rattling, in a matter of seconds. As its scheduled stop was only for two minutes, I could not wait to see the effects of my sonic boom in the stranger’s life.
He and I met again, a week later, this time at a sedate, noiseless, and classically elegant location. A church in the center of our city at my friend’s wedding. Or should I say ours? The groom was his friend, the bride mine. Separated this time by an aisle, six bodies, and twelve pairs of eyes, we vaulted past the preliminaries of names, work profiles, and phone numbers relying on lip movements, hand and finger gestures, and exaggerated facial expressions.
Interpretive communication was seemingly becoming our signature interpersonal transmission mode. And all our gesturing happened even as, in extreme earnestness, the couple exchanged vows. And over and above the buzzkill of our respective benches’ six guests, who glowered their disapproval at our lack of social restraint and decorum. Even the fragrant bouquets of white lilies fastened to each bench, often referred to as sympathy flowers, could not quieten their indignation.
Once outside, his first words spoken with equanimity, were, “Tara, the dangerously unbalanced woman warrior I encountered at the station, and one who has been stalking my dreams ever since.”
How was I to know whether he was intrigued by my levity, my perversity, my enacting of fiction? Or know whether he saw me as an impelling yet perilous attraction, like a provocative woman on a collision course with everyone, quite like a character that he would have conjured for an animation game, something he did for a living? Or know whether he saw my jesting as a ploy to make way for instinctual behavior, a funny way to be serious?
He wouldn’t tell. I wouldn’t ask. His inscrutability was part of his charm for me.
We discovered compatibility almost instantly. For a start, Akash, his name, means the sky and mine Tara, a star. We shared a common distaste for conforming to expectations of others, for marriage, and both had fears of handling children’s messes, vomit, and loose shit, in particular.
Even our travel plans were alike. As the creator of a gaming series that was attracting international interest, he was being pursued by many companies in the US, and had zeroed in on one. “I am set to go the US in six months to release the series I am working on,” he said. As a budding architect, I confided to him that, “I have set my sights on studying further in London, the most celebrated and design-focused countries in the world, and have also given myself six months’ time to get my application, papers, course preferences, and thought-processes in order.”
In the next six months, we covered the distance in our lives, full-throttle, wasting no time in moving in together, yet we were careful to give each other space. The contours of our relationship took peculiarly unconventional forms and may be best understood as being alive. We both let ourselves be, meaning we allowed each other the freedom to be completely certain of who we are. We both refused to let our impulses get stuck between selves. “We won’t allow our love lives to be counterbalanced with our individual paths,” we told ourselves and each other. And we both kept up with our curiosity about the world.”
I had molded myself and my decisions to my personality that over the years had taken a determinate shape and I was not about to give up that. My childhood joys were anchored solely by my grandmother; my parents were so caught up in animosities that they failed to scatter joy even once in a while. My father was black and bleak in the extreme, his melancholy stretching to foul moods, a bad temper, and a diminished career as a stodgy banker. My mother was emotionally evasive, self-sufficient, independent of outside forces or influences, including me, I guess, arguing her blithe unilateralism was the only way to put food on our table. Ironically, she is a family and matrimonial lawyer.
“When my grandmother passed on, I separated my sense of myself from my parents’ expectations of me, and their frictions. I sought out my own purpose and values and the only thing I consciously held on to was my grandmother’s sense of fun, making nonsense of sense and sense out of nonsense, and her belief that I was destined for great things, that is if I gained aptitude,” I explained to Akash.
Akash learned to journey on his own, too. “I was deprived of a gentler, slower childhood by parents who were focussed on marks and grades, and a career in engineering for me, the three priorities that I was mostly uninvolved with. I always escaped falling into their ambushes, their urgings, and their hopings, their setting of limits to my expansion, by posing to be a flight risk for them. Can you see now that I am not dissimilar to you? I broke away after college to pursue my own welfare, and today my parents have made peace with my choices. I suspect it is on account of the successes that have fallen into my kitty,” he said.
The stories we tell about our lives are inadequate to their real complexity. Yet I could picture him and make sense of what he was saying. A simple, smiling boy with a high forehead. Playing with a dog in a muddy playground. And building castles in the air.
To keep the chutzpah in our lives alive, we pranked each other with delight. You could call our sense of fun different. I called him over once to a hospital emphasizing that it was urgent. I dragged him to the gynaecological department, and when he worriedly asked why, I would not tell. “We have been ultra-careful, haven’t we?” he asked fretfully. I would not answer. When, finally, he figured that all this was just to collect my routine check-up report, I could not decide which was funnier, his exasperation, or his relief.
His skylarking, that took a while in coming, took the guise of several small fake spiders tied to a thin string. A killer job! He taped the string just above our bathroom door jam and then shut the door. When I opened the door, the spiders fell on me one after another, even as I kicked, screamed, and wailed in an unsophisticated fluster, turning sick with anxiety.
The aftermath of our romance, when our six-month bracket began to close in upon us, elicited a lot of emotion. He had to begin thinking of the US, I of London. Our life of comfort that we had built together was coming to an end and our moment of crisis was upon us.
Should we demur to our farsighted choices, our earlier decisions to go to the US and London, decisions that did require of us long periods of deliberation? Or should we depend on our intuition? Make place for our attachment?
In this moment of reckoning, as in my other at-a-crossroads-juncture in my life, my grandmother’s words came to my rescue. I remembered how I used to brace myself as a child on her left shoulder when my father reprimanded me and her right shoulder when my mother threw vile words at me, while she soothed me with comforting words. The wily, wizened, grand old lady had during such moments said to me, “When you are faced with a difficult turn in your life, when you can neither look back or forward, you need to excavate things that are important to you, things that bring zest and gaiety of an inexhaustible joie de vivre. Always remember, the brain of the sage must have a corner for the fool, an optimistic, utopian space.”
These words have given me comfort in tough times. But more than that it has given me perspective. It was no different this time around. I now knew what I wanted. I did not want to wake up to realize I had lost the one person in life who could understand the subtle difference between independent and interdependent and could help me combine both with joy. And I knew unquestioningly that I should hold on to the one person who knew about ambiguities within relationships.
And that’s where I was. Aching in my heart with a set of contrasting, mushed up needs. I was aware that my current beliefs flew in the face of everything that I worked for so far. Settling down always seemed to me like giving in to living life on an expected loop. A virtuous, staid life, complete with harness and bells. It was like catching a bad habit. Yet in the very same breath, the very same idea, the idea of conjoining futures, now seemed to be exciting. In a startling strangeness, it appeared rash and reckless, one where future possibilities bloomed in a deliriously wonderful manner.
Confusing? Yes, I was most certainly muddled.
But did he know as well? If he did, he did not say. His lack of candor was scary. It disturbed me immensely this time around. I fretted as I could not temper down my fears of his decision being the opposite of mine. I became increasingly tearful, and waves of despair washed over me. Why isn’t he separating shadow from substance? If I was clear on “London, be damned” why is he drawing out his decision, the telling of it to me? Will he find a way to be in my life? Or will he retreat?
I suspected that a stealthy solicitousness on his part was his way of putting a distance between us. I told myself for some days that his non-directness was understandable, and not ignoble. But soon I began to chafe against his silence, the indecisiveness of our situation. Finally, I did what I scared to do. I stirred the pot. I asked him for his decision.
“Wait,” he ordered. “I have made my decision while sober. I am going to get drunk now. I have always made big decisions in my life by thinking them twice over: once while drunk, once while sober.”
I stared in disbelief. This was a new level of levity even for me. One that threw up alarming new uncertainties.
“Silly girl, of course, US be damned!” he exclaimed.
“But I have thought through another option. Marry me and then head off to London for two years as I go off to the United States. I will be back home sooner and two years will pass by in a twinkling of the eye for you. Maybe, I could even hop across to London once I am done with my work in the States. That is if you will allow me. To liven up your studies that will drag on horribly long without me. What say?”
I could now exhale.
His plan sounded like prudential algebra. Future planning with a twist of fun. Exuberance even.
And, now as a married woman, I wait for our lives to unfold before us.
Chitra Gopalakrishnan uses her ardor for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript and tree-ism and capitalism.