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MyStory Winners – Prose

30th October 2019

Tata Literature Live! MyStory Contest Winners – Prose

 

Below are the winners selected by a jury independent of the number of public votes they received.

 

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques
By Dipanjan Das

 

There had been a problem with the second window on the northern wall since the building had been repainted six months ago, when the painters had applied paint unevenly on the frame, leaving little lumps that made it stick to the jamb. Usually the man in the black shirt was patient with the window, he would gently coax it open, softly nudging different points on the frame and waiting for it to budge. But he didn’t have much patience today, so after a few unsuccessful and progressively aggressive attempts to open the window, he accidentally put his hand through the windowpane. As he plucked out the shard of glass embedded just below the first knuckle of the index finger on his right hand, he cursed himself for losing his temper. But the damned bastard just wouldn’t talk! They had picked up the old man that evening. He was in his late sixties, but even under the drooping skin one could make out a solid, once-strong frame. And of all the people that the man in the black shirt had had to “process”, the old man was proving to be the hardest to break. His men had been at it for – he checked his watch – almost four hours now. Stronger men than the old man had broken in far less time. The methods the secret police applied had been designed to ensure that resistance did not last too long. The central idea was the application of a combination of physical and psychological pressure to convince the subject that not only was he completely at their mercy, but that there was no superior authority, no law of the land that could save him. As far as the subject was concerned, the men in that room were the highest law. From there, total surrender was the only logical option.

And yet, even after four hours, the old man hadn’t broken. He knew it because the black phone on his table was still silent. When it rang, he would be informed that the subject had either confessed or died. Of course, knowing the old man’s reputation, it wasn’t surprising. He had been among the original members of the Party, back when the Party had been illegal, when meetings had taken place in dimly lit backrooms and secret hideouts, when members of the Party discovered by the old government were made to disappear altogether. His exploits were famous, the numerous tales of his bravery and cunning in outwitting the police of the old government had become legends. No one knew then that the old man was a power-hungry opportunist, who tried to undermine the revolution to appropriate power for himself. If it hadn’t been for the Chairman’s commitment to the cause of the Party and, most importantly, his unerring instinct for treason, the old man would still be a respected member of the Party, maybe even the Chairman. And that is why the respect that he had once had for the old man had turned into a hatred doubly intense. One man subverting the Party, maneuvering his way to the highest echelons of the leadership, fooling the people for whom he claimed to fight, only for his own selfish motives! Even the old government had not been this dangerous, at least they came to battle as enemies, not disguised as friends. But traitors, enemies of the people and the nation, lurked everywhere. After the revolution they wouldn’t act openly – they would sneak into our colleges, our workplaces, our homes, and finally into our heads to spread their venom and subvert the revolution, give power back to the old rulers. Any mercy to them was treachery to the Party.

The phone finally rang as the man in the black shirt was softly dabbing the wound on his hand with a bit of cotton wool. At the other end, his subordinate sounded tired. The old man had confessed and had fainted shortly after. He couldn’t be revived. There was none of the elation, the undertone of pride in his voice with which he usually announced his success. The man in the black shirt asked his subordinate to bring him the confession. He then called for his driver. He would have to travel to headquarters immediately with the confession so that the news could make the morning papers. His subordinate, came in just as the driver was leaving. The confession was smudged with blood, the writing only legible because it was a standard AF-45 form. The signature was a scribble, the sort which children make when they have learnt to hold a pen but not yet to write. He flicked away a fingernail still stuck to the paper and looked at his subordinate. “Good job, corporal, now get some rest.” The man didn’t say anything. He turned to leave, but before he could move, the door opened again, and a clerk came in holding a sheet of paper, handed it to the man in the black shirt, said “Just came in from headquarters, Sir”, saluted and left. So did the corporal. The man in the black shirt placed the sheet on his table, beside the blood-stained confession, and sighed. He didn’t have to read the piece of paper to know it had arrived too late, and now he had a shitstorm on his hands. It was the old man’s pardon.

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Kaliyug Ka Sita And Ram Navami
by Shyamala Sethiseelan

It is 10:30 a.m and I walk into Dave’s cafe. This is one of those unassuming places with not even a proper name board but the service and food are nothing but the best.

The cafe is quite empty. This is the time when the office goers would already be stuck in meetings and the stay at home parents would have finished their school run and gone off to do their errands or take a break. I always come here at this time so that I get my peace and quiet. I nod and smile at Dave who turns around to make my hot chocolate exactly the way I like, he has been doing it for years, he knows my order without even me having to open my mouth and say a word. He is a man of very few words. In a few minutes, he brings my drink just the way I like, without marshmallows or cream and super hot, to my seat by the window where I always sit. I like to sit there and watch life go by as I work sometimes or just daydream.”There you go Seata”, Dave smiles. I wonder if he will ever learn to pronounce my name correctly. Just ten minutes later I notice my husband Ram crossing the road to the side of the cafe. I wonder why he is jogging this side today. I knew he was working from home and was going for a late jog. He barges into the cafe and nods to Dave who knows that Ram doesn’t have anything between his jogging session and goes off to do his chores in the kitchen without a word. I wince as Ram places himself on the empty seat front of me. I get fidgety. “Hi” Ram says with a big smile. I barely return his smile and wait for him to tell me what he wanted to say. Of course, he has caught me here because he has something important to say that couldn’t wait till I reached home.

“You know it is Ram Navami today.”

“Really?”

“Mind coming back home early and making something nice?”

“Why?” I continue in monosyllables

“You know, it is Lord Rama’s birthday and amma would have made something special back home.”

“So, it is not your birthday is it?” I could see he was starting to lose his patience.

“Just come home with me now and make something nice.”

“You mean to say that I don’t make anything nice every day?” I try to force a smile and continue ” If you want something nice, you could have told me, I would have made it anyway, why use this as an excuse? Can I not make it tomorrow, it is the weekend and the kids will be home?”

“Ram Navami is today, not tomorrow.” My mind races back to a conversation we had a month ago

“Why do you have to wish every single person for their birthday and anniversary?” Ram asked just as I hung up after talking to my second cousin on her birthday.

“But Ram, many a time I call people once in six months or so to wish them and it is my way of catching up and also making them happy.”

“Do you even think they will remember your call, Sita? They could have had a hundred calls and yours might be just one among them?”

“Don’t be cynical, please. Maybe they appreciate my call because I was the odd one who called them without a facebook reminder? Maybe I was the only one who called. Who knows?”

“What difference does your call make? I left it at that and walked away. I had always made sure to keep my calls away from the rest of the family. It was a mistake that day and I didn’t want to argue with him. I am not a person to argue anyway.

Today with the same smile I tell him “Ram when it is not important to wish people who are alive for their birthdays, what difference does it make to celebrate someone’s birthday who you don’t even know if they existed?”

“So you are digging up old stories, are you now?” His face was turning red.

“No Ram, just that people around and their feelings are more important to me than all your Gods put together. I can make all those goodies that your mother makes, but tomorrow when the kids will be around to enjoy it as well. I am sure your Lord Rama is not going to be upset by this simple delay in celebrating his birthday if that will make a few more people happy.”

Ram gets up and leaves in a huff just like a two-year-old. I sigh and smile and I realise that I had been holding my breath so far. I see him start to jog back home again. He will be alright by the time he goes home. it is ok to get upset occasionally and one cannot have all that they want at the time they want, can they? I sit there for a couple of more hours reading peacefully.

As the lunchtime crowd start to walk in and I see Dave getting busy in the kitchen, It is my cue to leave. I go to the till and place the money for my hot chocolate, I also place a small card and package which says “Happy birthday, Dave”. It has a small gift I know that Dave will appreciate. He notices it, smiles and comes out of his place to give me a hug and say ‘Thank you, Seata” and goes back to his till. He doesn’t say much but his face tells it all, that I have made his day a memorable one. As I step out of the cafe I tell myself “Ram Navami can wait for this kali yug ka Sita to celebrate a day late”

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Best Served Hot
By Tanvi Palekar

 

“Wow, nice to meet you Rudolph”, he said slyly as he excused himself in her little apartment. Her cold wasn’t getting any better and being held analogous to a red-nosed reindeer certainly wasn’t something that was going to help. She stared at him, hoping he would see her lack of amusement and apologise for the ill-timed joke. He was too invested, though, ruffling around in his sling bag, taking out a vacuum flask and a disposable bowl and spoon.

 

“What is that now?” she asked, tired from sniffling.

“That is chicken soup and you’re going to drink it all up. I made it myself, so you better be grateful.” He winked at her. She couldn’t hold back a smile.

“You really didn’t have to – I am surviving on soup everyday anyway. It’s been a week.”

“True, but you haven’t given my special soup a chance yet. Try it once,” he said pouring it out into the bowl, “I promise it will work better than any other you’ve ever had.”

 

She didn’t know why he was doing this. He was just her classmate, a new friend. He shouldn’t bother, he shouldn’t care… but here he was holding up spoonfuls of soup to her mouth for her to drink. She took a sip. It really was better than any other chicken soup she’d had before. She made a mental note to ask him for the recipe once she was better.

 

Soup was followed by talk, and talk was accompanied by laughter. It was the uncontrollable kind, the one that made your stomach hurt and head ache from not breathing between laughs. However, this was the kind of pain that made you forget all other pain.

 

Some time passed in silence, the only sound was the whirring of the fan and cars zooming in the distance. She felt better but was definitely tired. He could tell. He took her hand gently and guided her to her room, put her down to sleep and tucked her in.

 

“Why are you doing this?” she asked, curiosity bursting through the lull induced by her full stomach. “That’s what friends do.” He smiled. She felt a kind of warmth in her chest that she’d never experienced before. He sat by her head, and played with her hair. She had never felt so cosy in her own apartment until today. Without realising, she pulled herself up and rested her head on his lap. He took up the responsibility joyously.

 

Silence ensued – the comfortable kind, where you express so much but don’t say a word. It was only broken when he started humming a tune, an old soft romantic tune that easily replaced a lullaby. The last thing she remembered was the feeling of immense calm and she drifted off into a deep sleep in this newfound safe haven.

 

After a while, he stopped singing. He checked her breath. Nil. He felt her neck for a pulse. Nil. Her body was starting to feel cold under his fingertips. He got up, laid her head safely on the cushion, and reached for her laptop. He unlocked it using her facial recognition passcode and transferred all the data into his hard drive that he carried in his pocket. He then took out a handkerchief and wiped clean her head, arms, the laptop, and any other surface he had touched in this house. Taking all items he brought with him – the flask with the poisoned soup, along with the bowl and spoon that he would throw off in the trash can in a nearby fast-food joint. He looked at the hard drive, now containing all her research for her final thesis, which would give him a massive head start for his own research, something that she had publicly sworn to never share with another soul till her work was complete. “Too bad you can’t take your work in the afterlife. Rest in peace”, he thought, and smugly walked off into the dusk.