Short Story 2010 Second Prize Sandeep Shete

The Lens And The Lioness 

My Heartbeat Simbu,

I scribble in this diary from a place where death enjoys a life of its own. Where it isn’t feared or despised and no attempt whatsoever is made to deceive it. At times it’s even welcomed here albeit with tired smiles and resignation.

But let me not waste time and words for I don’t know if I will ever put pen to paper again. For all we know, this could be the last time I turn the lens inwards, as it were, rendering myself in sharp focus for you.

Now wait! Did I write that yesterday too? Or was it today morning? Must be those sedatives they give me. Pain management, it’s called. Ha! As if the pain of watching my only child lose me, day by excruciating day, organ by faltering organ, can ever be managed.

If you’re old enough to read this, my child, I’m confident you’ll understand why I chose to leave you with Neha and go away, why you cannot come and see me here.

But let me flip back a few pages, a few months and years, and see if I’ve missed anything…

***

Met Greg Miller today… Some freelancer he is. Comes all the way from Los Angeles to shoot the Asiatic lions in Gir, my backyard. His last assignment: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. I was supposed to be awed. I’d driven my Gypsy straight to the Wildclix office after a month in Ranthambhore, my soiled hair a veritable haystack, long stringy scabs from the thorns running like vines down my sun-burnt arms. That jerk Farhan should have prepared me for this meeting. What was he thinking, calling me in at such short notice? But then, a magazine editor’s nothing if not a devil incarnate.

So there he was, Greg, waiting for me at the reception, a vaguely intimidating stranger standing in the largest shoes I’d ever seen, his Popeye arms folded solid over a ripped torso exploding out a white T-shirt that looked like it had been painted on him. His hair shimmered like Calangute sand and his deep blue eyes were trying hard to keep off my breasts (heck, how I hate the way they diminish me.)

‘Hello! I’m Amrita,’ I said taking his oar-blade hand, surprised at how tender it felt. Shucks! Should’ve rolled a deo stick in your pits before getting within a mile of this dude, cave-girl. That he couldn’t see what grew in there was my only consolation.

‘Amraithha!’ he boomed. ‘I’m Greg Stevens.’

‘Umm-ree-tah,’ I tapped the syllables one by one. ‘With a soft -tah.’

He shook his head slowly. Then, without warning, he blinded me with a grin. ‘Too hard, ya know. Could I just call you ‘merica?’

‘Suit yourself,’ I giggled, trying to ignore the goosebumps sprouting all over me and wondering if he found me comical in my oversized camouflage-wear draped over a puny five-foot-three frame. ‘So when do you us want to leave for Gir?’

It was then that I noticed the graffiti on his shirt: “I Heart America.”

***

…on Greg’s first experience of the great Indian roads. He hung to the support bracket on his side of the Gypsy for dear life, a hunted expression in his eyes all the time.

‘Jeez ‘merica, ya could make a career as a fall gal in Hollywood,’ he kept saying. ‘How in the name of God can ya drive so straight on this dirt track?’

Past noon I pulled over at a highway dhaba that served fiery Kathiawadi fare in yellowed plastic bowls and dishes.

‘Whoa! Are we gonna eat here?’ he cried, eyebrows soaring skywards.

I shrugged. ‘This is all we’ll find for the next hundred and fifty kilometres, sir. But come on, you look like you’ve got a strong gut.’

He made a face. ‘Still, it ain’t made of no cast-iron.’

We washed hands under a Sintex tank that sat uneasily atop a breached parapet wall behind the dhaba. A scruffy lad who looked like he’d spent most of his life on railway platforms served us food.

‘So you’re prepared for where we’re headed?’ I asked Greg between mouthfuls. The food was surprisingly tasty.

‘No sweat,’ he drawled wiping his lips with the newsprint the boy had helpfully supplied in place of tissues. ‘I’ve done my homework on the Indian countryside – especially Gir – to be able tell a Sorathi Rabari when I see one, ya know.’ He was referring to one of the pastoral groups that live in traditional settlements inside Gir.

For once I allowed myself to be truly impressed with this guy.

***

…and quiet flows the Machhundri. By late afternoon today we had set up base camp on its western bank. My friend Rani’s favourite water-hole happens to be close by. A perfect oval, it’s almost appears hand-crafted from a natural depression in the grassland.

Ours isn’t much of a camp by the way. Just a square blue tent with criss-crossing strips of canvas cut out on the sides for windows and a zip-down flap for a door. Meals will be cooked on my trusty old Primus and at night Greg will take my extra sleeping bag. He travels light and can live off the land, he claims, so he doesn’t carry such encumbrances of his own on field trips. But he’s got a fine camera and binoculars I’d kill for. There’s no question of a toilet here in the general sense of the word. Toilet paper, did you ask? Get lost!

Sad to report, Greg’s going to learn more about rural India than he’d planned on. Good for him, ya know. Ha!

***

…and while I wasn’t looking somebody had been naughty. No, Greg’s behaving himself. I’m talking about Rani. After a three-day stakeout at the edge of a clearing in the woods we caught her in Greg’s binoculars, stretching her lissom frame atop a rocky outcrop overhanging her den, the morning sunlight turning her fur to golden velvet. This time she’s full of attitude and I can see why. She’s got a durbar now, you see, two little brown bundles of infantile majesty following her everywhere. She didn’t greet me with her signature growl when she saw me. I forgive her.

But my Rani’s a diva before the cameras I tell you. Started posing like a model before us the moment I powered up my Canon. The new 500mm telephoto zoom lens I picked up in Delhi is worth its weight in gold (that’d be almost 4 kilos of the yellow metal; serious cash.) But it paid for itself with my very first snaps of Rani suckling the cubs, her shiny red tongue slathering each one with the kind of love only mothers are blessed to feel. As for the father, he’s nowhere in sight. He’s probably moved on to other precincts, other conquests. Men, I tell you.

It’s mid-February and the coming retreat of the winter’s worrying me. Poor Greg might die from the heat.

***

…and now here comes Lord Summer. How the forest capitulates, surrenders its proud decadent green before an unassuming brown. I see a lot more of Rani and company at their shrinking water-hole these days. The Machhundri’s all but dried up.

Greg’s still alive, thank goodness. I’ve begun to notice his ocean-blue eyes a lot. And the veins running like perennial rivers down his forearms, his abs like a mountain range, his… Now you can’t blame me entirely, can you? He’s one with the forest, moves like some wild beast himself and looks the part too, what with his shirt off most of the time. Yesterday, he suggested I follow his example, go shirtless myself. I smacked his butt with my tripod and tried to appear sufficiently mortified. But then, you never know. Besides, the fellow’s pretty persuasive. And I’m not just talking about his verbal skills. (Wink!)

***

…a terrible terrible day for us. A chousingha gored Rani today on a hunt that went all wrong. Careless girl, didn’t you even think of your little ones? You, the mistress of deadly manoeuvres, felled by a meek herbivore? Pray, what made you so desperate?

It’s late in the evening and the entire forest hears her agony. It breaks my heart to be writing this when I know I could be helping her right now. I could alert the Forest Department officials, I could call up the environmentalists. Why, I could even get help from one of the Rabari settlements not too far from here. Rani can be saved. She can be shifted to a zoo and nursed back to health.

‘No!’ says Greg. ‘That’s the nature of nature, ‘merica. Isn’t this what we’re here for? To record this game of life and death playing itself out without human interference. Remember the title we decided for this collection: A Lioness Unplugged. Let’s not play spoilsport, shall we?’

He’s right, of course. Only, with Rani, it cannot be just a game. Not for me.

***

…a sight so incredible, I forgot to lift my camera. Another hunt and this one went like a dream. Rani, braving what must have been unbelievable pain, brought down an adult sambar today. The tyranny of the powerful is no match for the gleeful insults of the weak when given a chance. The sambarhad it coming, I’d say, trying as it was to humiliate the wounded Rani by grazing that close to her lair. Rani didn’t eat any of it herself but it’ll feed the cubs for days. And Greg got some heart-breaking shots of the weakened Rani dragging the enormous carcass over fifty meters to her den under the blazing sun, fighting off a pack of striped hyenas along the way.

***

…are you?

Where are you? Rani!

We haven’t seen you for days. Your cubs are alright for now. I see them frolicking outside the den in the mornings but you need to be here all the same. Yesterday I shooed away a pair of rusty spotted cats moving suspiciously nearby (Greg scolded me later.) They must have caught the scent of your cubs. And if I’m not very mistaken, that colony of white-backed vultures circling high up in the sky hasn’t moved since yesterday. Could they be waiting too, for your little ones to get a little foolhardy?

Greg says we must watch our own backs as well, given your condition, but I find the insinuation appalling.

***

…finally my worst fears came true. I should have known all along, wildlife expert that I call myself. Perhaps I did, just didn’t have the courage to face what my knowledge and field experience were telling me. That the vultures were not waiting for the cubs. They were waiting for Rani.

Today we found her body, or what was left of it, under an acacia three miles from the den. She didn’t want the cubs to see her die, wanted to spare them the soul-crushing sight of the foxes and hyenas quarrelling over morsels of Mommy’s flesh. Oh, the rot, the stench, those contemptuous flies vomiting on Rani’s bones. Why must nature humiliate all creatures, big and small, in the same manner in their death? Why can’t the likes of Rani enjoy (if that’s the right word) a more respectable departure if only for the glamour and glory they bring to the outdoors while they live?

Back in the blue tent I wept for the first time in years. Against Greg’s chest…

***

…but why did it have to happen that way last night? Why did tears have to double as pheromones and grief have to play chaperon? Why did I have to lean deeper, deeper against him until I found a place to expend my feelings? Why did Greg have to kiss my tears off so tenderly and why did I have to find his breath on my face so comforting? Why, but why did the bare-chested beast have to so inexplicably turn human?

***

…and he left. We shook hands, said goodbye. What had happened between us was left to die on its own, uninterrupted. Like a candle that had lighted up a dinner for two. Or Rani under the acacia.

Now that I think of it, perhaps that night in the remorseless forest, it wasn’t Greg who had turned human, but I who had swung the other way. Could it be that the forest, which had already claimed Greg, had finally felled me too, made me a part of itself? Had the essential spectacle of death we’d witnessed finally brought to the fore what lies at the very core of all creatures (including humans) – the irrepressible motivation to feed, fuck, and to survive? Yes, that night, just briefly, the two of us had become what we really were.

On second thoughts, why attempt to elevate beastly passions through over-analysis and thus debase them?

***

…a child of the wild. You weren’t conceived to carry some pretentious surname, my dear. You were born out of life’s fears, Her anxieties regarding her finitude, Her feeble pursuit of immortality through a system of rolling proxy. They say you were born under all the wrong circumstances. But for all the right reasons, I insist. Only Neha agrees but that’s fine by me. She was by my side since the day I decided I wanted you. Other than me she was the only one who waited for you.

I’ll call you Narasimha, the man-lion. Love your crinkly blue eyes, Simbu.

***

…but I refused. Neha has gotten into this exasperating habit of bringing up Greg when I’m least suspecting. She did it again today at the mall where we were buying clothes (yet again) for Simbu. He’s eight months now and seems hell-bent on attaining adulthood within two years. It was when we were arguing about the sizes we should go for that Neha suddenly blurted out of context, ‘You know what, you’d have looked so much better having this argument with his dad.’

I frowned at her. ‘Now don’t you start again, Neha.’

She paused, passed a hand over her face. ‘No matter what you think Amrita, he deserves to know.’

‘To what purpose?’ I retorted. ‘He’s probably shacking up at this moment with some Latino broad in the Amazon basin.’

‘You’re too proud to tell him, aren’t you? Too proud to let him help you,’ she said.

Perhaps she’s right. Happens to you when you look up to beasts instead of humans.

***

…and it’s harder than I thought it would be, this single mom thing. But not as hard as life would have been had I not had my Simbu. Or so it seems today. The word love doesn’t come close to what I feel about him.

***

…felt a lump over my heart under the shower today. It’s probably nothing.

For a moment I felt like I’d been shot in the chest, my arms crashing by my sides like chopped branches, my legs vibrating like guitar strings, threatening to buckle, the steaming hot water crashing over my body feeling like it’d freeze me to death. I stood there transfixed, for I don’t remember how long. All I remember was me gargling over and over again to get rid of the other lump, the one growing in my throat.

Still, it’s probably nothing.

***

…doesn’t seem like it’ll go away, the lump in my throat that has become a wall between my heart and my tongue. Words rise up from the former and die unarticulated by the latter. There’s so much I wish to tell Simbu – he’s almost two – but can’t. As for Neha, I know she’ll bring up Greg again if I as much as whisper about this to her.

I believe I can live with the lump in my chest. It’s the one in my throat that’ll kill me sooner.

***

…went in for the mammogram finally. The picture that showed what was wrong with me while I was busy showing the world what was wrong with the planet. ‘It’s metastasized,’ pronounced the doc. Meaning lots of pain, little hope. What’s Mummy going to do now, Simbu?

…but it’s not Death that scares me. It’s the manner in which he has chosen to visit me that makes my blood boil. Am I scared of losing my hair to chemo? Perhaps. Does the thought of my body wasting away like a living corpse revolt me? Sure. Do I have nightmares about waking up to find a bald, desexed hag with chemical breath peering back at me from the mirror? Absolutely.

But let’s face it. I’m most scared about the expenses. I’m worried about Simbu. But that wasn’t why I finally told Neha yesterday.

***

…isn’t working, no the chemo isn’t working. Instead it’s sucking up everything I’ve got, everything I call living. The doc said it’d soak up the cancer. Instead, it’s soaked up most of my savings account.

Once again today Neha offered help. Once again, I refused. She was sitting right there, yes in that chair, the look of defeat in her bloodshot eyes. I have realised death, like beauty, too resides in the eyes of the beholder. Yes, you see your death in the eyes of those who love you most.

And then there’s guilt, which is all inside me. No escaping it. Guilt at having lived like Rani myself. At having immediately consumed everything I ever earned. At not having saved much until I had Simbu. And so I had to call up the broker to sell off the old Gypsy too. Still, I’m puking my soul away.

***

…had nothing left to sell but my cameras and lenses. Farhan agreed to buy them at sticker price for the rookies at Wildclix. I take back the devil incarnate label I’d given him. Neha protested but I deposited the money in her savings account. That was for you, Simbu. And now there’s this place I’m headed for. It’s called a hospice.

Love,

Mummy

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