First Prize – Vaidyanathapuram Shankar
Second Prize – Shivani Dua
Third Prize – Sohini Ghosh
Swatilekha Roy Bindu Saxena
First Prize – The Unreserved Compartment
By Vaidyanathapuram Shankar
It was almost midnight as the train to Cochin approached a station somewhere near Salem.
The three-tier unreserved compartment in which teenage brothers Sam and Jose were travelling was crowded as usual, except somehow one small area or cubicle in front of the boys.
“Do you know why that area is empty always?” whispered Sam to Jose. Before Jose could answer, their mom hushed them up and asked them to go to sleep. At the same time, the train chugged to a halt at the small unassuming station.
Arun was perspiring hard as he was running alongside the train looking for a seat in the crowded unreserved compartments. The halt time available was very short as it was a very minor station. Just as Arun was giving up in frustration, he saw the empty area in the compartment and got in happily.
As the train moved out, Arun made preparations to lie down, thankful for this oasis of emptiness among the crowd. Though his part of the coach was dark due to malfunctioning lights, he was happy to rest his tired body after a hard day at work.
Just as he was about to close his eyes, he was startled to find a pair of eyes staring at him in the darkness from the seat opposite him. Though it was quite darkish, he could see the pair of eyes quite clearly. Though he found it eerie and a bit disconcerting in the general darkness, he said, “Hi!”
A voice emanated from the other side as the ‘eyes’ responded, “Going far, huh?”
“No, I need to get down at Erode,” said Arun.
“Don’t worry, doze off sir, I will wake you since it’s still more than a couple of hours away. Anyway I don’t intend to sleep.”
Though Arun was usually very wary of such assurances from strangers, he was overpowered by sleep and dozed off. Suddenly, he was woken up very rudely by his fellow traveler, “Wake up, wake up, no time to lose, sir! The train is about to leave your destination.”
Arun looked outside but it was total darkness and could see nothing at all.
Erode station without power! Quite unbelievable, but there was no time to wonder about this.
“Quick sir, the train has already started!”
If time had permitted, Arun would have noticed an eagerness and strange excitement in his co-traveler’s voice. But he had sadly no time to even think. The train had started moving slowly.
As Arun stepped out over the small bridge in total darkness, right into the gushing waters of a small canal, he heard raucous and almost violent laughter from his fellow traveler.
Next morning, Sam started telling Jose, “They say a guy once jumped out of this train somewhere near Erode, from the area next to us; that’s why people avoid that part of the compartment.”
Before he could explain further, mom shouted, “Don’t scare the young boy with all stupid tales…”
Second Prize – The Mermaid
By Shivani Dua
A streak of light was sneaking through the window of my room. I peeped through the window and saw a mermaid down the street. She was walking gracefully, carrying a plethora of colours spread on her palette. My eyes followed her majestic gait which had left me spell bound and fascinated. I felt blessed for being considered worthy to behold this fantasy. I closed my eyes and thanked the streak of light for making me meet my muse.
I exclaimed,’ Oh! A lovely feast to the eyes. How has this lovely mermaid come here? Has she lost her way?’ I was suddenly jerked out of my reverie by my sister,’ ‘Hey! What’s up?’ she asked. I replied,’ Oh dear! Nothing special.’ ‘But you were mumbling something, why were you speaking to yourself?’ she enquired. I just smiled as my reply to her query. How could I reply when I myself was not in a position to explain what I was going through? She glanced at my face, looked down and again looked at me. She failed to decipher anything. Her suspicious glance had put me in a fix. Thankfully, she was called by mother.
She went down leaving me again with my mermaid and my train of thoughts. I looked down. The mermaid was still there but what I failed to notice earlier was her bare, soiled feet moving on the rough road in the scorching sun and her tattered dress (that flowing long skirt which bestowed on her that perfect mermaid look) showing her poverty peeping from various spots of her body. The plethora of colours were actually the colourful balloons to lure the kids so that they could persuade their parents to buy them one and the mermaid could get something to eat with the money received. I ran down to meet her.
When she saw me gazing at her, she asked, ‘Do you want to buy one?’ Her sweet voice had a velvety touch. I fumbled for words and just gave a nod. I gave her all the money I had in my pocket. She was shocked, may be she thought I was an eccentric. She returned me the balance amount which I refused to take. To this she reacted rather sternly, “I will charge the exact amount not more not less. I hate sympathy,” she said. This time I could not refuse and took the money back. She looked at me and said, ‘Whatever I earn I do that with my hard work and will continue doing that no matter come what may.’
She took her colourful palette and went away, leaving me speechless. My whole world of colours and illusions came shattering down as I was smitten with reality. Despite being bare footed, she had a firm foothold on reality. It wasn’t she who had lost her way (as I had thought earlier). Rather it was me who was groping in dark and needed guidance. I went back to my room. The streak of light was gone perhaps finding some other window to sneak in.
The Missing Pensioner
By Sohini Ghosh
When I couldn’t find Mrs. Sen in the queue of pensioners for the third consecutive month, I was disappointed. She was a jovial old woman who treated us bank staff like her children. The sombre mood of the office would light up every time the youthful old lady would enter. Her son, Prabhat, started coming instead, carrying the required documents with his mother’s thumbprints. On asking him, I learnt that she had fallen ill and had been advised bed rest. I sighed. Old age was finally catching up on her.
One evening, I happened to be in the same area in which Mrs. Sen resided. I thought of visiting her and asking about her health.
I bought a bouquet from a local florist and asked him her house number. He pointed behind him towards a pale green apartment with identical windows and said, “The one with the freezer.” That was a weird identifier, I thought as I moved towards it. As I came closer to the apartment, I indeed saw a freezer on one of the windows. Without giving much thought, I entered the building and took an elevator to the second floor.
A young woman answered the door. She said she was the senior Mr. Sen’s nurse and asked me to wait on enquiring about Prabhat and Mrs. Sen.
When I was left alone I went to the bedroom hoping to find Mrs. Sen there. But it was empty. I went to the other room though I never expected her there as that was the room with the freezer.
To my amazement, there was not one freezer but two freezers kept next to each other. They were huge in size and were continuously making a buzzing sound lending an eerie and uncomfortable feel to the otherwise quiet house. I checked behind me. There was nobody. I tiptoed to the first freezer and held its handle. My heart was pounding as I pulled it open.
I took a deep breath. It was empty.
I then turned towards the other freezer. I felt like a burglar but I had to check inside. Praying to God, I opened the door. I almost shrieked when I saw what was inside.
The naked and yellow body of Mrs. Sen was seated inside the freezer.
My head was spinning. I wanted to vomit. I somehow pulled myself and shut close the freezer.
I ran towards the door when something stopped me. There was something about the body. Something weird. Something different.
I turned back. I opened the freezer again. I raised the lifeless arm of Mrs. Sen and saw her fingers. Her thumb had a blue ink stain.
I heard the nurse returning with Prabhat. I closed the freezer again and ran out of the house wondering why the second freezer was kept.
Without waiting for the elevator, I sprinted down the stairs. Just as I was about to hail a taxi, I bumped into the senior Mr. Sen.
A PIE IN THE SKY
It starts with me walking around to an award function. I was part of a strange crowd of people, pictures, frames and colours. I pass through a huge glass enclosure. I try to touch the mesmerizing curtains but these continue to elude me. Its prism-like effect stuns me.
The lights blink for a fraction. As the flashes return, my eyes see someone seated on an exquisite throne. The face was his. The eyes were his. The stance was his, and all that I saw belonged only to him. His eyes sparkled as always. His attire was one that he wore at Eliot Park – the place we met last.
I could see his right profile: A part of his glasses, the side of his shapely nose; the lips that I longed to kiss, and the cheek I wanted to touch softly. I wondered if he still has that prominent mole on his left cheek because that view was not in my vision territory. I had a quick peek at his hand that used to caress me. The cufflinks sent constant glitters and a portion of his favorite white shirt were all that I set my eyes on.
It felt like an Easter feast.
My heart raced. It was bubbling with constant desire. I was back in times when I fell in love with this erudite through an uncanny incident and our friendship elevated to a next level. Alas! It turned transcontinental and was left to open ending…
Oblivious of my presence, he sits with an undivided attention. This brilliant evening happens on a sky high terrace. The venue had richness in awesomeness with a complete out of the world experience!
Equipment and services were all under a remote control operation. The elevators would read your business card and decide if you were privileged to enter!
The evening ended with his introduction. Thunderous applause followed. Suddenly I hear my name being announced. My feet began to take off. I sensed I could fly. Amidst sparkles and illumination I fly like an American Goldfinch. I stand before him in complete amazement. It was a brilliance of panorama with my name emblazoned all around in air, flashing our puppy-love pictures.
Our teary eyes meet as he holds me in an inseparable hug. We become a couple. Walking in the aisle, there were showers of celebrations. Tulips and Red Roses wrapped us in. The gates to the glorious Presidential Suite open.
His scent waffles in the room and I try to find my feet…
A Mountain Wish
Mountains, blue skies, silk clouds and herds of conifers swishing with the breeze – Kashmir has it all, and we were here to see it. Vipul was the one sponsoring this trip, as he had gotten his dream job abroad last year; I had started pursuing a degree in Marine Biology in the Nicobar Islands. Neha, my eldest cousin, had divorced her drunk, know-it-all husband just a month ago, and we couldn’t be prouder of her. This trip had been our childhood dream, and we were overwhelmed!
We reached Sonamarg in late afternoon. With countless flowers and spans of green grazed upon by wild ponies; the “Meadow of Gold” was no misnomer. We rented horses and started down the narrow dust road toward Thajiwas Glacier. The horsemen were friendly mountain boys, who told us about the weather and brown trout in the river in broken Hindi. They waited as we sledded and played in the snow like kids. To our surprise, one of them named Thimbu even invited us to spend the night with them. He offered us a cheaper rate than the nearby hotels, and despite Vipul’s protests, we agreed.
Thimbu’s humble house in the foothills, with Nallah Sindh gushing past it, was picturesque. Pashmina draped floors and the aroma of barbeque made it feel homey. His parents were overjoyed to have guests. Mani, his little sister, gave us tubs of warm water. After freshening, we helped Thimbu and his father, Kachum, collect firewood.
Over dinner of grilled cauliflower and barley bread, Kachum told us how they travel down to Srinagar during winter, when Sonamarg is covered in snow. We listened in awe. These mountain people lived without Internet access, room heaters, and other conveniences that we take for granted, yet they were so content. Sitting on the narrow terrace, we stared at innumerable stars studding the magnificent sky like bright denizens of an inky night. Nearby, Mani was munching the coffee bites we had given her.
Suddenly, our eyes fell on a shooting star in the north sky, and we exchanged our wishes. Thimbu blushed, saying that he wished to see the sea; Mani wished for more coffee bites. On coaxing, Neha revealed that she had imagined her ex-husband without his moustache. I wished that I would discover a new species of sea life sometime in the future.
Ultimately, workaholic, Internet-loving Vipul’s answer surprised us the most. “I wished we could stay here forever!”