Short Stories by Martie Mtange, Catherine Bailey, Sea, Siamak Vossoughi, Rittvika Singh, Evan Guilford-Blake
Nairobi's Teleportation, Sorry, Transportation Miracle
by Martie Mtange
The horizon fades from a wide azure-blue expanse into this orange-brown emulsion in the sky as the sun beats a chilled retreat into oblivion, stepping aside for the moon to reign over a cool Nairobi evening. As the day draws to a dramatic close, other civilians scurry to their various bus stations and cars to beat that ever-grueling traffic jam. Ray’s experience in Nairobi ensured that he always created a mental picture of the traffic jams like an unpredictable bout of diarrhea: immediately you eat something that disturbs your stomach, you hope that the diarrhea gets to you when you are in the comfort of your own toilet, true? Nonetheless, you succumb to it at a moment of its choosing, you know? Same thing, in Nairobi everyone thinks that by either delaying their stay at the office or leaving school earlier than usual, they will beat the jam; thing is, they forget that all Nairobians are thinking the exact same thing! “Go figure…” he mumbles as he begins his foray into the unpredictable evening…
Bartenders peep out from the confines of their pubs (wary of the City Council kanjos whose nosiness has cost many a businessman a pretty penny in bribes, free appeasement drinks and such) as if this is a silent, secret signal to patrons that yes, “Kinywaji time!” The more introverted Kenyans board their vehicles, ranging from sleek German automobiles that seduce pedestrians with their flashiness, to hopeless jalopies that choke on smoke as they negotiate with their failing engines. Among those proceeding to their various homes are those like Ray who board matatus’ and buses to cheat death and traffic jams in a bid to arrive earlier.
The slightly dull ambience of the streetlights coaxes a nostalgic recollection of an instance when Ray was late for a significant appointment and there was no way he was going to make it on time. The matatu he had boarded was the first he saw, and according to him, it was packed to capacity; therefore he was elated because he knew it meant few or negligible stops to pick up and drop passengers. Little did he know that the tout had a whole different agenda in his mind! Anyone who uses matatus in Nairobi knows that the matatu is never full until the tout decides that it is. This is the point when half his scrawny body is dangling precariously outside the weather-beaten vehicle, hanging on for dear life, his face smack in the middle of a passenger’s armpit. To Ray’s shock, the tout kept on pausing at undesignated stops to cram the already stuffy matatu with even more passengers. Ray was irritated to no end but unfortunately he knew that any uproar on his part would elicit the rudest remark from the tout intent on maximizing his profit at the expense of his customers’ precious lives (which were only precious to him when they were adding coins to his pocket.) It was as if the vehicle took it upon itself to address Ray’s irritation as neatly stuck onto the window of the matatu was a sticker emblazoned in red, “Kama una haraka, shuka ukimbie” translated to “If you are in a hurry, get off and run.” Ray kept his peace from then on.
The irony of life is probably best embodied by the Nairobi matatu.
Ray resolves to critically consider this matatu conundrum. Honestly thinking about it, how many times had he been in a traffic jam in his own car, the endless snake-like trails of automobiles in front of him; thousands of drivers marinating in despair and anxiety as they wonder whether they will beat the 8 o’clock deadline either to work or to class and the repercussions should they not make it? Then out of nowhere, he hears this annoying mélange of sounds of clanging metals, boisterous horn-tooting and loud reggae music approaching from behind and he wonders, how is he doing that? By and by, this overloaded jalopy of a matatu streaks past him on the sidewalk reserved for pedestrians. There’s a slight moment of hilarity at the sight of appalled pedestrians jumping out of the sidewalk to avoid this cocky matatu driver, all the while giving nasty facial expressions and even nastier hand gestures screaming, “Get off our side!”
This is always followed by other motorists engulfed by the traffic sticking their heads out to watch the matatu’s progress or the usual scream of “Argh! You are just adding to the jam! Silly matatu!” Ray recalls bitterly that tinge of envy and anger that coursed through his body when he realized that this matatu which should ideally be behind him had cheated the logic of equity and overtakes him to further complicate the confusion of vehicles up ahead? Then in a moment of heated frustration he pipes “Ah! I hope you get arrested! Jerk!” All the while praying for the presence of a disgruntled policeman up ahead to apprehend that miscreant of a matatu driver. Yes. That is the short end of the stick while dealing with the matatu industry....
Nonetheless, Ray recognizes that matatus do in fact have their importance. Fast-forward two days later. Ray’s car tire was punctured by an errant nail, nobody to drop him; against the quiddity of things, he was abandoned to the mercy of the public transport system.... He was in a hurry to get to the office and reluctantly, he boarded a matatu that cheated death and traffic. There was this snake-like traffic jam that stretched for miles and miles until all he saw was this wide sea of cars in front of him. “Damn,” he mouthed as all hope freely ebbed from his psyche. Abruptly, as the rest of humanity soaked in misery and idleness as a result of the traffic stalemate, the expert matatu driver swerved to the sidewalk where it seemed impossible for even a loaf of bread to squeeze through and maneuvered nonchalantly through the snake of cars. Ray struggled in vain to combat the twitch of a smile at the edge of his lips and a tinge of admiration and hope of reaching his destination early as he silently egged on the driver. A barrage of insults was hurled Ray’s way and through the driver’s constant eye-darting, it was rather obvious he was anxious about meeting traffic police—all this heartache to ensure that Ray and others like him were early to work.... Well, not really, but his—the driver’s—motivation to make as many rounds as he could, worked to Ray’s advantage, which at that moment was good enough! After the initial gratefulness and pride, Ray conceded “Maybe, just maybe I had terribly misunderstood the Nairobi matatu…”
There’s always that transient moment of utter gratitude and reflection over the reputation of matatus until upon a slight pause while leaving the matatu, the tout wittily quips to Ray, “Oya! Ni Yesu unangoja? Shuka!” (Excuse me! Are you waiting for Jesus? Get off!”) The latter was violently reminded, “This is Nairobi, the City in the Sun where you love to hate the matatu but you also hate to love it in equal measure...”
 Colloquial for City Council Officers in Nairobi
 Swahili for any form of drink; however, in this case, the drink is taken to mean alcohol
 Swahili reference to a special 14-seater minibus, the primary means of transportation in East Africa
By Catherine Bailey
"Baby, just stay down."
Eyes still closed, the old man drapes a grubby hand over her naked waist. The smooth curve gives rise to a flurry of goose pimples at the brush of his calloused fingertips. Their touch is gentle, countering their rough texture. They give Annette goose pimples nevertheless. In the darkness, her eyes are wide. The few remaining candle flames’ reflections dance in their unblinking surfaces like orange goldfish twitching under ice. The room is thick and cloudy with vanilla incense.
The man turns in his sleep and smacks his lips beneath the masses of wiry auburn and silver hair. The unkempt beard and mustache frame the tongue’s grotto like a thicket of needles around a cave. A snore emits, the growl of a bear. Annette’s skin prickles even more pointedly as the rush of exhalation scathes her spine.
Her nostrils seize at the air for fresh oxygen. The vanilla is suffocating. It is velvet passing through her airways, clinging and muggy. She looks at the clock—3:18. Annette has woken up at exactly 3:10 for the past four nights with the same train of thought chugging through her brain. An oiled machine. It pours soot and smoke all over the vacuously blank life she had developed such a love for. Where had the train tracks come from? She had asked this on the first night. Now by the fifth the question had become, Where had they gone in the first place?
Annette was curious. In fact, she was captivated. Every night she watched the train chug by with growing fascination. The old questions, the ones that used to run through her head, came pouring back to her, sullying everything that had come to be so simple. Now, at 3:18, the train is thundering by, and she is counting each car. She is looking in each window of the train, glimpsing hungrily at its mysterious cargo. Somewhere in Car 5 there is a gondola in Venice with Annette’s name on it. The gondola rider is tipping his hat and bowing her forward. Somewhere in Car 14 there is a dojo where a martial arts teacher is waiting to teach her side-kicks. In Car 20 there is a gallery with blank walls waiting for her art. Waiting for her vision. There is a satchel waiting anxiously to be filled with trail mix and disposable cameras, waiting to be strapped to Annette’s back. The satchel is waiting, its patience is running out, it is waiting longingly to feel her back against its straps. The two of them will climb the Rockies. Why stop there? Why not the Himalayas? The satchel is itching with anticipation. Antsily shifting from foot to foot, impatient with her excuses and delays. Somewhere in the cargo of Car 109 there is a tree house waiting for Annette to climb up into it like a child returning to the womb, there to eat guavas and fall asleep sticky-chinned with the juices of the earth. There is music playing somewhere, waiting for Annette’s feet to nail it with red-heeled dance steps to the floorboards, which are also waiting. So much is holding its breath, waiting.
Next to her, the man takes another snarled breath. The exhalation, with its rank humidity, scalds the rough handprints he has left on her smooth skin.
His only reply is a grumble. The thicket of the mustache is drawn in and propelled out in accordance with his breath. It reeks of marijuana and whiskey.
"John." She nudges him.
"What is it, baby?" The glazed eyes flicker open for an instant before being gulped down again by the gluttonous lids.
She asks him if he wants to go on an adventure with her. He asks her, "What?" and moves around the tar in his lungs by coughing. She repeats the question. He takes it for an innuendo. He chuckles groggily and moves his hand down each nub of her spine until it reaches her buttocks. He gives one cheek a squeeze. No. She shakes her head. She rolls onto her side, sloughing the hand, and faces him. Her sudden movement causes the last inch of cindered incense to fall into the collection dish below. The last vestige of scented smoke rises into the air and dissipates like a spirit leaving the body.
Annette’s eyes transcend the haggard thicket of grunge, the weed beneath the fingernails and the alcohol-soaked hair to implore the part of him that sits perched behind the rib cage.
"Do you want to go on a real adventure? Right now?" We’ll leave this place, her heart implores him. Out of this den of decay, into life. We can leave this place. Let’s leave this place. She waits for his response.
"Baby, baby. Shh. Just stay down. Just close those baby blues and go back to sleep. Daddy will protect you. Shh. It’s all right now."
"John..." I am getting on a train tomorrow.
"I know, baby. Okay. It’s all right." He pats her hip with his starfish of a hand, pressing her down into the sinking sand of the bed sheets. She knows that if she lets herself be pressed down she will not get back up. This is the turning point. This is the moment. All around her, the fog of vanilla is closing in.
She waits for the snore of the old man beside her, who seems now a stranger. Annette is having trouble remembering how she even got here in the first place, or how she came to surrender her body to the onslaught of this stranger’s savage caresses. This is not her. It is wrong. Lopsided. She sits up. She will right it.
In the morning, at the first light of dawn, a girl appears on the train platform wearing only a blanket and holding a fistful of bills. Her feet are small and bare, and the softness of the morning light makes them glow with the aura of a phantom. The young attendant approaches her, removing his cap to smooth down his thin hair as he strides down the line of cool concrete. He knows. They are people of the crossroads.
"Where to, Miss?"
The words come easily to her, tumbling over her lips like the shimmering midair revolution of goldfish claiming liberty from the frozen pond. As she releases the words, the world releases the breath it has been holding for her, and as the train departs from the station that day, a strong clear wind blows at its back.
The man sat on his knees and sobbed.
"Love? Why are you crying?"
"Sometimes... I wonder if all of this is real…," he said quietly.
"Don't be silly, love, of course it's real. If it wasn't, how could we be experiencing it?" replied the woman standing beside him. She was the most beautiful woman in the world, indeed; she was literally the only woman in the world.
They stood together in an endless plane of pure white. There was no scenery, no sky, no horizon, only the infinite floor.
"Look at me, think like I do. We moved into this simulation to have immortality, didn't we? Omnipotence, everything we could ever want, but how can we know if we really exist?"
"Well, I'm not sure about you, but I do think that I exist, and so I must. Really, how could you be questioning your existence unless you had it?"
"Somewhere out there…" he waved a hand.
"Rather, somewhere not in here, there's a human being, a living, breathing, real human being. He experiences the world and lives. I'm just a copy of his mental processes, running in his high tech simulation."
He knocked on his forehead twice, and a dull, hollow sound was heard echoing in the fathomless distance.
"What if something was lost when the scan was done? Or when the program started? What if I'm just acting in all the right ways, a perfect imitation of life? But not actually alive myself. How can I know if I'm not missing something that “he” experienced regularly?"
She held his hand.
"But love, you are him. You must know everything that he experienced."
"No, I'm not him. I'm me. He's someone else, in another world. He and I are no longer the same person. I question which of us is real."
She pulled him closer and kissed him.
"No more of this. You'll go mad. Perhaps you already have. Shall we build another world for ourselves?"
He sighed again.
"We've built worlds before, we've been conquerors, leaders, destroyers, gods and mortals. We've played every game we could think of."
She conjured a beautiful, delicate white flower, and left it there, hovering in the nothingness. He glanced at it for a moment, then made it wither out of existence.
"Well, I haven't been a wizard in a long time."
A long wooden staff appeared in his hands.
"I shall build you a palace fit for an immortal queen, m'lady."
In an instant, the endless plane became water. They stood together on the surface. He raised the staff above him dramatically. The water rose up around them and formed the shape of a mighty castle. They were in the highest tower. Surrounding them were 8 exact replicas of the tower at a slightly lesser height. Below those, 16 more, below those, 32 more, below those, 64, and off the towers went, right down to infinity.
He snapped his fingers. The water became the purest transparent diamond.
"What good is a castle of diamond without lighting?"
A brilliant yellow sun appeared in the sky.
"I'm unimpressed, love. You've built better castles before."
The sun split. It was now surrounded by 4 copies, each of a different color. Blue, yellow, red, white. It split again, and again. Soon the sky was a multicolored fractal maze of stars.
"Oh! How pretty! How many colors are there?"
"Every color. All two to the aleph-nought of them. Sorted alphabetically and arranged in a spiral."
As he said so, the colored sky rearranged itself into an elaborate spiral.
"Or arranged into a portrait of us."
The sky became a portrait of the two.
"Or a portrait of itself, with us looking back at it, off to infinity."
The sky shifted again.
"...and for you, lovely immortal queen, the ring of pi."
An engraved ring appeared in his hands. He put it onto her finger delicately.
"It has engraved upon it the digits of pi. All of them. Forwards and backwards, in every base, language, and handwriting."
He sighed again.
"...but none of this was needed to impress you. I could just stimulate the pleasure centers of your brain directly."
He waved the staff at her, she gasped, then jumped on him.
"We do it the old fashioned way, like they do in the real world. Then you'll forget all of this nonsense about reality. We're real, isn't that good enough for you?"
He pushed her off.
"No, you still don't understand."
Everything vanished, leaving the two of them together in the infinite plane. He held her hands tenderly.
"You may think we're real…"
He looked directly into her eyes.
"...but I created you."
He dropped to his knees and sobbed.
"Love? Why are you crying?"
"Sometimes... I wonder if all of this is real," he said quietly
By Siamak Vossoughi
When I first heard it, I thought maybe somebody was messing with him. I thought somebody had said to him, here's how you can sound more American, and then given him something straight out of the 1930's. It made me mad to think about it. Mahmoud's was the only corner store in the neighborhood run by an Iranian, and I used to go out of my way to stop in there when I needed something and to say hello. "Hello buddy," he would say when he saw me, which was natural enough, but it was what he said when I left, which was: "So long."
So long. I didn't hear anybody else saying that all day long. And I was a listener to language. I was trying to learn to write in a way that would knock the one-and-a-half years of creative writing classes I'd taken out of me. No offense to those classes, I just wanted to write differently from the way they were doing it there.
I wanted to write as if people still had stories. Not just things they could say, but things they really wanted to say. Like everybody was the kind of person you'd like to be sitting with on Friday night around nine o'clock at one of the round tables at a good bar like Specs. Because they were. That's how I felt when I walked out of the class in the evening. That was exactly who they were. I just didn't know how I was going to prove it.
Anyway I used to listen to conversations a lot in those days, and it made me happy almost to the point of seriousness that the only person I heard saying something as beautiful-sounding as “So long” was a fellow countryman. If somebody had been trying to mess with him, they didn't know what Iranians could do with language. They could take anything wistful or heartfelt and multiply it by a factor of ten. When I was a kid my father used to break my heart and send me soaring at once by the way he would say, when he dropped me off at school, “Have fun.”
I wanted to ask Mahmoud Agha about it, but I didn't want to say something that would make him start thinking about everything he said. It wasn't as though anybody thought twice about it when he said it. I'd seen him say “So long” to Americans and they didn't bat an eye, even though he stretched out the word “so” in such a way that the whole thing could never in good faith be written like this way he said it: “s'long.” But that didn't change its miraculousness for me.
The thing that was so wonderful when he said it was that I felt like we Iranians had been in America longer than we actually had. I felt like we had a real history here, going back to before the revolution, before the 1953 coup d’état, back to a time when—in my imagination at least—people were expected to have stories, because they were expected to provide a larger percentage of a night's entertainment for each other. Which is not to say that Iranians would've had it easy in America back then if any of us had been around. It was just a nice thing to imagine for a little while.
You've got to give yourself something to feel a little secure in your foothold when you're new to a country, and for me it was when I heard Mahmoud Agha say, “So long.”
There were some days that his wife would be at the front counter while Mamoud Agha put away the new inventory in the back.
"How long have you been in America?" I asked her once in Farsi.
"Eight years," she said. "How long is it for you?"
"We came when I was four. I'm twenty-five."
"So you are American."
I didn't mind her saying it because I certainly felt American when I sat at my desk to write. I wanted to write in a way that was an extension of the street outside, and the street was an American street, so there it was. But I did want to give a special attention to the Iranian members of that street, to people like Mahmoud Agha and his wife, because I was more sure of where their hearts went back to than I was sure of where anybody else's heart went back to. Even as much as I loved to hear Mahmoud Agha say “So long,” I couldn't get around the fact that “So long” was not in my blood. It was somewhere very close, and it was so close that sometimes that distance was negligible, both in writing and in life, but still it was not in the blood.
There was a while when it used to worry me that the American language used by the writers I loved did not come as naturally to me. I was the first person in my family to care about the sound of “So long” as much as I did. But there was something special about being the first one too. You were the discoverer, and one day you woke up and discovered just how much was natural, because when I heard Mahmoud Agha say, “So long,” I saw how much it touched something in me that was already there.
So I started saying it myself, because how else was I supposed to get it into my blood other than by repeated use? And nobody batted an eye just like they hadn't when Mahmoud Agha said it. It became natural pretty quickly, enough that I didn't have to think about it. It didn't make the effort of being an American writer any easier. I still had to sit down and find my own America before I could tell anybody what was happening there in the form of fiction. But the effort to find that America made the writing easier because I could be sure of where I was when I got there. It was an America where an Iranian storekeeper would say “So long,” even as his wife was telling me that I was the American one for having been here so long, and it just reminded me again that everybody had something to say if you listened, and it evened out everything that was vast and unknowable about America to remember that I could always be a listener, I could always take in somebody else's America and grow my own by doing so, and know that I would have something to work with after doing that because at the very least my America was a growing America.
If it hadn't been a countryman who was saying “So long,” if it had been somebody from anywhere else, I might've let the whole thing stay a mystery, but it became even more important to me to find out after I started saying “So long” because it was an Iranian connecting me to an American past.
I knew that there were Iranians who thought, why try to connect to an American past? But I didn't not want to connect to an Iranian past. That was why I went to Mahmoud's store in the first place. I wanted to connect to both. The reason was that I was interested in everything that's ever happened.
So I was determined to find the root of it. I forgot my original theory that somebody was messing with Mahmoud Agha because it sounded too beautiful coming from his mouth to have an unpleasant source like that.
I still figured it was best to take an indirect approach. One day when his wife was behind the counter again, I asked her if she and Mahmoud Agha had learned English when they were still in Iran.
"No," she said. "We learned after we came here. We learned from movies."
"What kind of movies?"
"All kinds of movies. Except the shooting movies. They don't talk very much in them."
"What were the best movies to learn from?"
"All movies can teach something. But Mahmoud likes old movies. Black-and-white."
"Yes. He was working here when we first started and he was learning the rules for selling alcohol. And he found out that there was a time in America when alcohol was illegal. Did you know this?"
"So he came home and told me and we laughed because we said, it is just like Iran. We were happy to discover this. I mean that it is a bad law, but we were happy to find out that they used to have this law in America too. We thought, okay, it is like Iran here, now we understand. So after that Mahmoud wanted to find out about this time for America, he became very interested. He wanted to watch all their old movies. Now I think maybe he has seen all of them. But he still finds some new ones.
"You know," she said. "It's nice to think that if they used to have this law in America but now they don't any more, maybe in Iran it will be gone some day too."
"Yes," I said. "It is nice to think that."
"Of course, people in Iran still make alcohol. My cousin made wine in his house. It was very good."
"So I've heard," I said.
It was nice to walk home and think about Mahmoud Agha watching old black-and-white movies and learning English from them and learning other things too. It was so nice that I felt small and foolish for needing to hear him say “So long” before asking about their lives. I should be wanting to hear about it before they even say a word, I thought. Their stories are bigger than one thing they happen to say.
Still, I was glad to have gotten to the bottom of it. After that, the biggest thrill for me of walking into Mahmoud Agha and his wife's store was when there was even just one American in there, because I knew that just after I picked up a pack of gum or a newspaper and went to the counter to pay for it, that American would hear two Iranian men say "So long" to each other, and by rights they would have to wonder what a big world it must be for a thing like that to occur.
By Rittvika Singh
“My Chachu says ‘You shouldn't ever do anything in life that makes you unable to look a person in the eyes.’ ” I don't want to suffer this weakness if we happen to meet ever again.
A vague memory of an evening and a phone-call recalled these words to my mind. I heard a semi-husky voice in my head trying to explain something about respecting feelings, people, etcetera. Things around me seemed to be in a perfect order—coffee smelling coffee-like, a couple whispering in a corner, waiters serving with a smile and the white clean walls beaming with serene paintings by someone called Shav. The small 'ee matra' of the devanagri had faded, I guessed, hopefully.
By the window, I had been reading something I picked up from the University bookshop. That is one of the best things about books—they never allow you the intolerance of “waiting.” I looked at the page number and calculated. That’s how I preferred measuring time, often. No sign yet. I buried my eyes back in the book.
He clinked his keys on my table. I looked up to see a man in a crisp sea-green shirt with an air of self-importance and a hey-I-recognized-you look on his face. Smiling. No! wait...smiling? I smiled anyway. Yes, The Prakhar Singh of my erstwhile life was there in front of me, clinking his shiny keys in this quiet café. If this had been a decade back, a starry-eyed girl’s heart would have been thumping wildly with all the blood in her body rushing to her cheeks.
“Sup?” The semi-husky voice again.
“What are you, fourteen?” That was my head.
“Well… sit. Have a cup.” That was my voice.
“You wrote you wanted to talk. After all these years!” He came straight to the point. He was sitting now looking over the little placard they provide with the restaurant’s name in the menu. Same pompadour haircut, same sloping nose, same mouth with that aftermath of boisterous laughter and same eyes with blinders on. I wondered if he had ever let anybody see beyond those blinders or was I the only loser to have wanted to look in?
“I am writing something” (I too came straight to the point) “…and I just thought that you might agree for a coffee. You do know how writers sometimes put their experiences in their books, right?” I was looking in his eyes, something that the starry-eyed girl couldn’t have ever done.
He had ordered something.
“I do, but… umm…but interestingly you think that is worth mentioning in whatever you intend to write!” He waved the cigarette pack at me gesturing if I minded. I distractedly pointed at the red “No Smoking” painted on the wall and he dropped the idea with a “what-the-hell!” drooping of his head.
“It mustn’t be ‘worth the mention’ for you but for me it is. That was an experience after all. For me. Of course!” I was assured now that he wouldn’t have the faintest memory of those two very long months of the fateful summer of 2001 and this meeting would end in embarrassment.
“What do you want me to say exactly? How lamely I broke up with you? Or what a joker of a Casanova I was? Or ….Why I…?”
“You still use that word for yourself?” I was laughing. He seemed to have lost his humor over the years. I wasn’t expecting him to become all stirred up. Instead, it should have been me.
“What word? Joker?” He was perplexed.
“No…No...Casanova!” I took my sandwich and put it on his side of the table.
“I said ‘joker of a Casanova.’ Listen, please. And aren’t you eating this?” He seemed a little affronted. I might have punched his bloated pride-bag.
“I don’t want to eat, you should have asked. And I didn’t mean to laugh at you. It was just that I saw an eighteen year old boy mimicking some Bollywood actors at a school function and sending a packed hall of students into a wave of uncontrollable laughter. And…”
“And…?” He seemed to be picturing that with a dash of nostalgia.
“And then I wanted to fit the word on him—‘Casanova’. That cracked me up, you know!”
“It didn’t fit? I worked really hard to earn the tag that time, Ruchika Agarwal!” he said playfully. “You can’t take that away from me.” Sipping from his cup he looked at me from the corner of his eyes.
His use of my name had brought back a picture, through the smokescreen of memories, of the starry-eyed girl, chuckling a decade earlier. “I remembered something else which I didn’t want to tell you. But now that you seem so discomforted…” I was about to tell him how a boy had whispered “mommy is coming so I will call you back. Don’t call me back. She will know it’s a girl. Ok?” and hurriedly put down the receiver of a landline. Casanova? That boy? Sure! I laughed under my breath this time.
“No, don’t tell me. Please” He closed his eyes and this was the surprise of the evening. If I have known and observed human beings closely enough, which I think I have, I could clearly see guilt brimming in his conscience.
“Do you feel guilty?” I asked. I had to.
“Guilty? Of what?” He was biting the sandwich when his eyes widened.
“Of hurting.” I was granting him the humility which I supposed age would have bequeathed him. I switched off my phone, closed the book and slid them inside my bag. This was getting interesting.
“Not really. I have met so many women before and after you and claimed to have loved all of them, trampled on their egos and hearts, and finally when I claimed to truly love a woman among all these women, she got married to some American guy.” He sounded casual but I knew this was something he wouldn’t have ever said even to himself.
“So you are hurt!” I stopped myself from holding his hand in commiseration. I suspected this was the starry eyed girl but she wasn’t there. I always feel a compulsion to extend sympathy to everyone in need of it, whether they want it or not.
“I was, but… not now. I think I have taken it well. We are still friends because we were friends all the time or at least I pretended to be one. She is expecting and hopefully the kid will call me uncle. I am cool with that. You have got to move ahead. So save your sympathy.”
He was looking for the waiter across the hall.
“I…I wasn’t…NO! NO! You got it totally wrong.” I suddenly understood what he meant.
A memory had flashed through the smoke-screen again. He had said, “Breaking news! So Ishita decided to leave me and you called. Do not think you will get your opportunity now” I had not known how to react to that then. I was sad for him, I mean the starry eyed girl was sad, and I didn’t want to hurt him further by telling that I too was getting weary of clinging. Then, when he had, yes the word is true indeed, “trampled” all over my heart. Ever since I have always wanted to step back in time, get hold of that starry eyed girl, slap her and ask her to preserve some self-respect and love, so she wouldn’t punish her future lover with her unabashed self-pride and shallow-love.
“All I wanted to say is that I don’t perceive it the way you do.” I just said it! “I took you to be way too grown-up to have come to the conclusion you have—that I am acting out the success of some angry prophecy made years ago. That’s just too narrow.” I was speaking very tenderly. That was the truth.
“Are you serious? Now, I know you too only claimed love. Don't you know...ah! You have completely forgotten me!” He was smiling, smirking, smiling and smirking.
“What!? You jerk!” That was my head.
“I never claimed that. I just said what I felt.” That was my voice.
“So you really had all that love for me, those tears and the deluge of emotions? And by the way that was a failed attempt to tease you.”
I knew what he was trying to do. I pitied him. He is the same.
“I did. I was a starry-eyed teenager then. The only love we all knew at that age was Shahrukh spreading his arms romantically in snow covered peaks and a translucent-sari clad Aishwarya3 running towards him. Stupidly enough, that all made sense to our romantic minds. Even that song Aamir...”
The waiter came with his cupcakes. I heard him laughing while I ordered a refill.
“Did I teach you that?” he asked.
“What?! You jerk!” This time I really had to stop my thoughts from reaching my tongue.
“No. That I have acquired on my own over the years watching stand-up comedy shows on prime-time, but you have taught me a lot of other things.” I laughed back.
“Like?” He was very engrossed in the conversation now.
“Will it do if I say that I don’t want to offer you that pleasure?” I had absolutely no intention of getting into all of that.
“Fine. But you still haven’t told me what you want to talk to me about?” He reverted to his question and I realized I had had four cups of Latte already. It was time.
“I want you to tell me the reasons. Now that we are removed far away from those two months we can look at them objectively. I want to know what was going on in your mind when you thought of me as one of your victims. What could a popular guy like you have wanted from a shabby, un-glamorous and non-existent girl? I am asking this because it might have meant one of your self-congratulatory jokes to you, but it changed me as a person. For better, of course! Thank you! Why had you wanted me as a friend when you knew how difficult it was for me? That was on your birthday I guess, yes that was 20th July! What did you think when I finally decided not to cling? And what did you think when you had sent me the friend request? I wasn’t even your friend; I am NOT, now as well. What made you come here and sit and chat with me at this odd place?” I wanted him to talk now without any interruption. I looked at him intently.
“I came here because I was in the city when I got your mail. You needn’t have serious reasons always. I sent you the request because I thought you would be happy to see it and maybe I was imagining things. Or maybe I just wanted to see if you still loved me? No, not that! Maybe there wasn’t any reason, just nostalgia of St. Francis. I expected you to be there for a friend because…”
“I am listening.” I assured him. I thought I was granted a glimpse beyond the blinders for a moment.
“because...You were the only person who has given me so much importance in your life. For everybody else I was a friend, best friend, a good friend. I was a lover, a boyfriend, a random guy with whom they might be dating and making love at the end of the day. I was the guy who would pay the bill, drive and entertain. I was the flirt who would stretch the limits to make a pretty girl laugh on his plagiarized jokes. You weren’t another victim, you weren’t my prey, you were someone for whom I was Prakhar Singh, and it didn’t matter to you whether I did all those things or not. You still loved me. I am sorry I couldn’t love you back. I would never have been able to. Partly because I wasn’t you and partly because I never had the courage to talk myself out of the lies I had been telling myself… about myself. I wasn't the bad guy you thought but I never wanted you to think of me as a good guy either. That would have made you even more miserable. I had to do what I did. Yes, you irritated me when you clung on to me. At times I would be with my new friends, enjoying life, making new girlfriends, boozing, having the time of my life and you would call every week asking me how I was? I wished you to die.”
He paused, expecting me to say something. I wasn't going to intervene.
“The day you texted me ‘everything will change with the snap of my fingers,’ I knew you were giving up finally. I was so self-absorbed that time that I did not even open the message to read it fully. Later I regretted that. I wished I had read your last words of love…"
There was a morbid silence in the cafe now.
"...and where it all began….I wanted to talk to you for the simple reason that I had seen that anxiety of fascination in you, the one which a tacit lover has, when you gave me those pictures of school farewell on the last day of exams or was it last day of school?
“Last exam,” I murmured.
“I don’t remember but I remember having the thought ‘Let’s have some fun.’ To be frank I had completely forgotten you. I saw you occasionally on internet when some fifty mutual friends of ours liked and commented on things you posted. It made me realize you were living against all my hopes.” He finally looked at me, reading my face.
“I hope that isn’t plagiarized” I smiled. I wanted to lift out of this heavy air, but suddenly it engulfed me. “That was fun indeed, Prakhar. Only I got it mixed up with some very terrible feelings I had never experienced till then. And the truth is I have never felt that way since then, ever again. I had fully exploited my capability of loving and enduring pain and all that crap you feel in love. I met a man who loved me more than his life. And I know what you mean when you say you couldn't love back. It is awful when you cannot make yourself love something you should. It is yet another way of inflicting pain on the other person. What is love when you cannot get it to work like Newton’s third law? That becomes a disease then. A self-induced disease which you should diagnose a.s.a.p. before it destroys you. All that huge amount of bullshitting about true and unconditional love, which you think I was giving you then, doesn't exist at all. Everything that exists is very conditional, very selfish and very this-worldly.” I looked around. A group of teenage boys was lazily chatting at the other end of the café. The place looked deserted now probably because it was too late in the evening for a coffee or tea. There were crumbs of sandwich left on the table. He was looking out of the window, watching the purple–crimson sky giving way to the black of night.
“I wasn’t selfless when I loved you then; I wanted you to love me back. I wanted you to want me and be happy with me. Can you call it selfless? Amusingly, on the other hand, I never asked myself, before this moment—what if you had stayed back then? What if you had loved me and we too had a relationship for a year or so or longer than that?’ I can’t see you there in the picture. I have seen you only as a memory of a sore wound. The scar too has vanished somewhat or may be it is just misplaced…but that memory of an excruciating pain makes me writhe inside. Still, a source of agony no matter what it does can never become a source of ecstasy. There are no U-turns for emotions when they have gone too far. For me YOU are a starry-eyed girl looking at me across a blurred smokescreen of a decade holding her trampled heart with 'Prakhar' written in bold letters there. I met that girl today, again…”
We sat there without words for some time and then I found myself holding his hand over the cupcake left-overs.
“Thanks” he said after almost an hour. The dimly lit cafeteria was looking like a dungeon now and we looked like two shadows sitting there.
“I don’t want this evening to become a memory. Any kind of memory. Can you do something about it?” I took my hand back and looked away.
I presumed he had no retort to that. I groped for my phone, switched it on, stood up and paid the bill. He clenched his key and soon we were walking downstairs towards the parking.
“Where shall I drop you?” He was somber. That’s one of the things adulthood brings with it—somberness. It can dawn on you at all the possible and impossible moments and places.
“Nowhere.” I was trying to bun my hair back and I smiled at him.
He was at the driver’s seat lowering the pane.
“You will be the only woman in my life who paid the bill. And that won’t be a memory but a joke.”
The engine was on.
“Joke!” I thought and nodded as he drove away. I knew if I ever wrote something that word would be the title.
A sudden gush of cold breeze ruffled my hair and I felt like I just had a long mineral bath.
There were tears replacing stars across the smoke screen.
 Chachu is the endearing distortion of the Hindi word Chacha which means paternal uncle.
 In devnagari Shav means a corpse, but when a “small ee matra” (which can be considered a letter in the script) it becomes “Shiv” which is the name of a Indian Hindu God.
3 Shahrukh Khan, Amir Khan are Hindi film industry (Bollywood) actors, Aishwarya Rai is a female actor.
How Tic-Tac-ToeGo Saved The World
By Guilford Blake
Once upon a time, long, long ago, the world was drowning in the doldrums.
The steady rain of slump had, for a decade, been falling with increasing force into the economic gutters and pooling into recessionary puddles that, in those early days of 2037, were threatening to become the flood of full-fledged, worldwide, depression: Unemployment exceeded 13 percent in the industrialized world, and was as high as 40 percent where agriculture or service was the primary business. Everywhere, corporations sought bailouts and declared bankruptcy when they were denied. The housing market—the housing market?—had evaporated, and people made do, for yet another year, with the old vehicle, the old clothes, the old living room furniture despite their threadbare condition.
Times were not merely hard. Times were desperate, the leader of the Free World admitted privately to her husband at dinner one evening. Her husband nodded, and gloomily lifted another forkful of spaghetti marinara, sans meatballs, to his mouth, the third time in a week they’d eaten it though they both much preferred steak and lobster. “A budget crunch,” the leader of the Free World had said that week in her webcast, “is a budget crunch, and everyone needs to live accordingly.”
And then, the game revolutionized the world.
At first, of course, it was nothing but the game children had played from time immemorial. Then, in the summer of 2037, the government of a small, poverty-stricken Caribbean island nation adapted it and used it as a means of sorting the population into the “able” and the “less able.” (Some later said the division was between the Abels and the Cains. They were dismissed as cynics, or liberals, or both.)
Within weeks, a producer who developed programming for cable television networks worldwide discovered the possibilities. He called in his creative crew and, a month later, had a ready-to-go concept and an agreement with the island nation’s president to turn brainchild into baby. Every other “reality” show ever broadcast paled in comparison. Tic-Tac-ToeGo, which quickly became popularly known as TTG, was the real thing: a team gladiator match of the intellect. The winning three-person cohort, well-rewarded and celebrated, thrived. The losers? Well, the losers paid the price every losing gladiator had paid since Caligula and Nero began pointing their thumbs downward. The main difference was TTG’s losing gladiators had the choice—required, to enhance excitement, minutes after their defeat—of facing a rare Siberian tiger (acquired at great expense, it was the default and discouraged indecision as the deadline to choose approached), self-impalement, or a firing squad. Almost all, it was anticipated, would elect the last. For a small additional fee, the Caribbean island’s government provided the riflemen. Or rifle-women. One could not tell which were under the hoods.
To discourage attempts at escape, contestants were seated on high platforms that slowly circled the perimeter above the tri-sected arena. At one end, the tiger, which, for two days, had had only water, prowled. A row of mattresses was aligned at the other. In the center, a scimitar, eight inches of honed, gleaming tip protruding, was embedded in a cement block. While they competed, teams were kept in isolation booths and the players shackled to their chairs. Winners’ shackles were opened immediately; they were provided a telescoping walkway to cross to the announcers’ booth (waving to the wildly cheering crowd and the television cameras en route) where they were interviewed for the enthusiastically anticipatory audience. So wide was the appeal that, when the interviews were broadcast, they were simultaneously translated into 117 languages, and close-captioned for the hearing impaired.
The losers, once each had made a choice, were lowered one at a time to the appropriate part of the arena and, if they had chosen tiger or blade, their shackles removed. A blindfold was added if they opted for the firing squad, which moved into place once the black cloth was affixed. Most went quietly; hysteria, after all, was likely to lead to the tiger’s lair.
Of course some protested that the entire proceeding was unconscionable and inhumane. But, since the program was shot on the island where the idea originated and since the producer paid the president of that country a hefty sum to use its one and only domed soccer arena as the site of the weekly competitions, and since after the first week’s ratings came out—with the attendant media splash—would-be sponsors lined up (and were followed by broadcast outlets in nations from Albania to Zambia, who knew a good ratings bet when they saw it) and since every contestant was medically certified and signed a full waiver, there wasn’t one darn thing any civilized nation, publicly owned network or private citizen could do. National sovereignty was, after all, national sovereignty.
The game itself was played pretty much as people had played it for centuries. The object, of course, was to get three symbols—Xs or Os—in a row: vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Whichever team did so was the winner. Score was kept on “scoreboards” projected throughout the stadium; each had two vertical lines crosshatched by two horizontal ones, forming a nine-space field.
Tic-Tac-ToeGo did, however, require slight variances from the original. For example, contestants were chosen, and “X” and “O” teams assembled, from among adult applicants. The producer insisted everyone present proof of age, and undergo physical and mental examinations by the show’s panel of physicians. The doctors, after careful testing, either declared the applicant fit, or found him (or her: fully 46 percent were female) mentally unsuited (suicidal, homicidal, dissociative); intellectually lacking (IQs below 90 were dismissed); or physically incompetent (chronically or terminally ill) to participate. As it turned out, there were so many applicants (most from the ranks of the unemployed) the IQ standard was raised to 110. The level of competition soared. Viewers were in even greater awe.
The process, however, was kept simple. The MC flipped a coin to determine which team went first. The flip was random: If the coin came up heads, “X” did; tails, “O.” Contestants were asked (frequently challenging) questions, prepared by the producer’s staff (and secreted from everyone until show time. The producer was scrupulous about avoiding any hint of scandal.) If the first team answered correctly, it chose a space on the field for its symbol. If it failed, the other had an opportunity. (If both failed, the MC simply went on to another question.) Regardless of which provided the right answer, the opposing team had first crack at the next one. “We’re in the business of creating excitement,” the producer explained, “not assembly line elimination. We want to make sure everyone has a fair chance. After all, there’s so much at stake.” Which was certainly true: The prize packages, he noted, were enormous.
“Besides,” he told the ad agency, “quick turnover doesn’t give the audience a chance to establish a favorite and root.”
“But they’ll still tune in for the—aftermath,” said the account exec with a smile that her wife called “wicked.” “We can charge double for ads during…that.”
“I suppose so,” replied the producer. “But three public eliminations every week?
Bo-ring! We’d lose our audience before the end of the first season. I mean, you’ve seen one guy eaten by a tiger, you’ve seen them all. Right?”
Wrong, as it turned out. About boring the audience, anyway. But to put that misjudgment in perspective, it should be noted there were no defaults during the entire first season, and only one contestant chose the tiger; he was later alleged to have taken Valium before the show. The whole stadium gasped collectively when he made his choice, cheered when he was lowered into the “pit,” and rooted for him the entire eight minutes and four seconds he avoided the mighty beast’s pursuit. Television cameras recorded many in the crowd actually covering their eyes when the creature finally brought him down. The home audience was similarly moved and, because the news slipped out, when the scheduled broadcast was aired some 27 million more households tuned in than had the week before.
Usually, there was a winning team (and a losing one) every two or three weeks.
Every two or three weeks? Heck, yes: It often took that long to come up with a winner. Sometimes, neither team could answer a question for several consecutive rounds and the tension built, especially if one team already had two symbols in a row. Individual games were permitted to go on and on—the producer, showing admirable patience, made no effort to accelerate their finish.
Inevitably, too, there would be ties, games in which each side successfully blocked the other. The rule governing that outcome allowed that, if five games ended in ties, there was a playoff in which a team needed only two symbols in a row to win. The coin flip was repeated, and the game was on.
But the heart of Tic-Tac-ToeGo was the audience, those at the weekly competitions and the many times more in homes across the planet. The island’s 52,183-capacity (including standing room) stadium was always full. Tourism swelled. Hotels and casinos, typically half empty except during holiday seasons (even when the economy was good), suddenly had six-month waiting lists. New ones were planned and erected in quick order. They were filled by the world’s well-to-do curious who booked their seats for each Tuesday evening taping (at the local equivalent of US$250 for an average ticket; ringside seats on the tiger’s end could be scalped for a mid-four-figure price). The recording (really, the edited highlights; it sometimes took as long as three hours to tape the 45 minutes [plus commercials] that reached the airwaves) was broadcast, worldwide, each Friday during local prime time.
The island’s economy thrived.
The rest of the world took notice.
“Let’s face it,” the head of her Council of Economic Advisers told the leader of the Free World, “this financial crisis has been going on since Hector was a pup and it won’t go away by itself. Licensed and taxed, Tic-Tac-ToeGo represents trillions in revenue. Not to mention tens of thousands of private sector jobs.”
“It also provides a way to deal with our population’s dissatisfactions,” noted the supreme commander of a politically divided Asian nation to his cabinet.
“And besides, we can encourage the participation of the homeless, and others who drain our resources,” remarked the president of a South American country. “They are the ones to whom it will be most attractive anyway.”
The Vatican remained silent on the matter. The Vatican Bank, however, had long since acknowledged the Church’s need for funds to pay various settlements and (as its head pointed out) Rome did, after all, have the original gladiatorial arena.
Demand grew. So did the numbers of applicants, arenas and audiences. By early 2039, Tic-Tac-ToeGo franchises had sprung up in nearly every corner of the world. Okay, sure: It was condemned by some whiny, weak-kneed sob sisters and their snivelly male counterparts, but corporate North America (and corporates Europe, Asia and South America) had joined the bandwagon. (Much of corporate Africa, still rolling in oil, had turned up its nose, having its own means of entertaining its public with an array of swords and abundant stones already available.)
“We are a free country,” proclaimed the chairman of the board of the world’s largest business entity—owner of cigarette makers, high-fructose corn syrup manufacturing plants and much, much more—to the U. S. Congressional committee considering legislation both legalizing Tic-Tac-ToeGo—under strict government regulation, of course—and authorizing subsidies for the building of TTG-dedicated facilities, “and the Constitution guarantees every man and woman the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. If adult Americans want to attend Tic-Tac-ToeGo matches, or watch them in the comfort of their living rooms, or compete in the hope of acquiring the prizes available, then it is as much their right as smoking, or joining nudist colonies, or owning automatic weapons.”
And, he noted, every facility built could pump a million dollars each month into its local (and the national) economy, and areas where arenas had already been built were experiencing an economic renaissance unlike anything seen since the dotcom boom’s early days. “The Koreans and the Germans have already taken advantage of the opportunity, and people will go where the action is,” he continued and, in a serious and sonorous voice, added “This is a race the U. S. cannot afford to lose!”
The committee approved the bills, both houses of Congress passed them virtually without discussion or dissent, and the president signed them, all within a week. Japan, Norway, Australia, Canada, Israel and Argentina passed comparable legislation almost at once. Saudi Arabia and India caved into their citizens’ demands several months later. China lagged behind, and the Dalai Lama’s persistent reluctance forced Tibetans to remain without a TTG facility for almost a year.
And so it came to pass that, in the first days of the year 2040, there was a shortage of Siberian tigers. (Promoters who couldn’t obtain one substituted any big cat they could get, but those that had Siberians consistently drew the largest crowds.) Long an endangered species, the Siberians were nonetheless the major attraction at every TTG match (although they continued to be rarely employed, except in the occasional event of an indecisive loser). But with the help of a grant from the newly formed not-for-profit TTG Foundation (founded to promote scientific research), science found the solution: cloning. It was an expensive answer but, as the Finance Director of the Centre pour la Science Nouvelle in Paris noted, “Yes, the first tiger will cost millions of Euros to make, but that sum pays the salaries of the hundreds of workers who would otherwise be unemployed, and that tiger and all its successors can be sold for millions; thus the government will have the ability to put pâté on every table and a full tank of petrol in every automobile.” The sentiment was echoed by Finance Ministers and Secretaries across the planet, and the populations they served.
The leader of the Free World and her husband were very happy.
It wasn’t just the rush to breed new tigers that was pumping up the economic volume, though. Since arenas were proliferating, tens of thousands of vendors were needed to sell the tens of millions of hot dogs and curried lentil patties and tamales and maki rolls, and tens of billions of cans and cups of beer and wine (and the occasional carbonated drink) consumed at them. There was a seemingly unmeetable demand for aprons and white shirts and caps with embroidered logos and, of course, washing machines and detergent and ironing equipment to keep them clean and neat. The construction and travel industries boomed and with them, so did demand for durable goods: “More steel!” was the cry. “More plastic, more rubber and aluminum and polyurethane foam!”
Which meant yet more workers—the one fly in the ointment, noted the financial powers-that-be: International unemployment had fallen to a record low and companies were begging for workers, skilled or un-, who, alas (their presidents intoned in somber voices to their boards of directors) were being eliminated at the rate of several hundred each week. But those eliminated were, the powers acknowledged, simply the price paid to sustain the fiscal regeneration spurred by Tic-Tac-ToeGo’s popularity. They tut-tutted and pointed out that, regrettably, prosperity had always required sacrifice.
On Christmas Eve, 2041, the producer who, with his creative team, had developed Tic-Tac-ToeGo just four years earlier, sat in his penthouse office smoking a cigar and listening to a broadcast of Handel’s Messiah. One wall was a window that overlooked the great city around him; through it he could see a dozen, two dozen, bright neon signs with “X”s and “O”s alternately flashing. On a second (this made of rosewood), to the left of where he sat, was a four foot by four foot, solid platinum, nine-space playing field with a ruby “X” or an emerald “O” in each corner. The third, behind him, was covered with framed photographs: the producer and movie stars, the producer and heads of state, the producer and leaders of the world’s largest religious denominations (his favorite was taken, at the Rome Tic-Tac-ToeGo Challenge Cup, while the Pope, standing beside him, offered the benediction), the producer with star athletes, university presidents, admirals and generals and chiefs of staff.
On the wall to his right, however, there was only a single, simple plaque, the size of a conventional sheet of paper and made of walnut, with raised aluminum letters affixed. At its top was the producer’s name. Beneath that, it read:
Presented this 15th day of December, 2041
In gratitude for saving the world
Burned into the walnut itself were the signatures of the president of the World Bank and the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
The producer reclined in his chair and doodled on a notepad, an inchoate idea gradually acquiring form as he drew lines, circles and rectangles with an old-fashioned number 2 pencil. Now and then he looked up to watch the neon flash, or gaze at the plaque. He doodled for several minutes, then suddenly sat straight up, smiled and snapped his fingers. He turned down Messiah, picked up his telephone and punched in a series of numbers. There was one soft ring, then a voice at the other end said “Hello” and the producer clicked on the speaker. “I have something I want to discuss with you,” he said. “We’ve done well with TTG, but, you know, it’s been four years now and I think the public is ready for something new. Say ... Hangman?”
The voice at the other end concurred.
 Chachu is the endearing distortion of the Hindi word Chacha which means paternal uncle.
 In devnagari Shav means a corpse, but when a “small ee matra” (which can be considered a letter in the script) it becomes “Shiv” which is the name of a Indian Hindu God.
3 Shahrukh Khan, Amir Khan are Hindi film industry (Bollywood) actors, Aishwarya Rai is a female actor.