Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Stranger in the Mirror: A Short Story

I was aware of a wet darkness. And there was a choking sound coming from a distance too. What place is this? I wondered and then realized that my eyes were closed. The realization should have made me laugh; instead it only scared me, forcing me to snap my eyes open.

Once I did that, I realized that the wetness was of tears. When she saw that I was watching her, for a moment she was stunned, stupefied and suddenly she shrieked. “Doctor! Doctor! He’s awake! Doctor.”

Doctor?  My mind pondered over the word. Am I in a hospital? But why?  As if to answer my question, a terrible headache erupted and I clenched my eyes shut. By now the shrieks had subsided, apparently due to the doctor’s presence in the room

“Mr. Gilmore? Shaun? Can you hear me?” a voice asked, probably the doctor’s.

I could sense a breathless apprehension building in the room, even with my eyes closed. But I gave not a damn. I wanted them to go away, to leave me alone. I wanted to scream louder than the lady, but I did not. I opened my eyes.

“At last.” The doctor smiled and though he did not sigh, I could feel his mind exhaling a deep breath of relief. “You had us deeply worried….”

“Why am I here?” I spoke with great difficulty and heard my speech slur.

“Shaun! Darling! You had an accident”, the woman answered, pushing the doctor aside and coming to hug me. But why? I had no idea. And was that name and that adjective addressed to me? Neither the words nor the voice nor the owner of the voice stirred a memory. With that thought, a deeper and more shocking understanding dawned.

I did not know my name.

 In the events that followed, the doctor diagnosed that I was suffering from amnesia and my chances of recovery at best were uncertain. Also, as days went by, I was told that the shrieking lady was my lovely wife Moira and given other inconsequential details about my own life.

The first thing that I learnt was, as I have already said, that I had amnesia. The second, the name of my wife, followed by my own. I learnt that my name was—was? no, is Shaun Gilmore and that I am the Creative Director of one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies. I was at that point in time, thirty eight years old and Moira was my wife for past five years. There had been a wife before her, Candace—I think—but she was insignificant, I was told. I had an accident while returning home from work. Apparently I was a little drunk and drove my car straight into a huge birch tree. Thereafter, I slipped into a coma and came out of it after five anxious days.

Subsequently, Moira brought me home. Home, I discovered, was a penthouse on the top of a fifty storied building. When Moira had settled me in our bedroom, she went out to get some coffee. After she left, I got up and took a stock of things. It was a sophisticated, elegant and rich apartment. I still had difficulty believing that it was mine.

In fact, I had trouble believing anything. I had lost my identity. I was told that I am Shaun Gilmore. I did not know it. I did not feel it. No one is more lost that a man without his memory, not even the dog on the street or the beggar by the lamp post.

A wave of anger washed over me. It was so unfair, so very unfair. I picked up the nearest vase and waited to hurl it through the wide glass window, when Moira returned.

“Shaun?” She looked bewildered at my stance. “What are you doing?”

Embarrassed and heart-broken, I kept the vase back in its place. “This is a nice place.” A meaningless remark, made in a futile attempt to save face. I walked out to the adjoining balcony and looked down.

As I peered over the edge, nausea welled up inside me—nausea born out of fear. I turned away quickly to find Moira watching me.

“Whose ridiculous and incredibly stupid idea it was to live here?” I heard myself ask harshly.

She looked at me incredulously and pointed out quietly.” Yours.”

I staggered into the room. “Mine?” I asked.


“But how? I hate heights. When I looked out of the balcony, I was…God! My life is such a mess!”

Moira was looking at me with pity. Pity? Did I want that? I was not sure.

She handed me by now cold coffee as I sank into the sofa. “What…what”, I stammered, “was I like?”

I looked up and observed Moira closely. She was an attractive lady, in her thirties, with shoulder length brown hair, a small oval face and lustrous grey eyes.

“What was I like before the accident?” I repeated in a stronger voice.

“I told you…” she began.

“Not that. As a person, I mean.”

“Well…”Moira looked flustered. “I can’t really say. I mean, it’s so odd.”

“Still….” I pressed.

“I guess, you were in a sense perfectionist. Always wanted everything your way, to every precise detail, you know…how should I explain? Like if you were old self you would have thrown that coffee out of the window, if it was even a shade less or more sweet than you wanted. That kind of perfection, be it professional or personal life.

“And you had temper. Wicked and short temper and ambition. And ambition drove you day and night. I remember you say saying that each new apartment you would buy would be higher than before until you lived in the skies.”

“That’s all?”

“I suppose so.”

What about my emotions, feelings, likes, dislikes? What about relationships? With Moira, with my first wife, my family? Didn’t I have friends? No one visited me at the hospital.

And was this person that Moira described really me? How was that possible? I was sure as hell that it was next to impossible. Me, a perfectionist? And ambitious? And I wanted to live in the skies? I sure sounded like a crazy weirdo before I lost my memory.

But what troubled me the most was that I still could not connect with that part of me which was lost in the oblivion. If Moira’s description was true, even then I was sure that I could never be that again. The doctor had said that I could recover if I tried hard enough. But deep within me I knew that the Shaun Gilmore that Moira was talking about was lost forever. All that was left was an empty shell, filled with an aching void.

In the weeks that ensued, Moira tried to familiarise me with my own life—through photographs, videotapes, souvenirs and everything she could think of. But she failed to reach me. It was partly because I had this feeling that she had not known me even in that other life, except in my external manifestations. If I was a perfectionist and I had married her, it must have been because I’d felt that she was perfect. But now with the world upside down and trapped within my own mind, her perfections jarred upon my consciousness.

This was true of everything I did or saw or felt within the circle of my new existence. In those dreary days and black nights, I found relief in black and white silent comedies, where the protagonist was invariably a man with a short funny moustache. Once when Moira saw me watching his movies, she was surprised. “You are watching Charlie Chaplin!” she exclaimed. “You always hated him, calling him a mindless buffoon.”

That comment left me thinking for many days to come. At the end of it all, one stormy night, I walked out of that strange, unfamiliar, stifling life. I left no note, no explanation. Moira may have worried for a day, may be two……

I do not remember for how long I walked into the rainy night, but when the rain stopped, I found myself in front of a grand hotel entrance. There were people milling in and out even though it must have been quite late in the night. Some kind of party was probably going in there. For a moment I halted right in the middle of the road, causing a middle aged, elegantly dressed woman bump into me.

“What in the world……” she started but stopped once she saw me. And I saw recognition in them. Instantly I tried to turn away but she caught me by my arm. “Shaun! Long time, no see”, she exclaimed, obviously delighted to see me. “Of course there was that unfortunate accident. I heard that you lost your memory, is that true? How awful! But of course, you would return to work soon and I daresay the social circle……”

On and on she went, without giving me a chance to speak, which was just as well, because I felt suffocated, looking desperately for an escape. Escape came in the form of a beautiful, shiny car and a sad, little face peeping out of it.

“Excuse me. I must go.” Abruptly, I wrenched my arm from the lady’s hand and walked quickly towards the car, I had just seen with a child’s face pressed against the window, looking as lost as I felt. The car was parked by the kerb. Probably, the child’s parents were inside the hotel, in the middle of a party and left their daughter locked in the car because no baby sitter was available. And of course, children spoilt the fun of parties.

I bent and lowered my head to meet the lonely eyes of the child. She was startled. “Hello”, I said. Due to the closed windows, she could hardly hear me. I waved my hand. She stared, unsure.

Then I blew her a kiss. And she smiled, sensing a friend. The smile touched me so much so that I felt a kinship with her. Thereon, I did crazy things just to see her smile—I turned head over heels on the open road and felt no embarrassment, I pulled funny faces and slipped on the road intentionally, drawing curious looks and frosty glares from the sophisticated visitors to the hotel and the suave doormen. But they could do nothing as the car was parked outside the hotel property and there was nothing anybody could do about a strange man, acting madly in front of a locked car. They simply assumed that I was mad and actually meant no harm.

I entertained my little spectator until the early hours of a new morning when her astonished parents returned. I walked away from the car with a curious feeling of satisfaction; I had found a new purpose, a new ambition, a new desire…………smiles………….

“Bunny!” A strong, nasal voice brought me out of the only memories I have now. “You are next.”

I adjusted my orange wig, put on the big, red, false nose and walked out on the stage, as the same nasal voice announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen and Children………Presenting the funniest person in the entire nation—Bunny, the funny clown….”

Note: I wrote this short story more than five years ago. It was originally published on sulekha.com

Sunday, June 27, 2010


I live in Kolkata or Calcutta – the City of Joy. Or, as some cynics call it – the land of bandhs and strikes.

For the uninitiated, bandh is the weapon which masses use to protest against all sorts of atrocities. That definition is the brainchild of the political parties in Bengal – in power, opposition, their various wings, arms and other limbs.

The masses themselves, beg to differ. Bandh is just a political gimmick. So, is its sister – 
Strike.  Both are giant inconveniences meant to cripple the aam aadmi and the hapless junta.
We had a transport strike yesterday – ostensibly to protest against the latest fuel hike diktat by the central government. As of this morning, I have not heard Dr. Singh and Co. being moved by this ardent protest by an arm of the ruling party in West Bengal.

But this strike did ensure that all the weekend plans of the public were ruined. The ‘Saturdays-should-be-spent-in-malls’ class could not venture out unless they had a car of their own. The daily labourers, wage earners and clerks could not go to work. Those with family functions (including yours truly) and emergencies paid exorbitant amounts for the luxury of conveyance. Passengers stranded at railway stations boarded trucks and lorries to go home and paid through their noses for the privilege.

In this morning’s newspaper report, the state leader of the opposition (an important cabinet minister who has her eyes set on the CM’s chair next year and therefore has better things to do than attend crucial cabinet meetings about trivial issues like fuel price hikes, inflation etcetra, etcetra) is quoted as saying on the issue, “Everyone has a right to protest”. So, what is she trying to say? That the strike is justified? Her partymen, meanwhile, indignantly claim that their party is totally against calling bandhs, conveniently forgetting that their leader had called a 48 hour bandh only a couple of years back.  And what about the recent times when this party had called for a bandh, though apparently under duress and with an apologetic countenance?

There was a time when bandhs used to be called by various political parties as often as once every month. These were (and still are to a great extent) generally very strategically scheduled on Mondays or Fridays, so that people were tempted to treat these as long weekends.  All shops, schools and offices would be closed. The roads, devoid of any traffic, would turn into cricket pitches and football grounds. The bangali babu with his cronies would gather on the steps of the closed grocery stores and tea stalls to debate the pros and cons of the bandh culture along with the latest sports news. The Marwari seth would treat himself to a day of sumptuous breakfasts, lunches and dinners with friends and family. And the ladies of the household would be as busy as on Sundays.

Much has been written about the bandh culture of Bengal and how it is difficult for industrial progress to blossom here (Tata Nano was one of the most high profile casualties in recent times). But the leviathan called the general public is stirring itself, although it has not yet regained full wakefulness. People now make an attempt to reach offices and schools. Some mavericks risk the wrath of the local political goons and open their shops. Private sector firms arrange for transport to pick up and drop employees. And those who are unable to avail any conveyance work from home on laptops and personal computers.

These are difficult times yet not quite desperate. So, desperate measures like a total shutdown of a populous state and its capital are perhaps best saved for the day when they are truly required. What we need are intelligent and sincere means of protest, when needed and not these muscle flexing shenanigans of our politicians (I shudder to think that they are proclaimed as leaders). Perhaps a total blacklisting of corrupt ministers and their counterparts in other political parties. Do not invite them as chief guests for functions. Do not ask them to inaugurate schools and malls. Do not give them the publicity that they seek by providing exclusive coverage of their rallies and other publicity stunts. Do not provide them with VIP passes at movie premieres and plays. Deny them the importance that they seek.

These are just random ideas. Maybe you have better. There’s no harm in trying them out. We alone cannot change the world. But we can be the opening batsmen and we can make a start.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Lines in Colours

With silver wings, golden-tipped,
Dives and soars, soars and dives,
My dream.

Like fragrance, lavender soft
Flows gently and seductively
My hope’s theme.

In shadows ethereal
And sunlight ephemeral
Moves passion blue.

In a chariot, fiery and cool
On snowy clouds, arrives
My poetry true!

Colours in colours merge
And colours from colours separate
To brighten a world dark
Or a beautiful world create!

Thursday, June 17, 2010


If a ladder to the sky I climbed
          And poked my head through the clouds
Would I see charmed fairylands
          Or would I hear beauteous thunder aloud?

If into a churning sea grey I dived
          And to its sandy bottom did shoot
Would I see a pearl, perfect and white
          Or would I find lost treasures’ loot?

If I along a rainbow to its end walked
          And to its fabled roots reached
Will the ground be of misty colours seven
          Or would I have a pot of gold breached?

A child – I oft for the answers searched
          So would I, am sure, as a lady old.
Beautiful riddles they would remain
          Tales so often and so incompletely told!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Characters in my Memory

I returned home early today and was thinking of what book should I spend this evening with. I pondered over an Amitav Ghosh, a short story collection and Great Expectations.  I finally decided to continue with The Idiot, which I have finished only half. As I picked up the book from my desk, another thought popped in my head: if I were to make a list of literary characters that have stayed with me over the years, who would feature in it.

So, I made a list (it’s not in any particular order) – some of them I always knew would make it but there were others that surprised me.

1.     Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice): In my humble opinion, theirs is the most romantic love story ever. It does not have the grandeur and tragedy of Romeo & Juliet. Or the passionate intensity of Cathy and Heathcliff’s saga. But Darcy and Elizabeth are real. You watch their love grow from a strong, mutual dislike into a strong bond. They are so different, yet so same. Quiet wit interlaced with the matrimonial ambitions of match making mamas provide a perfect backdrop to a love story that few characters in the book expected.

2.       Sidney Carter (A Tale of Two Cities): I had first read the book in abridged form when I was barely 13 years old. I read it unabridged only a couple of years back. As masterful Dickens’ description of the chaos called French Revolution is, even more beautiful is the characterization. Carter is an unlikely hero, an unsung lover. And his pain though never explicit, reaches out to the reader in subtle waves. His morals are always grey but his sacrifice true. He is, to my mind, Dickens’ greatest creation.

3.     Howard Roarke (The Fountainhead): Ayn Rand created a visionary in her landmark book. But more than the visionary, the man impressed me. He has principles and deep-rooted ideals but he also loves and feels. His relationship with Dominque, his love and Toohey, his antagonist remain with you as much as his speech on individualism in the courtroom.

4.     Michael Corleone (The Godfather): Michael Corleone and his father have inspired more movie portrayals than perhaps any other book characters of twentieth century – and in all shades and forms (from original The Godfather to the latest, Raajneeti). Don Corleone inspires awe and just a hint of fear. It is, however, Michael who evokes a larger palette of emotions in the readers – from sympathy to revulsion, admiration to disbelief. It is his transformation from a favourite son to the “Godfather” that makes this book a classic.

5.       Jo March (Little Women): Of all the March sisters, I wanted to be Jo, the most. She was smart, spunky, headstrong but responsible. Amy was the spoilt brat, Meg, the princess and Beth, the sweet invalid. Sometimes, I felt that she alone saw the March family through those difficult times. Now only if she had said “Yes” to Laurie!

6.     Jennifer Parker (Rage of Angels): One of the strongest Sidney Sheldon heroines. A woman who falls and rises again and again. A woman who suffers great personal losses, again and again, yet manages to walk away  the victor.

7.     William Kane (Kane and Abel): In the biblical stories, Cain is the first murderer. He kills his brother, Abel. But in the Jeffrey Archer classic, William Kane is a shrewd businessman with a heart of gold. The world sees Kane and Abel as archenemies, who spend their lives trying to destroy each other. It is only after William’s death that Abel discovers that Kane was the secret friend who had helped him in the most trying times. But even before Archer reveals this secret in the book, William Kane wins the epithet of the novel’s hero.

8.       Rebecca Luria (Acts of Faith): Not many people cite this Erich Segal book as one of his best. Predictably,  Love Story and The Class are considered to be his masterpieces. My favourite, however, is Acts of Faith. The very idea of love persevering and finally winning after 13 long years is, by itself, wondrous. Add to it, the conflict of faith, the politics of religion and the oh-so-familiar burden of great expectations and you have a page-turner. Timothy and Daniel are strong male protagonists but it is Rebecca who has to, arguably and like women in most places, overcome the most odds. She is the daughter of an extremely orthodox rabbi. She falls in love with a Christian boy, who decides to enter the Church. Her religion, her upbringing demand that she be docile and get married to the man her father has chosen. She decides to make her own path and becomes one of the few women rabbi of her time.

9.     Portia (Merchant of Venice): I have a confession to make. I have never liked Shakespeare. I would go one step further and commit blasphemy by saying that in my opinion, he is a tad overrated. But even I cannot deny the sheer magnetism and charisma of Portia’s personality. She towers head and shoulders above the men in her life – from husband Bassanio to the nearly doomed Antonio. She outwits a shrewd, sly and perhaps justly enraged Jew and in the process shows her man that she is the boss. Way to go, girl.

10.   Raju (The Guide): Very few Indian writers in English know the art of making India look beautiful. Fewer still know how to make it seem interesting and real without resorting to the descriptions of slums, hovels and the starving natives. R K Narayan was a master at both. The Guide, the book, is far better than the eponymous movie. It is the story of Raju, the guide and conman who becomes an unwitting saint to a drought-stricken village.  He is the soul of the book. Even when he is cheating on Rosie, you still keep hoping that he would redeem himself. Well, he does. Just not in the way you would normally expect.

11.   Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): Ms. Granger is a really interesting mix of caution and recklessness, prude and scandalous, practical and romantic. She exasperates and confuses Ron. She stands by Harry and solves half his problems. My favourite scene is where she punches Malfoy in The Prisoner of Azkaban. In Ron’s words, “That was bloody brilliant.”

12.   Scarlett O’ Hara (Gone with the Wind): The princess of Tara is not in the least likeable. But she is admirable. Her tenacity and will to survive make her a heroine. Her scheming mind and selfishness brand her a vamp. You never quite know what do you feel for her but you can never forget her.

There are plenty of other characters who come to mind but if I were to write about all, we would be sitting here seven days and seven nights. And I have a book and Richard Castle waiting. So, ciao and good night.