The reason this story was not put up any sooner: I was waiting for some kind soul to enter it in the hallowed discourse of literary criticism. My erudite friend with a penchant for reviewing – signorina Pallavi Rao from Deakin – just did me that huge favour. Pallavi has a master’s degree in Writing and Literature and is a specialist in Professional Writing. She can be reached at email@example.com. Muchas gracias Pallavi, and you folks add to her observations while I go and enjoy the last day of some colosally stupid commentary at the IPL. I am going to miss Ramiz Raja and his ‘class ekt’, you know.
The Mother of All Stories
Once, at a particularly weak point in his narrative, he went to a healer who asked him if he ever thought of being something other than a story. “Ever dreamt of being a womaniser, for instance?” He had to tell the healer that his dreams had always been very uneventful, “unless you call falling deeper and deeper in an abyss an event.” It had in fact started to bore him, waiting for mossy scum or hard slime to break his fall, waiting for the fall to end so he could start climbing back. Though he hated the mediocrity of the experience, he had to tell the healer how he had never quite had enough time off his fall to seduce girls.
He remembered an old joke. A man went to a psychiatrist and complained about his terrifyingly boring dreams. “Every night I dream that I am a batsman. I bat for seven hours with a partner who looks just like me. The bowlers, the fielders, the umpires, all look like me. Even the spectators. And the worst thing is, I don’t hit a single ball.” Amused, the psychiatrist asked him if he never wished to see another dream. That he is Shah Jahan or Napoleon. That he is building the Taj Mahal or throwing elephants off a cliff. “You don’t understand doctor!” the man sounded desperate. “At this stage of my career, I can’t afford to miss a single inning!”
His mother was a depressive hypochondriac. She so completely believed in death that they had to protect her from being shocked by the sound of her own beating heart, passing it off as a malfunction for thirty-seven years. He often thought about the name her mother was given. Hypochondriac. A triumphant feat of taxonomy. “Congratulations, we have found you a name!”
We all love fearing death. We all see the terribly seductive nightmare in which a blue horse with a dark face jumps with us on its back into a pool of what can only be the jelly of souls oozing unspoken cravings. What made his mother different was only that in her life, death suddenly abandoned the nightmare, leaving the blue horse galloping towards nothing. A little practical joke, but to be fair, the aura it gifted her was more than enough recompense.
If death lives with us, what do we do in our nightmares? Do we even need them anymore? What happens then to so many of us who have no dreams, only nightmares?
He would often have moments of doubt like this. The underfed embryo of a great question would make a guest appearance in his head. He would feel the tip of the embryo’s nose pushing, breathing hot air on the membrane of his scalp. Every hair on his head would stand up erect to receive this visiting minstrel who would struggle to come out and accept their greeting. Eventually, his thick skull would prove too hard to break and the idea would die a screeching death. On one such occasion, his hair refused to fall back in place without finishing the ritual. He had to burn them.
He had an anxious relationship with the coloured vials of his mother’s medication. When boys his age were counting down to holidays, he was counting his mother’s eight mealtime orange pills and the empty vials on the rack. He would wish them to disappear. He would want the neat dustless circles left behind by them on the rack to be covered with dust while she slept. In his anxiety, he would hoard away the vials and store his dragonflies in them.
When we are still not embarrassed to call ourselves young, there is a question that all of us face: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if growing up itself is not enough being. No one prepares us for this question, and the wonder of it lies in the total nakedness of thought it traps us in. But when we are still not embarrassed to call ourselves young, we are also not embarrassed by our nakedness. So we parade our ridiculous little nudities, self-assured that they will be taken seriously.
It’s only when we grow up enough to ask the question ourselves that we realise the demonic delight hidden in the act of asking it. No one cares about the answer to that question. Just asking it gives us a pleasure forbidden till then, marking our promiscuous declaration of having irreversibly grown up. Only grown-ups can ask that question. Only grown-ups have the right to touch the bloodshot nakedness of someone’s first desire.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a story.”
Like every other child, he too learnt his first stories with the alphabet. A for apple and Z for zebra. Things in the world were constantly at war to possess the letters of the alphabet. Sometimes the apple won and sometimes the aeroplane. Sometimes the yak would take Y hostage in the Himalayas, and sometimes a yacht would take it on a rippling date across the Atlantic. But Q was different. Q was forever the queen’s eunuch. Q had only one story, so it envied the other letters which enticed new learners with the unpredictability of their moorings. Q was a bore, because everyone knew it could never break away from the queen’s bondage. Q was a pushover. He felt bad for Q.
“What do you want to be Q, when we set you free?
“I want to be a question.”
Years later, when they cut down the guava tree in their courtyard, he felt rather happy at the efficiency of the horticulture department. The new tenants had for long been wanting to set up a tennis court where the tree stood, like a rare, funny sodium vapour lamppost in a neonised country. Now, his tenants looked at the remains of the sinewy trunk with guilty amazement. “It was big enough to be a banyan tree!”
The forked bottom stood on earth casting an eerie resemblance with human feet. Now the colour of clay roasted in drying blood, he remembered how the tree’s feet once bulging with seed wore anklets of needle-thin aquagreen dragonflies that would whir around it in perfect circles, leaving it only when he came to unchain his bicycle in the morning and park it in the afternoon.
He was happy at the way the tree was dying. All beautiful stories have the right to die spectacularly sad, even shocking, deaths. Beauty is too puny, too irrelevant to be remembered without a redeeming brush with spectacular ugliness. That’s why he felt a special gratitude for the assassins of Gandhi and Lincoln. He couldn’t imagine Gandhi dying slowly in a suburban Bombay hospital, wetting his bed and fighting off flies in the last stages of a renal failure. That would only be ugly, not spectacular.
Every story is a ritual. The rules of beginning, middle and end are sacred and they bind the story in a mysterious thrall. Most of us have such easily understood beginnings, middles, and ends that the deity of mystery disowns us, leaving us to wallow in a pitiable lucidity. Those who resist this, like his mother, still are powerful stories. He would never abandon his mother, always follow her through her middle and end and learn what it takes to be a powerful story from her.
He felt secretly elated. He was already one-up against competition. After all, how many have the luck to be tutored so closely? One day, he will become so powerful that the letters of the alphabet will fight to own some part of him.
Thankfully, early in his life, he learnt that his mother needed her fear to retain a sense of purpose, to keep things on an even keel. One day, he was late cleaning up the mess on his laboratory desk. It was time for his mother’s afternoon pills, he panicked. Dumping his bicycle under the guava tree, he ran in. His mother was squatting on the kitchen floor, trembling, eyes full of void, pills in hand. “It’s gone. I can’t feel it…I don’t feel it…”
If she didn’t feel scared, her reflexes would resist the pills. If she didn’t have her pills, she couldn’t sleep. Fear led to sleep. Waking up led to fear. For years, this neat arrangement had been carefully followed.
He often thought of his mother as an artist who had perfected the juggle between life and death, death and life. Was it not every artist’s duty to be honest to what they felt? Honest, till what they felt and what they wanted to feel became one?
Laying her next to himself, he wished her everlasting fear.
And the critique from Pallavi, my friend from distant deakin.edu.au:
Overall verdict, I think you have a great narrative. I had some initial reservation with the title. The sound and the tone didn’t really underpin the significance of the plot for me. But you are very good with the language and there are wonderful images in there, like:
“…a blue horse with a dark face jumps with us on its back into a pool of what can only be the jelly of souls oozing unspoken cravings.”
“The underfed embryo of a great question would make a guest appearance in his head. He would feel the tip of the embryo’s nose pushing, breathing hot air on the membrane of his scalp. Every hair on his head would stand up erect to receive this visiting minstrel who would struggle to come out and accept their greeting. Eventually, his thick skull would prove too hard to break and the idea would die a screeching death.”
“No one prepares us for this question, and the wonder of it lies in the total nakedness of thought it traps us in.”
“What do you want to be Q, when we set you free?
“I want to be a question.”
The non-linear narrative was quite well-handled. It did keep me a little lost at times, but for short fiction, it is perfect; my attention was held long enough for me to complete the story. Otherwise, I was worried I’d be too muddled to plod on further.
The only “problem” as I saw it was for me, a lack of a bigger metaphor. Most stories I consider to be great pieces of fiction are ones where there are layers of interpretation, and you have shades of it in your narrative, where you refer to the idea of a beginning, middle and end. But trying to connect a whole lot of people and things as symbols for the grand story was not enough. Does everyone really have a story? Isn’t it a bit dicey to use the “All of life is a stage, and we are actors…” kind of implication? I also got the feeling that this protagonist is fairly young, which put the idealistic beginning-middle-end hypothesis in perspective, but is this “young” man romantic as a defense mechanism or with a burning faith kinda belief? Or is he “old” because of what he’s had to face in caring for his mother, and therefore has a profunduty about him that is inaccessible to lesser, easy-life folks?
Another slight problem was detailing. There was classic telling-but-no-showing which had me asking strange questions at times. What does the narrator’s mother wear? What does the narrator look like? Instead of saying:
“He often thought of his mother as an artist who had perfected the juggle between life and death, death and life.”
What image would you use to describe this juggle? Was it in her prayers? Or setting stock in a neat kitcen or garden? Or maybe she had a pet who died? Something more visually provoking.
And more crucially, why IS the mother that way? Maybe not the whole story, beginning, middle, end and all, but a hint at least? I wanted some image to be left lingering in my head, and somehow all I could remember were the coloured pills. If you asked me to remember this story a few months down the line, that would be the image I’d mention to you.
Maybe you feel I am picking on you too much, but let me add, people have liked and approved the story; it is tremendously well-written, and very evocative. But I guess, I’d want someone who isn’t as literary as the rest of us to also get the story. Sort of like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you know. You don’t need to understand “literature” to be incredibly moved by it because Kafka has that strength of image. I’d wish it would come to you the same way!
Phew. I am done. That was a bit nerve-wracking. I am a little nervous now that the review may have punctured your elation; I sincerely hope not. I can count on one hand the number of people on my friends’ list who have been published, so congratulations again. I would like to look at Fault Lines, but I doubt I’ll be able to access it any time soon.
Email me back with any comments, questions or even if you think all that I said is tripe and I deserve to be hacked to death by an axe-murderer.
And here’s my response:
The metaphor question – “Does everyone really have a story?”
Everyone has a story, in the most rudimentary sense of the word. But everyone does not have a gripping story, because their beginnings, middles and ends are all too easily understood. Stories are remembered, like you pointed out, only when they offer a plurality of possible meanings, “layers of interpretation”. Conversely, the world is at unease with such stories, because they do not lend themselves to easy, simplistic readings. They are viewed with awe, but ultimately, they need must be reduced to simple explanations. The mother is one such story, and the world reduces her to one word – “Hypochondriac”. This also relates to the question you ask about why the mother is the way she is. No idea. We will never know, no matter how curious we are. It is in fact her very resistance to structured biographical understanding that puts the world at unease. Ergo: the comforting, ‘rationalist’ inference that she is a “depressive hypochondriac”. Isn’t that the way the world always functions, putting names against unfathomable ideas to create an illusion of comprehensibility? eg God, Life, Memory, Love, Witch, or, in theory terms, Dadaism etc. The act of naming = claiming ownership, without any responsibility of understanding that which is named. This is one of the reasons the cast does not have a name. The healer, the mother, the boy (I will call him ‘He’), the tenants. To that extent, the idea is to show that they are all stories impossible to pin down in 1500 words. Whether they are all gripping stories? I don’t know, mine is only about the mother and He.
He wants to be a story, precisely to avoid the banality and simplistic structures of meaning that he sees around himself. He does not want to be just any story, not Shah Jahan, not Napoleon, because those stories have been told so many times that it is now impossible to escape the trap of deeply entrenched meanings and absolutist commentaries around them. He likes Gandhi’s assassin because he played a big joke on all those who thought his story was following a predictable trajectory, though I think he wouldn’t want to be like Gandhi either. He wants to be like his mother and resist history, which is why we will never know whether he is a romantic pursuer of this story-life or a fiery passionate one. My take on him is close to this: He “has (a) profundity about him that is inaccessible to lesser, easy-life folks”, though I’d imagine he would not want even his mother and their shared suffering to take all the credit for this ‘profundity’, or what I call ‘mystery’. He wants to be a story in his own rights, under the tutelage of but not in the shadow of his mother.
The other question that this raises is what is the cost of being such an intractable story? Perhaps anonymity, obscurity, and eventual oblivion. This is why the world of the mother and the son is devoid of any other form of life or companionship. It’s a fragile world, hanging by a thread threatened by disillusionment and mortality. Were his mother to either recover from her illness or die… I don’t know whether the boy would then change his way of looking at things, but it would definitely force him to accept a few realities of life…
The detailing question
You are right, there is indeed a lot of telling and little showing. But I wonder whether you did not notice the image of the guava tree and the dragonflies? Along with the orange pills and the blue horse, the image of the dying guava tree and the needle-thin dragonflies has haunted me for a long time. We really had a gigantic guava tree in one of our old houses, and the dragonfly hunt was one of my staple pastimes as a kid (cruel, I know, but don’t judge the new Tanmoy by this J) Anyway, I guess I was trying to keep the landscape sparse, in order to complement the inscrutability of the cast’s inner lives. I admit though that coming up with enduring and vibrant images is an extremely difficult art. Telling is much easier than showing! Telling once again is a way of conveying the slippery nature of the subject – showing the colour of clothes, hairstyles, pets are tactile markers that help one in drawing up a complacent image of the cast. In the absence of these markers, things become unsettling, just like the minimally understood lives of the cast in this case.
About the literary nature of the story
I once again agree. It is a bit ‘dense’ for the lack of a better word, and I have discovered that the stricter the word limit the more direct my narrative becomes. I wish I could share a couple of flash fiction pieces (both within 600 words) with you, it’s a shame there is an embargo on them right now because they are under consideration elsewhere, but those are much more immediate than The Mother of All Stories. What do you think of this? Does it make sense to you that enforced conciseness makes a story more, should I say, ‘approachable’, and in some ways even simpler?
Thanks for making me think about a lot of things. You have done me an immense favour by investing your time in this exercise…