The Ring – A Short Story

It was an emergency. She was going crazy with worry. She had only two more days. 48 hours. A lot was at stake here.

She had this annoying habit of removing all accessories and jewelry that adorned her ears, neck and arms, the moment she walked into her apartment from work – sometimes dropping them on the shoe cupboard, sometimes on the kitchen counter, pretty much anywhere and everywhere. The same habit had brought this emergency upon her.

She had lost her engagement ring.

On a glorious afternoon, a fortnight ago, her boyfriend of many years had finally popped the question. She still remembered the golden and rust coloured leaves of Autumn raining down on them, as she accepted his proposal. He had then slipped the most exquisite emerald ring on her finger; a
ring that had been passed down in his family, over many generations. He had told her about its significance and history, and about how he had asked his mother to take it from the bank locker, for this momentous occasion.

And, in 48 hours, she would have to meet his mother. She had met her before, but this was different. She had been invited to meet her future family.

She had not told her fiance about the missing ring, very confident that she would find it soon. But after nearly 36 hours of turning the entire house upside down, hope was draining – slowly and steadily. On this predatory hunt for her ring, she had come to know every nook and cranny in her house.

She dialled her fiance’s number. Hearing the love in his voice, courage nearly deserted her.

But she couldn’t take the pressure anymore and blurted out, “I have lost the engagement ring. Please don’t be me mad at me….”

There was a killing 10 second silence at the other end. Finally he said, “Tell me you are joking.”

10 seconds of silence from her end, which told him the truth.

“You know how valuable that ring is, and its significance, don’t you?” he said.

“Can we postpone the dinner at your mom’s? she asked.

His voice was curt, “No way. This is very important to my mom. You’d better find the ring, I have no other solution.”

There was a click at the other end as she stared at the silent phone.

Another round of searching, going crazy, trying to retrace her movements on the day the ring went missing…over and over again. No clue.

She had to come up with a convincing plan. An idea slowly took shape in her head. She would wear a pain-relief patch covering the fingers and wrist on one hand, feigning a muscle pull. That way she could always say she had left the ring at home.

She felt a lot calmer. Her fiance visited her that evening. He joined the search, though his eyes looked hurt.

She gently broached the pain-patch plan. He reluctantly agreed.

The family dinner was a huge success, as she was warmly welcomed into their midst.

At home, however, the ring remained elusive, and the strain was beginning to tell in many small ways.

After nearly three months, Lady Luck decided to visit her in the form of a Dryer Serviceman, who found the ring in the lint trap of the dryer. The dryer was used only when it rained. So, there it was, the shiny ring, bringer of relief and happiness.

Her birthday was coming up, and she decided to surprise her fiance by wearing the ring.

On her birthday, as they sat down to a candlelight dinner, she moved her hand this way and that, but he didn’t seem to notice.

Just after dessert, he asked her to close her eyes and stretch out her hand for his gift.

She heard a loud gasp. She smiled as she imagined his reaction on seeing the ring.

His voice sounded strange, “Why didn’t you tell me that you found it?”

She said, “Wanted to surprise you.”

He said, “Open your eyes.”

When she opened her eyes, she let out a loud gasp as she saw another emerald ring, identical to the first one.

“I had this made especially for you”, he said.

Change – A Short Story

Vish sat on the wall that separated land from the ocean. It was a wide wall, and he sat dangling his feet towards the water.

He had a job in the docks, a small job that paid for his food and rent, but little else.

He sat munching on his sandwich, weighed down by a feeling of hopelessness. This week would be his last one on this job. He was a temporary hire for the busy season.

Seagulls swayed and danced above, around the water; the water itself, blue and timeless, a mute spectator to his melancholic mood.

He felt bitter as he looked at the busy port, and the hundreds of people who worked there. Was there no job in this big place for him?

He had stopped with high school and had joined his uncle’s business as a tailor. He had learnt on the job and come to love the satisfaction of sewing a beautiful frock or suit or trouser to perfection. He was in his early twenties when his uncle passed away and the tailoring shop had to be closed.

From then on it had been this way, one temporary job after another, where one just followed instructions.

The loud blare, as a ship left the docks brought him out of his reverie; the pain intense, as he contemplated the next week.

He had to start all over again. His money would soon run out and he had to find something quickly.

He finished his lunch and walked back, to the mundane task of dragging cartons up and down, only stopping for tea and coffee breaks.

That weekend he was set free, nobody expected him to report for duty, nobody believed he could be of any use, nobody knew or cared if he had had a decent meal. His mom lived in her village, content with the few dollars she made as a domestic help.

As he walked back and forth on the high street, checking if anybody was hiring shop assistants or anything else, he heard three women talking animatedly as they waited to cross the traffic signal. They were quite loud, and he heard one of them talking about their children’s costumes for a play that had to be altered by the evening, and their desperation that no tailor was willing to take on this rush job.

He decided that he had allowed life to slip by thus far, without focus.

Before he could stop himself, he had gone up and told the ladies that he could do it for them but for the fact that he had nothing, no support, no infrastructure, no money, absolutely nothing, except the skill to alter the costumes.

The ladies looked at each other incredulously. One of them saw his face; and couldn’t quite place the expression on it – hope, resolve, grit? She couldn’t really say. On a whim, she said, “I have a sewing machine at home, will you do it?”

Three hours later, he had managed to complete the job to perfection, leaving three very happy moms behind. They had compensated him well and had given him a warm meal.

As he walked home, for the first time in years, he felt that maybe things would work out for him. He just had to wait for the right opportunities and seize them.

A couple of days later as he poured through the newspaper, circling the Jobs Vacant section, his phone rang.

The voice said, “Mr.Vish?”

He said, “Yes.”

“We are calling from the Little Flower Nursery School, we were given your contact by Mrs.Samuel, who spoke highly of your skills in tailoring. We have our annual school concert coming up and would like you to sew the costumes. Could you please come and meet us?” the voice said.

The Silver Smartphone – A short story

He was at the airport, at the designated gate, waiting for the boarding announcement.

He was a thief, who stole mobile phones and smart phones. His hawk-like eyes scoured malls and markets, as he glided in and out of these places, loaded with all kinds of phones.  He was part of a network of small time thieves, who specialized in technology thieving!

The phones he stole were passed on to a middle-man, who then gave him his cut for every stolen mobile, depending on its brand and model.

Like a predator that can sense its prey from far away, he could sniff out the rich, and their expensive phones, very quickly.

He had recently discovered airports;  and their mobile-charging pods for passengers. He laughed to himself as he saw the number of phones that were being charged. All kinds of smartphones belonging to smart people, one of which he would now steal.

He was very careful to steal from a boarding gate not near his own, sometimes replacing the stolen one with a dummy. He normally did this, just after the boarding announcement  for his flight was made. As people stood up in states of semi-sleep and airport fatigue, he walked to steal, and walked back to his gate; job done.

He knew the risk he was taking in the airport, but some of the best models were readily displayed in the charging pod, as opposed to malls, where he had to really pray for good luck, as people clutched their phones, as if their hearts were resident in them. Here, he could at least look at them, evaluate and then decide.

“No pain, no gain”, he muttered.

Today, he had an hour to look for the next phone. He strolled casually, stretching and yawning, eyeing the charging pods.

Then he saw it, a sleek looking smartphone, metallic silver casing, brand-new from the looks of it. But he did not have a dummy for it. So he had to proceed carefully. He walked around, waiting for his flight to be called.

Once he heard the announcement, he looked around and went quickly to the charging pod. He took out his phone and pretended to tinker with it. He quickly looked around and unplugged the charger from the silver phone, and walked away quickly, to his boarding gate.

He was sweating profusely, waiting for a hand to slap him on his shoulder. Nothing happened. He boarded and the flight took off.

He sighed audibly and asked for some wine to calm his nerves.

When he landed, he took out his new possession and switched it on. He knew better than to type the password and disable the phone. He rather liked this phone, and maybe, would keep it for himself; after he spoke to one of his friends, who could get it to work for him.

He stood in line for a cab. He gave the cabbie his directions. He settled down, more relieved than he cared to admit.

Just as the cab left the airport, a police car intercepted the taxi. The cabbie pulled over.

There were three cops, and his heart almost stopped beating. How had they known? He was bathed in sweat.

“Are you S.Neel?” One of them asked. “We have a warrant for your arrest.”

“No, I am Sid”, he said. They had the wrong man. He was sure he could explain.

“Come with us”, they said.

Two hours later he was interrogated about a bank robbery he knew nothing about. He pleaded and begged them to let him off.

Whom could he call? It was late on Friday afternoon, so bail could be posted only on Monday. Ice-cold fear, and sweat, took turns to taunt him.

Finally, they left him alone. Cops came and went. Two were stationed outside his room.

He  was allowed one call. He thought about his cousin, who was a fledgling lawyer, but decided against it as he imagined the shame, if this were known to his family.

He had to tell his wife that he was delayed on business, and would not be back as planned.

His eyebrows furrowed as he tried to sort  through his thoughts and fears, when he heard voices, presumably of the cops who stood outside.

“Looks like this guy will go in for a long time”, one said.

“Hmmm, $20 Million, wonder where the stash is?” said another voice.

“How did they pick him up?”

“Oh! The control tower was tracking the phone. At one point it seemed like the gang had been tipped off. The phone was lying at the airport unattended for hours. Then this guy picked it up…. and rushed to board his flight.”

Rebuilding – A Short Story

Their small house stood on top of a hillock. After years of repaying loans, they finally owned it, every single brick, every bit of wood.

They were a family of five, husband, wife, two daughters and a son. The children were 12, 10 and 8 years old.

The house was a modest one, with two bedrooms, a study, a kitchen and a living room, filled with photos, and love, and bits and pieces of their life together.

On this day, the Sun shone a bright yellow, as the radio blared within and the early morning sounds of the three children getting ready for school floated in the air. There were arguments and teasing.

The father had left home early. Breakfast was served. The three children sat down at the table.

And at that very moment, the Earth trembled so violently; that their home shook from side to side. As they clutched each other and watched, a huge chasm opened up near the bedroom, and that part of their home was swallowed up by the Earth.

More shaking, more rattling..and then there was an eerie silence, a silence that was deafening, as the mother looked to see if her three children were safe, to see if they were hurt and if they needed anything.

She gathered them for a hug, realizing the power of the force that had shaken their lives.

They were both inside and outside their house at the same time, with one half of it missing. There was a huge cloud of dust around them.

The mother drew from her inner reservoir of strength. She sent a prayer upward asking that her husband be safe.

Then she resolutely fixed her mind on rebuilding their lives. She was a mother and she would provide for her children, come what may.

P.S: My heart goes out to the people of Nepal as they grapple with the aftermath of the earthquake, to the countless families who have lost loved ones, and who, now, have the very difficult task of rebuilding their lives, both physically and emotionally .

Working Late – A Short Story

Naomi got off the elevator. She had her laptop bag with her, stuffed to overflowing with papers that needed to be looked at once she got back home. It was already 9 pm, and she didn’t really relish what the rest of the evening had in store for her. She had been travelling, and while she’d closed some good deals, what work she’d left behind, seemed to have been put into a multiplier machine.

She sighed as she walked out of the office building, hoping for a cab. Cabs were quite hard to come by at that late hour. She waited for ten minutes with no luck.

She decided to walk down to the train station. On the way, she saw an ATM, and decided to withdraw some cash, as she was running low. The whole road was deserted. She thought longingly of hot dinner followed by her favourite movie and the prospect of the weekend.

But no, it was only Monday, and the week stretched ahead without any end in sight.

She stood her laptop case on the ground, between her legs, as she extracted her wallet from the utter chaos inside her handbag.

This was one of those ATMs that was on the road; no booth attached to it. As she inserted her ATM card into the slot, she sensed, rather than saw someone behind her. She pushed her eyeballs as far as they would go, to see the person. She saw a black hoodie and blue jeans. She quickly withdrew the money, pressed ‘No’ for a printed receipt, picked up her bag and walked away as quickly as she dared, without making eye contact.

Just as she was about a 100 metres away, she heard footsteps echoing across the pavement. She turned; it was the same man, from the ATM.

She had to make a dash for it. He had seen her withdrawing cash. To run, she needed to get out of her high-heels, which she did. She broke into a run.She could hear her heart pumping and bellowing in her ear drums.The man called out as she ran.

Furtive glances showed that he was running as well.  She had read and seen so many things like this and knew she had to think smart. She  mentally ran through a list of the things she had in her handbag that could come in handy.

The roads continued to disappoint. There was not a soul in sight. Where was everbody? And finally, hurray! there was a Starbucks, glowing warmly, in the distance.

She invested all her energies into that last sprint to safety. A glance backwards showed that the man had slowed down.

She decided to bolt into Starbucks, and call the cops if required. She was completely out of breath as she opened the door at Starbucks. Totally drained out and relieved.

In just two minutes, the man opened the door too..! She gasped in shock. What would he do?

As she stood frozen, her mouth preparing to scream for help, he said, “Miss, you left your ATM card behind.”

First Love – A Short Story

It is 8.10 a.m. and the twenty-something young man, waits at the bus stand, just as he has for the last one month.  He looks at his watch impatiently. She should have been here by now, he thinks.  He raises his head and there she is, a vision in cream.

Some days she reminds him of the turquoise ocean, on other days, a doe, with her big eyes, then again she reminds him of a cotton candy. She is perfectly coordinated, tinkling bangles, big hoops in her ears, her huge tote slung carelessly across one shoulder, tapping into her phone, or listening to music.

Once he sees her, his courage deserts him. He wants to get to know her, but how?  She barely glances at him, but he can tell that she is aware that he stares at her everyday.

Every bus journey is a torment.  He wants to talk to her, but she is immersed in books or her music.  He simply does not exist!  In his moments of sanity, he orders himself to take an earlier bus, but his heart plays traitor.

30 cruel days run by, and finally desolation seeps into the young man’s heart.  He cannot take this anymore.  He decides that he will not look at her anymore, nor can he muster the courage to talk to her. “Such a coward”, he chides himself.

Now, he takes the earlier bus to work.

Life goes on, plain vanilla and ‘sorrow-flavored’.

He listens to soulful music, and tries to stop hyper-linking every colour, he sees, to ‘her’.

Today, he has missed the earlier bus, and is forced to take his usual bus.  He arrives at the usual time, and turns away from the direction she will appear from.  What he can’t see, can’t affect him, he reasons.

The bus turns the corner, and as he prepares to take out his bus-card, he feels a tap on his shoulder.

She says, “Hi! Don’t see you these days?”

A foolish grin breaks out on the young man’s face.

Life stands still, chocolate and ‘happiness-flavored’.

Journey To The Unknown – A Short Story

To an onlooker, the lanky boy and the bearded old man walking towards the train station was not an unusual sight; but in the stoop of the boy’s shoulders and the glimmer of anxiety in the old man’s eyes there were so many stories, deeply burrowed, not ready to be talked about yet.  The lanky boy’s life had turned upside down in the last one month.  The old man had been his only support.

The pair walked towards the platform, where the metal serpent stood, waiting to take this boy to a new life. The boy avoided the old man’s gaze, by looking for his compartment, and scanned the names on the list to check out his name and berth.  There it was Arun.S, age 17 years, Seat 27.

There was nothing more to be said really.  The old man gently scratched his beard, at a loss for words.  Both of them looked relieved when the metallic voice came over the PA system, announcing the imminent departure of the Kovai Express to Chennai.  The old man hugged the boy clumsily and the boy’s throat suddenly caught.  If one watched him closely, one could see fear and uncertainty writ large on his face.  But nobody had time for a lanky 17 year old.  He was just one amongst hundreds on the platform, temporary residents of the railway station, inhabiting it for a short while and moving on to other towns and cities.

With five minutes left to go, Arun boarded the train and settled down in his seat and sat by the window.  The old man peered into the train through Arun’s window.

“Take care of the suitcase and call me if you need anything,” he said to Arun.

Arun nodded and mumbled, “Thank you for everything”.

Before either of them could say anything more, the train lurched and gently glided out of the station.  The old man stood stroking his beard, wondering if he had done the right thing by the boy.

Arun craned his neck to catch his last glimpse of the only person whom he could remotely call family. He involuntarily let out a sigh.

There was a young couple, an old woman, who was already asleep, and two children & their parents sharing the coupe with him.  By 11 pm, all of them had drifted off to sleep and the lights had been switched off.

Arun lay down on his berth, but sleep eluded him.  His eyes gazed at the ceiling fans that were spinning with a heavy whooshing sound.  What would become of him, he wondered.  His anxiety was palpable as he tossed and turned.  Suddenly his body would go rigid, as he resolved with every ounce of his willpower that he would make it, come what may.  Then his body would suddenly go lax, as the last of his energy drained away from him, as his mind and resolve weakened again.

His mind spun back to that day, when his life had turned upside down.  He relived it….

He walked back from school. It was another cold monsoon day in the small town of Ooty. The clouds hung dark and heavy and he knew that the skies were about to open up any moment now. As he reached the small hillock atop which was his house, the rain drops started falling in rapid succession.  Holding up his school bag above his head, he ran up the slope, his shoes sliding on the brown mud and the flowing water.

When he finally made it home, he was surprised to see that the door was locked.  He quickly let himself in with his key and changed into dry clothes.  He decided to make a cup of tea for himself and his mother, who had probably been delayed by customers or stuck in the rain.

He went to wash himself in the basin that was in the backyard of the house, where there was no roof but a corrugated metal sheet to protect them from the rain, when they had to use their bathrooms or wash area.  Here, he could hear the metal thump-thump of the rain drops as they fell on the sheet and rolled down to join other water drops down the hillock.

Just as he placed the saucepan on the hob to boil the water for tea, there was a loud banging on the door.

“Must be mom,” he said to himself and went to open the door.  Mr.Raman, his neighbour stood at the door with a huge black umbrella that blocked out all the light.

“Yes, Uncle Raman,” he said.

“Arun, I have some terrible news for you.  Your mom has been in an accident on Commercial Street and was rushed to hospital, but the doctors could not save her.  I am sorry, so sorry,” said Mr.Raman.

He hugged the boy and patted him and said, “Come with me, we have to go to the hospital.”

Arun stood dazed, the sounds of the raindrops seemed to magnify and overtake his brain. He could not think, nor understand or process what he had just heard.

He had only had his mother, nobody else, save for a few friends like the old man. He spent a restless night, waiting for the train to draw into the station and to get started with his new life.  By 6 a.m., he was washed and ready, his suitcase ready to be taken out.

He checked the slip of paper with the address written on it, he knew it by heart by now, but the act of reading it again, gave him something to do.

L.M.K Boys Orphanage

24th Main, 15th Cross, Saidapet


He smiled wryly to himself. This moment was where life had brought him to;  17  long years compacted into his physical frame, mental agony and this one suitcase.

Murugan – A short story

It was business as usual for Murugan.  His day started at 5.00 a.m.  The world was still dark as he stepped out to the water-pump at the end of the narrow street with his bucket, soap, toothbrush and paste.  He lived in a slum, off one of Chennai’s bustling highways.  Morning ablutions done, he walked back to his small thatcheFeatured imaged hut, ran a comb through his unruly locks and beard, and peered at himself in the mirror through the dull 40 watts lamp that provided some semblance of light.

Armed with his gunny bag that was his life, he walked the two kilometres to his place of work.  Barely 50 metres from his workplace, he could already hear the strains of devotional songs playing on the speaker from Krishnan Unni’s tea shop.  He hastened his pace in anticipation of his day’s first cup of tea before he got down to work.

He met Kannamma, the flower-seller, who looked fresh and crisp in her checked cotton sari, big red kumkum adorning her forehead and her hair done up in a big bun surrounded by jasmine flowers; more bundles of which she would sell till 12 noon.

He put down his gunny bag and reached Krishnan’s shop.  Krishnan, the chatterbox, updated him on the country’s politics, the latest film gossip and his personal financial problems.  Murugan merely grunted in acknowledgement. That was the easiest part with Krishnan; one never had to talk or contribute to his monologue.

He enjoyed his tea – laced with ginger and cardamom – and headed back to the small clearing under the Banyan tree, where he would get busy for the next four hours.  At nine he would finish his work and walk back to Krishnan’s shop for his breakfast of idlis, vadas or pongal, depending on the dictates of those partners-in-crime – his mind & his tongue.

He took out a broom from his gunny back and swept the area clean.  He then sprinkled water on the area.  The mud hungrily guzzled the water and in a little more than fifteen minutes, the area was dry.  He now proceeded to take out his various packets of coloured rangoli powder, carefully prepared by him on the weekends.  There were lovely reds, yellows, greens, blues and pinks, browns, blacks and whites, orange, peach, mauve, lilac – he had them all.

He first drew a rectangular border outlining the empty area on the ground.  His theme for the day was a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.  His brow furrowed in concentration and with the grace of a wonderful artist, Murugan began his day’s composition.  Outlining the face, filling it with rangoli powder, capturing the exact lines on Gandhiji’s face – he did all this from memory.  After all, this had been his life for the last 13 years, and before that he had been his Dad’s assistant for over 10 years.  This was his art, his life and his livelihood; he knew little else.

The composition occupied a space of 7 feet x 6 feet.  And as he painstakingly brought his rangoli to life, early morning passers-by paused in their morning activities to admire his creativity and patience.  But Murugan was totally oblivious to such goings-on in the background, his mind sharply focussed on the task at hand.

By nine in the morning, Gandhiji had been brought to life and looked calm & serene.  Murugan grunted to himself his approval and satisfaction on the composition.  He was not easily pleased, and on those days, when his compositions did not meet his satisfaction, his eyes constantly flitted back to the mistakes that seemed to him glaringly obvious, but not so to the onlookers.  Of course, he was his own harshest critic.  His father had told him that once a composition was done, there was no point in trying to correct it, as it would wreck the rest of the rangoli.

But today, Murugan was a happy man.  His Gandhiji looked well, and he, Murugan, was ready to receive the money that people would offer in a collection box next to the composition.  The area was a busy one and there were people milling about through the day.  His collections, though modest, were enough to keep a simple man happy and content.  Most of his money went towards purchasing new materials for his rangolis, and for this, on the second Sunday of every month, he would visit Parry’s Corner to stock up.  When his parents were alive, there had been some talk of marriage, but misfortune had come in waves and he had lost his parents.  His sister was married and living in Coimbatore and visited him once in 5 years.  He was a loner and happy the way he was.

After 9 am, his routine was fixed.  He had his breakfast at Krishnan’s Tea Shop and spent time reading the local Tamil newspaper.  After that he went back to the banyan tree and sat under its shade on the stone platform, built by a thoughtful soul.  He kept watch over his rangoli and nodded his head, whenever a customer dropped a coin into his collection box.  His customers were of different types – some merely stopped by, taking a moment out from their busy routines, to admire his creativity, hastily dropping a coin and rushing away.  Others stopped and stared and bent and peered at his artwork.  Such customers gave him the most happiness, as they studied the finer nuances of his art – the superlative blending of rangoli powder – a wrinkle on Gandhiji’s face that started off as a dark chocolate brown, then faded into a muddy brown and then to the finest sand brown.  Such was his skill.

There was a lull in the area everyday at around 10.30 a.m., and this brought Kannamma and Krishnan Unni to study his composition for the day.  These were the two humans, whose presence in his life he cherished.  They did not meet after work, did not know each others’ families except by conversation but were staunchly there for each other.  Murugan loved this part of his day as his two friends voiced their opinions, sometimes critical and sometimes effusive in their praise.  Kannamma frequently felt moved by some of the compositions of the various Gods and Goddesses.  She always told Murugan that he was made for better things and fame, and Murugan always quipped to her that he had been at this for the last 23 years and would do so for the next 100.

Business picked up at around 11.30 a.m., when marketing and sales executives had finished their first round of calls and would stop by at Krishnan’s shop to have their mid-morning cuppas.  These young boys spent time looking at Murugan’s composition and were generous with both their praise and their money.  After noon there was a lull again, and around 12.30, Murugan had his lunch at Krishnan’s – tamarind rice or lemon rice or curd rice, laid out on a dried pumpkin leaf.

Business was generally slow around lunch time and Murugan used this time to catch a few winks under the cool shade of the Banyan tree.  On this day, his stomach was full with his heavy lunch and he sighed contentedly as he settled down with his towel under his head, the sounds of the traffic and birds gently fading away as sleep overcame him.  He was far away in a land of dreams, as the Sun shone mercilessly around him.

He felt someone shaking him and heard Kannamma’s voice urging him to get up.

“Murugan endiri, endiri”.

His brain was heavy with sleep and this sudden shaking forced his heart into a gallop.  He had never been woken up from his mid-afternoon slumber in the last decade, so something had to be terribly, terribly wrong.  He rubbed his eyes and tried to stand-up; shaking on his feet as he assimilated his wits and the scene around him.

A middle-aged man stood before him, wearing sun-glasses and a cap.  He had the trappings of a prosperous man.  He was looking at Murugan with a small smile on his face.  Murugan stared at the man.  He couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Was he a cop? Was his area going to be taken up by a Government building? His heart was now sprinting.  Kannamma’s voice cut like a knife through his thoughts.

“Murugan, Sir wants to talk to you.”

Murugan turned towards the man.

The man said, “Vanakkam, Murugan.  I am Venkatachalam and I produce and direct Tamil movies.”

Murugan pinched himself, what was wrong with him, was he still dreaming.  The hard pinch hurt him and he winced. What did one say to such a man?

“I have been watching you for a few months now,” continued Mr.Venkatachalam, “I would like you to make a rangoli portrait for one of my upcoming movies.”

Murugan opened and closed his mouth, words did not come out.  He had never seen this man before, how had he seen his work?  Maybe when he dozed in the afternoons?  Questions flitted through his mind in rapid succession.

“Hmmmm,” said Murugan.

“The rangoli is a huge one about 25 feet x 30 feet.  The rangoli will be a portrait of the hero, made lovingly by the heroine of the movie.  We will be shooting the making of the rangoli even as you compose it; only that at different parts in the rangoli, the heroine will be shown with the colour powder in her hands and filling up the rangoli. Do you understand?” asked the director.

At last Murugan found his voice.  “Yes saar, I do.”

“My assistant Kumar will meet you tomorrow with all the details and show you the picture that needs to be composed.  We will pay you Rs.15,000 for this project,” said the director.

Murugan gaped with an open mouth.  Rs.15,000! What would he do with that kind of money?  The possibilities and questions swirled around his head.

The director left in his shining white car and a dazed Murugan turned back to meet a grinning Krishnan and a happy & tearful Kannamma.

“I told you, I told you, didn’t I?” said Kannamma.

His life seemed to have become glamorous all of a sudden, as glitter from tinsel town seemed to have been sprinkled on him.  Krishnan played songs on his speaker to convey his happiness; Kannamma gave discounts to her customers.  Murugan still scratched his head wondering what had hit him.  He needed to think through this.  Self-doubt slowly crept and crawled through his mind.  Could he actually pull off such a huge rangoli?  His determination asserted itself, of course he could! Wasn’t he the master of the subtlest of nuances to bring a portrait to life?  He straightened his shoulders and mentally readied himself, though time and again he felt a strange ball that moved through his stomach – nervousness or excitement? He couldn’t tell.

As he cleared up his rangoli for the day and proceeded homeward, his thoughts of the morrow dragged his steps as he ambled along.  He barely slept that night; he woke up at 4 am and paced his hut from end-to-end.  He mentally tried to plan what he would have to do, how he would go about the composition.  He walked to his workplace very early and for the first time in 10 years beat Krishnan to it.  He was confused about the day’s composition. Keep it something simple? What if the Director’s man came first thing in the morning?  He hated leaving his work undone.  Finally after much thought he decided to do a small canvas that would be easy to finish.  He was done by 8 a.m., and then the wait began.

Outwardly he looked calm and his usual self, inside a volcano was simmering with tension.  Finally, at 11.30 a.m., the Director’s man Kumar arrived.  He asked Murugan to accompany him to the studio so that he could show him the place where he would be setting up his composition. Murugan bid bye to his friends.   It was Murugan’s first trip in such a luxurious car.  Kumar made him feel at ease and treated him with respect.  After about 45 minutes, they drove into the studio grounds, a huge imposing building.  Murugan could only stare and gape as he was led through the various corridors and lifts.  Finally they entered a huge hall, in the centre of which a huge rectangle was marked out.

“There, that’s the area,” said Kumar.

“So, this is it,” thought Murugan.

He felt a calm that had eluded him over the last two days.  This was his turf, he knew it; he had been doing it forever.  His body acquired his usual professional gait, as his eyes keenly assessed the rectangle, the play of light and the dimensions.  He asked for the picture that he had to compose and was shown the picture of one of the leading heroes of the time.  He asked for time to study the portrait.  Kumar left him alone and asked him to come out and call in the next room once he was done and ready to discuss the materials and time frame.

Murugan, the artist, was now at work.  He absorbed every line of the hero and internalized and stamped it on his memory for later access.  He studied the play of light, shadow and contrasts in the big hall.  He did his calculations in his head about the various colour powders and their quantities.  He went over his workings over and over again.  Finally after about an hour he was ready to meet Kumar.

Kumar took him out to lunch at the Studio’s canteen and there Murugan outlined his requirements and what he would need, quantities and when.  The shooting date was set for a week later.  Murugan was dropped off at his usual place, where a very eager Krishnan and Kannamma pounced on him for all the details.

On the day before shooting was to start, Murugan was taken in the Director’s car to Parry’s Corner, where along with Kumar, he shopped for all the raw materials he would need.  The Director had made a request asking Murugan to stay in the Studio itself till the job was done, as sometimes the shooting went on till very late at night.  Murugan was initially hesitant but came around with some persuasion.

The evening before the shoot, they drove him to his house to pick up his clothes and toiletries.  He joined the entire shooting crew for dinner at the Studio canteen.  He was too shy to speak but felt himself relaxing and enjoying the camaraderie, the jokes and barbs that people exchanged with each other.  He was given a small room with a comfortable bed and basic amenities.  It also had a TV set that he could watch when he was free.  Kumar showed him how to use it, but he was too nervous to change any settings, and was content to watch the local Tamil channel that was playing.

The most important day in his life dawned and he was ready when Kumar called for him.  He proceeded to the studio.  He had been told by the Director to complete the upper portion of the face till the eyes, after which the heroine would join them & the shooting would start in earnest.

The camera men were setting up their equipment and there was a lot of noise and talk.  But Murugan could see only the rectangle and his raw materials.  He glanced at the photo every now and then and saying a small prayer, started his work.

His concentration was absolute, the silence in his mind only accommodating thoughts about the work at hand and filtering out everything else.  He worked calmly and furiously; 3 cups of tea went cold on the floor near him.  He had started at 7 am and by 11.45 a.m. he had reached the eyes.  He stood up and stretched himself; his grunt the only sign that he was happy with his work.

As Murugan stood guard near his precious rangoli, there was a sudden buzz on the floor.  The heroine had arrived!  Murugan couldn’t take his eyes off the beautiful vision in a chiffon saree.  The Director introduced Murugan to the lady and then she was seated, with one of her assistants gently fanning her, as the Director explained the shot.

It was soon time for the first shot.  Murugan felt a stirring of pride, happiness and joy, as he realized that one of his creations would be preserved forever on celluloid.  He missed his father and wished he could have shared the moment with him. Murugan taught the heroine how to hold her hand and disperse the rangoli powder, ever-so-gently on the space given.  Soon, the cameras rolled, one focussed on the heroine’s face, one on her graceful hands and the other on her bent head from the top, showing the full rangoli.  After the first shot was done, Murugan was back again, working furiously for the next three hours, food, water & tea completely forgotten.  The next round of shooting happened after this, rangoli and gently flowing tears on the heroine’s face as she felt her love for the hero overwhelm her.  The full rangoli was done by 7.30 p.m. and the final shots were taken a little before 10 p.m.  After that it was pack-up.

Murugan walked around his handiwork, enjoying the thrill that comes with a job well done.  The heroine stopped by and chatted with him, appreciating his work.  One moment of pure bliss, carefully filed away to recall during his afternoon ruminations under the banyan tree, a world that seemed so far away just then.  The Director’s assistant brought him an envelope with his earnings.  His heart nearly popped out of his body.  Outwardly calm, inwardly doing a jig, Murugan stood waiting to leave the place.    Kumar called for him, telling him that the car would take him back in 15 minutes.

He asked the cameraman if he could get a copy of the rangoli, a photo perhaps.  Kumar promised to drop it off at his place of work.  Well that was that.  Nothing more was to be done and just as he turned away from his rangoli towards the door, he heard water sloshing behind him.  He did not have the courage to turn back and look.  He couldn’t say to himself that it was “All in a day’s work”.  He quickly ran out of the room, the rangoli still etched in his mind.

The mundane routine of his life resumed, but now it was laced with anticipation – the endless wait for the movie’s release.  After what seemed like aeons, Murugan spotted the posters/hoardings of the movie on the streets.

So, on one Sunday, Kannamma, Unni & Murugan decided to go to the theatre to watch the movie.  All of them turned up in their Sunday best and took the bus to the theatre complex.  They shuffled into their seats, gaping at all that was happening around them.  The movie started and Murugan’s heart pounded away furiously.

The love story twisted and turned, meandered through jungles in the form of love songs, stormed through angry outbursts by the heroine’s father and whispered through the dreams and longings of the lead pair.  The movie finally got over.  There was no scene with the rangoli, it had probably been edited out.  Murugan was slumped in his seat, the pain too sharp to take-in, the disappointment too heavy to contemplate.  The trio slowly walked back to the bus stand, all plans of their celebratory dinner forgotten.