Dead heat

FIRST PRIZE: SUNDAY HERALD SHORT STORY COMPETITION '15

Dead heat
Dinesh is based in Bengaluru and works at Cognizant Technology Solutions as a manager. He recalls that his father introduced him to books when he was six years old, and it’s something he will be eternally grateful for. For humour, he loves the works of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, P G Wodehouse, Antony Jay & Jonathan Lynn. For serious writing, he pores over Paul Auster, J M Coetzee, Ian McEwan & Haruki Murakami. R K Narayan has also been a huge influence on him. He believes that he is a weekend writer. Dinesh aspires to be a stand-up comedian and is a regular at open mics in the city.


The taxi meanders, and for some reason, the tarred path that leads from the main road to the edge of the sea cannot be found. It puzzles Dev that he does not remember the way, considering he has cast his father’s ashes into the sea after driving down that same path three years ago.

Now all he can see is a half-kilometre-wide expanse of blazing white sand and the sun glinting off the sea. It is 12 noon in Chennai and the only people other than Dev, his uncle, and the taxi driver mad enough to brave the awful heat are the lovesick couples who mutely lean against each other by the edge of the water.

They are here because they cannot afford to sit in air-conditioned coffee houses. The punishment for socially unapproved romance is swift. Eager to avoid confrontation with judgmental elders, pot-bellied cops who seek bribes to leave them alone, and young men who jeer at public displays of affection, they converge at the edge of the beach at the worst time of the day in the hope of a few quiet stolen minutes of romance. Dev can see these couples separated from other couples by a respectable distance, huddled under flimsy dupattas that ripple and billow in the wind, risking sunstroke and dehydration for a relationship that is probably doomed to fail.

He is topless, dressed in nothing but a flimsy dhoti that is wrapped around his waist, and is damp with perspiration. Across his chest is his poonal — three cotton threads coiled together to represent his identity as a Brahmin (or, in an ideal Brahmin world, a non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarian virgin). Dev hates wearing it and usually leaves it hanging on a nail in the bathroom, but today is different.

He is sitting in the taxi with a clay urn — still warm with the smoldering ashes of his mother. He had felt the heat from the urn against his thigh gently abate from a sharp sting to a comforting glow from the time he had left the crematorium till the time the hired taxi reached the beach. He is familiar with the ritual that is to follow.

Get out of the car, walk to the edge of the beach, wade into the sea, turn around to face the sand, mutter an incantation in Sanskrit, lift the urn high above his head and watch his shadow raise its arms in unison. He and his shadow will then squat slightly and then jerk upwards, casting the urn upwards and backwards. He will imagine the arc of the urn until he hears a satisfying plop. He will then stride forward to the car. Ritual forbids him from looking back. Onward to new beginnings.

He squints and stares into the distance. A sudden gust of wind breathes life into the dupatta covering one of the couples. It detaches and ripples upwards. A blood red dupatta suspended against a backdrop of an impossibly blue sky. He imagines the surprise on the girl’s face that is about to morph into dismay. The dupatta hangs motionless for a moment, its shadow seemingly painted on the bright white sand. The girl hides her face as her lover scrambles.

Dev gazes at the urn. He tries to relate his living, breathing mother with black and grey powdery mass that has spilt out and dirtied his dhoti. An entire human being in an urn. He sees bits of bone in there. A shoulder perhaps? Or a pelvis? For a moment he is transported to childhood — his first day at the biology lab of the school where he studied and she taught biology practicals.

Her class had just ended and on the eight rows of dissecting tables lay 32 dead rats with paws crucified, noses seemingly sniffing the air, their bugs-bunny teeth that made them seem inquisitively cute even as the skin covering their chest and bellies had been cut open and stretched to reveal their insides. He remembered the heady smell of chloroform and Dettol; the hearts that looked like cherries; the bloody lungs and the gooey threads that formed the intestines against the backdrop of slippery pink skin. Each organ was pinned and labelled.

He imagines that’s what they did with his mother for the autopsy report. An errant scooter rider who believed riding on the pavement was the best way to beat traffic. His mother was out for her evening walk, a regular fixture as she came to fear her empty house. They never found out who the killer was.

When the rats had been cleared away, he had leapt from table to table, along the gloomy length of the biology lab until he had reached the end. He had admired a king cobra coiled menacingly inside a cylindrical case of formaldehyde, and then had stared at the human skeleton that hung inside a glass cupboard by a hook drilled into the top of the skull. The pelvis had caught his attention.

“Is that the skeleton’s underwear?” His mother and her colleagues had burst out laughing, and he had grinned proudly.

He smiles again now. It had been a good joke for a five-year-old.
His mother’s pelvis in an urn, and there he was, grinning at no one in particular. Where was the pathos? The tsunami of grief? But it wasn’t like that at all. It all seemed fairly straightforward. Death was a purely intellectual problem. She used to be there... and now she wasn’t. Where was she now? Metaphysical possibilities thrilled him.

Naked display of grief, on the other hand, embarrassed him. “We are orphans now,” his sister had whispered in disbelief. He had grimaced to that. “Orphans?” he scoffed to himself. A 32-year-old PhD and a 24-year-old MBA whose individual salaries had surpassed their parents’ joint income. His sister seemed to be auditioning for a role in a tragedy, and doing a very bad job of it.

Then there was the matter of Renuka — the family maid for the last 20 years. When his father died, his family members mutely gathered around his body at home, crying quietly or gently comforting his mother. Then Renuka entered, kicking off her slippers at the doorway, sending them flying in opposite directions. One slipper flew down the stairs and the other one laid upside down — a solitary rubber blue among the ordered pairs of leather.

“Where is sir?” she had asked.
No one answered. Renuka gazed about wildly until her eyes found the inert form of his father lying in the icebox.

Renuka collapsed on the floor. She lay on her side, pulled her knees towards her chest, and was very still. The family stared at her with horrified anticipation. She gasped, moaned and then crawled towards the icebox. Her hand grasped the handle of the icebox and she pulled herself upright. Now she looked angry.

“Get up, sir! Your Renuka is here,” she said in a firm authoritative voice.
“Get up, sir! Your family is waiting for you. Look at your wife,” she gazed at Dev’s mother.

Dev moved towards her, but she pushed him away. She continued to command his father to get up until she worked herself up to a fine rage.
“I said, get up!” her hand crashed onto the lid.
His father serenely stuck his tongue out to her.

Renuka launched an all-out attack on the icebox, beating and kicking it while his father rolled around placidly inside. It was spectacularly cringe-worthy. Then his uncle had firmly grasped her hand and led her away. When his mother died, the first thing that Dev and his sister did was to corner Renuka and ask her to shut up before she got started. They could see the demons swimming around in her head, but she heard them through the glassy silence and complied.

It worried Dev that he was so immune to the atmosphere of sorrow. His uncle had cried, his sister was orphaned, and his maid had an orangutan swinging from one nerve ending to the other. Dev, on the other hand, had felt intensely self-conscious and had grown increasingly afraid of the moment when a grief-ridden friend or family member would approach, and he had guffawed.

Somehow he managed. He suppressed a smile as he poured a steady stream of rice into his mother’s open, frozen mouth before her body was sent into the crematorium furnace. He cleverly concealed a grin when the priest noticed the stitch on each eyelid and sadly asked if her eyes were donated. He felt very noble donating his mother’s eyes. Then self-conscious. Then vastly amused.

At the crematorium, his mother was loaded into a trolley that rolled over a pair of rails till the mouth of the furnace. The trolley started with a small jolt and began to move noisily, creaking and protesting as the unoiled wheels ground against the rails. As she drew closer to the furnace, the trap door opened and the others got a glimpse of the furnace’s blazing white interiors. His mother entered the furnace. For a tantalising moment she remained at peace with her surroundings. A glaze of heat shimmered around her, but she remained untouched.

Dev felt a glimmer of hope. Would she refuse to succumb? Were they in for a miracle? As he leaned forward to get a better look, a flame whisked into appearance and danced on his mother. Time expanded and his frazzled mind turned the clock back a week.

An uncharacteristic spell of rain fell on the hills of Kollimalai. The edge of the thatched roof of the old man’s shop dripped water on his collar. Dev placed the jars on the counter and pulled out the only functional weapon in his sales arsenal. He ran his thumb over the serrated metal wheel of the cheap neon-plastic lighter.

Krrk. A spark. He did it again. Krrk. The flame sprang to life, flickered, and held this time. He waved the lighter under the old man’s nose. Shadows of his wares — half-filled glass jars on the counter — danced the tango with the shadow of the solitary defunct light bulb that dangled from the roof. The old man smiled a gummy smile. Dev smiled, too.

“How many jars of Chlormint must I buy to get this lighter?” he asked, quietly excited.
“It’s complimentary with two jars,” Dev sang his wretched song.
“How about just one jar?”
“No... minimum two jars.”
His face fell. “Chlormint does not sell here. It took me several months to empty out the last jar. People here want Mentho-Fresh or Cool Hills. That’s what they’re used to. Chlormint is not strong enough... it does not cover the smell of cigarettes as well as the other two. If my customers’ families know that their husbands or sons have been smoking, they won’t be happy at all.”

Dev smiled with hollow empathy. He knew what he said. Chlormint after a cigarette was like a frigid breeze with an undercurrent of tires burning in the distance.
“If you want, you can try a new Chiclets variant... we’re the first company to have mouth freshener in a Chiclet pack in these parts... it’s a big hit in the other parts of the country.”

He pulled out a small jar of green Chiclets and held it up. The old man narrowed his eyes with interest.
“Do I get the lighter with this small jar?”
“No, no lighter with this. Only with two jars of the hard candy variety.”
“How about with two small jars of Chiclets?” he persisted.
Dev paused. The whole reason for the lighter was to push the product that wasn’t selling. Chiclets sold. The hard-candy version did not.

On the other hand, what the hell did he care? If the lighter made the man happy, let him have it. Here he was, 50 km from the nearest town, seducing a toothless old man with a toy that cost less than a tenth of a dollar.

“Fine, I’ll give it to you with two jars of Chiclets.” The old man smiled. He handed him the jars and the lighter, made an entry in the sales book and snapped it shut.
It irked him, this cigarette-lighter business. On the one hand, he acknowledged that someone was smart enough to suggest the idea. Two days ago, he had unloaded six jars on an unsuspecting eight-year-old who was minding the shop while his father was away.

On the other hand, it saddened him that if this were to be his career, he would forever be judged by his ability to forage for these opportunities. This was to be his life; his reason to exist. An entire lifetime spent selling things that people didn’t need.

The air around her turned opaque. A wave of heat leapt across the crematorium hall and kissed their faces. On cue, his mother exploded into flames. Railing against her instructions, Renuka began to wail. Nobody stopped her. Dev quickly walked away and waited near the entrance for the priest to call him when it was over.
* * * * *
The taxi stops.
“Don’t you know where the path is?” Dev’s uncle peevishly asks the taxi driver.
“Can’t find it, sir,” the driver mutters. “I’m new to Chennai.”
Dev holds the urn in his right hand and lifts it, testing its weight.
The sea beckons.
On an impulse he opens the door, jumps out and leaps over the wall that separates the beach from the road.

“Hey!” his uncle yells. “Take your slippers at least!”
He doesn’t want the slippers. The ritual dictates that the ceremony be performed barefoot. He doesn’t give a damn about the ritual. It is suddenly about the challenge of running half a kilometre on burning sand; the physicality of pounding feet on shimmering heat; the sheer need for a dramatic ending. He is off.

For the first few steps the heat does not register. He runs lightly and quickly. His dhoti begins to unravel and he smiles as he imagines a wedding gown strapped onto a jet engine. He is covered in sweat. His heart begins to hammer; the heat flies off the sand that shoots through his soles. His lungs balloon and contract with each electrifying step. A broken beer bottle glints in the sun and he neatly leaps over it. He feels incredibly alive.

As the heat begins to singe his soles, Dev tries to summon intense hatred for the man or woman who has knocked down his mother. He draws a blank...
* * * * *
She began to falter after his father’s demise. She started to visit the temple every day. She also joined a Bhagavad Gita class hoping that the teacher would answer life’s bigger questions. He lectured her on atman and brahman. Karma and rebirth. Her husband would frolic with astral beings for a while and then be reborn. So there was no real reason to be upset, was there?

Religion, once the subject of their private amusement, suddenly became something beautiful — something that would perhaps give her peace and let her sleep at night.
Her sudden deflection towards God and spirituality bothered Dev. Religion and faith had never been their thing. If anything, in between they had been an actively rational family, brushing aside religion, prayer, rituals and scriptures as fundamentally flawed tools for those who were willing to settle for less.

They did not claim to know the answer, but they preferred remaining ignorant over accepting someone else’s version of the answer.

A colleague from the school where she taught suggested that she also join the Heart of Living course by Sri Sri Guru.

So she joined the Heart of Living class in addition to her Bhagavad Gita class. Dev found her new faith in Sri Sri Guru irritating. His father had dismissed these popular gurus as needless fluff. How could she actually take this seriously?

Every morning, she got up after a sleepless night and diligently performed the breathing exercises she was taught. With her eyes screwed shut and her face set in a grimace, she rapidly inhaled and exhaled. Her body remained rigidly in place but her abdomen pulsated. Each breath was a sharp explosion of air. The exercise looked downright painful.

“Does it help?” he asked.
“Maybe not now, but I’m sure it will, later,” she said.
She bought Heart of Living soap and Heart of Living scented candles. He wondered for a brief moment if the two-wheeler rider had done her a favour.
* * * * *
Dev is the wind, his legs a blur. Each step sizzles. If he stops, the heat will burn his soles. He runs for his life.

His dhoti has all but unravelled. The sweat stings his eyes. He screws them shut and runs blindly towards the water.

The water rushes to his feet. Dev feels ridiculous and triumphant at the same time. He staggers into the waves and turns around to face the sand. Spots swim in front of his eyes. His knees buckle.

Dev raises the urn above his head. He casts the urn backwards. It sails through the air and lands upside down. She spills out and spreads on the surface, a sooty film that splits and coalesces as the water roils underneath. He waits for a powerful emotion to rip through his being.
It does not come.

Dev’s uncle joins him a few minutes later and quietly hands him his slippers. They slowly walk back to the car.
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