Rules are for breaking

“I just feel like breaking a rule today”

It was hard to resist that smile, and harder to stay in the present when I heard those words from the five-year old in front of me. She didn’t look like her father at all, but his words were just as irresistible in her mouth. As I scooped ice-cream into a bowl for her (before dinner, the little monkey!), I found myself humming.

Aaj mausam bada beimaan hai…

***

Was that what had been playing in the background when he’d first said it? It might have been. We’d just finished dinner, and he’d wanted to get a smoke. He’d quit the previous month, but was feeling rebellious. “Why should I live my life by some arbitrary set of rules?” “You made this rule yourself, didn’t you?” “Well, yes… but I just feel like breaking a rule today”, he’d smiled. I’d been looking at him over a forkful of something chocolate, and for the first time, I felt something go flip-flop inside me.

I’d thought I was too old for flip-floppy romance, and anyway, it was one of my rules not to look for romance in my friendships.

He didn’t break his rule that day – I broke mine.

***

The second time, the rule hadn’t been as simple as no-dessert-before-dinner.

He’d just heard about his schol, and he’d called me at work to tell me. “We’re celebrating”, he’d said. “And I’m cooking. When will you be home?” He’d made potatoes and pappucharu – the first meal I’d taught him to cook. We’d opened a bottle of wine, and cuddled on the couch, and I’d heard him murmur it. “I just feel like breaking a rule today…”

We did, then. And struggled through the long-distance pregnancy that gave us this five year old rule-breaker, who’s sitting here calmly eating her ice-cream.

***

We have a rule about writing about each other, too. But I just feel like breaking a rule today…

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Birds, again

As is usual at this time of the year, I’m watching birds build their nests. Two sparrows, building nests in the same tree. Hopping over once in a while to tweet at one another. Showing each other bits of grass and fallen feathers, contemplating them with all the seriousness of people looking over upholstery in an expensive shop.

Here comes one of them, young, happy in its first nest ever, holding a bright yellow stalk of grass in its beak. These are rare now, for autumn is long past and winter almost over. Most of the grass on the ground is green, with feathery white heads waving in the breeze. But somewhere this little bird has found itself a beautiful stalk of grass, glowing in its colour and brightness: red at the root, orange-brown and yellow-tipped.

Having placed the stalk in its nest, fussed over it, moved it here and there, this little bird calls out to the older bird, who comes, cocks its head and inspects the nest in silence. The excited little one is chirping and hopping about on the branch, while the older one hops about close to the nest, looking it up and down, looking at the bright little stalk of grass, and tweeting back once in a while. It looks like it’s thinking of last year, when I saw it equally excited over a shiny piece of foil that it had found, and which the wind had blown away before the nest was built.

Finally the older one goes back to its own nest, and the younger one continues to build. It finds leaves and twigs, pieces of cotton, warm bits of fluff to line the nest, to make it comfortable. It flies over to the older one’s nest, chirps excitedly, and seems to wonder why the older one’s not excited too. It flies back to it nest and picks up the stalk of grass, as bright and beautiful as ever, but no longer the pride of the nest, and takes it to the older one. It lays it there, among the neat disorder of twigs, and chirps as if to say, “Take it”.

Watching them, I get the feeling that the older one would smile, if birds could smile. That it would show affection if it could, and that the gesture means much to it, though it doesn’t want the stalk. It picks up the stalk, and the birds rise together, with the stalk between them, in a movement that is exquisitely graceful in that split second. As I watch them, they fly away, and I can no longer see which has the beautiful stalk of grass.

Body (or, What could be)

Her back hurt from all the contractions. The muscles in her thighs felt like she’d been climbing flight after flight after flight of stairs. Tomorrow, the cramps would begin.

She sat before the screen, refusing to pay attention to the pain. It was easy when she had people to talk to, conversations she had to pay attention to. Something else to focus on. Uploading stuff, downloading, searching. Organising. They all took her mind off things, but conversations were the best. They needed real focus, because they had a way of jumping from one topic to the other. They occupied all of her mind. Writing was next best, but it was self-propelled, so the temptation to stop and feel was too strong for comfort.

More and more, these days, she was tempted to stop. Just stop. And give in to her brain. To the luxury of letting it play with time. To let her memory compress it, make hours seem like much less, sometimes so much less that they ceased to exist. Prolong it, and make a second’s meeting of eyes seem like a long friendship.

Would the pain stop if she let that happen, she wondered. The sharp shooting pain up her neck into her skull, the nerves bunched up and stretched taut, and suddenly relaxing, making her wonder whether she had imagined it. If she gave in to her brain, would she be able to sleep and wake up rested? Without a headache?

She knew the pills helped. Helped her bear the pain in her back, in her legs, and tomorrow, the cramps. And then the other pills made sure the pain didn’t stress out her brain. Didn’t make the headache worse. Or Worse. Pills kept her in control, didn’t let her brain take over.

Kept her mind safe from her body.

Choices

The princess looked hard at the choices before her. Unsuitable, Uninteresting and Incorrigible, she’d labelled them – ’twas getting really hard to remember all the fancy names.

She’d been through this routine for three years now, and as she’d been warned, the choices got worse every year. But at least she could do most of it by rote now. “How things have changed since then”, she thought. “There was a time when I would’ve picked Unsuitable without a second thought… and if it didn’t work, well, my whole life lay before me…”

“Even Incorrigible would’ve gotten marks for persistence – at least the hope that it may last.” She smiled at the thought.

“And Uninteresting wouldn’t have stood a chance. Just being Uninteresting would’ve meant being out of the running. Safety, comfort, niceness didn’t matter at all”

Three years, and she’d changed so much. She’d learned to value ‘niceness’ and comfort. And that persistence wasn’t always a virtue. And of course, now the rest of her life didn’t seem that long. In just three years.

She sighed. Three years of buying her own clothes, and look how she’d changed!

Dreams

Three little birdies wanted to fly west. They had their reasons, you see. Different ones each, I mean. And they didn’t really know each other, but since they were all planning to fly west, they thought they’d make a pretty formation in the sky. A nice ‘V’, they all agreed, could be made with three birds.

Two of the birds were young and strong, but they weren’t sure. The third wasn’t, either, but she put on quite a show of exhorting the other two that they could, they should, it was meant to be. She painted pictures with words, or tried – pictures of the wonders they would see as they flew, the wonder that awaited them at journey’s end.

But then the doubt began to eat at her too. If these young ones felt they had no right to challenge the winds, what made her think she could? They had brains, and courage, and strength, and youth. All she had was the arrogance to think she could try.

The youngest bird decided not to go. She felt too unsure of her wings, she said. And she loved home; and she wasn’t sure west was where she wanted to go. The eldest talked her back into the trip, but it wasn’t enough. There were too many reasons not to go.

The middle bird wondered whether he should. The youngest told him why she wasn’t, the eldest told him he should. He looked for someone to help him decide, put it off for a while, and then felt it was too late. Or was it? He saw signs and portents as confused as he was. What now?

The eldest? She was too far gone, drunk on the wine of flattery and false confidence. She would try, though a little voice kept asking her how she would survive the fall, what she would do if she was thrown back to earth. Her bravado, she hoped, would carry her through.

The Awesome Foursome and the Frog Prince

“Dips, what is this?!”

“What is what?” 

“How did the Frog Prince get in here?!”

**** 

It seemed as if it were meant to be.

Projects were allotted in the first week of term, and Spectacle-Chewer always wanted group work. And since no one knew anyone (or so he thought), he allotted groups too. So there it was, a list of topics, each with four names under it, complete with roll numbers next to them. 

Minty stood beside the last bench, trying to work up the courage to go look at the list. There seemed to be about twenty people, each double her own size, clustering around the notice board. And then she noticed Chutku emerging from the group, her hair more disorderly than usual, clutching a notebook. “I’ve got my group”, she announced to the world at large, putting her owl-glasses back in place. “Am I in it?”, Minty asked hopefully. “No – it’s roll number wise. 1, 11, 21, 31 – or some such thing!” said BB, coming up beside Minty. Dips joined the three of them as they made their way back to their seats; “Hey, Minty, we’re in the same group! 6, 16, 46 and 56. You are 16, right?”

Thus it was that three weeks ago, Minty and Dips had begun their common mission, their quest, something that was to bind them together, join them at the hip for the rest of their law school lives. The LM Project. 

*** 

Minty woke up, yawned, and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Or tried to. But sleep seemed to have turned into some yellow gooey stuff that was gluing her eyelids together. She stumbled her way to the bathroom, rubbing  her eyes and cursing under her breath. Her eyes were red. “Bloodshot”, she thought. “Well, what did I expect? I should never have let Dips talk me into working late last night!” She splashed water on her face and went to wake Dips. “Look what you’ve done now!” she said, pushing open the door of the room. Finding no one there, she padded back to her room, bumping into the Surly Senior Next Door.

“Eww! Look where you’re going! And what’s wrong with your f***ing eyes?” said SSND.

“Slept late.”

“How late? You were asleep when I came in at eleven! Are you sure it isn’t conjunctivitis?” 

***

Two hours later, the doctor had confirmed that it was, and there was now a “Conjunctivitis Tap” at the washbasin, a “Conjunctivitis Loo” and a “Conjunctivitis Bathroom”, and Minty was receiving instructions to use only those and no others.

“And when you go to the mess, use your own plate and spoon, and use a clean kerchief to pick up the ‘phone.”

“Okay.” 

***

“What do you mean, okay? We have to submit in three days! We are supposed to meet tomorrow with our individual rough drafts!” Dips was on the verge of yelling, till she realized Minty was as upset as her. “I suppose there’s nothing we can do”, she sighed.  

“Actually, you should ask for an extension” said Chutku, plonking herself two steps down, as the girls waited on the stairs outside the mess for BB to join them for dinner.  

“An extension? You mean… of the deadline? You think we can get one?”

“Of course you can! You have the perfect reason!”

*** 

But of course, since this is not a fairy-tale (and since if it were, he might well be an ogre), Spectacle Chewer just looked over the top of his spectacles and said, “Well, you can submit your part late, Minty, but I don’t see why the others can’t submit on time!” and dimpled away before she got up the guts to argue. 

*** 

“What does he mean, anyway, he can’t see? If he kept his bloody glasses on his nose instead of trying to eat them up, he’d be able to see something! How can he expect us to submit without your part, Minty? Didn’t he say he wanted one project?” Dips was actually yelling now, not caring who heard her.

A huge tear rolled down Minty’s nose. “I want to go home!” she sniffed. “I’m sick, they won’t let me into the acad block, I found a frog in my shoe this morning, and now HE WON’T GIVE ME AN EXTENSION!”

“Chill out, you guys. We’ll do it. Instead of meeting this evening, we’ll meet tomorrow with each of our drafts, and fair it out at night, and then we can do the ToC and intro and stuff the day after tomorrow, if we bunk class, and still submit on time. Don’t you agree?” Peacemaker turned, obviously expecting support from the other male member of the group. 

“Whatever” 

***

And so it was that the four met the next evening, with three drafts. Yes, three, because “whatever” apparently didn’t mean “okay”.   “Okay, don’t start yelling. There’s no point to it. Dips, you start fairing out the other drafts, and I’ll write something for him tonight.” Poor Mr. Peacemaker. “We’ll have to fair that bit tomorrow, then. Minty, can you do the intro, Research Metho and other frills tonight?” 

*** 

So, here they were, an hour before submission. They’d taken over one of the make-out benches. Papers lay on the bench in two neat piles on either side of Minty – the ones she’d finished proofreading, and the ones she was yet to read. The others sat on the ground in front of her, Peacemaker drawing borders to the text on the finished pages, and the Other One writing “Defamation” in intricate handwriting in the centre of a white sheet.  

“Dips, what is this?!”

“What is what?”

“How did the Frog Prince get in here?!”

“Huh?!”

“Dips, look at me. Till what time did you work last night?”

“I don’t know. I fell asleep working.”

“What did you dream of?”

“Some silly stuff…you mean … ??!” 

And Chutku and BB, to this day, don’t know why 6, 16, 46 and 56 laughed so hard when they asked whether they’d managed to submit their project on time.  

Metaphysical Ruminations*

There was once a stone. A stone, like many other stones, like any other stone. Like all stones, she decided what stone she’d like to be. Yes, stones do. Some on purpose, some because they’re too lazy to move their asses from where they fell, and some because they’re scared to.

So, she decided what kind of stone she was going to be, and went and stood under some dripping water. Because that was the kind of stone she wanted to be, see? She wanted to break the fall of those little drips, before they hit the hard ground with a big thud that would change them forever.

She knew, of course, that in the centre of her, in what people would call her heart, there was a little hollow with water in it, water she was protecting with all of the rest of her.

She knew, of course, that those little drips were changing her, too – that was why she was there, wasn’t it?

But what does it do to her to stand there and know that every time a little drip hit her, it was going “Ouch! Bloody hell!”? Is it enough that when some of the little drips finally hit the hard ground with a big thud that changed them forever, they go “Thank God we’ve gotten used to this”, and that some even yell out “Thanks, stone, for showing us what we’re up for!”?

She wonders, sometimes, what happens to the little drips; some so bright, with the sunlight sparkling on them, some steady on a course that seems like it would lead to the great big ocean. Some that make little splashy sounds of fun at her, some that go by quietly. Do they know that she wonders about them? Does the wondering change her, day by day?

Drip, drip, drip. With each drip they come closer to what she hides in her heart; to the water that is of them, by them, for them. What when they wear her through to it?

*Inspired by a long bout of work I didn’t want to do – don’t blame me!