Responses to a Demonetisation Short Story – can you guess what they might have been?

As previously mentioned, I’ve been taking part in a short-story writing challenge this year. One of the December stories, and surprisingly only one, had the ongoing demonetisation fiasco as part of its theme.

The story was a simple one. A man takes his last ₹1,000 note to market to buy a longed-for item. To his dismay, his is informed that his ₹1,000 note is no longer acceptable. He is emotionally crushed by confusion and disappointment at this news. But later, along with a group of others, he is serendipitously gifted lots of newly-minted ₹2,000 notes. The story is a fun read and, pardon or not the pun, right on the money in terms of being bang up-to-date. The story line even ends on a happy note (a rare thing in the short story world – short-form writers tend to be joyful realists).

However, out of the critiquing round, can you guess what was the most consistent response?
Was it that the characters were not well drawn?
No.
Was it that the setting was not well described?
No.
Was it lack of a good plot?
No.
Was it that the sudden appearance of new ₹2,000 notes was unbelievable?
No.

OK, suspense over. The consensus was that given the story has an upbeat ending, in amongst the₹2,000 notes there should be plenty of ₹100.

I think this tells us something about people’s true reactions to the demonetisation debacle – which continues unabated – despite Modi’s ascertion that all would be well for everyone by 30th December. Sadly, with only a few days remaining, we still have no sight of the necessary and much needed ₹500 notes or even access to larger daily ATM withdrawal amounts.

Now remember, the story ended on a happy note, yet several of those critiquing the story wanted an additional hit of realism added to the ending. Here’s why.

Much as those ₹2,000 notes would have been welcome, cash is cash is cash after all (hear that Modi and all), those darn ₹2,00o notes are difficult to deal with; many people and businesses cannot constantly give away their precious ₹100 notes as change to every customer. Nor are there enough ₹10 or ₹20 notes to make up that short fall. All in, every day people are continuing to struggle. For some, farmers and labourers in particular, they are facing starvation for themselves and their families, employers can no longer employ workers, or they use workers but can’t pay them. There is much strife and much fudging of the truth around this. For example, propaganda abounds about villages that have gone cashless. IN TRUTH these villages are not cashless, they are poor, have low internet connectivity and regular power outages daily. IN TRUTH cashless educators have simply been to the village and inducted some of the villagers about the processes around being cashless. Giving advice and training about how to process cashless payments is far from being truly cashless, a state which I feel most villagers would decline if they were offered the choice.

Here I am going to do a ‘I told you so’ mini-rant given I expressed this belief back in November  – the ongoing push towards a cashless society was the true motivation behind Modi’s demonetisation drive, and not the hounding of black money dealers he originally declared. Because anyone with even an ounce of savvy about how corporations and governments are behaving can see that being cashless means the populace at large become more visible to an ever-increasingly despotic and authoritarian notion of governance.

As things stand, we in India are only a few days away from Modi’s earlier assertion that things will return to normal by year end. Given the images of long ATM queues, lack of useful change at shops and businesses, and the long, long wait for new ₹500 notes to appear, me thinks ‘normal’ is still some weeks off.

Fortunately, Mr D and I are currently blessed to have minimal needs as well as the opportunity to withdraw cash from a bank branch other than SBI: we’re not hungry; our bills are minimal; we plod on. I’m still hankering after getting certain tasks and jobs I have on my To Do List attended to, but for now they are still deferred until there is cash to fulfil them – clearly that’s a minor worry. For now I am on a Modi-imposed belt-tightening drive. The skipping is helping too.

But back to that short story. I’m truly hoping the writer is even now doing her last round of edits and getting it sent out. The timeliness of the plot line and the wonderful twist at the end are a winner!

Happy Holidays Everyone
   ❤︎    

 

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A Kiss to Remember Him By – A Short Story

That Kiss. It had meant something. She was certain. So why would he not reply to her texts? Why the sudden silence after all the talk, the sweetness, the fun, the laughter? And that kiss?

She had been reasonable. She had been fair. Her messages to him had been benign: How’s it going? Hope your hangover’s not as bad as mine LOL. Are you free this weekend to meet for coffee? But nothing: no response; not a silly emoticon; not even a curt rebuff. Where had she gone wrong?

She trudged back in to work on the Monday after the weekend that followed their after-work Friday-night jaunt, and that kiss. An empty text message inbox and overflowing mind still tormented her.

Mid-morning he appeared at her office door. ‘Hi. I think you’ve got something of mine.’

‘Uh?’ She looked away from her computer screen and up at his face. The face with which she had shared that kiss. Sensing how shapeless and humdrum she must now appear – make-up less, hair unwashed since Saturday morning, dressed in black jeans and black jumper – she couldn’t have felt more unworthy of that kiss.

Knowing her bravado on Friday night had been buoyed by alcohol, she nevertheless truly believed in the deep connection she had felt with the man who had just now walked into her office. She had not hesitated when he had moved closer to her on that pub banquette; hadn’t recoiled when he had whispered to her the secret of his strangeness. Instead she had leaned towards him and felt the sweetness of his breath send sensual messages skipping across her nerve endings. His tongue in her mouth had been like nothing she had imagined, not even in the fantasies of her many lonely nights. His kiss, like his secret, had been otherworldly; her whole body had responded as his tongue, his lips, had played on hers and she had felt a swell of sensations in her crotch as his hands had held her face to his.

‘I reckon you’ve got something of mine? From Friday night?’

‘Really? Like what?’ She became aware of how vacuous she must have appeared to him, as though he had been explaining the philosophy of quantum physics. For a moment the shape of his irises narrowed giving her the impression of the arrow slits of an ancient castle, equally disquieting.

‘My mobile phone?’

‘Uh? I mean, really?’ she frowned at him.

‘I spent all weekend checking the places we went to, even tracked down the cabbie we got. You probably grabbed it when we were rushed out of that pub,’ he said. ‘You’re my last hope.’

‘Oh, OK. Let me have a look.’

She rummaged in her cloth backpack, pulled out headphones, wallet, make-up bag. She didn’t pull out the spare tampon, or chocolate wrapper, nor the two used tissues or the dried apple core.

‘Oh God.’ Her hand felt the hard, smooth edges of what she immediately recognised as a phone that was not hers. Pulling it out of her bag cautiously, as if taking a Fabergé egg from a velvet-lined box, and with a physical sensation in her belly as though a sack of rotten eggs was about to explode, she knew exactly what was waiting for him, about her, once he had charged it, once he had accessed his messages, once he had read the trail of texts she had sent since Friday night, through the entire weekend and even that very morning: Don’t know why you’ve not replied all weekend. Was Friday night so awful? Really enjoyed getting to know you. Was hoping we could spend more time together. Cannot believe you’ve not replied. That’s just plain rude. Please don’t come see me for a while. But here he was with a cool outstretched hand, fingers slightly webbed, skin rippling drily. His hand hovered momentarily, then took the phone from hers. She felt her stomach gurgle – those eggs felt ready to explode. When she lowered her eyes and saw her belongings strewn across her desk she grabbed at them and started shoving them back into her bag.

‘Right. Thanks. I’ll be seeing you then,’ he said.

‘Yeah, right,’ head down, she continued to grapple with her things as she listened to his receding footsteps.

She threw her bag onto the floor then flopped back in her chair. ‘Oh God. Oh God, oh God. My life sucks.’ Immediately she remembered, that kiss. It had been a taboo-breaking kiss, but she had enjoyed the thrill of it and now wanted to dive into what lay beyond, the way a free-diver plunges into the ocean. She had liked her first kiss with a reptilian-human hybrid. She had liked it a lot.

A 2016 Short Story Writing Challenge

Back in December 2015 Radhika Meganathan, a writer friend from Chennai (India), was visiting London and we had a lunchtime catch-up in the hubbub that is Westfields just before Christmas. She told me about her 12×12 Short Story Writing Challenge that she would be hosting again in 2016. I loved the idea.

Most writers work better with deadlines, but what was also compelling for me was the idea that I would get some much-longed for feedback on my writing. All I had to do each month, along with everyone else on the challenge, was to write a new and complete short story of between 1,000 and 6,000 words and then critique the stories submitted by the rest of the group. A great opportunity to work on my craft and skills, and pull together a collection of stories. I was in.

Now, with only two weeks left of 2016, those of us still in the challenge – about less than half who started back in January – are looking toward celebrating our achievement. No small thing when every participant has so many other priorities and commitments to focus on. In fact, throughout my involvement I have both loved and hated being part of the challenge because of those very things.

What I have loved is …

… the challenge of working through to a completed story each month. The process has involved: wondering what tale to tell, how to weave it into a cohesive, punchy, satisfying whole; starting to jot ideas down and have one, or a combination of ideas, begin to flow and meld into something akin to a story someone, anyone, would want to read; hanging out with some new characters; delving into different landscapes and locations; reaching an end point. For too long I have kept several electronic folders full of started, incomplete and sketched-out stories lurking in the near periphery of my consciousness like persistent mosquitoes buzzing just out of sight. Last year (2015) I think I only completed three stories, so now, with the end of the year in sight, I have 12 complete stories. That achievement is a major confidence boost.

… the challenge of critiquing a significant number of good stories each month. Surrendering myself to new worlds. Exposing my heart and mind to quirky plots, intricacies of erudition, the curious and the fantastical. Seeking ways to clarify the hunch that something does/not work. Figuring out how best to explain a particular problem.

… that my fellow writing challenge participants were willing to give their honest and learned opinions about my work, always managing to highlight something useful, from a bloody obvious typo to some crucial element of the story that’s missing, like a plot hole or a lack of clearly-evoked emotion or a poorly-described scene.

… feeling flattered that these same folk have looked forward to my comments on their stories.

What I have hated is …

… how some months, after taking time out to work on other projects, I suddenly found there are only about a few days in which to produce a decent, rather than very rough, draft.

… how I never gave myself enough time to get the depth and richness out of a story because I didn’t use the full month between submissions to work on what was presenting itself and make the story even better.

… that doing my monthly critiques took me an inordinate amount of time ( I call it being thorough…).

… that each month I wondered if I could keep the momentum going when I had a shit load of other things I was and am trying to move forward. In the end, continuing with the benefits of staying in the challenge outweighed the considerations to quit and the consequent anxieties. I dearly wanted to get on with those other things, but I stuck with the challenge because I was benefiting in a whole host of ways.

Overall I loved…

… completing a fresh batch of stories

… getting concrete feedback about my work

… my writing craft being richly informed and developed by the review process (both giving and receiving critiques)

On a final note about the challenge
A side benefit of being in India during my participation in the challenge was that I got to meet some of the other writers, all of whom were previously unknown to me. Rads, our challenge founder and moderator, has been in the writing world for a long while. She’s run and hosted several writing workshops and online courses, and given talks and encouragement to many other groups. In April 2016 Rads hosted a challenge get-together and I was lucky enough to be able to join them and meet some of the Chennai wing for an afternoon of chat. The meet-up was such fun. Meeting people who for the previous few months had simply been stories, reviews and a few email comments appeared as their real, non-virtual selves in the comfort of a cosy diner in north-central Chennai. As I often find with writers, they were all great people – interesting, quirky, vivacious, thoughtful, wise, funny, opinionated, curious, responsive, intelligent.

Version 2

A happy Sara having just met some of the lovely writers on the 12×12 Short Story Writing Challenge

To find out more about Rads and her writing opportunities, follow the links for her blog and Facebook pages.

If Rads decides to run the challenge again next year, I probably won’t take part – not only does a novel beckon, but I’ve got 12 stories need some thorough editing – but if she runs it again in 2018, well then I could be on board with that one.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to crafting my collection of completed (woohoo) stories into something I’ll be proud to see out in the world.

 

A New Tourist in a Familiar Town

Here in this ordinarily-quiet, unassuming part of the world we are in the midst of a wild and wide-ranging festival – Karthigai Deepam. I’m not going to go into details about the festival in this post (for that kind of information, see the links at the end). Rather, I wanted to share the small experience I had yesterday afternoon when I went into town with Mr D to for some of the festivities.

We had already agreed it would be fun to explore aspects of the Deepam festival together at some stage, but we had not yet made any specific plans (making specific plans is not one of our strengths, but that’s another story). So yesterday, around 3:30pm, Mr D spontaneously suggested and I immediately accepted that we go into town and see what was happening.

First off (by way of a minor digression and information dump) here’s the ear-catching beauty we rode to town on.

a-revamped-thunderbird

Mr D’s marvellous machine

This Royal Enfield Thunderbird bike has a custom paint job chosen by Mr D himself – the colour inspired by one of Royal Enfield’s own models a couple of years back. I mention the bike because, unlike the more popular style of bikes and scooters used by nearly every other family here abouts, the Thunderbird is bulky and grunts even at low speeds. The pleasure of riding pillion on Mr D’s Thunderbird is that I get to sit pretty on a wide seat with a comfy and securing backrest. Needless to say we tend to draw attention for two reasons – the stark combination of non-Indian woman and Tamil man and also the bike, sometimes one more than the other.

On a second note – the Deepam activities centre around the big temple at the heart of the town

thiru-big-temple

Arunachaleswarar Temple – Tiruvannamalai

See, it is big. Also central to the festivities is the holy, sacred hill known as Arunachala.

arunachala-my-regular-view

One view of Arunachala – a holy hill of Tamil Nadu

My first experience of Deepam was back in 2008 when, as a much fitter woman and along with hundreds of other people, I climbed to the top of the mountain to see and receive darshan from the mighty flame that gets lit at 6pm on the full-moon night of Deepam.

Sara Laksimi - 2008

Happy to have survived a bare-foot descent of the holy hill Arunachala during Deepam 2008

Okay, digressions over and back to the point I want to make:

What I enjoyed about our short visit to town yesterday was the sense of being a tourist

Last night was when I realised I’ve not given myself the treat of being a tourist in this town for a while. And being a tourist is just that, a treat, because whether you indulge yourself in a new place or a familiar one, the time spent behaving like a tourist can definitely be a fresh pleasure. And here are some whys, simple whys, but ones that can so easily be forgotten in the day-to-day mêlée of regular life:

  • Seeing people and the world immediately around you in fresh ways
  • Freeing up yourself to be more inquisitive than normal
  • Stepping away from one kind of fray and into another less regular one
  • Immersion into something unexpected, possibly even thrilling
  • Shifting a staid perspective
  • Questioning assumptions
  • Opening your heart and mind away from the banal and mundane
  • Momentarily but purposefully slowing down the pace
  • Not curbing your enthusiasm

And more besides of course.

Even Mr D, who has known the town all his life, agreed that he’d felt like a tourist for a short while. Though the crowd increased the pollution he detests, together we happily wandered and wondered, moseyed and meandered, jostled and jiggled our way through the throngs gathered along the streets or flocked around the temple.

The whole thing was a lovely afternoon. My only gripe was that with the equivalent of a paltry few pounds in my pocket (the demonetisation debacle continues – despite the overly positive spin the media are now playing) I was not in a position to buy any goodies. After a while, we noted the crowds getting thicker and decided to depart the scene. With the memory of possible purchases still uppermost in my mind I got Mr D to drop me off at one of our main shops, bought a mango ice-lolly and, more crucially, received some much-needed ₹100 notes in exchange for the almost-unusable ₹2,000 that had been lurking in my wallet for over a week. By choice I walked home to savour the warmth of the evening as the sun began its descent through the sky, the air soft, and watched with anxiety and trepidation as the less frequently seen black-faced monkeys galloped across the busy road, thankfully safely.

I relayed all of this to Mr D and said how much fun it was to be a tourist in our own town. Back in London I would occasionally take myself off down some unfamiliar track, or just stop and have a coffee in a new place, or at a regular tourist spot or museum and enjoy being a tourist. Sadly, I’ve not taken the time to do that for a while. Yesterday reminded me how much fun wearing the tourist persona can be. There was a subtle recall of previously entrancing and energising moments. In fact, yesterday’s jaunt got me all fuzzed up with pleasure.

With that in mind, I thought I would write to encourage everyone to occasionally take time to be a tourist. You could do that at home, in your garden, down your street and around your neighbourhood. After all, as tourists we wander around the rooms of others, the gardens of stately homes, the neighbourhoods of never-before-visited towns and cities, so why not where we are, the places we inhabit daily, and give ourselves that fuzz of pleasure?

For me, today or tomorrow, I intend another visit, again as a tourist of course, but this time with a few easy readies in my wallet and, more importantly, an even stronger sense of curiosity and wonder.

Likewise, I’d love to know about your experiences of being a tourist in your own town or neighbourhood. Let’s share the love ❤︎

❃     ❃     ❃

As promised, here are some links for anyone interested in this wonderful festival:

What is Karthigai Deepam?
Some of the key events of the 10-day festival
Arunachaleswarar Temple website
A snippet about arrangements for the festival from The Hindu newspaper
A sweet word about darshan – a form of spiritual blessing

#RIPAmma (the woman who was otherwise known as J Jayalalithaa)

The internment of Fidel Castro’s ashes took place in Cuba early on Sunday 4 December. Today it is the turn of one of Tamil Nadu’s most enigmatic political leaders to have her own state funeral. A few short hours after Castro’s ashes where interred, Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, began her final journey – one that had, in many ways, started a few months earlier when she was admitted to the Apollo Hospital in Chennai on 22 September. Following some 70+ days in hospital, and during the evening of Sunday 4 December, she suffered a cardiac arrest from which she never recovered. She finally breathed her last around 11:30pm local time Monday 5 December (GMT + 5.5 hours).

Today, unlike in Cuba where there was over a week of national mourning before the state burial, the citizens of Tamil Nadu are being granted only a few short hours to pay their last respects, to get a final glimpse of a woman who has been hailed as a formidable Indian politician. As I write, several news channels continue their unabated coverage of her lying in state as fellow politicians, super-star actors and other dignitaries flock to Rajaji Hall in central Chennai to bear witness to her passing.

Curiously, or not, only a few days ago Mr D and I had speculated about the fact that she was still in hospital. So on Sunday evening, having watched one of my favourite kinds of TV shows (dance contest Jodi on Vijay TV) I decided to flick to one of my preferred news channels. Along with BBC World News, I enjoy the style of reporting on CNN News 18, which provides Indian news primarily in English. I wasn’t entirely surprised when I saw that the Breaking News bulletin was that the long-hospitalised politician had suffered a cardiac arrest and was on crucial life-support, her situation grave. Because Mr D and I had only a few days earlier mentioned Jayalalithaa in passing I thought he’d be interested. But by the time I climbed into bed next to him he was already in the land of snores.

The next morning, up too early and bleary-eyed even as I made the requisite coffee, I decide to wake up slowly with a few moments of flicking through the latest news. I again selected CNN News 18. Again unsurprisingly, their top story was about Jayalalithaa who was still on life support and about to undergo surgery. The reporter was asking experts to opine about Jayalalithaa’s chances of survival given her various other health issues that would likely complicate the problem of a cardiac arrest.

Throughout the day I kept returning to the news, both CNN News 18 and BBC World News. As the reporting became more fervent, Mr D and I came to the conclusion that she was probably already dead or soon would be. Either way Mr D postulated that news of her death would not officially be announced until later that night.

As the hours passed and more officials rushed to be at Jayalalithaa’s bedside the reporters continued to speculate about how events would likely unfold. Certainly, CNN News 18 seemed to have sent some of its top reporters to Chennai. Even to an innocent eye, activity was already under way to prepare for what was to come. Likewise, Mr D and I decided to make our own preparations. Already in need of a kitchen and fridge restock, Mr D suggested we get enough supplies to cover us for an extra few days.

We left late afternoon yesterday for a quick but unhurried shopping trip to one of the small supermarkets we frequently go to. While there we happily filled a small shopping trolley then strolled to the check out. As my bags filled I noticed several of the staff dash about. Then as Mr D paid, the manager flicked the lights on and off. I didn’t immediately understand why – until I saw some of the female staff, out of their regulation green jackets, hurry out the store and up the steps to the street. The lights remained dimmed. With our bags packed, we left the store. At the top of the steps the door was held open for us by the doorman who was making sure no-one else entered. We had, once again in the last few weeks, been very lucky with our timing.

Riding home, satisfyingly laden down with full bags, we were witness to an extra level of fervour in the regular evening traffic – there was something akin to a rising panic in the way people seemed to be rushing to complete their business for the day, to return home, to close doors to any potential mayhem should Jayalalithaa be announced dead before nightfall. But for Mr D and I, back home, we had a quite night; enjoyed supper, each other and down-time after a full day.

This morning, unable to resist checking the news again, CNN News 18 was showing images of Jayalalithaa’s body at the top of a set of steps covered in red carpet at the front of the grand-looking Rajaji Hall in Chennai. She lay in a coffin, her face exposed, her body draped in a national flag. Next to her people where bunched up, others flowing past her, touching her feet, laying flowers. Seated on either side of the red-carpeted steps were row upon row of mostly white-clothed men.

jayalalitha-state-funeral-1

Several feet in front of the building a growing number of mourners were being funnelled through a police-lined series of barricades, all wanting a last glimpse of their beloved leader. Throughout the day the flow of people became a crush as more and more followers pushed from behind, eager to see Jayalalithaa one last time in the short window of opportunity open to them.

jayalalitha-mourners-3

jayalalitha-mourners-2

While Mr D had correctly predicted that news of her death would not be announced until most people were asleep, what I hadn’t considered, even though I know quick burials are the norm in India, was that she would be cremated so soon, that she would only be lying in state for a very short time. Given the numbers of people, not just in Chennai or close enough to reach the city, but the thousands of mourners across the state, I would have thought bucking that death tradition to allow for a longer period of lying in state would have been more effective. But then, doing things quickly means the passion and fervour, the dramatic effect if you will, is heightened. Certainly, a rapid progression from death to near frenzy-like activity for a few hours has the feel of a Kollywood blockbuster – something the late J would have been familiar with and possibly, for this last appearance, something she would have expected, perhaps even relished. After all, she led her party by having a strong personality and cultivating the Amma monicker. Many a household in Tamil Nadu will have some item or other that bears a sticker of her face on it. Even in this district that prefers her opposing party, families own such things. I have to confess I do too – a gifted item via Mr D of course.

So the #RIPAmma tag is just that. Tamil Nadu’s Amma is dead. Soon she will be taken to Marina Beach, that long sweep of sand along the Bay of Bengal, to the memorial site of her mentor in both movies and politics, M.G. Ramachandran, where her body will be cremated and then interred.

I’m guessing her death brings to a close a significant era in Tamil Nadu politics of the last 60 years or so. From what I can gather, her presence at the head of her political party (The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [AIADMK] ) was a relatively seamless follow-on from her predecessor and mentor.

Now, with her death, comes the opportunity for a new political era to emerge in Tamil Nadu when the men and women of the party will have to reshape the persona of their politics for themselves. They cannot, in any sane vision of political progression, imagine they can fill her shoes. Not yet anyway. All they can do, I imagine, is ensure her wishes are carried out, that the party fulfils on some of its election promises and ensures her legacy is not lost as they carry out business during the remainder of their term of office. No doubt, next election, the opposing party will be in power. Such is the game of politics.

In the meantime loss and grief abound. Even mine. I have absolutely no attachment to the now-dead heroine of movies and politics that Jayalalithaa was to so many in Tamil Nadu, but the collective consciousness of grief is evident. This morning I did shed a tear, not for her per se, but because the heart’s connection commanded it. I cry easily, freely, mostly unashamedly – even as I did earlier today. Jayalalithaa was definitely not a perfect politician, such a thing not being possible. But curiously, even if only in the background, she has been a steady presence throughout my entire experience of being in India on and off since 2008. I was in town when she helicoptered in for a rally during her 2009 election campaign. I didn’t see her, but, staying only about one km from the site of the rally, I certainly heard her arrival. Following her departure a loud furore was unleashed by her passionate supporters.

And life goes on. She succeeded in politics in a way that maintained her identity as a woman, something that, when I think of another female political leader also known as the Iron Lady, one Margaret Thatcher, I do not think the same can be said. Where Thatcher presented herself as more macho than anyone in her party, Jayalalithaa had been called Amma, mother. A tough-love mother perhaps, hence the Iron Lady term, but mother nonetheless. In Cuba they were, and probably still are, grieving the loss of a father figure. Today in Tamil Nadu, as well as further afield, people are grieving the loss of a mother. Perhaps we can all share in the empathy of knowing what that is, what it might be like, and offer up a moment of appreciation that a woman who shouldered her duties as best she could, sometimes badly, still managed to positively touch the lives of so many. Today they feel her loss keenly. Today a state mourns. During the tomorrows yet to come we may see more strong women take her lead and ensure they become even better advocates for female empowerment, a direction that will undoubtedly serve us all.