I set myself a writing challenge of producing a short story a day, back in May. I didn’t manage to do them all but that exercise did result in 20 short stories, spanning different genres, collectively called the MayShortReads. It was an immensely exciting exercise and I propose to do that again. So here’s to the September Shorts. You can expect one every day (or night) this month. I’d love to hear your comments. And if you’d like to jump in, a fellow runner…errm, writer is always a fun companion to have on an exercise such as this. Now, on to the story about people who plan and their back-up plans.
Nyssa taps her mouse. She clicks her tongue, annoyed at the new email that comes slithering into her mailbox. Varun, walking down the corridor stops a few feet short of her cubicle and looks at the papers in his hand. Waiting, waiting.
Sure enough, Nyssa looks up a few seconds later. As he has calculated, she seems relieved for a chance to unburden her woes. Varun to the rescue, he whoops to himself as he walks up to what he hopes will be a welcoming smile.
It’s the Operations Manager this time. He’s refusing to release the orders. Varun swoops in to save the day. A phone call will set that right, he assures her. Nyssa smiles.
“Thanks, Varun! You’re awesome, buddy.” she trails away in a cloud of perfume and pre-date excitement, before he has a chance to propose dinner.
Varun signs out of work in the office register, over an hour later, the scowl writ large on his face. It has taken more than a phone call to set that mess right. “I’m sick of being her bloody Plan B.” he mutters to himself. He yanks out his phone and taps out a message. He hits send and turns to the television screen mounted on the wall.
“What are you wearing right now? That’s all he wants to know. I haven’t heard from him in a week and now this. What am I wearing right now. He couldn’t even be bothered with calling.”
Meghna’s voice rises with each full stop but she doesn’t care. She has spent the last half an hour, carefully crafting messages that sound just the right balance of sexy, aloof, interested and sympathetic. All to no avail. She’s spending Friday night by herself.
“I’m just his fucking back-up plan, that’s all.” she sobs.
Tasneem sighs, “Don’t do that to yourself, Meghna. Don’t do it. Why don’t you come over? I’ve made some biryani. We’ll watch a movie together.”
Meghna sniffs, unhearing. “No, I don’t feel like getting out now. Back-up plan, that’s all I am. He couldn’t even be bothered to come over.” and she hangs up to luxuriate in her puddle of woe.
Tasneem puts her phone away thinking, “Neither can you.” She picks up the half-eaten plate of biryani and takes it to the kitchen. Twenty minutes later, she has scrubbed every utensil clean and wiped down the counter. There’s nothing on TV and it’s no fun watching a movie all by herself. She picks up the phone and looks at the time. It’s too late for a call, she tells herself. Shareen won’t like it. She taps out a message instead.
“Bhai, how are you?”
And she isn’t surprised when the phone rings in less than five minutes. At least her conscience is clear.
Shareen scowls at her husband’s back but straightens her face out immediately. There’s no telling what he’ll do if he catches that expression on her face. She is just too tired for another fight. He has left the movie hall now though so she brings out her phone. It feels like she’s just watching one screen after another, all by herself. The intermission arrives and he still hasn’t returned. She gets up to stretch her legs and walks out. He’s standing near the pillar, absorbed in conversation on the phone. And she thinks what she only lets herself think in the privacy of bathrooms. Her husband should have married that ‘muh-boli behen’ of his, instead of her. What is she after all, but a substitute life partner?
She looks at her phone, the abysmally small list of numbers permitted on it. And as usual, she dials the first one.
“Ammi, how are you? Were you sleeping?”
Of course not, she is assured. A few seconds of someone wanting to hear her voice is all that’s needed. Shareen takes a deep breath and answers, yes, everything is well, they’re watching a movie, no it’s okay, don’t rush for it, wait till it comes out on TV. And then, noticing the crowds retreating into the hall, she ends the conversation and says goodbye.
On another tiny screen, a picture of Shareen comes up as wallpaper as the phone call disconnects. Her mother looks at the picture, wishing she could hear Shareen more often and not just see her in this picture. It’s a picture taken at Shareen’s wedding, two years earlier. They haven’t seen her since then. She lies awake for a long time, thinking about the last two years.
In the morning, she has put her worries out of her head. There’s another daughter to be seen to, as well, after all. If only she didn’t insist on being so stubborn. By nine o’clock, breakfast is ready and so is the agenda for the weekend. It’s time to look for a bridegroom, no more messing around.
“You will also get up earlier every day now and learn to cook. Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
Nyssa turns away from her mother’s tirade. Her sister must have called last night, she surmises, as the fresh wave of parental zeal comes her way. She had hoped to talk to them about Ranjit over the weekend but clearly this is not the day. She sighs as her mother straightens the picture of Shareen on the dressing table.
What is she but the under-achieving daughter after all? The back-up child, that’s all.