Saturday, November 21, 2015

2015 DNA-OUT OF PRINT Short Fiction Shortlist: Kanchana Doraiswamy

Hummingbirds
Kanchana Doraiswamy

8.46 on a Tuesday morning in June, Vidhi’s world dies without warning. A world which, like a stubborn parent, has dictated what she makes of her mornings, afternoons, evenings and nights. A world she has taken so much for granted. She has followed its biddings and in turn, like a selfish child, extracted a reward for each one. 
But there have been no demands or rewards today. Almost 12 hours since the great demise, the hour hand of the Ajanta on the wall lies undecided between 7 and 8 pm. Vidhi empties the cold beer can in her hand with a swig and sets it down on the heavily stained sofa. She checks her mobile. Nothing yet. She retraces her day mentally, wondering what she has missed.
Today she woke up as usual, getting out of bed at 5.30 to the sound of the alarm on her bedside clock. It sounds less like an alarm and more like a kitchen timer, but nevertheless works the desired effect on her. She walks to the hall and sits in the dark, face lit by the touchscreen in her palm. Twitter’s first on her agenda. No new followers since last night. But she is sure to gain a few by end of day if she keeps a tight watch on scoops and tweets early with some sassy opinions thrown in. Today her timeline seems more peaceful than normal. There are barely a few new tweets, mostly from the local newspapers. Completely vegetarian Indian menu for PM in China. Ghulam Ali concert canceled due to security issues. Madman apprehended trying to enter CM’s residence ranting warnings of doomsday. Click, scan. Click, scan. She reads each of the articles in the links briefly, trying to extract the most information in the least possible time. The madman link deserves a retweet. Will being vegetarian (or not) remain a matter of choice anymore? #ilovemysteak, she tweets next, with several exclamation marks and a link to the vegetarian menu in China. A couple more tweets protesting the beef ban, protesting the introduction of Sanskrit in schools as compulsory third language. A few new followers guaranteed, she hopes to hit the magic hundred that she has been praying for. She has already crossed a 1000 friends on Facebook, but Harsha says Facebook is for the frivolous. Your followers on Twitter determine the extent of your intellect he gloats, pointing to 939 under FOLLOWERS on his phone. Harsha neither has nor cares for a Facebook account inspite of her regular pleading. Facebook is for the frivolous, he reminds her. 
She loves being frivolous, so she will share parts of herself on Facebook. She makes a mental note to spruce up the weekend selfie and upload it today. She will have to wait for Harsha to leave first, he gets irritated when she is twiddling with the phone. Do something worthwhile with your life, he has told her a million times. That conversation has always ended badly. I keep telling you this for your own good no, what’s in it for me? he screams as their fights touch a crescendo. For my own good huh, then let’s adopt, that’s what I want! she screams back. Her bruises scrape against freshly slammed doors, bubble up at their sixteen year old marriage, and eventually subside in the repeated silence. She hides the scabs under expensive clothing.
She must awaken him and make coffee, it is almost 6.Vidhi walks back to the room but Harsha is not on the bed. At the sound of a tap gushing from the attached bathroom she assumes he has an important meeting at office.
She has her coffee in the kitchen, turning the pages of a Sanjeev Kapoor recipe book disinterestedly. She never buys recipe books herself as she doesn’t believe in dressing up something that ends in the bowels anyway, but this was a gift from Harsha two years into the marriage. Male chauvinistic, sexist, were words that would have come easily to her in college. But that time, armed with her new understanding of love, she had hugged him for his gift. 
He finishes his coffee while tending to office emails on the laptop. She picks up his empty mug and places it in the kitchen sink beside hers. A quick furtive check on her phone reveals no new notifications. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, all stare at her stony-eyed, unresponsive. Never mind, I shall wake you all up soon, she tells herself as she pops bread into the toaster. She hands him a plate of scrambled eggs on toast and he sets down the laptop. You have shaving cream in your right ear, she says. He nods, pushing a spoonful of egg into his mouth.
Might be late, don’t wait for dinner, he says, heading out for work an hour later. She hides her annoyance and waves a practised goodbye at the door. It is 8.30
 At 8.46, her phone buzzes. She has held it in her hand since he left, busy deciding on an Instagram filter for her selfie. Finally, someone has posted she exults, looking at the WhatsApp notification pop up on her screen. 1 message from 1 chat. She clicks on it. Happy Anniversary, sorry I forgot. Harsha’s profile picture is a collage of the cartoon boy Calvin. Calvin stretching his eyes out, Calvin barfing, Calvin jumping on his stuffed tiger Hobbes, Calvin this, Calvin that. Men never grow up, she sighs. Thanks and wish you the same, she types in her reply and quickly deletes it. What do I mean, ‘wish you the same’? she asks herself. We are both in it together. Love you and wish us many more, she types in next. She erases that too as it doesn’t feel true. Thanks, can you come back early? she types in one last attempt and lingers a moment imagining the consequences before deleting it as well. She abandons a reply altogether and heads back to Instagram. She settles on the Perpetua filter for her selfie. She posts it with a click and checks to see if it has appeared on her profile. Success. She then checks for a simultaneous post on Facebook. Success. Ravishing at forty, she tells her seductively smiling self on screen. The blue sari she wore in the photo lies in a crumpled heap at the bottom of her wardrobe, waiting to be taken to the dry cleaner. 
She stays on her phone for the next two hours hoping to catch the “likes” as they pour in. Usually her photos, and consequently her posts, gather no less than 300 likes and comments. Usually the activity starts within minutes of her posts. But today there has been none, not even one on Instagram or Facebook. Has no one seen her posts yet? She chews on her thumb and browses aimlessly. Surprisingly, there are no new posts from anyone in her network since the morning. Could there be a problem with the notification mechanisms, she thinks, and checks Nisha Madhavan’s Facebook account. Nisha never misses a day, posting pictures from her plush home, her gym, on her way to work, in her office, sometimes from inside the toilet even. Her last update is a day old. Nisha poses for her husband, kissing their dog on his snout. Hubby dearest has no jealousyyyyy, screams the photo. 467 likes, 89 comments. Vidhi had wondered if Nisha’s hubby would actually be relieved if his wife had an affair and let him move on. But she had clicked “like” and commented, How sweet Nishu. Nishu has gone silent after placing a ‘like’ on each one of the 89 comments. That was yesterday evening. Umm. Something quite unexpected must have happened, Vidhi infers. 
Maybe the mobile apps are malfunctioning? She flips open her laptop lying on the bed and heads to the Facebook page on the browser. Nothing changes. She opens Twitter, Instagram, and after some tinkering, even WhatsApp on the browser. Facebook confirms Nisha’s silence. Twitter is near dead, her morning tweets floating topmost. She is the last person on her Instagram timeline. And Whatsapp, nothing there either. It is 11 and no one has appeared online. She checks Harsha’s WhatsApp account, curious to know when he chatted last on his network. Harshavardhan, last seen today at 8.46, it says right beside the Calvin collage.
She eats her breakfast of cold eggs and toast and heads for a shower. Perhaps everyone has been silenced by an unexpectedly bizarre weekday, she consoles herself as the soothing heat from the water hits the top of her head. 
There are groceries to be bought today, but she has stopped going to a flesh-and-blood store since months. Harsha had discouraged grocery shopping, calling it a waste of ‘time and effort’. Why wait at long billing queues and lug back heavy bags when someone else can do it for you? For free? he said, claiming his lady colleagues from office swore on the benefits of online grocery shopping. She had silently rebelled, reminded of the bling hairband she once found in his backpack. But these days, she understood his lady colleagues a bit better. Online grocery shopping freed up so much of her time for more useful work – like connecting to other people online. And with her virtual friends, small talk was not frowned upon. It was glorified. She could post a picture of her cold scrambled eggs and toast and get a few hundred likes. She could post a selfie of hers with Harsha taken years ago and people would comment saying how they were ‘made for each other’. She could paste a piece of borrowed poetry and people raved about her wisdom and great taste in literature.  
Suddenly Vidhi has an idea. Okay, so what if Harsha is not around for their sixteenth wedding anniversary, she would make it a full blown celebration for herself. She rummages in her cupboard and brings out a hard disk labeled “Photos Backup”. She connects it to the laptop and retrieves their wedding photos. There are 156 photos in all and it takes her close to two hours to get them all up on Facebook with the right titles, but her memory is razor sharp and she remembers something unique about each one. By the time she is finished with the last one, she is exhausted and drifts off into a deep sleep. 
She is now in a vast field with hummingbirds all around her. The hummingbirds poke her in focused turns as they whizz by. She screams in pain, a green bilious fluid scream rising from her gut, but freezing into clear green marbles as soon as it touches her throat. I need to run or they will poke me to death, she panics. She looks down at her feet that won’t budge and all she can see is endless dark nothingness. Am I a flower? She shakes her head vigorously hoping to scare off the birds, but they catch the green marbles flying out of her mouth with their beaks and seem to relish them as they whizz closer for more. I am stuck, she tells herself and goes silent.
When she wakes up, the room is dark and dead. She flicks on a bulb. The hour hand of the Ajanta on the wall lies undecided between 7 and 8 pm. She checks her phone. No human being known to her has stirred since 8.46 that morning. 
It is too late to go grocery shopping she thinks.

Kanchana Doraiswamy passionately pursues art and literature as she believes it can help humans in remaining humane. Through fiction, she hopes to rekindle some of those sensibilities which are buried under our rapidly changing social structures.Having been trained as an Electronics engineer, she loves technology and the advantages it can foster when used well. She currently works in the Healthtech industry and lives in Bangalore with her husband and son. 


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