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Short story

Biding Time

This story was originally published by uRevolution.

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11:35am.  Almost time for almonds. 

They strolled up the walkway towards Halebid  temple.  Dhrub in his arms, Rishab walked slowly.  So slowly, Rita wasn’t sure they were moving.  Were they moving backwards?

Whoosh!  They were moving backwards.  Only Rita felt it.  Rita, starved-stoned. 

“It’s depressing, visiting someplace so beautiful,” Rishab confessed.  “I keep thinking, ‘I could never make this.’”

Déjà vu!  He just said it.  Unashamed.  She’d never managed to say it.  Unspoken, her shame had burrowed inside.  Hollowing her.  So hollow, her feet didn’t feel the ground.  Are we walking on air?  Life had become a loop of déjà vus.  All unanchored.  Time had ceased to be a straight road.  To which you could anchor milestones.

Distant, a pang of hunger awoke her.  Almonds!

Rita refocussed.  First I’ll walk around here.  Even on holiday, refocussing away from food exhausted her.  Twenty-five minutes of biding time.  Then it’d be time to masticate and swallow five almonds.  Then, 110 minutes before one apple.

Odd that this began as a way to hold on to time.  Now, all she did was bide time.  Waiting.  Waiting for what? 

“Good thing we did Belur first,” Rishab continued.  They say this one’s even more magnificent!  But I guess you artists feel differently… For you this must be inspirational?”

Dimly, through the fog-of-war that was Rita’s consciousness, anger rose.  She’d not done art in eleven years.  Rishab still called her an artist.  She’d quit because she’d realised: she’d never be great.  Rishab – what did Rishab know about a yearning so keen, you had to starve yourself to dull its knifepoint?

“It’s just the same,” said Rita, as they ascended the steps.  Was it eleven years ago?  She looked younger now.  Her starved-stoned mind took flight.  Up out of her body, gazing down at her.  Starving, she felt stoned always.  Never sure where her body was.  What year it was. 

That was the point.

“So intricate!” said Rishab.  “All these levels.”  The wide platform ran around the temple, duplicating its shape: an irregular star, 120-pointed: many adjacent sides mere inches apart.  From soapstone, durable but soft, the 12th-century Hoysalas had carved Halebid temple.  Every inch art.  From platform-level to six feet high, the façade was carved with eleven horizontal bands of repeating figures.  At bottom marched troops: elephants, shoulder-to-shoulder; above them chariots; then equestrians; then two rows of hybrid beasts.  Elephants smiling.  Horses rearing.  Charioteers frowning.  Above them danced men and women.  Dressed only in jewellery.  Headdresses.  Necklaces.  Tiered, studded waistbands.  Above them the façade became a trellis of octagonal ventilation-slots.

“Look, Mommy!” said five-year-old Dhrub, peering into a cranny.  “The carving goes all the way in!”

Hands on Dhrub’s shoulders, Rishab peered.  “How did they carve in there!  That’s dedication. No wonder it’s a World Heritage Site.”

“Mommy, why’re those elephants so weird?”  Pointing, Dhrub tugged at Rita’s dupatta.  Rita’s hand flew to her shoulder.  Silk dupatta, pinned.  Delicate.  She muffled the instinct to slap Dhrub.  The irritation of the starving mind simmers always subsurface. 

A creaturely irritation.  She’d stopped being ashamed of it.  She hid it well.

“He’s right,” said Rishab.  “These ones up here – look.  Their bodies are elephants’, but their heads are dolphins’… Must be a mythological creature, Doshi,” he told Dhrub.  “Look, here’s another!  Peacock’s tail, newt’s body.  See?”  Rishab raised Dhrub eye-to-eye with the chimeras. 

Next moment it was gone.  Irritation, shame, hiding the irritation.  Whoosh!  Too exhausted to really feel, she never knew if she’d felt something just now, or hallucinated feeling it yesterday.  Time was a loop of déjà vus.

“What’s it called?” said Dhrub.

“Is this Narasimha?  Rita, d’you know?”  Rita shrugged.  “No, Narasimha is part-lion, I guess… Isn’t it strange, we’re the first generation who can’t tell our children the stories our grandparents told us?”

“We didn’t grow up with our grandparents,” said Rita.  Strolling up the walkway, climbing the three steps – had exhausted her.  Quadriceps heavy.  Forcefully smiling, she declared: “Look!  You can see the beatitude on this woman’s face.  And the lechery on this one’s!”  She heard the exclamation-points in her voice.  Heard herself groping for words.  Does she sound hollow?  “But these soldiers – look how standard they are!  They look assembly-line.  400 sculptors worked on this.  But they served one artistic vision.  Makes me proud to be Indian.”

Hollowed, her voice floated above her.  Exhausted, she finished her speech. 

‘It should,’ she thought.  ‘I should feel proud.’ 

Why did I come back here?

A Vietnamese student was watching an audio-video guide.  Looking from smartphone to façade, nodding.  The audio leaked.  Rita heard bits.  About the wars the temple commemorated.  About the workshop for the sculptors’ tools.

“Mommy!  I’m hungry!”

“Okay Doshi, let’s eat.”  Rishab picked him up.  Rita marvelled: how easily he does it!  “Shall we eat first, then tour the temple?”  He nodded at the lawn, where tourist families sprawled picnicking.

Rita Hmmd.

“You’ll join us?”  Rishab avoided Rita’s eye.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Okay.  I’ve got your almonds.”

She watched her husband and child locate a spot on the lawn.

She surveyed the temple.  800 years old.  120 corners intact.  Only eastward, wind-buffeted, had the stone lost its gray skin.  Red flesh exposed: carved grimaces still vivid.  You don’t need a tour-guide.  Across time and space, art speaks for itself.

Anxiety rose.  Rita hurried away.  She’d pace around the platform.  Their hotel had no gym.  She’d crept out at 4:30am, to jog away, around the small-town streets, yesterday’s dinner.  A tiny bowl of daal-rice.  The jog: just 10km.  Not enough exercise.

She walked fast, half-awakening herself from her perma-stupor.  Ducking tourists selfieing.  Dimly she recalled the custom of circumambulating temples.  Was it clockwise, or anti?  What if someone interrupted her ambulation?  Told her she was doing it wrong?  Guessed what she was really doing.  Told her: ‘You don’t need exercise – you need a doctor.’

Faster!  She hurried round and round the platform.  Almost jogging.  Legs heavy.  When was the last time her legs hadn’t felt heavy?  She walked so fast, she thought she’d fall off.  Had she already fallen off, just not yet realised it?  Body weightless, feet skimming ground, she was never sure of the time.  Was it already or not yet?

Dimly she remembered her last visit.  Eleven years ago.  With her parents.  Remembered only a photo.  All three smiling.  Plump.  Happy.  It was that photo that’d shocked her: I’ve got plump.

She’d been struggling to do art.  Struggling, at 21, with the possibility that she’d never be great.  Never leave to posterity something like this.  Now, she was fat.  Fat, she looked older.  Old enough to have achieved something.  What had she achieved?

That’s when she’d stopped eating.  Perhaps if she had time.  Then she could become great.  Learn the masters’ techniques.  Their textured worldviews.  Discipline.  And meanwhile?

Meanwhile she mustn’t age another day.  Meanwhile, she’d clutched with both hands at time.  She’d discovered: the thinner she got, the younger she looked.  ‘You’re a mother?’ strangers exclaimed.  ‘You look like a schoolgirl!’  She’d acted annoyed: but this compliment was her victory-badge.  She looked younger.  She felt lighter.  Peering at herself, she saw someone who took up less space.  Who had fewer years to justify.

What claim had she to space and time, with nothing to show for it?

Lap after giddy lap, she avoided meeting eyes.  With tourists taking an interest.  Rishab’s words echoed.  Were they, too, depressed to see, carved in stone, what they’d never achieve? 

“Mommy!” cried Dhrub, twenty feet away.  “I saved you a sandwich!”

“Thank you, dear.”

Twenty feet away, Rita smelled the sandwich.  She fled into the temple.

Inside, it was empty and cool.  The idols had been moved to the museum.  Under the low flat ceiling, the ventilation-slots communicated a cool breeze.  In dim octagons the sun shone on the stone-tiled floor.  Smooth and cool, under bare feet, as she strolled back and forth.

Her legs trembled.  She could sit.  Nobody would see.  But what if Rishab came looking?  She leaned against a pillar.

Why was she starving herself?  She couldn’t remember.  The starving was incidental: that she remembered. 

They made it hard to remember.  Rita starving herself: that’s what friends and family saw.  They didn’t see that was incidental.  A way to buy time.

Standing still was harder.  Her quadriceps spasmed painfully.  Exhausted, she resumed strolling.

What she’d needed was time.  Time in which to achieve excellence.  She’d bought the appearance of time.  The appearance of someone with life still ahead.

What time had she bought?  Her only timescale now was the minutes till her next mini-meal.  Hour to hour, her morsel of energy she exhausted hiding.  Hiding her exhaustion.  Hiding her anxiety lest a colleague say: ‘That’s your lunch?’  Hiding the effort with which she mimed emotion.  Exhaustion had hollowed her: life had become a dumbshow.  Distant and mute.  Miming emotion was all she managed.  Food-starved, sleep-starved, head always swimming.

Why didn’t I just keep doing art?  She struggled to remember.  Eleven years!  I could’ve learned so much.  A little every day.

Instead, she’d faced, all at once, the bulk of her ambition.  A massive monolith.  She’d been convinced: a lifetime’s labour won’t be enough.

If a lifetime isn’t enough, what do you do?  You bide time.

She peered out the door.  Rishab was coaxing Doshi to finish his sandwich.  “It’s for Ma!” said Dhrub, rolling himself down the lawn.

“There’re more for Ma,” Rishab lied.

Remorse spasmed under Rita’s ribs.  Here’s Dhrub: expecting that any day now, Mommy will eat.  Here’s Rishab: accepting that she won’t.  Still calling her an artist.

Why didn’t I just keep doing art?  Maybe I’d never have been great.  But I’d have got better.

Isn’t better better than nothing?

But she’d faced the monolith alone.  Parents working.  Grandparents – who would’ve told her everyone feels this way – distant.  Alone facing the monolith, she’d decided: ‘It’s all or nothing.’

Now she remembered.  Eleven years ago, in the photo, it wasn’t her plumpness that’d distressed her.  It was the art behind her.  This temple, in the sun.  A work of art.  Finished.  She’d not even started hers.

But they had started, too.  The architect who designed it.  Each of 400 sculptors.  The dynasty that funded it.  Everyone had started.  Sometime.  Someplace.

And she – she’d been biding time.  Until she could create, with something grand, a claim to time and space.

Dizziness flung her back on her heels.  The world spun black.  She leaned back.  Dizziness was a friend: interrupting, continually, time.  Making bearable time’s passing.

She strolled across the temple.  Looking out at the people.  They were looking at the temple.  Her body rose yearning to create something people would look at and admire.  She was exhausted of people looking at her and worrying.

She, too, had to start.  Sometime.  Someplace.  When?  She looked back at these eleven years.  It’d be hard to step away from them: for, once she did, she’d have to look back and acknowledge their prodigality.  The prospect of breaking away from the past, looking back to say goodbye – revived her anxiety.  The anxiety she’d fled from year to year. 

She was exhausted.  Yes: it’d be hard to look back and face her loss.  To walk forward: to learn how to walk with her feet on the ground, in this moment.  But it was harder to keep drifting in this eternal intoxication of the suspended present.

She strolled back.  She looked out through the other door.

Dhrub in his arms, pointing skywards, Rishab stood on the lawn.  Rishab caught Rita’s eye.  He smiled. 

Why did I come back here? 

Now she knew.

She knew what her subject would be.  The stoned timelessness of the starved mind.  The anxiety of ambition.  Being ashamed to admit that you, too, are daunted by a finished work of art.  Wanting something so badly, you’re afraid to start.  Starving yourself, to punish yourself.  Biding time.  The road to recovery.

Smiling back, Rita stepped out into the sun.  Firm-footed now.  Breaking from Rishab’s arms, Dhrub ran across the lawn towards Mommy.

END

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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