“Inspired yet?” he asked her when he saw her looking wistfully at the unceasing rain. She shot him an irritated look. But realising it had been a genuinely sincere question and not a mocking one, she smiled.
“No,” she sighed, “watching the rain on the trees is all very well the first ten minutes. You pose for photos with cups of tea gazing at nothing in particular, post them with a quote about love or life or something equally vacuous and your jobless friends gush over it and you begin to think you are a poet—”
“The last is a tragic risk,” he interrupted.
“Bitch rain! It is 0% inspiration, 100% precipitation.”
It was his turn to give her a crusty look.
“Do you regret getting together with a loony?” she asked with a smile.
“I don’t regret it.”
It was two weeks since they had arrived in that place—that was neither his nor hers—after nearly two years of torrid internet romance which began with the pandemic and, like it, had held fast. Biological complications were worsened by diplomatic ones between their respective countries rendering thoroughfare difficult. So, the moment they found a window open in a third country, they jumped through it and met there. They left their previous lives behind to set out together upon a journey of surprises.
The day before she left, her mother, who had survived the virus, sat her down to offer her support to a prospective lesbian liaison despite her protestations that it was a man she was going to meet. But the mother insisted that having seen death from close up and lived to tell the tale as a matter of random luck—others, fitter and younger and with greater responsibilities than her had been called away for no fault of theirs—she wanted to be a better mother to her grown daughter by turning more open-minded (“Aren’t you tired of men besides?”, “This one is different”, “Aren’t they all?”, “Not all men”, “The end is nigh.”) His family, on the other hand, had only cautioned him against over-indulging on chai-tea and naan-bread—and to not make a personal thing of colonial guilt.
Their first meeting had been full of film-like wonder: delicious, shyly tactile, and poignant. They settled into their Airbnb apartment atop a hill and had been rained-in since. These were unseasonal thunderstorms of an incorrigibly changed world whose leaders had only recently met in a country whose climate suited talks. Planning was beginning to be an obsolete idea in this new world. Yet they had planned because that is what they knew how to do—while it was mostly by luck that they had got so far. Being shut indoors in a strange country wasn’t bad because they had the company they had sought. They told themselves they were expats and not tourists so being deprived of the city’s sights didn’t bother them. But when romance settled into a blissful domesticity, their minds demanded entertainment and although they both had subscriptions to video-streaming platforms, the internet in the place was shaky and they had to live like people did a few decades ago: slowly.
“Horror?” she had asked. “Why horror? You want us to do a Shelley just because we are stuck in the rain? Write a 21st C Frankenstein? Why not a nice romance or something?”
Neither of them had studied literature in college. She had done business something or the other and he had done… umm… gender or some such new-fangled American invention (had he not promised to help her unlearn her patriarchal conditioning and show her how to be an emancipated woman?) Whatever his degree was in, it was certainly not medicine or biology going by the way he had answered her question about the new variant named after yet another Greek alphabet: “It is virile and dodgy and when it sees the vaccine, it moves like this to avoid it,” he had pantomimed a Hollywood actor weaving his way through a laser beam security system.
She hadn’t asked him why he had thought they should take up writing to pass the time. It was their shared love for the quaintness of a bygone world that had brought them together when she had “liked” a photo of him in a T-Shirt with the legend “Analogue is Warmer” and a picture of a cassette. So, sitting by the fire after the day’s hunt to tell each other stories was an apt return to the glorious primordial instinct they both fantasized about.
“Because it is too late for that,” he said. “Any projection of romance upon the future is a lie.”
“But isn’t living through the great horror of the current reality horror enough? People lost without warning those closest to them—people they thought they could not live without. No one knows who is next in this carnage. How does one write stories to scare now that we are all cowering in our own hides?”
Didn’t she look cute when she spoke like that? He was tempted to take her in his arms—with her consent of course—and do things to her they had discussed and agreed would be pleasurable to both of them in a strictly recreational way and not imply a skewed power dynamics in general. But she was obviously waiting for an answer and he was obliged to give one.
“That is the challenge,” he said. “The project of horror can no longer be safe thrills—like those simulations in malls where they put glasses on you to make you think you are walking on a rope dangling over a gorge only for you to collapse with relief when you take those glasses off. Now, horror must be aimed at acclimatising us—to form calluses on our minds.”
Owing to his lack of training in literature, he had read far and wide driven by pleasure alone and had formed some well-articulated thoughts on it. But she wouldn’t be left behind on deep-sounding perceptive observations.
“You are right. But the idea of a monster of one’s own making running amok and angry—indignant and vengeful at being created—is too easy a metaphor.” Her communications professor had been a Comparative Literature PhD on his first job yet to grow cynical.
“Baby, in fact, I think all metaphors on horror have outlived their purpose. Everything one writes in that genre has to be a blunt statement—all narrative methods have been rendered superfluous, and all writing has to be an observation of subjectivities growing narrower and narrower.”
By now, their lexical exhibitionism had left them sufficiently incapable of further conversation and they sought to attend to more pressing primary instincts.
Later that day, having sat with their respective laptops for hours in separate rooms, they regrouped to share what they had written.
She cleared her throat and began first. “It’s nothing special…disjointed thoughts really. ‘The prayers’ prayers clashed and clanged—”
“No poems,” he interrupted her.
“Why?” She had, in recent times, taken to writing vertically with line-breaks her thoughts on fashionably melancholic topics and was hoping to go on stage with it.
“That’s cheating. You can claim abstraction of any nonsense lacking in rhyme or reason.”
“Rhyme is for oldies.”
“And reason is obsolete.”
If she was offended, she didn’t show it.
“Well then I will need time to write a new piece.”
The lunch khichdi was extra spicy that day. And she was impatient with him. “You cannot go around renaming things just because you cannot pronounce their original names. What the hell is a kedgeree? It’s khee-cha-dee… say khee-cha-dee? Pass me the o-tah please.”
“It’s delicious,” he said, handing her the water bottle but not willing to take her cue for a quarrel. It would be his turn to make supper. They were nearly out of supplies and he was wondering how in the world he was to fashion a meal out of cucumbers and tofu.
They sat down again and she read hers first. It wasn’t a story. It was a note.
‘‘‘MS died’ someone messaged me today. It took me a while to remember him.
We went to school together. Although ‘went together’ is just an expression as I cycled to school and he travelled in buses from his village to mine which had the only English school in the area. Every time I looked at him in his uniform crumpled from jostling for a seat with people and farm produce and chickens and goats, I remember feeling grateful for living in the same village as the school. I had terrible motion-sickness and shuddered at the thought of throwing up every day just to get an education. He told me that you didn’t feel giddy if you rode on the luggage carrier on the roof. But they stopped the practice after a schoolboy fell to his death, knocked down by the low branch of a banyan tree.
We weren’t friends. But since we sat in the same class for 10 years, some sort of familiarity had crept in. And since our initials were close together, we had adjacent registration numbers and were seated next to each other during exams. I knew his birthday. I remember this because he once told me that he had more wisdom since he had a four-day head-start over me. I had told him off when he tried to copy my answers in a test. I am currently giving my memory a sideways look for holding on to the most random of anecdotes.
I don’t think the meagre biology our underpaid teachers taught us prepared us for the possibility of a viral apocalypse decades on.
I might have wished him a dispassionate good-luck on school leaving day after which he receded into the realm of obscure memories. If we had gone on to live and die of nothing but time, I probably wouldn’t have heard of him again. But Covid caught him and here I am thinking of him for the first time since 1999.
I feel no grief. Just a strange wistfulness at the precariousness of dreams.
Goodbye MS. You do have a head-start after all.”
He sat back in stunned silence.
“Well?” she asked.
“I wasn’t expecting this. It is not horror. But it is the acceptance that comes after getting callused. Mine is dark in comparison.” He read his.
“There’s something bigger than the sum of all lives put together: the gestalt which adapts preys to resemble predators and backgrounds—moths that look like owls, mantis that look like leaves, pigment cells in chameleon skin that sense the colour of the surroundings. That is the greater sentience that governs whole hives and ant colonies to act as one being— that which renders us cameos in our own stories. It is waiting and watching with glacial perseverance. We broke away from it when we began thinking of ourselves as individuals, and it seeks to avenge our audacity. It may be all-knowing but it’s certainly not all-loving. It proves its point by disproving karma. It punishes the meek and the lovely. It recalls the noble and lets the evil and the ugly be— they are its tools, the handyman’s hands. It metamorphoses into the death instinct. It writes, in an unhurried hand, the destiny of the world with bat soup as ink.”
She looked at him with a mixture of horror and admiration.
“You win,” she said slowly.
“Baby, if I win, nobody does.”
They sat there contemplating the words they had heard read aloud. The rain had stopped while she was reading her piece and an extra bright sun was steaming the earth. They couldn’t tell if it was a brief interlude or the beginning of improved weather. Forecasts were hopeless. Someone had started a brush cutter and it sounded like a moped struggling in the mud.
“I would rewrite the last bit,” she said after a while. “The bat soup theory has been discarded.”
“You are right… let me change that.” He thought for a minute and clicked a few times on his keyboard.
“With an unhurried hand, it knocks over a test tube. Better?”
They sat in silence.
“They are recommending booster doses,” he said looking out of the window.
“We must do what we can to…uh… be there for each other,” she smiled at him and it made him sad.
“Hmm… shall we go for a walk?” he asked in an effort to change the subject.
“Yes. Let me get my mask.”
Maithreyi Karnoor is the author of the novel Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends. Her English translation of Vasudhendra’s Kannada novel Tejo Tungabhadra is forthcoming.
Also Read: All short stories from the Fiction Special 2022