READISCOVERY '22 by EKansh Trust
Concept & Coordination: Anita Iyer Narayan
Outreach & Editing Support: HarperCollins India
Judges [V.I.] : Sameer Lagey, Nikita Vaid, Rahul Kelapure
Edited by Poulomi Chatterjee of HarperCollins, India.
Our sincere thanks to all those who were part of this Competition in small and big ways!
CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL WRITERS!
Winners' stories are below!
STORIES BY WRITERS WHO ARE VISUALLY IMPAIRED / BLIND
FIRST PRIZE Rupees 10,000/-
THE MISCREANTS by Gurpreet Walia
‘Listen, I don’t want any arguments and bargaining, okay? It’s 5 lakh rupees for the female. And I want the money in cash by tomorrow evening. Got that? Tomorrow evening,’ I heard a gruff male voice say, as I turned into the narrow lane near my home. It was late evening, and I was on my way back from college. I stopped where I was, petrified, unable to go any further. Standing there in dead silence, with no one around, I could feel sweat dripping over my body and my mouth beginning to dry up. The dinging of a cyclist’s bell as he rode by brought me back to my situation. I mustered up some courage and started running towards my house as fast as my feet could take me.
‘It’s horrible! Horrible!’ I said to myself as I rang the doorbell. It felt like ages had gone by before Raju, my cousin, opened the door. Without saying a word, I dashed into the living room, my heart still thumping. Raju followed me in. ‘What’s wrong, Bhai?’ he asked as I slumped into the closest chair. ‘You look terrible. Have you seen a ghost?’
I was still shivering. I said, ‘It’s worse than that.’ Then I told him what I had heard from the window of flat No.13 at the end of the lane.
Raju’s voice choked, ‘’then finding it again, he said, ‘I was already suspecting some illegal activities going on in that flat. Some new people have just moved in. Everyone who lives around them is saying their behaviour is erratic. The previous owner mysteriously disappeared. Nobody knows what has become of him. He was a simple man and people in the locality are saying he may have been killed! And have you heard the news today?’ he added breathlessly.
‘What news?’ I asked with a quiver in my voice, wrapping my arms around me.
‘News channels are reporting that two girls have been kidnapped in the last two days and their bodies were later found dumped on the roadside. The police suspect it’s some gang that is kidnapping children, especially girls, to be used in sacrifices. They say the miscreants are doing it to acquired wealth through black magic and sacrifices.’
‘It’s terrible,’ I said. ‘If I had been in the police force, I would not have rested till I found them and put them behind bars.’
The gruff voice haunted and echoed in my ears that whole night.
The heat burned my hair as I entered the room. Smoke and hot gusts of air stung my eyes, forcing me to squeeze my eyelids tight. Loud popping and crackling sounds indicated that an immense fire was burning. My stomach felt weak and my knees became wobbly.
The air was thick with incense – I could sense that a religious ceremony was being performed. I could hear the desperate, muffled grunt of a female, as if she had been gagged, interspersed with the rattling of chains. Was she trying to free herself? My mind raced. The harsh chanting of mantras grew louder and louder, as did the grunts. I felt a puncturing sensation on my neck and screamed loudly in fear and agony.
‘What happened?’ I heard Raju asking as he shook me awake.
‘I had a terrible dream,’ I replied with trembling lips, my heart still pumping frantically.
Raju fetched me some water and patted me on the back, comforting me. Slightly reassured, I managed to go back to sleep, but the next morning when I woke up the dream was still in my mind.
I felt jittery throughout the week and was unable to concentrate on my studies. The echoing, muffled grunts, the popping and crackling of the fire, and the harrowing sound of the chanted mantras from my dream haunted me day and night and intruded on almost every activity of my life.
At times Raju and I would make plans on how we could get into Flat No. 13 and fight the man with the gruff voice. We felt it was our duty to stop any further kidnappings and murders. However, the dreadful vivid memory of the dream dampened any heroic fervor inside me.
On Sunday morning, the telephone rang. It was my father. ‘Son, what have you been up to? Raju and you must be having a good time.’
I mumbled, ‘No, Dad, we have tests coming up, so we are studying.’
‘Okay, we are coming over this evening and will go straight to watch your uncle’s first show. You’ll enjoy the break.’ Before I could tell him what I had heard from the window of Flat No.13, he hung up the phone.
In the evening Raju and I were a bit late for the show, but Dad had left our passes at the counter, so we had no problem getting into the hall. Soon after we had settled into our seats, I heard a voice that made me sit up, stunned.
It was the same gruff voice! ‘Listen, I don’t want any arguments and bargaining. It’s 5 lakh rupees for the female. And I want the money in cash by tomorrow evening. Got that? Tomorrow evening!’
My heart froze. I felt a cold hand over my shoulder. ‘Son!’ My father was speaking to me. I turned around. ‘You're a bit late. But you didn’t miss much. It’s good fun. Randhawa Uncle, you know, is acting as a gangster here.’
‘Oh,’ was all I could manage to say.
‘He has matched his voice and tone perfectly to that of a tough gangster, no?’
‘Yyyess...’ I mumbled.
‘He moved here a month ago and rented a flat in our locality for his rehearsals...hmm, what number was it? Ah ... Yes Flat No.13.’
Flat No.13!? Raju and I coughed. ‘Oh, it’s Randhawa Uncle!’
Randhawa Uncle was my father’s childhood friend and he often played interesting characters on stage in the theatre, besides holding a regular job. He was rather famous for the characters he played. But when anyone praised him for his talent, he always replied, ‘It’s not talent. I just rehearse so much.’
SELECTED STORIES BY SIGHTED WRITERS
Champa Flowers and the Perfect Cup of Coffee by LEHA DIVAKAR
The wrought-iron gate outside creaked against the cold morning draft. The phone next to her pillow vibrated. Five minutes later, Alexa reminded her from her desk that it was 6 a.m., time to wake up. She always needed two alarms.
Sitting up in bed, her feet found the soft bedroom slippers. The first thing she did was to ask Alexa to check her messages. There was, of course, a message from him. Smiling, she got up and felt the coarse distressed-wood bedside table. Opening the lacy curtains, she felt the sharp icy air touch her cheeks.
Winter was definitely setting in. That meant more coffee, she chuckled to herself. She loved the smell of freshly brewed coffee. It made her feel warm and cozy and she had fond memories attached to it, one of them being Amma making strong filter coffee every morning, her wet hair smelling of Clinic Plus shampoo and faintly of mogra.
One of her early dates with him had been at a little coffee shop he'd found after a conversation with her about her favourite book. She thought it was very thoughtful of him to remember that the book had featured quite a similar cafe. The coffee had tasted exceptional that day, or maybe that was because she had good company. Lo-fi music in the background had added to the ambience. KK's 'Kya Mujhe Pyaar Hai’ played and she’d heard him hum the tune in a low voice as his hand reached for hers across the table.
Their fingers entwined and something just clicked. They went for a walk after, talking about their life, dreams, favourite things and random nothings. The air was heavy with the fragrance of champa flowers, as if welcoming the lovers. Their feet crunched against the gravel and their silhouettes that night stepped into a magical world.
Fast forward five years, and they were planning their wedding. It was going to be different and simple. A garden wedding with close friends and lots of flowers. She designed her wedding gown. She had always dreamt of wearing one of her own designs. A silky dress, with pearls intricately placed. She had smoothened it several times, running her palms over it, proud of how it had turned out.
She heard the toaster click, waking her up from the sweet reverie, and the brewed coffee filled the room with a familiar aroma. Spreading orange marmalade onto her toast, she licked her fingers. Her favourite mug had a chipped edge that she identified with her touch. She had a collection of mugs, thanks to her father but she always drank her coffee from this one. She poured steaming hot coffee into it; habit had taught her when to stop pouring just by listening to the sound of deliciousness. Toast and orange marmalade with coffee was exactly what her grandpa would eat every morning.
She sighed. He would have been happy to see her today. He would have loved to be at her wedding. In fact, he would have danced at her wedding like nobody else. He'd have stolen the show, much to her joy. She missed him.
Munching on her toast and sipping coffee, she listened to her playlist. She was so specific about them. She had several for each mood and occasion. Today felt like a Simon and Garfunkel day.
Music was such an integral part of her life. She thought about all the times music had comforted her and given her exactly what she'd needed. The time she was bullied in school because she had to do things differently from others, those numerous times her heart was broken, the time she lost a family member and couldn't be there for her, the time her best friend walked away...
Her head swayed gently and her wavy tresses fell across the frame of her face. Music spoke to her senses in a way beyond comprehension. Her chair scraped against the floor as she got up to put her mug and plate away. She dressed up in a corduroy shirt and old jeans. She loved experimenting with textures. Her work as a designer gave her more to explore that way. Her studio was just a few minutes away and she always enjoyed a good walk. She wanted to make sure everything was perfect with her dress.
The 9 a.m. sunshine through the glass panes warmed her studio. Her dress fit perfectly on the mannequin. Her fingertips traced the beaded borders, the lacework and the smooth silk. She had taken a long time to design this dress. This dress was a testament that she was doing what she loved today, something she hadn’t thought was possible years ago.
Every now and then on slow days such as this, she would travel back in time and think about how life had changed over all these years. Sometimes she couldn’t recognize who she had become now, in a good way of course. Change was good. Maybe change is always good. Once we get past that fear, she thought. It was mostly about the choices she made, it was mostly about rediscovering her real self. It was mostly about realizing she had the potential, that the bullies couldn’t stop her, that a toxic relationship did not mean she had to blame herself or continue living that way, that she could rise above everything.
She didn’t believe in fresh starts. She believed her past stories had shaped her into who she was now, making life unfold before her like a ripe pomegranate with its glittering rubies, something an author she loved had said. It was Sylvia Plath. She had a book of her poems by her bedside.
She heard the door of her studio slide open and familiar footsteps enter. Her lips automatically curved into a smile. ‘Kya Mujhe Pyaar Hai’ began to play and a hand reached out to take hers. His cologne never failed to give her a euphoric headrush.
Shana and Gaurav began dancing to the rhythm of KK’s song. They had found the rhythm to their life. Outside the studio, champa flowers continued to cascade from the trees, paving an intoxicatingly fragrant path to a quaint little coffee shop that was the beginning of many such love stories.
Life by DHARITHRI KRISHNAMURTHY
A tiny little life in a tiny little seed felt something and it stirred. The warmth of the soil, the sound of water trickling in and the smell of the wet mud. Could the seed smell, you ask? Of course! It was excited to grow, to discover, to meet other lives. The days passed and one day the sweet taste of living, giving water made it jump right out of the soil with excitement and joy. It shut its eyes and felt the warmth of the sunlight for a long, long time. Life! This is how it felt!
The cool breeze, the moist skin of the earthworm slithering by, the sound of happy chatter from its fellow saplings – every day brought new experiences. The sapling was growing fast. It was a happy content soul, constantly learning, constantly discovering and always observing and listening.
One day, a little head poked right out of the soil and greeted the sapling with a loud, cheerful ‘Hello!’ It called itself Hero and asked the sapling if it had a name.
‘I don’t know what’s a name,’ the sapling said. ‘Is it important?’
‘Of course, a name means everything! It’s who you are!’ Hero replied.
This was a brand-new perspective for the sapling. To identify oneself with a name. The more conversations they had; the more the sapling learnt. But the sapling wasn’t sure if this was learning
indeed! Words like ‘being the best’, ‘grow faster’, ‘grow taller than the others’, ‘compare’, ‘feel proud’ made the sapling uncomfortable. They somehow did not sound right.
One day, the sapling was listening to the fragrant Jasmine. She was also known as the cheerful Jasmine who spread fragrance and joy. She never hesitated to lend an ear or give away her flowers to the old lady who carried some everyday as offerings at the temple. But today she was upset. Hero had compared her to the rose and said, ‘You can never match the fragrance and the beauty of the rose. The velvety touch of those rose petals… Oh, nothing compares!’ The sapling knew it. The word ‘compare’ was just not right. As soon as one compared oneself to another, the joy, the self-confidence, the sense of being just diminished.
The sapling asked the Jasmine to shut her eyes and just feel. ‘Breathe, breathe in life, breathe in your fragrance, feel the warmth of the sun, hear the whistling of the wind and just be with yourself. You will know you are complete. You don’t have to be a rose or a hibiscus. You don’t have to be life-giving water or taste sweet like honey. You don’t have to be anyone or anything else but you.’ And the Jasmine did just that.
With every breath, the Jasmine understood what life is about.
Life is not a competition; life is to be lived. Fully and completely. We can find ourselves only when we silence the external world and go deep within. We will truly learn not from saints or seers or encyclopedias and Wikipedia, but by observing, listening, understanding, empathizing, being aware, living in the present moment, and expressing and feeling gratitude. Gratitude for the unique beings we are, gratitude for life and gratitude for being a part of this unique planet.
So, is the sapling the true ‘hero’ in this story? No, there is no hero in this story. This is just a story about life. Life, which we are all so blessed to have.
STORIES BY WRITERS WHO ARE VISUALLY IMPAIRED / BLIND
TRUST IS LOST by Megha Gupta
It was raining heavily when I left the courtroom. The weather in London is so unpredictable. It was sunny just a few hours ago. I sighed and grabbed my umbrella and walked to the parking lot. My driver, Joe, got out and held the door open for me.
I got in and, like always, Joe began.
Joe: ‘Good Evening, Ma’am. How was your day?’
Sharan: ‘It was hectic Joe.’
Joe: ‘Why, Ma’am? Was it not all good in the courtroom today?’
Sharan: ‘Actually, the opposing council was very aggressive today. The arguments kept going on and on. They came out with some new facts regarding the crime scene. So, no decision could be reached today. I can tell you, Joe; it is very difficult to convince a female judge. Women! I tell you!’
Joe: ‘Yes, women are difficult, Ma’am.’
We had a good laugh at that.
Joe: ‘Where are we heading?’
Sharan: ‘To a client. An old couple, who wants me to consult on a case for them, and as they can’t travel much I need to visit them at their home. Take the next lane and head west towards Churchill Road. Then I’ll guide you. I have the location on my phone.’
Joe: ‘Okay, Ma’am.’
I was feeling very tired and all I wanted was a glass of wine, some hot food and to binge on Netflix shows. But I told myself that work came first and, anyway, since the old couple was referred to me by my parents, I couldn’t refuse.
After travelling for an hour and a half we reached our destination. It was situated in the countryside. The sun had already begun to set. A short driveway led up to the house, which had thick, overgrown trees and shrubs lining both sides of it. It seemed too narrow for the car to get through. I asked Joe to park the car outside. ‘Wait for me, Joe. It should take me about an hour.’
I got down with my trusty umbrella. After rushing up the driveway I reached a rickety set of stairs leading up to a porch. The only source of light came from an old lamppost set nearby. The house itself felt very old but sturdy, made of maple wood and stone. The name plate read ‘Hockings Estate’. I read it twice and snorted to myself. Shouldn't it be named ‘Haunted Estate’ instead? The places people choose to live, I will never understand.
I climbed the two creaky steps to the porch and knocked on the door. When I got no answer, I remembered that they had told me to walk right in as the couple’s arthritis made it difficult for them to move around quickly. The lights were on, but the hallway was empty. At the same time there came a cold gust of wind and the door shut with a bang. Well, at least the Hockings must have heard the bang and been alerted to my presence. I called out, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Hockings, are you there? This is advocate Sharan.’ but I got no answer. I could hear some movement from the room on the left, so I decided to enter it. As soon as I stepped in through the door, the lights went out.
‘Damn the rain,’ I thought in annoyance. ‘It must have short-circuited the electric lines.’ Out loud I said, ‘Is anyone there?’ Still getting silence in return, I began to grope my way out of there. It was very dark. Both hands stretched out to feel my way across I slowly started moving deeper into the house, afraid, and wondering if the old couple was all right.
Suddenly, I felt something brush against my legs. I cried out, falling forward on my hands and knees. Trying to make sense of what was happening, I realized I had bumped into a small table covered with a tablecloth and had accidently knocked something off it. When I retrieved it, at first I yelled out in fear. It felt like a small baby’s head. Then I laughed at myself. It was just the head of a broken doll, and it seemed there were some more dolls piled on the table. Maybe the Hockings had grandkids, I told myself. I was just spooking myself for no reason. Exploring the contents of the table further, however, did not help to calm my mind. When I picked up one of the dolls, its head felt soft and smooth, as if it was made of cotton or a cloth was wrapped around it. A string was tied around the neck. Another doll had only one leg, and yet another had a pin sticking out of its chest. There was also a headless figure with its hands tied together. It seemed someone had ripped apart these dolls on purpose. But why will kids, or anyone for that matter, do that, my mind raced. It's a nasty hobby to amputate figures. Psychopaths usually exhibit such instincts. A cold wind blew through the passage making the hair on my neck stand on end. It felt like the beginning of a bad horror movie. I kept the dolls back where I found them.
Shuffling ahead, I came to a doorway. On opening it I guessed it was the way into the kitchen as it smelled like stale food. Unlike the rest of the house, the area felt warm, like someone had been cooking there just a while ago. I felt my finger graze something sticky. The sticky substance was all over the countertop and when I brought my fingers to my nose I smelt blood. My heart began to beat faster, and though I tried to convince myself I was mistaken, I knew I should leave the house immediately. As I turned around, my hand hit something and it fell to the floor. I hurriedly tried to pick it up. It was a long knife, covered with the same sticky substance. This knife must have been used very recently to kill or slaughter something, maybe a chicken. But who kills a chicken these days, I thought to myself. Doesn't everyone get it ready-to-cook from the market? Then a thought ran through my mind… Could it be something more sinister?
Before I could process my thoughts, I heard the splashing of water and muffled voices. I left the kitchen and made my way towards the sounds. Soon, I reached the stairs leading to the cellar. I could now somewhat clearly hear a woman singing. Thinking it must be Mrs. Hocking and that she may be stuck down there because of the power cut, I started descending one step at a time. The sound got louder the further I got. I reached a door. I tried to push it open, but it was locked from the inside. From the sounds I heard it seemed to me that someone was in the bathtub and was singing. The voice was a female one.
I knocked loudly on the door and asked, ‘Mrs. Hocking’s, are you there? I am Sharan…the lawyer.’ The singing became louder. I started banging on the door and finally the singing stopped. I raised my voice and asked, ‘Mrs Hockings are you there? I am Sharan. We had an appointment.’
At last, a reply came from inside, ‘Why are you here?’
I introduced myself again as Advocate Sharan, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Trust. I was there to investigate the property dispute case on the urging of my father, I clarified.
There was silence for a few moments. Then I heard a strange sound – a cackling laughter, and it got louder and louder even as I stood there, feeling alarmed. ‘Wh…why are you laughing?’ I asked, my voice shaking now.
The voice stopped and said, ‘So, you are the Advocate Sharan Trust, and you are here for our property case.’
Sharan: ‘Yes. Can you please come out, Mrs. Hockings?’
Mrs. Hockings (ignoring Sharan): ‘Do you know what the dispute is about?’
Sharan: ‘No, I don't. I just got a text from my father requesting me to come and see you. He told me you and your husband would explain the details.’
Mrs. Hockings: ‘Do you know how long the dispute has been going on?’
Mrs. Hockings: ‘For the past 150 years! There were 5 people involved. All those 5 people have been eagerly waiting for you for all these years in this house to set them free. Trust is lost! Welcome to Hockings Estate Advocate Sharan.’
The laughter started again. My heart hammering with fright, I turned and ran towards the stairs. Something was seriously wrong in this house and I wasn’t going to stick around to know what it was. As I hurried to climb the stairs, I bumped hard into something…someone, someone very tall and broad. Screaming on top of my lungs, I raised my hands to defend myself and felt a beard-lined face.
I pushed at the man and ran. The laughter behind me had got even louder, and now there were two people laughing. All I could think was that I had to get to the main door. My mind in a whirl, I thought I heard someone playing a piano. Then I heard a small child, may be a girl, gleefully repeating, ‘Trust is lost! Welcome to the Hockings Estate Advocate Sharan. Please let us free.’
Reaching the top of the staircase, I ran even faster now. The rotten smell was getting stronger, and the laughter louder. At that moment, something pounced on me. It was an animal, a cat perhaps. I could feel its nails digging into my skin. I shrieked and threw it off me. I stumbled in the process and, as I tried to regain my balance, my hand caught hold of something in the air. It felt like a foot. Someone was hanging from the ceiling of the house! I couldn’t move for a second. Then I heard shuffling footsteps and groaning behind me. The foul smell and the laughter were overwhelming me, the words ‘Trust is lost. Welcome to the Hockings Estate, Advocate Sharan,’ ringing in my ears.
My head was a blur. Through hazy eyes, I could see another man standing in the hallway. I tried to shove him out of the way, but he caught me around the waist. Just as I began to scream once again, the lights came on and I was surrounded by shouts of, ‘Happy Halloween birthday Sharan!’
Still panting, I blinked and looked around. Some twenty odd people were gathered around me, my parents and friends, including Joe, among them. It was my brother who was holding me around the waist and laughing his head off. ‘You should have seen your face, little Sis!’ he said.
I punched him on the shoulder, and scolded, ‘Who scares the living daylights out of someone for a surprise birthday?’ I was laughing and crying at the same time.
My brother said, ‘Well, the brothers of little sisters who always claim they aren’t afraid of anything and whose birthday happens to be the day after Halloween.’
At the end, the cast of my brother’s elaborate prank was revealed along with all the props the family had used to set it up. The musical Mrs. Hockings was played by no other than my very own mother; the man on the stairs was my brother’s friend; and the little child was my favourite kid niece!