So Contest 14 is done and dusted.
This has been one of our most ‘poorly attended’ contests, with about ten entries. Sometimes the topic could be too broad to be interesting, but then maybe it was the Cricket World Cup. Regardless, the entries that did come in packed a nice punch, with a few of them being right up there among the best that we’ve ever got on this blog.
Sometimes it should not be about just the numbers. Quality matters too, one thinks.
1. We have a bit of competition building up for the Ball Roller Award, between Pradeeta, who blogs as Wings of Harmony, and Vinisha, who blogs as britestarlite. This time, Pradeeta has pipped Vinisha to the post with the story of a vampire who has to claim the life of young child. Congratulations, Pradeeta.
2. But Vinisha has managed to hold on to the Committed Contestant prize because she has once again managed to use her ‘three entry’ right to the fullest. This time, we also got two entries from Zinnia Sengupta, who will get an honourable mention for this category. Next time, Zinnia, perhaps you can go one better.
3. We have a new Late Latif in the house. Once the sole claim of a contestant by name Nitthilan, it has been usurped by Uday, who wrote a rather nice piece about a dying astronaut and the secret in his heart. I think it’s also one of the longest stories in the contest, so Uday, we’ll give you the Rebel award as well, which we reserve for the longest piece in any contest.
1. Vinisha’s second entry, about a house that ‘sold itself’, combines wit, drama and brevity quite well.
2. Atika Srivastava’s story about a haunted house with a headless ghost is chilly enough for a re-read, especially if the lights are out and if you’re alone at home.
3. Sahiti Chintapalli’s tale of interstellar romance is heartwarming, and leaves the reader curious for more.
4. Uday’s piece on a dying astronaut who is debating with himself whether or not to make a confession to his family came quite close to being one of the winning pieces, but just missed out.
First, Zinnia Sengupta’s entry on a bunch of characters in conflict really stood out for me. It not only showed the author’s intelligence in moving through a large number of characters in such a short piece, but also her empathy and sensitivity to people. Well done, Zinnia!
Here’s her piece in full:
As his last days creep slowly, yet surely closer, Mr. Smith contemplates conflict. What is conflict? He asks himself. A few moments of pondering bring him the conclusion. Conflict is his own body fighting against itself. It’s his cancer cells versus his healthy cells. It is a battle inside his very own body where neither can live while the other survives. A patient diagnosed with schizophrenia walks into his ward one day. “Excuse me, sir. What is conflict?” Mr. Smith asks.
Wahid pauses at the question. The answer floats into his mind, a jarring crack in the middle. “Conflict is my own mind splitting into two clashing, yet somehow merging parts. It is being a different person in the morning and a whole new stranger at night. Conflict is the shards of glass puncturing my brain and fragmenting it every single moment.” Wahid meets his social worker the next day and poses her a question. “What is conflict, Mrs. Rao?”
The 52-year old veteran had thought she had heard it all. Until now. She blinks. “Conflict is the intense, burning need to help each one of you souls in pain and being able to help but a few. Conflict is being torn between a homeless child and an alcoholic. Conflict is the torturously restricted human capacity to help.” That evening, she has an appointment with her current client, an alcoholic.
“I have a question for you, Mr. Singh. What is conflict?” The old man wearily rubs his eyes, thinking. “Conflict is alcohol. It is that little niggling voice in your mind urging you to put the damn glass down and get back to your worried wife while your tongue calls out for another drink. Conflict is the look on your kid’s face as he struggles to keep his smile on when you walk in the next day.” Later that night, Mr. Singh drunkenly stumbles into a prostitute’s waiting arms and mumbles, “What is conflict, Rosie?”
Rosie is slightly surprised, to say the least. Stroking his brow, she whispers softly, “Conflict is a choice, darling. It is choosing between a penniless existence and a soulless existence. Conflict is whether that dirty old alcoholic picks my friend or me.” A few weeks later, Rosie’s client is a young soldier, fresh from the border. “What is conflict, Raj?” she asks him.
The man’s eyes are dead. He chokes out a few words. “Conflict is war. Conflict is ignoring your best friend’s pleading eyes as you abandon him to save your own life. Conflict is your pathetic attempts at normalcy when all you want to do is put a bloody bullet through your head.”
Raj is staring at a flickering candle in his dark, empty room. “What is conflict?” he asks the thin air.
“Conflict is limbo. Conflict is being hopelessly stuck between two worlds. Conflict is me, Raj.”
Raj looks at his best friend’s bitter smile and grins.
The second winner is Varun Shetty, who wrote a remarkably funny yet sensitive story about a young man who is ‘madly in like’ with a young woman. The themes Varun writes about are quite serious, and I’m sure all of us can relate to them, but what impressed me was the treatment. I’ve long been an admirer of someone who can write humour with restraint. This is a good example.
Priya loves me and I like her back.
When we met, we were both nursing broken hearts (my grandpa had passed away) in the university library. Our remedies matched, as did our demands for Stephen King’s latest.
I’d got one hand on the last copy when she turned the corner into ‘Fiction’, halting just in time to prevent a calamitous introduction between her face and my chest. She was panting, each breath creating a disorderly cadence; her tears were keeping time.
There were no two ways about it (and I’m proud that I knew this): I let her take the book.
She must have smiled; I can’t tell, because I was distracted by a dot of dampness on my right shoulder (residual matter of inertia, no doubt). By the time I looked up, all that was left of her was a lingering fragrance of body lotion and a distant jingling of anklets.
Four days later, she ran into me on the same aisle. She was panting this time as well; but her eyes were smiling.
“Hi! I saw you from over there,” she said, letting her hand finish the sentence.
I took a moment to think about what to say. I wanted to sound smart. It had to be snarky, but something capable of forcing a laugh too. Perhaps even an innocent bit of bungling. But also something dignified; something worthy of how enamouring she was. So — mustering all my tact — I said, “Oh.”
“I wanted to thank you for letting me take the book. That was nice of you. As you could probably tell, I was having a bad day.”
“Oh. No problem.”
“Maybe I can return the favour…buy you lunch some time?”
The following week, we spoke about our first encounter over a lunch I insisted we split the bill for. The reason she was panting was because it was a ritual for her to finish each visit to the library as quick as possible, lest she hang about all day. And the reason she was crying was because her then-boyfriend, Prateek (‘two Ps in a pod’, they joked), had moved to Scotland.
Three years on, and I’m her now-boyfriend. When I return from my morning runs, Priya isn’t around to greet me but there are always three dosas and a full glass of avocado milkshake. I drive her home from class in the evenings; the passenger seat recline indicator shows 32 degrees and rarely changes, calibrated to perfection for all 5’3″ of her. We don’t have a superficial moniker to joke about and we’re not drawn to documenting our every moment like other couples around us. In many ways, it is a satisfyingly adult relationship. I just wish I still loved her.
I’m leaning against the staircase railing outside the library right now. Apart from endorsing the winter, the steel is being a conduit for a lawnmower’s low buzzing. I almost miss the vibration in my pocket because of it. It’s a text message. It’s Prateek.
Priya walks out of the library, with trademark long steps. She’s at the bottom of the stairs before I know it and has her arms around me. Her face and my chest have also benefited from that day three years ago.
“Prateek texted, he’s just around the corner.” I’m not too happy about it, and I fear it shows.
But is it really, I want to ask her. Why are we meeting this fellow for the THIRD time this month? Prateek, with his messy hair and his chiselled jaw line, his studly frame and that ridiculous Scottish lilt. Honestly, who acquires a new accent when they’re old enough to marry? I do not like that he’s just around the corner. He’s always just around the corner, ready to jump us with his smile and his expensive cologne. So is it really that awesome, Priya? For us to have this pretentious friendship with your ex-boyfriend?
As we’re walking to the theatre, I realize her arm is wound around mine but it’s only winter that I’m really feeling. I can’t help but think that the past month is the reason for my dwindling appreciation of Priya. There was no need to greet him at the airport; in all fairness, if I’d known he’d be such a trespasser, I wouldn’t have gone. But I had to do it under the pretext of politeness, like I’m doing now. For Priya, who I’m so angry with.
“There you are!”
It’s the familiar deep baritone of our antagonist. Priya unwinds her arm and gallops towards him. His arms embrace her. He greets me from above her shoulder with flexed biceps and a broad grin.
I no longer feel the winter; just a pulsating want to take Priya’s place in his arms. Priya, who loves me, but with whom I am only madly in like with; because life has made it so that I will never be attracted to her again. And it’s all Prateek’s fault.
What happens now?
Contest 15 will come out sometime in the second half of April, most likely around the 15th. Before that, there will be a blog launch of my fifth book and some exciting giveaways related to that, so do keep checking in, though I will make sure I yell out at the top of my voice.
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