Award Winning Short Story - 2019



FREEDOM FROM A LIFE OF LIES by Debasish Mishra
In a tone of optimistic candour, Malati declared to her children, 'This is the last night of the year. The end of our suffering. From tomorrow, you will be getting better food and amenities. You will be getting freedom from this penury!' Meena stared at her face with a curve on her lips. Somu, the younger one, was little interested; he wiped the crumbs of
bread from his lips and then licked his fingers. A long line of ants trailed behind the empty packet of bread, spread eagled in a corner of the dim hut. The window was ajar, full of the putrid smell of garbage and stars smouldering in the edges of the ashen sky. The walls were in the desperate need of some fresh paint— old, dead walls that died everyday with the inhabitants. Malati knew the apparent impossibility of the promise that she made. Yet she had to think of a solution to mingle hopes in their tender cheeks and usher in happiness, at least through the labyrinth of lies.
When her parents disapproved her marital alliance with Raghav, more than a decade back, she severed her ties with them without a second thought and never looked back. Raghav was the perfect antidote to the archetypal image of a gentleman— his eyes reflected the colour of liquor, his hair was unequivocally unkempt and his clothes looked shabby all the time. They married in a temple before an indifferent God and a half-bare, wizened priest, away from the benediction of her kith and kin. She had no clue of the risk of adventure then that she had inadvertently, or rather knowingly, taken up.
Raghav was not what he projected himself to be. He was a caterpillar. Specifically a chameleon. Malati soon discovered that the marriage was nothing more but a ploy by her errant husband with the sole aim of milking her affluence. When Malati broke all ties with her family, he wanted to enslave her, barter her body for money. She formidably resisted. Subsequently, he left her with the kids and never returned. Against reality and truth, she lied to her kids that their father was busy in his work and would return soon, someday. She was a strange kind of rebel.
The kids thought that their mother worked in a grocery. This was another lie. In fact, she worked as a sweeper in the bungalow of Mr. Mohanty, who was employed as a professor in the United States. The bungalow was largely unmanned except the insignificant presence of Malati and Abdul. Abdul was another God of small things. The forsaken wife and the one-eyed lanky caretaker had ample leisure in the extravagant mansion. Soon, they realised that they had the option of optimising their time. One fine day, when Malati was busy in mopping the floor, Abdul went to her proximity and engirdled her waist from behind. Malati was scared for a moment. She attempted to drive him away. In return, he kissed her more passionately. Thereafter, he turned her like a top and placed his lips on her lips. ‘Don't you understand how much I need you? How much I care for you?’Abdul whispered in her ears. Petrified, Malati stared at his face. She was deprived of marital pleasures since a long time. Now she became a passive recipient, neither a rebel nor a victim. An illicit affair was thus born in a third space. In the afternoons, she passed her time in the warm embrace of Abdul on the picturesque, master bedroom, which the owner of the house had built for his own conjugal cooing. She digressed from her boundaries in making love with another married man. However, she lied to herself that she wasn't unethical. One day, she discussed the possibility of a marriage with Abdul, the possibility of finding a new father for her children. 'How is that possible? I have my own family, my wife and three children, to look after', Abdul retorted curtly. 'And don't dare to bring this to the notice of my wife. Else I'll smother your kids’, he warned with a glare of red in his eyes. He had become Milton's Lucifer while she was Coetzee's Lucy. She speechlessly listened without protest or attempts of persuasion. 'I gratified you because you needed it, you wanted it. Don't blame me for my service’. It was more of an accusation, a legitimisation of tinkering with a helpless woman's body. Her heart skipped a beat. Her eyes looked static. The fate of her children was in danger. But she resolved to rescue them from the impending chaos.
The first day of the new year was marked by copious celebrations. Deafening music played in the vicinity. Malati didn't go for work. She lied to her kids that it was an official holiday. She prepared tea for her children. Tea probably killed hunger. It was a poor man's compensation for the unavailability of breakfast. Somu swigged the tea with quick sips while Meena took a little more time. She cooled it with gasps of breath. After they had finished their tea, Malati announced with excitement, 'Here is a surprise. We are going to Cuttack to meet your grandparents today.' Meena smiled as usual. Somu paid no heed to the words. He was busy in observing the gait of the ants.
They boarded a bus, which was old, discoloured, dilapidated and smelly. Trees, fields, forests, houses and men flickered through the windows as the bus moved. Meena vomited endlessly while Malati caressed her back. The benevolent conductor passed on a bottle of water. Somu sat a couple of seats behind. Excited, he gazed at the panorama of nature with mouth agape.
In the afternoon, they reached Cuttack, the silver city. They hired an auto-rickshaw and proceeded to Shankarpur. Malati's mind meandered through the childhood memories as the vehicle galloped through the narrow lanes. She saw her school, the post office, the bank and the temple. She remembered everything, everybody - her neighbours, her friends and her first wooer, the dark bespectacled boy who always followed her with his muddy knees. Everything was afresh. Her childhood was rekindled. Nostalgia gripped her— the same nostalgia that had bemused Ranevskaya after revisiting the cherry orchard. Finally, they reached their destination, a modest building with a trellised balcony, protected by a big metallic gate.
As Malati entered inside, her old parents looked at her face wistfully. After a few minutes of silence, they hugged her, burying the hatchet of grievances. They also embraced and kissed the children. Dead emotions stood up from the coffins of indifference after years of desolation. Things that had fallen apart seemed to reassemble. The obduracy of a parent melts in a moment, with a single sight of the progeny. Malati had herself experienced how her utter rage transformed to helplessness and then to more love after every draft of her anger over her kids. Her parents were not any different. They were her genes. In fact, she was their genes.
Quiet whispers followed between Malati and her old parents, interrupted by tears and cries. There was that hushed mention of Raghav's name, which triggered irate stares and grimaces from all of them. Malati insisted not to have any talk on him but her parents were uncompromising. They would have loved to boast, 'You should have listened to us before tying the nuptial knot with a rogue like Raghav’. But age had endowed them with wisdom and brevity not to rub the old wounds more. They were more than happy to see the grandchildren. They felt as if Meena and Somu were born that very day. The kids were amazed and dazed at the sudden windfall of affection, attention and, more importantly, eatables.
In the night, Malati walked to her kids who were innocuously playing with a host of toys. She smiled at the sight of their happiness. It was a grand restoration for them. Her parents had assured her of sending them to an English-medium school. Their woes would be replaced by words. She stood before them, unnoticed, like an invisible apparition. They were busy in their new world of love, laughter and luxury. Interrupting their play, she gently said, 'I'll be leaving now. Spend some quality time with your grandparents.’ Meena gave a bewildered gaze while Somu paid no heed at all. He was busy driving his toy car, something which he had never seen in his life. After a few moments of silence, she fondled the cheek of Meena and kissed the head of Somu, and added, 'I'll come back in a couple of days to pick you up'. Meena hugged her tightly. Somu didn't even bother to flinch his eyes from the car. Meanwhile, a drop of tear trickled from her eye. She turned around like Buddha and walked out of the room, leaving the kids undisturbed. The noise of her footsteps was soon swallowed by the rattle of the toy-car. The promise to come back was probably her last lie.
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Copyright : Debasish Mishra
REMARKS BY THE PANEL - 2019
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An almost allegorical circle of trust revisited again within the ties that bind a family… stretched and then drawn tight again. Mistakes of the young forgiven. Lies told to save old wounds from re-opening and lies told to save young innocence from lasting scars. A bit of a nice twist to the ending which leaves the reader to decide how the story finally ends.
Candice James
Artist, Musician, Poet Laureate Emerita,
New Westminster, BC, Canada --------------------------------------------
The story, 'FREEDOM FROM A LIFE OF LIES' is a wonderful story that captivates the readers' attention with the treatment of the story in a very crisp and concise manner, capturing the various nuances of human emotions and turmoil. The writer touches the raw nerve of the reader and takes him or her on a roller coaster ride of emotions of a woman choosing her path of destiny. Choices taken in life, the aftermath of the decisions and the struggle to wriggle out from the circumstances forms an essential part of the story. The writer has employed very good techniques to capture those nuances in a narrative that is captivating!
My heartiest congratulations to all the writers and I believe every writer had put in his/ her best efforts. As Roger Staubach says, “Winning isn’t getting ahead of others. It’s getting ahead of yourself.”
Dr. Sujatha Gopal
Trainer, Consultant, Teacher of English Language, Editor and Translator
Telangana, Hyderabad, India
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The winning story, 'Freedom from a Life of Lies'. which is one of the more original stories in this collection.
There is a back-story, which may not be uncommon in the culture from which it arises (I noted that a good number of the stories featured unhappy or unsuccessful marriages, and their consequences). However, the originality of 'Lies' stems from the choice of narrative voice, which, although using a third person structure, takes us into the protagonist's head, allowing us to access Malati’s observations, thoughts and feelings, through her 'internal monologues, commentary and expressions'.This in turn allows us to engage with her as a unique individual, with her reflections, judgments, regrets, hopes, plans – AND – her LIES.
The description of detailed observations of the 'every day' happenings, eg: the ants, the child's toy car, the bread crumbs, etc., help to place us there in the action – like showing us close-ups in a film.
These kinds of details also serve to create in our imaginations the children's characters as unique individuals, and not just as simple stereotypes.
The events that drive the story forward are carefully placed, and carefully paced within the overall structure. The journey to her old home town on the bus, and the family reunion on arrival at her old home, are skillfully conjured for us through evocative multi-sensual descriptions, interspersed with pertinent narrative commentary.
Along the way, there is some beautiful poetic language, using imagery, metaphor and personification to engage us in evocative enhancement of the mood and atmosphere of certain moments, eg: “old, dead walls that died every day with the inhabitants”; and “Dead emotions stood up from the coffins of indifference after years of desolation.” But these are not over-used, giving them more impact.
The use of ideological contrasts, like “They were her genes. In fact she was their genes.” - and - “He was a caterpillar. Specifically a chameleon”, - play on our curiosity, engaging us further in Malati’s drama.
The powerful ending, delivered in one short sentence, is given all the more impact by the preceding paragraph that draws us in to focus on the children's world; demonstrating the ability of this writer to weave all the factors together, using complex techniques, such as juxtaposition, flash-back, distraction, and reincorporation; and furthermore, we are not told too much too soon, thanks to the gradual sequence of 'reveals' that the writer has engineered.
And so, this writer has used many ingredients that make up a remarkable story, with skill and sensitivity.
Congratulations on this achievement.
Jane Skellett
BA(Hons) - MEd (Dist) – PGCE - Dip Lit – CELTA (Dist) – Cambridge Examiner
Dorset, England, United Kingdom
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Believe me, more than that of a woman’s story, who is caught up in the whirlpool of bad influences and its miseries, I was caught up with the character ‘Little Somu…’ in it . Can anyone say after going through this story about why I was reading this ‘internal story thread’ of “Somu”, who is not at all a prominent character in this story?
Debasish has done really well in articulating a mundane theme in a best possible way. He has done it with ease, with the overall care like a skillful architect. I have found Imagination and aesthetics cemented well to craft a very catching story.
Gopakumar Radhakrishnan
Founder – Bharat Award for Literature – International
Kerala, India