People at a supermarket line

In Line

Today was their first anniversary – an year since they had first met – and it was apt that they celebrated by coming to where it had started for them: counter 5 of the local supermarket. Only this time, they had one bill between them; they had started living together last month.

She was cute that day in the line just before him, in her kurti and jeans, and he hot in all denim. But they connected over (after he had racked his brains for an opening line) their mostly similar grocery list. Both were single, lived alone, and liked cooking and eating. They had started with the standard movie-and-dinner, then moved to streaming-and-chill, and now, it was more chill than streaming.

In fact, ‘chill’ best described their relationship. No real pressure to head anywhere, whether on weekends or on some conjugal path. The decision to live together was a practical one too: it saved time getting to work and to each other, and he cooked one day and she the other. This ease perhaps comes from finding love late: both were knocking at 40 and survivors of half as many heartbreaks between them.

But actually finding each other wouldn’t have happened if they had both lived inside their smartphones, like everyone seems to these days. Else, they would have been ordering stuff on a groceries app and swiping like crazy on a matchmaking one. And never gotten into this line at counter 5.

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Graphic of a man holding a direction sign with oversized fingers around him, pointing him in different directions

Supermarket

“You know, you’re like that guy in a supermarket, who stands in one queue, then finding that it’s not moving fast enough, moves to one with less people, only to find that the new one is now not moving either. So, he moves to yet another queue. At the end, he realizes he’s not really gotten ahead, but having to start over each time. Finally, he sees that if he had stuck in the first queue, he might even have finished by now…”

The friend tells me. The friend begins looking bigger and bigger as he speaks – like a rapidly increasing line – and I begin feeling smaller and smaller – like your purchases at the end of the month.

The friend has “done well” in life. Two flats, a new car every five years or so, a steady job, kids in a good school, work trips to foreign lands, holidays to domestic haunts in summer and to international shores after the annual bonus. The classic upwardly mobile middle-class life.

I, on the other hand, have been “jumping”. Careers, jobs, cities, gigs, thoughts, choices, dreams… Mid-life crisis? Crises? Neuroses? Let’s just go with “unconventional choices”.

I pause, and reply. “No, I’m like the supermarket shelf, which changes its display every six months or so, based on what’s working or not working.”

The friend looks straight into my eyes. His ivory-tower advice seems to have not met its target. It’s fallen on its face from the tower. The tower is intact, though. It is an ivory tower, after all.

I go on. “I don’t keep moving the goal-post… I just keep evolving my shot to see which scores.”

It’s time to call for the cheque. Of course, Mr Having Done Well in Life is paying. I anyway eat very little. And so, don’t go to supermarkets too often.

A Superman bedsheet and pillow covers on a (kid-size) bed

Ready to Single | Super-sheet

‘Can a grown man like superheroes? Can a grown middle-aged man like superheroes?’ He started thinking as he pulled out the Batman bed-sheet from its plastic cover and held out the unfurled sheet in front of him. Batman looked smaller than him. Even with his pointed cowl. The sheet was for kids after all.

‘Sure, a grown middle-aged man who could well have grown-up kids of his own can still like superheroes.’ He continued pondering as he held out Superman next. ‘Especially if he had liked them in childhood… like every child. But didn’t have the means to buy even one single superhero toy, one single superhero poster, one single superhero video-cassette… unlike most children.’ His parents didn’t have the means. Rather, his parents preferred the basic means. They would much rather have fed him to look like a superhero than to feed his superhero fantasies. But somewhere, those fantasies, that wish fulfillment had remained.

Ironman whooshed out next. Salesman appeared soon after, peeved with all the sheets he’d have to refold to make them look fresh-piece-chaahiye. Middleageman fought Salesman away with, “Don’t worry, I’ll definitely buy one…” Salesman wasn’t convinced, but he was too bored to argue, or to keep up pretences. And went back to his desk and smartphone soon enough. Well, this superhero-supervillain fight certainly didn’t last long.

He decided on Superman. Something about the bright blue and red. Batman was too dark, and you could never see his face. Ironman was too metal and hard, and no face there either. He did check out Wonder Woman, but the skin-show could have him hotting up just before hitting the bed. You don’t want that when you are sleeping less than five hours a night… by yourself… for as long as you can remember now. There had hardly been any decent women on the horizon earlier. None that he could have rescued and flown into the stratosphere with. Or any wonder women who could have rescued him. They were even fewer now. When people are getting divorced the second time these days, where did that leave any women for him?

And so the bed-sheet. It would at least give him the feeling that he was sleeping with someone around him. Well, what do you know, superheroes are saviours indeed.

A smiley on a yellow sticky note against a blue background of frownies

Flash Fiction | Down, Down, Down

“Down, down, down…

Imti’s smile is down, down, down…

It’s more like a frown, frown, frown…

He looks like a sad clown, clown, clown…

Imti’s smile is down, down, down…”

His classmates’ mocking words loop in his head, as, tears rolling out of his eyes, Imti narrates this to his mom, sobbing and pausing after each line.

Holding his jaw in one hand, his mom pulls up one end of her dupatta with the other, and then proceeds to wipe his tears. Still holding his jaw, she turns it to face the dresser mirror.

“You know why your smile is…” she pauses to imitate him imitate his classmates, “down, down, down?”

Imti, Imtiaz in full, keeps looking into the mirror, his frowny smile remaining a frown.

“Your smile is down…” She pauses, caresses his chin, and goes on, “Because your chin… your chin, like mine, and like my dad… is a bit out…”

Imti touches his chin to feel whether it is indeed out.

Smiling, his mom adds, “It’s a genetic thing…”

“Jenny— what?” Imti looks at his mom. Now, his forehead is furrowed.

“It’s a physical feature in my side of the family…” She explains. “Some people say it looks odd, and so our smile always appears down.” She makes a mock frownie. For the first time in the day, Imti smiles.

Stroking his jutting jaw, she asks, “But you know what’s good about that?” Imti pouts, then shrugs.

“We are very good at taking problems on the chin.”

Imti doesn’t seem to know what that means, but feels it’s a good thing, so repeats goofily, “On the chin…”

Stroking his hair, his mom continues, “That means, we are good at handling problems and don’t get disturbed so easily.” She puffs herself up with pride.

Imti imitates her. Like mother, like son.

“Down, down, down…

My smile is down, down, down…

It looks like it is upside down…

But that’s because my chin is out, out, out…

So, nothing gets me down, down, down…

Or out, out, out…”

Imti goes singing past his classmates the next day, his smile as upward as it can be.

Interiors of a plush theatre

Flash Fiction | I Do Too

The production studio’s logo appears. The remaining lights come on. The tunnel of light-dust from the projector to the screen fades out. More cleaning staff emerge from the Exit doors, and wait.

I get up, dust the remaining crumbs from my t-shirt and jeans, quickly look around to ensure I haven’t dropped anything, and begin walking to the front of the row.

What do I see? A girl in a deep pink printed tee, faded jeans, silver tote, wavy hair falling gently on her shoulders, too walking to the front of her row, three rows ahead.

Is this possible? Another soaked-to-the-bone movie-lover?

I tentatively look at her, she returns the look, and smiles back pleasantly. I return a wider smile.

If we had been at the same level of rows, we could have for now at least walked down this aisle together.

A bearded man with glasses looking down into something

Flash Fiction | Passed

“Sir, could you check your details please?” The young woman at the counter asked him to look at the applicant monitor facing him.

He squinted at the screen. Putting his hand into his bag, which he had placed on his lap, he pulled out a spectacle case, clicked it open, spread out the temples of the glasses within, and put them on.

It was the woman’s turn to squint. “You have reading glasses…?” She politely inquired, remembering to smile.

He diverted his eyes from the screen, looked at her above his glasses, bobbed his head a couple of times, smiled back, and turned his attention again to confirming the details on the monitor.

From the corner of his eye, he saw her pick up his passport from the table none-too-discreetly (she was a young woman, after all), flip to the inside cover, and on reading his date of birth, widen her eyes and turn up her eyebrows. She couldn’t contain herself. “Sir, you don’t look so old…”

Looking at her again, his validation over, he smiled more than passport and visa snaps allow you to.