STORY OF THE MONTH
by Paritosh Uttam
From the recesses of the mahogany cabinet out flew Lucy's memories: cards with time-blunted edges, letters as yellow as decayed teeth, photographs whose colors were mere ghosts of the originals... but not the photograph she wanted. She searched frantically, as if another moment's delay could not be borne; as if one more minute over the forty years since she had seen him last, or over the one month since his death, would be a minute too much.
In those forty years, the precise instant at which his face had escaped her memory, she had no way to determine. Perhaps it hadn't gone with one brutal wrench, but either faded away like the colors on those photographs, or disappeared piecemeal, like the eclipse of the sun: first the hair, then the eyes, the nose, the mouth. Now she recalled nothing.
That realization had come suddenly, when Sophia told her, her usual accusatory look even more piercing, that he had died a month ago. Still alone, with Lucy's name on his lips. (Lucy of course recognizing that the last was Sophia's own contribution.) But his death was a fact she could not deny; the guilt that she had managed to evade for so long, despite Sophia's muted censure, finally clung to her. And now her memory obstructed her in expiating that guilt.
An uproar of howls and shrieks interspersed with the tinkling laughter of her granddaughter came from the living room. How blissful it was, Lucy imagined, to be able to believe in those cartoons in which bombs exploded and people fell from skyscrapers but no one ever died, and nobody's face was ever obliterated. Where was the photograph? It had to be in one of the secret drawers of the cabinet because she remembered caching it there and never taking it out.
She remembered other things. He had kind eyes, but that she remembered only as a fact she told him once, and not how his eyes actually were. They were blue and kind, brown and kind, black and kind--she could believe anything now.
Of their photograph she could recall every single detail, from his neck downwards. He had worn a light shirt, with narrow dark stripes; sleeves rolled to just above the elbows; and indigo-blue jeans. His left arm wrapped her shoulder in his embrace. They had asked a stranger to take the photograph, and he had obliged with a smile and wished them luck.
The photograph had to be in the cabinet because it was the only one she couldn't bring herself to throw into the incinerator. When she knew she couldn't marry him, she had destroyed all their letters and photographs save that one, hoping that the removal of all those sweet souvenirs would, with time, pave the way for those which lingered in her mind.
She had had her reasons, important then, but which the passage of time had made trivial, and certainly not as insurmountable as she had thought at first, though by the time she realized that it was too late. But you move on, you don't get stuck in a time warp, she said, flinging her arms at Sophia to counter her incriminating glances, you don't take a vow you will not marry anybody else. And you certainly don't keep that vow until you die.
It was his tribute to his love for you. He didn't ask you for anything in return. He just didn't want to debase his love by sharing it with someone else, Sophia told her, letting her expression imply whatever she had left unsaid. The least he deserves are your tears.
Another round of explosions and laughter from the living room brought her mind back to the cabinet. She remembered, all at once, an innermost chamber, a recess within a recess. The photograph was there. She drew it out and gasped in horror.
Her picture was intact, and so was his arm around her, but not his face. That side of it was nibbled away by termites or silverfish, in a grotesque parody of her memory, as if time and nature both had conspired in forcing her to pay homage to a man who would remain faceless forever.
Paritosh Uttam is a software engineer by profession, from Pune, India.
CONGRATULATIONS, PARITOSH! TERRIFIC STORY! NOW, PLEASE TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING.
I am from India. I am 32, male, and live in the city of Pune (near Mumbai). By education, I am an electrical engineer with a Bachelor of Technology degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras and a Masters degree from the Indian Insitute of Science, Bangalore. By profession, I am a software engineer.
In spite of all that science and technology background, my passion lies in reading and writing. I find time for writing in the early morning hours, when my mind is fresh and the rest of the day is for my job. I began by writing short stories, several of which have been published both in print and on the internet. For the last few years, I have been focusing on a longer form like a novel or a novella.
Reading and writing is what keeps me sane in today's world.
More on me and my interests on my website: www.paritoshuttam.com
Q. What would you want our readers to know about you?
Associate my name with someone who (I hope) can tell a good story. I think that's what every writer craves for.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre? If so, what genre is it?
I have always found it a troubling question because I don't know where to categorize my work. Perhaps it is accessible or midbrow literary fiction.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Good writing should be accessible to a majority of your target audience. Both plot and character are important, but I tilt towards character because I think memorable characters remain in your mind long after you forget the plot.
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
While developing a story for me, plot comes first, though I would have the main characters in my mind. I try to think of a good beginning and an ending and then think of a good way to connect the two. Next, flesh out the characters, and that can add to the plot too. It's not a one-shot process, but a gradual refinement.
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
Read, read, read. My day job doesn't leave me much time for that, but I make it a point to read at least a few pages a day before going to bed.
Q. What inspires you? Who inspires you?
Good writing, good style and technique, apart from the scope of the subject. The bigger the scope, the more inspiring it is. Reading works of masters like V. S. Naipaul or Nabokov or Tolstoy is inspiring. At a personal level, my family has been quite supportive of my endeavors, so that is motivating.
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
Yes, I am working on a novella which I am developing from one of my short stories. An editor in a reputed publishing firm has shown interest in it.
Q. What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
Frustrating is when you have grand ideas in your head, but when they come on to paper they look poles apart. Conversely, when your conception and execution match, that is your reward. Nothing beats seeing your name in print and thinking about people reading and maybe discussing your work.
Q. If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?
First think out the story. Have an interesting beginning and an end in mind. In your first story it is better to go with a plan than leaving it to on-the-spur imagination.
Q. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
Keep the reader in mind, always. Your stories should be interesting to her, not just to yourself. Otherwise, you might as well write a personal diary. Fiction is life with the boring parts taken out. Keep practicing but keep learning too.