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FICTION

FEATURED WRITING


The Sunset

By Shalini Ramachandran
 

This essay won 1st prize both at the school and county level in the Reflections competition. Reflections is a national fine arts competition which encourages creative expression in the areas of musical composition, photography, literature, and visual arts. Sponsored by the National PTA, students have an opportunity to compete at the school, county, and national levels. This essay will now go to the state level competition.

The strangest thing about the hill that rose up majestically from Blue Spruce Drive was that it never went downhill on the other side. There was but a small downward curve (which could hardly be thought of as a slope) that mockingly greeted exhausted joggers before it mercilessly slanted upwards once again.

Sometimes I would watch her struggle up the hill, huffing and puffing on her tiny, beat-up, Barbie bike adorned with fraying pink ribbons that seemed to reach out from the handlebars, trying in vain to grab hold of something. It amazed me that everyday at six-thirty, from the day she found that bike in the dumpster, she would jump onto it in the glimmer of the gold and pink sunset and would determinedly pedal up the hill. I could never understand what possessed Jenna to want to brave that menacing hill, full of potholes and patches of gravel, not even rewarding a pleasant downhill to its conquerors.

All I knew was that the minute she would get to the top she would stand, motionless, at the top of the hill, as if mesmerized by the horizon. The warm, reddish-gold glow of the sunset would frame her frail body as the cool, evening breeze tossed about her tawny hair. Then, with the look of one completely at peace with the world and with a smile of supreme joy she would turn around and race down the hill, not excited at all by the downhill ride, but still completely preoccupied by some heightened joy incomprehensible to me that she had somehow gained on her ride up the hill.

By then, having lost track of time, I would hurriedly turn away from the window to quiet my squalling baby daughter and her two-year-old sister as I waited for Jenna to come home. You’re the single mother of three kids, I would remind myself. You don’t have time to lose yourself over the antics of your six-year-old daughter. But for some reason this strange ritual never ceased to perplex me. Believe me, I knew what it felt like to invest my very own sweat, blood and tears into something only to be rewarded but a glimpse of the sunset.

I used to be pretty, I know you can’t imagine that now. Now all you see are the worry lines on my forehead, the bags under my eyes from working the night shift at Kroger, and the scars on my arms from when I would carve pretty designs into my skin to watch the velvety redness bubble out. But I was Homecoming Queen of Cedar Creek High in my senior year, the year I first met John. We were in love, and we were going to get married right after we graduated. Perhaps if my alcohol-boozing parents had paid any attention to me, they would have told me not to waste my talents (I was third in my class), and would have told me to go to college. I don’t even think they noticed I was pregnant at the end of senior year, right before I ran off with John to build a life together. Blinded by love from John’s laziness, unfaithfulness, and abusiveness, I foolishly held on to the remnants of our sweet high school romance for nine long years, bearing him two more children, living in desolate conditions, half-starving most of the time. Maybe it was a good thing that he abandoned me in the inner-city slums that cold October day, just me, alone, with three daughters and no job. If he hadn’t, I probably would have never come to grip with what life truly was: a pointless, purpose-less existence with no hope, where any work yields only fleeting rewards, and where any rewards don’t really matter anyway because in the end, they die along with us.

I tried to kill myself a couple of times after that, but it never really worked. Either a nosy mailman would find me passed out on the floor or my daughters would run and get the neighbor before I was properly dead. Eventually, I even lost faith in dying. I decided that I would continue to live on in this nonsense world with no exit, if not for myself, for my three beautiful daughters. Slowly, I picked up the remnants of my soul and began to repair the broken pieces of my life. As if in a daze, I moved about through life, living day by day in hopes that the next would be my last. People, places, feelings, and emotions all blurred and ran together. Darkness flew around the backs of my eyes and filled my lungs with cold, dead, empty air, but to the world I pretended not to feel it. I lived only to provide for my daughters and to give them the decent life I thought they deserved, although I fell miserably short of providing it to them. But for some reason that I could not understand, despite my apathy to life, I worked tirelessly and relentlessly at my jobs as a Denny’s waitress and a Kroger cashier. Perhaps I needed something to reassure me that I did have a purpose to my life, and I did mean something to the world. But even after I realized, when my eyes had turned dead and my hands had become rugged, that human success is as ephemeral and pointless as our love, I continued on. I continued to live! With nothing to live for but three faraway daughters, with no hope for any contentment in the future, with no happiness from success or love, and with no faith in the heartless God of religion, I continued to pedal on upward, not knowing where or for what I kept going.

For this reason, Jenna’s behavior would confuse me all the more. How could she possibly be contented and happy after working tirelessly for no reward and fleeting success? Why did both she and I continue to drudge onward and upward despite the nothingness of the never-ending future that greeted us at the top?

But I was scared to find out, scared that I would also start to race mindlessly and foolishly through life, not realizing it for the hypocrisy it was. The question lit a tiny spark in me, a spark I was determined to squash before it burst into flame. So after Jenna came home from the hill one late, summer Tuesday, I asked her.

Hey, I whispered softly, hoarsely. She turned around and looked at me questioningly. Her tiny frame and twinkling brown eyes seemed like the only things truly alive in the drab room.

Why do you ride your bike up the hill everyday?

She looked startled for a moment, as if she had never actually considered why. Then something sweet and soft came from her mouth almost instinctively. She looked up into my eyes, glowing, knowing her answer was the truth and the beauty of life, knowing that that beautiful, wonderful thing alone makes everything worthwhile.

To watch the sunset, she said in her tiny, clear voice, smiling, laughing. To watch the sunset.

Jenna still comes home sometimes. Now my other daughters rarely find time to visit their old lady, who still lives in that rundown house on Blue Spruce Drive. My younger one’s in college, studying to be a journalist, and the older one is finishing med school. I have pushed them and pushed them and they have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Jenna’s married to a college professor, and they have beautiful twin baby boys. She’s busy with her work as a graphic artist and with her babies, but somehow she still finds time to come visit. And every time, without fail, she leaves to bike up that hill that still has no downward slope, that still offers no reward but a glimpse of the sunset…

It still haunts me sometimes. What if? What if I had never asked my Jenna why she did it, why she rode with persistence and determination up that never-ending hill only to glimpse for a moment all the beauty and all the hope of the brilliant sun disappear over the horizon? Would I still be that ruined shadow of a woman, too broken to care for her daughters and too hopeless to live, to persist, and to achieve? Then I remind myself that I changed. I am different now. I no longer wonder why we keep going on in life despite devastating disappointments, fleeting rewards, and generally no defined purpose. I no longer wonder why we keep trying to succeed although we know in our hearts that life itself is an illusion, that eventually it will mean nothing. There is no need to wonder, because in my heart I see the truth, sweet and hopeful like the twinkling eyes of my Jenna that summer day. I see the sun, pink and gold with swirls of purple gracing its edges, smiling secretly at me from the edge of the horizon. I watch it float down, in that swirl of beauty and perfection, into that wonderful place beyond the horizon. I know it’s going somewhere. There’s something there beyond that horizon. That alone, that faith, that whisper of a hope keeps me pedaling laboriously up that hill, day after day, despite the world. And that alone is enough.

Shalini Ramachandran is an eleventh-grader at Parkview High School who enjoys reading, hanging out with friends, watching television, and playing piano. She has enjoyed writing from a young age, since her first publication about a weird sofa on "KidPub,", an online kids' publishing database. She aspires to become a journalist, humor columnist, and a children's book author.


AN UNCOMMON LOVE STORY

By Kaveetaa Kaul

Going back into the recesses of my mind, a voice emerges, amidst an expectant hush. It soars, clear and lucid, singing a song, resonant with melody. The lyrics were so romantic: "sau saal pehle, mujhe tumse pyaar tha... aaj bhi hai, aur kal bhi rahega..." (I have loved you for a 100 years, continue to do today and will love you tomorrow and forever). A shy little girl, all of five years of age, too young to understand the rarity of this display was overcome and ran away from the room. But nobody noticed nor did they care. What was unfolding was a treat to watch. The young girl peeped in again. What had come over Papa? Expressing his love for mama for all to see, even after 20 years of marriage.. Then, there was a deafening applause and now Mama continued. Now they were cutting the cake, amidst a sea of smiling faces, laughter, mirth, camaraderie, at its best. Papa and mama together,and a multitude of friends. It was December 11th,their wedding anniversary.

The little girl was me and I got to hear the original song of love much later.

Today is December 4th, a year since my father passed away. We all idolize our parents, but mine were truly unique. My sadness and tears multiply tenfold on seeing my mother without the tall, stately figure of my father, by her side. She is just under 5 feet tall and Papa was a six footer. Mama was 17 when they got married. She had hair that reached a little above her ankles, and beautiful doe shaped eyes. Papa was so enamored by her that only a day before the wedding he realized that she was so petite. She wore huge heels all her life, since Papa never stopped teasing her about her height. The love they shared, which I had grown up being witness to and had taken so much for granted, is rare and precious, I realize today. Papa had nicknamed her "Pimy", her name being Promilla, and called her Pimy rani ji. Mama referred to him as Chand ji, his name being Chander.

Every evening at 5.00 p.m mama waited at the balcony of our bungalow, and would not budge till Papa’s car came into view. I do not recall my father ever sharing a problem with us or Mama. We had a carefree childhood, where each talent was honed, encouraged and allowed to blossom. I learnt, singing, dancing, and (kathak) was supported wholeheartedly in my shoots, as a child actor, and then provided with an environment, where both academics and my extra-curricular activities could blossom and solidify.

Dinner was always a special time. At 8.00p.m. Sharp, we gathered in the dining room, under Papa’s watchful eyes. We were a handful, to say the least, the four of us, I being the youngest and Papa’s pet. I was therefore bullied by the rest of the gang. I remember crying for a whole week after my brothers convinced me that I was adopted and therefore bullied. Had my parents not intervened, perhaps I would have been wholly convinced by their tales.

Post dinner was entertainment time. Papa had a repertoire of jokes, did magic tricks (he was a magician par excellence) and entertained us with riddles. He told us of the time that he asked Bollywood actor Ashok Kumar and his brother actor singer Kishore Kumar a riddle which went ”what is it that is yours but is used by others?” They loved the answer so much that they went onto harass all their female friends and received glares and gasps of astonishment. Of course the answer was an innocuous "Name".

Papa cherished life. After retirement he refused to be idle. He studied Homeopathy and went onto become a doctor. He never failed to tell mama that since her sons did not take up the profession, he decided to fulfill her desire. Mama missed us, since we all left Bombay, went abroad etc. Papa made it a point to inculcate a social life, Where they were busy and in demand. He was President of Lions Club, and popular beyond imagination.

Papa, had his first heart attack at age 52.He was subsequently operated in London for 4 bypass surgeries. Being diabetic too, his favorite cuisine was forbidden. So Mama refused to eat it too. No sweets, butter, rice, parathas for Papa. So for almost 30 years she had restricted her diet as well. It pained my father immensely but she refused to relent. Doctors had been anything but encouraging in their prognosis, since his heart was functioning at just about 20%. Mama, however, had her own take on it all. She was convinced that Papa would be by her side till her end. The fact that Papa survived 32 years after his first attack was entirely due to mama’s untiring efforts towards his every need. She knew nothing besides the timings of his medication, or supervising his food intake. One noticed that she was constantly watching as if to fathom and read his every thought. God, for her, was right here, in Papa. She did not have the time nor the inclination to worship any other.

Papa, from his side, wrote brilliant poems eulogizing her. He wrote Urdu poetry, as one of his hobbies (couplets that I quote are often his) and Jagjit Singh too has sung his compositions. Mama loved to hear him recite and would be enthralled with every composition. He insisted that she be her first audience. I consider his verses now as a gift from the divine, especially "tundiye bade mukhatib se na ghabra aye aukaab..yeh to chalti hai tujhe ooncha udane ke liye.." (Let not the ferocious adverse winds deter you oh phoenix…since they blow with the sole purpose of taking you higher).This couplet has and will continue to guide me as have his countless other verses.

Last year, on 4th December, at around 10.00 p.m after Mama had ensured that he had taken his medication, she decided to give him an almond oil massage , since he complained of itching on his scalp. Half a minute later, when she returned, he was gone. Without a sigh. Without a moan. Without a warning.

I find it heart wrenching to describe in words the shock, disbelief, agony, despair I saw in Mamas eyes. All she kept saying  "he promised me, he blessed me, how can his blessings go wrong?"

It is heart breaking to see that small, bent, frail, sweet frame of my mother without that tall, statuesque, noble, elegant frame of my father besides her. It seems wrong. Unfair. There was nothing else that mama ever wanted out of life, except to have Papa by her side. How could all her prayers go unanswered?? I have to put on a brave face, wear a bright smile, chat lightheartedly with her, while deep within, my heart too mourns and weeps, seeing her so forlorn, so incomplete, so cheated by destiny.

Please pray for my mother, that she discovers peace and joy within her, and the divinity she has forgotten she embodies. I see that divinity and have been touched by it, through her love, all of my years as her daughter. Please pray for me that I am able to repay in my own small way, the debt of being brought up by parents whose love has nourished my heart and my soul since my birth.

December 11th, this year would have marked the 60th wedding anniversary of my parents. My mother will be alone .She always complained of a weak memory, but it is astounding to hear her quote Papas poems verbatim. Today, all of a sudden she is like an encyclopedia of his works. She insists that it is Papa speaking through her. And yet I now, my petite mother is spirited, in her own way. She has decided to take Urdu tuitions (at age 77) to enable her to read Papas Poetry journals, which she wishes to get printed. She has to immortalize him she says.

And I wish to share and immortalize their uniquely sublime love story.

Kaveetaa Kaul began her career as child actor at the age of 8. She was lucky to have worked with big banners and with M.G.M. as well. She graduated in World History, Constitution of England and India. After topping Mumbai University with Honours Kaveetaa dipped in advertising and marketing, montessori training, and yoga teachers training.

 

Kaveetaa has produced serials for Sony, Zee and has acted and written as well. Her main priority being children and home, she has opted for a flexible professional routine. In addition, she has studied Numerology, Feng Shui, Aroma Therapy, Tarot card reading, Reiki.

 

Kaveetaa is currently busy writing a script to direct, as well as pre-producing a new series for t.v.

 

She lives in Mumbai with her husband and son.


What Makes the Indian Institutes of Technology Stand Out?

By Sunil Kapahi
 

Bill Gates, the chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft and the richest man in the world said, "IIT is an incredible institution." He had come to inaugurate the 50th Anniversary celebrations for the founding of the Indian Institute of Technology in California in 2003.

Earlier that year, CBS News 60 Minutes had profiled IIT for American viewers as "the most important university you've never heard of." Comparing IIT to Harvard, MIT and Princeton put together, Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes pointed out that admission to the IIT was more difficult than getting into the best schools in the U.S.

The IITs have been ranked as the third best technology institutes in the world for 2005, according to the prestigious British publication Times Higher Education Supplement. This widely read magazine said, "The IITs are a source of Indian national pride as well as innovation and wealth."

The Indian Institute of Technology system has seven campuses located throughout India, and offers the finest undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate programs in various engineering, science, technology and management disciplines. There are other engineering colleges in India, but none administers an entrance exam like the IIT’s Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). Ever since the establishment of the first IIT in Kharagpur in 1951, the IITs enjoy great esteem in the eyes of all high school students in India.

In India, high school graduation is awarded if a student has successfully been through the All India Higher Secondary (11 grades till 1975, and 12 grades thereafter) board examination. The average age of a high school graduate is 17 years. If you subject this group of 17-year olds to a challenging test, the JEE and chose only about the top 1300 of them, you would have selected the cream from the milk to make some elite delicacies. The number of high school graduates taking the JEE used to be at about 80 to 100 thousand in 1975. This number increased to178,000 in 2002 and the number accepted into IITs was just over 3,500 (less than the top 2%). India’s large population has been helpful here. I doubt if any other college in the world has as many aspirants taking the equivalent of the JEE!

Clearly, the prime reason for the success of IIT graduates is the selection process. The students eligible for admissions to the IITs are not just those chosen from the JEE but also those who have topped in the State level board examinations like Jammu and Kashmir, and neighborhood countries like Tibet. There are also the 10-12 NSTS (Science Talent Scholars) applicants. But this number of non-JEE admissions is fairly small because all those eligible do not choose to be admitted.

There are other factors also that help formulate the personality of the IIT student. Living in the IIT hostels is an experience in itself, and helps in building self-esteem and confidence. Most students in India live with their families until they have finished high school. And since IITs were meant to be spread all over the country, students who come to each one of the seven IITs, are typically from outside. Major cities in India with a large population and an IIT are Delhi, Bombay and Madras. The out-of-towners’ number in each of these IITs was about 60-70% in the 1970s. But IITs in Kanpur, Kharagpur, Guwahati and Roorkee, relatively smaller cities, have an even larger percentage of out-of-towners. Most IITians have gone to a different city to live by themselves for at least four years in a hostel environment. This process of living alone and being self-reliant while educating oneself in the field of one’s choice helps develop self-assurance.

I was one of the few people eligible for admission to IIT Delhi and also lived in Delhi. I wanted to study Chemical Engineering and got it in Delhi, so stayed at home. In IIT Delhi, the boys’ hostels are at one end of the campus. There are five hostels for under-graduates named after mountains– Kumaon, Jwalamukhi, Aravali, Nilgiri and Karakoram and two for post-graduates - Shivalik and Vindhyachal. Half-way through the campus are the Institute buildings and classrooms. At the other end of campus is the girls’ hostel named Kailash. On the other side of the boys’ hostel, is the well-known Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) which is walking distance from Kumaon hostel.


IIT Delhi Main Building. Photo: Suvarna Rajguru

In the early months at IIT, I used to spend the weekends at our home in Karol Bagh, a busy suburb of Delhi, and not in my assigned room in the Kumaon hostel. I would bring used clothes home on Friday evenings to get them washed over the weekend and take some home-cooked food with me on Monday mornings in case I didn’t like the hostel food. I was also a shy youngster, who, while taller than most students my age was afraid of ragging (hazing) which continued for the first 4-6 months in the hostels. As a consequence of my staying away from the hostel over the weekends, I was not able to participate in the student activities that were done over the weekends. I didn’t play table tennis, badminton and cricket in the first year at IIT, even though I was pretty good at those games. Had I stayed at the hostel, I would have participated in these sports which might have helped me become a better person and a better sportsman. This is just a personal observation about life in the IITs.

IIT Delhians. Photo: Suvarna Rajguru

Anyway, while I was shy with boys my age or older, I wasn’t too shy with girls. Our class had some 50 students and only 2 girls. While most boys were initially interested in those girls, they were the conservative homely types who would not attract a youthful, glamorous teenager, like we boys thought of ourselves then. The girls’ hostel was at the other end of the campus. The academic Institute was in the middle, where we would all go together for classes. I guess, this was geared towards limiting the interaction of the boys and the girls to academics! None of the boys in the class approached the girls for dates.

JNU specialized in arts, languages, law and sciences and attracted students from all over India and abroad. JNU was probably the most social of colleges in Delhi in those days and the closest to IITD. I decided to learn French at JNU and registered in an evening course starting at 6PM. My real interest in French was not so much that I had an admiration for France but that I was living away from home and alone for the first time and I was hoping to meet some female students at JNU. The classes at IIT would finish at 4PM and I would come back to the hostel after a ten minute walk. I would have tea and snacks and be ready for some more learning. I would go to JNU for my French class before 6PM. There weren’t too many students in the class. There were only two girls interested in learning French. And they were the two homely girls from our class at IIT. They had walked all the way from the other end of campus to learn French. I guess, they had similar ideas about meeting boys and that is what brought them to JNU!

Needless to say, I left JNU within a week.

In the 1960s and ’70s there was talk of a brain-drain in India . The IITs were run primarily on government grants and IIT graduates were going abroad and getting rich by carving successful careers for themselves. But the IIT alumni have turned around given back to their alma maters. Here are some examples .

* Vinod Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems has given $5 million to his alma mater, IIT Delhi. This gift is the largest by a single individual in the history of IITD.

* Avi Nash, advisory director, Goldman Sachs, gave a $1 million donation to the Chemical Engineering department at IIT Bombay.

* N R Narayana Murthy, chairman and chief mentor, Infosys has donated Rs 4 crore (approximately US $853,000) to IIT Kanpur.

* Kanwal Rekhi has gifted Rs 8.5 crore ($1.81 million) to IIT Bombay.

* Nandan M Nilekani, CEO, president and managing director, Infosys gave Rs 12 crore ($2.56 million) to IIT Bombay.

* Gururaj 'Desh' Deshpande, founder and chairman, Sycamore Networks has given $250,000 to IIT Madras.

* Vinod Gupta, founder InfoUSA, Inc has given $3 million to IIT Kharagpur.

* So far, IIT Bombay has received Rs 37 crore ($7.89 million) from the Heritage Fund (the global fund set up by IIT B alumni) and Rs 32 crore ($6.28 million) from domestic alumni.

After graduating from IIT Delhi, I went to the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta for a 2-year post-graduation in Management and this required moving away from home. IIMC was a better experience for me. I gained more confidence at IIMC because, unlike IITD, there was no going home. I was more involved in student activities. I played tennis, was the Treasurer of the Student Affairs Committee and was in the college teams for bridge and Dumb Charades.

Sunil Kapahi came to this country from India in 1983. He was born in Ludhiana and raised in New Delhi. He came to Detroit, Michigan to work as a software consultant for the Burroughs Corporation. Within three months of coming, he left the assignment at Burroughs and found a job with a consulting company in Atlanta.

After stints with several companies in Atlanta, he ended up at The Coca-Cola Company in 1997. He was diagnosed with epilepsy in April 1998 and has been on disability since, unable to drive and work. He has been writing short stories since then.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these columns are solely those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the editor/publisher.


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