There's usually a story behind every story. My short story Vanilla Desires has one too. A very filmy one.
As 2008 was coming to an end, I was acutely aware that the Unisun-Reliance Timeout short story contest deadline was midnight on the last day of the year. I kept slogging away at my non-writing work even as I promised myself that I will reserve the last week - from Christmas to New Year's Eve - for the short story that I would write for the contest. And sure enough, I finished my chores on the 23rd and went to bed contemplating the opening gambit for Vanilla Desires. On the morning of the 24th, I was awakened by a phone call from Chennai. My brother-in-law had met with an accident. Multiple injuries to his skull. He was in the ICU.
My mother and I packed for ourselves and my incapacitated father and the three of us rushed to Chennai. We reached late at night, despite hiring a car, and found that the situation was dire. The doctors were speaking only in cliches. 50-50 chance, God's watching and all that. My sister looked ashen yet brave. The moment felt surreal, funereal. I looked at my 8-year-old niece and 3-year-old nephew and saw their futures disappearing in a mist. It took me a moment to realize that my eyes had welled up.
'Not this,' I muttered, conversing directly with God after ages. 'Everything else is screwed up. My sister's life is the one bright spot left in the family. Don't screw this. Not this, goddamn you!'
Thankfully, I did not have the luxury to become hysterical. There were things to do. Medicines to buy, doctors to consult. And someone had to stay outside the ICU through the night in case something was needed. I, being a creature of the night, was ideally suited to play the role.
So Christmas Eve, a little after midnight, I sat on the landing of the staircase leading up to the ICU and wrote the first sentence of Vanilla Desires. It ran like this:
As she caressed the utensils with soap, Sanaa gazed out of her kitchen window, inviting the afternoon breeze inside with her eyes.
It seemed as good a beginning as any, so I continued writing. I wrote around half the story that night. My subconscious already knew the characters and the story inside out, but it refused to divulge these secrets to my conscious mind.
'You'll know soon enough,' my subconscious said haughtily.
'But,' my conscious mind protested, 'you must keep me in the know. Because we must write something optimistic. We must reaffirm life. There's too little good news out in the world.'
'That really isn't my problem,' my subconscious replied, switching off for the night.
I sat there on the landing till dawn unraveled its day's plans for the city. Soon, my sister returned to the hospital and I went to her home to sleep. A couple of hours later, I was woken up. One of the consulting doctors felt that my brother-in-law must be shifted to Malar Hospital, the best in the city for such cases. So we arranged for an ambulance, waited in suspense for it to arrive and eventually managed the transfer to a bigger, better-equipped ICU.
So it came to pass that on Christmas night, I was sitting outside a different ICU with the same story on my hands. Again, a little after midnight, I resumed writing Vanilla Desires. By 3 am, I was done. I reread it, felt good enough about it and closed my notebook. I think I slept till a janitor rudely awoke me.
The next two days were crucial. CAT scans were performed, even more doctors were consulted. By the 27th, the doctors were willing to offer more hope. He would live, he might even become completely normal again.
So I went to a cyber cafe and typed out the story. I sent it to a select group of long-suffering friends who have always, always, given feedback on my writing. On 31 Dec 2008, I returned to the cyber cafe, corrected a couple of typos and submitted the story, as usual, in the twelfth hour. I then went to T Nagar to get drunk in multiple bars in the company of total strangers.
2009 came with the good news that my brother-in-law's chances of complete recovery were quite high. A month later, I was in Singapore, attending the Asia Journalism Fellowship. The wonderful excitement of the program made me forget all about Chennai and Vanilla Desires. During my first long weekend in Singapore, I went to visit a dear friend in Penang, and while at his home, as I was admiring the view of the bridge from mainland Malaysia into Penang, I saw an email pop into my inbox informing me that Vanilla Desires had been shortlisted in the contest. A while later, I was informed that it had won the first prize.
After a long wait, on 6 March 2010, Unisun launched Vanilla Desires and other stories in the Reliance Timeout outlet on Cunningham Road. It was worth the wait. The book has some wonderful stories by promising new authors and showcases the world-class production and design capabilities of Unisun. The launch event also allowed me to forget my life for a happy couple of hours. I sat in the company of fellow writers, talking literature; we flitted from one literary topic to another like greedy sparrows wanting to empty the granary.
Incidentally, this year's contest deadline is 31 March and I have the vague outlines of a story forming in my mind. I hope the story delivers itself soon enough because, as always, time is running out.