The Banquet Hall

I submitted this story for “Write India – Season 2”, a short story contest by Times of India. Every month, a bestselling author gives a prompt, using which you have to write a story of about 1500-3000 words. The given paragraph can be used anywhere in the story, but it must not be altered. The following was the promt and rules by Manu Joseph:

He is looking for a girl, who does not know he exists, or the story that has brought him here. He has no reasons to be discreet but still he has to be careful. He is standing near the doorway and surveying the golden banquet hall, which is filled with refined bodies in saris and jackets, and beautiful young women with straight hair who never make facial expressions. But they will, soon. Any moment now.

RULES BY THE AUTHOR

1. All events in the story must adhere to natural physical laws as known today.
2. There can be animal characters in your story but you cannot show them as talking unless the story is essentially about the discovery of a talking animal. Nor can your story imagine an animal’s train of thought.
3. You should not use the word ‘suddenly’ more than once.
4. You should not use the exclamation mark.

 

THE BANQUET HALL

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George lives in a world that worships beauty, power and wealth instead of a good heart, clean mind and compassion. There is nothing he can’t have at his feet within the minute he expresses desire for it. Being born into a royal family has its share of perks, and as the outside world saw it, he is known to have it all. But this life is a little strange, and this world is a little strange. The richest and most powerful people in the world are envied by every person who knows of their existence. Yet, these people crave for the simplest of things in life.

At 28, George has everything under control. Life is sorted, money-wise, fame-wise, and hotness-wise. Well, being filthy rich is the answer to everything physically satisfying in today’s world. Girls would flock around him wherever he went. He could summon Miss Universe and she would happily make love to him. Who would possibly in their right minds say no to a member of London’s royal family? But the tall, solemn, handsome young man was a gentle soul within. Born under the zodiac of the crab, the moonchild was a dreamer and an ocean of emotions existed in the depths of his heart and soul. He wanted to find his one true love, the woman who would look through him, calm down the fire within him, the burning emotions that rob him of sleep, the passion that only a woman who truly understands him could share… unlike the women he had met till now. Women, throwing themselves at him, drunk and enchanted by the name he carried. Women, who only saw him, and not the person he was. Women who wanted his last name; but not his heart. Women, who would strip his body naked, but not his soul. Women, blinded by power and wealth.

He had met enough women in his social circle to understand that he wouldn’t find what he was looking for within the life his family had built for him. High society gatherings, tea with the Ministers, dinners with film stars, and yet he couldn’t find her. This life built around newspaper articles and media flashes had started to suffocate him to no end. Even a vacation on a private beach, rather a private island, couldn’t bring his mind the peace he longed for. The more he understood himself, the more he knew what he wanted in life. A woman to share his life with. But not one of those he has known all his life.

It has been a week since he met Guru Shankar Narayan, at his own request. George had succeeded in keeping this part of his life private, and thus the local media doesn’t know that the he is an ardent follower of Indian philosophies and mythology. He is not unknown to the fact that his ancestors had spent years in this foreign land invading and robbing it. He grew up listening to these stories which were always told with a biased point of view, but this was enough to give him a glimpse of India and thus began his fascination for this country that he could so deeply feel a connection to. But his ideas, interests and desires were highly private. Not a soul knew that he secretly read the Ramayana, and watched videos of Indian Gurus and their teachings. He had not even visited India yet, worrying that the media might start questioning the same and headlines about the younger generation of the royal family, curiously touring India might cook up stories back home. He thus considered it wise to stay away from controversies and explored the culture and history from his bedroom.

But off late, George hadn’t been keeping well, and found himself mentally bothered with something. He needed advice, but not the kind of advice you seek from a friend. He needed guidance. Spiritual guidance to be more exact. After many a sleepless nights and mental struggles as to where to seek what his heart desired, he finally decided to ‘talk’ to someone who might help. And when it came to spiritual guidance, he could think of none other than Guru Shankar Narayan, whom he had been following over the internet since a few years now. And thus he called his private secretary and asked him to arrange a meeting with the Guru.

It was a bright sunny morning, and the Guru arrived at 10 am sharp. As he was being led to the gardens where breakfast and tea had been arranged, he could see the figure of a tall man suited in black, pacing up and down anxiously at the far end of the garden. The secretary pointed towards George, and indicated the Guru to take a seat. Observing him lost in his thoughts, Shankar Narayan thought it fit not to call out to him, but rather wait for him to notice him. But George was deep in thought, and it wasn’t until his phone rang, that he broke his walk of meditation and noticed the Guru sitting at the tea table. Leaving the phone unanswered, he jogged towards him and touched his feet. A royal touching someone’s feet, was a rare sight that immediately changed the expression on the strict faces of the bodyguards in black, standing right behind them.

“Give me your blessings, Guru ji,” he said as he touched his feet and the Guru raised his hand and gave him his blessings. Then, taking a seat facing the Guru, he took a deep breath and looked straight at his face for the first time now.

Shankar Narayan, a man in his late 50s, looked too young to be a Guru. Defying the clichéd image of a man with a long white beard and wrinkled skin, Shankar Narayan was a young-looking hippie turned Guru. Dressed in a plain white kurta-pyjama, his face had peace written all over it, and his hair gave away his slow ageing- a mix of white and black, giving him a rather dashing, handsome look. If you passed him by in the street, you’d think he was like any other passerby, as lost in life as any other person on the street. But those who knew him, would immediately fall at his feet and beg for his blessings.

Shankar Narayan, as he was now known, and named by his followers, was born into a lower middle class family in the North of India. At the age of 5, when he had just started to learn the alphabet, he could recite entire verses of the Vedas and by the age of 10, he could quote the Bhagavad Geeta quite aptly, giving explanations in the local language. He was known to have been blessed with an inner vision and an in-depth spiritual knowledge. By the age of 20, people were visiting him to seek help with their daily troubles. He was known for looking at a person’s face, and pointing out exactly what was troubling him. By the age of 25, he was giving lectures to the local public about proper conduct and the struggles of the human life. At 30, he decided to go into deep meditation in Mount Kailash and nobody heard from him for 5 years. But when he returned to his village, they say, he had turned into a miraculous man. The fruit of five years of his meditation was thus that he could now envision the future in images. Many have claimed to have found the solutions to their problems after consulting him.

Shankar Narayan was not a God. He was a healer. A helper, who wanted to comfort his fellow human beings. And so, as his fame and technology grew side by side, he soon became a popular figure on video platforms and people were writing about him everywhere. It is thus not surprising that someone abroad, who was so curious about India, started following the Guru so closely.

Guru ji, I have been your follower since years now. I have heard about your guidance which is sought by millions around the world. I consider myself lucky that you agreed to visit me, and bless me with your company,” he said.

“I know, son. And I also know what you seek. Your impatience and longing shows on your face quite clearly. I can help you understand your path to what you’re looking for, but only if you do as I say without any questions,” the Guru said.

“Of course, Guru ji. I would follow your words without any questions. Lead me to my destiny, please.”

“So listen carefully, George; and for a few moments, forget that you were born into this family. Because you do not belong here. I know what your heart longs for, and what you keep from the world. And the one you seek – who will complete you and quench your thirst for love and knowledge- she belongs there as well. You have to go find her, she who does not know of your existence. Who is far from the materialistic pleasures of life. Who sees the soul, and not the body. Who is far different from all the women you’ve known. You will not meet her in the life you lead here. You have to find her, seek her, and meditate on her. Pack your bags and forget this existence for some time. If you have the courage to follow your heart’s desires, don’t be afraid to spill your secrets. Travel the length and breadth of the land your heart longs to see. Take your men along, if you wish to protect yourself. But I tell you, you need none. The Lord is with you. Open your arms to every chance life offers you. Don’t say no to the call of destiny, and you will find what you’re looking for.”

George was blown away by the Guru’s words. He questioned himself as to why he had been stopping himself from visiting the country he longed to see- only out of fear of being gossiped about? Why did it not occur to him that his destiny could be written in his own desires?

But now, he had all his answers, and now, there was no looking back. And destiny is such that it makes its way to us. We just need to be prepared. The occasion that was coming his way, might have been declined by him, had the Guru not inspired him to embrace his desires and be open to opportunities. And thus, as it was destined, a wedding invitation arrived the next morning, for his friend Robert.

Robert told him about the wedding of his brother’s friend to an Indian woman, for which he was invited next week. Sipping his scotch, Robert handed out the wedding invitation to George, with an uninterested look on his face.

“Look at this. A wedding invitation I received this morning. Would you believe it if I say that I’ve never even met the bride or the groom? India seems like quite an interesting country. They send wedding invitations to people who don’t even know of their existence.”

“Whose wedding invitation is this?,” George asked, as he read the name ‘To Mr. Robert Mathews’ at the back of the envelope.

“My dear brother Antony’s friend Jacob. He is getting married to someone in India. In Jaee-poor. Anyway, I don’t have the time to attend weddings all the way in India. I don’t even know why they sent me an invite,” said Robert.

“Do you mind if I go in your place?” asked George.

“I guess they’ll let anyone attend the wedding. You don’t even need this card or my name,” he laughed out loud.

“But I’ll take the card anyway,” he said, and slipped it in the inside pocket of his coat.

“What? Wasn’t that supposed to be a joke? You’re not serious, are you? You want to attend some random wedding in India?” Robert puzzled him, and looked at his face with intense seriousness.

“Yes, Robert. I want to. It’s very important for me. I’ll tell you later. I have to go now,” said George, and off he went to inform him secretary about the sudden change of plans the next coming week.

A week full of mental conflicts and worrying about his image in public, passed too slowly. George was deep in his thoughts all the time, and wondered if this was really the right thing to do. What would people think back home when they would learn that he was attending a wedding in India, for which he hadn’t even been invited? A hundred different questions popped up in his mind, and he was ready to give up any moment. But he would then remember the sleepless night, and the voice inside his heart, which longed for something he knew he could never find in this life he was born into. And so the days passed by, and his desires overcame his fears.

As the plane landed in New Delhi, his heart started beating normally. His heart, which was racing ever since he took the decision to come to India, was finally beating fine. He felt the calm before the storm of emotions that would take over his life this evening. Somewhere, getting dressed for someone’s wedding, she too would be feeling the calm before the storm. She would be getting dressed for her lover to see her for the first time. But she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know that her life was going to change tonight. She doesn’t know that what she was seeking unknowingly, was seeking her all along, and has finally found his way to her.

He is looking for a girl, who does not know he exists, or the story that has brought him here. He has no reasons to be discreet but still he has to be careful. He is standing near the doorway and surveying the golden banquet hall, which is filled with refined bodies in saris and jackets, and beautiful young women with straight hair who never make facial expressions. But they will, soon. Any moment now.

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