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.


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.




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.


Virtual Friend


Dear virtual friend,
Meeting you was destined by the internet Gods.
In this world brought together by social media sites,
we found ourselves scrolling through each other’s profile;
late into the night, when the alarm clock was set for 7 in the morning,
but sleep was nowhere in sight.
Gone are the days our grandmothers recalled:
when a stamped letter brought news of her lover’s wellbeing.
Now our phones ping more often,
and they match the rhythm of our heartbeats.

You, more a mystery than a friend,
who I found on twitter, facebook, or Instagram,
We even stalked our linkedins, pinterest and quora.. damn!
Our lives painted out there with HTML,
brought to us by HTTPs,
Photos, videos and memories..
And we thought we knew each other.

On sleepless nights when you lay awake,
to make my insomnia your own,
I thought to myself if this was a new face of love..
If we were Romeo and Juliet, connected through phones..
Well, you couldn’t come running to my balcony,
because you didn’t know where I lived.
But you would keep your phone next to your heart,
Because for you, that’s where I exist.

You, my virtual friend,
were the therapist I might have needed,
if we hadn’t found each other.
We had no baggage, no tag, no status to update,
without a care for a third one to overhear,
we turned into guiding angels.
Angels who were messed up in their heads,
but made complete sense over texts.
We were angels who guided each other through the day,
with a good morning, an afternoon chat,
and a long conversation at the end of the day.
we have no regrets, we have no questions to answer,
We laughed for a while, and made each other smile;
we lent a helping text.

You, my virtual friend,
were a dream not turned into reality.
You were a dream that I dreamt for a long time,
but hey, not all of them come true!
And no, we have no tears to shed, for our story without an end.
Some dreams are beautiful because they remain untouched
by this real life we don’t comprehend.

Zebra Crossing : Culture shock in India


Growing up in India, I never had a problem crossing roads. You know, you learn. You adapt. Before I left home for an experience of life in Europe, I never thought about these things – which were a part of my daily life in India. Greetings for example, about which I wrote in my previous post. And now, what comes to my mind is : Zebra crossings.

I had learnt about the concept of zebra crossings quite early in my school textbooks, but never saw anyone using it the city where I lived. I learnt how to cross roads, just like everyone else. It was never a problem – I could say so, because I’m still alive. Looking both ways on a one way road, turning your head left-right, left-right, and hoping to ace the timings once again. Smooooth! No dikkat at all! I was a pro, just like everyone else.

But when I first went abroad, I was alone, and too excited about everything. It was my first ever experience of living alone in a new country, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the culture shocks! So I’m in France – during the first few days – and I’m crossing the road, as if I own it. A car comes speeding and the driver gives me a stare which clearly means “Are you stupid?” – And thats when I realize, they do have this zebra crossing thing going here in Europe, and quite seriously at that! So they weren’t talking about some fictional land in the school textbooks!

Three years in Europe, I’m pretty used to crossing at Zebra crossings. At the signals, waiting for the red light to turn green for the pedestrians. And where there were no pedestrian signals, I would uselessly wait, not knowing that the cars would stop themselves if I’m walking on it. So well in time, I learnt the ways of this blessing that is the zebra crossing!

But every time I came home to Delhi for the holidays, I experienced a reverse culture shock. The first time I came back during the summer, I actually started looking for zebra crossings. Something I had never bothered to observe before. To my surprise, we never notice the zebra crossings, because helloooo!!! The vehicles are ON the zebra crossing when the signal is red! And poor pedestrians are zig-zagging to cross the road. In some other places, the white lines are sooooo light that they are almost invisible. But who cares? Because we are experts in crossing roads – because we are, what they call, Khatro ke khiladi!

I noticed that near the Connaught Place area, they do have these pedestrian signals, which were quite a relief, but even in that case, the vehicles are still ON the zebra crossing. And then, this incident that happened just a few days ago : I was in CP, and had to go from one block to the other. There was no signal there for the cars to stop, but I saw a zebra crossing. A couple walking in front of me jumped right onto the zebra crossing, while the cars and autos were speeding towards them. For a second I thought maybe the vehicles would stop because pedestrians crossing on a zebra crossing where there’s no traffic signal. But no, they didn’t. Khatro ke khiladi managed to cross the road alive, zig-zagging and stopping at the right time, hoping another vehicle doesn’t crash into them!

On a very serious note, this is an issue of concern. Growing up in the capital of the country, I only learnt about road ethics and safety in theory, and never practically because nobody follows them! Since the last three years, everytime I’ve come home after an year abroad, I don’t venture out of the house alone at least for week, because I’m scared! And I’m not even exaggerating. I’m scared to cross the road. Scared because I might have forgotten the skills to watch both sides of a one way road, hoping not to die. Scared because I’m out of practice!

It is my request to every one who drives, to be more careful, and follow rules for the combined safety of everyone around! If today I managed to cross the road safely, there must be someone out there who didn’t, and a life was lost!

As a side note, I would like to add that we must also not be scared to speak up about these things. Personally, I too think twice before saying it now, because everytime I compare life in India with my experience abroad, they say “Haan zyada angrez ban gai hai tu. Bhool mat yahi se gai hai!”. Lol, I know that, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t like being in India anymore. In fact I am so happy to come back! But certain things make you think, and react! And that is why, I chose to write about it. Doing things because that’s the way its done, will not help us create a better space to live in. Together we can make a difference!

Be safe!

La Bise : Culture shock in Europe


First experiences are special. First experiences of living in a new country can result in serious culture shocks too. Not in a negative way, but in a funny, ironic way. When you leave a country like India to go live abroad, the first experience can be full of eye-widening, thought provoking experiences. One of the major culture shocks for me, was La Bise: The cheek-to-cheek greeting that is so common in France. Growing up back home, I had only seen films stars do the cheek-to-cheek kiss, or maybe others belonging to the ‘elite’ class. Chez moi, when greeting an elder, say Namaste or Sat Sri Akal. Sorted. Look at the person, bow your head a little and say it. With friends, just a ‘hey’ or a side hug works. But in France, there was a completely different thing going on.

It took me a while to understand that the bise is a part of the everyday life, and it can be taken very, very seriously. One person would enter the room, and would do muah-muah to everyone sitting there. Sweet, I thought to myself. After a few days of observation, I realized that they also do it while leaving. Sweet again, I thought to myself. Such an intimate way of greeting and saying goodbye! And now, I thought I was ready to greet in the French way too! But then, I forgot to notice which side you have to go to first. The initial weeks of meeting new people was a struggle in my mind. Left first? Or right first? What if I bump into their face? Should I just shake hands? Or hug? Umm, no. But they’re French – they would go for the bise! So then left first? Or right first? The left and right struggle was solved in its own time – practice makes a man perfect! But there were more mysteries of the bise yet to be solved – It is okay to do the bise with youngsters that you’re meeting for the first time, but what about people older than you? This question still haunts me! I might have embarrassed myself a couple of times by doing the bise with a much older lady that I met for the first time. I always wondered if there were rules about how to do the bise with who!

After living, working and studying in France for three years, I learnt a lot about the French culture and was quite comfortable with the greetings. I didn’t have to think left or right anymore! But outside of France, the mysteries of the bise were new, and more embarrassing! Once upon a time, I went to Belgium, and a friend introduced me to his friends. Friends of friends = do the bise. I did the calculation in my head. Went for it, but was left hanging in the air on the other side. Because, as I would learn later, they do one cheek kiss in Belgium! Ahem. One of the most awkward moments of my life, but a useful lesson learnt. ‘Next time onwards, I would be careful about the nationality before thinking one or two, instead of left or right’, I told myself. But when I met an Italian (Roberto! Yes, you!), I realized that the left or right also had to be taken into consideration: because for Italians, it was opposite to that of the French. We met so often, but never came to the decision as to which side to go to first!

After several awkward greetings and meeting people from different parts of the continent, I realized that the bise was a greeting which is similar everywhere in Europe, but distinct in its own style: quite similar to what we have in India, in the sense that the greeting changes from Namaste to Sat Sri Akal to Vanakkam to Khamma ghani, but the bow of the head or folding of the hands remains similar. However, the most annoying part of the culture shock is that it can linger on for a while, and become a part of you if you live in the place for too long. So now the greeting queries have started working the opposite way: I had never put so much thought into how to greet a person while I was living in India, but now my head starts doing the greeting calculations for handshake/hugs/Namaste on its own.

Dependency is a killer.

Another day without a single drop of water. The sun was shining bright ; too bright. But the more, the better. Not always though ; not when there was no water to quench the thirst. How they wished they were out in the open. Breathing in the warm summer air. They wish they could look up to the sky, and wave excitingly with the wind, as the black clouds would approach. These days they could still see the black clouds coming and going, but useless. Useless, because there was no way out. The raindrops would smear the window panes for hours, but why would they rejoice? Why would they rejoice when they couldn’t quench their thirst? They would look at the beautiful tiny raindrops. They would call out to them, and probably imagine what it feels like, when they touched. How soothing and refreshing it was. But now, the windows were a barrier. It was as if the raindrops were calling out to them too, but the barrier was impossible for them to break. They questioned why they even had to be alive, when their basic necessities couldn’t be met. They questioned God and blamed him for not making them fit enough to walk, so they could find their own sources of needs. Yes, needs. Why were they destined to be trapped in a world where nobody cared about them? Were they only an aesthetic element that didn’t need care? Or were the people around them so absorbed in their own aesthetic value, that they couldn’t care about anything else?

They wished, time and again that they didn’t have to take birth in the first place. But who was to be blamed? God certainly wasn’t responsible for their painful death. They knew they were wrong to blame him. For they could see their fellow beings rejoicing and growing up in his care, out in the open, under the blue sky and timely rains. Who was to be blamed then? Of course, the human beings who locked the doors, and windows, packed their bags, and went off for a two weeks holiday, forgetting all about them.

Dependency is such a killer. But only if they could do something about it, only if they could make decisions for themselves ; if they could choose where to be ; if they could do what these humans did : talk, walk, sing, dance, touch, jump, run!

“How lucky they are! And how happy they must be in this life!”, the dying rose plant said to the bougainvillea.

The Rain Messenger .


Photo credits : Instagram @armaanmehra

.. 5 am in the morning. She sits at the doorstep of her house. All-nighters were not a choice; insomnia is a disease when one awaits the return of a loved one. She had tried to fall asleep all night, twisting and turning in the bed. But she finally gets up at the sound of the early morning temple bells, and settles down at the doorstep. Her eyes are full of sleep and dizziness. She wants to fall asleep for once, peacefully, like in her mother’s lap. The peace that she had known only for a little while. Since as long as she could remember, she was told every day that she was a girl, and girls don’t belong to the homes they are born in. She was told that she would be sent away to her husband’s home, and that is where her real life would begin. She cursed the childhood version of herself, for getting the gudda-guddi married as a part of a game. “Maybe that’s why they got me married – because they misinterpreted a childhood game as a wish of little girl”, she thought to herself – an eighteen year old dressed up as a bride. But little did she know – this was the game the elders liked to play.

At the doorstep, she lifts her drooping eyes. Black clouds are settling in the predawn sky. It is easy to see them coming in the light of the day. But when it is dark, and the sun is still going to take a while to show its face, you feel the black clouds of rain ; like an army of soldiers ready to attack while the town is still asleep. The goose bumps start appearing on her skin, and her saree ruffles with the wind, as she gets up to breathe in the new day. Thunder and lightning scowling; the temple bells responding equally. Not a drop of rain on her body. She waits; she waits to get soaked in the morning rain. Before the neighbors are awake, and before the rules bound her again. She waits, her arms stretched to the infinite sky. She waits, as she has been waiting for a while now. For an year now, in vain. No news of her husband.

Tears course down her cheeks, even before a raindrop could make its way to her barren body.