Sunday, December 30, 2018

In Time – A Short Story

December 31, 1984, Calcutta

The booming growl of a tiger from somewhere in the distance confirmed to him that he must not be far from where he wanted to be. Vivaan Sharma walked purposefully with the milling crowd at the zoo, trying his best not to bump into anyone.

His hands were stuffed inside the pockets of his large black jacket and he shivered a little as he walked briskly ahead. It was a chilly Calcutta winter morning with the northern winds blowing merrily all over the Alipore Zoological Gardens.

Even though it was just 10.30 in the morning, the zoo was teeming with people – families with kids, mostly, who were relishing the year’s last day with great abandon.

Vivaan took a left turn from the aviary section, resisting the urge to take a peek at the Hornbill enclosure. In fact, a part of him desperately wanted to stand there and gape at every part of the surrounding in detail. But he knew he had little time in hand.

The turn brought him to a wide clearing where every little space was crammed with people. At his far left was a row of cages filled with myriad species of monkeys, a Sloth Bear, a Spotted Hyena, and a Himalayan Black Bear. The boisterous chatter of the monkeys easily drowned the excited murmur of the crowd gawking at them.

At his right, Vivaan found a large, round and open enclosure with a solitary giant tortoise. A bunch of kids ogled at it from the other end of the enclosure. Right beyond it was a big garden where a number of families sat, basking in the sun. Vivaan knew he was almost there.

Before he could make a turn towards the garden, though, Vivaan’s eyes fell on the tortoise and a silent “Oh!” escaped his lips. A little board outside the enclosure read: “Addwaita, the Aldabra tortoise. Addwaita arrived in the Alipore zoo in 1875 and at 224 years, she is one of the world's oldest living creatures.”

A little smile appeared on Vivaan’s face as he observed the giant animal, nonchalantly lazing away in the center of her enclosure. “Good to see you again, my friend,” he bent down and whispered through the bars of the cage.

A soft beeping noise in his right ear made him stand straight again. Making sure no one was noticing him he pushed a button from inside the pocket of his jacket and walked ahead. 

“Make it quick, Aditya!” he whispered, as lightly as he could, while covering his mouth with his left palm. “I am in the middle of a crowd.”

“Did you reach safely?” a frantic male voice at the other end said. “I told you to update me the moment you land there. What the hell are you playing at? I was so tensed…”

“Yes. I am safe and sound. And I will get back to you after I am done,” Vivaan said while crouching behind a huge tree near the side of the tortoise enclosure and pretending to tie his shoelace.

“Okay, remember this is our first beta test,” the voice said sternly. “You just have a thirty-minute window for now. We do not know how your body will react to traveling back 36 years. So be very, very careful of any odd anomaly. Also, don’t forget that you cannot tell anyone…Anyone… That you are from the future. We simply do not know what kind of an effect even a little rift in time can induce. We are on the verge of a massive breakthrough here after years and years of toil. This can change both our lives forever. Heck, this can change the world. So we cannot afford any slip. Is that clear?”

Vivaan got up and sighed, “For the 100th time, yes.”

There was a little pause at the other end. And then, the voice said, “For the life of me I cannot fathom why you have chosen to go back to Calcutta. And why on this particular date? With the technology we have developed, we needed a better location. The next trip will take at least six months if not…”

“Adi, I am already seven minutes in,” Vivaan cut him short. “I will explain later.”

“Oh. Okay. But I want a detailed report. And be very, very careful.”

“Yes,” Vivaan whispered and pressed the button inside his jacket again.

He took a deep breath and scanned the garden in front of him. A few kids playing catch nearby looked at him and whispered among themselves. He was tall and he knew he would easily be the odd one out in the crowd. Vivaan had hence worked doubly hard to ensure he could at least blend in with his outfit – a large jacket over a dull grey shirt along with a pair of black Bell-Bottom pants.

Vivaan made his way through the crowd, surveying the area thoroughly and looking at a host of unknown smiling and cheerful faces all over. He now felt nervous and anxious.

The sudden loud noise from a radio from his left, followed by the angry yell of a man, caught his attention. “Damn you, Gavaskar! You just had to nick that!” barked the man furiously.

Vivaan turned towards the man. He had his back to him and sat on a carpet on the ground with a woman.

“And a hush has descended over the Eden Gardens as Sunil Gavaskar walks back to the pavilion. That was a very good catch indeed by Gatting,” the silken voice of a man from the radio swam over to Vivaan as he slowly moved over to the couple.

His heart was racing. His breathing became a tad heavy and he could feel his stomach cramping up. He stood behind them for a few seconds, gathering his nerves, before finally saying: “Excuse me, Sir. What’s the score?”

The man turned around. He had an extremely bushy mop of hair, was very skinny and wore a grey half sweater over a pale white shirt and baggy blue pants. He appeared to have been deeply engrossed in the game as traces of annoyance still remained on his face.

“Oh…Um…It’s 35-2 now. Both Wadekar and Gavaskar have been dismissed. Stupid openers,” he said through gritted teeth.

And Mohinder Amarnath ambles up to the crease to join Dilip Vengsarkar in the middle,” the voice on the radio flowed. “India really needs a good partnership now.”

The man returned to stare glumly at the little black radio set in his hand and adjusted the antenna a bit to clear the voice. Vivaan stole a furtive glance at the lady sitting beside the man. She seemed lost in a Hindi magazine titled ‘Saheli’ and was draped in a dark green shawl over a neat pink saree. Everything about her was immaculate.

Tearing his face away from her lest he was caught gaping, Vivaan took a few deep breaths and shut his eyes for a few seconds. He looked to be fighting with himself. Trying hard to not lose control. He couldn’t. He had been training his mind for months for this moment.

He moved forward to face them from the front.

“Hey, did you know that this is the first Test match India is playing on the 31st of December?” Vivaan said.

The man looked up from the radio. “Wow, is it? That’s interesting.”

Vivaan smiled and checked his watch as if calculating something in his mind.

“And I predict that Amarnath will open his account with a boundary.”

The man chuckled. “Amarnath is agonizingly slow. The audience will probably fall asleep today with…”

Before he could finish his sentence, a ‘thunk’ sound emanated from the radio followed by the boisterous cheer of the crowd. “And Amarnath has ladled this over the cover boundary to open his account. What a shot to get off the mark!” the commentator said.

The man looked at Vivaan with a sheepish smile. “Damn…You are good.”

Vivaan was breathing easier now.

“I wish I could have been at the Eden today,” the man said in a hushed tone. “But today is the birthday of the missus. So…”

“I see,” Vivaan responded, trying his best to sound surprised at this information.

The man peered at Vivaan closely. “Have I met you earlier?” he questioned uncertainly. “You look oddly familiar.”

Feigning a snicker, Vivaan said, “I don’t think so, no.” And then he immediately changed the topic. “So what do you think of the current Indian team? They have not been at their best after the World Cup victory last year, huh?”

“Oh, tell me about it,” the man shook his head. And for the next fifteen minutes, the two went on to animatedly discuss in intricate details the good, the bad and the ugly of Indian cricket. Despite the chatter of the monkeys, the commentary from the radio and the cacophony of the kids from around them, Vivaan listened to the man with rapt attention and indulged in the conversation while stealing glances at the woman from the corner of his eye.

“This debutant Azharuddin,” the main trailed on. “I wonder what he will do.”

Vivaan checked his watch. “Yeah. We will have to wait and see. But now… I must get going.”
“Ah, so soon?” the man looked genuinely disappointed.

“Yes. I …Um…I am short of time,” Vivaan said.

“Well, it was nice meeting you,” the man said warmly. “Your knowledge on the game is incredible.”

Vivaan smiled. “I credit my father for that. He passed on his love for cricket to me at a very young age.”

“He must be an interesting man.”

Vivaan paused for a moment, as if suppressing the urge to move towards the man, but then held himself back. “He is the best father anyone can have,” he said simply.

The man nodded. “Hey, before you go,” he said and picked up a square steel box from beside him. He opened it and took out a little round, mustard-colored sweet from inside.

“Here, have this,” he got up and handed the sweet to Vivaan. “This is a ‘sattu ka laddu’ – my wife’s specialty. She made it for her birthday.”

Vivaan stared at the sweet closely, a little taken aback. It was hard and smelled fresh. And Vivaan looked at it as if he had found something he had lost after a very long time.

“Tha…Thank you,” was all he managed to mumble.

“And a happy birthday to you, Ma’am,” he finally addressed the woman properly. She had been observing the two men and only smiled demurely at the greeting.  

“Hey, I never caught your name,” the man said suddenly.

“Uh…It’s Vivaan, Sir.”

“Ah…What a unique name! I love it,” the man said brightly.

Vivaan nodded and said, “It means rays of the morning sun.”

“Ah! That’s interesting. I will remember it.”

Vivaan grinned and then extended his hand. “It was lovely to meet you, Sir!”

The man shook his hand. His palm was very warm and Vivaan felt really nice holding it. “Likewise, my friend. I hope to meet you again someday.”

Vivaan considered him for a moment before saying, “You will, Sir! I promise.”

And just as he was about to turn around, he said, “And I predict that the debutant Azharuddin will score a century today.”

The man sniggered. “That’s a tall task.”

“We shall see. Goodbye then,” Vivaan smiled and turned away quickly from them.

He walked swiftly, fighting the urge to look back. Only after he had reached the big tree near the side of the enclosure of the giant tortoise, did he come to a halt. He collected his breath and wiped his eyes. And then, ensuring that no one was looking at him, he caught a glimpse of the couple while poking his head from behind the tree. The woman was busy saying something while the man’s eyes were firmly fixed on his radio set.

Despite the overwhelming feeling gnawing at him, Vivaan managed a weak smile. He looked at his wrist watch; his time was up. He took one last glance at the couple, focusing especially on the woman.

Without moving his eyes away from her, he pressed the side button on his watch.

There was a soft buzzing sound and Vivaan’s body trembled a little.

The wind from the north picked up speed and Vivaan shivered. Somewhere in the distance, a tiger roared loudly and several people in the park turned their heads in that direction.

The woman was now laughing about something the man had said and playfully hit him on the shoulder. Both of them looked happy and at ease.

“Bye, Maa!” Vivaan whispered.

Another gust of wind blew sharply from the north. By the time it reached the tree near the tortoise enclosure, there was no one behind it.


December 31, New Delhi, 2020

“And there it is! Mohammad Azharuddin becomes only the eight Indian batsman in history to score a hundred on Test debut. What a fine performance this by the 21-year-old! He raises his bat to acknowledge the applause from a boisterous Eden crowd.”

35-year-old Vivaan Sharma smiled as he looked on happily at the black and white footage of a vintage cricket match playing on his computer screen. He wore a rather large black jacket.

It was 11:20 in the morning and Vivaan appeared to be at ease with himself in his tiny apartment. After the batsman had resumed his batting in the video, he pushed the pause button on the computer screen, picked up his cell phone from the table, and dialed a number.

“Hey, Dad!”

“Ah, Vivaan! Is everything okay? You are coming today, right?” an aged man’s voice at the other end said. It sounded tired.

“Yes, Dad. I leave in a couple of hours and will be there by evening.”

“Oh, good. Good,” the man said. His voice was a little relaxed now. “It would be really nice having you over finally. It’s been so long.”

“I know, Dad…” Vivaan was about to say something else, but the man continued on the phone.

“The house has been so empty after your mother’s passing,” he said almost as if speaking to himself. And after a moment’s pause, he added, “But…It would be really great to have you back. Especially today.”

“Yes, I know,” Vivaan said. “Hey, Dad! Do you remember the Test match where Azhar scored his debut hundred?”

There was silence for a few seconds at the other end. “Oh… The one at the Eden Gardens? 1984?” there was a distinct change in the tone of his voice. It was more enthusiastic now.

“Yes. The first Test India played on the 31st of December. I remember you telling me about it years back.”

“Oh, yes! Yes, I remember,” the man said, happily. “Yeah, what about it?”

“They have finally uploaded the video of the match’s highlights on YouTube. We can watch it together tonight,” Vivaan said brightly.

“Oh, that’s fantastic!” the man said, sounding truly elated. “I love watching clips of those cricket games from the 80s. I really wish I had been at the Eden for this one.”

“I know, Dad. I know,” Vivaan said with a smile. “Anyway…I will see you in the evening then.”

“Looking forward to it, son,” the man replied.

Vivaan appeared relieved as he disconnected the call and placed his phone back on the table. He was lost in his happy thoughts for a few seconds. Then, as if remembering something suddenly, he began checking the pockets of his jacket. From the right breast pocket, he took out a little round mustard yellow sweet. Vivaan beamed and sniffed the sweet. It felt fresh and appetizing.

His eyes then turned to look at a little photo frame beside the computer screen. The photograph contained three people – a very pretty woman, clad in a cream sweater over a white and indigo saree, a skinny man with an exceptionally bushy mop of hair wearing a blue jacket over a red sweater and a three-month-old baby boy nestled comfortably on the lap of the woman. The three of them appeared to be inside a zoo and sat outside a little platform in front of a huge open enclosure. Behind them, a giant tortoise could be seen lazing on the grass inside the cage. The couple looked very happy.

Vivaan took a little bite from the sweet in his hand while continuing to gaze at the picture. It was soft, fresh and delectable. “Happy birthday, Maa!” he whispered.

The next moment, the door to Vivaan’s apartment flung open and a short and bespectacled man with wiry hair entered, carrying a bulging plastic bag in his left hand. He wore an olive green overcoat which had covered him almost entirely. Despite his short height, though, this 30-something man had an air of no-nonsense about him.

He looked at Vivaan and exclaimed, “Oh, thank goodness you are back! I had to run an urgent errand. Now tell me…” He advanced towards Vivaan without wasting a second and flung his bag on the floor. “Were there any anomalies? Did anybody suspect you? What was your first feeling like? And when you landed, did you feel any cramps in your stomach as I had predicted? I need answers!” He spoke fast and had a frantic expression on his face.

“Good to see you too, Aditya!” Vivaan smiled.

“Don’t try to be a wise guy, wise guy,” Aditya barked while folding his arms. “You have been oddly evasive about this trip, Viv, and I had only reluctantly agreed because I trust you. But I still don’t know…”

“Adi,” Vivaan cut him short. “I will tell you everything in minute detail once I return from Kolkata next week. For now, just trust what I had told you earlier. That I needed a blessing of sorts before we actually take this full scale. And today’s date…”

“Is an important one for you, I know. You have said that many times before,” Aditya finished his sentence, shaking his head in annoyance.

Vivaan snickered. “Yes. So, I needed to begin our venture on this precise date only and from the place and time I chose. I wanted to make it auspicious if that makes any sense. But for now, you need to have patience with me for this one. I will tell you everything before we commence our next adventure….”

“This is NOT an adventure!” Aditya hollered. “This can have a lasting impact on…”

“It will be… In time,” Vivaan said confidently and took another bite from the sweet in his hand while pushing himself comfortably back on the chair he was sitting on.

“Wait…What is that you are eating?” Aditya asked, pointing at the sweet.

“Oh, this? This is a ‘sattu ka laddu’,” Vivaan responded with a cheer while merrily savoring the sweet taste of the laddu in his mouth.

“I want it too,” Aditya demanded.

“Ah, no can do, my friend! And, besides, you wouldn’t like it at all.”

“Yeah?” Aditya raised his eyebrows. “And why is that?”

“Because,” Vivan said while putting the last crumb of the sweet inside his mouth, “This is a 36-year-old laddo, man.”


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(End Note:

Although this wasn't the intention initially, but as I was finishing the story I began contemplating that I can take this idea further. I have always enjoyed stories on time travel and it is a concept that fascinates me immensely. It is complex and very, very tough to write on. While this story was pretty simple, I now want to explore it more. I have some ideas, though they are very simple too. Something on the lines of 'The Time-Traveling Adevntures of Viv and Adi'. It is just a thought. Let's see if I can actually do it. It certainly does get me excited for the coming year. )

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