Saligrama K. Aithal, 9/16/2013

Current Occupation: teacher of English language and literature
Former Occupation: teacher of English language and literature
Contact Information: Saligrama Krishnamoorthy Aithal’s short stories have appeared in Critical Quarterly, Short Story International, Unlikely Stories, Long Story Short (where his “Enter, Search, Select, Click” appeared as the STORY OF THE MONTH for February 2012),  Journal of Postcolonial Societies and cultures, Outside in Literary and Travel Magazine, Indian Literature, New Quest, and Contemporary Literary Review. His stories attempt to give life and substance to the metaphor of journey of life across countries and cultures. He has published one volume of short stories Many in One (AuthorHouse). A sequel One in Many is forthcoming. Besides creative writing, he has published articles on a wide range of authors and books–Indian, American, and British– in scholarly international journals. He lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and works sporadically as an adjunct professor in local colleges and universities. Currently, he teaches ESL at American National University. The below story story will be published in his forthcoming volume One in Many.
 

 

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Work and Play

I was in my cradle-and-swing, excitedly swinging side-to-side and head-to-toe, watching the butterflies above spin likewise, and enjoying my own reflection in the mirror overhead.

After a while, I called out, “Gran’pa, are you there?”

I spoke in a mix of English, Hindi, and Kannada only my Grandparents could understand, and, with their help, my mom and dad and close relatives. To the outside world, my speech was a string of meaningless guttural sounds, albeit sweet and sounded like birdsong, as everyone who heard me said.

Sitting next to me a few feet away in his recliner and watching me play, Grandpa said, “You are enjoying yourself, aren’t you, in that little snugabunny cradle?”

“I just wanted to ask you if life is all play like this?”

 

Grandpa was thrown off balance by the question. Of course, he had gotten used to getting such provocative questions from her unlike those his students raised in the classroom: Can we get grade A by simply showing up in class? Are homework and assignments mandatory? Are you serious that we have to switch off our cell phones in class?

To answer his granddaughter’s question, Grandpa began to narrate the story of Jack of the famous proverb. The story went on and on. The narrator himself did not know where it would all end. Somewhere along the way, the story took a serious turn to another meaning of the word “play.” He fell back on his favorite author Shakespeare, and recited the playwright’s words:

All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like a snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Grandpa checked and found I was carefully listening, (not yawning or sleeping like his students in class), but he realized that he probably overshot the mark. He returned to the original question and the story of Jack. He concluded his lecture by saying that life is an equal combo of work and play, 50% work and 50% play.

“Got it,” I said. “But you could make work, play, and play, work, can’t you, like my mom, for example?”

“You may, perhaps. But I would keep them separate,” Grandpa said.

“Then answer me, if feeding me, changing my diaper, washing me, making me go to sleep, etc. are play or work?”

Grandpa was cornered. He could never consider any of the activities work, though they became trying at times. Not knowing what to say, he said, “Shall we please change the topic of discussion, if you don’t mind?”

I gladly agreed. The talk turned to Deepavali.

Grandpa wanted to know if I sent Deepavali greetings to everyone in the family round the globe, especially to my cousins.

I reminded, “Gran’pa, you know I haven’t yet learned to write!”

“You can do it without writing, just as you can communicate without the help of language,” Grandpa spoke comfortingly. “All that you need to do is to form your thoughts in your mind. Then, smile. Your e-mail account opens, and click one button in the air with your forefinger, –the address of your recipient appears; click another button with your big toe,– the subject appears in the box; click again with your middle finger while pressing your….. “

“Pinky toe,” I supplied the information.

“Yes, your little toe, pinky toe,” Grandpa continued. “– you convert your thoughts into words which are copied into the space for text; and with one last click with fingers and toes from initial to medial to lateral, your text message goes out to your recipients across the globe. Only the older folks like us have to communicate in writing.”

I smiled. Surely, I knew all that. What else have I been doing you think, Grandpa, constantly opening and closing my fingers?

Then the conversation turned to goals of life on the holy day of Deepavali, the New Year for Indians at home and abroad.

“I understand that the first writing assignment they give in school is,” I said, “my New Year resolutions. What should be my goals in life, my New Year resolutions, Gran’pa?”

Grandpa was glad to discuss the topic because he had been thinking about it since the day of my birth three months ago. He wanted to see me grow as a loving and lovable member of the family; have a great education with interest in science, technology, social sciences, and the humanities, and degrees from Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton; a career in medicine—holistic medicine—with emphasis on mind-body connection, or a position in the state department as a diplomat, or a membership in the US Congress, or a creative writer; a happy marriage, if the institution still survives in spite of the Republican party, and two children. A fulfilling life, from whatever angle you examine.

Grandpa became breathless talking about his own buried dreams, and ended his list of hopes for me with the words, “Riyana, this is something you have to decide.”

I said,”That’s a lot of work, Gran’pa!”

“Make it all play, Riyana!” Grandpa said, reversing his earlier stand on the separation of work and play.

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