Friday, October 19, 2012

Boring characters- interesting stories

Exercise for failing writers: Describe an ordinary character, which comes across as boring and mundane, in an interesting manner. 


Mr. Barry leads an ordinary life. So ordinary in fact, that you would barely notice his existence even if he was your next-door neighbour. He has a typically forgettable face, no charming or disarming features to talk about, and no distinctive quality about his person or personality. Everything from his name to his shoes and umbrellas are extremely ordinary. He hardly has anything interesting to say, and he could care less about what exceptional things were going on around him. He doesn’t really see the need for any improvement in his ordinary house. It has an ordinary couch and sofa set, a very ordinary wooden table, an ordinary rug and an ordinary fireplace that is usually turned off. If you happen to peek into his house, and it is an extremely rare occurrence that you would care enough to do so, you’d see a perfectly ordinary kitchen with little to spare. His bedroom upstairs has a single bed, a dresser and a closet. There is nothing of any distinction or importance that might make you wonder about him in any way.

Each morning, he gets up at 7, takes his bath, dresses in greys or browns, and heads downstairs to have his breakfast. One hard-boiled egg and a single buttered slice of bread accompany his tea. He neatly cleans his place-mat and teacup before leaving for work. His car is a typical sedan you would see on any road, with the colour so faded that it’s essentially colorless. Not transparent, mind you, but just an unidentifiable colour, somewhere on the scale between grey and brown and specks of red. He drives carefully, and seems to enjoy blending in with the rest of the cars on the highway. His office is a plain and simple desk-chair-cubicle, and he has requested not to have any technological annoyance within his reach. If you care enough, you could read the sign overhead on the main street, and see that it is a Law firm. He spends his day reading catalogued archives of old cases and making notes in boring brown ledgers in his neat small handwriting. His lunch is a simple cucumber slice sandwich taken with mineral water. At the end of the day, he drives home listening to classical music on the radio. He turns on the porch light as he comes in, and every alternate day he waters his 8 pots of mundane creeping plants. Today is not the plant-watering day. He picks up the newspaper by his door, and chucks it directly into the recycle bin. He changes into his night clothes, prepares his usual supper of buttered bread, boiled vegetables, and canned meat chunks. From exactly 7pm to 9pm, Mr. Barry watches television. He likes to see some action on the sports channel, then on to the business news drawl, and finally he watches the weather report for the next day. He turns off the television, satisfied that nothing extraordinary about the world and its goings on has reached him in his ordinariness. He goes downstairs to switch off lights, checks the lock on his front door, climbs back upstairs and gets ready for bed. He is fast asleep around 10pm.

Mr. Barry would be quite unhappy to be noticed by you. He would also feel uncomfortable if you were found peeking into his living room, or trying to focus your binoculars into his bedroom windows. He prefers to be left alone while shopping for his usual groceries, and if any of you people come up to him to say hello, he’d rather avoid looking into your eyes and responding. He values personal privacy above all other things, and he is grateful that his is not invaded often.

People like Mr. Barry give authors a hard time trying to make their lives sound interesting. You cannot imagine him to be a wizard or a stranded alien from another planet (although that seems to be the case).  Perhaps you think he’s solving some important case at his workplace. No, nothing like that. Mr. Barry has made it a point to work only in tax or insurance related cases. If anything remotely unusual comes his way, he likes to pick up the file and leave it at his colleagues’ desk to work on. People in his office are grateful for having him. They can place all mundane and boring tasks on his desk, and he’s more than happy to work on them. The neighbours too would be grateful for having him live amongst them, if they ever noticed him, because he always takes out trash on time, waters his plants, shovels his driveway, does not have annoying kids screaming down the street, nor does he have a gossiping wife who is always hosting barbeques. The cashier at the grocery store is especially happy to have him as her customer. He usually buys the same stuff and gives exact change. He doesn’t bother taking the receipts, so she simply pulls it out and throws it in the bin under her counter. The mailman always sighs with relief when he comes across Mr. Barry’s postbox. There is never any post, so his task is easy.

Mr. Barry probably has never bothered anyone in his entire life, and I suppose one day he’d grow old and sick, and would die quietly. Although, I wonder if people will be bothered enough to come to his funeral when that happens. Sometimes, I often wonder if he is happy the way he is. When I peek into his living room during his TV watching time, I see him smile at random infomercials on the shopping tv, or nod at the official looking guy telling us about bad weather tomorrow. At times like these, I feel Mr. Barry has surrounded himself with the comfort and happiness that is enough for him. So, you see... if you peek inside, you might get bored. But if you ever get caught by Mr. Barry when you’re prowling around his mundane plants and pots under his porch light, well... that maybe an interesting story. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

The big Mars candy bar

 When I was a little girl, my parents used to give me an allowance of 10 rupees. It was actually fixed per day, but every afternoon when I came back from school, I would put that unused 10 rupee note carefully on my desk, in case I needed to spend it the next day. We were far from poor, but my parents taught me early on the importance and value of having money. 10 rupees in those times was quite a lot (according to me). I wasn't stingy, but I was happy with whatever lunch I got from home, and only once a week I would indulge in getting something (Candy or a drink) from the school canteen. So, basically, 10 rupees were enough to last a week. My story goes like this:

I have a very clear memory of walking one evening to a nearby general store with my mother. After she had bought all the items on her list, she asked me if I wanted anything. My head could reach barely above the counter, but I scanned the candy and chocolate jars carefully. I settled on a big Mars bar, the biggest I had seen yet. There was another child right next to me on the counter, looking greedily at where my finger was pointing. This child was a little beggar girl, probably the daughter of a local maidservant or maasi; she was wearing old clothes, and a rag as a shawl on her head. She was older than me and a bit taller. I remember her yellow bleached hair peeking from beneath the rag shawl, and her greedy look as she too stared at the big Mars candy bar.

My mother asked the price casually. Rs 20 was the answer. I turned suddenly towards her and I said I didn't want it. I chose a smaller candy bar for Rs 10 that I used to buy often. “I want this one, Ammi”. Rs. 20 was too much to spend on a candy bar, I thought in my childish brain. ‘Ammi gets so many other important things for the kitchen in that amount. I could buy a book in that much money, why just a big candy bar?’ I thought.
 My mother asked me if I was sure, and she got me the smaller candy. As we picked up our shopping bags and turned to leave the counter, the little beggar child demanded that big Mars bar from the counter person. She quickly took out two 10 rupee notes from somewhere in her shawl, and grabbed the big bar. She gave me a look of pure superiority as she walked out of the store ahead of us.

This incident is marked vividly in my memory. It has changed the way I view the lifestyle of our ‘poor’.