25 July 2009

Andy Dufrain

Have you heard the story of Andy Dufrain (actually spelled Dufresne)? If you've watched The Shawshank Redemption you'd know. But since we're all busy watching Harry Potter or the Transformers, I'd like to tell Andy Dufrain's story. (Warning: Given below is the plot of the movie. Spoiler Alert...)

Dufrain is a banker, whose convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. Due to circumstantial evidence, he is convicted and sent to prison for two life sentences. There he meets Ellis Red Redding. The movie shows Andy's experiences at the prison, but one thing note worthy, is the fact that Andy asks Ellis Red Redding to smuggle in a rock hammer and a poster of a movie actress.

As the story progresses, we come to find out that Andy Dufrain was actually innocent, and wrongly convicted of murder. Then, 17 years after he first entered prison, Andy Dufrain is missing from his prison cell. The furious prison warden discovers how Andy escaped.

Through a tunnel in his prison wall....

Andy Dufrain spent about 17 years chipping away at his wall, late at night after the prison lights were switched off. He used to take all the concrete that he chipped away, put them in his pocket, and emptied them in the prison yard every morning. Andy Dufrain was an innocent man. He was finally free.

After 17 years. 17 long years. Every day during those 17 years, Andy chipped away using nothing but a small rock hammer(the size of a slightly large toothbrush).

There's a line which Andy says to Ellis Red Redding in the movie. The line is: "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies".

Hope. Something most of us lose within a week, or a month. We try dieting for three weeks and then decide its easier to just remain fat. We try to score better marks and after the first four report cards, decide we're maybe not smart enough after all. We try being friends with someone we really like, and then drop it after the first few tries. Worse still, we try getting back together with our estranged friends, and leave it after the first few no's.

Sometimes it does seem futile to hope. Sometimes you might hear them say, 'Give up Dude', 'It's no use', or a personal favourite of some, 'Get a life!'. Well, when Andy Dufrain asked Ellis Red Redding for a rock hammer, Ellis jokingly asked him if he was planning on tunneling his way out of prison. "It would take you 600 years to do that!" Ellis said, to imply how impossible the task really was.

He was wrong. Andy Dufrain took less than 20....

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10 July 2009

A Handful of Olives

Maryam believed in the story of olives. Even when her elder brother Jassim mocked her, the seven year old girl refused to change her opinion.

“So you’re telling me that olives can protect you from evil?” asked Jassim, his tone revealing his disbelief. Maryam nodded her head vigorously. “That’s what Grandmother used to say, wasn’t it? She said that if there was an olive tree outside our house, angels would guard us from all harm. And that whenever we were frightened, all we had to do was hold a handful of olives in our right hand. You heard her say all this, didn’t you?”

Jassim merely chuckled, and said nothing. He was smart enough not to believe in such stories. After all, he was almost 13 years old…

* * * *

“Jassim, go and water the olive tree,” Jassim’s mother said, as she combed Maryam’s hair. Jassim looked irritated. “Why should I water the tree? Cant Maryam water it herself?”

“Jassim, don’t argue. You need to go to the grocery after this. I want you to water the tree immediately.”

Jassim hated watering the tree. It couldn’t technically be called an olive tree, since it was barely as tall as Jassim, and definitely much weaker. Yet, ever since his Grandmother had told them about the story of Olives, Jassim was asked to water the Olive tree. He secretly suspected it was all done just to please Maryam.

It was a sunny, yet cool December morning, and the village where Jassim lived, just on the outskirts of Gaza, looked picturesque. After filling the heavy bucket, Jassim walked towards the olive tree, and was about to start watering it, when he heard odd noises.

Jassim was too young to recognize the sound of an attack helicopter. But as he looked up towards the sky, he saw the imposing mechanical war machine advance towards him. And instinctively, the bucket dropped from his hand.

The water spilled, forming a puddle around the olive tree. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion, and a moment later, the spilled water turned blood red. As the helicopter passed by, Jassim’s uncle ran out of the house, yelling at the top of the voice.

Maryam’s mother dashed towards the window, fear instantly reflected on her face. Thankfully, Maryam was too short to reach the window. She didn’t see her brother lying on the ground, next to the olive tree, blood gushing from his body…

* * * *

Jassim had never slept so peacefully before. As he opened his eyes again, he felt the soft blanket beneath his body, and immediately realized that he wasn’t lying in his bed.

“Where am I?” he cried out, and looked around. Sitting a few meters from his bed was his mother, her cheeks streaming with tears. A man dressed in white stood over him. For some reason, his smile felt comforting.

“Assalamu Alaikum, Jassim! You’re a very brave boy, do you know that?” Doctor Khalid said.

“Why? What happened?”

“You survived a great explosion. And due to God’s grace, you’re safe. Of course, you’re head must still be paining,” he added, as he saw Jassim touch his forehead.

Jassim fell silent, and merely looked around him. “Where’s Maryam?” he finally asked.

“Ah, Maryam’s fine. In fact, she must be waiting to see you, Jassim. But you’ll have to rest now. You’re in Qatar now, Jassim. Once you’re healthy again, we’ll take you to see you’re sister again. Okay?”

A few minutes later, once his mother had kissed him profusely and thanked God for his mercy, everyone left the room. Jassim slowly drifted off to sleep. He dreamt of returning to his house. Of seeing Maryam again. After all, he had to tell her about how the Olive tree saved his life…

* * * *
For the next few days, Jassim lived a life which he was very much unused to. Doctor Khalid seemed to have taken a special liking towards him. Not only did he get three full meals a day, the nurse who took care of him, made sure he didn’t have to move a muscle all day long. Oddly though, Jassim was not allowed to see the television, even though there was a set in his room. And the Doctor firmly refused to give him any magazines or newspapers to read.

One evening after seeing Jassim fall asleep, Doctor Khalid returned to the Cafeteria. His friend Dr. Thomas was waiting for him.

“How’s the Gaza boy doing?” Dr. Thomas asked.

“He’s doing fine. It’s Gaza that’s in trouble, isn’t it?” Doctor Khalid replied bitterly. Overhead, the television carried images of dead and wounded Palestinians. A small scroller mechanically updated the death toll.

“It’s horrible, the way things are turning out. What about Jassim’s family?”

“His mother and father are here. They’ll be staying until Jassim is completely fit again. Then, I guess they’ll have to return to their village. Or at least what’s left of it….”

* * * *
12 days after he woke up in the hospital, Jassim mustered enough courage to ask Doctor Khalid the question.

“Doctor, when will I be able to return home?” he asked, when the doctor had come for a routine check up.

“Soon, Jassim. Within a few days.”

“Then, could I send a letter?”

Doctor stopped reading his pad, and looked at the 13 year old boy. “A letter? To whom?”

“To my sister Maryam. She must be worried about me. I just want to let her know everything’s fine. So could I send the letter?”

“Why not. I mean, sure. You can write the letter today. And we’ll send it by tomorrow morning, okay?”

As he walked away, Doctor Khalid felt worried. He didn’t know Jassim had a sister. He wondered what happened to her…

* * * *

Yves Martin, a Red Cross worker, surveyed the town of Al Mughraqa, his face showing signs of sorrow and pain. The destruction was unimaginable, to say the least. In front of his eyes, lay disseminated buildings, fallen electricity poles, and worst of all, limp corpses.

“Jesus Christ!” Yves whispered, as he set out to clear the dead bodies. He reached the rubles of what once used to be a home, and began searching for corpses. As he sifted through the stones and steel, something caught his eye.

* * * *

Doctor Khalid shook Jassim’s hand, and gave him a warm hug. “It was a joy to have you here, Jassim. May you grow up to be a smart, wonderful man. Take care now. And take care of your mother.”

“I will,” Jassim said solemnly, nodding his head. And then, after a pause, he asked. “Doctor, did you send the letter which I gave you, to my sister?”

“Yes Jassim, I made sure it was sent. Why do you ask?”

“Nothing. She didn’t reply for all these days. I thought she hadn’t got the letter. But now if she has, then…”
Doctor Khalid smiled. “Don’t worry, Jassim. You’ll see her soon. There won’t be any need for a letter.”

After Jassim’s parents had thanked the Doctor and nursing staff, the car left Hamad Medical Hospital. As he saw the car make its way out of the hospital compound, a question entered Doctor Khalid’s mind.

“Nurse, why did you give Jassim those olives?”

“Oh, that!” the nurse smiled, “well, it seems Jassim’s grandmother told him that olives will bring protection from harm and evil. Ever since he was saved from the explosion, Jassim’s believed in the story of the olives. It sounds a little silly, but after all, he’s just a child.”

Doctor Khalid smiled melancholically. “No, it doesn’t sound silly. The olives symbolize protection from harm. It’s a source of hope for Jassim. And when he returns to Gaza, he’ll need a lot of that. Hope. Hope and faith.”

* * * *

"Assalamu Alaikum
Dear Brother,

I felt so happy when I read your letter. Thank God, you’re alright. I and Uncle Basheer were praying for your health for all these days. When will you return home? I’m waiting to see you, brother. It’s terrifying here, with all the bombs and helicopters. Uncle Basheer says there’s nothing to worry about, but I see him pray for our safety, late at night. I’ve been saying all the prayers which Father taught us. And whenever I get very scared, I hold a handful of olives. Remember what Grandmother told us? Hope to see you and Mother and Father soon.

Assalamu Alaikum.

Yves finished reading the letter. His eyes fell on the body which lay limp beneath the ruble. As he slowly pushed away the debris, he caught a glimpse of the girl’s clenched right fist. He opened the fist slowly. What he saw brought tears to his eyes. Maryam had a handful of olives in her hand. Just before the bomb landed on her house…

* * * *
Jassim felt happy as he boarded the plane. Within a few hours, he would be back in Gaza. He would be able to see his sister soon. As he buckled his seat and waited for the plane to take off, his mother knew what he was going to face once the plane would land. She closed her eyes and whispered a small prayer: “Oh God, give Jassim the strength to bear his loss. Make his soul firm and strong. Do not burden us with pain. Oh God, give us strength, give us strength…”

[This story won First Place in a Short Story Competition held by Qatar Cultural Centre recently. The theme was "Sufferings of the People of Gaza". Please let me know your opinion on the story. And yes, please rate the story, if you're not going to comment...]

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03 July 2009

Black And White...Or Shades of Grey?

The class fell silent when John entered. It was always like that. No one spoke much in John's presence. After all, he was the infamous backbencher, the perinnial failure, the guy who dared to back answer teachers. Some even said he was a chain smoker. I didnt know what to believe. But one thing was for sure. John was a bad fellow.

A bad fellow. My cousin, who was studying in the same school as my senior, heard me mention about John one day. He laughed. "Funny how you treat life like a Lord of the Rings movie." He remarked. What do you mean?

Well, you've seemed to lable John as a bad guy havent you? Meaning you know some people who are good?"

That was an absurb question. Of course I knew good fellows in my class. There were plenty. Like Philip, the class topper for example.

My cousin shook his head, realising I wouldnt understand. Just before leaving though, he said. "Maybe you should know more about John. It might change your opinion about him...."

Three weeks later, I had just finished my Maths examination. I was waiting for my friends outside the hall, when my cousin met me. "Ah, just the person I wanted to talk to. Wanna know more about John?"

I didnt mind.

Fine, then here's a good intro for the guy. Till 9th Grade, he was amongst the toppers in class."

I laughed so hard my cousin hit me on my head. "It isnt a joke. And you dont have to mock me so much, too."

"I'm sorry. I just found that too hard to believe."

"Yes, so did I. Well, turns out till 9th he was in Bahrain. That is, until his parents had a falling out with some of his relatives and decided to leave. He didnt want to leave. He loved his school, his friends and most of all, his relatives. It wasnt him who had a fight with them after all. But against his wishes, he was made to join this school. The first two months were terrible for him. He was emotionally wrecked, and that showed on his mark sheet. Everyone was quick to label him a back bencher.

And that's where he's been ever since. At the back bench."

My smile had vanished, and I looked at my cousin seriously. "But then, if John was a brilliant fellow, why couldnt he prove himself?"

"I dont know. There could be many reasons. Firstly, he had a deep grudge against his father for forcing him to shift schools. Then there was the lack of motivation. For a guy whose lost all that he loved, getting 100 in Maths isnt excatly exciting, is it? But that's not how the teachers saw it. They piled on the pressure. So did his parents. They made sure he didnt have any of the freedom normal teenagers had. And it was bound to happen."

"What would happen?" I asked.

"John took to smoking. Believe me, it wasnt to prove himself or become a big shot. No, it was because he couldnt bear it all. Yes, it was a bad decision. But sometimes I wonder, if I myself would have done the same thing, if I had gone through what he had."

"So, he's been like this ever since?"

"Yes. Why would things change? He's labled that way isnt he? He is the bad guy, the guy who never studies, the guy who's good for nothing. In the wonderful class heirachy we've formed, he's below the Super Nerds, below the All Rounders, below the Sports Stars, below the Average Joes. He's at the bottom of the rung. And that's where he'll stay perhaps."

My cousin had to leave suddenly, since a teacher was looking for him. As I waited for my friends, I thought to myself: We spend so much time seeing the world in Black and White. Everyone's either purely good or purely bad to us. We praise those who are impeccable, and shun those who have flaws. So many of us can easily point out the bad in someone. How many of us try to figure out how he became so 'bad' in the first place?

We're not either black or white. We're not either completely good, or completely bad. We're shades of grey. Some lighter than others. But sadly, we've forgotten that. We've begun treating people in contrasting colours....

My impression of John had changed drastically. I could see him for who he really was. A brillant student, caught in the troubles of life. A fellow who reacted in the best possible way, to deal with all the pain he had to face. Yes, he smoked. Yes, he back answered a teacher once, out of frustration. Sure, he had utter disregard for marks or exams. But I wonder: wouldnt I have reacted the same way, if I went through all that he did? Maybe not. But maybe....just maybe....yes. I would have.

I went back into the hall to collect my hall ticket. That's when I saw John chuck his question paper into the bin. "How did you do?" I asked, trying to sound polite.

He shrugged his shoulders, and looked at me in the eye. "What does it matter", he asked. Philip commented as he saw him leave, "He's probably going to fail again this time. He wouldnt know half the answers anyway."

A minute later though, John's words had a new meaning. I had caught a glimpse of his question paper before he chucked it. It had scribblings all over it. As I took it out from the bin and straigthened it, I saw the answers to the six mark questions, written on the side of the margin. They were merely rough calculations. But they were almost fully correct.

John knew the answers to the questions. He was smart enough to calculate them on his own. But I had a feeling he never wrote them onto his answer paper. Why? Because, as he said, 'What does it matter?". Everyone expected him to fail. In their eyes, he wasnt a kid with a lot of potential. For them, he was one of those people who would never succeed, who would never pass. One of those people who would never be correct, who would never be 'Good'. For them the world was just Black and White...

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