Short Fiction ~ Aneeta Sundararaj
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
Michael Yogendran was an idiot. An intelligent man, but an idiot, nonetheless.
Since I had nothing to lose, I was free to criticise him. For one, he didn’t have the book-opening etiquette I expected from someone of his stature. I did not like that he placed my most recent non-fiction work on the table and opened it until the spine was crushed. How on earth could I collaborate with such an uncultured and uncouth man?
I stood up, reached out to pick up my book and put it into my leather satchel.
He stopped whistling.
“Thank you for seeing me,” I said, and turned to leave.
“No. No. No,” he cried out. Standing up, he pleaded, “Ms. Lola, you’re the ghost writer I’ve been looking for.”
I stared at him. “Really?”
“Yes.” Opening his palm and inviting me to sit, he added, “Please, sit down.”
This psychiatrist practically bubbled with delight, removing his glasses and rubbing the rim between his fingers, when he explained what he wanted out of this book project – a coffee table book entitled Stuffed in Malaysia that showcased the nexus between food and our state of mind.
To my utter surprise, I was charmed. Also, unbeknown to me at the time, this book, which we would begin to work on a month later, would one day become a bestseller.
I agreed to meet Michael at a café, rather than his clinic, once a week to ensure that we were not distracted. Where he provided the medical jargon, my task was to dumb down the complex theories, conditions and treatments, and then create stories to illustrate and explain his success stories.
When I was working alone at home, though, I analysed everything connected to him: my sense of yearning, his every word and message to me, and what he wore to our meetings. That’s the sort of blinkered view a woman gets with unrequited love.
Was I in love with Michael, though?
Well, I’ll tell who I was in love with once upon a time – a hotelier named Vikram Singh. The memory of what we had – mostly sadness and longing on my part – haunted me like a bad fairy-tale. In time, though, recalling Vikram-Lola became a practice of transmuting my fear of uncertainty into wisdom and love. Friends called this the lesson of ‘embracing the guru within’ espoused by spiritual masters the world over. I framed it as the time between the demise of Vikram-Lola and the possibility of Michael-Lola; a time I called Guru-Lola. I was convinced beyond reasonable doubt that it (I couldn’t decide if Guru was male of female) took over my creative process. It was able to pluck out words from a space within, long-forgotten by Lola, and take a story on a new adventure altogether. There were times I wept from the stunning beauty of the texts created during Guru-Lola.
When I became aware that Michael was the first person I thought of when I woke up, I studied him more than ever. Michael worried silly about the details of his outer world. My all-purpose chiffon sari was as suitable an attire at a gala fund-raising festival hosted by an Odissi dancer, as it was at a book launch of a desperate-to-be-woke junior member of one of Malaysia’s nine royal families. For Michael, though, it mattered that he wore a batik shirt to one and a suit to the other.
This sort of compartmentalisation in his outer world was a reflection of the inner workings of his mind. It was as if he opened one drawer in his brain, took out the information there, put it into words and that was it. Such was his focused concentration that what he wrote hardly warranted much editing. I, on the other hand, would write one paragraph of a story, let it percolate in my psyche for a time, then revise and edit endlessly. Where his text was all factual, mine was all drama and emotion.
Love, even if it was analysed through a rose-tinted veneer of my mind’s eye, was an enjoyable process. I pictured sitting in a leather chair with my feet tucked under and book in hand while Michael typed away on his laptop at his desk. From time to time, we would venture to the balcony and admire the stunning garden beyond. We’d make plans to celebrate Stuffed in Malaysia making us both award-winning writers.
It took courage to dream like this. Until now, I’d always been on the outside looking in at other couples’ happiness, observing how they lived their lives.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be exactly like that?
Therein lay the important words – to be exactly like that. In those moments when I was plagued by my fears, I made all sorts of presumptions about Michael-Lola. When it became a habit, I questioned everything else as well. Why did a cat turn up out of nowhere in the flat? What’s the meaning of finding cigarette butts outside the front door? Could a charlatan be right that his divination confirmed the failure of Michael-Lola?
Worse, what distress it must be to have all your desires handed to you on a silver platter? Once you committed yourself to a path, though, a labyrinth of uncertainty and new dreams appeared before you. Like a jumble of words that you rearranged until they conveyed your thoughts to the letter, you arranged your dreams. You shouldered those spousal responsibilities. You kept the past firmly in the past. You moved your world to be with the one you love. And, on a cold morning, several months after your wedding, with your belly swelling from the child you’ve made together, you looked out at the dew-covered lawn of the bungalow you now shared with your husband.
It had become exactly like that.
Aneeta Sundararaj is an award-winning writer. She trained and practised as a lawyer before deciding to pursue her dream of writing. Her writing has appeared in many magazines, ezines and journals and, to date, she’s worked on some 13 book projects. Aneeta has contributed more than 250 feature articles to a national newspaper. Her most recent and bestselling novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets was shortlisted for the Anugerah Buku 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. In the past, stories about the real-life Ladoo, Aneeta’s much-loved dachshund, were compiled into a collection called ‘Ladoo Dog: Tales of a Sweet Dachshund’. Throughout, Aneeta continued to pursue her academic interests and, in 2021, successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’.