Monday, April 27, 2015

To Dante's Hell

My short story originally published in AntiSerious magazine.

http://www.antiserious.com/2014/12/10/dantes-hell-where-is-my-religion-taking-me/




Starbucks. San Francisco. A sluggish Friday afternoon. A sugar-free non-fat cappuccino and momentary lapse of control that leads to a Cheese Danish (read 420 stubborn calories and food coma).

Fogged brain refuses to process a single word from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that has been checked out thrice from the library and returned each time without so much as even a perfunctory glance. This is my final chance before I give up on my elitist pursuits. I venture into it and learn it’s about an unnamed man in post-Apocalyptic hell of an unending nuclear winter running into cannibals who, get this, don’t even chase him. Please. As if that would happen. So the novel is promptly traded for a fashion blog on the beloved smart phone.

A little piece of the flaky pastry, as if on cue, duly sticks to the side of my lower lip. Tough luck, I tell it. It’s a lazy day.  I let it stay put and move on.
The blog post is quite intriguing. Gothic bride. Dark shades of silk, cascading ruffles, corsets, bold designs, deliberate dark circles all around the eyes, mile-long fake lashes, black lipstick, steampunk hair and raven feathers. Who knew that category had crawled out of the spooky, fantasy-laced Halloween world and turned legit and socially acceptable? And who are these people who throw these weddings? The last ‘out there’ wedding I had attended was where the newlyweds rendered a version of Macarena replete with romantic eyeballing of each other in ornate desi outfits. Then they did a repeat and coaxed all the eager aunties to join in. The aunties lip-synched and shook their derriere a bit much making for splendid photo ops as I cheered through my Patron-affected speech and vision.

I’ve been such an Alice in the Goth world that I’ve not taken note of the erudite crowd that now occupies the adjacent table. Two young men, three young women and one parakeet – or so she sounds like, accompanied by an older gentleman. I scan them because I’m still working on my cappuccino and its peak rush hour and my cross-fit class doesn’t start for the next thirty minutes. (And that’s about as much effort I’m willing to put into my excuses.) Okay I scan them because I hear Lisbon and Madrid and Monte Carlo and a bundle of what looks like travel literature and I’m ready to call my travel agent and take off with them if they’ll just let me. I’m an avid traveler, did I mention? They discuss flights and train stations and points of interests that include a whole lot of churches while I let the lukewarm, bitter liquid coat my throat. Soon it’s time for them to disperse and while the rest shoot for the door, one of the younger men in a blue cardigan and black skinny tie approaches me.

“May I?” he asks, pointing to the chair across from me. Sure I would love to travel with them. Not going to lie. But this is way too fast. I am a conformist at heart. Perhaps they were a MeetUp.com group looking to expand, I reason. He takes my pursed lips for an affirmative response and sinks into the chair.
In a completely appalling move, instead of a hello, he points at my lower lip. How lewd. I’m ready to give him a piece of my mind when I remember the pastry flak. I brush it off sheepishly and straighten my back.
“If you have a couple of minutes,” he says solemnly, pulling out one of the brochures. Gosh, don’t let it be Paris, please. That’d make this the most clich├ęd story ever. Group met me at Starbucks and asked me to go to Paris with them. Yikes. Not that these things routinely happen to me. Could I bring my kid along? I grab the leaflet from him, silencing my thoughts. The Gospel Of Jesus Christ, it reads. The leaflet cover features a lovely image of Christ with his right hand raised, light rays reflecting from it. I narrow my eyes to read the title again.

“Are you a Hindu?” he asks nonchalantly, giving me no time to warm up to the subject. Yes I am. A practicing one too. I nod weakly because I’m trying to gauge where this is headed. Multitasking is not one of my strengths.
“Wouldn’t you like to go to heaven?” he tosses the million-dollar question at me, just like that, the blue in his cardigan bouncing off his luminous grey eyes. 
As if an eternal spot at heaven for me is simply contingent upon a resounding 
yes.
“Perhaps you can share the founding principles of Hinduism and I can tell you why you may want to think about…” Conversion? He is unrelenting. I was studying Gothic brides a few minutes back. I’m not prepared for this conversation. Plus, I can never defend religion at gunpoint. Founding principles? I blank out and my mouth goes dry. So I do the next best thing and make an excuse about someplace I have to be. He coaxes, I resist. It’s a tug of war. I eventually rise, gather my belongings, and politely part ways.
“It’s the only way to avoid going to hell.” He calls out. I gasp. To some, it could perhaps be a mild insult but to me, the mention of hell invariably causes the images of afterlife by the famous 14th century Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, to float all around me. Naked sinners in hell being devoured or stabbed by devils, rivers of blood flowing endlessly, birds feasting on their dismantled flesh; perpetual suffering. It is disturbing, infuriating. My left brain tells me he was perhaps just a novice but my right brain is exploding with overreaction. I jump into the car, unsettled, and begin to drive. I slam my breaks at the next signal when the novel I was reading earlier falls off the passenger seat. I pick it up and it induces this vision; I see the same young man in blue cardigan in place of the unnamed protagonist. I see him in the same post-Apocalyptic hell of an unending nuclear winter. Just like in the novel, he’s starved, frozen, and he’s running into cannibals who, for once, (Lord forgive me for saying this) chase him. They chase him hard. And it doesn’t end well for him. Must be what they call poetic justice, a little voice pops in my head. Somehow I instantly feel better. I laugh at my puerility and drop the book off.

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