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13 November 2011

A Tale For Modern Times

Pumpkins do not turn into golden coaches in real life. Frogs do not turn into princes when kissed. Cinders does not become the beautiful Cinderella and there are no fairy godmothers. In real life, an ugly duckling does not turn into a beautiful swan. If it got very lucky, it would grow into an average looking duck. And if the ugly duckling was also a bit of a Cinderella, then the future was even bleaker. Meet one such.

Real life did follow the fairy-tale trajectory in that the ugly duckling always seemed a bit left out of everything; its siblings didn't want to have much to do with it, and in the manner of siblings everywhere, made hurtful comments on how it must have been adopted because it didn't look like them. It was dark and its feathers were dank and drooped and it had a beak that looked like a misshapen lump. The ugly duckling said nothing, for what was there to say? It tucked its head under its wing, and its feathers drooped some more. It wept some quiet tears; only the rushes heard them fall plop into the lake.

The more they teased, the more angry and determined became the ugly duckling to be the best duckling it could be - the best at swimming, for instance, or at catching worms in the mud under the lake. And while it succeeded, and quite well, some would say, it always seemed to the ugly duckling that its efforts fell short somewhere. There was never any real appreciation for its efforts; mostly, there were questions why the 'best' couldn't have been better. But the ugly duckling persevered, hoping, that one day, there would be a whole-hearted acceptance of what it truly was. That was never to happen, and the ugly duckling grew up into an average looking duck and never allowed its insecurities to show. Armour is always good for self-esteem, and the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck learnt how to swathe itself in its protective folds.

There had been one drake who was kind, and had allowed the ugly duckling to tag along, stopping the others from teasing too much; and the kindness made the ugly duckling's heart overflow with gratitude. And when the drake went away, as it often did, the ugly duckling waited for it to come back. And the drake did - season after season, seemingly enjoying the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck's company as much as the latter did his. And so, many seasons came and went, and the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck and the drake fell into a warm, loving companionship that did not admit anyone else into their charmed circle. The drake had been all-in-all to the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck for the longest of time - friend, philosopher, guide, confidante, companion... - and it seemed like the same was true for the drake too.

Many, many, seasons went by, and they moved away from old surroundings to a new home where a deep pool surrounded by trees and rushes shut them off from the rest of the world. They were both content to live quietly, venturing outside for companionship but rarely, happy to be together in a pool where worms abounded, and the sunshine threw dappled shadows on to the water as the rays flitted through the trees. Nothing but the occasional dropping of acorns rippled the surface of the pool, and shoals of fish swam placidly underneath its clear waters. Frogs croaked love songs from amongst the rushes, and sometimes, a kingfisher was seen, a skimming flash of blue as it hunted silently for its food. And the drake and the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck weathered the occasional storms that ripped the rushes to shreds, and turned the surface calmness into a frothing, heaving  mass of waves that seethed and crashed as if they would break all bounds.

And when the storms subsided, the drake and the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck would come out from their hidey-hole and clear up the broken rushes, and stock up on the worms that had been churned up by the storm. Life went on, and the storms only brought them closer in the calm that followed. 

Happy days, until slowly, the sunshine began to recede, so gradually that the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck didn't notice at first. And then the drake began to withdraw into himself. And the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck didn't notice that in the beginning either. The frogs' love songs quietened, and the kingfisher stopped coming. As the darkness began to inch closer and closer, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck, scared out of its wits drew closer to the drake for solace. 

A solace that, for the first time, wasn't forthcoming. And the more the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck pushed for answers, the more the drake withdrew into the darkness of his own mind and the silence was more punishing than anything that the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck had ever gone through before. Shaken and afraid, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck tried harder to bring back the love and the laughter and the camaraderie - and the more it tried, the harder it failed. Until finally, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck was too tired and too defeated to try any more.

And slowly, the pool that had once seen such happiness, and seemed so placid, began to feel more and more like a prison that the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck could not escape from - and slowly, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck began to withdraw into itself too. They had nothing to talk to each other, and even diving for worms began to be a chore. Strained silences took the place of the comfortable quietness they shared, and it seemed like the trees surrounding the lake had intertwined their branches for no ray of light ever crept in to break the dark gloom of their lives.

Seasons passed as seasons will, and the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck grew quieter and quieter; its feathers drooped more than it ever did before, and its misshapen lump of a beak looked even more out of shape. Slowly, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck came to accept its new reality, for what else could it do? And the poor drake? Well, he knew the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck was deeply unhappy but he didn't know what to do about it. He didn't even know what to do about his own unhappiness; and soon, the two of them were mired in their own sadness. It wasn't that they didn't love each other, but that they had drifted apart and now the desire to not hurt the other, or be hurt themselves drove the wedge in deeper.

Until one day, as the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck peered gloomily out from under its wing, it saw something astonishing. Far away, on the other side of the pool, where it was usually the darkest, there was a gleam. The ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck shivered and hid its head under its wing again. But something impelled it to look a second time, and the gleam was still there. Slowly, with all the fascination of a chicken when faced with a snake, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck straightened its head and shook its wings out.

The gleam beckoned, and the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck began to swim slowly, uncertainly towards the light. Twice it turned back, then, as if compelled by something that was beyond its ken, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck pressed its misshapen beak together resolutely and swam toward the light that widened as it swam nearer, hurting eyes that had become attuned to the darkness.

Slowly, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck shut its eyes and opened them again. Through watery eyes, it saw that the rushes were being bent by a drake that was trying to catch an extra-slippery worm. Hesitantly, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck swam toward the broken reeds. The drake, coming up for air, was equally surprised to see the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck there. And the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck turned and swam back desperately toward the comforting darkness of the other shore. The drake shrugged and bent back to the task of capturing that elusive worm.

The ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck, heart pumping wildly, had reached the familiar darkness, but once its heartbeat quietened, could not help but look yearningly at the gleam of sunlight it could still see on the opposite shore. Hesitantly, it swam into the middle of the pool, but turned and fled when it saw the drake looking through the rushes. As darkness fell, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck was conscious of a deep disappointment within.

The next morning, as the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck went about its usual chores, its eyes kept turning to the gleam of light that brightened the opposite shore. It begged, beckoned, and beseeched the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck to come take a look. Once its chores were done, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck turned toward that tempting sight; slowly at first, then strongly, it swam toward that tiny opening. When it reached, shyly, almost hesitantly, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck peeped through the broken reeds to a vast expanse of lake that lay beyond, gleaming in the early autumn sunshine. The ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck had never seen such a wonderful sight before, since it had never approached this shore.

The ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck saw yesterday's drake in the distance, the sun glinting off his deep greens and soft browns. It parted the reeds a bit more, and looked wistfully at the drake and his companions swimming, diving for worms and basking in the cool warmth of the autumn sun. It wouldn't be too soon before they began their mass migration to warmer climes. The drake caught sight of the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck half-hidden amongst the reeds; intrigued, he swam in that direction, slowing down as he neared. The ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck ducked amongst the reeds, watching him swim closer and closer. 

The drake stopped a little bit away, and a warm, mellow voice quacked 'Hello?' The voice was reassuring and the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck responded despite itself. "Come for a swim?" quacked the drake. Slowly, hesitantly, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck swam toward the self-imposed reed boundary. Even more hesitantly, it crossed the reeds and blinked in the bright sunlight. The expanse of water seemed even vaster than when the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck had seen it from behind its protective wall. As it turned to go inside, the drake blocked its way - 'There's nothing to be afraid of.' Quietly, supportively, the drake swam a little way beside the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck, but stopped before they reached his companions. The ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck was grateful not to have to deal with many strangers at once. 

Talking to the drake was unusually simple; it seemed like they had known each other before. Even the silences seemed companionable. And when they talked, they found they could talk about everything under the sun; the sun itself. The ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck bloomed like never before; as days passed, their friendship deepened until there was nothing the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck could not say to the drake. They could quack together for hours; and along with the companionship, the laughter too returned. 

Days passed and the drake had to go south; sadly, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck bid him goodbye and returned to the darkness that was its home. And the drake at home saw the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck's moods swing wildly between happiness and desolation and worried even more. 

However, Winter passed soon that year, and Spring saw the drake return to the lake. And he came looking for the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck; its companionship was as important to him.  Not a day passed that the drake didn't find a way to spend some time with the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck. And without knowing, without volition, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck began to love the drake. Quietly, deeply... and the drake at home, knowing the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck better than it knew itself, sensed this and hurt some more.  

Unable to express that hurt except in anger, matters turned ugly and the relationship, such as it was, deteriorated even further. And the more it did, the more the ugly-ducling-turned-average-duck turned toward the solace of the other drake's friendship. And seasons passed, as seasons will.

But the drake outside was beginning to chafe; he was beginning to sense the silken chords that bound him, and was irked; his soul yearned for freedom, and yet he didn't want to hurt the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck. They were friends, and he wanted them to remain so. Yet, their varying expectations began to reflect on their friendship. 

The skies above the lake began to darken once again; the laughter reduced, and the silences grew more frequent and more hurtful. The ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck did not know what to do. It could hardly stop loving; as well ask it to stop breathing. Much less could it beg for love. Having lived through that sequence once, it would die before it did so again. And the drake was caught in his own predicament - how could he remain true to his own self and yet not hurt a friend whom he cared for deeply? 

And so, the dance began, treading lightly around volatile situations, stepping around discomfiting questions that arose; and they were no longer able to talk as freely as they did before. Certain topics were out of bounds, others were ignored, and the conversations, once so free flowing, so open, so honest, began to resemble social chit-chat more than anything else and neither of them were truly happy, or comfortable. And if, rarely, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck brought up the topics that disturbed its peace, the drake would get upset and the resultant conversation was anything but pleasant.

Rejected, emotionally battered, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck turned inwards as it did once before. There was nothing ahead but bleakness; there was nothing behind but sadness. And slowly, one bright autumn day, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck looked sadly at the drake at it dug for worms in a marshy patch at the end of the lake; once in a while he looked wistfully at his companions at the far side, missing the uncomplicated nature of his early life. And the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck saw that look and hurt some more. It slowly gathered all the invisible skeins of its love and its caring and its laughter, and with a quick peck of its misshapen beak severed all the ties that bound it to the unwilling drake.

It took the drake a couple of moments to realise that he was free of the weight of those bonds; shuddering, he shook its feathers and quickly hopped away, then turned and looked at the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck who could barely see him through its tears. He hopped back two steps towards the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck, then turned and looked at the clear skies above, and his companions at the other end of the lake who were getting ready to fly away. He took one last look at the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck and, shaking his wings out once more, swam strongly toward his erstwhile companions. 

And the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck watched him go, knowing that while life was not going to be worth living afterwards, it had done the only thing it could have done. And from deep within its heart came a wish for happiness and contentment and peace of mind wafted towards the drake by the soft breezes that rippled the lake waters. The ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck thought the drake turned back once, but dismissing it as a figment of its own imagined hopes and desires, watched him until he could be seen no more.

Slowly, it went back to its part of the lake behind the rushes, dark with the surrounding trees and their entwined branches. Where the frogs no longer sang their longings; where the kingfisher did not visit any more.  Its grief was as deep as it was silent, but it was not hidden from the drake at home. And he watched the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck as it looked across the breadth of the pool toward the lingering gleam on the opposite shore.

The next day, the ugly-duckling-turned-average-duck wove the broken reeds and rushes together so that never again would a mischievous gleam of sunlight break the bounds to beckon it with false promises of another chance at life and love and laughter. 

Cinderellas do not get to go to a ball in real life. They are doomed to living their hopes and desires out amidst the cinders in a blackened hearth. Pumpkins do not turn into coaches; and ugly ducklings do not turn into beautiful swans. There are no fairy godmothers, and there is no happily-ever-after. In real life.

18 comments:

  1. That was hard to read (non-english speaker) and it was sad...but I really liked it.

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  2. Carol, welcome. Thank you for taking the trouble to read through even if it was hard. I really appreciate it.

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  3. I wanted to sleep and kept awake to finish reading it. Kal kaam ko deri hogi and you are at fault!
    Well written! and beautiful description of the nature. could see ithe whole story unfold in front of my eyes. Lovely!
    But all the same don't agree with the story. No, there is happiness in this life, one searches for it always in the wrong places. to quote Anand Bakshi "dil me dekha nahin, dekha sara jahan"
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkFh_u3oDrY

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  4. Thank you, Harvey. I appreciate you giving up your sleep to read my story. I really do. And agar kaam pe deri hogi to to think of it as in a good cause. :)

    But all the same don't agree with the story.

    Arre baba,
    this is not such an evolved duck. :(

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  5. What a sad tale, Anu. Why is it that your personal writings are always so?

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  6. That is so sad, but also so beautifully written, Anu. Thank you! (though, taking it further from what you wrote in response to harvey's comment... I disagree that there can be no 'happily ever afters'. All very relative, no? I have a deep faith in the resilience of people to bounce back from the depths and to find happiness, contentment, whatever - in other ways. Perhaps a 'happily ever after' is really just a string of beads, some bright and colourful, some misshapen and ugly, out of which each of us chooses which we'll focus on and cherish.

    Very thought-provoking story, this. Lovely.

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  7. Thanks for the compliment, Madhu. And oh, I do not disagree with either Harvey or you. Happiness is where you find it, and it is subjective. My reply to Harvey was more in the context of the story - Can't see a 'happily ever after' in store for my ugly duckling. Besides I didn't write it; it wrote itself. (And so I excuse myself! :) )

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  8. Why is it that your personal writings are always so?

    Are they? Hmm, haven't really thought about that.

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  9. Echoing dustedoff here - it is such a sad story (did you HAVE to make my Monday morning even more depressing than usual?) but it's so beautifully written. Having seen something like this play out in a friend's life, I suspect you're right when you say that 'happily ever after' is not for everyone. And that's sad in itself.

    Thank you for such a beautiful short story, Anu.

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  10. When I saw the title, I was wondering which film it was that you were reviewing. This was a surprise indeed. I'll echo all the other commenters - it's such a sad story, Anu. And you've written it so well. I liked it a lot.

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  11. :-D
    yes, very true, there is no happily ever-after!

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  12. I am very, very sorry to have made you sad on Monday. :( My apologies. And thank you so much for the compliment.

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  13. Thanks, Ruhi. Glad you liked it.

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  14. The more I thought about it, the more I felt I had to read it again. It made me cry (a little bit) and I want you to rewrite this story to give your ugly duckling a happy ending! Now!

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  15. I am conflicted. On the one hand, I'm very sorry I made you cry. Not my intention at all. On the other, I'm very happy that my story moved you so much. Does that even make sense?

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  16. Echoing everybody else here - beautifully written, Anu, and so thought-provoking. I agree that happily-ever-after does not exist in real life - not for Cinderellas and not for anybody else. Sure there is happiness, but it does not come of passively resting after one achievement (like Cinderella marrying her Prince Charming), but of actively pursuing it. And that is probably why fairy tales are so attractive - if only we could achieve that one impossible goal and be happy ever after that, with no need to struggle and strive for more...

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  17. Yes, indeed, Ira. I think you need to work at happiness. And actively strive for it. Though sometimes, that striving doesn't really work either. Miracles are also for fairy tales, I'm afraid. Or maybe that is the cynic in me talking. :)

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