Rivals by Rupali Saini

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It was a brand new day in August, but Tara was still blinking in her bed. Not wanting to part with the sheet covering her since yesterday evening, she was cowering. The latest list of the selected candidates was out, and this time, too, she didn’t make it.

This time, the cyclic sessions of her ‘To-be-or-not-to-be’ assessments were so absorbing that until now, her pulsating skull had not yet knocked her brooding nerves. Otherwise, it was ever eager to dive into the ripples of migraine.

Her wide-awake mind was diligently engaged in conjuring up several gateways so that she could exit safely from her sky-high idea of lecturing in the ivory towers of academia. In the end, she was a simple girl—studied in local schools and colleges; any exposure to the highbrow community was beyond her reach.

It was the trilling of her phone that finally breached her reverie, but as the name ‘Sir Shukla’ flashed on the screen, her efficient mind instantly reacted to the strips of crisp sunlight peeping from the window coverings, and a streak of pain instantly cracked its way through the suspending Tyndall particles, but she had to oblige him—how benevolent he was in scooping out his precious minutes whenever she requested, and how, at each occasion, he relied upon her ability in writing his research paper.

So, somehow she steered herself into the threatening corridors of the meeting hall where the professor could be found. Yes, there he was, occupied in securing a resource person for an upcoming international conference. He was pacing.

Seeing Tara, he gestured her to help herself to a chair stacked in a tall array. She struggled, but managed to free the one at the top of the four-legged entanglement.

Feebly emerging with the wobbling campus chair, the frail aspirant looked at the maxims inscribed on the high walls of the building. Her gaze came to rest on a glossy lectern and she felt unsettled.

She was late, which she never was, and looking timider than ever; Professor Shukla sensed her recurring failure and immediately proceeded in his customary flair, “Tara, you are a brilliant one. Failure is the key to success. It is courage that counts. I can see a professor in you—you are a warrior. Don’t give up!” As he was enunciating his signature statements, other professors were trickling into the department.

Walking with a scholarly air, all the intellectuals settled around the office desk. Like Professor Shukla, they, too, plunged in, bucking up Tara’s morale and issued some complimentary statements. Braced with several terminologies, their words were proof of their classy and genteel demeanor.

Here, Tara was wracking her nerves to make out something from their extraordinary verbiage, but came away with a few understandable bits.

Overwhelmed, she touched the feet of each erudite to ensure that she, too, could reach their footing. Finally, she took leave with a commitment to fight one more time.

And this time, whether it was her revived spirit, her favored health as her prickly nerves seemed to be hibernating, or her horror of facing embarrassment one more time, she was selected—and to her amusement, now she would work with the same professors, whom she fondly called ‘The Boosters.’

On her joining day, before anything, she resolved to visit the meeting hall where she could convey her warm regards to Professor Shukla and The Boosters.

Holding a big box of sweets she had purchased from the best confectionery store in the city, she was looking pretty in her pastel sari. Her success had added a kind of distinction to her appearance.

She ran in, and, as usual, the professor was on the phone, looking unaware of Tara’s presence there. Meanwhile, the group of the other veterans approached, but they also did not acknowledge her standing there.

For a moment, thinking that the group might have not recognized her, Tara came forward to reintroduce herself, but the words melted on her tongue when Professor Shukla waved for the seat and droned, “So, Ms. Tara, you are assigned to assist Dr. Batra in greeting the guests arriving for a seminar.”

On being chosen for an important task on the very first day, she felt elated and nodded gratefully with joined palms, but she was missing her former warmth. Before the silence could thicken more, maintaining her cheery bursts with a scholarly composure, Tara uttered, “Sir, with all your support and encouragement, I have been selected, and—”

“He knows,” Mrs. Saraswat chipped in.

At once, a flash hit her neural pathways; a muscle dilated her pupils. Not a migraine, this time she was punched by the ways of the world, and straight away, she acknowledged that no longer was she a struggling aspirant; she was their rival now.

“Rivals” is laden with anticipation, thick with artful language suitable for the setting and subject, and the succinct method of ending the story brings to life the general apprehension of the protagonist. It might be interesting to write a series of short stories about this character and environment to unveil a tendency “of the world” to do as it must in maintaining its sometimes tendentious and frustrating nature. I’ll enclose my comments following. What is often called “the world” abstractly is something tendentious and unapproving, malicious even. Somehow we remain aware of these qualities even when we desire the good. Stories such as “Rivals” open the foundation of the world’s wise but wicked structure before us, offering us to contemplate how this change takes place, why such changes are suited for our benefit, and leaves us with stark apprehension of the inevitable masks we wear for each occasion. Rupali Saini constructs a story artfully intoned and appropriately measured with qualities of language deliberate in their intellectual force and vigor. Although “the world” is viewed abstractly as those things which haunt us, such things are qualities of our being we must learn to navigate wisely.Dustin Pickering, founder of Transcendent Zero Press and reviewer at World Literature Today

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