Short Story: The Gesture
image from the wonderful internet
A short story entry I wrote for the Orange prize short story writing contestorganised by Harper’s Bazaar UK. The theme was “The Gesture”.
Born to devout buddhist parents, Shou was never made to feel guilty about his permanent disability or how he was a burden to the family. His mother believed that it was the bad karma she accumulated in her past life that caused her to give birth to a son with cerebral palsy.
She was an encouraging parent who always tried her best to make sure he was comfortable. She ceaselessly talked about overcoming the odds, looking beyond the limitations of his physical built.
He enjoyed Buddhist meditation and imagined he would one day be free from the sufferings of the world when he attained Nirvana; never again to be humiliated by the wary looks of people. His parents named him Shou 寿, a Chinese character that means longevity, as they believed it would counter the negative effects of his physical weakness. However, the same intonation also meant the character ‘beast’ which he felt painted a better picture of himself.
Every morning, he would rise at 5 o’clock to join his parents at meditation. It was the only part of the day that had a semblance of routine for him. While other children his age went to school, he stayed at home. For some time, he enrolled in learning programmes and took up horse riding as a form of therapy. This “hippo therapy” was supposed to help increase his psychomotor skills. However, like everything else he had tried before, it was futile. His stuttering improved a little as he mustered up the courage to shout out commands for the horses and made attempts to grip and hold the reins. It was a feat getting his fingers to open up, and much more difficult getting them to bend in the ways and shapes that he wanted them to.
He hated his existence and often dreamt about putting his stringy mutant fingers through the industrial meat grinder or metal slicing machines only found in factories. That way, he would only have to look at stumps of hands, rather than his deformed crooked fingers.
Buddha’s teachings and meditations involved hand gestures that symbolised qualities for a fulfilling life, free from materialism, suffering and pain. The most challenging gesture of the series for Shou to master was the vitarka mudra that he knew was physically impossible. Yet, he persevered. Like most desperate devotees, he promised that he would devote his entire life to the monastery, if he could just have this wish fulfilled. The vitarka mudra resembled the universal ‘OK’ sign that involved him to peel his fingers open and bring his index finger to his thumb while coordinating the other three fingers to remain straight. He’d seen many children doing it, inverting their hands and making ‘”owl eyes” or singing his favourite nursery rhyme ‘Incy Wincy spider climbing up the spout’ as they placed their thumb and index fingers of each hand together with such dexterity as they sang. After all, it was one of those tunes which children learnt when they were introduced coordination skills. He used to cry every time he heard that nursery rhyme because it only reminded him of his physical incapability.
Everyday after his morning meditation, he would spend hours trying to relax his fingers and straighten them out into an open palm before attempting the Vitarka Mudra. His parents did not understand his new fixation and enthusiasm to conquer his difficulties but gave him their unrelenting support. It took him months before he finally managed to open his palm entirely. He was delighted at his achievement and gained a little more confidence.
With this new obsession, he practiced day and night. He needed to prove to himself that Cerebral Palsy does not render one disabled for life; he wanted a future for himself and to be entirely self-reliant. Already fifteen, he still depended on his mother to be fed and cleaned.
Through Buddhist teachings, he learnt hard work, humility and determination. However hard he tried, he could never disconnect himself from the pain, suffering and misery of being unable to communicate effectively, whether verbally or through gesturing. There were days he wanted to give up and live his life like how everyone thought he should— sit around to waste away and be dependent on his mother forever.
Within days, he would change his mind again, battling the odds, angry and disappointed with himself for even entertaining the thought of giving up.
Over months, he managed to open his palms with tremendous effort, sometimes it took him days, but the progress delighted him and his parents. That evening, for dinner, his mother placed a fried chicken drumstick into his rice bowl. He willed his palms to open to get a grip of the juicy piece of meat. They held their breaths and watched as he struggled to lift the drumstick. With considerable effort, he managed a hold on the drumstick and cautiously brought his mouth to his hand. He had succeeded in effectively using his hands as he allowed tears to flow freely. He would no longer eat like an animal, bringing his mouth to the bowl, leaving a messy food trail on the table.
Following the night of tremendous success, he decided to take a few days off. After his routine morning meditation, he went to the park for a walk. With meditation, his physical strength has improved remarkably and he no longer went out in a wheelchair but managed walking with a crouched gait. He took a seat on the bench and watched the passers-by imagining the untold stories of their lives and the problems they might have, much different from his own. If he had better control of his hands, he could have a pet and feel its fur between his fingers, stroking it with a full open palm. How nice to enjoy the tactile feeling on the tips of his fingers like these owners and their big fluffy dogs. While he fantasized about a more fulfilling life, a girl walked towards him gesturing wildly.
He couldn’t make out what she wanted and ignored her to avoid any uncomfortable situation as he wasn’t capable of full speech with his stutter. She sat down beside him and made the universal gesture of ‘OK’.
Taking it personally, he was upset and got up to leave as he thought she was mocking his disability. She didn’t give chase as he limped away as quickly as he could.
The following morning, he went back to the park, curious about the stranger he met. For all his life, nobody bothered to talk to him except his parents. Maybe he could befriend this strange girl who tried to communicate with him the very same gesture he wants so badly to master.
They met at the same bench in the park that morning. She greeted him with the same ‘OK’ gesture and he watched her movements; he was incapable of starting a conversation, primarily because he had never done so in his entire life. He never got over his stuttering difficulties, neither did he know how to deal with someone of the opposite sex. He realised she was mute. He did not know sign language as his mother thought it was unnecessary and they communicated primarily through the sounds he made and his expressive eyes. A little short of being shy, he mustered up the courage to return the gesture he had been practicing for years.
And he did.
He couldn’t express his elation in any other way but to give the girl a big hug. Holding the permanent gesture, he limped home to show his mother.
Ecstatic about his success, he didn’t know how to thank the girl who created the impetus for him to force himself to respond in that intense situation. She made him nervous, but he also wanted desperately to connect with someone else, other than his mother.
He went to the park again the next day. They met and this time, she took his hands in hers. It was an all-encompassing feeling he had never known all his life and never knew was capable of. However, he was reminded of his promise he made to God; if he could one day overcome his disability and master the vitarka murdra, he would devote his entire life to Buddhism and live in the monastery. His sixteenth birthday was coming up and he felt an urgency to start living his own life independent of his parents, which before today, remained only a dream.
For days, he met this mystery girl who wrote her name down as Mae with a twig on the sand. He didn’t know if it was love, he only read it in books and saw it in the movies but it was an inexplicable feeling that was both thrilling and frightening. Now his palms opened with little difficulty and the vitarka mudragesture came almost naturally, without him willing it. Once he got his fingers in position, it required a mammoth effort straightening his fingers again.
He was starting to feel for the girl while dealing with the dilemma of giving up life’s worldly pleasures to become a monk to live a life of abstinence and absolute discipline. Unable to make up his mind, he thought about other options he could have. For the first time, he actually had options. He manipulated this sacred gesture in everyway possible hoping for a kaleidoscope of opportunities and answers to appear between the little loop he made with his thumb and index finger. Everyday, he tilted his hand in different angles and dreamt of seeing wonderful things through his fingers, but only got more disappointed as visions and answers never came to help him make the decision of his life.
With increased flexibility of his hands, he started to help his mother with basic household chores. Doing the dishes took him an hour more than an average person, but he enjoyed the contact with water and it running through between his fingertips. He was charmed by the new tactile experiences introduced to him. Later that night, he saw his mother with needle and threat mending a hole in his pants. His mother read his mind.
“Ok boy! You can have a go at this, but you better be careful with the needle, you might prick yourself!”
With the lack of dexterity, he took a long time to sew one stitch, but in place he made up for it by being extremely meticulous. He enjoyed it so much, he started to take apart scrap pieces of cloth and set to work on a new quilt for himself. Tearing apart his old clothes and pjyamas, he stitched them together piece by piece, forming a quilt portrait of his life thus far. Never in his life did he think this would be possible- holding a needle and thread between his thumb and index fingers.
There, lying on the floor as he looked through the space between his fingers, he found his answer.
He would sew—anything and everything.
With this newfound vision, he went on to create the most unique stitches for haute couture that others had difficulties copying. The vitarka mudra in this case came to symbolise more than wisdom or teaching. It was aspiration.