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Surprisingly, more than half the qualifiers were women. They tended to excel most at negotiation and strategy, mental prowess and survival instincts, in addition to their chosen subjects.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Prashanti Chunduri is one of the winners of the October 2020 Muse of the Month.
“But for women, The Waiting Game starts in childhood. It’s not fair!”
It was a sentence I’d heard many times before. Today’s self-proclaimed victim was male, as most of them were, young enough to have just graduated or just started university, and dressed to the nines, perhaps hoping to impress the Gatekeeper. It wouldn’t work. I had seen more intimidating men tower over her, flexing their pale muscles and bellowing about their rights. It was often more bark than bite, though.
Still, this guy seemed to have a better sense of self-preservation than the usual crowd that came to the door dressed to fight. There really was no point in trying to pick fights with a 7-time West Tunnel Tae Kwon Do Champion, a black belt holder in Aikido and the youngest National Krav Maga Title Holder in a decade. A suit and tie might impress her, instead.
I picked at the pencil shavings on my desk idly as I lent the pair half my attention. I’d heard it all a hundred times before, but you never know. Things could go from a zero to a hundred in under three seconds near the doors. I had to be ready to move my papers to a safe space outside the danger zone before a fight could escalate.
“That’s funny. Let’s talk about it.”
“What?” said the guy, looking frazzled at being invited to converse.
“Let’s talk about how this is unfair to you.”
“That-I-It’s just… its unfair that two people from your family get to go outside!”
I looked up in surprise.
“Hmm. Well, that’s true.” The Gatekeeper had an odd way of talking that belied her strength – soft and soothing, more apt to the nurses at the station. I enjoy the many different ways that human face can express surprise, and this new one consisted of comically wide eyes.
“What do you say?” she pointed this question at me. “You ready for a contest?”
I sighed. “Yeah, sure, bring it on.”
The poor guy now looked like he’d give anything to go back to the bunkers. Why is it that conversation and discussion always seemed to put them off?
“So!” The Gatekeeper stood up and clapped her hands once, looking like an anime character in the old comic books in the Vault. The guy took a step back; I wouldn’t blame him – she was slightly disconcerting to look at, a clash of contrariness. “You want to fight first, or draw?” she paused, as if in thought. I snorted. “I’d suggest you draw first. That way, you’ll still be able to fight later. I won’t be able to help you if your wrist snaps during the fight, or worse.”
A beat. Two.
“No, that’s okay. I guess I’ll just prepare harder…”
He slinked back toward the caverns as I picked up my pencil again.
“How many times was it this week?”
“Eight. That’s five more than last week. What is it about the Old Festivals that makes people want to go outside?”
I shrugged. “Maybe the snow?”
“Hmm. Anyway, Gaia should be here for the next shift soon. You coming for dinner? Mum’s making sweet potato stew.”
“Wait, really?” I exclaimed, promptly abandoning my pencils and carefully shoving the sheaves of paper into the pigeonhole behind me, locking it securely. “Ready!”
She grinned, ruffling my hair as we started down the stone path. As we approached the centre of the bunkers, muffled voices grew louder and clearer, merry and joyful. Clearly, Christmas was making people excited. It was a nice change from the sombre mood that often hung over the area.
“Wooo, it’s The Sisters!” a voice yelled as we stopped at one of the newer stalls to examine stone jewellery. I grinned at the sound of my best friend even before turning around.
“When will you stop calling us that?” Daksha asked in a harsh whisper as Enki appeared in a whirlwind. I turned to give him a hug but knew what to expect as I felt his arms around my neck in a headlock. A mistake.
I gripped his forearm and braced one foot against the ground as I twisted with the other, shifting my weight in order to deal with the longer body behind me and flipping him onto the ground. It was over within two seconds.
“Tsk,” Daksha muttered above us. “You were too slow.”
“Give me a break!” I scowled as I dusted my hands, standing up. Then I smirked down at Enki, who was still groaning on the floor. “Maybe you can show me how?”
“Oh no way!” Enki sang as he stood up in a flash and danced away from within my sister’s reach. “I have a class to teach today and I need all my bones intact.”
“Wait, you have a class today?” I asked in surprise as we looped our arms together and continued walking. “Isn’t it your day off?”
“I bet it because of the Old Festival,” said my sister. “Right?”
Enki shot her finger guns.
“It’s such a fuss,” she mumbled.
“Leave the people alone, Gaia,” Enki chuckled. “They just want to feel normal again.”
“Oh, sure!” Gaia threw up her hands. “I don’t care about how many people come to the door, that’s fine, I can handle them – ”
“Clearly,” whispered Enki.
“ – I just wish they’d stop attacking Daichi too!”
I stiffened, pausing mid-step. Enki could probably feel the sudden difference in my demeanour as he stopped walking too, looking a tad worried as he glanced between us. He’d been witness to one too many similar conversations to have good reason to.
“I can defend myself,” I told my sister, frowning. I was getting tired of repeating that sentence now.
“Well, I sure hope you can,” she snorted, “seeing that I taught you myself, but that’s not what I mean – ”
“What do you mean, then?”
“I just don’t want Mum and Dad getting attacked – ”
“ – because of me?” I asked, suddenly feeling cold. “How is this my fault?” I fought to keep my voice under control, but rage had my blood simmering just beneath the surface. How dare she?
“How dare you?” I said quietly. “You were the one who left. I stayed with them all these years. Me. Don’t presume you know me too well. It’s only been a year.”
We stood facing each other, almost mirror images, but with histories that looked nothing alike. I knew Daksha was on edge, back straight and taut like a harp’s string and her nose flaring, tells that I’d quickly learnt meant that she was about to throw a punch or storm away. The silence between us felt heavy with lost memories, difficult truths and inexplicably, sisterhood.
Daksha moved first, slowly, as though she was wading through the black murky waters that sometimes leaked through the ceiling, as if she would splinter if she moved any faster. “Tell Mum I’ll eat later.”
I refused to let the tears fall.
Instead of going home, I headed toward the rocks behind the row of residential caverns, easily rappelling up and scooting into the small natural nook shielded by a protruding ledge. Enki and I had discovered it when we were thirteen and given to wandering, immediately dubbing it our safe spot. It smelled musty and a little damp, but the familiarity was soothing. I leant back against the rough rock and closed my eyes as Enki settled beside me, letting the darkness soothe me.
“It’s not your fault, you know.”
I gave a noncommittal grunt.
“It’s no one’s fault,” he continued, shifting to find a better position. “It’s just…human nature, I guess.”
We fell silent as I pondered over that. Human nature, that mysterious concept which was the reason I preferred the company of plants. The reason I always looked forward to going beyond the outposts. That abstract thing I could blame for everything and yet, nothing.
Enki interrupted my thoughts with a soft, “We can blame the Waiting Game.”
Ah, yes, the Waiting Game.
It’s funny, how priorities change in tune with what hangs in the balance.
The official name for it is the National Test for Expeditions and Explorations. A few decades ago, when the earth finally buckled under the weight of destruction, people were forced to retreat until it could mend itself. Some people called it the curse of the 2020s, while others like my grandfather proclaimed it karma.
According to Mum, it was as though the bad luck of all seven billion people on the planet had accumulated into a tight black ball and had exploded over the face of the planet, plunging us into unexpected shock. First the oil spills, then the nuclear disasters in five countries simultaneously, followed by locusts, the virus and finally, the ‘accidental third world war.’ Countries became airtight containers overnight as borders were closed.
As shockwaves rode the Earth, the population fell by almost half, the weak and the vulnerable the first to go. Perhaps for the first time in history, with all our science and development behind us, we’d realized that we were just as vulnerable as we’d been at the beginning of evolution. With the world as humanity knew it going dark within the short span of just two weeks, what the world needed was less war and more trust, less fighting and more conversation.
And so, as the world burned down and society was on the verge of collapsing, a wave of women poured forth from the folds of the planet, scaffolding it. It was an amazing revolution, according to the archives. Conveniently, there was no one to protest. Gender was pushed to the back burner as the struggle for survival took precedence. And perhaps for the first time in history, women had an equal foothold in literally all spheres of life as men. Now, we don’t make first impressions based on melanin or gender or orientation. We ask for each other’s NTEE score.
With the Earth’s surface ravaged, we had to retreat underground, as far as we could go. Traditions of the Old Society were quickly forgotten as we prioritized – food and water first, then shelter, followed by agriculture, medicine and population control. Governments collapsed; now cities themselves were small countries with a net-like leadership structure – it was easier to function.
Now, decades later, we’re ready to venture out again, to take stock of what is left of the planet and try to revive it. The NTEE tested not only our academic knowledge but also our wits, survival instincts, physical stamina and psychological stability. People spend years preparing to take the test and qualify, but few ever did – hence the moniker ‘the waiting game.’ Surprisingly, more than half the qualifiers were women. They tended to excel most at negotiation and strategy, mental prowess and survival instincts, in addition to their chosen subjects. Our own community, forty thousand strong, had sent more women outside than men. We don’t get much news from other bunkers, but I suppose the protests against women overwhelming the toppers’ list again this year has something to do with it.
I myself am Chief Botanist in our township, in charge of food production. Daksha, a major in meteorology, oversees rock fragility and bearings. Besides, her athletic prowess makes her a valuable scout and Doorkeeper. Both of us venture out every few months, much to the disgruntlement of the men around us. Living underground for decades takes a toll on people; a trip above-ground is viewed like the lottery.
“Women are just born with instincts and skills,” Enki said, startling me from my musings. “Men have a natural disadvantage. The average age of men participating in the waiting game is twenty five. For y’all, it starts in childhood!”
I glared at him. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I’m just reporting the gossip!” he raised his hands, defensive.
I sigh as I lean back.
“C’mon, let’s go back,” I say. Some things never change, if the archives from the 2020s are to be believed.
Editor’s note: Shashi Deshpande is a multiple award winner, the most notable of which is the Sahitya Akademi Award. While she has been widely published in English, much of her writing has also made its mark in Kannada and Marathi literature, the languages she speaks in her personal life.
Daughter of a Sanskrit scholar, she has read most of our mythologies, and, as she says here, ‘which she reads “against the grain”, from her own, feminist position.’ Her short stories, books, and essays are all ‘woven from Indian women’s lives, their day-to-day living deeply impregnated by religious, social, and political traditions, and gender relations determined by male power structures.’
The cue is this quote by her: “But for women the waiting game starts in childhood.”
Prashanti Chunduri wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: pexels on pixabay
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Prashanti Chunduri is studying for a masters in English at EFLU, Hyderabad.
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