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© 2007 ALI MAZRAIE SHADI

The Hidden Motif

The child climbed delicately into the T-S pool, making barely a ripple. Light played on the ceiling of the cleansing chamber, and she watched the undulating patterns of orange, pink, purple, and blue with palpable delight. Her father wondered what it was in those patterns that gave her renewed joy day after day. What did she see in them that he could not? It never ceased to amaze him how the young could take so much pleasure in the simplest of things, how they seemed so instinctively in touch with nature. Her enthusiasm was infectious and he had to smile, ignoring, for the moment, the insistent premonition of doom that had been nagging him.

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Aniket stood frozen with terror as the liquid unwillingly relinquished its hold on his body. Its last traces clung to his skin like lingering memories. Ria wanted to pick him up and hug him, to soothe the terror out of him, as always. No, not today, she told herself, you have to fight this thing. She tried to gauge her determination in the mirror, but it was fogged over with steam. Aniket was now shaking, his teeth chattering audibly. And here I am, perspiring in the heat, she thought; we might as well be on different planets. She glanced at the receding water forming a vortex of classic beauty at the mouth of the drain. Mothers were supposed to be able to read their kids’ minds. But, Aniket was a complete enigma to her.

“Unnnnn . . . Unnnnn . . . Unnnnn,” he moaned, rocking his body to and fro, to and fro, grating against her resolve.

“Come on, now, Ani dear,” she said, a studied calm in her voice. “There is nothing to worry about. We do this every day, don’t we?”

Noooo . . . ,” he sobbed. “It’s not the same. The water is gone. It will never be the same.”

She was taken aback. It was the first time he had tried to voice his fear. So, he was not afraid of being sucked into the drain with the water after all.

“It’s just water, baby. So what if it’s different tomorrow?”

He screamed with the piercing intensity that only a child can muster. Outside, her cell phone started ringing insistently. She clamped her hands to her ears as the two walls of noise squeezed unrelentingly in on both sides.

Fine!” she shouted at last, more at herself than at him. “I can’t take it anymore.”

She scooped him out of the tub into the all-enveloping safety of a Turkish towel. The water was all gone now; the tub sat naked, blinking in the bright light at all the consternation it had unwittingly caused. The screams stopped; the phone’s ring tone expanded to fill the sudden silence. She held him close till the shuddering sobs subsided. I’ll never put him through this again, she thought protectively. She felt angry at herself, whether for standing up to his fear or for giving in to it, she did not know. Great, she thought in resignation, now I am turning into a bundle of contradictions too. We’re going to make a wonderful family.

Later, as she entered her study, something fell with a dull thud in Aniket’s room. The desk organiser, she thought, as she heard pencils clattering on the floor. He’s back at his damned sketching. She shut the door and sat at her desk, making room amidst the papers with her elbows and burying her face in her hands. Loneliness settled down around her with easy familiarity, reeling off memories of those days, months, years—it did not matter what; they all had the same interminable quality—when it had pushed her to the limits of sanity. Waking up in the middle of the night with an insane urge to talk to someone. Anyone. Running her mind desperately over a list of all her acquaintances—students, fellow faculty members at the University, random people who crossed paths with her life frequently—none of whom she could call at that hour without a valid reason. Dashing headlong into severe depression. Limping painfully back into her former life.

She felt cheated. She had never been on first-name terms with happiness, but for a while, it had seemed like a delicious possibility. A possibility that had driven her to fight isolation with weapons as unlikely as knitting needles and how-to books on single parenting. Maybe loneliness is hard-coded into our genes, she thought. As if he were replaying her own childhood, Aniket shied away from other children, and was happiest when left to himself. She had decided to homeschool him, remembering her own school days, which had passed in a haze of painful introversion. Aniket was a perceptive child; he seemed to comprehend things in an instinctive, if primitive, manner. In moments of sudden excitement, he would say something uncharacteristically articulate, even poetic.

“Look, Mummy, the wind is tickling that feather,” he would giggle.

Or, seeing the flapping pages of a book, he would yell in delight, “The book is clapping for its own story!”

Or, “Mummy, this wave is trying to run away with my feet.”

And her heart would swell with his delight. But she could no longer ignore the more disconcerting aspects of his personality. The bathtub fear, for instance, which he had developed almost overnight, a few months ago.

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The father held out the flask of “Parallel Universes.” The child quivered with anticipation. He glanced at her, inquiringly. She paused for a moment, then nodded. He tilted the flask, emptying its contents into the T-S pool. She let out a whoop. The pool frothed as all around her, bubblets of various sizes, colours, and appearances began to take shape. Within seconds, they fell into place, each bubblet instinctively finding its own preordained orbit. The T-S fabric adapted its contours to accommodate the bubblets, and they swirled in it gracefully—some at a staid, ladylike pace, some whizzing by with fire at their heels. Together they formed a layout, unique to every edition of the cleansing kit. He knew that the same scene was being played out in every dwelling on the orb. In perfect synchrony. How the young managed it was one of the unexplained mysteries that the frontiers of science had not yet touched. They seemed tuned into some common frequency that no adult could eavesdrop on. He glanced at the ceiling where the surreal shapes cavorted, as though mocking him.

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“There are some shapes that mean something, Aniket,” Ria had once said to him in exasperation after yet another abortive attempt to teach him the alphabet.

“But do they have to mean the same thing to everyone?” he had asked, looking genuinely bewildered.

They were all interesting shapes as far as he was concerned. The numeral “4” could be a chair, “6,” a hanging fruit, “m,” a wave.

The child psychologist had dismissed her worries.

“A mere intellectual hiccup,” he had said, firmly. “Aniket has no learning disability of any kind. Before you know it, he will not only be able to read and write, he will even beat you at your own mathematics!”

She had sensed the covert disapproval behind the remark. Don’t pressure your son, he had been telling her, let him be. For some reason that she could not explain even to herself, she had not shown him the sketches.

The sketches formed the other extreme of the spectrum of her concerns about Aniket. When kids his age were scribbling or trying to render vague circular shapes, he would sketch complex designs of his own creation. She had initially been delighted, seeing it as a sure sign of budding genius. But then it had turned into an obsession. Hour after hour, he would fill notebook after notebook with startlingly mystic patterns.

Once, unable to stand it any longer, she had yelled, “Aniket, go out and play! Don’t spend the whole day drawing meaningless shapes.”

“There are some shapes that mean something, Mummy,” he had retorted, sharply, taking her by surprise.

The patterns left her with a strange, uncomfortable feeling. What an irony, she thought, ruefully, that he inclined towards vague patterns and rejected symbols—the very basis of her greatest love. Mathematics. Her personal God, her private fairy godmother, it had helped her carve out a niche for herself in a world that had little patience for shy, over-sensitive people. She longed to open Aniket’s eyes to its beauty—the equations that balanced out as though a divine hand were holding the scales, the numbers that danced to the rhythm of logic. How could he not see it? After all, she was married to mathematics and Aniket was their baby. Quite literally. She had approached the sperm bank with only one criterion in mind—that the donor hold a doctorate in mathematics from a reputed university. She had not wanted the intellectual genes of her baby to be diluted. And now, this! Yet, sometimes, looking at him bent in concentration over yet another pattern, she could not help but feel that the deficiency must be in the alphabets and numbers; they were somehow incapable of giving a concrete form to what was in his mind. Only the patterns seemed to give his thoughts the latitude they needed.

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The child lay back, basking in the balletic splendour of the bubblets. He felt a tinge of envy. What had happened on the way to adulthood that changed him so much that he had become estranged from his own instincts? The instincts that had been telling him that something strange was afoot for several days now. Yet, he refused to acknowledge them until something more solid, more “scientific” turned up. Did science have an answer to everything? Yes, he had always believed so. But, what if there wasn’t even a question? Or one didn’t know how to ask it? What then? Could science show the way? Or, would one need to fall back on something more primitive, more instinctive?

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Ria’s elbow knocked a couple of journals off her desk as she straightened up in her chair. As she bent to retrieve them, she saw it. “FRA,” peering out from under a pile of papers. With a sudden jerk, she swept the papers away. Her hands trembled slightly as she picked up the book. Fractals! She remembered now!

The incident had taken place a few months ago. Ria had walked into her study and found Aniket with this very book, opened to the page with pictures of the Mandelbrot set of fractals. He had seemed mesmerised by the hypnotic designs swirling their skirts of orange, pink, purple, blue as they danced across the page with magical grace.

“Nice-looking pictures, eh?” she had remarked casually.

“Ummm.”

“There’s something special about these patterns. See, this one for example. It can be divided into smaller parts and those in turn into still smaller ones. You can go on like that for as long as you like, and each part will look just like the original pattern.”

She had paused. One could hardly explain the self-similarity of fractals to a child.

“Like broccoli,” he had said, suddenly.

“Huh?”

“Like broccoli.”

It was a classic example of a natural fractal. Had he read that in the book? No, of course not; he couldn’t read. She had skimmed rapidly through the book, but found no picture of broccoli. He must have thought of it himself. Bursting with pride, she had reached out to hug him, but the look on his face stopped her. The expression was still fresh in her memory—it was one of pleasant surprise, as if he had suddenly discovered that there was a name for something he had always known, always felt. The trouble with the bathtub had started soon after.

Clutching the book, Ria rushed to Aniket’s room and dragged the box that held his notebooks out from under his bed. She opened one, then another, then one more. When she finally collapsed on the bed, exhausted, dozens of notebooks lay at her feet, spilling their guts out. How had she not seen it before? All his patterns, right from the earliest ones, were self-similar. That was how he had managed to achieve such intricacy. He had employed the ingenuity of fractals—of achieving something complex from something simple. He had simply started off with a simple shape and repeated it over and over in increasing or decreasing dimensions.

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All of a sudden, the father’s features tensed perceptibly. He could feel it again, more strongly now—a strange new force, a bewitching pull luring his home orb into danger. No, he could no longer ignore his thirty-sixth sense. Not after a lifetime of studying the heavens, of knowing them intimately.

“Time up,” he said and pulled the plug abruptly, ignoring the child’s indignant protests. “Come on, now. You can have a new cleansing kit tomorrow.”

“It won’t be the same tomorrow,” she pouted.

The Time-Space fabric began to empty down the drain. As her father firmly led her out of the cleansing chamber, she looked back wistfully at a tiny bluish bubblet that was swirling innocently, ever-closer to the drain. It was so pretty. So delicate. In a moment, it would be in the grip of the vortex and would be gone forever. Would any other kit ever have anything like it?

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Ria entered the family room in a bewildered daze, still clutching the book on fractals. Aniket was sitting on the rug in front of the television, busy with his pencil and latest notebook. A news channel was droning on unheard. She looked about for the remote to switch off the television.

“Following our breaking news story for the day,” the news anchor announced. “Is Earth in danger? That’s the question before our panel of scientists as they discuss the implications of the discovery of the mystery black hole. Do join us right after a short commercial break.”

What will they think up next, she thought in disgust as the bulletin gave way to a happy-looking kid gulping down her breakfast cereal. She switched off the television and turned to Aniket.

“Aniket, I need to talk to you” she said, taking his notebook from him.

He seemed not to notice. Totally absorbed, he simply continued on the rug, not even caring that his pencil was leaving no traces in the wool. Unnerved, she looked at the sketch in her hand.

It was a spiraling, infinite vortex.

Copyright 2007 by Vrinda Baliga

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Vrinda BaligaVrinda writes:
As the mother of a toddler, it never ceases to amaze me just how perceptive young children are—how much they do understand and the kind of imaginative explanations they come up with for what they don't. That, and the unlikely gems that a largely directionless drift on the Internet sometimes throws up—in this case, an engrossing site on fractals—led to the writing of this piece.

Vrinda Baliga is a freelance writer. She lives, with her husband and young son, in the lovely city of Bangalore, India. She enjoys writing short stories and poetry. Vrinda can be contacted via email at vbaliga@gmail.com.

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