This story is by Sakuntala Gananathan and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Winter Contest: Same Difference
It was mid-morning in late spring and the crowd hurried in to take a seat in the enormous assembly hall. Their apparels ranged from formal suits to casual wear to unstitched material carelessly wrapped around half-naked bodies. Some ambled in with multi coloured flip-flops while a few came barefooted.
Everything about the building was circular including the massive timber door which served as both entrance and exit. The conference table, too, was round so that none could take precedence over another for the most vantage point. Was it King Arthur’s Round Table wondered a man who appeared ancient himself. The chairs were of identical shape and size to prevent any one of them from claiming a status higher than another.
It was unanimously agreed to let the oldest delegate inaugurate the session with a brief introduction of his subject matter. He would then be followed by the person on his right until every one of them had an opportunity to give a clue of what he was going to discuss at length over the course of the day.
While most scriptures were written in horizontal lines, with words running from left to right, some were written from extreme right to left. Yet a few were compositions in brushstrokes, flowing down vertical columns and each new column beginning to the left of the one preceding. Besides them, there were a couple of oral works which had survived the ravages of time, thanks to disciples committing them to memory and passing the same down to their followers. Although there was a move to get these published, it was resisted by the more orthodox members, who preferred to chant the stanzas so as not to obliterate the nuances in tone and meaning.
One delegate said his was the best course to adopt. While he enlarged on the divine aspects of his belief, another browbeat him. “My own path is sublime, profound, and the shortest way for salvation.”
“Salvation? No. Deliverance? Yes,” insisted the man next to him.
“While praying, raise your head.”
“No,” objected the lady in mauve. “Bow down in reverence.”
“Kneel down and pray with your eyes closed.”
“Stand up and look into the heavens above.”
“Lie down flat on the floor with arms stretched above your head.”
“Join palms together.”
Their beliefs were as diverse as their apparels and soon their voices rose in protest. Over one matter, however, there was consensus. All agreed that good should prevail and evil spurned. Everyone sighed with relief on finding a pivotal point upon which to continue. Alas it didn’t last for long and soon the voices reached a crescendo.
A kid running past the venue happened to overhear the heated arguments. Curious to know what was going on, he came into the hall on the pretext of retrieving his ball which he had kicked underneath the table.
Their discussions went back and forth with each driving a point, immediately prompting the next person to squash the speaker’s conviction to smithereens. They spoke off-the-cuff or read from books ancient and modern, while a handful chanted their sacred learning, pausing after each stanza so that translators could enlighten the others.
So the morning wore on until lunch-time, whereupon the delegates went upstairs to the food court where a wide array of salads, sandwiches, and bread rolls were attractively displayed on long counters. There were tables laid with bowls of steamed rice, couscous, pasta, noodles, and various preparations of vegetables, eggs, seafood and meat, with spice or without.
There were those who used forks in their left hand or right but nobody commented, not even when some used their fingers to roll up their food and place them in their mouths. One sat down on the floor, as was his custom, and ate in silence. Quite a number deftly used chopsticks to shovel their noodles, while none pursed their lips on hearing a few slurp noodles off their bowls.
For dessert, several picked puddings and ice cream of delicious flavours, while others had a choice of strawberries and peaches with or without fresh cream, grapes, bananas, apples, and dried nuts, plain or soaked in honey, The spread included the spiky durian, similar to a jackfruit, but smaller in size. It had a pungent smell, but was otherwise fit for a king. It was not found in the fruit platters but was placed at a safe distance so as not to put off those with sensitive nostrils. All the same, those with such aversion were amused to find a couple of takers for the nauseating fruit.
“What made you choose kiwi fruit?” asked a man, savouring a slice of mango and reaching for another.
“I love the taste of kiwi in my mouth. Do you know it’s the most nutritious fruit in the world?”
“I understand the papaya is recommended for everyone including diabetics,” said a man, scooping out half the fruit.
“Well, an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” one was heard to say as he bit into a Red Delicious.
Indeed, it was an enjoyable meal on the whole, and each ate whatever he wished at his own pace and nobody objected or raised an eyebrow or curled his lip in disgust.
Presently, they retired to the conference room and resumed their debates. But unlike in the morning, they were now exhausted and out of breath.
The child was troubled to find the crowd look quite worn out. He took his iPad out from his backpack and, without disturbing the others he asked a woman softly, “How about some abba?”
“ABBA? The group split up ages ago.”
“Would you like to have nero?” he asked the next person.
“Thanks, I am fine.”
“How about some wai?” he whispered to the man in boxer shorts.
The man had never heard of the word and just shut his eyes.
“How about having vodo?” the chap asked a woman with a red hairpiece.
“No, thank you,” she said, not wishing to admit she had no idea what he meant.
“Did you say aflaj?” asked the half-naked man. “I have set opinions and wouldn’t wish to try out anything strange or new.”
“Would you like to have shui, Madam?”
She felt reluctant to ask him what he meant and shook her head.
“Shui?” a man in full suit asked. “I’m pretty sure I won’t need it.”
“Do you want lystozleilxnzaahyooiiy?” he asked a woman wearing a brown overcoat.
She simply shook her head. Since it was such a long word she was certain it was a mix of unhealthy ingredients.
By the time he had gone around the circular table the boy, too, felt exhausted. He got his bottle of water out from his backpack and took a long gulp.
Immediately, there was a babble of voices calling out for aqua, shui, wasser, eau, jal, nero, mayim, thanneer, abba, agua, vatura, pani, aflaj, appos, vodo and so forth. They scrambled over the polished table to get at least a drop of the liquid. Each called out in his native dialect and strangely enough each had a gulp of water to quench his thirst.
Whatever name they called it by, they all meant the same.
Same thing; no difference. Same difference.
The child picked up his ball and asked an old man, “Why did you choose the kiwi and not the mango?”
“That’s what I love to have. Besides, it is grown in abundance in my country.”
“Can you grow coconuts in your country?” he asked another.
“The ground is covered in snow for half the year. We can’t even dream of coconuts in our supermarkets. We grow what’s best-suited for our soil and eat what’s available in plenty.”
“Can I force you to eat something you dislike—the durian, for instance?”
There was a wave of protest, “No, no!”
“Never can anyone force us to eat anything, be it sweet or nauseating,” said the man wearing a loin cloth.
A man in flip-flops said, “We are fortunate to live in a free country. We are at liberty to choose, be it food or drink, dress or lifestyle.”
“In that case, why can’t each of you choose whichever path you wish to follow?” the kid asked.
There was pin-drop silence.
As he prepared to leave the woman in the brown overcoat waylaid him. “You mentioned lystozleilxnzaahyooiiy. Nobody called out for that.”
“He hasn’t turned up—an atheist, perhaps,” said the imp and took to his heels, chuckling.
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