For many years, aspiring writer Sarita Mehra found herself merely mimicking those she admired. But the Dubai resident finally developed a distinct style, one that has landed her the top prize in this year's M magazine/Kitab short story competition, with her tale depicting a day in the life of a London tramp. Helena Frith Powell meets her. Sarita Mehra has won our second annual short story competition for her intepretation of this year's theme, Moving Messages, which was inspired by the title of the Susan Hill short story we published when M announced the competition.
Reducing the list of six finalists to two was the job of Adam Haslett, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who lives in New York. In 2002 he was voted New York Magazine writer of the year and his work has featured in The Best American Short Stories. "It was not an easy decision," he said after the winner was announced at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair last week. "All the finalists had things to recommend them, but in the end I chose Sarita Mehra and Andew J Keir as the winner and runner-up respectively."
Mehra, 35, lives in Dubai. She is half Indian and half New Zealander but grew up in the UAE. "I have been here on and off since the 1980s," she says. "I knew Abu Dhabi when it was just dirt roads. I sort of grew up with the city." She has also lived in the US and Britain and worked as a copywriter before giving up her job recently to study film production in Dubai. She has been writing since she was eight, when she self-published her first short story about a farmer in a haunted castle. "It had a press run of one," she says. "So I have been writing for a while but not necessarily successfully. For example, I went to the US to become a screenwriter when the writers' guild was on strike."
Mehra is now working on a collection of short stories. "I have finally found a writer's voice I am comfortable with," she says. "For a long time I was mimicking voices of those I admired but through writing more in various genres, including poetry and the novella, I have progressed." She entered the M magazine/Kitab short story competition when a friend alerted her to it. "I thought 'Why not?' It is so nice to see competitions here in the UAE that encourage creativity, and I enjoyed the whole process of putting it together."
Haslett was full of praise for Mehra's winning story. "There was a vividness to the language in her story that I really liked," he said. "The description of the physical world was very tactile and interesting. The language is extremely strong and I thought that she was able to write in surprising ways about people living on the margins and take us into their heads and minds using language in an unusual way which made you pay attention to each sentence and paragraph."
This year's competition attracted almost 100 entries, double last year's total. The quality of the stories was much higher and picking a shortlist of only six from such a wide range of writers and subjects was extremely difficult.
Writers came from all over: Canada, England and Oman as well as the UAE. The youngest was Sabine Olliver-Yamin, who is just 10 years old and lives in Dubai. The six finalists were split between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, plus one from England. First prize is a Toshiba laptop courtesy of Kitab. The runner-up wins Dh1,000 worth of book tokens supplied by Jashanmal book shops.
After we publish Keir's story in next week's issue, we will post the remaining finalists' works online, where you will be able to vote for your own favourite story.
i Leonard's Financial Times reads Tuesday, April 7, 2009. Its salmon-coloured skin sticks like papier-mâché to his dirty blue parka hat. It is a busy morning in the Square, the grey pavement damp and unforgiving to the shuffle of pedestrians. Everyone is consumed in their journey; everyone has a better place to be. Except Leonard. The FTSE figures steeple over his hat. An ill-fitting brown sheepskin coat, grim and grubby darkens from the rain. A dirty grey beard tangles in his fingers as he tries to wipe the splatter of rain from his face. No one pays attention. Except me.
His face, spotted by the rain, ripples with panic. He mumbles and curses, hands darting across cracks and lines. Blemishes of the street coloured in faint pastels. He scrapes a heavy rock of charcoal in a finishing touch, sprawling like a gangly spider to keep away the menace falling from the sky. The Square never stops. Commuters, tourists, the Met, and vagrants all congeal against the cloudy skies. Pigeons stalk their paths to safety and to food. Brothers-in-arms, Leonard shoos one away from his upturned hat, lest it steals a penny like a magpie.
I rest a hand upon his shoulder, and briefly he is calm. His murmurs recede and he takes a long deep inhale, releasing it steadily, brushing up chalk dust into his beard. He rises from his knees and snatches his earnings. Trembling hands filter his broken chalk into his coat pockets. The crowd flows across the concrete, side-stepping his work, hesitating, viewing. Then moving on. Its life will be short. Colours will graze soles. Raindrops will detonate pock-marks. By nightfall it will be gone from the streets.
As will Leonard.
ii Arthur shines the brass buttons of his dark blue jacket with his handkerchief. He tugs sharply and runs his hands from breast pocket to end. He takes up his hat, just as a horn blarps from the road. "Yes, yes," he mutters in the mirror, dusting a maroon epaulette with the back of a hand. The horn signals again.
Arthur and Ettie have been married for 35 years and she has always driven the van. They met as Cadets, on their very first choir rehearsal. Now they are on soup-runs. Arthur does not drive. He is afraid to. He prefers to dispense soup, and sing to the flock. He hefts himself into the passenger seat and glances past me at Ettie. A stocky woman dressed in her finest uniform, she casts a stern, yet doting look at her husband. She tsks. Arthur nods straight ahead, "Onward-" The van lurches away as he breaks into song.
iii I watch Leonard as he picks at the litter bins in the park. He does not search for food. He peers into the animal waste bins. I sit on the bench near a man dressed much like myself, only his suit is the finest Armani, and in his ear the world tweets and twitters. His words twist in jargon, the salmon sheets of today's Financial Times rest like a blanket across his crossed knees. He jots down times and dates on his iPhone, an instrument he cannot live without. He confesses some secret desire for the weekend, his shifting tone heralding a new call. As he speaks, Leonard approaches. His steps are pronounced, deliberate. In his hand he holds a drooping plastic bag; the dark contents weigh close to the ground. His sunken eyes do not lift from us. The tip of his tongue washes over his sullen lips. A singular thought drops from his brow. I glance at my bench fellow. He is lost in his device; in the promise of the weekend. In his world far away from the trees and birds. From Leonard, from I.
Without hesitation, Leonard snatches up the newspaper and runs. The man lifts from the bench, then decides it is not worth the scuff on his fine leather shoes. He recedes, his life a blur of dates and times. He curses with detached objection at what has transpired, then drifts back into his own world.
I find Leonard in a forgotten corner of the commons. The newspaper carefully folded and kept aside. He sits with his scavenged materials, and more besides. Towering aluminium cans breached and cut into shapes of man and animal. Small Coca-Cola dogs, little figures and bicycles made from knotted twigs. Button necklaces, and stained cardboard portraits. A jungle of creation tucked away in the underbrush. Hands sift through the plastic bag. He moulds dirt, and mud with the excrement like clay. A figure. A bust. Features of a face. He scratches at his own, smudging brown against his cheek. He catches the odour from his hands and gags. Clarity touches him. His jaw trembles, quivers like a leaf caught in the wind. He stares up towards me, at the sky, and sobs.
iv "There is a fine line between fate and coincidence!" Mad Betty sits on the steps next to me, randomly barking her words to tourists and blinkered commuters. She looks briefly towards me and I smile, lowering my gaze, fixing the crisp line of my black trousers. She sees me. I look up at her, and she hesitates. A question fills her eyes. I lift a hand to my face, caressing my lips with fingertips, thinking. Listening for an answer. I gently shake my head at her. A derisive snort catches the air as she sweeps her body upwards and into the face of a self-absorbed woman, "Fate is a misconception! It is only to cover up the fact you do not have control of your own life!"
The woman stutters in her path, staring at Mad Betty with widened eyes. She has been awoken from her thoughts. Her steps; her mindless daze of journeying. Mad Betty's face crinkles with laughter, and she twirls away from the confused. A myriad of colours shimmer where she has been. Dirty pink crochet shawl, thick blue cotton skirt, tarnished rose cardigan, the perfume of a life too long preaching to Westminster's streets. She is colour in these drab surroundings, where history dwarfs against the rise of machine.
The moving crowd envelops the empty space, heaving against one another in a steady stream. Mad Betty waits at the crossing. A small figure already lost. Dusk is wetting the evening and everyone has a commute to make. Even the mad.
v The journey of many converges at Howick Place. In the shadow of the cathedral, around the Victoria Piazza, their paths weave. Old footsteps over trodden by new. Beaten paths of loneliness, feet guided by hope, stiletto heels clacking pointedly to some place austere. Mad Betty bellows her existence towards a young couple hurrying away. She spins, and a tornado of colour whips in the faint street light. Leonard kicks cigarette butts away from a square of concrete as he slowly descends to his knees, hands diving into pockets for chalks. He giggles, lost in his own incantations as he dives into his work casting streaks across the concrete.
Others slowly arrive. They outnumber us. They always have. Like discarded heirlooms they gather in the dark. We walk between them, a soft touch upon a shoulder, a gentle caress against a tear-stained cheek. We sit with the lonely. The bereft. The tired. We go where they go. Like silver cloth, we see beneath tarnished firmament. Eyes meet as we pass, drifting between the forgotten, and unseen. Our wards march and shuffle towards one another, picking up a place to call their own. Soft conversation filters as the air fills with the waiting.
vi The white van rounds the corner, the bright red script against its side shines radiant in their eyes. Salvation comes to a halt. One-by-one they rise from their places, some shamble, others hesitate, feeling a momentary need to straighten their shirts and fix their hair. Younger legs make wider paces to the van as Arthur slides open a side window of the travelling kitchenette. Ettie adjusts a hairnet and beams a broad smile to the outside world. Leonard catches her eye and she waggles her fingers in a wave. He wipes his nose, and averts his eyes. The line grows and Arthur drifts into hymn and melody as he pours soup into polystyrene cups and lowers them out the window into outstretched hands. I watch as Ettie alights from the rear of the van, a steaming cup of soup cradled in her hands. The light catches her brass buttons, the rim of her glasses as she drifts across the Piazza towards Leonard. He is huddled sheepishly, rocking on his heels, watching over a salmon square of newspaper upon the concrete. As Ettie approaches, he rises, his arms shrinking into his body, his hands in his pockets. He steps lightly from one foot to the other. Hands dart out towards Ettie, and he grabs at the soup, and then gives her a short embrace. Hesitant, flighty. He moves like a trapped insect in a jar. Ettie rubs his left arm. A childless mother; a caring soul. She points at the smudge across his face. Leonard panics, he rubs at his face violently, awkwardly balancing his soup in the crook of his arm. Mad Betty's voice echoes from the van, as soup falls and collides upon the salmon square on concrete. "Carrots! They help you see! See what's true! We make our truth!" There is no consoling Leonard. He kicks away the soaked newspaper, a portrait of a woman smudged by broth. His shoes stamp across her cheeks in anger. He pulls at the air in agony. Ettie hurries back to the van and joins Arthur in chorus. She leaves soup aside for Leonard. Time, she understands, give him a moment and he will be fine. The episode will cease. "Ezekiel, you old fart! Is it time now?" Mad Betty chortles in my face, soup dripping down her chin as she cups it against her gums. I rub her back, and rise from the stairs. A gurgle of vegetable soup and despair swallows down her throat. I walk towards Leonard who leans against a wall, crying in the dark. He thrashes his head back, staring up into the nothing, clenching his hands into fists. Torment claws deep trenches across his skin exposing his spirit. It yawns, trapped in the visceral. I kneel beside him, and slide my arms around his shoulders. For the first time, Leonard sees me. There is no disbelief. No fear. He rests his head in the crook of my neck, curling up in my embrace. His breath catches gently; a body quietening. A spirit finds solace.