Rediff Logo Life/Style Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index
July 8, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

The Agony and The Ecstasy

Melting Clock

By the time you read this column, many of you will have heard that I have been awarded a prize by the Onassis Foundation of Greece for a play I wrote last year called Harvest. I wrote it in secrecy and haste from March till just before the final deadline for dispatch, at the end of June 1996. And then... there was nothing for me to do but wait!

Waiting is agony. There is no analgesic, no balm or comfort that can bridge the sheer, awesome abyss that yawns between the time that an event is anticipated and the time that it actually takes place. It's worse when one is a child. Time crawls when one is young, because one has fewer days, weeks and months against which to compare what lies ahead. For a child of five, one year represents one-fifth of her entire life. Each day, each hour, represents huge fractions of the total sum of one's existence.

I used to wait between birthdays with a sense of breathless anxiety, unable to bear the mystery of this substance, this thing called 'one year' which lay implacably between me and the next occasion of cakes and balloons and gifts all for me. It was like an immovable wall and yet, unlike any other wall, it seemed that I could shift it, in a certain sense, just by being alive, just by inching forward by one day, one week, two weeks... two months.

But with the shifting, a betrayal occurred. One became someone else. The child who waits at the end of one birthday is not the same one who arrives at the eve of the next. I can remember the sense of momentous change as I crossed from the single digit of nine to the amazing wonder of --TEN!

By then, of course, there were other kinds of waits to endure. In the classroom, for instance, I had discovered that if I divided a sheet of graph paper into small squares representing the minutes remaining till the bell, I could alter the pace of time, by taking exactly one minute to fill in each square with a different colour of ink. The harder I concentrated on this activity, the faster time flew.

This approach, however, was only useful for short periods. I tried, for instance, to create a chart of the seconds remaining till the end of term from the time that it began. Three months' worth of seconds was 7,776,000, allowing 30 days a month. Crossing off a huge stack of 86,400 seconds at the end of each day was initially very satisfying but, in a short while, I realised they made hardly a dent in the towering mound that lay ahead. It was actually quite depressing to realise exactly how many seconds remained till the holidays began.

And so to last year, when I sent off three copies of my play to Greece, as required by the competition guidelines. I had had very little time to check my final draft of the play for proofing errors. But I had no idea how long a package sent by Speed Post would take to reach Athens. I posted it in the last week of June and crossed my fingers. Three weeks later, I got a letter bearing the insignia of the Onassis shipping-line: an antique Greek ship surrounded by four leaping dolphins. In it was a standard message acknowledging receipt of my play. After which, silence. Silence! For 10 months.

It has been, I can confess to this now, an unusually painful wait. Part of the difficulty lay in secrecy. If I was to be disappointed, I wanted to keep it to myself. So I showed the play to only one person amongst all the friends and family I could have shared it with and I did not so much as whisper a word about the competition, my participation in it, my hopes or dreams, to anyone else.

Keeping a secret is hard enough. Harder still was knowing that, if the day came when I could share this secret, some of the tensions and disasters hovering directly over my heads would pass. But, until such a day came, there was nothing to do but to confront one's fears and steadfastly refuse to be vanquished by them.

Then, on May 22, the first intimation: a request for my bio-data, but absolutely no indication of results. I forced myself not to read meanings into that call. On June 12, I got another call and a fax, this time to say that my play was one of the 10 semi-finalists. This was terrible! So near but, in another sense, exactly as far as before. I spent 20 days in limbo, insisting to myself that it was ridiculous, childish, pointless, illogical and unreasonable to hope. I rehearsed my thoughts and responses in readiness for disappointment.

On July 2, early in the evening, I picked up the phone and heard the pip! of an international call. I felt the weight of a year's patience bear down painfully on my heart. Then saw it, like a black zeppelin released, vanish swiftly into the past.

The Onassis International Cultural Award is Greece's top honour. Other winners of the award this year are Georgian President and former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze and the International Maritime Organisation. Ms Padmanabhan wins $250,000 along with the award which was established in Aristotle Onassis' memory.

Montage: Sumit Patel

Tell us what you think of this column

Manjula Padmanabhan