“Tell me a story.” She demanded. She sat on my lap, swinging her legs in the air.
“Right now, Titli? I’m a bit tired, princess. How about tomorrow?” I suggested, and watched her face fall slightly. “Alright, alright. Once upon a time…” I scrunched up my eyebrows. I was out of stories.
“Shall I tell you the story about the rabbit that broke it’s leg?” I asked.
“Already finished.” She giggled. She enjoyed this.
“Um, the turtle who failed his test?”
“Already Done.” She said, her face glowing in delight. Laughter bubbled out of her.
“Well, uh..”I tried thinking of what else I could share.
“Actually”, she bit her lip, “I wanted to listen about something specific.”
“Oh? And what’s that, little butterfly?” I asked, and she blushed.
“Me?” I laughed. “I’m so boring, butterfly.”
She puffed out her cheeks in defiance, “No, you’re not. You’re the coolest person alive, papa.” I wondered how long she’d think the same, but my heart glowed at the praise.
Titli was my ten year old daughter. She was named Titli, because it meant butterfly. She had the grace and captivating presence of one, and her colourful nature was the icing on top. She was a tiny little thing, barely measured till my waist, and chubby. Her hair was the most adorable thing I’d ever seen. It smelled like the crushed leaves her mother used as shampoo, and was a mop of fuzz. It lasted till her ears, and I loved ruffling the soft tuft just to annoy her. Her forehead was slightly large, but her beautiful, ever-curious eyes took away all the attention. They were her mother’s gift to her, those eyes. They were transparent windows to her soul, and you could read them like an open book. Her nose was a tiny button nose, her lips were ordinary. When she smiled, she lit up the entire room.
Her nonstop babble could keep anyone occupied. When I met her mother, I had told her that I had never seen anyone more beautiful than her. However, if the same statement was asked to be repeated now, it was my Titli who stole my eyes.
“So, start.” She said, tapping her foot impatiently.
She was too young to know the truth. And yet, I had been her age when my life went through some harsh developments. She had a right to know, but it felt bad uncovering all those memories. Like a body from a grave, decades after it’s burial. What would you expect to find, except the skeleton?
“Well, Titli, I think you’re old enough. My story wasn’t the prettiest. I wasn’t rich neither very lucky. So, I’ll tell you but you have to listen properly, okay? I love you, Titli.”
She nodded earnestly.
They say I was born a Viven, but frankly, my memory fails me. I’ve always been a Chotu. For as long as I can remember, it’s always been ‘Chotu, pass me that glass of paani’ or ‘Chotu, massage my feet.’
Chotu, meaning young one or small one.
I guess the name stuck just like any other meaningless nickname, and over time, I learned to embrace it.
When I was two, my mom died of a disease known as kala azar. It was quite a freaky time, my dad muttered, to watch his hefty wife shrivel and become akin to a stick.
The emotions didn’t really get to me. My mom was just a stranger, a person I’d always admire…respect, even. But there was no love.
My dad took the loss very seriously. He looked for a substitution of my mom, in me. When he realized that two year olds couldn’t make chapattis at the tawa, he changed his mind and adopted the bottle instead. I suppose that the bottle couldn’t make chapattis either, but surprisingly, that fact never did seem to bother him.
So I grew up, deprived of a mother and a father. But just like in any protagonists life, my saving grace came in the form of my neighbor. We lived in tiny flats in a small building in Mumbai. The flat may have been tiny, but it was large and full of adventurous opportunities for a two year old, and my fascination with it was justified. I never knew a world outside my flat, until my neighbor came knock-knock-knocking at the door.
‘Papa.’ I had called, hopelessly trying to reach the handle of the door. He had emerged, large and drunken from the next room, and swung the door open. It had barely missed hitting me. I had peeped out the door to see an old lady, with big, brown eyes.
I had clapped in glee as she had handed me a chocolate. I had looked at my dad warily, who had grunted his consent, and the chocolate had been in my stomach in less than a minute.
‘Kya hua, daadi? What happened, grandma?’ he had slurred, and she had smiled a toothless grin.
Over time, I realized that she wasn’t actually his grandmother, and he had just been addressing her with respect, but to me it never made any difference.
It was a drunken mistake, or he actually had cared, but my father accepted as she asked him permission to take care of me.
From that day on, daadi became my everything. She woke me up with her knock on the door. I’d recognize her trademark knock-knock knock- knock anywhere. I’d wake up and run to the door, jumping about until I managed to reach the handle, and welcome her with a hug.
“Chotu, get ready.” I’d listen. Then she’d teach me Hindi and work on perfecting my Marathi.
Om Bhuur-Bhuvah Svah
Bhargo Devasya Dhiimahi
Dhiyo Yo Nah Pracodayaat
“This is the Gayatri Mantra, chotu. May it protect you forever.” She’d end every class like this, kiss me on my forehead, and leave…leaving me longing for the next day.
Sometimes, she used to bring along treats. Occasionally, she’d take me out. One day, she had come home with a cake she’d bought.
The cake; It was tiny, with sloppy whipped cream and I devoured it.
“Happy Birthday, chotu.” She said, and I looked at her quizzically. “You’re five, today. Did you hear that, beta, you’re five today.” She directed the look to my dad.
He averted her gaze, which made her pounce on him.
“School, sahib, he needs to go to a proper school.” She announced. I was secretly thrilled.
He shook his head, “I don’t have money, daadi, I’m sorry.” One swig of his liquor bottle, a hasty wipe of hand across mouth.
She looked at him, disgusted and narrowed her eyes, “What about the money his mother saved for him?”
Another swig, another wipe of hand. His eyes darted nervously.
“You spent it all, didn’t you? You…You…blew all of the money she had been saving for Chotu on alcohol?” She screamed.
“Please leave, daadi, this doesn’t concern you.” He had said, shifting his enormous body.
She screamed back, “Doesn’t concern me? What are you saying? I’ve been teaching him all these days.” Her eyes had begun tearing up, and I ran up to her. I hugged her knees, and buried my face among the many folds of her sari.
“Then you can please stop. You don’t have to do us any favor.” He roared, his temper aroused. He hunted his pocket, and found some coins. He flung it at her, causing her to flinch, and shouted, “Get out of my house.”
I bawled into her sari. Strong hands enveloped me, and lifted me in air. I began squealing in terror, and kicked my legs wildly. Suddenly, the arms left me and I was plummeting towards the ground. Thud, I hit it hard, and the pain silenced me.
I could hear daadi screaming, “You just threw him aside!”
“It won’t harm him to toughen up. Look at him, crying like a girl. You leave, what I do with my son is none of your business.” The door shut. Papa’s heavy footsteps.
I ached to be carried by Papa, even though he was the one who afflicted this state of pain on me. I reached out my arms for him to carry me; however, the footsteps receded as Papa locked himself in the room.
I sucked at my thumb and went to sleep.
Daadi came back the next day. In spite of everything, she returned. Papa didn’t look too pleased, but didn’t comment on her arrival. I, however, did more than comment. I ran to her, practically flying, and landed into her arms. I rested my cheeks on hers and cried. After a while, I realized I had made her entire cheek wet. I pushed away, feeling a bit guilty, but when I saw her eyes, I realized it wasn’t my tears that were making her cheeks wet. It was hers.
We stayed like that for a while, and then she said something that had surprised me. “I’m going to teach you how to cook.” She said.
And so she sat patiently with me in that stuffy little kitchen. She sat by me when I sucked at my cut finger, and she sat by me as I proudly displayed my burnt chapatti. She sat by me as we watched Papa eat the meal I’d cooked for him, and she sat by me as my chest swelled with pride when Papa said it was nice.
Apart from cooking, she taught me little things a father should have taught his son. She took me out, and showed me the dingy locality we lived in. She taught me lessons on life, about the growing population and our rich Mughal history and the difference between salt water and fresh water. One day, she even took me to the local garden and pointed out the different plants.
However, Daadi’s visits slowly dwindled. She spent lesser time with me, and came to visit less often.
On one fine day, she came three hours late. I had been in an irritable mood at her absence, which had led to a whack on my back from Papa.
“I’m sorry I’m late, Chotu.” She said, and coughed. I turned away. She hobbled towards me, wrapping her arm around me. Her skin felt like crackling paper, and I pushed her hand away.
“I had to tell you something, Chotu. Will you listen?” She asked, her voice soft and soothing. I shook my head firmly, continued to look out the window.
“Okay, are you sure? Chotu, I’m leaving. I won’t come back.” I couldn’t believe her. How could she think, even for a moment, that I’d fall for that?
I lifted my chin high in the air.
“Okay, as you wish, my child. Here, I’ve got you something. May God bless you, chotu.” She said, stood up and left.
She left a package near me. I refused to look at it. Once the door closed behind her, I ran towards it.
Well, she left.
That annoyed me even more. How could she leave like that?
I sat by the window. I’d count to ten…she’d come by then.
10, I said out loud. “Nine, Eight, Seven, Six, Five, Four…” I paused. There was no sign of her returning.
“Three.” I said, again waited. Nothing.
“Two. One.” I sadly ended, and there was still no sign of Daadi.. That was strange. This hadn’t happened before.
I looked out the window as the light blue colour became darker, mixed with oranges and reds, and finally settled on a dark black. The stars twinkled proudly, and my eyelids drooped.
The door opened. My eyes opened wide and I ran towards Daadi. Instead, I practically bounced back from “Paapa.” I croaked, a little startled.
“I got us some food.” He said, and I sighed. I didn’t want food, I wanted Daadi.
I went back towards the window, and noticing my lack of enthusiasm, my dad ate my share of the food.
My stomach grumbled, but my dad was too busy snoring on the couch to pay any attention. He reeked of alcohol, and my nose burned. I felt claustrophobic, I felt trapped.
I jumped down the creaky stool and tip-toed to the door. I reached for the handle, stretching. I knocked over Papa’s plate which he had left on the floor, and cringed. Twisting, I noticed he hadn’t stirred.
I was almost outside the house when Daadi’s package caught my eye. I ran, tucked it under my arm, and closed the door behind me.
The stars guided my way. The roads were more of holes than actual roads, and I had a hard time moving along. There was no one about, but I still walked warily. I caught sight of the familiar garden, and sat on the bench.
I placed the package on my lap, feeling like a criminal all the time. I tore it open. A white envelope fell from it, along with two packets. In one packet was a cream cake, something which could be bought from the local store for a nice sum of money. As my stomach grumbled again, I ate it in one gobble. It was soggy, and moist, and honestly not very delectable but it was the tastiest dish I had ever eaten, and it left me longing for more.
I brushed away the crumbs and opened the second packet. It had a brand new shirt, and I squealed in glee. The one I had been wearing for the past week had holes all over, and I had been itching to feel the taste of new cotton on my skin again. Quickly, I replaced my old shirt with the new one. It was blue, I noticed. I folded the old one, and placed it in the packet. The envelope held a fresh piece of white. The page had ink splattered in beautiful swirls and the letters kissed each other gently. It looked alien to me. A letter.
I wondered at Daadi’s thinking. I knew she was smarter than this. She wouldn’t write a letter to a person who couldn’t read. But the thing that puzzled me most, was the fact that I knew she couldn’t write, either. I shrugged and put it in my pant pocket.
Suddenly, in the far end of my vision, I saw orange. Was it day time already? I frowned. I could still see the moon and the stars. I squinted at the light. Suddenly, my ears came alive. I could hear shrieks and screams. The orange became brighter, and with a jerk, I realized it was fire. I could hear the sound of glass crashing, I could hear terrified howls and violent threats.
I was confused. What was happening? I had a vague recollection of something like this from before. A Riot, Daadi had called it. A riot.
I stood up. And ran. I placed one leg in front of the other, and as fast as possible, I ran. I knew I had to hide, I knew I was in danger. My breaths came out harsh and short. I entered a gully.
It was dark, and I found the corner of the narrow road. I crouched low, and covered myself with my bony hands, hoping to merge with the background.
The sounds grew louder. I could hear drum beats. Why were there drum beats? Were they celebrating something? I covered my ears as a high-pitched wail took to the sky. I wanted to go home. I wanted to be with Papa. I wanted Daadi.
Tears filled my eyes, and I felt around for Daadi’s letter in my pocket. It wasn’t there.
I jumped up, hunting for the letter. A few yards away, I saw it lying amidst the rocks. I ran for it. Just as I grabbed it, the darkness was replaced by light. A massive amount of light and my eyes burned. There was chaos, there was sound.
I began crying.
“Papa! Papa!” I wailed, and a few people turned to look at me. Their expressions masked each others. Hatred. Hatred. Hatred.
They came towards me in a menacing way. I screamed, “Please! No!”
One among them instructed the others to leave. They left.
His hand connected with my ear, and the sound of the blow left me stricken. I flew a couple of yards and landed with a harsh thud.
“What are you doing here?” The man asked. He had a beard. A black beard. He was bald, and his eyes were a piercing green.
“Your eyes are green.” I whispered, momentarily mesmerized.
He grinned, and revealed missing teeth. He grabbed me by the collar and dragged me towards the main street. Tears streamed down my face as I resisted.
The street filled me with dread. Houses were on fire, people were breaking down the glass windows.
The lady two blocks down was crawling on the ground, her legs broken and bleeding. I wept for her.
The two kids whom I used to play with- Amrit and Abdul. They lay still on the floor, almost unrecognizable. Bodies were everywhere, Terror was everywhere.
And then I saw it. My house. My dear, dear house. It was ravaged by flames and reduced to char.
“PAPA!” I yelled, fighting vigorously.
The man holding me stopped, a bit annoyed. “Your dad was in there?”
I nodded, crying. I beat at him as I sobbed. “Papa!”
Again, my throat choked. “Daadi.” Where was she? Was she…alive?
I wailed, and the man lifted me up harshly. He slapped my across the cheek, “Answer me.”
I nodded, “Papa. He’s in there.”
The man groaned. “He would have got out.”
He was sleeping. He was drunk. He wouldn’t have got up.
“No! No! No!” I shook my head vigorously. I saw the man’s expression change.
“What’s your name, son?” He asked.
“Chotu.” I said. He looked at me, sadly. I could see the inner turmoil. Finally, he hit me hard and dropped me down.
“You’re a kid. You don’t deserve to die here. Go, run! Run! Don’t come here for some time. Go hide somewhere.” He pushed me, and I stumbled along blinded by my tears.
I did what he said. I ran. I clutched at the letter, and the old shirt, and I ran. I went back to the garden, hiding and crawling, and hid amongst some bushes.
Then I felt them. The insects. They bit my exposed hands and legs, and I sobbed pitifully. I wrapped myself with the old shirt, sucked my thumb, and went into a sleep-like state.
Natural light replaced the fiery one, and an eerie calm took the place of the noise. I climbed out of the bushes, and stood. Air escaped my mouth in one short breath. All the buildings were broken and burnt. The roads were littered with bodies. I recognized a few, and had to choke back my tears.
I waded through it. Down the road. The second right. Still more bodies. And then I stopped. I looked up. Instead of seeing my window, I saw the sky. The building no more towered over me. It was just a mass of rubble instead. I climbed on the rocks, aimlessly calling out, “PAPA! PAPA!” Slowly, the tears arrived. I frantically hunted through the rocks. My hands were bloody, my ears were bloody, my legs were bloody, yet it was the blood around me that terrified me more.
I threw the rubble aside, again and again. I found nothing. And then, as I reached the corner, I saw that damned object. I was quiet, now. No more tears, nothing.
I reached for it, held it gingerly. The liquor bottle that had ruined my entire life. I held it like a baby. I held it like it was my life. I smelled it, and it reminded me of my dad. My drunken dad. My wasted dad. My dad who couldn’t protect himself because of this bottle.
I looked at it. My seven years of life had surrounded this. I wouldn’t let it rule my life anymore. I was just seven years old, but I was seven years wise, and I threw the bottle with all the strength I had. It broke into a million little pieces, and I watched, hypnotized. I watched, disgusted.
I pitied my father. I pitied his death. But I had escaped.
Maybe it was co-incidence Daadi left and didn’t die. Maybe it was co-incidence that I had decided to go for a walk. Maybe it was co-incidence that I survived, while my dad died.
But I was alive.
Maybe I was alive yet distraught. Maybe I was alive yet homeless. Maybe I was alive yet an orphan. Maybe I was alive yet isolated.
But most importantly, I was alive, and I would survive.
I stopped as I saw her crying.
“Don’t”, I choked out, and lifted a finger to her cheek.
She mimicked my action and said, “Then you don’t.”
With a start, I realized I had been crying. Immediately, I went red. “It’s time for you to sleep now, Titli.”
I stood abruptly, and then felt her velvety fingers catch hold of my wrist. I turned, and she whispered, “You forgot.”
I stooped low and hugged her. Then, I whispered into her ear, “You are the moon in my night sky, butterfly.”
Every night, we hugged each other goodnight, and I whispered this into her ear to comfort her. When she was younger, she used to be scared of the dark, and thus the phrase was invented. It became a ritual of sorts, but tonight, she whispered back, “You are my sunshine, papa. I light up only because of you.”
And tonight, she did the comforting. I kissed her, and walked away.
I walked into the next room, and sat on the rickety chair. I closed my eyes, and rotated my shoulders. Ah, they were sore.
I felt two delicate hands rubbing them, and I relaxed slowly.
“Hi.” She whispered, and I smiled. Her voice was a melody, the most lovely violin, the most exquisite harmonica, the most soulful flute.
“Hello.” I whispered, a smile in my voice.
“I took Titli to the movies today.” She whispered.
“Oh.” I said, frowning. It wasn’t that I didn’t approve of her watching movies. It was just that they cost so damn much, and all my money went in her school tution fees, food, rent, electricity…the cost of everything was so much higher these days. “Did she enjoy?” I asked.
“Yes, she loved every minute of it.” She said, and I smiled. It was worth it, then.
“How was your day?” She asked me, and I stared into her eyes as she came and sat in front of me.
“It was tiring.” I replied. She nodded, and set the food in front of me. I ate quickly, and said, “Goodnight, jaan.” She blushed ever so slightly at the term of endearment, and I retired to bed.
Conversation was always swift between us. We didn’t have too much to say to each other, because we didn’t have much in common except Titli.
Merely watching her was a delight, so I slept with a smile on my lips. The dream that night was a memory. However, it wasn’t of my wife. It was of a past I’d hoped to forget.
I first saw her a year after my Papa died. I was working in a household, as a servant-boy. My job entailed running errands for my master, who insisted I called him chacha.
Still, it was a better deal than my impressive resume that boasted of working in a broke tea-store, a smelly factory and as a cleaner.
It was a Monday. Chacha had asked me to deliver a parcel to a friend of his. Mr. Ravi Charan, it read.
I still distinctly remember the winding roads, and the dogs barking at me. I remember the smell of dung and animals, mixed together.
But mostly, I remember her face as she opened the door.
Her hair was pulled back in an oiled plait. Her face was clear like the river, and it sparkled like crystals. Her eyes, shaped like almonds, made me gasp for breath. Between her two eyebrows, was a tiny red bindi. Her nose curved gently, and a gold studded ring hung from it. It mesmerized me. Her lips were slightly open, as she exhaled softly. It no more smelled like animals and dung. It smelled like flowers. She smelled like flowers, fresh flowers…lovely flowers. She wore a pale blue lehenga, with matching bangles and earrings.
Oh, I could have spent the entire day watching her.
“Who are you?” She asked me, and as I watched her lips form the words, my world came to a standstill.
She saw me, agape, and repeated her question, “Who are you?”
“Who is it, Pavithra?” came a masculine voice from the back.
“I don’t know, appa, he won’t tell me.” She yelled, all the while looking at me.
She looked my age. She was certainly my height.
Suddenly, my view of her was blocked as a big man came to the picture. She peeked at me, from behind his vast frame.
“Yes?” He enquired, looking at me from behind his large spectacles.
“I’m here for Mr.Ravi Charan.” I stammered.
Her eyes widened a little, I noticed.
“That’s me. What do you want?” He thundered.
I handed him the parcel. “Chacha wanted me to give you this, sir. That’s all I really came for.”
He grunted his thanks. But I didn’t want to leave.
So, I stood there, shifting uneasily.
“Oh, I forgot. Sorry.” He thrust a couple of bills in my hand, and I eyed it eagerly.
“Thank you, sir. It is kind of you.” I articulated the words in English, eager to impress at any given chance.
Her eyes widened even more. In fact, even his did.
“You speak English?” He asked, a bit gruffly.
“A little bit, yes.” I nodded politely, with no explanation. I didn’t want to go into a long background story about daadi at that moment.
“Can you also read and write?” he asked.
I shook my head. If I could have, I’d have read Daadi’s letter long ago, instead of keeping it under my thin, hard pillow.
The silence was getting awkward, and so, with a long look at the maiden, I bowed low and retreated.
My mind was buzzing with thoughts. Would I get to see her again? What would she have thought of me? With a dismayed gasp, I noticed my shirt had a mud stain on the sleeve. I walked back towards chacha’s house, automatically dismissing the absurd notion that she’d ever be my friend. I would probably never see her again.
However, the next week, I heard I chacha talk about delivering a parcel to Mr. Ravi Charan, again.
“ I’ll do it ! I’ll do it!” I screamed, a bit over-enthusiastically, letting a vessel drop to the floor with a loud noise.
He eyed me with a puzzled expression, “That’s okay, Chotu, I’m going over to their house anyways. I’ll give it myself.”
I silently cursed myself. Gathering all the guts I had, I asked in a meek whisper, “Can I come, too?”
This time, he almost dropped the newspaper. He was shocked. Never in his life had anyone, especially a servant-boy, displayed such a discourtesy.
But the big brown orbs that twinkled with longing touched him. He always had a soft corner for Chotu – He had suffered more hardship in seven years, than people had in a lifetime. And so, ignoring the typical etiquette, he agreed with a stiff nod.
I couldn’t believe my eyes at the sight of that slight movement of Chacha’s head. Forgetting everything, I pounced on Chacha and hugged him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Chacha yelled, shocked.
“I’m hugging you. Thank you.” I said, gleefully, and chacha patted me gently on my head. “C’mon, then. Let’s go, get ready.”
I ran clumsily to my room, and looked through my selection of clothes. I had one plain white shirt, with a blue pattern at the bottom. Then there was the faded shirt with the mud stain I had worn the previous time, and I shuddered at how unkempt I must have looked.
For the first time in my life, I truly wished I had more money. For the first time, I wasn’t satisfied with just owning a collection of pebbles or playing with the servant-boy from next door.
For the first time, I wanted to impress someone, and I was painfully aware of how little I had.
Then, I looked at my third shirt, and a smile lit up my face. It was the shirt Daadi had given me, and I had washed it one day, and kept it in a safe place. For a special occasion. The other two shirts I owned were ignored, and I immediately stripped out of my baniyan or vest, and exchanged it with this shirt. I stepped in front of a mirror that hung on the musty wall, and buttoned up the shirt, grinning all the time.
“I’m ready!” I called to chacha.
“About time. Let’s go. And, Chotu ? You did finish all your work, right?” I nodded, eagerly. He sighed. He knew I did my job really well, and I didn’t lie about cleaning the windows like the servant-boy in the next house.
“Okay, then. Come on.” He said, and we walked along those very roads who’s sight and smell were etched in my memory, forever to come.
He walked with long strides, and I? I didn’t walk, I hopped all the way.
I sat on the floor, legs tucked under each other in a cross position. Mr. Ravi had given me a cup of warm tea, and I was pleasantly surprised at the gesture. However, to my dismay, there was no sign of Pavithra.
As if on cue, Chacha asked jovialy, “Accha, Ravi, where’s your daughter ? I have to meet her!”
“She’s gone to the market with her mother. She’ll be back in some time, if you wish to stay.”
I was put out. After all the effort, was this how it was meant to play out? I think not.
“I don’t know. I’m in a bit of a rush. I just wanted to meet you, and give you the parcel personally. Chotu said he’d do it,” Hearing my name, I became alert, “but I wanted to give it to you personally.” And Chacha winked.
However, Ravi uncle was thoughtful. He said, “This Chotu, does he go to a school of some sort?”
Chacha shook his head, “We don’t have enough money to sustain ourselves, Ravi, I cannot afford the education of this kid. Besides, everything’s become so costly these days.”
I remembered, vaguely, how Daadi had wanted to put me in a school, and how Papa had adamantly refused. His face was fading, now, Papa’s. I couldn’t remember whether he had the scar on his left eyebrow or right. I couldn’t remember how his moustache would curl or where the bump on his nose was. These were details I used to wonder about for days on end, and yet, these were the details that were slowly drifting away. I was letting go of him.
I sighed, and turned back to the conversation at present.
“Life is bad to these young kids, is it not ?” Ravi Uncle said, and I just bent my head slightly.
In some time, we prepared to leave. I held Chacha’s suitcase, and a couple of papers, when I smelt it. The flowers, the sweet sweet flowers.
And on cue, they entered, nestled in the lustrous hair of a bright eyed girl. She was wearing a simple lehenga, and unconsciously I blushed. Her eyes briefly met mine, and her cheeks flushed with the intensity of my gaze, and she looked away.
Tiny little bursts of happiness erupted in my belly, as I left the house.
I saw her I saw her I saw her I saw her I saw her I saw her I saw her I saw her.
I finally saw her.
That night, sleep evaded me, as I thought about her. Would she be my friend ? Or would she, like everybody, have a notion that poor people weren’t good socialising material ?
This worry kept nagging me, but I quelled it. I knew she wasn’t like that. She couldn’t be. I knew it from the bottom of my heart. She was different, I had seen it in her eyes.
Two mornings later, Chacha told me that his son was coming home. He had gone to study in Delhi – gasp ! – and had completed his course, and was coming home.
I cleaned up the house with extra vigour for this small reunion. The floor sparkled a little extra, the shrubs were trimmed a little neater, the books were arranged a little better, the pillows were fluffed a little more.
I kept imagining a boy who was slightly taller than me, with rotund features. He would have Chacha’s nose, and chacha’s eyes and well, he’d look like a mini-version of Chacha, essentially. I imagined the games we would play, and I also set aside three of my favourite pebbles for him. We’d become best friends, I vowed.
So, when I opened the door to find a six-foot man with movie hero-like features standing outside, flabbergasted would be an apt word to describe my condition. I just stood there, mouth slightly open like a goldfish. He smiled at me gently, but after a moment of inactivity, his delicate features formed a frown. Just as he was about to say something, Chacha saw me at the door, and ushered him in.
“Gokul ! So nice to finally meet you, son. I trust everything went well. You can now work in the clinic, right? Ah yes, Gokul meet Chotu. He works for us.” Chacha introduced me, and despite myself, it hurt to hear such a bland introduction.
“Hi, Chotu.” I winced. His voice was shrill, and squeaky and extremely annoying. Nevertheless, I extended my hand and he shook it.
The day went by at a snail’s pace. I had to unpack Gokul’s numerous bags and wash his dirty clothes. I had to prepare a grand feast for him, of which he had two bites and then said, “ I think I’ll retire to bed. I’m sleepy.”
“Of course, my son. Chotu, clear up the table. We’re done, here. Um, you can feed the dog the leftovers. And of course, help yourself.”
He hadn’t intended to be mean. He had meant it in the most purest, innocent connotations of that statement. But as they left the room, childishly, I pouted. Tears stung at my eyes, and I hastily wiped them with the base of my palm.
I looked at the bread I had made at the tandoor and the dal I had stirred on that tiny flame. The two curries, the jalebis that took me forever to make. I looked at everything sitting in heaps on the table, and I let out a pitiful growl.
How dare they? I spent hours together cooking the meal, and in the end it just goes to the dog? The fury that ripped through me shocked me, and I balled my fists and curled up. And then reason took place of the fury and the tiny sobs that had ripped through my chest slowly ebbed away.
I got up, and cleaned the table up. I took a plate for myself, and took a look at all the food. Suddenly not hungry, I whistled for the dog to come feast.
“Chotu ! My son’s getting married.” Chacha announced, clapping his hands together in glee.
My ears perked up. This meant guests, and guests meant food, and food meant mess, and mess meant clean up…and mentally, I heaved at all the future work I’d have.
“That’s great. What’s her name ?” I asked, politely, already dreading this event.
Chacha laughed, “ You already know her ! Do you remember when we went to meet Ravi uncle ? You know, the one you delivered the parcel to ? Arre, the one who lives in that gully down the road?”
But I had already stopped listening. For a moment, I thought that the universe was playing a cruel prank on me.
“Yes, his daughter. Her name is-”
“Pavithra.” I whispered, reverently.
I could hear the sounds of my heart tearing bit by bit. It physically hurt my ribs, and I felt breathless.
“Yes, her. She’s thirteen, actually. She looks very young for her age. Very pretty, too, right ?” Chacha continued, oblivious of my condition.
“Yes, beautiful.” I agreed. I needed a chair. I needed an escape. I needed to just stop this moment, and analyse why such a thing would happen to me.
“So, chotu, this is indeed exciting news, eh ? The wedding’s going to be early next year. You will have a lot of work to do. You will help, right?”
I felt bile rising up my throat. I felt claustrophobic. I nodded slightly, then stopped. “Chacha, can you, um, can I, um. I’m not feeling too great, can I go to sleep ? I’ll wash the vessels in the morning.”
He seemed to consider, then conceded and I floated up to my room. I was in a trance.
I lay down on my bed, and saw the cobwebs on the wall.
I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath in. It was okay, it was all going to be okay. I had never really expected anything anyhow. There was always that dratted voice in my head telling me Pavithra would always just be a world apart, and now that same dratted voice saying ‘I told you so’ was giving me a headache.
It wasn’t fair. I had seen her first. She was supposed to be my friend. She was supposed to talk to me. She was supposed to be different.
And yet, she had turned out just like them.
“Where are we headed?” I asked the passenger, cordially. The passenger was barely an adult, and had a slight stubble on his face. He had a roguish appearance on his face, and the term people used for his looks these days would be rugged charm. He grinned at me, revealing perfect teeth and a warm personality. It wasn’t often people smile at me, or even noticed.
“Sion.” He said, humming happily, I switched on the radio, and drove along. The same familiar rush of adrenalin surged through me as I drove along, the same sense of superiority over the vehicle.
It was just near Sion, when the passenger started coughing really loudly. At first, I ignored it, but when it worsened, I turned back to ask him whether he was okay. I saw his eyes widen, and in a split second, I was thrown out of my seat towards the left, glass exploded all around me, and I lay in a puddle of my own blood.
My head felt groggy, yet I was conscious. For one second, I prayed I would die because the pain was unbearable. My leg was twisted beyond recognition, one eye sewn shut. Glass stuck out in unnatural angles throughout my body, I could see my bone in my hand, and I cried out so loud.
I was in so much pain, and I turned around slightly. My passenger lay still, his head bleeding, his eyes closed as if sleeping. He was lucky he didn’t feel the pain anymore.
Well, at least the coughing had stopped.
In the background, as the sirens grew louder, mercifully blackness swept over me.
I left two years later. It was the next logical step, I assumed. I couldn’t have been a servant for the rest of myself, and besides, once the wedding got over, my spirits deflated. I needed adventure in my life, something to look forward to.
Chacha persuaded me to stay, but in the end, he let me go with a couple hundred rupee notes in my hand thanking me for everything. I had almost considered staying, but then pocketed the money and left.
I had walked for three days hungry, looking for a job. I refused to spend the money chacha had given, and instead nibbled on tiny pieces of stale bread and had water from the pipes.
“Saheb, I am looking for a job. Is there any where I can work over here?” I asked, to the paan-wala. He looked at me and laughed outright. Discouraged, I turned away, when he called, “Ey ! Come here.” As I neared closer, he grabbed my shoulder and pulled me towards him.
“Listen, son, I’m a poor person. I cannot afford to have an employee in my small shop. Go search for some work in the bigger stores. You might actually get it. You’re young, and energetic. Yes, you’ll get it. Go straight from here, son, and walk for three kilometres. You’ll see a large shop. Go ask there.”
I thanked him half-heartedly. I’d heard this before. In fact, everyone had told me the same thing. You’re young, you’ll manage. But not me, son, I can’t help you. Others had been more harsh, and had shooed me away like a beggar.
He saw my expression and laughed heartily. My stony eyes fixed on him in a glare, but he continued laughing.
“Ah, you think you have it tough? There are people who have it worse than you. Always remember that. Don’t worry. Go do something about it. Change the way they see you. If your brain fails, son, follow your heart.”
Tears started tumbling down my eyes. All my pent up emotions just kept rising and rising. The old shopkeeper slowly got up, and hustled towards me.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, softly.
“Everything.” I wailed.
“Would you like to tell me?” He asked.
I don’t know what it was, I suspect his gentle voice, or maybe it was the fact that someone actually wanted to listen to me, but the words kept gushing out of my mouth.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. My dad died. Daadi left me. She left me! My house burned down! I worked for chaacha but then, but then Pavithra. Ah. And then I just had to leave, I couldn’t…I couldn’t stay and work. I want to progress. I want to go to school. I want, I want so many things. I don’t want to be alone.”
He shuffled towards me, and wrapped his arms around me. He held tight, and it felt claustrophobic, and then he rocked me hard. Back and forth, back and forth. His hands felt hideous, and the motion was nauseating, but then it felt soothing and comforting, and my sobs died down and the world didn’t seem that bad anymore.
He released me, and for one moment, I thought he’d offer me help. But when he made no such request, I nodded and proceeded on.
As luck would have it, the next day I got a job as a waiter. I strutted proudly in my white shirt and black pants, two necessary parts of clothing I had to buy on loan for my new job.
The hotel was admittedly tiny in a small run-down area in southern Bombay. It was called “Tasty Hotel and Bar” The décor was just about as creative as the name, and although I was sceptical, initially, the idea of free food and accommodation along with a hundred rupees per month provided the ideal situation.
“My name Bholu. English you speaking ?” He was abnormally large, with a shiny bald head. His tiny round eyes were hidden behind his massive eyebrows and his moustache covered up most of his lower face. He had an air of superiority, and was apparently the head manager of the restaurant.
I shook my head softly, meekly. He admonished me, “ You learn like me. Smart like me. Then how talking to eaters ?”
He waved his hands wildly about, but when he saw my blank expression he sighed deeply and switched to hindi.
“Accha, how will you talk to all the customers in English if you don’t know ?” He asked me, guiding me through the small, dirty kitchen. I winced as I saw a rat go past.
I replied that I’d manage in hindi, and he nodded curtly. He showed me where to wash the vessels. I was confused, “Excuse me? I thought I got to wait on tables?”
He laughed, a terrible, loud sound from his enormous belly. His moustache twitched when he laughed, and I cracked a smile.
“You seriously thought you’d get to immediately start waiting on tables? It’s a long grind boy. Now stop talking, and get to work.”
I looked at the disgusting, grimy soap that looked more unclean than the plates themselves. I shuddered, plugged my nose, and plunged into the tedious job for the next couple of hours.
Hours changed to days, days to weeks, and weeks to months and I still washed vessels. I had settled into a rather monotonous routine. I woke up at 5 am, complained about the back ache I got from that cot in the backyard, brushed and poured one mug of cold water on myself, changed into the shirt and pant I had so ambitiously bought. I went into Tasty and washed grimy vessels. It was a gruelling five hour shift, at the end of which I was given not-so-tasty soup and some bread to soak it up. I slept for an hour, and then resumed another seven hour shift, upon which I washed my clothes, set them for dry, ate some fruits and slept.
On the seventeenth day of the third month, Bholu told me I could finally stop washing vessels. I whooped with joy as he condescendingly gave me a tiny pad of paper and a pen, to take orders. He showed me how to clean the tables, lay the plates and avoid troublesome customers.
Despite its shabby appearance, Tasty was popular and received a lot of customers. I slowly enjoyed taking orders. I met several interesting people during these five years I worked in the hotel. One of them was during the third year of my life as a waiter. As I gradually worked up the rungs of waiter-dom, the third year saw me as the head manager once Bholu left. As a result, I didn’t wait much as opposed to supervising.
“Good morning sir, would you like the menu?” I asked the man. He looked old, and had a slightly bent nose. He looked extremely sophisticated amongst the local crowd, so I decided to personally take his table.
“No, thank you. I know what I need to order.” He said, smiling. He ordered for Missal Pav and Poha.
It seemed normal, except this random man never said goodbye once the bill was paid. He gave me a large tip, clasped my hand and said, “The aim of life isn’t just to survive. It’s to live.”
I was puzzled and shrugged it off as a random eccentricity.
I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if he hadn’t arrived the next day, and the day after for almost two years. Every day, he’d turn up at the same time, order the same thing, give me a large tip and part with the same line.
I tried asking him his name, but he remained cryptic. I heard rumours that he was mad. I heard rumours that in his younger days, his wife had committed suicide and he spent the entire day going to all the places they had visited.
And then he stopped coming one day, and soon, I heard that he had died. And I heard everybody sigh and moan about what a pitiful loss it was and how he’d be missed and I scoffed.
People were loved more once they were dead. It really was that simple. If you wanted someone to love you and appreciate you, all you had to do was die.
Nobody ever said, “The person who stole my pen three days ago died. Damn, I wanted my pen back.” No. Once the person’s gone, the pen’s forgotten. Yet, if the person had been alive, the situation would have been very different.
Strangely, I missed the old man. I really missed him.
I was idly staring out the window a week later watching the world pass by, I heard his deep voice resonating, “The aim of life isn’t just to survive. It’s to live.” And in a flash, I understood. I didn’t want to sit at the window and watch the world pass by. I wanted to be in the world, I wanted to not just have to sit at the window.
I needed to escape the routine.
I began to think that the old man wasn’t that mad after all.
I grimaced as the light pierced my eyelids. They fluttered open, and I groaned at the pain. I looked around and saw no one, but recognized my surroundings as a hospital. I jabbed the button for a nurse, who dutifully fluttered in and checked my vitals, gave me some painkiller and informed me that my wife was waiting outside.
She came in soon after. She didn’t look to be crying, and I wondered how, when I noticed Titli trailing behind. Her face was pale, and her eyes wide.
She was being strong for Titli.
“Come here.” I whispered to her, my voice gruff. She gingerly approached.me, and I hugged her softly, whispering “You are the moon in my night sky, butterfly,” She smiled and said, “You look horrible.” She stuck out her tongue at me, and I laughed.
In reality, my body felt like it was on fire. Every part hurt, despite the painkillers. I just wanted to dissolve.
“Daddy?” she asked, meekly.
“Can I tell you a story?” She asked, and I think I melted.
“Once there was a little cat called Tamatar.”
“Tamatar?” I said, and started laughing, because tamatar meant tomato.
“Yes. He had nine lives, just like all cats do. So, in his first life he became a painter. Second, a lawyer. Then a doctor, teacher, emperor, writer, actor, and a dancer. He didn’t know what he wanted in his ninth life because he had already done so much. So he called a meeting of all the animals so they could suggest what he could be in his next life. Everyone said amazing things, but ultimately he listened to the owl. The owl said, be the torch that guides the ones who are lost in darkness. Be the voice that speaks for the oppressed. Be true to yourself, just be you. That’s exactly what the cat did. He discovered himself.”
As she left the room an hour later, dizziness washed over me. Tired and weary, I went back to sleep, but all I could think about was how I was in my 9th life right now..
He was a rather short man with large features. His ample nose took prominence in his face, although when he smiled, it revealed a dimpled cheek that delighted any onlooker. His eyes were a rare amber, and shone with kindness, another rarity. His generous belly strained against the shirt he had worn, and the button threatened to pop out. His voice was every bit as extravagant as his personality, and he boomed, “You can do this, Dev.”
Abdul used to be a customer at our restaurant. Our talks had gone beyond menu suggestions and extra ketchup, and we became close. We had known each other for about three years, and when I confided in him about the lack of purpose in my life, he leaped at me. He offered me a job as a driver. He owned a fleet of taxis, and had just started this business.
I was sceptical, so I said I’d consider it. The truth was, no matter how adventurous a person was he usually wanted security. My job as a waiter might have limited my scope but it provided me with timely meals and a bed to sleep in. It had also given me numerous memories, and while I couldn’t exactly call them friends, I had got several acquaintances whom I cherished.
“It’s beautiful.” I whispered, letting my hands graze the steering wheel reverently. As I revved up the engine, the familiar hum and the vibration had me grinning.
“Your first drive on your own. I’ve taught you enough, you’ve learnt everything. Are you ready, Dev?” Abdul asked, cheerily. He attached the seat belt across his body into the tiny holder.
I nodded. He had also named me Dev, since he found my previous name weird.
“What’s your name?” He had asked, one day.
“Um, Chotu, sir.” I asked. “ What will you eat today?”
“Nothing. Just one tea, please.”
“Just a tea, sir? Would that be all?” I asked.
“That’s quite absurd.” He stated.
“Your name. No one can be called chotu. It just means small. And you’re obviously not small anymore.” He said, shrugging.
I didn’t know whether to take offense. “Well, honest sir, I’ve never been anyone else all my life.”
He fixed his eyes on mine, “Then maybe it’s time to be.”
The next time we met, he greeted me, “ I found you a name.”
“You did ?” I asked, mildly curious.
“Dev?” I asked. “But that means God.”
“Exactly.” He had said, with a broad smile, and just like that I felt buoyant.
I gripped my hands behind the steering wheel.
“How old are you anyway?” Abdul asked, and I gulped. I hastily tried counting the years of my existence, and when I couldn’t really remember, I said “18.”
“Okay, carry on.”
My knuckles eased as my fingers tasted the wheel. I changed gears, pressed the accelerator and slowly started up the taxi. I went hesitantly at first, and then I caught some speed. The wind played with my hair, and I laughed openly. I drove past envious glares of those outside. The kids hooted and clapped, and I felt my spirits soar a bit in air.
When I parked the car, I felt light. Lighter than I had ever felt in my entire life.
Do you know how it’s like to be a walk for hours in a desert and then finding water? Do you know what it is like to be on the brink of death, and saved? Do you know what it is to love and be loved at the same time?
All these emotions clashed within me. I looked at myself, and saw myself over the years to come. Driving was an addiction, a habit. It was something I wouldn’t mind doing throughout my life.
It wasn’t necessarily the car itself or the money or the speed that convinced me to finally say yes to Abdul.
It was the feeling I got, sitting behind the steering wheel, knowing that I was the master of my life. It was the feeling of power that I got, choosing one’s own direction, and not having life dictated to you by an alcoholic father, a girl who you gave your heart to, or a thousand hungry customers.
No, the heady rush I received, was because I realized that after 18 ( I guess.) years of existence, I could finally choose where to go.
The next time I woke up, I couldn’t feel the toes on my right leg. I panicked, and hit the button continuously.
Alarmed, the nurse ran in. “I, I can’t feel my toes. Oh my god, what’s happening? It’s not moving!” I cried, tears forming in my eyes. All the worst possible thoughts filtered through, and my hands started twitching. My eyes darted around, and my body started vibrating, bar my leg. A surge of pain erupted through my chest, and the burn led to me passing out.
“He’s going into shock, Code Red.”, I heard the nurse say, vaguely, as I drifted off into finality.
My first passenger was a middle aged woman. She wanted to go till Bandra, and as I drove, I kept glancing back at her to make sure she was real. That this was real. The entire thing.
She must have been very freaked out, because she shoved the hundred rupee note in my hand without bothering to wait for the change. I did call after her, but in the end, looked at the hundred rupee note. My first earning as a taxi driver.
It was at that moment I knew that I’d do nothing else in my life, that this was the defining moment in my life. Years later, I’d be proved wrong when my daughter was born, but that was a different life altogether.
It was on the 4th of December, one year, when I was approximately 25 years old. The thunder growled, and the rain lashed with all its fury.
I was driving, and as the rain blocked my view, a bright flash of colour caught my attention. As I drew closer, I noticed that she was a woman. She wasn’t beautiful, but I couldn’t hear my heart beat anymore. I stopped, as she extended her hand for a ride.
“Can you take me till Dadar?” she asked. As it happened, it was in the exact opposite direction from my house.
“Sure. Come in, it’s raining.” I say, with as much charm as a three headed rodent.
She smiled, and slithered in. My eyes remained glued to her, and a light blush crept onto her cheeks. Finally, my heart beat returned as it thundered away in my chest.
“This is terrible weather. How will I get to my class on time? I teach music to the little kids. How will they reach on time?” Her voice was low, and as it moved from word to word, it strung them with the gentleness reminiscent of clouds and feathers.
I drove along, and she chattered incessantly. I was unable to respond to any of her words, so I just stayed mute, content with listening to her voice.
Occasionally, I stole a glance. Her eyes were large and animated, as she spoke. Her nose was a tad bit too large, her lips spread over uneven teeth. Her complexion was the colour of peeled almonds, so fair that my breathing hitched. Her hair was a mess, as curls snaked about in random directions.
It made me want to reach out and straighten them.
As we reached, desperation crawled through me. It shook me, so deep. It felt like a limb was being ripped apart.
“Thank you, here’s your money.” She said, handing me a couple of bills.
“Marry Me.” I stated.
“Excuse Me ?!” She yelled, but she became pink. Her eyes flashed in annoyance.
“I’m sorry, will you marry me?” I asked, phrasing it as a question.
“Do you know my name?” She asked, her tone sharp. I flinched.
“Do you know my age?”
“Where I live?”
“What I love to do?”
“What I like to eat?”
“No.” I said, my heart plummeting to the ground.
“What does that tell you, then?” She asked. Her chest heaved with the force of her words, her rosy cheeks an invitation.
I lifted my gaze, tenderly to her, and said, “That there’s a lot left to learn.”
Three months later, Shreya and I were married. Another thirteen months later, on a dark Saturday night, I heard the words that changed my life.
“It’s a girl.” The midwife said, and handed me a tiny bundle. As I held her close to my heart, with all the tenderness I could muster, my world stopped revolving. Everything changed in that moment, when those brown orbs captured mine in a trance.
Her tiny fingers entranced me, the way her lips would gnash against each other. The length of her eyelash, barely spanning half my thumbnail. There was a shock of brown fuzz over her head, softer than velvet.
She blinked up at me, and my heart melted away. Her eyes scrunched up just then, and she started crying. A lusty sound, it would wake up the neighbourhood. I could already imagine them complaining. Me ? I could listen to this sound forever.
It was a feeling of finally realizing what you were missing all along, without even knowing you were. It was the feeling when one felt complete, that everything was alright.
“Shh, baby. It’s gonna be alright. I’m right here.” I sang, and she cooed gently. She nestled against my chest, and I bloated up with pride. She was going to be a daddy’s girl, and I knew that.
I walked to my wife, sweaty and tired.
“You’re beautiful.” I whispered to her, kissing her forehead.
She swatted me gently, “Well, she is.”
I looked at my daughter once more. It was magnetic, what I felt towards her.
“What do we name her?” I asked, shyly.
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
I looked at her, this beautiful girl who just entered the earth. And I already knew she’d soar the heavens, I already knew she’s reach great heights.
“Titli.” I said, and immediately my wife smiled. Butterfly.
Her name provided her with the wings she needed to reach the skies.
“That cannot be possible.” I murmured, playing with the edges of my frayed shirt. I refused to look up, although I already knew what he said was true.
In a useless attempt, I tried wiggling my toes but I couldn’t feel them. In fact, I couldn’t feel my leg from the knee below.
“It might just get worse.” He said. He was a rotten doctor, of that I was sure.
He saw my face, I guess, because his voice was a lot softer, “I need you to get prepared for what could happen, Dev. It’s imperative you know. Let’s wait for another day to see if this worsens, and then you can go home.”
I childishly turned my head away. An hour later, my butterfly came bouncing into the room. I smiled broadly.
“Where you flying from?” I asked her, and saw her crooked teeth in return.
“I made you something.” She said, and I held out my hand. In it she deposited a paper, and as I got a closer look at it, I realized it was us.
There was her mom, dolled up in a bright red saree. Her hair reached her waist in crayon-y waves, and her eyes were big, black dots on the peach of her face. Her hand stretched long and thin, and clasped Titli’s. Titli had coloured herself in a blue frock with roses all over. Her grin almost consumed her entire face. While she was holding both her parents hands, her face was tilted to mine.
My chest swelled a little as I looked at my portrait.
I stood tall, and straight, My hair was in a rich mahogany, and peeked from beneath a hefty golden crown she had placed on my round head. My teeth shone pearl white, and my eyes sparkled like diamonds. My clothes seemed to have stolen their colours from the rainbow, and I looked at my daughter adoringly. Beside me was a black and yellow taxi, and on top of it sat a butterfly.
“Oh, Titli, this is beautiful.” I gasped, touched and warmed by this gesture. She toddled towards me, and placed her stick like hands over me.
“How about I continue that story, princess?” I suggested, and she leaped high with joy.
“Oh yes, oh yes. Please can you do that?”
I tried getting up, and a wave of dizziness caught hold of me. I propped up the pillows, and angled myself in a comfortable position.
“Um, what do you want to know?” I ask.
“Tell me about the day you got married to Mom.” She said.
For a while I remained silent. She thought she had lost me, so she hastily amended, “Tell me anything you-“
I cut her off, “It was so hot that day, I thought I’d nearly melt.”
It was so hot that day, I thought I’d melt before I lasted an hour.
I pried open the curtains and looked around my house. Today was the last day I’d wake up alone.
My heart sank a bit as I took in my sparse accommodations. I had never really bothered about it, because I rarely was ever at home. However, I realized, Shreya would be. The bed sheet was a pale white, with holes and coffee stains. The singular pillow was hard, and on it was folded a thin, brown blanket.
If I reached with my left hand, and the let the tips of my fingers graze the wall, and then if I proceeded to stretch a bit, with my right hand, I could reach the end of the room.
I took in the table, on which lay a coffee mug, and yesterday’s dinner plate. In the drawer lay the letter Daadi had given, a photograph of Abdul and myself and some money I had saved over the years.
The second drawer contained a couple of shirts and pants, and towels. There was no third drawer.
The kitchenette had a small stove, and a smaller sink. My long list of utensils consisted of one tumbler, one cup, one mug, one plate, one spoon and one kadai.
I broke into a sweat. This wouldn’t do. I was getting married today, and this was hideous.
I grabbed a bunch of bills, and ran to the nearest shop. I bought a twin set of bowls and plates, along with spoons and towels. I purchased another blanket, a new soap, and some bangles. I bought a churidar for her, lush purple in colour, and it ate up a huge chunk of my savings.
As I passed the florist, I shyly purchased a rose in a vase, and placed it later on the table.
As I glanced at the old clock on the wall, I registered that I was going to be late to my own wedding. I wore the blue sherwani Shreya and I had purchased together for this occasion, combed my hair, grabbed the keys and flew till the temple.
There was a small crowd. There were a couple of my friends. Then, there was Shreya’s family, and and a few of her friends. There was a priest wearing a white dhoti, and saying the sacred mantras in front of the fire. And sitting beside him, was my beautiful queen. My cheeks felt like they were on fire, as I walked towards her. Her eyes slowly raised to meet mine, and a blush crept on her face, too. I took my place beside her, and whispered, “We made it.”
She shhhed me, and I grinned.
It took all of an hour, and then the priest asked me to tie the thread around her neck.
My heart beat faster, as I raised my hands. I tied it around her neck, she respectfully bowed her head. When I lifted my finger to put the sacred powder on her forehead, she quivered with the emotion. And as we went around the fire seven times, she walked like an angel, and I remained mesmerized.
The background floated into the distance, and everything went hazy, when finally I looked to her and could call her my wife.
I couldn’t feel anything below my neck. In fact, my facial muscles were freezing up, too. Day by day, I was becoming worse. I heard my wife cry every day, as she watched me, helpless. I watched Titli’s eyes grow wide with sorrow, and my heart clenched with emotion.
“Hopefully, this’ll reduce.” The doctor said, unsure of his words. “Temporary Paralysis.” He stated, and I couldn’t understand what he said.
“Am I going to die, doctor?” I croaked.
His eyes darted to across the room, where my wife listened.
“We can’t be sure, but…”
“Am I?” I asked, more forcefully.
“There are high chances.” He nodded.
“AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH.” I screamed, a guttural sound from the bottom of my very core. Everyone looked at me stunned. Inside, I writhed with pain but outwards only my mouth screamed and my eyes watered. I screamed endlessly, and didn’t stop when Shreya asked me to, didn’t stop when Titli came, didn’t stop until they sedated me and I wafted into the black spirals of misery.