This morning I woke up to someone singing a loud disharmonious song in our building. I stepped into the balcony and realised it was actually someone wailing. An openly wailing adult is one of the most dreaded incidents you may come by in life. It moves a sea in your mind. Your heart resonates with each note of grief that escapes the victim’s mouth.
There was a flutter and I looked at the bedroom. My wife had woke up and her eyes bore a question. “Let me check,” she said before rushing out.
A couple of other voices joined in chorus. I stepped back into the bedroom and shut the door. Oblivious to the world, my son slept in peace.
My wife returned ten minutes later. Her eyes were now damp with information she regretted. Information on a guy upstairs who gave in to brain haemorrhage minutes before sunrise. He was a guy in his late forties.
That’s the snippet of a rough day wherein I’d some tumultuous exchanges at work and a verbal spat with a cab driver. Fortunately, the tiff took a surprising turn and we exchanged a few good words and a smile before the journey ended in a peaceful note and the night brought hope for a better day tomorrow.
I was buried under my work when she called. The plastic strip, that I’d bought her that morning, had slipped my mind. The strip on which she’d carefully placed a couple of pee-drops.
Lying in bed on a sizzling evening a fortnight back, we’d found ourselves panting from the love we’d just shared. Looking at the white ceiling, feeling her satin skin, I’d suddenly realised that this day would come. Somehow, also did I know that the same realisation streamed along her mind as well.
“Hey, what’s up?” I asked.
“The pink lines are there. It’s positive. It’s one way now, no going back.”
She walked past the warehouse, ignoring the cacophony of steel beating steel. She walked past the grocer’s – he was busy catering to a couple of housewives who had sauntered to him to buy salt or biscuits or, perhaps, salted biscuits. It was a bright afternoon, and the orange coloured gate to her mistress’ house stood open for her to walk in and do the daily chores – mop the floor and do the dishes.
It had been ages since she took a train to this city to work as a maidservant here. The city is a collage of contrasts – cold people and freezing winters interspersed by warm paychecks and searing summers laced with a faint smell of rain. She had by now decided that she’d stay here no further than another year. Whatever money she’d be able to collect by that time, she’d simply carry it home and build herself a quiet life.
A stone’s throw away from the mistress’ house, she stopped short when something tugged at her thigh from behind. She turned her head and saw a gaping dog biting at her. Its teeth pierced her flesh.
Years later, back in her serene hometown, she would often shrug off her pants to look at the only visible mark that the big city would leave on her.
Some days you find yourself overtly lucky. So much so you start doubting your fate. While bathing in whatever your sudden fortune showers on you, you squint time and again to determine if it’s a dream. Will reality soon jolt you awake and thrust you back towards your otherwise lacklustre life?
One such morning, I felt elated on receiving a mail that confirmed my promotion. I was now a senior tester. A few hours later, on my way to the New Delhi railway station, I received a message declaring that my seat had been upgraded to a first class coach. I sat calmly in the auto-rickshaw as my heart leapt in joy. Later, when the train arrived and after I boarded it, the abstract art shrouding the train’s body, its quaint floor with the wooden look and the mild fragrance in the coach gripped me with bliss. Besides, I realised that the other seats in my coup lay vacant. I would lock myself in a luxurious train coup for the next fifteen hours. The only person who would ever knock at my door was a waiter supplying moderately tasty food. It was surreal indeed.
Almost an hour through the journey, I woke up from my nap to an almost forgotten sweet scent that was once very familiar. I opened my eyes to another pair of eyes watching me from the opposite seat. A wild pair of light brown eyes they were. Painted on a flawless pale face and beneath a stream of wild black hair.
Her peach-lips parted as she said, “How have you been, Firhad?”
I squinted. Could this be real? My mind was a waterfall of statements and counter-questions. Where have you been all these days? You’ve dwelled in me for ten long years. Did I ever cross your mind? Had I ever mattered to you?
What I could gather to say, however, was, “Do you still play ducks-and-drakes?”
I was thirteen when we met first on a hot Kolkata afternoon. Back from the government school that I went to, I found our door locked. This happened often, whenever my sister was late from her work as a maidservant. Therefore, I decided to drop my satchel at the doorstep and walk up to my parents. I passed a mosque around five minutes later. It was empty at this time in the afternoon. I jumped past a wall behind it to enter a graveyard. There I passed some dozens of sleeping people to ultimately reach my sleeping father. I never knew how he looked when awake. However, with the cool breeze from the adjoining pond caressing his tomb, he looked quite comfortable in his sleep. My mother slept beside him. My two brothers slept beside her. A car accident had rendered them all asleep. I was two then, and had since been raised by my sister Junaida-apa.
I approached the bittersweet smelling pond. The occasional faint noises of buses and trams, bustling not too far away, got buried in its quiet green water. Picking up flat pieces of stone from the ground, I started playing ducks-and-drakes. Engrossed in the game, I hadn’t noticed the figure that sneaked in some ten or fifteen minutes later.
“I guess I can do better,” the words choked my throw. The stone dunked in the water. I looked around and saw a girl of somewhat my age and build.
Embossed on a neat pale face, the wild pair of light brown eyes struck my adolescent mind. Her dress gave away the fact that she was one of the private school girls who lived in big houses with Ambassador or Maruti cars. She picked up a flat piece of stone and hurled it at the water. I counted nine bounces before it dipped near the far bank.
“See? I told you so.” Her eyes reflected the arrogance that spilled from her words.
I picked up a stone in reply. While flinging it, I took pains to ensure my grip swung parallel to the ground. It plopped on the water, bounced up and plopped again. Unfortunately, this happened just eight times.
“You’re no good,” she said and picked up another piece of stone. This time, her throw kissed the water all the way to the other bank.
In contrast, I managed just four bounces when my turn came.
“Ehtesab,” Someone called from near the mosque. It was a woman around my Junaida-apa’s age.
The haughty girl looked at her and then looked at me to say, “That’s my mother. Bye, loser.” She marched off towards the older woman.
I struggled to sleep that night. Not because of the heat emanated from the power-cut, but due to a longing for those wild eyes.
A month later, Junaida-apa told me one morning before school, “My employer Haseeba-baji’s gardener is on sick leave for some days. We’ll make some easy money if you help them trim their lawn.”
“I’ve never done that, Apa?”
“Don’t worry. It’s easy. I’ll teach you.” She went on to explain the way to her Haseeba-baji’s house.
Accordingly, I went straight to the palatial house from school that afternoon. After Apa briefed me on the mechanism and gave me a short demo, it didn’t take me long to grasp the machine. When she felt I was good enough, she left me alone with the mower amidst the sea of green grass. A few minutes later, I was busy dragging it in straight lines across the lawn’s lengths. Profuse perspiration made my clothes stick to me. The midday sun chuckled at my misery. It was then that someone cried out, “Done playing ducks-and-drakes?”
I turned and saw Ehtesab. I stopped mowing the lawn and asked her, “Is this your house?”
“Yes. Are you Junaida-khala’s brother?”
“Hmm. She looks old enough to be your mother, though. Anyway, finish your work fast. I need to visit the pond.”
Fifteen minutes later, we were at the graveyard. As she carved impossibly brilliant lines across the surface of the pond, I stole some furtive glances at her splendid face and her wild composed eyes. When I hurled my stones to manage my helplessly paltry shots, her eyes scorned me. It was the happiest hour in thirteen years so far.
We met again the next day. We met the day after. We met throughout that summer. Even after the regular gardener was back and I stopped visiting their house, we arranged to meet every day at the pond. She continued to humiliate me at the game. She would often prod about my life – about my sister, my parents’ death and my school. One day I introduced her to my parents – to their tombs, to be more precise. I came to know that Haseeba was her stepmother. Her mother died during her delivery. Like me, she was technically an orphan as her father had also died later. We spent some hours together each afternoon and her eyes, hair and that fragrance would remain in my mind and mesmerise me for the rest of the day. It was a wonderful summer.
One day, around fifteen minutes through our game, we heard a sharp voice from behind us, “Ehtesab!”
We turned and saw Haseeba standing beside the mosque. She wore a white salwar suit and a grim face.
Ehtesab replied, “Yes, Ammi?”
“Follow me now,” and she turned. Ehtesab meekly obeyed.
That evening, Junaida-apa looked worried. “How often do you meet Ehtesab?” She asked.
“Everyday. We’re playmates.”
“Hai Allah! Stop doing it now.”
Apa breathed long, cleared her throat and said, “You’re both old enough for this kind of proximity to scorch you. Besides, now that Haseeba-baaji is aware of it and spiteful of your closeness, it can prove harmful to us. After all, she can kick me out of employment any day. Finding such a big paymaster is impossible in this neighbourhood.”
Her words made sense. I avoided the mosque for the next few days. A weird sense of loss and longing gripped me. While I thrust myself into the daily chores to squirm past the days, the nights seemed prolonged and lonely. Staring at the stars through the open window, I realised how deep the night sky was. It was a bottomless pit where all people’s dead aspirations lay buried.
After a week spent without meeting her, the longing got the better of me and I decided to visit our pond after school. I aspired to smell the air we had breathed together. I wanted to see the water her stones had kissed. Besides, there was the tiniest of hopes of finding her there.
Scores of sleeping people smiled as I entered the graveyard. She was there. I carried my leaping heart towards the bittersweet smelling pond and the sweet smelling Ehtesab who faced it.
“I never thought we’d meet here again,” I declared.
She turned those eyes towards me and replied, “Neither did I.”
Thus began what would be our last game.
When it was time to call it quits, she stared at my eyes and said, “I’m being sent off to some boarding school in Darjeeling.”
“You aren’t serious, are you?”
“Ammi decided it.”
“You mean your stepmother.”
“Yes. She’s the only living mother I happen to have. I know you feel kind of shattered. Try not to be. In fact, we’ll meet again someday – perhaps a decade later – to laugh about how sad and stupid you look now.”
After some moments of eyes-locked silence, she turned and started walking away. A turquoise scarf tucked to her waistband loosened and fell. I stood like a felled log. She walked up to the mosque and disappeared behind its walls. What remained were a few speechless people in their tombs, the pond with its bittersweet smell, the sad breeze with occasional faint noise of buses and trams, and the scarf and the sweetest memories that she inadvertently left.
I stood still for an eternity. Then, with a long sigh, I picked up the scarf and walked towards the pond. Extending my arm over the water, I loosened my grip on the scarf. It slid past my palm and floated in the air for a few seconds before landing on the water surface.
Forgetting her would be a colossal task. However, I knew I would get past this obsession, much like the onerous algebraic equations that I used to break. The summer broke into a heavy rainy season which, following a brief autumn, made way for a moderate but long winter. By the time it was summer again, she had considerably faded in my mind’s canvas.
I aced my tenth class board exam next year and opted for science for further studies. Thoughts about Ehtesab was all but buried under the hefty coursework. Her wild eyes and hair would sometimes caress my mind while watching the stars after having studied for a good part of a night. Those nights, for a few idle minutes, I did wish she were beside me. For those idle minutes, I hoped to see her sometime again. Otherwise, I was busy going to the government college I had enrolled in, taking notes, solving equations and memorising theorems.
Two years after my tenth class exam results were out, I cleared the local engineering entrance. The celebration, however, was short-lived when I realised that we were short of funds for admission to software engineering.
I made peace with myself and was ready to enrol to a government college for civil engineering when we lucked out one day. My sister came back from her work that evening and asked, “Have we missed the last date for software engineering?”
“Not yet, but how does it matter?”
“Some benefactor has funded all your semesters.”
“That’s surreal. Allah rehmat. Who’s this benefactor?”
“They prefer to be anonymous.”
Next day, I was waiting for a bus to take me to the engineering college to pay my fees when a white Ambassador halted. Haseeba craned her neck from inside it and asked, “Firhad, you’re on your way to the engineering college, aren’t you?”
I gulped while nodding affirmative.
“I’m going that way. Hop in.”
I hesitantly opened the door and sat on the passenger seat beside the driver.
We rode silently for a few minutes before she said from behind, “So, like your sister told me, you’re the budding software engineer of our locality, huh?”
The rest was mostly a silent journey during which things suddenly seemed to fall into place. Last evening, my sister worked at her house before she came back with the admission money. Is it possible that she is my unknown benefactor?
After I deboarded in front of the college, she craned her neck out of the window again and said, “Firhad, listen. May Allah bless you with the best life that you deserve, and I hope all your wishes are granted going forward. Khuda hafiz.”
She pulled her head back and the car left. She funded my college admission. She hoped all my wishes were granted going forward. All this pointed at only one thing.
That day, a faded image was recoated in my mind’s canvas. It was a wild pair of light brown eyes embossed on a flawless pale face topped by a stream of wild black hair. I assumed she would be mine one day.
Years rolled. I managed to survive the engineering college and then grabbed the job in Gurgaon. My sister retired from her work since I started sending home a good lot of money each month. It was just a matter of time before Ehtesab would be mine forever. One day, however, the glass sky shattered and fell on me when Apa called me to inform of Ehtesab getting married.
“It’s not possible, Apa. She’s mine.”
“What nonsense? Do you still nurse feelings for her?”
“I do. I always thought this was planned. Why else would your Haseeba-baaji fund my college?”
“She didn’t fund it, Firhad. I’ll let you on the secret now. I was secretly in love with someone. He’s the one who funded your college fees. I refrained from telling you as I was afraid that you might refuse the help considering the associated taboo.”
It took a few seconds to sink in.
“So who’s this benefactor, then?”
“It’s the local gangster Abdul. We were madly in love. However, we skirted marriage as he moved in and out of jail so frequently. Besides, I was your full-time mother, and could not think of a new family.”
I drank like a sponge and smoked like a chimney for the next few days, weeks and months. Nursed in my mind for more than a decade, the longing for her now transformed into a gripping dismay and killed me each moment. Dark days and sleepless nights prevailed.
Time is, however, the best shrink. It helped me gradually pick up the pieces of my life and move on like a defeated soldier.
Almost a year after her marriage came news about her husband’s murder. It was supposedly a sad news. In fact, sad was a supposed understatement. Yet, the only thing I felt was a heedless joy laced with a replenished hope. As if she was back in the market. I felt ashamed to celebrate her loss, yet this hope tagged me that day onwards.
In fact, the hope escalated when I saw her in the train coup.
“Last time I played ducks-and-drakes was with you,” she said.
“How has your life been so far, Ehtesab?”
“I’m a rich widow. That’s how life has been.” She stared out the window.
“Came to know about your loss. Sorry about it. How did he die?”
“His money killed him. It was orchestrated by hired hands. Some of his kins wanted him out of their way in order to bake their bread.” She took a long breath and said, “Anyway, I’ve to leave now. My folks are waiting at the other end.” She rose.
“Wait. I need to talk.”
“Stop there, Firhad. I know what you want to say. You and I were never meant to be together.”
Another eyes-locked silence later, she opened the door and marched out of my life forever.
Next day, I dragged my meagre luggage and a shattered heart to Junaida-apa. She said at once, “Drop your luggage here and run to Haseeba-baji’s right now. Something serious has cropped up.”
A maidservant answered the palatial house’s door ten minutes later. She ushered me upstairs to what I understood was Haseeba’s bedroom. Sprawled on a kind soft bed, she looked worn and woeful.
“Assalamuwalaikum,” I said.
She extended a hand that I touched after a few seconds’ hesitation.
A steady line of tears glid down the sides of her eyes and plunged on her swan-coloured pillow. She screamed, “It’s all my fault.”
She sniffed twice and blubbered, “I wanted to get her married again… to you. But they killed my cursed girl. I’m just a failed stepmother.” She broke into a violent spate of sobs.
I stared in disbelief. “She got killed? When did this happen?”
“Last week. They were after her money. Her husband’s money. They snuffed him first and it was her turn later.”
I gasped. She sobbed.
Almost a minute later, I gathered myself to ask, “Are you sure it was last week?”
“What’s there to doubt? I saw them bury her seven days back.”
I met her less than twelve hours back.
Of course, I didn’t let Haseeba on that meeting. She would take it for a crude joke.
After bidding her farewell, I staggered out of her house and walked straight to the graveyard. My father, mother and numerous other people sighed in their graves. The breeze was sweet yet painful. I approached the bittersweet smelling pond where we once played together. Something floated a stone’s throw away on the water surface. It was a turquoise coloured scarf.
In case you’ve read this far, you already know that this is a compressed version of Great Expectations 🙂
Place: some swanky restaurant, mostly empty
Characters: He, She and Awkward Silence
Awkward Silence steps out as He tries to open a conversation.
He: I’m new to this okshoopid thing. You?
She: It’s been a while (and concentrates on her food)
Awkward Silence returns for two or three minutes and then steps out again.
He: Haven’t you set up an emergency call?
He: You know, they say women arrange for some friends to call them up amidst a blind date. If the date goes weird, they just pretend an emergency has come up and leave midway. Haven’t you set up something like that?
She: Why would I?
He: You’re definitely not interested in this date, are you?
She: I don’t know. It’s been a while since I dated last.
He: How long has it been since your last date?
She: Almost fifteen years.
He: If you don’t mind me asking, didn’t you feel the urge to mingle with a man all this while?
She: I did. I had a workable husband all the while.
He: Sorry about being a pest, but your profile does mention you’re single.
He: So are you divorced now?
He (frowning): Separated?
She: Yes, by death.
He: Oops, sorry about his death.
She (extending her arm to reach the ac switch eight feet away): Don’t be sorry, honey. It’s I who died. He’s doing your wife right now
The baby-faced beast marched out of the bureau office in a kurta, pyjama bottoms and sandals – all white. We pounced on him, like birds at a silverfish, as had been instructed earlier by our top boss Mr Knob Singh.
“Sir, did you kill your wife?” I demanded.
His magnificent eyes pierced me as he stopped short. We anticipated a quick result. However, he started staggering towards his car.
“If I know him well, he’ll bury his rage and try to walk away,” Mr Knob Singh had mentioned. “Don’t be perturbed by his calmness. Rather, pin him with your words. Hog him with your questions. Ask all sorts of stuff – slanderous, intimate questions. Your cameras and microphones should never stop running. Anything he says, any aggression he makes – we’ll edit and broadcast them immediately. He’ll ice the cake all the more if he reacts to one of our female journalists. We’ll charge him for sexual harassment. I want that ass-hole’s reputation frozen in a morgue once he steps out of that bloody bureau office.”
Mr Singh’s fury and demand for a revenge was justified. The baby-faced beast belonged to the political party that stalled our nation’s progress in the last few decades. They are the reason people chose a progressive government now at last. A government that extended its friendship with countries all across the world – our supreme leader would sacrifice his sleep to travel around the world and ensure that the biggest business contracts were bagged by our industrialists. Wretched leftists across the world, however, came up with human rights or environmental theories to thwart their attempts. Leftists, indeed, are a menace. They wail about everything – soaring price of pulses, beef-eaters’ deaths, some black sheep journalists getting killed, their anti-national leftist brothers in some universities being arrested. What they didn’t realise is that it was not cheap pulses or left-inclined journalists that would usher our country forward. Also, beef-eaters had always made a negative impact on our society. They should all be discarded anyway. It’s things like wider roads, super fast trains and big ass monuments that would glorify our nation and make it look great. Besides, our businessmen should climb higher up Forbes’ and other magazines’ lists to make us proud. All that would be possible with higher taxes. Not just pulses, even bread, butter and breathing should be diligently taxed.
Besides, the beast had recently killed his sultry siren wife. Although police had almost written him off the list of suspects by now, and neither did the bureau seem too inclined to hold him, it was clear as daylight to us that he was the one who killed that lady. Fuck the investigators. Fuck the court. We were the ultimate authority on pronouncing a person guilty. The ass-hole, however, went to court against us when our channel called a spade a spade. And the court, in its turn, took him for face value and sided with him. We were now here to exact revenge from this ass-hole.
All fifteen of us encompassed the animal and shelled him with our questions.
“Sir, what did the bureau ask you?”
“Sir, when will they arrest you?”
“Are you a murderer?”
“Did you hate your wife for sleeping with someone else?” Richa Bhanchor’s question elicited a sharp turn from the ass-hole. For a split-second, it looked as if he’d erupt. However, his rage seemed to immediately melt as he gained his composure back and sauntered towards his car. He’d later on post a slanderous twitter comment equating us to dogs. Slimy son of a bitch.
We walked in silence towards the parking lot. I fished my phone out of my pocket to read twelve missed calls. Most of them were from my brother Bhutiya. I rang him back.
“Come to Atmaram hospital emergency if you can.”
“Is everything all right?”
He didn’t answer. I realised he had disconnected the call. I called back and he let it ring and die.
Half an hour later, I rushed into the hospital emergency. Bhutiya, our neighbour Sunil and two unknown men stood silent. They were as calm as someone forced to watch Messenger of God.
I asked, “What’s it?”
Bhutiya stared. The two men asked, “Is this your brother Chutiya?”
Sunil said, “Yes.”
I asked again, “What is it?”
Sunil said, “Bhutiya’s motorcycle was rammed.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yet you look fit as a fiddle, Bhai. Why this fuss of a summon?”
Their gaze reminded me of the slimy bastard’s stare earlier today.
Sunil answered at last, “Your niece Maya was riding pillion.”
“So where’s she?”
“They’ll release her later,” Sunil seemed to chew his words. “Once the doctor signs the death certificate.”
“What death certificate?”
Sunil said, “Maya has been killed.”
“What?” Did he just say my fifteen year old niece, the one who called me by my name instead of Chacha or Chachu, who nagged me for ice-cream whenever I visited them and who had just been called for training for the state volleyball team was now as alive as the slimy beast’s wife?
I believe I also resembled someone coerced into watching Messenger of God.
When I found my voice at last, I asked, “Anyone noticed the registration number?”
Bhutiya spoke at last, “That wasn’t needed. We know the owner.”
“We know the son of a bitch? Who’s he?”
“Khatmal Singh.” Bhutiya’s answer whipped me.
“You mean Sri Khatmal Singh of the Progressive Party? Our province’s guardian angel? Whose name is synonymous with development?”
“Shut the fuck up,” Bhutiya erupted. “It’s tough to believe we share a mother. Singh has been around for the last couple of years and things have been the same if not worsened. No-one other than your joke of a news channel sees any development, ass-hole. Khatmal Singh is the one whose driver rammed my motorcycle and killed my daughter. He’s the one who stepped out of his car, called me a motherchod and slapped me hard on my face. He’s the one who threatened me, stepped back in his car and sped off while my poor daughter lay bleeding.”
A ball had once hit my nether region in a football pitch and I’d writhed like a lamb beheaded by a butcher. Somehow, my brother’s words had the same effect on my mind.
“What did the police say?”
“They said they’d let me go if I didn’t make a hue and cry. Else, they’d bury me under a pile of charges.”
“Fuck! I’ll ensure Salemo News covers it all. I’ll have Mr Knob Singh run it on an evening – most probably tomorrow as today’s will be about whether a film actress should be beheaded or not. I’ll teach them what democracy is about.”
It took me an hour to reach the Salemo News office at Ganja Park. I’d already called my boss to feed him on the incident. I walked straight to his cabin. He looked grim. “Sit,” he pointed towards a chair in front of him.
“Sir, my niece…”
He cut me short, “I’m abreast of the incident. You’ve already briefed me on the phone, right?”
“So Sir, how many minutes do we cover it for?”
“My niece’s murder?”
“What murder? By whom?”
“Sir, Khatmal Singh’s car had collided with my brother’s motorcycle and killed my niece. Khatmal Singh had then threatened and assaulted my brother. Police is reluctant to file it.”
“You’ve told me all this, Chutiya. However, what you’re talking about is a mere road accident.” He frowned, “Accidents happen, Chutiya. Accidents, rainfall, lightening, earthquakes, you, they’re all created by God. Mortals like us have no control on it. The only person who can be tried for it is God.”
“Sir, will you let him escape like this?”
“Are you serious, Chutiya? The word Khatmal is synonymous to development. He’s carrying us on his strong right shoulder to the top of the world. Why should we try him for a mere road accident, brother? It’s anyway your brother who’s to blame. He shouldn’t ride in front of Khatmal-ji’s car. And what’s the implication on our nation anyway? Your niece was too dark to be a future Miss Universe, right? Just look at her upbringing. What girl in civilised society plays volleyball?”
I guess I had enough shock for a day. I muttered, “Ok, Sir. I’ll leave now.”
“Yes. Take a few days’ leave and help your brother with the funeral and all.”