Indian Short Fiction/Issue 3/Vol. 1/Nov-Dec 2014 (http://www.indianshortfiction.com/short-fiction-stories.php?id=119): Unnithan was not just the milkman as he was popularly known in the neighborhood; he also came to milk the cows in our house. Had the sketch of Hercules in one of my little sister’s comic books come alive, it would have envied Unnithan’s chiseled physique that inspired us to nick name him after the Greek God. A lone tamarind tree stood in our backyard that we regarded more as an old war-horse than the mere sapling it was. One day Unnithan tied two ropes over its lowest branch and joined the loose ends with a narrow wooden plank addressing the whole dynamics as a swing. My sister and I spent as much time as we could manage after school hours in and around our new ‘toy’. Between where the tamarind tree stood and the stretch of paddy fields began was the canal. It lay dry in waiting the entire summer months for the monsoon to show up. Once the monsoon arrived and its old glory restored, the canal would go back to its benevolent ways and carry the water liberally to the paddy fields and beyond.
Away from the shade of the tamarind tree branches my mother grew a vegetable garden. My sister and I followed closely the life cycle of each plant from the point when the seed germinates until the flower actually gives birth to its fruit. Every morning both of us would run to the orchard to see which seed had emerged out of the soil, which flower had bloomed or which snake gourd needed a stone weight to be hung to its tail.
The first time when I saw my mother hanging a stone weight to the snake gourd’s tail I asked her why did she have to do that? She said the snake gourd was her baby too, like my sister and me. If we misbehaved she would restrict our freedom a little bit to steer us through to the right track. When it became apparent that the snake gourd’s intention was to go wayward, she felt obliged to straighten its course by hanging a stone weight to its tail.
I had however aspired to become a train driver. The rail track was only a few meters away across the road from the entrance to our house. Commuter and express trains went up and down through those tracks all day. The entire village population, especially women, matched the time-table of their daily activities with the whistles of the arriving and departing trains. As a result of the heat generated by the burning coal within, the train driver more often would unwind positioning himself at the door of the engine room rather than within. I would be in attendance right in front of our gateway and offer him a salute, no matter whether I was in his line of vision or not. Most of the drivers never paid any attention. But there were a few who felt amused, and took the trouble of returning my gesture. You cannot imagine the point of rapture that return salute would take me to. The rest of the day I would hold my head high in pride, and the pattern of my walk would vary to that of the strut of a rooster! My mother, unsuccessfully though, would try to hold back a telling smile that lingered over her generous lips. She always knew what had come over me.
My father was a misunderstood man even by my own mother’s standards. Seldom have I seen anybody else smile the same way as my father did. He had the most perfect set of gleaming white teeth that would put all the world’s tooth paste ads to shame. When he smiled, it lip up his entire face. And the oomph it generated would charge not only the whole room but also all those around him.
At the time when she started going to school and engaged herself longer in playing with other children of her own age, my sister developed difficulty in breathing, sometimes producing a kind of whistling sound as she inhaled. My mother used to prepare a paste mixing pepper, gooseberry and dry ginger with honey and apply it over her chest before she went to bed that actually helped to some extent. Because of this handicap or any other, she was the pet of everyone in the house. I had to trek the three kilometer distance to school over the narrow foot path across the paddy field and the long winding perimeter of the temple pond, past the old banyan tree under which Mohandas Gandhi is said to have addressed the elders of our village during the freedom movement. My sister in contrast rode the flashy Raleigh bicycle comfortably perched up on its front shaft that extended to the joint reaching the handle bar pedaled by our father’s younger brother during most of her elementary school years.
When I was seven, one afternoon I came back from school with high fever. The indigenous doctor in our neighborhood, Gopalan kaniyan, diagnosed me with chicken pox. As chicken pox was a communicable illness, our father, though not adept at looking after a child, stayed away with my sister for over two months until everyone at home had fully recovered.
The two month association established a rapport between my sister and our father which didn’t exist perhaps in the same pitch before. Habitually my sister would go to bed early, much before dinner was ready to be served. Waking her up from sleep and persuading her to eat was quite an uphill task and our mother later quit trying in order for sustaining peace in the house at the time for dinner. Well past midnight my sister would invariably sit up in bed both her eyes wide shut and call out for our father. As if he was waiting for the sound of her voice to emerge, our father would get up from his bed and go to her with a half peeled banana in hand. He would sit beside her patiently until she went back to sleep after fully consuming the banana during which process her eyes remained firmly shut.
My mother had a great ear for music. She hired an ace music tutor to come to our house and give ‘Carnatic’ singing lessons to my sister. After the tutor had left the first day I couldn’t control my tears for I felt left out. The following day I too joined the group as the music tutor’s second disciple. The music classes went on for over seven years. My mother felt very proud of the way my singing turned out to be. Once she forced me to perform before the committee members of the village women’s league of which she was the chair person. I felt so bashful that I obliged her obscuring myself behind the curtain in an adjoining room of our house. But that was to the extent it went. I couldn’t sing the high octaves and had to leave it at that.
When my uncle had come home after a twenty year stint in the Far East, he had brought along a black metal trunk full of books, an ‘Olympia’ portable typewriter, and a ‘Telefunken’ record player together with a fairly large collection of 76 and 45 RPM vinyl records. Though he was in his late forties he had preferred to remain a bachelor. Out of frustration that he was unyielding to wedlock once, while Nayyara Noor was crooning in the background, my mother asked him if he intended to spend the rest of his life with head phones fastened to his ears, to which he only smiled nonchalantly. As a ten-year old I didn’t quite know what exactly had he meant. After all these years I do now, but my uncle is no more.
It was during the final year of my postgraduate studies that my father had urged me to seek patronage from his buddy Iyer Sir who was the Dean in the most celebrated university in our district. Iyer Sir lived in an old Victorian quarters in the under belly of the old city. One could circumvent the long winding road that led to Iyer sir’s quarters by crossing the yard of the electric crematorium, though most were hesitant to do so. But I had no qualms about taking the short cut. Upon entering the gravelled ground where the house stood, what caught my attention first was the auspiciously grown cluster of three and half to four meter high Basil plants in a raised square structure in the center of the courtyard. On the first day when I arrived, Sir greeted me with an embrace. I went to Sir’s house once a week in the evenings. We would sit together in Sir’s private library in the upper floor of the house where the mixed odor of incense and sandal hung in the air. By my fourth visit Sir’s wife started staying behind to talk to me until I finished the ‘Bru’ coffee she would bring.
On my way out I had to climb down a flight of wooden steps and walk past a corridor that lead to a foyer which then exited to an open verandah from where one could step out to the gravelled grounds. After the landing of the staircase and before the corridor emerged, there was an enclosed isle which Sir’s daughter Maya used as her study. Shafts of light would trickle through the half-open door of her retreat. When my footsteps approached its entrance, she would hurriedly get up from the chair. Maya’s movements reminded me of a bunch of ripe wheat buds swaying in the breeze. From under those curved long black lashes the pupils of her vaunting eyes would lift up and stretch toward me, and traces of a smile would spill over those dimpled cheeks culminating in her bounteous lips.. and my heart would skip a beat.
On the evening of my nineteenth visit Maya dropped a small paper roll in front of me while I was leaving. Her adorable slanting cursive hand read, “Everybody will be away at the temple ground tonight watching the festivities. Will wait for you in the backyard.” A quarter-moon stood alone by itself in the sky. She stood in the shadow of the group of bamboos with her back towards me. The boogying shadows of the long pointed bamboo leaves moving in the wind that fell on the ground appeared several sizes larger than their original size. When I was only a couple of yards away in my approach she turned around and looked me in the eye without flinching for several moments before coming into my arms like a puff of breeze. Only a half wall stood between the backyard and the sea that had a small wicket gate in the center opening towards the sea-shore. Hand in hand we headed down the slope to the cool sands. In her excitement Maya ran into the water playing hide and seek with the tide, more like a five-year old child than the full-blown young woman she actually was. When the waves rolled in, she would run towards the shore, once they rolled back, she would go after them. The salty breeze blew the silken strands of her hair up and caressed her long pale neck at its back. She turned towards the dune where I sat and called out my name and waved her hand in invitation. I got up but did not move. She turned back again casting her eyes over the refracted shadow of my unmoving figure. She then picked up her sandals from the dry sand and began to walk back toward me. The tide came in wetting her feet. On its roll back it filled the deeper rear part of her footprints with sea water in which appeared the reflection of the moon in the sky. The momentum of the tide on its roll back left the sea water within the footprints shaking, eventually breaking the reflection into petite fragments. It was as if she was reluctantly leaving behind those broken bits of the moon strewn all over the tiny strip of shoreline.
The following morning when I woke up I felt my whole body was on fire. I was confined to the bed for the whole of the ensuing week. The seventh day I woke up in the middle of the night only to find her foot prints harboring tiny bits of the moon scattered all over the floor .. I tried rubbing my eyes, pinching myself, but neither was of help.
The evening a beaming Iyer Sir came to our house along with his wife, the windswept fallen autumn leaves were drifting over our courtyard. His cousin had approached Iyer sir for Maya’s hand for his own son who was an aeronautical engineer and employed by an international airline. They had known the young man from his boyhood and as a matter of fact were overwhelmed by the opportunity that had come their way. The wedding was scheduled to take place four weeks later.
I didn’t go to the drawing-room to greet them though my mother felt I was being discourteous. But Iyer sir’s wife came looking for me, perhaps my mother had told her I was unwell. She held both my hands in hers and asked me ‘Wouldn’t you come’. After taking the first couple of steps she came back to hold me close, and then kissed my forehead before she went out of the room.
I stopped going to Iyer sir’s house ever since. My mother asked me once or twice, but my blank return glance must have given her the impression something was not alright. Perhaps she would have thought I would open up to her, which was the only applicable logic to her being overtly discreet.
The lone two storey building stood tall in the shade of the mango grove. The short winding road that ran past the petite bunch of trees disappeared over the foothill. A young lad tap rolling his tyreless-bicycle-rim ran across to the only provision store in the vicinity for a soap bar for his elder sister to do the family laundry. Up above was a pallid blue sky festooned with slow-moving clouds that like a cunning jackal obscurely swallowed the dazzling yellow sunlight. My eye lids felt heavy and I slipped into a stream of half death.
I had always felt that Maya’s breath was distinctly warm resulting in her tears to evaporate and rise up to form a condensate cloud that the westerly wind floated past the group of bamboos, the deserted yard of the electric crematorium, the uneven long gravelled road and then lowered the altitude of its flight path over the Bougainvillea branches that nested over the gateway of our house before sneaking through the window pane of my room. As if hit by a splash of silver iodide it cooled down abruptly to reinvent itself its original liquid form descending over my left cheek with a thud prompting my eyelids to open. There stood she, Maya, right over my bed while all the others were relishing in their afternoon siesta. Were her eyelashes drenched with hurt? Were little droplets, like petals of jasmine flowers, streaming down from the sky? Her face appeared swollen and her disheveled hair fell loosely over her shoulders. I got up from the bed and not knowing how to confront her sat on its edge. She dropped to her knees hiding her face in my lap and wept openly. All I could manage was run my fingers over her loose hair that still held the faint lilac scent that used to fill my head with dizzy thoughts of summer. Then she looked up holding me in a tight embrace. I felt our world was going to end then and there and held her as close as I could. Without breaking away from my grip her eyes bore down into mine desperately seeking an answer. I couldn’t match her stare and looked away as I was afraid I would drown in the uncharted depths of her eyes that blatantly laid bare her hope against all odds. All at once she regained her composure, shrugged off my embrace and walked out of the room without saying a word. I knew she loathed me from her gut more than anybody or anything else in that moment.
From beyond the hills like a herd of black sheep descended night. My mother came into the room and pressed the light switch on the wall sprinkling brightness all over. Only then it occurred to her that I have been sitting at the edge of the bed unmoving from the time Maya had left. She came and sat beside me holding me close. I laid my head over her shoulders and a sob struggled to emerge from my throat.
After several months of nomadic life as a carpetbagger I wound up in this city where I have been through a grind from freight forwarding to warehousing to material management for as long as nine years before settling down. Last night while I was speaking with my mother over phone, after a long time, she mentioned Maya.
Hardly a month ago Maya’s husband was posted to the headquarters of the airline where he was working that also happened to be located in the outskirts of the same city where I lived. Maya herself was now the mother of two adorable children, a talkative nine-year old little girl and a boy whose conduct was delectably somber for his age, he was hardly six. In fact I had dinner with them in their opulently furnished apartment of which every room had a breathtaking view of the enclave of chalets built in reclaimed land charted in the shape of a palm tree, the sprawling seven star hotel complex and the harbor beyond. As Maya’s husband spoke enthusiastically of his plans to refurbish his wife’s parental home I could only pretend to be listening occasionally shaking my head, all the while lost in the song of the rain drops that dripped down the glass windows.
The next day when I called my mother she started as usual by arguing the case of my marriage, only this time she said she was voicing her concern at Maya’s insistence. Sitting behind the card table at the club I felt exasperated. If the next card I would draw from the central deck didn’t complete my natural sequence I was going to quit. As it turned out I didn’t have to, for the man sitting at my left, all the time laughing at his own inane gay jokes like an automobile tyre being deflated, announced the close out. His brown opaque eyes bore within them a smear of tease that seemingly was targeted at me. I felt all those sitting around were holding back their disdainful laughter behind the awkward grins of indifference they wore.
Once inside the car I drove aimlessly. I rolled back the glass windows and let the cold air blow against my cheeks. The frosty winter was in no mood to give way to spring. I parked the car beside the perimeter wall of the fortress like hotel and got out. The jogging and bicycle tracks seemed deserted. A number of boys in their early teens came across riding their bicycles competing against one another. In that moment I didn’t quite feel like being buoyant. All I yearned for was to break away from the mundane evenings I had become used to. How could I have wasted all this time being part of a card game sitting in the company of a bunch of masked men without identities?
I felt as much a stranger to the city as much it was to me. The city appeared far from the spellbinder that it once was and had walked me through my first sins. The leaves of the date palms were still wet from the mid-day showers. The heritage village was closed for the day. Atop the huge pole beside the prayer hall flew a colorful flag. I picked up a packet of Lucky Strike from the vending machine and crossed on to the sands. The sands were the same as they were a long time ago several thousand miles away. And so was the sea drawn out beneath a crimson evening sky. The waves rolled over its façade like the rippling midriff of a spinster past her prime. It was the same sea that had witnessed a much younger me drawing Maya closer in the shadows behind the fisherman’s boat to plant a kiss on her lips as the twilight faded. The city was like a courtesan, gorgeous and liberal, but with an inherent appetite to withdraw her favors once she found a portly younger man. It didn’t matter though because I was set to pick up my life as a vagabond from where I had left off in a couple of weeks’ time.
By noon the day after I had dinner with Maya and her husband in their apartment, I was running a temperature and left office early. My head was spinning while I was in the elevator and I struggled to find the right button for the floor where I lived. Yet I was able to identify the flight path of the tiny cloud that the westerly wind chartered across over the enclave of chalets, the palm island, the seven star hotel complex and circumventing the long sandy strip strewn here and there with date palms before nose diving to enter through the door of my apartment that was left ajar and landing over my left cheek in its original state forcing me to open my eyes wide. There stood she, Maya, over my bed with a gravely concerned look in her eyes. She hurried towards the kitchen and in a minute came back with a plain toast, a cup of black tea and a strip of Paracetamol tablets. She made me sit up and fed me the toast after dipping it in the black tea. Then she made me swallow two Paracetamol tablets along with the remainder of the black tea in the cup. Before leaving she did not forget to leave a flask full of black tea, a small container full of plain toasts and what was left of the strip of Paracetamol tablets on the bedside table. She had travelled the thirty-five kilometer distance from her apartment to mine all by herself because my assistant had told her I was unwell and left early when she called, and I did not respond to the calls she made in my cell phone.
The next day she called me in the office to tell me that it was high time I got married. She felt I needed someone to take care of me. The following day our conversation was centered around our parents. It appeared actually she had called me for something else, and surely not to discuss our parents. I could not, however, put my finger on what exactly could she have wanted to tell me. During the weekend I took them all to the water park. The children really enjoyed the trip. Both of them, especially Maya’s daughter had taken a fixation toward me to the extent that whenever her mother admonished her for quarreling with her brother she would instantly call me up: “Uncle, would you come and get me right now?” Meanwhile Maya’s husband also gave a makeover to his wardrobe by adopting my habit of wearing only white shirts. But I could sense that Maya was upset about something over which she did not encourage any discussion.
A few days later Maya told me that her in-laws have been deeply concerned about their daughter who was unyielding to any of the marriage proposals that came her way. After five years now she has agreed when Maya’s husband took up my case. Both she and her husband thought that we would make a good pair. I asked her not to force me, because I had gotten used to the way I was, holding on to the loose ends of my heartstrings, and more importantly I didn’t deserve a decent girl like her husband’s sister. What I could not take on board was Maya’s insistence on putting an end to my bachelorhood.
Once when Maya said referring to her daughter, “I’m beginning to get concerned about her behavior”, I merely laughed it off that apparently triggered her breakdown. How could I have known that she was living with the atonement of my fathering her daughter for the last ten years? She pleaded with joint palms to leave her little household alone before things got out of hand. The only part in the bargain I asked her to fulfill was to let me take the children to the water park one last time.
Two days later when I told my mother I was coming back home, her response startled me. She spoke as if she was expecting my abrupt return: ‘She told you, didn’t she?’ How could she have known? Despite my having grown up, she always knew what had come over me.
When I turned back towards the car park I saw a tall lanky man with a mix of grey and black beard leaning over and inserting a piece of paper under the wiper blade of my car. I did not notice the huge dent on the car’s front bumper until I came closer. I realized that the stranger who had bumped into my car was trying to leave his cell phone number beneath the wiper blade. He was more gracious than apologetic when I saved him the trouble by introducing myself. While we waited for the traffic patrol to arrive he started complaining about the scarcity of parking space downtown. The alarm of the patrol vehicle could be heard from at a distance and it was now getting closer. Darkness had descended over the city like a bear sitting on its hind legs. Automobiles crawled like columns of fire flies through its black arteries. Above lay an azure sky dimly lit by the broken bits of the moon that appeared to follow me all the way down from within Maya’s inverted foot prints.