I was between eight and nine. I had all the right to be afraid of stories of death. There was not a single sinister object I did not fear; the monkey-carcasses hanging on electric wires, the headless doll on the rooftop included.
I did go out to play, but I retreated when games involved morbid objects. I loved speaking about ghosts, though. Because I was sure there were no ghosts, I could frighten the believers. When I was younger, my father had explained to me about their non-existence. Since then, whenever my friends told me that they did, I would run to my father, and from beneath the pile of papers he still had to file, I would urge him to confirm once again.
He did so with absolute faith in my faith in his words, ascertaining that there was no proof of the existence of ghosts. As a practice, when my sister, Dollie, brought me a head of a doll with a tousle of hair, I romped over her by mimicking scenes from ghost movies. She was cheerful, had a candid and naughty demeanour, with unapologetic bravery. She was a child meant for the living room, while I was meant to be in the study, where one barely spoke to the other. She was boisterous, and I was fiercely obedient. On a gloomy day, if a glass jar of chocolate powder slipped off my hands, I went into despondency. To jump on the washbasin and dash it against the floor was, for her, typical. Usually after this, she looked for something fresh to toy with.
In the house where we lived, which had more skylights than windows, our mother took over the daunting task of grooming us to welcome guests. This is how she did it.
“Dollie! No overeating, no blabbering, no jokes on others. D-r-a-w a line.” She said stretching her eyebrows tight, and then to me, relaxed, “There is no line.”
The guests included aunts and uncles and their snooty children. They came unalarmed. I never greeted them despite mother’s constant prodding, and Dollie never goofed up at enthralling them. They knew us well enough to know whom to ask for a dance performance. Somehow, they always remained strangers to me. First time guests, however, had to get acquainted with the setting, and this happened with ease when I stood taut and Dollie stood moving her arms, trying to reach every dust particle around her.
There was little to look forward to in Khenjoy (its expanse was less than 10km in area), except for two movie theatres and a few historic buildings. This is probably why Khenjoyians whiled away their time by playing with each other’s private matters or bathing in the sun on their terraces. So did the children. They played hide-and-seek in houses not their own.
When an aunt offered cookies or chocolates, Dollie didn’t hesitate. I found it irresponsible of her to eat grub without my mother’s knowledge. With a personal agenda to let her down, I ensured I informed mother, though she never bothered to have Dollie align with my nature. I was plaintive and perhaps, even depressing, which explains why I was the last one to show up when someone new dropped by.
Now that I look at those days, I see that those guests were to me what ghosts were to Dollie. And I wished hopelessly that Khenjoyians kept to themselves.
I had no motivation to contest the affection of guests, until he arrived. The distant uncle, in bus number 102.
He was plump, with a proud paunch and a non-perfunctory hairdo that he evidently cared about. In a plain shirt tucked neatly and shoes that lacquered, he carried a valise for two pairs of t-shirts, one pair of pants and a Tibetan towel which he hung around his neck while groping for a soap or a razor in the dishevelled contents of his suitcase. He appeared erudite, using English words in conversations and asking us to spell apples, jaggery, and jackfruits. On the first day, he gave us chocolate bars, and on the following days, he gave us tiny toffees.
He stayed with us for a purpose beyond our comprehension. Father had mentioned that he was here for business or work, or whatever. With time, we understood that he had been a native of Khenjoy and now lived in Bombay—a city we presumed was the most awesome of all in India. The first time he visited us, we had to cancel a planned picnic to the garden palace of Khenjoy. This was slightly more upsetting than usual for my mother who had potatoes boiled, mushrooms blanched and cucumbers sliced for sandwiches and puddings frozen beforehand. Eventually, she would serve a part of this to Uncle in china plates.
I quipped, “Are we serving tea, or sherbet?”
“Oh, just take whatever’s in hand!” She would never say ‘smash it on the table’. That was the decorum she wanted us to practice.
Uncle did not ask us to sing or dance or even recite a poem. He began teasing us, knowing that was the easiest way to get children talking. It was no surprise that Dollie stepped up to tease him back.
He asked her, “Why is your name Dollie?”
“Because I look like a doll.”
“What do you think is my name then?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Polar bear?”
All of us cracked up.
We peeped into the skylights and watched mother keep him content by providing him food in a steady routine, almost like listless eateries serving their patrons. Mother had heard about him from my other aunts, and since he was in town for ‘work’ she had no interest in friendship.
In the evening, she served him tea and biscuits and tried to figure out if he had certain preferences for dinner. Uncle, however, was a simpleton who relished everything with almost equal interest. Mother cooked biryani and koftas for lunch the next day, and Uncle enjoyed it to the extent of discussing its recipe. To my mother’s surprise, he knew quite a bit about ingredients and discussed cooking tips with her. He knew how to bake a cake in a pressure cooker and offered to bake biscuits on his next visit. At night, mother questioned father out of curiosity, “Does he cook out of interest or is it because he has a lazy wife?”
Sometimes, under the wreath of smoke in the kitchen, he guided mother on the amount of ghee to pour in the dough for doling out crunchy kachourees and helped clear the froth off gravies and curries.
He played carom with us and helped catch the ball when we played cricket, often becoming a player. One evening, he found me watching passers-by in front of the house instead of being out to play and perhaps, out of boredom, asked if I would accompany him for a walk. I could not refuse, despite having chosen to spend some time alone.
Given his tall stature, I began taking abnormally long strides to keep up, but he slowed me down. He walked lethargically, relaxed and resting his hands in the pockets of his pants—he was always fully dressed and called us beta, the word for son in Hindi.
“Which movie do we have at the theatre?” he asked. I asked him which theatre. When he mentioned both, I said I hadn’t noticed. He laughed, saying, “That’s the first thing kids your age notice.”
He began testing my general knowledge. The President, the Prime Minister, the first, the second, the state Chief Minister, the history, the geography, the last Viceroy of Independent India; almost everything that came to his mind for a junior student.
I could not see his face, but only his large sleeves sagging near the pockets of his pants. He did not express any amazement or admiration for my all-correct answers, which I myself was not expecting. By the time his questions exhausted, we’d walked so long that we were about to cross the border to land in the grounds of the adjacent town. Since an expanse of lonely rice fields were about to follow in the dark, I felt at ease when he decided to return.
“All right. Yes. What’s the plural form of cow?” He asked.
“Cows,” I said.
“Fishes.” My heart beat with pride but I could see that he thought I was too small to answer bigger questions. Still I was happy about an undisputed and immaculate victory until he corrected me that fish would be fish even if there were ten of them, unless they were different in kind.
It was eight in the night and slightly cold, and he bought us Popsicles. And finally when he liberated his hands from his pockets to make the payment, I was freed of the fear that he was arm-less.
I pitied the Popsicle that kept moving fast in and out of his mouth and dissolved almost in a minute. He kept asking, “do you want another one?”
“No,” I replied. “You can have one more if you like.” He bought two for himself.
“I have a son,” he said. “He can put two popsicles in his mouth at a time. But I can put three in mine.” He smiled.
“How old is he?” I asked.
“He is nine years and one day old.”
“One day? You didn’t celebrate his birthday?”
“His mother must have.”
He asked me something about a bus numbered 102, randomly. At that time I had no idea, so I said I didn’t know in a dispirited voice.
He laughed a bit. “No, don’t be ashamed. It takes honesty to confess that you don’t know something.
I am not sure if I understood him. But my heart beat faster. And I must have been blushing.
“It was one of the few buses that provided connectivity between our home and the railway station,” he said (I noticed that ‘our’) and later reminisced about his college days when he used to board 102, six days a week, mostly as a straphanger, getting to sit only on Saturdays.
He gestured with his other hand while explaining. When winter shaded Khenjoy and vacations came around, he still hopped to the college library twice a week, sitting on the empty bus, clearing the fog from the glass of the window. Bombay called and he left in search of work, miles away, eventually settling down over there. “I can’t tell you how many memories I have.”
“Huh. Let it be. You are a child.”
Mother always fed guests and children first, occasionally taking my service for passing on hot rotis from the burner to the diner’s plates. Uncle, however, disliked this and believed in eating together. So we began eating together and dinner time made me awkward due to my inability to acknowledge the friendship between us, unsure if he would mind it. He acted as if nothing had changed between us, or at least nothing had changed on his side. Expressing concern about the lack of electricity in the abandoned rice fields, he lauded the spicy food on his plate, talked about the fun he was having staying with us, but did not say a word about the time with me.
At this moment, mother blessed me with an escape. The pile of rotis she had kept in the casserole before we began was now done with, so she asked me to get a few more from the kitchen. I brought the rotis, but they weren’t brushed with ghee, so she got up, mentioning I did not know how to do it and that she had always had to get up during meals. I sank into my chair.
Uncle, with food in his mouth, said, “Now we can’t get her to know how to peel a bean and a jackfruit,” and then he tipped his head to the left. “For her age, she knows. Knows what she should.”
He had not gassed a bit, though, I played amplified versions of his words in my head.
That visit was especially short-lived after our inflamed camaraderie. He had left before we returned from school, and it pinches to have missed what could have been a memorable farewell.
To keep us from wandering all day, mother asked us to sort old newspapers so she could bundle them up and sell them off to the local scrap dealer. The newspapers reminded me of all the general knowledge questioning done by Uncle.There were old, golden wrappers of chocolate bars that we had preserved and forgotten. Every month, mother hoarded such gibberish and swished the mess out the house. Our room had several shelves carved into the wall, each carrying important objects on a layer of newspapers. This was a task, given that shelves were loaded with books and magazines. Sociology, literature, politics, psychology—all sophisticated but subjects incomprehensible to me at the time. Still, my mother kept them clean, filling each corner with anti-rodent drugs and hung a thick curtain to keep them away from dust; somehow reasons made way for my mother to organize the cleaning process.
She said, “Girls never learn what’s worth keeping and what’s not.” Once we set the books, we moved to the other two sets of shelves that held combs, hair oil, toys, and clothes. Easy and simple to pull, sort and dust. First, we threw away the base of the newspaper pad. She gave me a fresh one to be double folded and placed it on the shelf. It read: Only dead fish swim with the stream. It reminded me of fish and fishes.
I cropped it and slipped it between the pages of my drawing book.
With every visit he seemed less strange to me. He enjoyed his vacation, far from the noise of the city. He took us to the Maharaja gardens, where he said that his city had more skyscrapers than land. They create boulevards, unlike in Khenjoy, which, in his words, is not a town but a garden. We plucked hibiscus, violets, mimosa, marigold and roses from the terrace and when we needed lotuses, we scuttled to the muddy lakes behind several nearby temples whereas uncle bought it from the boy who sat by a tree or a pole and sold flowers wrapped in crumpled newspaper.
Often, Uncle called us after dinner to sit on the terrace under the moonlight. He loaded the chair with his weight as he tried to understand what I meant and I sat on the edge, preparing what to say or ask next.
All this while, Dollie ran about the terrace and danced in the cold air. She often came to uncle, asking him if she could tie his hair in a pony, and he would agree. It angered me, considerably, that he called us both, that he was fair to both. He never seemed bored with us, never annoyed. I was at the point now where it wasn’t enough that he didn’t ask me to dance or sing. Sometimes I wanted him to say no to Dollie’s loud singing on the terrace.
I observed him closely. He and my mother spoke at length about our relatives, there were so many of them, food and cricket, among other mildly interesting things. My father couldn’t tell a shot of six from four, so he kept quiet when Uncle praised Gavaskar and mother raved about Kapil.
“To speak of our family in sports. Every time my boy is on the ground, I am delighted. He is especially good at bowling. I would have sent him for training if only his mother let me.” Uncle said at this point.
“You are in a city of opportunities,” father said and laughed. “All you need is permission.”
“You’d never come back, I know,” mother nodded, with a compassionate smile. “Even if your business booms here.”
Uncle waited a few moments before saying, “There’s so much this city won’t forgive me for.”
In another moment, he started joking about Khenjoyians, “If you sneeze before them, they can tell you that you slept shirtless the night before. And if you lose weight, obviously, you have been starving and are advised to beg around. You know, I miss this gossip but can’t afford it.”
Somewhere in my heart, I had decided that he was stronger than my father and capable of solving any problem, capable of cooking. I failed to see then that my father had little time to render us a closure. Since it was a given that a daughter loved her father; by offering a plate first to Uncle and by getting him the newspaper when he sat for tea, I was, in small ways, trying to confess my love for him.
One Tuesday, I was on the terrace plucking a pink rose from the pot mother had been watering most of her life. Uncle was sipping tea from a large glass, basking in the sun, slicing eggplants into delicate, thin chips. He was in a good mood, and promised to make a cheese omelette with mushroom tops scattered in it the following Sunday. I held the rose carefully, and walked towards him when a neighbourhood boy we used to go to school with climbed the short parapet that separated our houses and snatched it from my hand. The thorns scraped the skin of my wrist when he did, This was very sudden, I was lost and hopeless and looked at Uncle for what might have been hope. He asked me to run after him. “Get it back!” he shouted. “Go get it!”
Get what? I was wondering, and running behind the boy up to his terrace, trying to do it just for Uncle.
“Do not come back without the rose!” Uncle’s voice came streaming down the staircase where I was following the boy.
A few minutes later, I went back to him with the rose in my scraped hand with barely a few petals on it.
“Yeah,” he sighed. “That’s your rose.”
Khenjoyians began wearing woolen shawls over sweaters and for hours they sat around the fire made by burning wood in a tin pan in their patios, and we knew it was winter. When the fire died, in the seething heat of the coal, we roasted sweet potatoes and then mashed them in milk for an evening snack. Sometimes, we even roasted bird shaped dough and ate it with a curry of peas and tomatoes, and in the morning we ate a preparation of sweetened yoghurt and flattened rice. We bathed from the water heated on the stove and even poured it into lavatory mugs. A month of vacation from school helped children reconcile with their busy fathers and severed relations with their mothers, most of whom worked on the wet floor of the scullery and fretted over rising electricity bills. When mothers bathed their long hair, they whined about the chill and rushed close to the fire, sipping glassfuls of tea prepared by their own freezing hands. Men who sat in their own shops and those who invited others over tea made small jokes about the winter and saw it propagate through the tiny town as though it were a firefly. Rickshaw pullers spat red after chewing betel leaves and cyclists who carried their children exhaled fog onto their tiny heads.
One needed courage to weather the morning and as soon as there was a tiny beam of sun cracking in the sky, rooftop terraces became crowded with women and children and old men squatting on straw mats, soaking in the sun, sweaters suspended on a thin string attached to walls, sweaters too tight to slip into and too tight to escape from.
Uncle had already missed all of this, because when he came, winter was on the verge of departing. Schools had begun.
On Sunday, we had to board bus number 102 to see his college campus and the huge gardens that accompanied it. Right before the journey, I had wondered, let’s see what this bus really is. He talks so heartily about it.
Being the end of winter, the sun was light and warm and helped our bobs dry softly. Uncle was impatient as we waited for the bus, but kept looking around us and at the hoardings. An old bus with withering front designs and a loose headlight came to a halt before us, still red under the layer of dust. Uncle smiled and grabbed our hands, “Let’s go.”
Evidently, he was rejoicing inside his heart as we slouched together into the last seats. His voice had a crackle now, a crackle that Dollie possessed. Wherever possible, he tried to play the guide.
“There’s the place where we ate ice candies and salted raw cherries,” he exalted, “and water chestnuts. Boiled ones were costly. But finer in texture and taste.”
We followed his index finger that pointed to a telephone booth.
“There used to be barrows once,” he said petulantly.
“I want candy floss,” Dollie cheerily pointed to a candy seller several meters away.
Classrooms and offices were closed but there were other attractions, uncle said. The library was open every day except on public holidays and standing in the gardens, was a dome shaped, museum-large hall housing a marble sculpture, about fifteen feet tall and standing on a ten feet high platform, blackened by the acid rains fallen from the openings in the dome. Khenjoyians could have written in any book, but they preferred these walls. They had, in the past, inscribed love and blasphemy here, so that the doors to this hall remained closed now, available for view only from outside the lancet windows.
The sculpture was of a past Maharaja of Khenjoy. From the window, we could see that the Maharaja in his Nehru coat had a sword, high in his hand. In the massive hall, as I looked at the lonely sculpture, it grew on me like a ghost. Its colourless grandeur, surrounded by pale green walls, was a symbol of abandonment. Children near us threw chocolate wrappers and straws and even noodle strings through the window.
“Somebody has tried to attack the king!” Dollie cried. There were pebbles and stones around the floor near the sculpture, coming from the openings or perhaps hauled by nasty kids through the windows.
Although not ostentatious, the humongous nature of it all kept us hooked, and uncle had to pull our heads from between the beams and drag us out. Outside, too, there was sight to soak in; the gardens designed with care, befitting mimosa patterns flowering in the green grass.
This wing of the campus was labelled Library but before the library was a room infused with the yellow rays of the sun, from tiny windows right below the ceiling, forming patterns on the pistachio green walls. Every wall and most of the furniture was infused with the yellow sun: buzzing like music from these windows and doors. In front of the main door, on the opposite wall, was a fireplace — an unlikely piece of architecture in Khenjoy. Uncle later told us that the campus was a former King’s palace, converted into a college years before India’s independence.
The library was another grand hall, hosting an enormous number of books behind glass panels and beautifully carved, large red tables in shapes chiselled to fit the curving walls.
“Can we get comics here?” Dollie asked, disturbing the few students who had lives boring enough to study on a Sunday.
“No.” Uncle replied.
“What kind of books do you have in the city?” I asked.
“The same as you have here,” he scratched the skin under his moustache in a funny way and asked us to sit away from the students. “And more books are easily available. Dollie, the book jackets are more beautiful here.”
Dollie rolled the newspaper lying on the table and began peeping through it. It did not go very well and the view did not appeal to her. She turned the pages and began cropping out a photograph of an actress. Uncle caught her and prodded us into walking out.
The only small wing in the campus stood out for its insincere paint. As soon as we sauntered in, our nostrils experienced a gentle aroma of things that mattered to us the most. Tables and chairs filled three sides of this tinier hall while a wooden shelf stood on the remaining one behind which sat two men, one of them reading a newspaper. When they saw us, they leapt to their feet and flashed acknowledgement through smiles. We dragged uncle towards a table near the window where a girl and a boy were sitting quietly. He got us noodles with tomato ketchup and a pack of salted popcorn for our time on the bus. The bus was not empty this time, buzzing with children and elders, probably coming from a similar picnic. In the evening, he brought two orange flavoured chocolate bars. With an intention to munch on it later, I locked mine in the hind zip of my school bag and uncle left the next day.
Our swathing had begun to cause suffocation and sweat. Electricity power cuts followed in the night, and after twilight, men strolled about the terrace in undershirts and pyjamas while women still wrapped sarees. Amid all this, I discovered the orange flavoured chocolate in the forgotten section of my bag, holed by pest and rotten with time. Mosquitoes sucked on Khenjoyian’s blood, biting here and there, making them slap their own faces, spanking their own butt. We slept inside mosquito nets, scared that everything beyond was a mystery. The patios were burning dry during the day and among the hundreds of plant leaves on the terrace, mosquitoes bit the hands of those who plucked the beloved flowers.
The government, or some official department, sent a man with gallons of pest control gases, and children ran behind him as though he were the Pied Piper of Khenjoy. Months passed, and pretty soon we had passed our class and the next class, too. Uncle did not even call. On questioning, mother wore a simper and then faced father with some whimper.
Father asked us to forget him for his dishonesty in their friendship and for some other reasons that we did not comprehend. He refused to respond and my father cut off ties with him. It was more difficult than handling snooty relatives. I became tired of concocting evil tales about my uncle. We were earning fatter pocket money and buying chocolates by ourselves. There were all sorts of them, Swiss and Dutch, with raisins and nuts but it seemed like manufacturing companies were done flavouring them with oranges and nothing now tasted as it did before. Something that my tongue longed for was missing.
Like all things, time passed.
We found ourselves ripening into teenage and learning to take life seriously. Girls in the class began flaunting boyfriends as our mother directed the tailor to bring the hem of our skirts down to the knees. Dollie was growing into a tall woman, easily passing off as my elder sister, whereas my growth graph was deceiving me. I felt dwarfed in her company. Her list of male friends kept on expanding whereas I began attracting boys who only needed my help in studies. I got used to ignoring the telephone numbers scribbled on the last pages of her notepads, though I wangled an idea that I bungled up while executing. I prowled through father’s telephone diary for uncle’s contact and every time a handful of guests ostracized me by placing themselves in our house, I unbearably rang him until he picked. There was no mechanism for caller identification then, and I had little guts to say my name.
It turned out that Dollie did not entertain anyone, only letting the boys meander to nowhere. One day, she came to sit near me and in her incessantly crackling voice, asked me if I had done something similar. I was taken aback by her question, more by her audacity than by her curiosity. I refused to answer but in the next moment, considered sussing out information about her. She politely confirmed my long-standing views about her and said, “I do flaunt. If somebody asks, I tell them I have a boyfriend in Bombay.”
Even before I became curious, she declared that it was uncle’s son, whom she had disguised as her boyfriend, a fantasy built only to keep dunderheads away.
I could have done that, I realised. That was a good shot but it angered me even more, the very thought of something that was close to uncle could be possessed by my sister and not me, hurt my ego.
The phone call that day killed all our doubts. The ever so venerable uncle called father to apologize for the broken communication, the lack of contact. He had travelled to Dubai to eke out some money to fund his business, repay debts and seemed to promise that the rest of the details would be furnished in due time. Matters, which to me were still oblivious and insignificant, were now settled. Everything was sorted seamlessly. There were further calls which assured that the old days were back. But it still took him several months to visit us, this time with his son.
On that unfairly sunny day, I was coming back from school. My feet were aching so much that I wished not to walk on them. The belt wrapped around my waist swayed so many times out the last keeper that I wished the days when I wore a frock were back and I could simply tie a sash. Cursing the sweat dripping along my nape and the harsh sun, I reached home, and sought uncle’s presence, the fragrance of his shaving gel in the room, expecting him on a chair, with his towel around his neck, prowling through his suitcase.
But it was somebody else playing carrom with Dollie. A young boy whom I immediately recognised as uncle’s son. I quivered, imagining him as her boyfriend. Uncle introduced us, mentioning that he, too, was about to finish schooling and was bright and diligent. Mother smiled broadly and pushed her eyebrows to swim in her forehead, suggesting I see a role model in him. His name was Tapas. I registered the smile Dollie put on when telling me the name. He wore glasses. None of us did, not even uncle. If uncle’s wife did, we didn’t know because he never carried any photo of hers, neither were we interested in knowing. But the fact that his son did, added some sort of class to him. When they stood up after the game, towering me, I told myself how well they complimented each other.
During the lunch the three of us sat for, the question was which gender makes for a better cook.
He said, “Men’s cooking is rather simple.”
Understandable, I thought, since it came from someone whose father cooked enthusiastically.
“Yes, perhaps.” I said, “They are also hesitant cooks at home,” I was wary of sounding attacking. “The only man who has cooked for me is uncle.”
“Mushroom omelettes,” I added.
“Mushroom? Not possible.”
“Why? I have eaten those.”
He laughed first and then said, “Now that’s possible,” and winked at Dollie, who was biting a spoon.
Both of them were busy eating, not looking at me.
He continued, “It is possible that you’ve eaten that. But, but, but… My Papa must not have been the cook.”
I was offended, more by the way he called him ‘my papa’ than what he argued about. I said, “You don’t know then.”
“I do. He is so allergic he can’t even put one in his mouth.”
“Are you sure? He’d made one for me. Delightfully.” I knew I was being insistent
“Don’t go on for longer, Tapas, else she’ll sulk through the night.”
This was the thirteenth time she had called out his name. Tapas, Tapas, Tapas. Now I was irritated. I gobbled the rest of my food and walked out.
The hair on uncle’s temples was now grey and his wrinkles conspicuous when he smiled. He was easily fatigued and preferred to sit most of the time. He had not had the time or opportunity to speak to me. I saw him spending more time with my parents, who had betrayed him back then. I, however, never had my affection for him diluted, I thought, I deserved him. I waited until the next day when he jolted and asked, “So have you learned to dab ghee on rotis?”
“Come sit here, I haven’t talked to you since.”
I beamed. I had spent the past nights imagining myself asking him why he left us without warning. Did he not wish to talk to me even once? He could have dropped a letter, maybe to my school address. But I couldn’t say anything.
At night, when they went to sleep, I opened one of my books, a tougher read that deemed my concentration necessary, and read with the doors of the room open, so I could cry out loud in case I heard a miscreant peeing in the balcony, all the while hoping that uncle should be the first to come to rescue me.
I found his son pompous. Sometimes, when he played badminton with Dollie or helped her win a game of carrom against me or uncle, he would say, “See! I’m the saviour of all.” Then he would throw his hand in the air and grab a high five from her. Dollie had found a mischief maker in him, a partner in her crimes. Her hours at play multiplied, and it became impossible to stop her even for my father.
When he could not bring her to study, uncle said, “Don’t let him spoil you. He isn’t as sincere as your sister.” His son frowned at the comparison.
They continued to play and Dollie, on yet another day, exalted loudly, “Won’t you take your son to the university like you took us?” She winked at his son and said, “slightly boring but good food.”
“You children have grown up now. You can go by yourselves.” He advised Tapas to board 102.
“The government shut that bus service now,” I told him.
“When?” He asked, surprised.
“Perhaps two years ago. The routes have changed, uncle. And all bus numbers were revised, and also painted blue. There’s a bus that now takes a different route, a shorter one, from Chironjee Marg to your university. It no longer passes by our door.”
His shock came out clearly. He pressed his lips and pushed them up. Pinching his nose, which was now red, as if he were about to cry, and then passing his little finger through the corner of his left eye, he muttered. “O.K., O.K.”
I could not understand how the revision of a bus number or its routes could hurt him. Perhaps neither did he. Tapas, in jest, impatiently, asked us to get ready. Uncle, I knew, needed some time to grieve the guilt of mistaking, now that bus 102 had turned its back to him.
There was a different bus now, and Dollie and I were able to guide Tapas through the roads of Khenjoy. The new bus hosted seats in pairs, and as we entered, I moved away from them so that I don’t come in their way. But he called me out, “Vasu, let’s sit here.”
I turned back and saw him standing and waving from near the last of the seats where all of us could sit together and noticed, only in that moment, a reflection of his father in him. Could it be true that good sons are born to good fathers?
Things had changed, certainly. The wing where the library once stood was now a three-storey building with the library on the first floor and we were not allowed to get in without identification proofs. But the gardens and the hall where the sculpture of the king stood were open.
Upon knowing this, uncle, in a rather straight tone, said, “Nothing waits. Every individual and every object seeks its own growth.”
He was young, enthusiastic for life and interested in everything. He had boarded the bus for another errand, bought tickets to the hardware store, and was waiting eagerly to finish the chores and get home to dinner. His station was nearing and he was prepared, standing by the open door for a smooth cruise. He saw a girl about his age walking faster than a child would run. She, terrified and breaking down, was being chased by two jackasses, who seemed naughtier than what fine character would allow. Uncle waved at her, signalling her to run towards him. She did, luck favoured and he helped her board the bus, quickly closing the door.
“So did you keep in touch?”
“We did. But in those days, to remain friends, you’d have to get married. It was thought of as something revolutionary in Khenjoy otherwise.”
“Was she beautiful?”
He was surprised that I could ask such a question. “You didn’t even watch movies, right?” He put the newspaper down, “After just a single meeting, I remembered the peace on her face for a long time.”
When mother began trusting our maturity, she began talking, too. That uncle’s wife had divorced him some years ago, he had closed off all contacts with Khenjoy and left for Dubai. The divorce had been an end to a long going strife. Those days, there had to be substantial reasons for separation unlike today but mother did not discuss much and we didn’t question further.
His cooking could have been out of necessity, too. His dedication at treating us all equally, his appreciation for anything that mother cooked and his ache for old memories. The lack of mentioning the wife and bringing his son to Khenjoy only in the aftermath; his son whose words, “See! I’m the saviour of all,” had meant something to him.
A TBR Creative Writing Workshop piece
Himani grew up in Mumbai. Her favourite writer is Clarice Lispector.