“See you tomorrow at 7 then,” I remind Deepa before getting off the school bus. “We’re so going to have an awesome time!”
“Yeah,” grins back Deepa, grooving in her seat, to the amusement of others, “the best! You sure your Mom’s okay with it? She isn’t worried about, you know,” she shrugs and spells out the word B-O-Y-S.
“Of course, she’s cool. Temporary insanity.” I shrug back.
If she isn’t yet, she will be, as soon as Dad gets here.
“See ya,” I wave from the sidewalk. Sunny mimics me and I thump his soft, silky-haired head. I’ve already doled out my entire collection of tenners to him. At least he should act the part. “Go to your room and act sick, will you?” I tell him. “But not too sick. Remember, you get better as soon as you see Dad. I don’t want to spend the entire weekend babysitting you and Mom.”
Mom’s at her usual post by the TV. The credit card embargo not withstanding. She jumps at the sight of a special prayer offer. One big all-inclusive protective spell for us all. Punches in a few numbers on her cell hurriedly, like the offer’s going to run out. Remembers the credit card’s been blocked. Smacks her forehead. Tries to get through an agent. Gets a hymn instead. And ends up slamming the phone on the table in disgust.
Well, then, that drama will sort it out itself. When Dad’s home.
I fix all of us cereal bowls for lunch and hurry up to my room to double-check on the tickets for tomorrow and decide on what to wear. Red or black? A dress or a tunic and jeans? Toes covered or revealed? I catch a glimpse of Sid heading out for his tutes and sigh pathetically. Like a lovesick poodle. Red it is.
I am almost done shortlisting what not to wear when a “What?!” goes off downstairs.
Mom’s pacing up and down the darkening living room, clutching her cell in one hand.
“Was that Dad?” I ask.
“What?” she says, looking distracted.
“Dad, was it Dad? Has he reached already? Is he on the way?”
“Reached where?” she asks, stopping mid-stride. Her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “What have you done?”
When I tell her about the change in Dad’s travel plans, skipping my role in it, she falls back into the sofa distraught.
“Mishra aunty just called,” she says. “The omen starts at 5.45 pm today. Not tomorrow, not at midnight. But ten minutes from now. Hardly any time to sort things out. We are not supposed to do anything after that, remember?” She holds her head in her hands and sniffs. “Do you realize what you have done?”
How does she know I have done anything? How could she? “We are covered, aren’t we?” I snap back. “By baba’s blessings?”
Mom shakes her head, far from convinced. Her palms itching to make more prayer offerings. Bur alas.
She rushes to the prayer room, to make all sorts of promises to every known God in exchange for the safe return of her husband.
“Mom, nothing’s going to happen, okay?” I say from the doorstep as she prays, straightening up and then bowing yet again, touching the cool floor with her forehead. “He must be delayed by the traffic.”
She just waves me off as she gets up and rushes out, a frenzy of activity. Nothing seems to ease her mind.
She scans all the windows for a lone maina and shoos away the birds, any bird, before they can sit down on the cloth line or the window ledge. Dad’s phone keeps going straight to voicemail, which makes her even more tense. She double checks for standing broomsticks. Black cats seem to pop out from the shadows at every turn. And mirrors reveal fine cracks that had been till now invisible to the naked eye. She takes them all down. Throws them out.
She is so certain that something terrible is about to happen … that right eye of hers! … that she refuses to even blink. And when the crow caws, she can only think of bad news. Flipping through news channels, almost with manic obsession.
It doesn’t help that the weather seems to be worsening on the 3D weather map being zoomed in and out on the TV screen. “What if your dad’s caught in that?”
“Don’t be absurd,” I tell her, switching off the TV. “We are nowhere near wherever that is.” But inwardly I cross all my limbs. Everything is going to turn out just fine. Mom’s being silly. All these superstitions are clogging her brain. But what if? a small, fearful voice at the back of my mind says. What if Dad is indeed in trouble? All because I wanted to go to a stupid dance? What if she is actually right?
We sit Shiva in the living room. One eye on the wall clock that seems to be broken. For never has it taken so long for time to move forward by an hour. Sunny’s half-asleep in the armchair, one leg dangling over the armrest. Mom’s still as a statue, squatting on the floor, her back resting on the sofa leg. And I keep vigil by the cell phones, hoping for a text or call. Dreading it. Realizing that if there isn’t one soon, we may need to send out a search party.
When the doorbell rings, we all sit up with a start and throw each other worried looks.
Sunny’s the first to the door. Brave enough to move at all.
“It’s Dad,” he yells happily and shakes his head at us as he drags in his suitcase into the living room.
“Women,” he seems to say.
Dad’s sporting a stubble and smelling funky – like a curious mix of incense, sweat, and petrol. “Don’t ask,” he says as Mom hugs him, beating his chest with her fists as if it’s all his fault, tears streaking down her cheeks.
“I thought we lost you,” she mumbles melodramatically. And Dad laughs. “Lost me? If it wasn’t for that Baba of yours getting arrested in the middle of the road … making a huge ruckus … cameras everywhere … I’d been home ages ago.”
“What do you mean?” She looks up at him alarmed. “Getting arrested? It’s his prayers that have saved you, surely?”
“Saved me?” snorts Dad. “The man was making a run for it. Tax evasion, bribery, fraud, whatnot. Haven’t you been watching the news? And you,” he says to Sunny, mussing his hair fondly, “you don’t look sick to me at all!”
Mom quickly turns on the TV, slightly perplexed by the word “sick,” but not enough to override her current curiosity. She gasps at the scene unfolding on the news channels. She hurried clicks on 507 and is greeted with white noise. “Baba ka Darbar” is off air, too.
“My, the world has truly ended … for him, hasn’t it?” I say cheerfully, searching through menus on the side table to order in, suddenly feeling famished.
“I don’t understand,” Mom says, even more perplexed. “He told Kavitha exactly when and to whom her daughter was going to get married. Finally. Even though he is not in their caste. How could he have known?”
“Perhaps, Bullu bribed him as well,” I chuckle. “They’ve been going around for some time, you know. ”
Mom frowns at me, suddenly realizing that I’m no longer a kid myself, I suppose, now that I understand the “facts of life” as it were, and smiles ruefully. “Should have stuck with Shri Nandini Devi. She’d warned us of this. Not in so many words, of course. But of troubles ahead. None of this would have happened if Kavitha had listened to her. But no, would she ever let anyone speak? Baba is the best and that’s that.”
Dad, Sunny, and I exchange knowing looks and chuckle. “But now that you know better,” he prompts.
And Mom makes a face.”Ha ha. Very funny.”
And I interject, all hopeful, “does that mean I can go to the dance?” Officially?
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