Mrinal had never amounted to much in life. There was a brief period when his mom had thought he’d make something of himself — back in high school, when his dad still had his wits about, and a job at the local dispensary as a compounder, and his liver had not yet been consumed by the hard cheap whiskey he had every other day.
He was a reasonably good student. Reasonably good at sports. And arts. Always getting an A in Application and Personal Neatness, not that anybody knew what those two accomplishments meant or how they were relevant to the job scene the school was evidently readying them for. By all accounts, he was a good, silent type, who never gave any trouble to the teachers. Or disobeyed any rule. He was sociable and had a steady set of friends.
But before he could find his true calling, figure out what he wanted to do with life, or at the end of schooling at least, which was looming large on the horizon, his mom passed away. In an accident, his neighbor, Malhotra uncle, informed him when he got back from school that day and found nobody home and the door locked from the outside.
“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.”
“Dad, she’s gone completely insane,” I tell him over the phone. “She won’t let me go to the dance and is spending loads on teleshopping thalis to save the world.”
After a prompt rebuke, “Beta, how many times have I told you not to swear,” he suggests riding the wave till Sunday, when he returns. She has even made him change his flight date from Saturday to Sunday, as nothing, absolutely nothing, is to be done on that day. But, of course, pray.
Three days to “doomsday” and Mom turns into this zealot baba follower who refuses to do anything but watch Baba ka Darbar all day long. Remote in one hand, phone in another. Ordering a thali the moment a new prayer service goes live.
“How come he’s live?” I say, munching on crackers with toppings of ketchup and mustard sauce, our gourmet lunch for today. “Shouldn’t he be hiding somewhere, performing some ‘yugya-shagya’ in secret?”
Mom shudders at this and looks about fearfully, as if waiting for lightning to strike and smite us all out of existence. When that doesn’t happen, she finally speaks. “Baba has his ways,” she says mystically, “and don’t be disrespectful, Rinku. I have taught you better than that.”
“I am a tree,” I tell them but they laugh. “But I am, I’m a tree, I’ve roots in this place, sunk deep into the earth.” If you move me, I’ll die.
“Do you realize how insane you sound,” they say. “This is no way to live. Stuck in your room all day long, not eating or drinking or meeting friends.”
“I work,” I tell them, “from home. It’s called telecommuting.”
“We’ve never seen you do anything. You don’t even comb your hair anymore. When was the last time you bathed?”
“Bathed?” I don’t know: yesterday, or a week before yesterday? “Why should that matter though?” And for whom should I clean up?
They crowd about me then, my uncles and aunts, near and distant cousins, and so-called friends — like a pack of hyenas too lazy to hunt for themselves, gleeful at the prospect of feasting off my ready despair.
“Now don’t be a fatalist,” says an aunt I don’t recall having. “Life’s beautiful, full of possibilities,” another cousin adds.
Keywords: Bus stop
She is always there at 8. At the bus stop next to the florist. She sits there tapping her foot, watching the open sky change hues over the vacant lot across the road. Sipping the coffee she brought from home. In a thermos. Softly humming a song. The air around her alive and full of promise. She sits there, not once checking her watch. Only pushing off when the first of the daily commuters arrive, when it’s time for the 8.45.
I ask her why she comes here. There’s a perfectly beautiful park two blocks down. Is she here to meet someone? Could I interest her in a bunch of fresh peonies or a freshly brewed cuppa from down the street?
Nah, she says. Gives an easy smile. A strand of hair swaying across her youthful face. Though she’s no beauty, there’s a brightness about her that’s hard to miss.
You can sit here a while though, she says, patting the empty space next to her. If you’re not in a hurry.
She gives me a once over. My attaché, the crisp business suit and tie, shiny shoes polished to perfection, reflecting my scrubbed clean face, hers if I move in any closer, are not doing me any favors.
Sure, I say and sidle over. But only for a while.
The bus comes and goes.
The next day, Mishra aunty, mom’s bestie and satsang buddy, the one with the broad-bordered Kanjivaram sari, rings of all sorts swallowing her fingers whole, and a large black dot warding off evil on her rolling chin, comes to tea.
She is worse than mom.
“The universe is trying to tell you something, I always say,” she says, reverentially, over a cup of Darjeeling special, which she sips noisily, sitting imperially on the three-seater sofa, leaving no room for anybody else.
Today, it is the neighborhood cat, black as a moonless sky, the devil’s pet incarnate, which has her all riled up.
“You are not going to the school dance, and that’s that.”
Mom quits on me mid-argument and walks off.
“But that’s not fair,” I say, chasing after her into the living room. “Everybody’s going. Even Sheila with two left feet. And I will be the only one who won’t. And everybody would have a wonderful time, but me. Mom, are you even listening?”
She is searching for something under the daybed. Not finding it there, she checks around the sofas, and then behind the doors and beneath the window curtains. “You’re in eight grade,”she says dropping the edge a curtain. “How bad can it be?”
Orlinda was right of course. Shelly loved her. Why wouldn’t a three-legged frog hidden in her cupboard, behind all the clothes, in a box with punched-in holes do that? It longed for fresh air. And every time she let it out to play, it got just that. It was a wonder that the squishy, bouncy creature didn’t just fly out the window and hop back to the brook behind the dorm.
Shelly didn’t croak. Either it didn’t know how to, for want of similar four-legged companions, or just didn’t think it was worth its while to chat with the overbearing Ollie, who just loved it to bits. Like it wasn’t an ugly, green frog, but the prettiest doll in the room.
Mollie cracked a smile. She could already think of a hundred wicked pranks to pull on all the unsuspecting dwellers of the dorm.
“Why not stuff it in that Long Hair’s bed and see what happens?” she said.
The room where Mollie was to spend the rest of the year — or more — was on the first floor of the four-story middle school dormitory, a ten-minute walk from the main school building. The station wagon parked in the driveway was gone by the time Sister Maria got downstairs, having attended to various administrative matters on her way. Dusk had turned the sky azure and the school empty … but for a few senior students hanging about on the front steps, exchanging notes. The dorm wasn’t buzzing with much activity either.
It was adequate, this room, like her sisters’, except with fewer beds. It had two of everything—beds, chairs, cupboards, study tables, and table lamps. The bed by the window with a beautiful view of the woods and the brook was taken. The bed next to the door was to be hers.
“Now, unpack your things and come downstairs in fifteen minutes,” said Sister Maria. She tapped the dial of her wrist watch and smiled. “That’s 7 by the wall clock. Now, hurry, scoot. You haven’t got much time if you want the best piece of Mrs. Banerjee’s delectably sweet and tarty apple pie!”