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.”
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?”
The door swung open and a young woman in an elegant black cocktail dress entered the room. She had a cigarette pack and a lighter in one hand, skillfully balanced along with a clutch.
“Hope you don’t mind,” she said lighting up, even though it was a smoking room. “If I don’t have one right now I will lose my mind.”
Neeru grabbed Sanjay’s glass and gulped down whatever little remained of his beer, wincing at the bitter taste. Her own wine glass lying empty on the table. She glared at her as if willing her to leave the room by the sheer power of her venomous stare. She didn’t like the intrusion. Wanted to be left alone. It was enough that Sanjay was here, trying to placate her. Playing the trusted family friend. It isn’t true, Neeru. He still loves only you. You are reading too much into things. Right. Reading too much into the late night messages, the scent of jasmine on his collar, his impromptu book tours, and that no-reason-smile on his face.
She made a move to get up, but there was nowhere else to get away from the gossiping crowd. Besides, he was downstairs, with her. Whom she thought was “her.” And she didn’t trust herself to behave.
“That’s your home?” said Ridhima. Marvelling at the four-story mansion that sprawled before them surrounded by acres and acres of fresh green, manicured lawns. Against the azure sky, it looked like a scene out of a fairytale. Whoever knew there was so much open space in a city like Delhi. If she was still angry with him for keeping such an important fact about his life – his family – a secret from her, it was fast dissipating. Getting replaced by childlike wonder and awe. A kid lost in a candy store.
Somewhere at the back of her mind, he feared, realization may be dawning that this grand place, this entire estate, could someday be theirs.
“Is that you, Moonish?” said a voice he had all but relegated to forgotten parts of his memory.
He thought he had seen the worst of it when Chanchal from HR had come over for his documents, a little after a month of being made permanent.
“Mr. Ghosh,” he’d said, “has little to do with practical matters … such as paperwork. You’re practically a ghost in our system, Mr. Moonish. We don’t even know if that’s your first or last name.”
“Both,” Moonish had grinned boyishly, flashing his newly fixed pearly whites, at the thin, studious-looking man looking up at him all earnest, blinking rapidly behind his thick, horn-rimmed spectacles, near opaque.
After treating the man to hot tea and samosas at the nearby tea shop, Moonish was promptly guided to a photocopy-wala who also dealt with forged certificates on the side.
He hadn’t seen this coming.