Stories that need to be told-4

Unfulfilled expectations are the biggest burden.

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A son’s Life

He was the fourth born, after three sisters. His eldest sister was born three years after his parents got married and her name was chosen with great care and in consultation Image result for sad young man on a trainwith various stakeholders. Finally she was anointed Prajwala, a relatively uncommon name. It meant ‘bright’ in Sanskrit. Two years later another sister made her appearance. This time the celebrations were decidedly muted and she was named Lakshmi without any fanfare. His parents took another three years to gather their courage and tried various pujas but alas, all their efforts were in vain and his third sister was sent into their disbelieving arms. For years she was just called Babli and chose her own name when she was admitted to school. She told the Principal that her name was Ankita and that was it. Ankita was her playmate neighbour.

He was perhaps their last attempt to have a son in the family. He was born another three years after Ankita, due to a forceful intervention by his aunt Sheila, who convinced his parents to visit a seer. A religious ceremony was organised and his parents promised to feed 11 brahmins if they begot a son. Praise be to the lord, it worked!

His grandmother later told him at least a hundred times about the joyous welcome his mother had when she came back from the hospital with him in her arms. His aunt Sheila was also waiting at the door of their house, and beamed with joy when his mother put him in her arms. There is photographic evidence of this occasion. He was then laid into the ‘almost new’ cradle by his aunt who got the privilege of rocking him first, by virtue of being indirectly responsible for bringing him into this world. His three sisters anxiously peered into the cradle. There is photographic evidence of that too. The holy books were consulted, the seer was also consulted, and finally he got a name the world would call him by. He was named Rajeshwar. He hated that name.

Rajeshwar was pampered. He was like a prince and his parents shielded him and protected him from evil eyes. His wish was their command even if they had to stretch the family budget to accommodate it. Meanwhile his sisters were growing up on dresses handed down to Prajwala by Rajeshwar’s relatives and then downwards with timely stitches, nip and tucks at the adroit hands of his mother. Rajeshwar always had new clothes when he overgrew the old ones.

Rajeshwar could do no wrong. His sisters were admonished even if it was he who broke something in the kitchen. They were at fault if he did not eat his meals. Prajwala was supposed to rock him and sing a lullaby if he did not sleep in time. Rajeshwar’s indigestion was because Lakshmi forgot to take him out for a walk in the park.

Time flew. Rajeshwar was admitted into an English medium school by shifting Ankita and Lakshmi into a Government school. Prajwala by that time was in 12th grade and soon moved to a college. Her fees were subsidised by the Government under some scheme to educate girls. Three years later she was married into a middle class family in another city. Rajeshwar’s father encashed some of his fixed deposits to solemnise the event.  Another instalment of fixed deposits was used to marry the second sister and his father had to dip into his provident fund for Ankita’s marriage.

Now Rajeshwar was the anchor of all the hopes harboured by his parents. He struggled through school and his father was beginning to get a little disillusioned. He constantly nagged him to study and get better marks. He was now not so sure that Rajeshwar would become a doctor. The size and cost of his birthday gifts had gradually diminished. Many times his requests for a new item were denied outright or deferred after his mother’s intervention. The stress and pressure to perform was getting on his nerves but he could not share it with anyone. Rajeshwar scored 55 percent in the crucial board exams.  For the first time in his life, he was actually shouted at by both parents. Utensils were banged in the kitchen while his father ranted. When he paused, his mother emerged from the kitchen and started. There would be a small lull when his tears flowed. Mother also joined him in crying and his father would utter some saying to the effect of it being too late and walk out. It would start all over again at the dining table.

This continued for two weeks till they both ran out of steam. But he was denied movies for six months thereafter. Meanwhile, he could secure admission only in the arts stream in the Bhanwaridevi College of Arts and Science, finally putting a question mark on all the dreams his parents had about his bright and illustrious career in medicine or administrative services.

Rajeshwar graduated with 59 percent marks and his parents tried to save face by saying that he had almost got first division. Rajeshwar decided to do post-graduation in Philosophy because a majority of his ‘no good’ friends were doing the same. His father retired as Assistant Postmaster, Jhalawar Head Post Office, the same year. He proudly showed the wristwatch presented to him by his colleagues and left it unsaid that Rajeshwar will maybe not amount to much and would probably never get such a gift.

Rajeshwar’s present was bleak with the constant undercurrents of dead hopes. They were now struggling financially and emotionally. His mother cried often. His father sat in his armchair and gazed vacantly into the horizon. Rajeshwar yearned for the escape offered by college and looked forward to leaving the dreariness of home and spend a few hours of joy with his college mates.  But this was short lived and next year he was sitting at home scanning the newspaper for jobs after completing his studies. His father perked up a little and would circle advertised jobs which he felt were suitable for Rajeshwar. He started out with great hope and wrote several competitive examinations, spending good money on the fees and guide books. His mother proudly told their neighbours that he was applying for this or that vacancy. The whole family anxiously waited for the results and looked out for the postman to bring glad tidings. But that was not to be.

Rajeshwar then scaled down his aspirations from officer level jobs to clerical cadre but that also proved elusive. His father cursed, and became increasingly caustic about Rajeshwar being a burden on the household. His mother intensified her prayers and visited many seers. His sisters offered soothing words but not much else. All the relatives to whom they reached out only gave empty promises. His parents were getting sick of the shallow sympathies extended by their neighbours, especially those whose children had been fortunate enough to secure a job. His father avoided meeting his friends now. Rajeshwar was bewildered as to how he had turned from a hero of his home into a villain, in a span of just a few years.

He wished he could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. Stop exactly at the point when he was enjoying all the adulation. The exact time when he was carefree and pampered as a child.  But now he carried the weight of years of sacrifices on his shoulders.

“I am not that strong. I did not ask to be made into a star. Then why am I being blamed for failing to please? Are not my parents equally to blame for having unrealistic expectations from me? Did I offer any guarantees that I would be able to encash the cheque of their expectations?”. These were dark thoughts that troubled him.

Rajeshwar saw his parents eagerly waiting for him when he returned home one day, after yet another failed attempt at landing a job. He was astonished to see this pleasant change, the cause of which revealed itself immediately. He was to travel to the city where his maternal uncle lived. He had written to his parents about some jobs in the municipality and was reasonably sure of swinging it his way. As the post had arrived late, he was to proceed without delay and catch the morning train. The interviews were scheduled after two days.

His mother got up early and her prayers that day were longer than usual. Rajeshwar found his father cheerful at breakfast with renewed hope kindling in his heart. Rajeshwar was secretly dreading this unfounded optimism and tried to moderate it by talking about fate and God’s will. His mother would not listen and chirped endlessly about how times were going to change soon, thanks to the many petitions she had filed every day in the court of the almighty. His father beamed as if success was a foregone conclusion. Both agreed that they will not say a word to their neighbours till he came back with the appointment letter. A spoon of sweetened curd was placed in his mouth as he got ready to leave the house and conquer the world. Rajeshwar bent and touched his parents’ feet and boarded the cycle rickshaw waiting outside. His father helped him with the bag containing his one good shirt and trousers and the only pair of formal shoes, recently polished by him while Rajeshwar was having his bath. He insisted on accompanying Rajeshwar to the railway station.

The train was overcrowded but that was no deterrent. Rajeshwar managed to enter a coach and his father handed him the bag over the heads of all the people trying to get in. He kept waving to Rajeshwar as the train chugged away.

Rajeshwar reached his destination late in the evening after a highly uncomfortable journey, standing the whole way near the toilet. His uncle’s son was waiting for him and took him to their home. On the way, he did not fail to mention how he was able to get a job immediately after he completed his studies. His uncle and aunt welcomed him but Rajeshwar did not see any genuineness in their affection. They also narrated with pride their son’s success in life as a clerk with a ”prominent lawyer of the town”. In the process, they questioned Rajeshwar’s choice in academics and everyone concurred that law would have been a better option. After all their son was sitting right there as a shining example.

Next morning Rajeshwar joined a large crowd milling about in the grounds of the recruitment centre. His uncle had a friend who knew someone who knew someone in the municipality. Rajeshwar was thus able to jump the queue over the many others not so fortunate, but still behind many others who had a greater influence. His uncle kept encouraging him. After all, there were quite a few vacancies of peon open here. He patted Rajeshwar and left to open his small grocery shop.

Rajeshwar had his interview towards the end of the day where he was slyly asked how much he could pay for the job. The interview ended abruptly when he started narrating his family’s situation. Rajeshwar was near tears when he came out, in his good shirt and trousers and formal shoes which were scuffed up in the jostling crowd. He reached his uncle’s home and narrated the day’s events. He did not get any sympathy as they lectured him about the ways of the world. Rajeshwar declined dinner and made his lonely way to catch his night train back. He went by foot to save the rickshaw money.

The moon was shining bright as he climbed the stairs of the railway bridge. He did not wish to board the train to home. “I will not be able to face my parents and see their faces fall yet again”, he sobbed.

Rajeshwar paused and looked down. The railway tracks twinkled in the moonlight and he walked down with a heavy tread and a heavier heart. A dozing clerk sat at the ticket counter.

Rajeshwar pushed in a Rs. 100 note through the counter window.

“Where to?”,asked the clerk.

“Anywhere except Jhalawar.”

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Stories that need to be told-3

Games can have three outcomes-Win,Loss or draw.

The games we play

As I shifted my body to get rid of the cramps, the chair creaked as it had done so many Image result for image tied handstimes before. I had no idea how long I had been sitting there, alone in the dimly lit room waiting for ‘The guy’ to return. My hands were tied behind my back and a dull ache travelled from my wrists to the shoulders and into my stiff neck. My ankles were also tied making it difficult to relieve the cramps setting in. ‘The guy’, let us call him Gorilla, for that is what he looked like to me when he had removed my blindfold, had listened to my secret incredulously, shoved the rag back in my mouth and stomped out. That was quite some time back. I am sure he would be back. And then perhaps this will be the last day of my 35 years on this earth.

I peered hard at the vague shapes in the shadows to see if I could make something of my surroundings. It was a smallish room, with a bucket in one corner. There were some open crates and a ramshackle looking bench on my right hand side, with some tools hanging on the wall beside it. They glinted dully from the small ray of light coming from the bottom of the heavy curtain covering the only window in the room. I could also barely see the second chair in the deep shadows, the one on which Gorilla had sat and asked me to write a letter to my husband. I had told him why it would be a futile exercise and he slapped me hard, gagged me over my bleeding lips and rushed out of the door..

I wondered how Manish would have coped with this situation. Manish owned a small security firm and I had met him at a party about 6 months back. Rohit, my husband, had dumped me in a corner to get a drink and was back at his flirting game. Manish came over to me and we got talking. I learnt that he was divorced and lived in a small apartment near his office in a shady area of the town. He was witty and his ruggedness attracted me no end. I bumped into him again at the Sai baba temple. He told me that he had become a devotee recently and cheekily mentioned that his faith had increased manifold as he had met me also there which was a bonus! Soon, we were meeting regularly at the temple on Thursdays and I realised I had found love again. My arranged marriage with Rohit had lost its shine when he became very involved in trying to save his struggling small business and became a grouchy, bitter man completely different from the person I had married.

My mind kept jumping between present and past. Perhaps that is the body’s method of coping with the stress I was facing. But what do I know? I am no psychologist, just a housewife trapped in this situation from which I see no escape except for mercy from Gorilla. That seemed highly unlikely as I had seen his face and which, according to all the thrillers I had read, was a point of no return. I replayed the events leading up to the fateful night after which I had found myself tied up here. The dice had rolled about a fortnight back.

“We should get married. Divorce Rohit,” Manish said.

“No, he will never divorce me. He is trying to get a loan from the bank and he needs to mortgage the house. The house is in my name…willed to me by my late father.”

“You were your father’s favourite?”

I had laughed “Ha-ha, more like he had no choice! I was an only child.”

“So there is no way out?” said Manish as he broke the tight embrace to light a cigarette. “What if you refused to sign the papers? Then he would have no excuse to hold you back.”

I immediately felt uneasiness and fear. Manish had no idea of the sleeping tiger in Rohit which woke up every now and then. He flew into rage whenever he did not get his way. His temper had cost him several business opportunities in the past. I conveyed this to Manish.

“Oh don’t worry. I will protect you.” Manish said casually as he flicked the cigarette on to the ground..

That night I broke the news to Rohit and braced myself for the storm that I knew would follow. I was standing just near the balcony entrance and I was visible from the road. Manish was waiting downstairs as per our plan. He would rush in if he saw any violence.

But nothing happened. Rohit just looked at me oddly and said no. He went to the bar and poured himself a drink. Then he switched on the telly and slumped on the sofa. I was puzzled and wondered what to do next.

We met at our prefixed spot near the temple’s wall on Thursday. I told him what had happened and we pondered what to do next.

“Are you sure about us?” he asked moving a stone around with his foot.

“Of course Manish, I can’t think of a life without you now.”

“And you would be OK with a life without Rohit?”

I saw that he was looking at me in a meaningful way. I realised that I was about to cross a bridge.

“Yes” and that was it. There was no turning back now.

We realised that Rohit had to die for us to live happily ever after. Manish said that in such a scenario the finger of suspicion will also be on me. Fortunately we had been very careful and had never called each other on the phone, knowing Rohit’s suspicious nature. So there was no evidence that I knew or was meeting with Manish or had any other romantic entanglements.

At the next meeting I informed Manish that on the following Saturday, Rohit will be going out of town in his car for arranging finance from someone. Manish said that this would be the ideal opportunity. He would get someone to abduct Rohit. The man would be hired in such a way that it could not be traced back to us. That person would call me from a pay phone and I could later tell the police that I had received a ransom call. Meanwhile, Rohit will be killed and his body would be dumped in the dead of the night somewhere at the side of the road that he took on his outstation visit. Someone or the other would find it and inform the police. The police will obviously think that it was a kidnapping gone horribly wrong. We decided that it would be best if we continued not to call each other and exchanged any information only through personal contact with utmost discretion. Manish would come to my place and personally inform me when the deed was done and immediately leave. There was no obvious danger in this, as the apartment in which I lived did not have any CCTV installation and the contract with the security agency had not yet been renewed. The bickering over the increase in rates had led to an acrimonious parting of the agency with the society’s management and the guards had been withdrawn.

On Saturday, Rohit asked me if I was certain that I wanted a divorce.

“Yes, very much so .I don’t need any money from you. Just let me go.”

“Have you met someone else?”

“No” I said too loudly in a surprised reaction. “No”, I said again in a normal voice.

“Have you discussed this with any of your friends? Is someone misguiding you?”

“No.no, I think we are just going through the motions and the marriage is finished.”

Rohit nodded and continued packing. I was surprised that he had taken it so calmly and wondered if he had met someone.

“Let me come back and we will work out the details. Meanwhile, don’t discuss this with anyone.” Rohit picked up his suitcase and went away. He did not know that he will not be back. Never, ever.

I felt my stomach knot up due to the tension. I wandered from room to room imagining Manish to be with me. It was 4.30 in the evening. I did not know how to pass the time. Just a few hours more and I would be free. Only a matter of time now….

I lay down on the bed and tried to read a book but could not concentrate. Don’t know when I fell asleep.

When I woke up, the house was dark. Checked my mobile but there was no missed call. The lights did not come on when I tried the switch. Outside, I could hear the heavy rain. Damn. The power had been switched off by the electricity department as it usually happened in heavy storms. Only the dim street light helped me to find the candles and matches. I went to the balcony and took a deep breath of the rain sodden earthy fragrance wafting up to me as I listened to the pitter patter of the rain.

Waited some more. It was 10.00 p.m. and still Manish had not come.

It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back….

When I opened the door, it was dark in the hallway. I barely caught a glimpse of the bulky man standing there before a cloth reeking of a chemical was pressed to my mouth. I lost consciousness and woke up in this hell hole. I don’t know how long I waited before the door creaked open and the man who I now call Gorilla, walked in. He pulled away my blindfold and peered at me.

“You are in deep shit. You have to do exactly as I say or you will not leave this room alive. Understand?”

I nodded my head.

He traced the outline of my face with a heavy knife and I shuddered.

“I will free your right hand now and you have to write a letter to your husband saying you have been kidnapped and he should pay Rs. 1 crore for your release.” I shook my head violently.

He smirked, “Yes, I know you are not worth that much. But I have to do as I have been told by my contractor. He will arrange to deliver the letter to your husband tomorrow. “

I shook my head again and my eyes went wide. “Listen lady you have to do as I say. I have received only 50,000 so far and will get another 50 when I give the letter to my contractor. And the balance……”, he suddenly stopped as if he realised that he had said too much.

I struggled and made unintelligible sounds through the gag. He looked at me quizzically.

“I will take out the gag but promise you will not shout. Not that there is anyone nearby to hear you. It is just that I don’t like loud noises. You live, die all the same to me. Understood?”

I nodded vehemently and gasped as he took out the gag.

“Listen. Your contractor will not be able to hand the letter to my husband tomorrow or any other day.”

“And why is that so?”

“Because he must also have been kidnapped and probably killed by now. I am supposed to have received a ransom call on my phone but it is lying in my house.”

“And how do you know this?” he looked at me incredulously.

“Because I planned this with my partner”, I shouted.

Gorilla slapped me hard and put the gag back in my mouth. “I will go and tell my contractor this and have it checked out. If he can’t get in touch with your husband, you are dead. In any case you had only a few more hours to live.”

I don’t know how long he had been gone now. I understood that I was destined to die and not be kidnapped only. Gorilla had almost said that. I fully realised what was happening. I would laugh if it was not so tragic. What are the odds that Rohit would think of the exact same plan that Manish and I had hatched to get rid of him! Perhaps he had arranged this outstation trip to ensure that he would not be in town when I am killed. And we had thought it to be an opportunity for us! If you think about it, it was a good plan. With me gone, the house will be his as he was the only living relative I had. Also the little jewellery I had in the bank locker. The police would have thought it was a kidnapping gone wrong, just the way we had planned. Except that Rohit would also be dead by now probably.

And maybe I too would be dead in a while. Manish would helplessly search for me on the quiet. He obviously could not approach the police as he was not supposed to know me at all.

What games people play!

Nothing to do now but to await my fate.

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Stories that need to be told-2

Adults too have imaginary friends.

Faces in the mistmisty

The Sun had not yet climbed over the horizon but the sky had lightened up and Jagdish hazarded a guess about the time with a half opened eye. He sat up and the clock showed that he was just five minutes off in his guess. His body clock had not failed him and it was time to get up and go for his walk. He wanted to go back to sleep but forced himself to stand upright, and felt good about the discipline he had enforced on himself. His wife was a law unto herself and no amount of cajoling could get her out of bed to accompany him. She had a childish, obstinate streak which would result only in arguments if he tried to persuade her to do what he wanted, no matter how good or logical it was. This had become more pronounced ever since he had retired about a year back. Sarla, on her part, felt that she deserved more from life than she had received and often took out her sense of injustice on Jagdish.

Jagdish had spent most of his life in small to medium sized towns. His employment years were spent in the hinterlands, mostly due to the postings he had requested or opted for and which no one else really staked a claim for. He was shy by nature and felt quite out of place in erudite company. The small towns and villages were a welcome sanctuary for him and he felt comfortable in the so called ‘punishment postings’. He liked being a big fish in a small pond. As branch manager of a bank in these small places, he enjoyed the attention and respect he got there. Unfortunately, his wife was an avid follower of the high life shown on the daily soaps on TV and felt constantly cheated due the rustic surroundings she kept finding herself in. Over time her resentment kept growing, especially because she found many of her husband’s colleagues getting posted to cities whose names created grand visions for her. She became convinced that the fault lay in her husband and the bank did not consider him worthy of better postings.

Rohit, their only child, turned out to be the surprise package. He absolutely blossomed academically and even the constraints of mediocre teachers and schools could not hold him back. He was brilliant and cracked the tough entrance examination of Indian Institute of Technology without breaking a sweat. After completing his studies he was snapped up by a huge corporation at an annual package which was only slightly less than Jagdish’s provident fund balance. He happily moved to a metro city and enjoyed the lifestyle change. After a while he snagged a job in USA and migrated there with his wife and child. Within 5 years he was able to buy a nice flat in a posh colony in Delhi. It was a gated community with open spaces and walkways, lots of greenery and the usual other trappings of a well-designed project. Rohit had now been away for ten years and had applied for citizenship. On retirement, Jagdish found himself living in a big city in his son’s flat. He continued to feel out of place and felt like an imposter in the midst of his well to do neighbours. He kept to himself and hardly made any friends. Sarla, on the other hand, behaved as if she had always lived the high life and joined several kitty groups and led a busy social life with a vengeance, as if to make up for all the lost time.

Jagdish sighed as he locked the door behind him. He had been looking forward to today’s walk so that he could wear the new track suit sent to him by his son. It was cold and an early morning mist had settled on the surroundings like a grey blanket. Jagdish rubbed his hands together and commenced the first of his two rounds. He knew he will find the usual faces on his perambulations even though he never exchanged a word with any of them. But in his mind, he had made friends with all of them and had given them names and life stories. He would hold imaginary conversations with them as they passed him on their rounds.

‘Shyamala’ was the first person he saw, being dragged by her two huge dogs. She was struggling to hold on to the leashes and carried newspaper portions in her left hand to pick up the pets’ droppings. He had slotted her as a student who had harangued her parents to get her dogs on her birthdays when she was a child. Her parents must have yielded after several tear filled evenings, on the condition that she will have to take care of them. Over time, both the child and the dogs had grown but not at the same pace.

“Hello dear, how are you?”

“Namaste uncle, sorry can’t chat more. These brutes won’t let me stop.” She panted.

Jagdish laughed in his head. ”Well, you should have chosen with greater care. Someone matching your size! At least be careful when you select your husband!”

Jagdish smiled inwardly as they crossed each other. He looked up and saw another shadowy figure in the distance. He knew it was ‘Dev’ by his gait. This person always had a cap on his head, a plastic bag in his hand and walked with a tilt towards the right. Peculiarly, he never completed the full round. He would make a half round up to C block and turn back and go to A block. D and E blocks never figured in his orbit. He would then sit on a bench near the A block and peer into the plastic bag to check how many flowers he had collected so far. One more round on the same trajectory and he would go home by the time Jagdish started his second round. In his make believe world Jagdish had once asked Dev about his unique walking method.

“I meant to ask you why you don’t go all the way round. Is it because I live in E block, heh, heh?”

“No, no” Dev had laughed. “Actually, someone once told me that taking a full round is like completion of life’s cycle. And I want to live some more to outlive my uncle and ensure that he does not get full control of our medicine shop!” Dev had slapped him on his shoulders and continued on his half cycle.

The bench on the left was empty again today. “Ramanujam’ was still absent. Normally he would be found sitting there, eyes closed, breathing deep, and hands closed in the meditation posture, his spine erect and a vermillion smear on his forehead, extending from the middle of his eyebrows to the parting of his hair. Jagdish had never disturbed his peace. He was not to be seen the last few days and Jagdish imagined him to be on a pilgrimage to some temples in southern part of the country.

The old couple, Mr. and Mrs. ‘Chaddha’ came into view. Mr. Chaddha was well protected against the slight chill and walked with slow, careful steps. Mrs. Chaddha lovingly held his elbow and acted as his support and guide. Jagdish imagined them to be living alone, with children in some faraway place. He always felt a twinge of envy whenever he saw such couples taking walks together and showing great affection for each other. They were engrossed in some discussion so Jagdish just nodded at them, in his mind of course, and continued on his way.

He completed his rounds and went back home. Sarla was still asleep. Jagdish made his tea and checked if the newspaper was now lying on the doorstep. No such luck. The boy was late again.

Jagdish moved to his regular spot in the balcony with the cup of tea, when the phone rang. He knew it was Rohit, as hardly anyone else called these days.

After pleasantries and thanks for the track suit, Jagdish asked what he had been thinking of for the last few days. “When are you coming here son?”

Rohit answered in an exasperated tone, ”Papa, how many times I should tell you and mum? As per rules, I cannot leave the country till my citizenship comes through. It is going to take a minimum of six more months.”

Jagdish kept silent but his heart went dark again with loneliness.

“Anything, more I can send? Do you want something?”

Yes. I want you to tell the neighbours to turn down the music at night. I want you to play chess with me in the evening. I want someone to take my side when your mother makes her irrational comments. I want you to sit across from me and persuade me to visit a doctor for my aching back. I want…..

“No,  son. I don’t want anything. You take care. Love to Maya and Chintu”.

“Bye, Papa. I will call again soon.”

“Bye.”

One more face in the mist to have lively conversations with, till the next call.

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Stories that need to be told-1

A short story on youths struggling to make a living but losing their way.

This is my first unpublished story. Let me know what  you think about it.

Birds of stone

“HABIIIIIB!!!!!”

This time, his mother’s voice soared like a thundering eagle, caressing the tops of the deodar trees, far different from the earlier shouts which were mostly like the chirruping of an anxious hen calling out to its chicks. Habib was aware that his mother will be angry enough not to reheat the lunch if he continued to ignore the call. But he could not tear himself away from his seat atop the rock, gazing incessantly at the edge of the forest from where he expected his brother to emerge soon. He had that feeling as soon as he had woken up this day. His brother would certainly come home today.

He had been gone for three years now.

Aziz was six years older than Habib. In between there was a sister who had died when she was seven.  Habib did not remember her well, although a yellowing photograph stuck to the mud plastered stone wall of their hut tried its best to revive his memory. The photo showed Habib on his mother’s lap and Aziz standing by the side of their father, head cocked to the right, as was his wont. Zubeen in her flowery dress stood shyly beside her hijab covered mother and looked ready to bolt if anyone spoke to her. She was six at that time and had only one more year to live. Of course, no one knew it at that time and the family had happily posed for the iterant photographer who visited their village now and then.

Reluctantly Habib dragged himself away from his perch and trudged home. His mother stood at the entrance of the hut, hands on her hips, and glared at him.

“How many times should I call your majesty to come for lunch?”

Habib had learnt from bitter experience that it was best to remain quiet on such occasions. He was sixteen now but his mother still treated him like a child. He bent his tall frame and entered the dimly lit hut. His mother sat down in angry silence near the choolah,an earthen stove, and moved the rice around in the aluminium pot sitting on the fire. She slapped two spoonfuls down on a steel dish, slopped some lentils on top of it and shoved the plate in front of him. Another spoonful for her, with a trickle of lentils and both the pots were empty.

“That is the last of rice and dal. You are the man of the house now and you must do something. Go out and earn some money for God’s sake.”

Habib had still not got used to being the man of the house after Aziz had disappeared three years back. He had no clue as to what he should do in life. He had barely studied till eighth grade and was relieved when he found that there were no more classes in the village school. Higher studies were possible in another school in the neighbouring village, a good five kilometre trek on hilly terrain. That was too much of a bother for an academically challenged boy. Since then, he had whiled away his time as an appendage to his elder brother and both had spent their days wandering in the forest and daydreaming about how they would get rich.

Aziz had also left his studies when their father died. Shahabuddin was a sturdy farmer whose will broke when Zubeen, his favourite, was cruelly snatched from him, even as he watched helplessly. He was tilling his small potato cultivation when a cloudburst in the higher reaches of the mountain caused a sudden swell in the placid stream flowing through their village. Little Zubeen was in the stream cleaning utensils and was washed away in the roaring, swirling waters which disappeared as quickly as they had materialised. Her body was never found. He carried on with the motions of going through life for a few more years till the consequences of smoking cheap cigarettes caught up with him. The last few years were especially painful for the family as Shahabuddin became bedridden, gasping for breath. The small potato field withered in neglect and was soon sold off to pay for the medicines needed by him.  He left to meet his adorable Zubeen in heaven, five years after her.

Aziz was fourteen at the time and dropped out of school to look after the family. He tried to find work as a porter at the bus stand, three kilometres below their village but the competition was stiff and the earnings slim. One by one the few pieces of jewellery that his mother had were either pawned or sold outright to sustain the struggling threesome. His mother went into the forest at the break of dawn to collect firewood for home and to sell. But that hardly put any food on the table. Her frustration and ire turned to Aziz who was constantly nagged for failing in his duties.

Habib could sense that Aziz was changing. He looked dark and glum most of the time and avoided being in home as much as possible. Soon he was missing in the nights too and refused to answer where he spent them. Then he disappeared suddenly, soon after his nineteenth birthday. Sometime later Baqar Ali, the sole grocer in the village, came to the house and gave one thousand rupees to the family. He said that Aziz had been working for him the last few months and had asked him to retain his salary with him as a deposit. As soon as he learnt that Aziz had left home, he came over to pay the money to the family. Habib saw grateful astonishment on his mother’s face and the first signs of remorse over her missing son.

One more moment of joy came the family’s way towards the end of next month, when Baqar gave them another thousand rupees. He said that he had gone to Srinagar to buy stocks for his shop and had found Aziz working in a hotel there. It was sheer coincidence that Baqar had dinner in the same hotel. Aziz had given the money to him to pass on to his family. Baqar promised to look up Aziz whenever he went to Srinagar. This continued for three more months and stopped thereafter. Baqar said he could no longer find Aziz in the hotel and no one knew where he was. The small family started to struggle again. Small loans and credits from Baqar Ali helped them to stay afloat, but that too had now ended.

Habib decided to ask Baqar if he could get a job.

“Sir, we are facing a lot of problems and have no money. Food is also finished. If you could give me some work, like you did for my brother….”

“You need work? I have nothing for you here. But you could go to Srinagar like your brother. I can help with that.”

Habib hesitated. How could he leave his mother? How will she survive?

“Look, I will give her some money, but you need to leave immediately without informing her or anybody else.”

“How much?”

“How about one thousand rupees? She will get it tomorrow morning, if you catch the bus tonight. You can go with my son who is also leaving for Srinagar tonight.”

Habib agreed and picked up his few clothes from home while his mother slept. He linked up with Azhar, Baqar’s son, on the outskirts of the village on the trail leading downwards to the bus station.

“Will you also be working in Srinagar, Azhar bhai?”

Azhar laughed. “No, my place is here. I only help people like you to reach their destination and destinies.”

Habib did not understand what Azhar meant but he liked the flow of words, which sounded like a poet’s profound utterance. They reached Srinagar at dawn. Azhar took him to a roadside tea shop and they had a modest breakfast.

“Azhar bhai, what work will I be doing here?”

Azhar smiled. “I will take you to a place where you will meet a man. Do whatever he asks you to do. And father will keep paying one thousand rupees to your mother every month.”

“But what if I don’t earn that much in a month?”

“Don’t worry about it. It is all taken care of.” Habib didn’t understand but didn’t question. He shrugged and marked it to God’s will.

He followed Azhar to a three storied house. He found quite a few youths like him, sitting on the floor and having tea. A man was speaking on the mobile and turned when he heard them approach, and gestured for silence. Azhar whispered, “Sit here and be quiet.” He waited till the man finished his talk and went upto him. A whispered conversation ensued and both turned to look at Habib. After a while Habib saw the man pay some money to Azhar.

Azhar came over to Habib. “I will leave now. You are in good hands and good company. All will be well, don’t worry.”

A little later Habib drew courage to talk to the youth sitting next to him. ”Brother, how long have you been working here?”

The  youth smiled. “ Two months now. You have come today?”

“Yes. What kind of work do we do here?”

The youth smiled again. “No hurry. You will see. Just do what we all do.”

Three days passed and Habib did not go out for any work. Neither did anyone else. He got food regularly and was happy that at last his belly was full without having to work for it. Occasionally he thought of his mother and wondered if she was O.K and whether she had received the promised money. He became moderately friendly with a few youths, Shabbir, Sadiq, Muntazar and Arif, the youth he had talked to first. All of them seemed to know each other well and had been here for much longer than Arif.

“Get up,Get up” rang a cry and all the youths stood up.

The person, who Habib had seen on the first day talking on the mobile, appeared from an inner room and seemed agitated. He told everyone to go down to the street and said something to Sadiq and went back in.

Sadiq joined everyone on the street and said “We have to immediately leave for Badgaon. Start immediately.”

Habib was bewildered and asked Arif.”What happened? Where are we going?”

Arif was already walking fast and Habib had to trot to keep pace with him. “We have a job in Badgaon. It is a village ten kilometres from here. Better hurry.”

Nearly two hours later, the group reached Badgaon. Sadiq continued to lead them through internal pathways till they suddenly found themselves face to face with a large contingent of security forces. In the distant Habib could hear gunfire.

Sadiq started the slogans  “Wapas jao, Wapas jao (Go back, go back)” and was joined by the others.

There was some jostling at the back and Habib found himself pushed to the front. He did not quite understand what the issue was but was carried away by the moment and enthusiastically repeated every slogan. Suddenly, a stone flew from somewhere in the back of the group and landed at the feet of the soldiers. In no time, innumerable stones were flying in the air, and some started to hit the soldiers. The youth next to Habib put a stone in his hand, as he himself threw one.

Habib looked around him for Sadiq’s guidance but he was not to be seen. He hefted the stone, testing its weight, and launched it. The stone flew like a bird and Habib watched in fascination as it went and clanged a soldier on his helmet and dislodged it. Habib felt a childlike glee at his true aim and bent to pick up another stone. As he straightened, he saw a stone coming his way as the soldiers retuned the stones pelted at them. He stood transfixed, watching the arc of the stone, till it came and hit him on top of the eye. Blood spurted and he fell to the ground. He lay there writhing and heard the thunderous sound of soldiers’ boots rushing towards his group, which dissipated into the alleys, leaving him and another youth lying on the ground. He saw a heavy boot near his head and at that moment it all became clear to him.

As he was hauled up and dragged towards a military vehicle, he was very sure that his mother will not receive any more money. He wondered if he will find his brother in the same jail where he will surely go. Or was his brother not as lucky as him?

And who will Baqar Ali send next from his village?

Gunfire continued in the distance. The stones that once flew like birds lay inert on the ground.

 

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Stories that need to be told

A place to publish stories no one else will .

O.K. , I am starting this blog as a place where aspiring authors (I am unabashedly one of them) can  publish their stories, which have unfortunately not reached anyone’s bookshelf yet. Beginning with my own.

I would be happy to receive comments about how to improve my content.

And soon I will invite others also to post their stories here.Short ones of course (1500-3000 words). I promise that this will remain a family friendly site.

Starting on this journey shortly.