The Bombay Writing Project

Category: Short Stories

32 people have shared silence with you

 

He tapped his foot on the beige polyresin carpet, his black shoes reflecting the glare of the TV that had been running on mute for half an hour now. The newspaper on the coffee table stared back at him, and made him shift uneasily in his seat. In many ways, he realized the newspaper’s fate was similar to his– it came home everyday, but none cared to open it. Too many words, Jenny had remarked the other day. Too many words, Mathew muttered absentmindedly, shoe still tapping the carpet.

She was right in a way, he realized as stretched back now to take a more comfortable position on the sofa. Why read a 600-word article, when a 40 word would suffice? Perfect for all the politics you needed to know at coffee breaks, in taxi rides and in conversations before the dinner arrived at a restaurant. New age media organizations understood this very well, and designed apps that did exactly that for you – summarizing neatly in bullet points what you could repeat in short brief sentences. 60 dead. Gay bar. French Café. Bad Muslim.

The TV flashed and distracted Mathew. A bright bar graph stood in the centre of the screen, surrounded by a multi window panel of 8 guests pointing fingers at each other, as a ticker below ran through the breadth of the screen carrying some more the news, leaving the bottom right corner for the latest cricket scores.

“Let’s go,” said Jenny marching into the hall, leading the way out of the door. An apology would’ve been nice, thought Mathew as he got up and dusted his trousers, but hey who has time for apologies for when you’re late.

The media industry was feeding the ADHD of the masses and he could feel it close in on his frail old-school mind, hashtag daybyday, hashtag houruponhour, thought Mathew as he locked the door and followed her down the stairs.

____________

Sitting in the back of the taxi, a seat apart, Mathew and Jenny stared out of their respective windows. Like most other things they did as a couple, they did not hold hands when they were alone anymore, only in public. The previous night they hadn’t spoken on the way to the party, but as soon as they got off the lift, Jenny (unwittingly he hoped) she asked about his day at work, and held onto his arm just as they walked in.

Mathew disliked most things in the new city, but the party was such a nightmare, it made him nauseous. Sitting on the sofa in the corner, he stared at the chaos around him, tried to make sense of it and then gave up, just as a stranger offered him a glass and sat down next to him.

“Haven’t seen you around before,” said the stranger before sitting down. He was wearing brown corduroys that fit him (too well in Mathew’s eyes) and a shirt that was buttoned right up to his neck.

“Hi,” said Mathew looking to see if he could pull up a seat for the stranger to sit down. Stranger didn’t want to sit anywhere else, and he gently sat down on the armrest of Mathew’s sofa instead. “I’m Mathew, Jenny’s boyfriend. I was away at University in Europe and I got back to Mumbai a few of days ago.”

“Right,” smiled the stranger, and then his eyes darted in the direction of the kitchen. Getting up, he swiftly put his drink down, avoided two couples standing in his way and managed to make it just in time before a group of 5 people clicked a photograph. Once it was done, deftly as he had gone, he managed to find his way back to the armrest, the glass now back in his hand.

‘What do you do?’ asked Mathew, taking a gulp of his own drink. Rum and coke, he swallowed.

Stranger opened his mouth to answer, but was cut by a shrill voice. As Mathew turned left, he saw Vanshika looking like she could fall down any second, make her way across the hall, the black dress with the frills descending to just over her knees as she sat down on the other armrest. “Great,” thought Mathew, now, literally and figuratively trapped. Vanshika clumsily dropped some chips on him, apologized and turned to face Stranger. He remembered her from her visit a couple of days ago when she had come over in the evening, and he remembered how he found her to be (exactly like the title of the movie on Netflix they had watched for the rest of the evening) extremely loud and incredibly close. But he also recognized that there was something extremely smart, (no not smart), maybe street smart, (no that wasn’t the word either), he couldn’t quite figure out what, but there was definitely a word that Mathew couldn’t put his finger on, for people like Vanshika although couldn’t by conventionally standards be considered intelligent or clever, but definitely managed to navigate this new world far better than he did.

“Jayesh is a hotshot designer who works at a hotshot advertising firm, but he just refuses to design my website ya,” she said looking at Jayesh in mock accusation, nibbling on her chips.

“We’ve had this conversation before and I’ve told you that I will do it once I find the time,”exclaimed Jayesh finishing his drink and rolling his eyes at Mathew before walking away in the general direction of the kitchen.

Vanshika licked the masala off the rest of the chips, gulped down the rest of her drink, made a face at Mathew and ran into the arms of someone else she had recognized in the party.

Enterprising.

That was the word, Mathew realized, staring out of the window of the taxi.

The word described Vanshika and everyone else whose successes he resented – the new, charming, unabashed successful queens and kings of the generation x. In one glance you could differentiate the enterprisers from the others at a party (frankly to their credit, they made it quite easy for you), for one, they announced their arrival loud and clear, always had one odd accessory – a tie with a comic strip, or a fedora hat, never sat down, were never without a drink and diligently they ensured for the rest of the evening that no one around them was without a drink either. They navigated towards/formed the group that was either the largest or the group that was laughing the loudest, while their eyes darted all over the room. They came, they saw, they networked, and they announced their departure just as they had announced their arrival, leaving behind a string of photographs as they walked out of the door.

They also, as a principle, never struck conversation with anyone for over ten minutes. Like the 40 word app, observed Mathew as the taxi came to a halt.

Before Mathew could register the number on the screen of the taxi driver’s phone, Jenny had dug out cash form her bag, paid her driver and was out, on her way to the elevator. Mathew scrambled out of the back seat and scurried behind her.

__________

“Mathew, can you pass the chicken gravy please?” asked Siddharth, holding both his hands across the table, his right hand pointing at the dish.

The glass bowl was heavy and Mathew, pre-occupied as he was, spilt some gravy on the white tablecloth while passing the gravy. He got up immediately and ran to the kitchen to find a cloth.

The dinner at Jenny’s mother’s was as sober as Mathew would’ve liked it to be, yet somehow he felt out of place. There was enough silence to feel human here, thought Mathew as he wet the piece of cloth he had found hanging on the doorknob that led to the storage room, yet there was this constant ringing in his head that refused to go away – a feeling exactly like the one you get when you get out of the door of your home, ready for a long vacation – the feeling that suggests that you’ve forgotten something, something is surely amiss. Mathew tried to shake the feeling off by something else, but it refused to go away. Maybe this is what getting to Bombay feels like – you get used to the chaos in your own head first, and in the world outside, thought Mathew as he walked back to the dinner table.

Lying on his bed late that night, Mathew wondered if something was medically wrong with him, maybe he had this sort of depression. Tossing and turning, he concluded that he probably was going crazy. In any case, the next morning, he would go see a shrink, the same one that Neisha had gone to see, the last month. While this decision reduced his anxiety, it didn’t bring him any sleep, so he got up quietly, so as to not wake Jenny up and walked across the room to get some milk from the fridge. Maybe he would read a book.

Stepping out into the hall, he saw that there was already someone sitting on the sofa, a black bob of hair with the TV on mute (HBO) reading a book. Startled, he walked across to the sofa, and as he did, the black bob turned around and smiled.

“Sneha. I didn’t know you were here!” exclaimed Mathew.

“Caught a late night flight out and then Siddharth told me he was here, so I just came over,” Sneha said, moving to her left, making space for him to sit down next to her on the sofa. He stared at the armrest, thrilled that his company tonight was sitting next to him, and on not on the armrest next to him.

“You couldn’t get any sleep?” she asked.

“No,” he shook his head sideways, fidgeting with the toe-end of his pyjamas. A stray thread was bothering him.

She stared at the TV screen as John Travolta ripped through the streets of LA.

“How are you liking Bombay?,” she asked, her eyes still on the television.

“It’s too fast, the city, the people, everything just whizzes by you so fast,” he said, finally pulling the stray thread out. “I don’t think I can ever get used to this city. I think unless you’re from here, Bombay the chaos is difficult to get used to.”

“Yeah,” she said dragging the end of the word, turning around to face him now.

She lifted her legs off the floor, folded them in front of her and let her back rest on the armrest on her side of the sofa. “You know the other day Siddharth took me to a party and I was stuck there and looked around me and felt like the whole thing was a game. Like one of those games that you get points for. You won points here for talking to people, but somehow only the number of people you spoke to mattered – no points for content, unless of course you had a funny story and you can made someone laugh – 10 extra points for that,” she laughed.

He laughed with her. “I know what you mean”

“And you know,”she continued, “some people get so involved in the game you can almost see their faces turn blank and empty the minute they are alone because there’s nothing to play for, no points to be won. It’s so, so stupid.”

In the minutes that followed Mathew had to suppress these sudden urges to jump across the sofa and hug Sneha; mostly because here she was, perfectly pretty and perfectly fine, validating that he wasn’t a crazy or depressed with each word she spoke. At the very least, he wasn’t the only one who felt crazy in Bombay. Maybe he was just built for a different kind of a city, or maybe different friends from the ones that Jenny had made all her life.

“Imagine if they designed an app,” he said after a while as John Travolta walked into an empty field, a shotgun in either hand. “An app that listens through your phone and gives you points for when you share silence with your friends. No talking, and it measures your heart rate, so the silence has to be comfortable, not awkward or forced. You can of course share your points on social media and compete with your friends and all that. It’s like any other game, just that the rules are different.”

He paused.

“How many people in this city do you think would play that game? How many of your friends would even be interested in something like that”

She blinked.

“Wanna try?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Do you want to play the game? We could sit in silence, together, read or watch TV, sitting here on the sofa, until one of us is sleepy and has to go to sleep. And then we could keep track of the points, and play again, the next time.”

Mathew sat in silence for 42 minutes and watched as John Travolta shot at the bad guys, a shotgun in one arm, a woman on the other, as Sneha quietly read her book. After the movie ended, he picked up the newspaper under the table and read a total of 14 articles before Sneha finally broke the silence.

“I think I should go to bed now.”

“Sure,” he said with a smile.

She smiled back.

He sat outside for a while but dozed off minutes after she left. At 6.15 am, a distant alarm woke him up, he opened his eyes. At 6.30am he staring at the ceiling, when Jenny opened her eyes.

Enter stage left.

– Adithya Narayanan

 

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The Taxi Driver

This story was first published in Vol.4 of the Helter Skelter anthology of short stories.

It was early morning on the day after the rains had announced the arrival of the monsoons in Bombay.

The streets of Hindu colony, Dadar were lined with dirty puddles leading all the way up to the main circle, and the smell of the first rains still lingered in the early morning breeze.

Col. Rajan had set out on his customary early morning jog, wearing his favourite khaki shorts and was jogging up the street next to the post office while Mrs. Chadda was busy packing lunch for her husband. Her son scurried around the house trying to first find a lost pencil, a notebook and then his tiepin before finally announcing that his History textbook was nowhere to be found. The banana seller turned lazily around the corner, and Mr. Bhimsen Gupta waved to Col. Rajan from his balcony. He would watch the Colonel take a U-turn, to jog back down post office street – the Colonel had avoided jogging on the main road for the last 17 years after his retirement from the army.

Sitting in his black and yellow taxi, oblivious to all that was happening around him, Rajkumar strained his neck to look into the house on the second floor in the building that stood across the post office in Dadar. A canopy of leaves blocked his view, and he tilted his head further left, but that didn’t help either. Finally resigned to the fact that we wouldn’t be able to see through the iron grills, Rajkumar gave up and sat back on this seat. He took a deep breath, cracked his knuckles and decided to wait patiently.

________

Mr. Breganza had married Iva Rosemary in a quiet ceremony in a old church near a beach in North Goa 47 years ago. Soon after the wedding, they had left for Mumbai together, and bought a house on the ground floor of the building across the street where Mr. Breganza went to work. When Anita was born, the couple decided to move to a bigger house, and shifted to a house on the second floor in the same building. They hadn’t thought of moving out ever since.

Mr. Breganza had lived in Bombay long enough before getting married to Iva, to understand how lucky he was to have a house so close to where he worked. Every weekday Mr. Breganza would leave the post office building, walk across the street and climb up two flights of stairs to come home for lunch, much to the envy of his colleagues. He would often also manage to squeeze in a quick nap before heading back to work.

From the window in his office on the third floor of the post office building, Mr. Breganza could peek into his own house, and in the middle of a report or a file, he would often allow himself to get distracted by the sight of his wife watering the plants or making tea, quietly humming to herself while doing so. During long afternoons after his retirement, Mr. Breganza would often sit by the window of his house and look into his office on the third floor picturing his younger self sitting there stealing glances at own house, watching his wife quietly at work.

________

Rajkumar had come to Bombay 23 years ago at the tender age of 7 after a terrible malaria epidemic had taken away the lives of both his parents, in his village in Uttar Pradesh. He worked at his uncle’s restaurant in Kings Circle, near Dadar before his uncle helped him get a taxi drivers license on the eve of his 20th birthday. Rajkumar worked under malik for a few years, and then when he saved up enough money, he bought his own black and yellow ambassador taxi. The day Rajkumar bought his own taxi, the moist-eyed owner of the Navratna restaurant in Kings circle Dadar refused to collect any money from his customers.

________

Rajkumar first met Mrs. Breganza 7 years ago on a similar day, after the first rains had fallen in Bombay. Dressed in her flower printed church dress, she waved his taxi down and asked him to take her to the Portuguese church. He stopped even though he was headed the other way because it was drizzling, and he held the door open for the old lady so she could shut her umbrella, and she smiled warmly at him as he did so. When they reached the church it was still drizzling, and so he held the door open for her again, and this time they laughed. Every Sunday after that, Rajkumar picked Mrs. Breganza up from under the babul tree near her house, and dropped her back home after the morning mass.

In the years leading up to this day, Mrs. Breganza grew to trust Rajkumar, she would often call him when she needed help: like that time when Anita was pregnant and had to catch a late night train back to the Kolkata. Rajkumar not only dropped her to the station, he also carried her luggage to the platform and in spite of her protests, he waited with her on the platform for the train, and left only after the train left the station. Three summers later, when Varun – Anita’s son fell down the stairs while playing, Rajkumar helped rush Varun to the hospital and carried him to the emergency room, as Mrs. Breganza and Anita followed quickly behind. Rajkumar waited downstairs and left much later, and only after dropping the family safely back home.

But it was when Mr. Breganza was diagnosed with cancer during September last year, that she realized that Rajkumar was probably the son she never had. Rajkumar tirelessly drove them around the city for weeks, from one hospital to another, often waiting for hours alone in the taxi outside the hospital. In the next 6 months as Rajkumar drove them to and fro their chemotherapy sessions Mr. Breganza repeatedly threw up inside his taxi, but Rajkumar never said a word. He saw Mr. Breganza’s hair fall off and arms grow thin, he saw his health slowly deteriorate until Monday last week, when Mr. Breganza quietly passed away at home, at 11pm in the night.

________

Today Rajkumar was patiently waiting in his taxi for Anita and her husband Sunil to bring Mrs. Breganza down the stairs. They had come down to Mumbai to pay their last respects to Mr Breganza earlier this week.

Upstairs, they were helping Mrs. Breganza pack her belongings so they could take her away with them to Kolkata. Rajkumar waited downstairs to say goodbye to the lady he had dropped to church every Sunday for 7 years; he wanted open the door for her one last time and see her smile, before she finally left this city for good.

When he finally saw Mrs. Breganza come down the narrow staircase, he saw that she was coming down alone and he jumped off his seat to help her down the last few stairs. Anita and her husband Sunil soon followed. Mrs. Breganza had tears in her eyes as she got onto the taxi leaving the building she had lived in for the last 47 years.

Rajkumar stayed back to help Sunil load the luggage onto the trunk, as Anita got on after Mrs. Breganza.

It was only after he had fastened his seat belt and adjusted his rear view mirror, that Sunil said, ‘Kandivili Old-Age home’, when Rajkumar realized that they hadn’t come to take Mrs. Breganza back to Kolkata, they had come to drop her off at the old-age home in Kandivili, and his eyes briefly met Mrs. Breganza’s as he reversed his taxi and turned it around to head to Kandivili.

________

Rajkumar was struck by the irony of the situation, as he drove his taxi through the evening traffic. As a young orphan, nothing struck him as more painful than losing ones parents, and not a single night had passed in Bombay when Rajkumar did not wish for them to be alive. And yet, here he was, dropping Mrs. Breganza off at the ‘Kandivili old age home’ because her daughter had decided to willingly detach herself from her mother in her final years, so she could head back to Kolkata with her husband alone, never to come back to the city, as if her mother were like a than courier package that needed to be transferred from one place to another, no more.

________

For the first time in 7 years at 9.45am on a Sunday, there no taxi waiting below the babul tree across the street from the post office. Rajkumar had parked his taxi far away outside a restaurant and slowly sipped on his morning chai. He thought about Mrs. Breganza in her old age home in Kandivili, and wondered if she was okay. He realized that she had been on medication herself, in the last 3 months before Mr. Breganza had passed away, and he hoped the nurses at the old age home reminded her to take medicines on time. He passed the old age home a couple of times the next week, and once more week after.

The following Sunday when he could take it no more, Rajkumar got up early in the morning, put on his khaki shirt and trousers and drove straight to the old age home, and asked the lady at the reception for Mrs. Breganza. When she went inside to fetch her, Rajkumar took a seat by the reception desk. He knew that his house was too small to take her home, although he knew he would’ve gladly taken care of her for the rest of his life.

When Mrs. Breganza finally came out she was surprised to see Rajkumar waiting for her next the reception. Had she forgotten to pay him the last time? She didn’t understand. When she came closer, Rajkumar looked at her in the eye and said,

“Aaj Sunday hai. Main aapko church leke jaane aya hoon.”

________

Mrs. Breganza went back to her room and put on her church dress, after which Rajkumar held her hand and helped her walk to the taxi. By the time they reached, Mrs.as Breganza was late for mass, but it didn’t matter. She would be back every Sunday after that, in time, after which she would walk across the street where Rajkumar would be waiting for her with the door open, standing next to his taxi.

________

Mrs. Breganza passed away exactly 2 years after the day Rajkumar had first taken her to church from the old age home in June. The monsoons had not yet begun in Bombay; but the first rains fell later on in the same week on the day when Anita and Sunil landed in the city. When they came to the old age home, Rajkumar was talking to the warden and while he recognized them, they didn’t recognize him.

Anita went straight inside to her mother’s room, while Sunil stayed back to ask the warden a few questions. The warden informed Sunil that Rajkumar was the taxi driver who had taken Mrs. Breganza to church ever Sunday for the last 2 years. Sunil turned around and promptly shook Rajkumar’s hand before reaching into his wallet to pull out a crisp hundred-rupee note to give to Rajkumar.

Rajkumar studied the note, and put it in his pocket before walking out of the old age home. He got onto his taxi and drove straight to Dadar where he parked his car under a familiar tree. Fate had taken away his mother for the second time in his life, but this time around it had shown mercy enough to leave him a hundred rupees to show for his effort.

Half an hour later he drove away, wiping away his tears, never to come back again. He left behind fate’s thank you note – a crushed hundred rupee note that lay in one of the dirty puddles that lined the streets of Hindu colony, opposite the post office, below the babul tree in Dadar.

– Adithya Narayanan

Amina

– Sharanya Ramesh

“Only use blue ink pens to sign in the register. Another thing, if you pin your duppatta from the inside onto your kurti, it won’t keep sliding off when you’re bending down to pick up your bag. Oh, also, you can share my locker till you get your own to keep all your papers and books in. My name is Amina. If you need help with anything, come find me. I teach 1st grade, on the ground floor.” She said with a hint of a smile on her kind face. It was my first day as a teacher and I was nervous as I stood there in my red kurti, stuttering and pulling at my hair and bag all at the same time.

It doesn’t change. First days are always scary. What helps, on every first day, is that one kind face that will not ridicule your sudden lack of coordination, but will instead help you pick up your papers and offer to steady your balance.

For me, on that first day, it was Amina Miss.

Cut to almost 8 months down the line and nothing has changed.

__________

It was one of the worst days I had ever had in my ongoing journey as a teacher. I was frustrated and the thought of going back to an empty apartment where a pile of uncorrected papers and cold leftover food, just worsened my mood. My students had just left and I sat in my empty classroom packing my bag, trying to breathe through the chaos that had been that day.

I failed, miserably. I could feel the tears welling up and I tried to push them back as fiercely as I could, telling myself to buck up.

“Bad day?” said a voice from near the door. “I knew you had a bad day when you walked down to fill water and you didn’t pop in to mine and Simmi’s classroom to say hi.” She continued without waiting for me to say anything. “Here, I got some biryani from home today.” Without waiting for me to say anything she sat opposite me with those kind eyes of hers. I half snorted and giggled as I tried to wipe away the tears on my face and reached for the biryani.

She waited for me to finish eating in silence not asking about why my day had gone bad and I offered her no explanation. She finished correcting some papers and then said, “Okay, now instead of going back to your house where I know all you will do is correct more papers till your food comes, come to my house. I want to show you something.”

I agreed. I didn’t really have a choice. Once Amina decides it was time for you to get better, you had no choice but to do so.

__________

We walked out into the community I taught in – Shankarwadi, Jogeshwari East – and even after 8 months, the cramped tin houses and the dark lanes still surprised me. The tiny houses jostling into each other while kids played marbles in the little space available was a scene I thought I would get used to.

“My husband and I took a small loan from the bank to build this small place which we are going to hire out to Zari workers. And on the top floor my sister and her family can move in.” She announced as we broke out of the tightly packed cluster into a relatively wider lane. I stared up at the small building that seemed large because of it’s short neighbours.

“Zaid!” She yelled out at the street where a bunch of boys were playing. “Bring two cups of chai. We’re going up to the terrace.” She then led the way up a narrow flight of stairs and I stumbled along behind her. After precariously balancing our way up two flights of steps, we reached the terrace. “I come here when I have had a bad day and just sit here. It’s quiet. When you live in the kinds of houses that we do, quiet is hard to find.” She explained as she settled herself on the floor.

I took a moment to stare from the terrace out into the community. It was beautiful, with the sun just about to set. You could see a huge part of the community surrounded by the mosques and the tin roofs. I sat down next to her just as Zaid came with the chai.

I’ve seen you when you walk up the lane into school.” he told me as he handed me my tiny cup of tea. “You carry such big bags with you every day. I thought you were a student and then my friend told me you were a teacher. I’m in 6th grade at that school.” He said, pointing over my head.

I laughed and told him many people had made that mistake of thinking I was a student instead of a teacher. The big bags, I explained, was all for class.

“Okay Zaid, go down now and tell my kids to come up. And make sure the door is latched in my house.” Amina said as she put sipped her tea. “Let’s enjoy the calm before my children come here.” she laughed.

____________

“Do you know I got married when I was 21. It was considered late at that time. All my friends were already married. I didn’t want an arranged marriage. I was like you, I suppose. Independent, thought I could do all this alone. But I had to get married, didn’t have a choice.” She said as she pulled off the duppatta covering her hair. “But I did. And now I can’t imagine a life without him and my children.” She smiled at me, urging me to finish my tea.

I sipped it slowly, being careful not to burn my tongue and asked her why she wanted to be a teacher. “At first it was because I just needed a job. We had loans to pay, children to put into school, family to take care off. My job at the AIDS centre wasn’t paying much.” She said.

Wait, you worked at the AIDS centre, I asked, surprised.

“Yes. I understand that tone of surprise. Why would I work in a place that doesn’t pay that much money only to help others when I should be helping my own family?” She asked me instead.

No, I meant..I don’t know.. I faltered.

“I went there when I was in college. And it as the most meaningful thing I had done. These people were all going to die but they had so much life left in them and I wanted to make the life that they had remaining, beautiful. Do you know how wonderful it is to share someone’s life like that with them? Watch them give you a part of them to keep secret?” She offered as an explanation. “My husband understood until we ran out of money. I had to find another job and quick, so I started teaching.”

So do you like it? I asked, somewhat lamely. She looked over at me and smiled, not unlike an older sister humouring her naive younger sibling. “Of course. It’s tougher than anything else I have done. It’s tough knowing that I have two of my own at home that I need to take care of but I choose to come to school anyway to teach twenty five other children and take care of them instead. It’s tiring, you know.”

At that moment, her two children rushed up the steps and onto their mother, wrapping their tiny arms around her. “Ammi! I got full marks in dictation!” yelled her daughter, while her son, who had just noticed me, smiled shyly and offered me a piece of his chocolate. I declined, smiling at him and shifted my attention to the little girl who had crawled into her mother’s lap and stared at me from under her duppatta. “Her favourite animal is a giraffe. Most kids say, dogs or cats or even lions or tigers. This one likes Giraffes. She’s different.” Amina said, with a slight hint of laughter in her voice.

“They’re so tall. They touch the clouds with their heads, Ammi. Thats why.” justified her daughter. When I told her that giraffes were one of my favourite animals too, she smiled, finally leaning towards me and offering me her toy to play with.

“I know you had a bad day. But bad days are a part of our job. I know you’re far from your parents and I know you think you’re sinking on most days. But you’re not. You’re doing good. We all watch you in school. I know you don’t think you have anybody in school, but you do. You have us.” She said, quietly. “I know we’re different, you and I. You come from a different world almost, a different religion, a different family. But you chose to come to my world, anyway. And that can’t have been easy. We’re not that different, you know. You remind me of when I was 21. Full of life and dreams. It’s good. I don’t want that to change just because you came to my world.” She said.

__________

In all the 8 months I had known her, we had never talked about these things. We talked about school and work and other teachers and whether the construction at the local mosque had been completed. But on that day, on the terrace, we talked about her life and mine. I learned how strong and extraordinary this woman was. She cared for her family at home, her family in school, faced more bad days than I could count and still offered to help the klutzy new teacher that everyone was wary off, on that first day.

“I’m not any different from the many women who do this every day in this community.” She said when I told her how wonderful I thought she was. “They work many jobs, take care of their children and their husbands and pray to allah that their children will get all that they couldn’t. We do it every day here. I’m not different or special. It’s what we all do.”

I finished my chai¸set my glass down and walked over to the edge of the terrace. “We fly kites from here. My son is very good. He will teach you. I saw you trying to fly kites with your kids the other day. You’re terrible.” She said, laughing at my embarrassed face. “Come down now, come meet my husband.”

I had seen her husband before on a couple of occasions when he had come to pick her up from school or drop the kids off in school on their days off. We walked into her tiny little house where she put some hot samosas on a plate and pushed them into my hand. “I know you won’t eat them now. Take them home and eat them when you’re working at night. Heat them up though. Don’t eat them cold.” She said sternly. I promised I wouldn’t and tucked them into my bag.

“My husband will drop you home.” She said. “He bought a new bike but don’t tell him you like bikes because he will race the other bikes on the road and it’s dangerous.”  I tried in vain to tell her I would just take an auto home, and the only help I needed was to just show me the way out because of how confusing the identical lanes could get, especially in the evening. “Why? He will drop you home. Stop it. No arguments.” And that was that.

I spent some more time with the family, as they laughed at my Hindi and offered me more food. When it was time for me to leave, I hugged Amina and she held my arm and said, “You will have more rough days. Come to the terrace whenever you want. I’ll probably be there too. We’ll drink some chai and talk about it, okay?”

I promised her I would as I walked out of the house.

___________

She was right. Her husband drove me home at a ridiculous speed through lanes barely wide enough to fit us, with me holding onto my bag for dear life. When we reached my house, I thanked him, asked him if I could take a picture of him for this story I told myself I was going to write and then walked up to my apartment.

I thought of Amina and women like her. Women that had braved the storm, women who were strong and holding their family together. Women, who had in their own way, created their own calm amidst all that chaos.

I promised myself that tomorrow was going to be a better day. I had found my calm, in the chaos. And all I needed was a little chai and a story of the woman with the kind eyes to help me find it.

 

Paperthin

When Krishna’s father came home to tell his family that he had been transferred to Mumbai he added that they would have to pack and move within a week’s time. Krishna didn’t cry or make a fuss like last time. At the age of 11 the boy had already changed 5 schools across 3 cities, and the family had been expecting this news for a couple of weeks now. The next day after the morning assembly Krishna quietly walked up to his teacher and informed her about the transfer. Before the final bell rang, he distributed sweets among his friends, returned his borrowed books and said his final goodbyes. On the way back home, Krishna stopped near the gardens past the school gates and turned around to look at his school building one last time. He closed his eyes for a second after to safely store the picture he had just taken with his eyes, and then walked away – no trace of emotion on his face.

Krishna’s father worked in the petroleum business and his company would often transfer him with little notice, an occupational hazard his family had learnt to deal with over the years. Krishna would dread the day his father would come home with the yellow envelope that had the details of his next posting, and he would spend the next few days crying in his room. The transfers mostly meant that Krishna grew up expecting to leave the friends even before he made them; he was made to step into a new city and a new school every second year only so he could leave the friends he made. It was cruel, but soon he realized that there was little he could do about it, and as time passed he began to keep fewer and fewer friends.

The house they moved into in Mumbai was much bigger than their previous house. They lived in Gokuldham society, which was a housing colony and that meant that there was a playground where Krishna could go ride his cycle or play cricket with children. Krishna was not interested in playing, but his mother made sure the neighbor’s son took him with him and after an initial awkward phase that lasted a month, Krishna soon settled into the new colony. His teachers in school liked him too; he sat on the second bench next to the window, completed his homework, and did well when the exams came.

A few years before Krishna was born, a right-wing party made it mandatory across schools in the country to teach the state language along with the National language. While there was a lot of debate around the topic in the legislature assembly, and within the education board, the rule stuck. When Krishna’s Marathi language teacher walked into class, Krishna introduced himself and proceeded to tell her that he didn’t understand a word of the language, but that he was willing to work hard in order to do well. This had worked for him in the past and Krishna expected her to smile or pat his head, but the lady looked up at the heavens, and in a grand gesture proceeded to call out to the Hindu gods to ask what wrong she had done in her previous life to end up in a school where they thought it was perfectly acceptable to take children who knew nothing in the language she taught, year after year. She then gave Krishna a solid tap with her knuckles on his head and sent him back to his place, and Krishna knew that life as he knew it then, was slowly about to change.

________

Shubhangi Godbole’s Marathi tuition center had a notorious reputation in the neighborhood that Krishna’s family had just moved into. While her tuition center was the most successful tuition one in the entire Western belt, stories of Shubhagi’s infamous temper surfaced often. Still, she did extremely well for herself, for her student’s far outperformed students of other tuition centers. That was partly because Shubhangi knew her subject really well, and partly because she tolerated no nonsense or indiscipline of any sort. People said that once Shubhangi had a student hit so hard, that his parents had to take him to the nearby hospital. The next day, the story goes, Shubhangi came to visit the boy with a box of chocolates, a bouquet of flowers and a Marathi textbook, and proceeded to take tuitions for him for the next one hour that she was there in the hospital room. When the results came out that year, the boy scored cent percent in Marathi, and like most other things that end well, all was forgiven and forgotten.

When Krishna’s mother went to meet Shubhangi the evening after Krishna’s Marathi teacher had called out to all the gods, Shubhangi made it very clear to her that while she would ensure that Krishna would get a distinction in Marathi, she would do so using her own methods. Over a cup of hot tea that Shubhangi had made for herself, she assured Krishna’s mother that used the cane to discipline only the worst students, and that as long as Krishna was sincere and hard working, there was nothing for anybody to worry about. However she added, if Krishna’s mother wanted a friendlier, more affectionate teacher she could put her in touch with Mardekar aunty who lived down the road who still had a couple of vacant slots. But everyone knew that the students at Mardekar’s flew paper planes in class, and so Krishna’s mother promptly paid the fees for the year, and promised Shubhangi that Krishna was bright, well-disciplined child and that she was confident that with some initial help, he would soon begin to do extremely well in Marathi.

________

The next day when Krishna walked into the tuition center, he sat on a bench right at the back; his friends in school had warned him against sitting in the front. When Shubhangi saw him, she got up, walked to his bench and handed him a test paper. Today was test day at the tuition center, she said and all her other students in the center were busy solving the paper. An hour later, after the answers were announced and after the papers had been corrected, the students walked up to Shubhangi one by one, and explained why they got how much they did. Anyone who got less than 70% was caned six times. Krishna starred at his empty paper; he had been unable to understand a single question in the test. When it was finally his turn, he slowly walked up the aisle and handed over his empty paper. Shubhangi looked at his paper, and then back at him and when she lifted her cane, he stretched his hand and closed his eyes, but a second later when he didn’t feel the cane smack against his palm, he opened an eyes to realize that Shubhangi was pointing at his bag. She then tapped the vacant spot on the first bench in front of her and said, ‘Bring you bag here. You will sit here every day, every week, for as long as it takes you to do well on my tests.’ That evening Krishna went home and cried to his mother, begging her to send him to Mardekar’s instead. But no tamil iyer ponnu has ever sent her son to a second grade tuition when a better one is available in the area, so Krishna had to continue going for Marathi tuitions to Shubhangi miss instead.

________

After the first few months of struggle, Krishna began to perform better in Marathi, both in school and in tuition. The initial few weeks had been extremely difficult; he was petrified of Shubhangi but sitting in the front of her gave him no choice but to concentrate and work hard at learning the language he had now begun to hate so much. But Krishna never got caned in tuition – partly because he worked so hard, and partly because Shubhangi soon took a liking to the young boy, and although she barely expressed it, she had been very impressed with the growth he had made, for within a few of months he was performing on par with her other students, occasionally even better.

Soon Krishna brought two of friends his to the tuition center. Ethan and Samantha were twins who became friends with Krishna when the three of them had gotten selected to perform in the annual school play. While Krishna had scored a respectable 72% in his Marathi paper, the twins failed the exam. The next day the class teacher had pulled the twins aside and told them that their Marathi scores would have to drastically improve if they wanted to continue to be a part of the school play, and Krishna knew that the only person who could help them was Shubhangi miss, and so he promptly took them over to the tuition center in the evening. Shubhangi agreed to teach them, and enrolled them right away.

While Ethan, Samantha and Krishna walked to the tuition after school together, they couldn’t sit together, for there was no place for the twins to sit in the front. Ethan and Samantha would take their seats right at the back while Krishna continued to sit in the front. The twins knew nothing in Marathi, and because they sat at the back and had joined extremely late in the year, they continued to perform badly for weeks even after they joining the center. Shubhangi didn’t like the twins very much, something about them put her off, and she never forgave their mistakes the same way she had forgiven Krishna’s during his first few weeks at the center. The twins too began to hate Shubhangi, and often-made fun of her on the way back home. When the Unit test results were announced, everyone in the tuition center did well except Ethan and Samantha. They had failed their Unit test again. The next day when Ethan forgot to bring homework notebook, Shubhangi caned him fourteen times in front of the whole class, six times more than the usual. The next day, Ethan and Samantha’s parents came to meet Shubhangi, and threatened to file a child abuse complaint against her in the nearby police station. Needless to say, they pulled Ethan and Samantha out of the tuition center and soon, a week later when the twins failed another Marathi test, the class teacher removed them from the play as well.

The incident deeply affected Krishna; for it seemed to him that Ethan and Samantha, and their parents seemed to think that he was to blame him for the incident. Shubhangi too had began to behave in an extremely cold manner with Krishna- there was no need for the boy to have brought his two friends along during the middle of the year and create all that commotion. Soon, he was made to give up his front seat, and sit at the back with some of the other children who did not study too well. This affected his work and during the weeks leading up to the final exams, Krishna didn’t perform well in his tests. When the final exam results were announced, he managed to secure only a 42% in Marathi.

________

A week before the final exams, the tuition center shut, and Shubhangi called for a meeting to announce that she was getting married over the summer. She assured the parents that their students would perform very well in the upcoming final exams, adding that her marriage would in no way affect the functioning of the tuition center. Krishna from secretly hoped that her husband would take her away someplace far so he would never have to worry about seeing her again.

The entire summer, Krishna spent dreading the first day of tuition center when he would have to walk up to Shubhangi with his final Marathi exam papers. 42% was dismal and Krishna was convinced that he would get caned more times than Ethan had during his first day back after the summer, and unlike Ethan’s parents, his parents would do nothing about it, and all summer long he couldn’t take his mind of it.

After the first day back in school, Krishna slowly walked up the street leading up to the tuition center, his yearly tuition fee and his Marathi paper and in hand. He had decided over the summer that he would quietly take the beatings, proceed to work extremely hard over the next few months, and ensure that he got an 80% in the first Unit test. When he reached the tuition center, he noticed that it was locked. There were no other students around. He waited for a while, and then walked up the stairs to the third floor where he knew Shubhangi lived with her mother. He hesitated before ringing the doorbell, and it occurred to him for a fleeting second that he could run away, tell his mother than they had moved and that the house was locked and never come back, but having never been blessed with the courage to carry out such daring acts, he rang the doorbell. Shubhangi’s mother opened the door, and when Krishna asked about the tuitions, Shubhangi’s mother told him that she had gone away and that the tuition center would be shut for a while. Krishna was just about to leave when, he noticed Shubhangi at the far end of the corridor, from the corner of his eye and when she realized that he had seen her, she asked her mother to let him inside.

When Krishna sat down on the sofa next to the table fan, he saw that Shubhangi’s eyes were puffed; it looked like she had been crying. He had never seen her like this before and he sat cowed down, feet together, his hands on his lap. When her mother gave him water, he drank it quickly and placed the steel tumbler on the tray before her mother could put the tray down on the table next to him. When Shubhangi smiled, he noticed that her lips were pale.

When Shubhangi asked Krishna about his final exam, he Krishna handed over his paper and burst out crying. He didn’t understand why he was crying, she hadn’t even hit him yet, but the tears rolled on and on, and he could do nothing to stop them. When Krishna finally stopped crying, he looked at her and asked her if he could go home. She nodded and told him that she would call and inform him when tuitions would resume. After closing the door, through the iron grill he caught a glimpse of the marks on her back as she turned around to go inside. He put on his slippers and began to walk home.

Two lanes away from home, Krishna stopped and stood next to a temple in silence for a while. A minute later, he walked into the temple, put his tuition fee inside the donation box, said a small prayer for his teacher and then proceeded to run home.

– Adithya Narayanan

Freshly pressed and neatly folded

In a strange way, everything Shyam Sunder stood for, seemed to go against the flow of the city, against the ebbing tide. Shyam Sunder was terribly slow, not to mention exceptionally delicate with his daily routine.

Standing under a blue tarpaulin sheet held together by four long bamboo sticks, Shyam Sunder was an istriwala, someone who ironed clothes for a living. Brought up in lower-caste family in a village in Uttar Pradesh, Shyam Sunder came to Mumbai after failing his secondary school exams. Initially, he worked as an assistant in his uncle’s retail store, but he soon, he set up his own istri shop outside Dayanand colony – a posh colony in the suburbs of Bombay where hundreds of families would soon render his services.

Every morning at the break of dawn, Shyam Sunder would open the first bundle of clothes; and patiently turn each cloth in the bundle inside out. Picking up the first cloth in the pile, he would sprinkle water on the cloth, before laying the cloth to rest on the table. Using his hands, he would spread out the sleeves first, and then the body, meticulously from top to bottom, as if it were a necessary pre-requisite before bringing out the coal iron. The cloth would then be ironed, crease after crease, twice over, before Shyam Sunder would gently return the cloth to its original state. Ironing it once again, he would fold the cloth place it on the side of the table and proceed to pick up the next cloth on the pile. This, he would repeat unfailingly nearly two hundred and fifty times a day.

During the monsoon, when you could hear the rain and the wind mercilessly rattle windows, Shyam Sunder would stand shivering alone in his stall, performing his duty with the unwavering diligence of a soldier standing atop his post at the border. Someone lesser may have hastened the process, but Shyam Sunder was unmoved and unchanged; the city had failed to do what it had done with many others – it had failed to make him one of it’s own. The discipline in his daily routine had ensured that no cloth ever went missing, and not a single cloth had been misplaced. Each bundle went back to the same family, complete and finished, freshly pressed and neatly folded.

During the course of the day, Shyam Sunder entertained many visitors, however today; Shyam Sunder had a new visitor. Standing next his shop, on a bicycle was a young boy, staring at a girl who was lighting firecrackers across the road with the rest of her family.

________

Nabin was a young schoolboy, barely out of his teens, who lived with his grandparents in Dayanand colony. On most evenings, you could see Nabin riding his bicycle through the lanes of Ashok Nagar – often running an errand or two for his grandmother, aimlessly wandering around by himself most other times.

Nabin’s parents lived in Wazirpur, a village 50 miles north of Delhi, where they owned a farm. Nabin spent most of his childhood in Wazirpur, but moved to Mumbai early last year, to live with his grandparents so he could use his grandfather’s influence to attend a school that would better prepare him for life.

Nabin kept to himself, in school and at home, and in many ways, he was similar to Shyam Sunder – they were both outsiders who had not allowed Mumbai to change them as people. Content and satisfied in their own monotonies, the both of them had no greater ambition – they did not wish for more. Nabin had no interest in pursuing engineering, in fact for most parts; he had no interest in pursuing anything. Nabin had no special talents either, but he never let any of this ever bother him.

However, while Shyam Sunder found meaning in even the most menial jobs he performed through the day, Nabin had until now, found no meaning or purpose in life – not at home, nor in school. He was happy passively attending school in the morning, aimlessly riding his cycle around during the evenings.

________

On the eve of Diwali, Nabin removed his cycle from the parking garage. Had he been at home in Wazirpur, he would’ve been bursting firecrackers with his family, but today he was on his own. Nabin took he took his usual route through Ashok Nagar.

Nabin’s grandmother had warned Nabin against taking the cycle outside. Too many families will be bursting firecrackers outside their homes Nabin, she said, but Nabin wouldn’t listen to her. He didn’t want to sit at home alone with his grandmother today. Too old to hold an argument with her grandson, she relented.

Cycling down the streets of Ashok Nagar, Nabin saw that the streets were just like his grandmother had described them – families dressed in their best clothes were lighting chakras and fuljadis while remnants of Diwali bombs lay strewn on the streets. A few times Nabin had to stop his cycle and pause for families to light phatakas or wait for them launch rockets into the sky; once or twice, his reflexes were regularly tested by irresponsible chakras. Against the backdrop of all this light and colour in Dayanand Colony, Nabin stopped his bicycle outside the colony gate, and watched a large group of twenty to thirty people lighting firecrackers across the street from Shyam Sunder’s istri stall.

Through all the smoke that separated him from them, Nabin saw a girl he hadn’t seen before, with thick long hair, light bombs the others were too scared to light themselves. He hadn’t seen her in Ashok Nagar before. Once or twice, Nabin thought the dupatta she wore around her neck would catch fire – she was not as careful as she should’ve been with it, but nothing untoward happened for the few minutes that he stood watching her. Nabin followed her as she weaved in and out of the crowd, her bright red skirt following her footsteps, right up until the moment she looked at him. Standing across the street, he was caught off guard, and he sheepishly got on his bike and hurriedly turned quickly around. When he looked back a few seconds later, she was still looking at him, her eyes sharp and piercing, and Nabin turned around and rode faster that he had, through the smoke, the crowd and the firecrackers in Dayanand colony, until he reached home.

________

During the days that followed Diwali, Nabin roamed around Ashok Nagar, sometimes trying to catch another glimpse of her, his evenings suddenly full of promise. The first time he saw her again, he spotted her walking down the street that led to the apartment where he had seen on the eve of Diwali. She was with another girl, and Nabin, on his cycle, immediately looked away, lest he catch her eye. Seconds his curiosity got the better of him, and as he turned his head to look at her just before he crossed her and she looked back, her eyes as sharp as ever, but in that moment he knew that she had recognized him too.

________

Neeharika lived in the apartment that stood across the gate from Dayanand Colony, where Nabin had seen her during the eve of Diwali. She was a college student, who took the same 5pm BEST bus to come back home with her friend every day. After the first meeting, Nabin avoided the route for a few days, but slowly he mustered enough confidence to ride his cycle down the road that led from the bus stop to her apartment.

Riding his cycle, he would spot her from afar, first pretend not to notice her, and then attempt to catch her eye right seconds before he crossed her. Soon, this became daily practice and Nabin ensured that he left home at exactly 5.23pm, just in time to share 3 seconds of undivided attention with her every evening. He could swear that her gaze had grown kinder as the days passed by.

________

Six months after Diwali, Nabin wrote his final exams and packed his bags, ready to go back home. As he sat on the bed, he realized that it was very likely that he wasn’t going to come back to Dayanand Colony. He would do well in his exams, he knew and there were a few good engineering colleges around Wazirpur in the outskirts of Delhi. His parents would want him to stay at home after being separated from him for two years.

Nabin wondered if he should speak to her, maybe ask her for phone before he left. He had never approached a girl this way before, and he sat on his bed for hours contemplating, nervously biting his nails. At 5.23pm, he got onto his bicycle, but he had no plan in mind.

As he reached the entrance of Dayanand Colony, he paused next to Shyam Sunder’s istri stall. Dropping off a bundle of clothes that his grandmother had given him stall, he continued to cycle on the road where he had seen her everyday for the last 6 months. Breathing deeply now, he pedaled his cycle, his heart beating louder each second.

When he finally saw her, he pressed his brakes abruptly a few hundred meters away from her. He knew he had to do something, and he got off his bicycle on the other side of the road, but he panicked and his feet refused to move as she approached him. Suddenly, he felt a strong urge to tie his shoelaces, and he bent down crouched behind his cycle, and waited until she had walked past. Slowly, he turned around and stood there watching her back, his feet still glued to the road, until she saw turned left to enter her building. She hadn’t noticed him, crouched behind his bicycle on the other side of the road.

Nabin immediately got back onto his bicycle, but now there was nothing to be done now.

He rode back to the entrance of her building, stopping across the road where he had seen her first. Maybe if she knew that it was his last day, she would come to the balcony, but how would she know. Nabin parked his cycle and sat on the wooden bench across Shyam Sunder’s istri stall.

Maybe this was the end of his little love story, maybe this was how it meant to meet it’s end. He hadn’t even looked at her, during his last evening there.

Shyam Sunder snapped the young boy back into reality – the clothes were ironed, it would cost him a total of twenty rupees. Nabin put the clothes at the back of his bike and slowly dragged his cycle home.

________

Twenty minutes later, Nabin was back, standing at the entrance of the building again. In his hands, he held a folded red skirt. Nabin walked up the stairs, in slow anticipation, his eyes searching for flat number H – 12.

The istri wala had swapped grandmother’s green kurta with a bright red skirt, and Nabin had been promptly instructed by his grandmother to return the skirt to it’s rightful owner. Shyam Sunder directed given Nabin to go to flat number H12 in the building across his istri stall.

Gently Nabin knocked on the door, and she opened the door.

“Hi,” he blurted.

“The istriwala has replaced your skirt with my grandmother’s kurta. I wanted to return your skirt.”

There was minute’s silence as they looked at each other.

“Come in,” she said, her face turning red.

Downstairs, Shyam Sunder opened a new bundle of clothes, and turned each cloth inside out.

Sprinkling water on the new shirt, he laid it out on the table, using his hands to spread out the sleeves, and then the body, meticulously from top to bottom as if it were a necessary pre-requisite before bringing out the coal iron. The discipline in his daily routine had ensured that no cloth ever went missing, and not a single cloth had been misplaced. Each bundle went back to the same family, complete and finished, freshly pressed and neatly folded. The city would never make him one of it’s own.

– Adithya Narayanan