Friday 15 September 2017

Short Story 2017 Shortlist Nishant Nihar

A Girl and A Flower

Some stories were never meant to be stories at all, not until someone decided to stop writing them abruptly. I had come home for vacations, a full year after the torture of a gruelling freshman year. This period had been rather tough considering that I had experienced a shattering heart-break and some not-so-kind grades. Well you would understand. I had become accustomed to long perilous nights blown up to smokes, and the habit of morose early morning naps. I hated seeing people really, and daylight was particularly not among my favorites. So I would bury myself in the veiled protection of a tiny blanket all the way down to the afternoon, and wake up to start my day when day started fading. The nights were my days. In the meantime, I had developed a keen disgust for everything sweet and innocent. I especially disliked flowers. The crumpled remains of the first rose I had got, added with a pinch of stale memories, made it impossible for me to look at them the way I once did. So it was rather ironic that my mother, noticing my penchant for remaining awake till the wee hours of the morning, had asked me to look out for flower-pickers in our garden. They came in early, and plucked the most beautiful ones. And like all good sons, I agreed.

Initially it didn’t matter to me much. I got the perfect excuse to go out into the garden and head-start the day with a joint or even a Flake, as the flower-thieves came tipsy-toed, sometimes one, sometimes three, and did away with the lush petals. Later in the day, Mom would be mumbling all over during the Puja, not satisfied with the second tier flowers she would be left with for the offerings. These murmurs, while initially displeased only the good Lord later began to pester me, and on more than one occasion, prematurely ended my sleep. I decided to do something about it. 

And so the tryst began. The first day, a man jumped inside the garden premises when I let loose the dogs. The poor bastard ran away like a mad man, leaving his lungi behind. Nobody dared a second attempt that day. The next day it was the turn of our pet monkey, who slapped and scratched woman to the extent of partial baldness. And it continued. From catapults to high pitched abuses, every weapon was used. Soon, the trespassing stopped. I could finally breathe in peace. My day-long slumbers returned.

But the cycle of life turned full circle. Basking on the glory of my newly-earned terror, I began to grow lax again. Soon, my watchful vigils began to decay into pointless excuses to score some stuff and get an early morning high, as was the case initially. And then, one day, something happened.

I was leaning against the peepal tree after scoring two full drags when I heard a thud from the rear end of the garden. I was already a bit shaky and it took me enormous willpower to get onto my toes and take a stroll across the cobbled path that snaked itself into the dusty rear-end of the compound. A timid looking, pale skinned, funny looking creature, somewhere around 8 or 9, had jumped over into my territory. She was wearing a semi-torn frock, and her hair was parted in a funny way, with a few locks clipped with a butterfly pin. 

‘Oye kid. Shoo,’ I lurched at her, raising a twig.
She cowered down on her hunches, raising her hands in self-defense.
‘What?’ I snapped.
‘Flower. Please? Only 2’ she mumbled, with what seemed like a totally made-up innocent face.
‘You want maar? Go you little monster. Gooo..’, I dashed menacingly at her, and she jumped over and disappeared. These little rascals can be really agile, I thought. 

She didn’t come back that day. I felt happy and powerful.
The tryst continued. Sometimes she would creep, camouflaging herself amidst the green leaves and I would rain a volley of pebbles. Sometimes she would try and come a few hours early but I would be around to scare her with my dogs. Over the course of the week, I had seen and thwarted everything from stealth to decoys. The little rascal was a menace indeed. I had to do something about her. It was getting way beyond control now. 

So one day, this little urchin sneaks into the garden thinking I was away. I was quietly sitting on the terrace, keeping an eye on her movements. As soon as I saw her in, I dashed down to the garden exit. Ignorant to my advances, the little kid plundered the garden. There was a big pot with a planted dahlia hanging from the upper ceiling of the house’s external roof paneling. Suddenly, I see her grab the ladder placed beside the well, drag it along in slow graceful steps, slant it against the wall and use it to make her way up to the pot. Just as she was midway in her quest, I emerged from my hiding and slowly jerked the ladder straight. She was shocked. She grabbed the handle tighter and looked at me with pleading eyes, and slight sobs. I started swaying the ladder. Her expression changed from surprise to fear. Her voice became shriller and tears started rolling down her cheeks. I kept laughing like a hideous demon. The kid, going frantic at my diabolic laughs, started crying. And just then, half high as I already was, I involuntarily sneaked my hands up to cover my bursting ear-drums. The next thing that happened shouldn’t have happened. The ladder gave a screech and came crashing down. The little monster, who was somewhere between the middle and the top berth, hit the edge of the wall and immediately burst into a torrential bout of fat tears. I could see a deep cut mark splashed across her forehead and blood gushing out from it. The white flowers she had pricked from the garden, was tightly clutched in her hand, and as blood spilled in oozing little drops, the white gave way to fading red petals. My heart sank. 

I dashed towards her, trying to comfort her. Vaguely muttering dozens of sorries, I tapped her head and asked her to wait till I rushed in and got some bandages. Seeing the little kid cry had already freaked the hell out of whatever high I had seemingly had. I could only think of damage control now. There seems to be a motherly love in all of us, no matter how horrible a human being we can be at times.  But she didn’t budge. Neither would she lift her head to show me the extent of the cut, nor would she have the water I was offering. I pleaded her to have a gulp at least, and told her she could have flowers every time. I promised to get some chocolates for her too. Chocolates didn’t do the trick, but flowers did. On hearing that I would give her flowers, she confusedly lifted her head up, gulped the water, and leaped out from the wall, taking the small reddened flowers she had plucked. Thick stains of blood were all over the wall edge, and for a moment, I thought I saw some of them on my hands. I shuddered. My hands were clean.
That day was a total disaster. I kept thinking why of the kid and blood-drenched flowers. Would she come back again? Did she think that I was a terrible human? That was a long night. With God’s mercy, daylight came. I rushed down. 

I waited for hours, hoping to hear some prodding footsteps, but in vain. The pigeons fluttered away from their nests. My pets had got up too. People had started rising up from the shanties nearby, with lottas in hand to distastefully put Swachch Bharat into shame. But no kid. I started feeling sorry for yesterday. The morning tussles had become a daily ritual and the abrupt end didn’t seem fit at all. It was the same kind of dubious nonchalance I felt when I had come back home from the hostel. For no matter how brief it had been, it had become a harbinger of the day. I turned around to leave, shrugging. And then I smiled. She had come.
‘Juice?’ I asked, handing her the mug.
She took it from my hands, carefully holding the polythene stuffed with flowers in her other hand.
‘Don’t worry. I won’t take it’, I said as my eyes lingered towards the scar.
‘Parul’, she said.
“Stay where?’ I enquired.

‘Big green house. Pond. Side’ she described animatedly. There was this pond near the fields stretching in front of our house. She lived somewhere there I deduced. 
‘Why do you steal flowers? My mom needs them for puja’, I quipped.
She held up the polythene bag and twinkled at me.
‘2 rupees. Flower. Sell. Money. Eat’, she mumbled in half broken words.
‘You don’t do puja?  God will be angry.’
When I said God, she looked genuinely surprised.
‘God?’ I repeated.
She looked perplexed as ever. 

Not everyone understood God, for sure. I wasn’t sure if I did either. But that somebody hadn’t heard of it was a bit of surprise. But that’s God for you. His campaigns have become a little bit religiously mired these days and the voters who should actually know of his goodwill hardly knew about his existence. I wondered what god felt like when he introduced himself to someone and the other person didn’t exactly recognize him, famous as he is.
I looked at the girl sucking up the juice, the yellow liquid forming a pseudo moustache.
‘Where do you study?’ I asked.
She nodded her head.
‘No study?’
‘Na. Amma work. Appa work. No money’ she told.
She got up to leave after having her fill.  

‘You want to study? A B C D? 1 2 3 4? I will teach’, I said as I patted her head.
‘Flower?’ she seemed worried.
“I ll give flowers if you study’, I smiled.
‘That flower?’, her finger pointed at the Dahlia.
‘Someday’ I replied.
She smiled and rushed away. 

It started with colorful pictures, moved onto alphabets, and soon to numbers. She was a bit slow. It took me time to get her acquainted. Fickle as she was, I had to use funny methods and bribes to keep her focus intact. Sometimes toffees, sometimes guitars. It was irritating, frankly, but fun. These unpaid tuitions became the lifeline of my summer vacations. I started spending lesser hours sleeping, thinking of crude ways to teach her new lessons. Money for nashabandi was spent on bribes, ranging from hair-bands to combs. It was rejuvenation. I didn’t mind flowers anymore. I started feeling like talking to people. The chattering practice I did with her each day, made me want to talk more and more.  She would often argue why I was teaching her all the shit, and I would say that it would make her a big man one day. But deep inside, it was helping me too. 

Soon enough, two months had gone.
’98…99..100’ she screamed.
‘Acha. A-Z, now’
‘A for Apple, B for Ball, C for….., Z fro Zebra’, she muttered the last one late.
‘1 to 10 table now’
‘2 ja 1 2, 2 ja 2 4,.. 9 ja 7..umm’, she forgot.
‘9 cross 7 63.’ I completed her.
‘No flower?’, she pointed at the Dahlia, her face falling.
‘Tomorrow. Final. Table pura’, I said.

She nodded, took her daily quota of flowers, picked her books, and disappeared.
I waited for the next morning. I waited for hours. Everybody came and went. The newspaper delivery guy, the milkman, and even the monkeys went for their hunt. The pigeons flew away. People shat themselves to glory in the field, and went about their work. There was no sign of her.
I looked at the Dahlia. It seemed like waiting for the idiot too. I began to grow impatient. Had she not been able to remember the tables? She was so stupid, I thought. I had also prepared her next course of studies and had decided to start with Fairy tales today. But it didn’t seem like the rascal wanted to study. 

I stretched up and plucked the Dahlia, and soon after, the other flowers. The garden was virtually empty. The rate at which I had been siphoning off flowers to the kid had virtually exhausted the garden. I wondered whether she would still come if there were no flowers. I packed all the flowers in a black polythene bag and held the dahlia in my other hand. I changed and got ready. I woke mom up, handed over the keys to the house and went out. Mom, seemed a bit shocked seeing me take a morning walk. 

I walked towards the green house in the distance. I crossed the pond and moved straight. As I did, I became aware of a small crowd of twenty odd men who had gathered round. I made my way grudgingly, pushing and shoving them to make room. A kid lay on the ground, her mouth frothing and eyes shut. Two women wailed beside her, one hysterically shaking her. I knew that face. It was Parul. Her head lay twisted in an odd angle and her hand was outstretched, her palm clutching a small black polythene bag.
For a moment, I could feel the earth swirl. I think I missed a few beats, and even though it was a cold morning, I could feel sweat on my face. I took a deep breath, the Dahlia in my hand still intact, the flower bag gripped tighter than ever. 

‘What happened?’ I asked a man standing beside me.
‘Babu, she gone to steal flowers from Green house. Climb wall, pluck flowers, snake bite. Fall down, break head. Die. Good girl. Very sad.’, he spoke with the same broken accent I had heard her say the first time we talked.
For a moment it all seemed alien to me: the words, the people, the situation, and even God himself. I was in a state of eternal inertia, paralyzed. I mustered some courage and walked towards her. It wasn’t apt for a Brahmin to touch a dead body, lest I would have to change my sacred thread again. I bent down and tapped her small feet. I placed the flowers beside her head, and the Dahlia on the ground. 

That day, Mom got terribly angry. There were no flowers left for offerings. God had to  do without flowers that day. And as for me, I kept quiet, looking out into the green house in the distance as the commotion died down and people went their homes. My new found love for flowers had gone.
Because my garden is naked. Since then, not a single flower has blossomed.

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