Thursday 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Featured Writer, Kamalika Ray

“Inside You, Forever”

Like them, I too, pass gate number three and look for a seat near the mounted television. This part of the international Delhi airport looks almost deserted today. Just a handful of some different airlines staff stand huddled together, dutifully at the far end, waiting for their orders.

It is 3 AM in the morning of a promising October Sunday. The sky is still pitch dark outside. A reassurance as if, from the previous night, so we can still consider catching up on our lost sleeps. The Delhi winter hasn’t yet decided to bite into our bones. Nevertheless, sweaters and shawls have started to hang limply on stiff cautiously folded arms. Thankfully the air inside is conditioned well enough.

I travel light these days. So I move faster and quickly grab the seat nearest to the mobile charging station. The view, I decide will be good from here. They, take their time. Looking, hesitating, pulling, pushing, scolding and finally, settling down.

Almost next to me.

Two ladies decorated in attires befitting a wedding, are fighting viciously, in silence, on the muted television screen. I look around to share the amusement. But the airport lounge is too empty. The international Delhi airport’s private FM channel is playing a soothing Bollywood number and the few waiting passengers scattered around the area are complimenting it, only by dozing off in awkward positions. The boarding time is two long hours away. But I do not mind. I am doing what I do the best nowadays. Watch.

A pretty little fairy is smiling, chirping and flying around my seat right now. Transfixed with excitement at her nearness, I remain still and watch her, intently. She is of about four years of age, has big round eyes and a little twitch of a skin for a nose. Her thin little pink lips are perennially apart, either talking or crying or observing, her alien surroundings, which look more interesting to her, at this hour of the day. She has got the look of a wondrous amazement at everything around us, even in this boring monochrome lounge. Her cute yellow polka-dotted frock is creased in the middle, for the ladylike pink cardigan her mother has forcibly made her wear. It is anyway too long for her, I decide. Once in a while, she tugs at the fastened buttons with all her might. But forgets all about them the very next moment when something else catches her curious eyes.

Looking at her little upturned face studying the television screen, I suddenly have a terrible urge. To grab and hold her tiny body in mine and give her the biggest, warmest, tightest hug. I get this burning wish to cuddle her and smother her tiny face with wet kisses till she shrieks out in anger, in her squeaky little baby voice.

But I control. Of course.

Her big brother, who is little too, sits quietly, beside their young mother, swinging his legs cautiously. He is dressed smartly. In trendy denims and a matching jacket. Only about a couple of years elder, he is the ‘guardian’ here, I can see. He is keeping a watchful eye on his active little sister, while nibbling on a biscuit. After awhile he calls out to her from his seat, admonishes her for being naughty and signals her to come running back to him. Then as she arrives, he starts helping her find shapes on the carpet she can jump onto. The little bird is now playing hopscotch you see, finding imaginary shapes in this wearied airport carpet, and hopping around. He gets up, takes a few steps and points at a big square near the end of the row of our seats. His sister lets out a squeal of delight and starts on a one-legged ‘hopping journey’.

He then goes back, sits again beside his mother, looks up a bit pensively and asks something gravely. His young and lovely ‘Mama’ mutters something quietly and opens her huge handbag.

To hide behind it, I know.

Her hair is tied into a small bun resting demurely on the nape of her neck. She’s dressed in a slightly creased grey shirt and loose trousers. She has lost weight I can see. A whole lot of it. But something else is amiss too. I almost scan her over, till I find. To my shock, the diamond tops she always wore are gone. I cannot stop myself from getting close now, and eavesdrop their conversation.

From their curt talk, I get to confirm what I already knew. That they indeed are on their way to Canada. Pondering over the crisp replies he's getting from his 'Mama', the boy now places his questions with care. I know he is being understanding enough, way beyond his seven years of age. I know everyone must be so proud of him right now. For the little man he has suddenly become. But still, all I feel is anger.

The helpless, furious kind.

Just in time, as if to calm me down, my sweet princess returns from her ‘enlightening’ voyage of discovery and now stands near her brother, a little out of breath. I now hear the little brother explain to his tiny sister, the details of their travel plans.

“ …from London, Arna, we will go to Canada. Home! Yay! Then from Mumbai to London we will reach.”

He completes his narration with a long wave of his hand, his fingers pointed to form the airplane nose. Arna’s widened eyes follow her brother’s plane all the way to ‘London’ and then come back to their mother.

With her eyes and hands fixed into her handbag their mother now corrects him, " Heathrow first, Arnesh…then from there to Canada".

Arna lets out a frothy giggle of joy at her brother’s mistake and starts her chatter, very softly, because now she's busy, adjusting and re-adjusting her pink hairclip. Each sentence she speaks, is now starting with "Mama" and ending with the same word. Her Mama stares at her in silence, and gives a tired smile. Seeing her smile, an encouraged Arna laughs out loud and starts hopping on one leg again.

Both her brother and mother are watching her this time, and with perfect timing she suddenly lands just in front of me. And for a miniscule flash of a beautiful second, we smile, at each other.

Or does she?

Silence in the airport is disrupted only by the occasional flight announcements. Almost an hour has passed. Few more passengers have arrived. A handsome young man in spectacles comes and sits on the seat directly opposite me. Few minutes later, an aged woman clad in a silk sari comes near our row and eyes the seats. We each have vacant seats next to us. The good-looking fellow and me. After a moment of indecision, the woman pulls over her baggage to the seat next to mine.

Sometimes I wonder, what makes us decide, where or beside whom to sit or not sit, at such public places? Whatever the reason might be, ‘looks’, certainly was not a category for this woman at least.

Snatches of conversation waft out into the surrounding still air.

Arnesh is again asking now, “What kind of an airport is this Mama, no noise, so silent…?"

Then after a moment's pause, " Mama, may I tell a joke?"

He takes the silence as a yes and readily prattles on, something about a baby bear and a tree that it was trying to climb onto.

‘Mama’ nods when the very solemnly told long joke ends, and smiles encouragingly. Meanwhile, little Miss Arna has come back again, and after a long time, is at last feeling tired I guess. She climbs up on her mother’s lap, nuzzles her head inside the hollow of her mother’s neck and starts, talking.

With prefixes and suffixes of hundreds of "Mama's", she babbles on.

She didn’t like the doll that Dadi gave her yesterday, she wanted a new one. A boy doll. May she? And when Arnesh will join school this time, she should be allowed to go with him too. Can she? Please?

Suddenly she sits upright, and declares in a loud clear voice, "When we go home Mama, we will all say together, Hi Pumpkin Papa!…ok Mama?"

Arnesh chips in now, in excitement he switches to a broken Hindi,

“Mama, will Papa be there at the airport? And then when we reach home...? Will he not go to office? Will he really take a day off at work? Will he be too angry if I skip school for that day Mama? Yes Mama? "

Their mother does not have her bag to dive into right now. So she looks straight ahead and stares hard at something I do not bother to look at.

There is a protruding vein near her jawline, which tightens, each time she is in strain, each time she tries to control herself. I have seen it blobbing in and out so many times before. I know its movements by heart. I know there is a thunderous storm going on, inside that calm and composed exterior.

She lifts Arna lovingly and slowly places the child on a seat beside her. However the little hurricane decides otherwise and takes on a run. Her mother doesn’t say anything. She looks on at her daughter quietly for sometime, then turns and faces her expectant son.

“No Sweetheart, didn’t I tell you last night too? That Papa will NOT be there when we reach Canada. Not at the airport, not at home." She looks carefully at her little son. Her face seems to be bereft of any emotion.

But I know that look. I have seen it so many times. Especially over the last few days. It sickens me, each and every time. But now, sitting here, so near her, yet so restricted, it seems to churn me, unbearably, to the core.

Slowly she starts working on a stretch which she intends to make into a smile, but just the slight telltale bend at the end of those thin pink lips, have started to quiver.

A frigid silence. Arnesh leans back slowly and knits his fingers.

All of a sudden he looks years beyond his seven-year-old self. And just as suddenly, I feel an unknown relief. I feel enormously grateful and proud, for this gentle and innocent presence.

He moves his gaze from his mother to Arna who has taken the opportunity and gone quite far, almost near the last exit gate. There she has whirled around cautiously to see whether her Mama and brother are looking or not… and is almost getting ready for another scolding. It confuses her when she sees her brother’s blank look. She decides to tiptoe back to tingle him.

But his mother’s expression has changed too, from composure to an alarmed concern. Or is it fear too? I am unable to decide.

I am nothing now but a knotted mess of emotions.

My heart bleeds when I see her now blinking away hot tears.

Each particle of my being revolts.

I yearn to place an arm around her drooping shoulders. I ache to kiss on that cringed forehead and tell her, at least once, that “It’s Okay”. That life will have to go on, no matter what ever happened. Isn’t it? That I know that she’ll manage. Manage pretty well, with time. Isn’t it? My dearest?

But I control. Yet again.

Little Arnesh smiles at his sister when she comes to him. He takes her tiny hands in his own and makes her sit on his lap. Then he snuggles closer into their mother’s outstretched arms and places his head on her warm loving chest.

I know, that he knows.

That his mother has started to cry.

That her heart is trembling with the fear of the unknown.

That her breaths are breaking with quashed, silenced screams.

And with every tear shed, she is holding her children tighter, closer, safer.

But Arnesh does not look up, at his mother’s tear stricken, wounded face.

He has decided to spare her, at least that indignity.

There’s a telephone ringing somewhere near.

A large group of people is emerging out of nowhere. Is it time? Already?

A glass falls down in haste and tears spill out.

Are they really mine? These damned tears?

Flashes of the past blind me now.

I am back in a hospital, holding a little baby girl, kissing ‘Thank You’s to my exhausted wife. My toddler son, feeling left out, is pulling hard at my trousers. I lift him up happily, plant a kiss on his baby cheeks and carry them both with pride, around the large room, dancing.

Scene change

I am getting married. Inside the institute’s auditorium. To my first, and only love. She has tears in her eyes, as I apply the sindoor. To her horror, I bend forward to kiss a teardrop, in front of a cheering crowd.

Scene change.

I am again in a hospital. A different one. I am in a pain so acute that to my shock, I am screaming. But this time I cannot see anybody around me. I only seem to hear voices. And stifled cries of women. I recognize one of them, but it’s too late now. I am suddenly pushed into a sublime darkness. It happens so fast that I almost stretch out my hands for help.

I wish I could reverse time and pause it forever.

I wish, I could be with you all, for a little more time.

I wish I could ‘live’ my beautiful children, Arnesh and Arna, while they grew up.

I wish I could be with my beloved wife, my Alka, through all the tough times ahead.

But it cannot happen anymore. We all know that. Don’t we.

So now, I wish, to be inside you all, till forever comes.

I can only wish my dears.

For there is little else, a dead man can do.

- Kamalika Ray

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