Thursday 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Featured Writer, Sohini Ghosh

It was six in the evening when Papa fetched his jute bag and stepped out to buy potatoes. The vegetable seller sat nearby. Yet he didn't return even after an hour. Mother tried calling him up, but he had forgotten his phone on the table. She strained her head out of the window after every few minutes. “He might have gone to the station. The vegetables are cheaper there,” she spoke out aloud. “Has he taken his scooter?”

“No.” The scooter keys were hanging on the kitchen wall. Mother didn't notice them.

“How can you be so sure?”

I stretched my arms and jingled the keys.

Her face drained in color. “He might have taken the spare ones. Have a look downstairs.”

Leaving my homework, I sprinted down the stairs. Our five-year-old blue scooter remained at its place.

I ran out of the parking area and stood under our window where Mother stood, her eyes fixed on the road in front.

“It’s there,” I screamed.

“Then check the neighboring shops.”

I nodded and ran when I heard her shout behind me.

“Don't go far.”

We lived in Ahmedabad where Papa worked as a manager in a government-owned bank. Bank managers were like local celebrities then and so everybody around the neighborhood knew us. He often inaugurated the opening of small shops and even sometimes invited as a chief guest in local functions. I was proud of him. He told me stories of how he once ventured alone to the bungalow of a local goon for loan recovery. Then how he unearthed a fraud done by a senior bank employee.

“Weren't you scared, Papa?” I asked.

“Never,” he replied. “Why be afraid when you are right?”

I listened to his stories with my eyes and mouth wide open. He was my superhero on whom no calamity could befall.

I reached the vegetable shop. The owner, Parth, a man in his forties or perhaps fifties, always gave everyone chilies and curry leaves for free.

“Uncle?” I called out, pushing a group of women busy buying vegetables.

“Ah, Riya. What do you want? Potatoes? Tomatoes?”

“Did Papa come here?” I asked.

“Hiten sir? No.”

“He came to buy potatoes sometime back. About an hour back.”

Parth held a phone to his ears. Since the last few months, he had been accepting orders through phone. With the other hand, he weighed the vegetables and handled the cash. Customers haggled about the prices and pushed me backwards. I squished my way through them ignoring the angry stares and repeated my question.

“He didn't come Riya,” he said while stuffing money into a small aluminium box. “Yes, sir? Cucumbers? Spinach? Oh, straight from the farm.”

I slid away. On the next lane a man sold betel leaves and cigarettes. Papa frequented that place.

“No,” he answered when I asked him. “Anything wrong?”

“Nothing.” My voiced choked. Where are you Papa?

I asked a few more people. But nobody had seen him.

I dragged myself home. What would Mother say when she sees me alone? I lowered my head as I rang the bell. There were voices. I sighed. Papa must have returned.

Our next-door neighbor opened the door. I stared at her face for a few minutes before noticing Mother sitting on the floor surrounded by a small group of women. Her eyes had turned red. I shivered.

Neighbors were discussing about Papa in hushed tones.

“I checked the entire area. He's not anywhere,” said one.

“Nobody remembers seeing him at the railway station as well,” said another. He held a photograph of Papa.

“Shall we inform the police?”

Mother's body shook as she wept. The women surrounding her tried to comfort her. She raised her head and saw me.

In between her tears, she whispered something to one of the woman. She nodded and took me to the kitchen.

“Riya, have dinner.”

“No, I will wait for Papa.”

“He will come. But if he finds out you haven't had your food, he will scold everyone.”

She served me two chapatis and curry. I gobbled down the food.

I fell asleep soon after dinner. I was exhausted. I also had to go to school the next day.

The next morning, I leaped out of the bed and rushed to the living room in my night dress expecting Papa to be sitting in the balcony with a newspaper and his usual cup of ginger tea. I stumbled on seeing a large gathering of people. They chatted among themselves.

“He took a rickshaw.”

“Yes. And he got down a few metres away from the river.”

“The police found a jute bag and his slippers near the bridge. Guess he removed them before jumping.”

I glanced across the room. Everyone fell silent on seeing me. Mother sat on the floor, her head buried in her palms. The sound of my footsteps reverberated across the room as I walked towards her.


Mother raised her head. Strands of hair came out of her bun. Dark rings had formed under her eyes. She seemed to have aged overnight.

I touched her shoulders. She pulled me to her chest and wailed.

We stayed in bank quarters in Ahmedabad and hence, we had to vacate the apartment a few months after Papa's death. Mother and I shifted to Mumbai after she got a job as a primary school teacher. Her school was ten minutes by the train. Every morning, after preparing the breakfast and packing my lunch, she walked to the station. I have traveled in the local trains once. On my eleventh birthday, Mother took me to a mall. We had noodles for lunch. It was fun.

But the train wasn't. People jostled each other. Throughout the journey, Mother held me close to herself as I tried to balance myself on the footboard. By the time I reached home, I had lost my hairband and my hair resembled a bird’s nest.

“How do you travel like this every day?” I asked.

“It's not too bad once you get accustomed to it.”

“So are you now accustomed to it?”

“Absolutely,” Mother replied with a smile.

My school was at a walking distance from our house. It was smaller than the school in Ahmedabad. I missed my earlier school and old friends.

“I don't like this school,” I said one day.

“I see,” Mother said. “What is it that you don't like?”

I fiddled with my nails. “Everything.”

“You like nothing about your new school?”

“I miss my Ahmedabad school.”

She smiled. “But we are no longer in Ahmedabad.” Her soft and calm voice irritated me.

“This is a small school,” I said stomping my feet. “There are no extracurricular activities. There's no playground.”

Mother sighed. She didn't reply. I rejoiced in my heart for having won the argument.

A few weeks later, Mother brought home a sewing machine. Within days, the neighborhood ladies came to her for getting their blouses and petticoats stitched.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked. It was past midnight and the whirring sound of the machine had woken me.

“Hush, go to sleep.” Her eyes were focused on the cloth in front of her and her hand continued to rotate the wheel.

In Ahmedabad, Mother and I visited a bearded man for getting her blouses and my frocks stitched. He had a measuring tape around his neck and his head always dug deep under a pile of clothes and a black sewing machine. As I sat on the bed staring at Mother, she reminded me of that man.

A chawl is an accommodation where multiple families stay in a building sharing a common passage or a balcony and a common bathroom. There is no privacy in a chawl. Everyone knew each other and their families. Each person shared their joys and sorrows. In Mumbai, we stayed in a chawl. Initially, It was weird having the neighborhood women coming in at any time of the day to discuss petty matters. But over time I enjoyed listening to the local gossip much to the dismay of Mother.

But I could never get used to the common bathroom. Mother woke me up at dawn to avoid the rush for a bath. Still, sometimes, there was a queue and I stood waiting holding my towel, clothes, and bucket.

The neighbors asked about Papa. But Mother told no one about how he died. “He was ill,” she answered. Nobody probed much. They helped us with groceries and vegetables. One woman, who fried samosas, always gave me one. Another man, who sold ice creams, never charged me ever.

However, Mother never approved of my eating habits.

“Your father would never have liked all this,” she said one day when she caught me eating a free samosa.

I sulked, the samosa running cold in between my fingers.

Papa knew my love for savories. Every Saturday, he brought home samosas or other street food for me along with tamarind chutney wrapped inside old newspapers.

“She will get an upset stomach,” Mother complained.

“Ah, don't worry. This is her age to eat,” Papa said.

My voice choked as I recalled the conversation. I laid my head on Mother's lap.



“Did Papa jump into the river?”

“Who told you?”

“Everyone said on that day.”

She didn't reply. But I wanted to talk.



“Did Papa do suicide?”

I had never asked her about Papa's death. I could never imagine my superhero running away from everyone, running away from life.

Her body shuddered as she gasped. I clutched her sari. I pictured Papa removing his shoes and climbing the bridge, looking down at the river, and then-.

“He didn't commit suicide,” she said running her fingers through my hair. “He must have jumped into the water to save someone.”

I got up from her lap, my heart pounding. She nodded. I smiled and lied down again on her lap. My face beamed. My Papa. My superhero.

“I will never let your superhero die,” Mother whispered.

One morning, I woke up to the sound of someone shouting. It was an old man. On closer inspection after rubbing my eyes, I realized it was my grandfather. He sat on the lone plastic chair in our room holding a cup and a saucer while Mother stood in a corner, her head covered with her sari in a veil.

“So, you are living pretty comfortably.”

A few of our neighbors stood at the door trying to get a glimpse of him. He glanced at them and smirked.

“Do you even miss Hiten?”

I sat upright on the bed and stared at Mother. She didn't reply. More people had gathered outside our room. She pulled the door to shut it but grandfather interrupted.

“Oh, let the fresh air come. And what are you trying to hide behind the closed doors?” He slurped his tea before adding, “So what do you do for a living?”

Mother replied something in an inaudible tone.

“What? Teaching? So just with teaching you can afford to stay in Mumbai? What a joke. Wonder what all you teach.”

Our neighbors were whispering among themselves. My grandfather turned towards them and shouted, “He committed suicide. This woman forced him into it. My dear son. Look at her ways. Maybe she had a relationship and my son got to know about it.”

At that moment, grandfather noticed me looking at him. He laughed.

“Ah, so here she is,” he said. “She's put on weight. Is she in the same business as yours?”

The neighbors gasped. Mother clenched her fists.

“Let me sign the documents,” she said, her voice polite yet firm.

“Yes yes. Don't show me attitude.” Grandfather handed over a pile of papers to her, which she signed one after the other. He left as soon as she finished after drinking his tea and placing the papers in a bag.

Our neighbors still stood there. Mother's face was flushed. She marched forwards and shut the door, her head held high.

“Get ready for school,” she said.

But I didn't want to.

Since that day, I detested leaving my room. I stopped playing with the neighborhood children. I used to rush to school with my eyes lowered. The aunty selling samosas called me every day. But I avoided her as well.

“What's wrong with you?” Mother asked one day while serving dinner.

I tore my chapatis without answering.

“I am asking you,” she said. “You don't play outside, you don't talk to anyone. Is anything bothering you?”

I shook my head.

Mother frowned. I stuffed the food in my mouth.

“Eat slowly. Or you don't want to sit with me?”

The food was all plastered in my mouth. I gulped down a glass of water. Mother still frowned. Her hair looked shampooed and she had left it open.

Look at her ways. Maybe she had a relationship and my son got to know about it.

I shut my eyes. I see Papa coming home. Watches his wife with another man. He rushes out and reaches the river. Climbs the bridge and jumps.

My hands trembled. Without finishing my food, I dashed towards my room. My head throbbed with pain. I jumped on the bed and buried my face in the pillows.

Mother stood beside the bed. I feigned sleep. She touched my arm. I didn't move. She sighed and left the room.

I wanted to sleep. But the words of my grandfather rang in my ears as I kept tossing on the bed.

This woman forced my son into suicide.

It was late in the night. I went outside to stand in the balcony. A cool breeze greeted me. It had been raining continuously for the past three days. A wet stray dog sat under a tree. A young boy and girl walked in the rain wearing colorful raincoats.

Even I had a raincoat. Papa bought me one after I had broken my umbrella. It was bright pink with white polka dots. I decided to wear it and take a walk in the open.

I ran inside our room. Mother was in the kitchen, cleaning up the utensils.

I tiptoed to a wooden cupboard and pulled it open.

On one side were hanging mother's saris and my dresses. I searched for my raincoat. It wasn't there.

The other side of the cupboard had Papa's suits. Mother had hung them like she used to when he was alive. He wore suits on special occasions. Like when his general manager visited the branch. Or when he was invited as a chief guest.

I slid my hands inside his blazer pockets. Closing my eyes, I pictured him coming from office in his suit with chocolates stuffed in his pocket. He would pat his pockets and wink at me. I used to shove my hands down them and bring out as many chocolates as I could.

Tears welled up in my eyes. I ran my hands inside the pockets when something struck my fingers. I frowned.

It was a brown envelope addressed to Papa. I emptied its contents.

Thunder roared. The rains hammered against the window panes. Soon the road outside would be waterlogged.

I stared at the photographs in my hand. Photographs of Papa. With another woman.

I rushed out of the room with the photos forgetting about my raincoat.

Mother stood near the window staring out at the darkness. Raindrops fell on her face. But she didn't move. In her hand was a photograph of Papa.

I will never let your superhero die.

The envelope crumbled in my palms as I pushed them deep inside my pajama pockets.

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