Strange Morning

I just recently came to know that a child cannot remember its early childhood. And it all clicked. I try – force – myself to remember all the early details but nada. I cannot remember anything. There are, of course, many and many instances of my later years as a child. But they are mere snapshots from which I cannot draw general conclusions. Therefore I would start my story at 12 years 10 months precise. I don’t have many pictures of mine of that time. Therefore I cannot tell you how I looked like; I just hope you realize and sympathize with the fact that I like to visualize myself as an angel kid.

I was used to a shrill sound of a small and sturdy woman piercing my ears. I had got the source of that sound as clear in my mind as any summer sky, right to the buttons on the front of the frilly gown and the long black locks tied expertly in a bun using nothing but a mere wooden hair stick. I liked to see the usual frown on my mother’s face – Mutti as I called her – when she came to wake me from the slumber and get me packing for school. She used to respond to my morning smile with an even deeper frown, depending upon how late I was. Today, the voice was squeaky and whispering. It is a wonder I heard it since mighty alarm clocks have failed to get me up. I slightly opened my left eye to check on the world. They snapped open, on their own.

She was smiling yet not looking at me.

She was looking through me. Yes – the same bun, the same gown… but wasn’t she worried I would be late? She never spared me on Sundays and holidays. Did she come in early? It was 7.15: nope. Was it my birthday? No, not for another couple of months. A flood maybe, or a curfew? The alternatives whizzed past me, more ridiculous than the previous, when my mother sat across me at the corner.

She touched my legs as if reaffirming something.

My mind had lost its ability to think. What may seem innocuous to you was actually a taboo in the house. We were not touchy-feely people. Mutti, too, seemed different. She was not as tidy today. Some loose strands escaped her otherwise immaculate hair. The eyes were moistened. After a minute of absurdities flowing through the air, I moved to get up. Mutti suddenly snapped in her usual posture.

“You are awake already?”, she asked me, surprised at the possibility.

“Oh yes, I heard you come in. What were you thinking? You seemed different”, I said diplomatically. Though I tried to hide my amusement, it would have been peeking through, since she now acted all innocent.

“Smoking weed again ,huh? I want you ready in 10 minutes.” Back to routine. I started gathering my uniform when she added, “Otherwise, you will miss a surprise!” Mutti was a very predictable lady. Whatever it was that she was hiding, that must be big enough to shake her up.

Though I was cynical about actually getting a surprise, it intrigued me. I couldn’t miss whatever it was. I used to take up much more than my allotted time quota to take a shower but not today. I brushed my teeth in the shower itself. No time for hankies today. I didn’t wait for warmer water today. No wipers in bathroom. The backside of my shirt didn’t get ironed: hidden by the coat anyway. Winters used to slow me down, but today I had a perceptible energy. It was 7.23 when I tied my shoes. 8 minutes! Mutti might even start sniffing my arms to check if I had really taken a shower. That got me smiling. Her sudden change was rubbing onto me.

Yet I suppressed this urge to surprise her as I didn’t want to ruin her own “surprise”, but curiosity was killing me nvertheless. Two minutes later I couldn’t resist myself and ventured out. I yelled a little ‘Tada!’ and trotted down the stairs. But sitting on the dining table was a familiar stranger. It made me slow down and I walked down the remaining stairs as decently as I could manage.

“Hallo? Du okay?”, he enquired.

Definitely Mutti’s relatives. Did I tell you she was brought up in Germany? Though she was of Indian descent, she was fluent in German. I picked up several words here and there, though we were settled in Delhi now.

“Ya, I am fine. And you? Would you like some water? Or tea?”, I asked politely. We were not used to having many guests over, and could only mutter what other  mothers asked me.

“Na it’s fine. I have one already”, he slightly waved our black cup in his hands, “your mother makes beautiful coffee as always.”

I smiled and wondered how fake I might be looking. My eyes searched for Mutti. “She is in the kitchen”, he declared matter-of-factly, “preparing breakfast for us.” It was the last straw. I had given the man enough chances to prove himself but his arrogant know-it-all attitude rattled me, as if a stranger knew Mutti better than me. It took me another 10 minutes to find out that he had a solid ground for this behavior.

“He is your father”, she explained to me.

Getting ahead of me? Sorry, rewind. Just when the formalities had died and we were searching for threads of conversations, Mutti had arrived plus a random book I might have thrown on the floor the day before and minus the loose strands of hair. She was my usual Mutti, all business-like.

“Haven’t you finished your cup honey? You used to like it more than the world before”, she chirped uncharacteristically.

“I have, matter-of-factly. I just couldn’t help myself and got me another one. You’ll have to miss out on one today”, he smirked. I stood between both of them like furniture. For once, the house might be any other, so much was the strangeness I felt right then and there. There was a tension between the two that I couldn’t comprehend.

“Here boy. Sit here”, she motioned me to my usual chair. She smiled again, more to display the love we shared to this man. We did love each other; it’s just that we never got time to express it. Humor, not cheesy lines, made our days. But the man needn’t know that: he only grew restless and I felt my blood froze. I was typically fiercely protected by Mutti for she knew how I felt in unpredictable situations, but she deliberately threw me headfirst into this. There she stood behind me, her hands on my shoulders – another gesture merely for showing off. All this drama made me all the more apprehensive of the guy.

I sat long enough to quickly chew through my share of breakfast and sat unhappily in the confusion. The man had been alternately eyeing Mutti and me, but uttered nothing. Suddenly she started, “Might you want to learn who this lovely man is?” I nodded. “He is your father”, she explained to me.

She had told me about my father before. He was supposed to look like me, and now I knew why the hair and jawline looked familiar. He was an Indo-German product who had red hair (not quite), German looks (can’t verify) and was a haughty-shy mixture that had drove my mother crazy and forced her to have a divorce and come to India where her parents – her only support system – lived 10 years ago.

She had always been brutally honest in whatever I asked her, so this man was not a mystery to me. I was 3 years old when she departed with me for India. It was more difficult to her than me; I was a gullible child, she was a fully mature woman who had to change her country, her culture, her language – all at once. This she never told me, but I tried to stop speaking Hindi and couldn’t go beyond a day. She would laugh at my attempts, simultaneously praying may such a day never come. Then her stories would follow how she had to wave, stutter and basically make a fool of herself in front of local shopkeepers and auto-drivers for 2 years.

The man smiled for the first time. “I am Nirmal”, he put forward his hand but I just gaped at him. How could this man behave as if nothing had happened? I never wanted a father figure in my life; it was natural for me to have Mutti beside me, but the stories she told me wanted to hate this man with my guts. She was never a vengeful woman; rather quite the opposite. But I always knew my mother never exposed her burns and wounds, she wrapped them deep inside her bosom. It was evident how much she had accomplished. It seemed like she never rested. I may not remember Germany or my father, but I clearly remember the day when I saw my mother sleeping. It was unfathomable to me that it could happen.

I was one day struggling to sleep; at 2 am everything seemed dangerous for a 7-year-old kid.  But it was thrilling too, to see a street so void that it seemed like an old photograph. I just sat there in my room when nature called me. I hopped to the next room where Mutti usually worked but she was not there on her desk like always. I panicked and ran into the room. She was sleeping in her bed but woke up suddenly hearing the movements and sobs. She answered each of my questions: how she worked two jobs at once and never had time to sleep. That the time of her sleep never coincided with my waking hours but she did sleep after all.

I took my time to put my hand forward but shook his hands as quickly as I could manage. I didn’t want to give the impression that I wanted to be with him. Mutti seemed tense too, “Why are you here for?”

“I don’t know”, he said staring at me, “I wanted to see my child. It is not as it used to be.”

“You are right, we have moved on”, Mutti sounded bitter but I remained silent.

It was not an emotional moment for me. I merely sat there comparing the dream with the concrete. And wondered when my bus would come. Coming down early meant I was waiting for the bus for the first time, rather than the other way round. Funny names came up for this quick brown fox. Mutti would be scandalized but still laugh later when we would discuss the strange morning. I tried to recall when I asked Mutti about my father but couldn’t find any such memories. But I do remember the very many questions I used to ask her.

She would be such a dreamy lady then, looking up at the sky as if she was a witch remembering old spells, fondly. She always described her fights as disagreements. And that would lead to her favorite theory: that all men want to remain in the state of minimum disagreement and explained all the fights and crying around us as a corollary of it. How the baby gets his way on his crying, how he has to stop if he doesn’t, how her parents came to India, how she followed them to this unknown territory… it was all merely an outcome to minimize the disagreements around respective people.

Suddenly bus was honking outside. “Mutti I am going. Bye and take care!”, the love was really flowing out of the edges of my small heart now. It didn’t have space for any ex-father in it. She looked at me prettily and smiled for the umpteenth time that morning. Expecting to hear her out later that evening, I climbed the bus to the utter surprise of driver. “Hey”, I declared, “there is a first time for everything after all.”

Published in: on 18 Apr '12 at 5 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nut in the Hut

Under the black winter moon, he is walking alone on the straight road ahead. Street lamps seem to tease him cruelly – they are warmer than the cold so he can feel it as he passes one, but they are much colder than warmth he so desperately needs. Numbness has become another organ in his body. The only thing worth saving seems to be his yellow skin from the sharp cuts of dreary wind.

An hour ago though, he was safely at home, inside so many layers of blankets that sweat drops started to precipitate on his forehead. He was having a hard time propping himself up against the bed as he was slowly losing interest in the vague internet he seemed to be browsing. The fleeting thought of sleeping – seeing as it was night time – was dismissed outright. He had given his word to a friend that he will join her for her jog in the morning. He had not seen this dear friend for such a long time that he couldn’t dare say no to any suggestion of socialising with her. He had to report to her at sharp 5 in the morning and there was no way he would be able to wake up after just 3 hours of sleep. ‘I better not sleep at all.’

The laptop emitted strange shadows on his face. The jawline of his face was quite attractive. But, like a present which is wrapped in insufficient gift paper, the fat on his face was stretched and carefully plastered on, so as to deem it passable. Black bushy hair sat on the top of his skull. Neglect screamed from every pore of his numerous pimples or from the varied stains his favourite blue tee suffered. He, unmindful of his looks, sat in a Budhha state in front of computer for the next three hours, his “meditation” only going deeper with time. Suddenly he was shook out of it his half-slumber when he noticed the time in his laptop had become dangerously close to 0500. He ripped apart all his covers and ran outside. Tiptoeing around the loud snores of his father, the small lump of his dog in the corner and hundreds of furniture pieces blocking his way in the house, he was standing outside his flat five minutes later armed with his phone, hanky, inhaler for his cold and his running shoes.

Finally out on the streets, the first thing he did was call his friend. She – to his delight – cut his phone. It only meant one thing, that she was awake and off to get ready. Though, it created one complication too: he was ready for a walk and she was just out of bed. He therefore started crawling ahead. There were dogs huddled together saving themselves from the December cold and the guard was asleep inside the ATM counter that he was supposed to be guarding. He merely chuckled as he watched the bright streetlights. He had always liked yellow colour given out by these sodium lamps. As he stepped into the main street, the temperature dropped a few degrees. He shivered and slid his hands inside the pocket. He liked winters.

After 10 minutes, he again called her friend. No answer. Called again. No answer. The sleep penetrated his fuzzy mind as the monotonous Voda-lady told him third time in a row that nobody was going to pick up his phone. As he tried his luck for the fourth time, he didn’t wait till the end. Irritation shot up striking the end of sky. ‘She must still be asleep!’ He left an angry and threatening message to her and quickened his pace. Suddenly nothing was pleasant about this dark morning.

He started breathing in rhythmic pattern as he walked, feeling nary inclination to run. He regretted not putting on a jacket since the current sweatshirt was clearly not enough to save him from shivering. He turned a sharp left towards this long road he used to come to earlier. It was a deliriously straight road. And it had the most beautiful side road parallel to it with dense trees dividing the two. On the other side was a wired fence of Ordinance Depot. Guard towers dotted the entire length at odd distances and one could spot an armyman brushing here and walking there. Regular joggers could also see army trucks passing behind the fence. He passed the coconut vendor; he was as permanent as the trees on the road. It was a calm place in the morning on that road – no hustle-bustle of delhi but not a ghostly place either.

So he was as usual aiming to walk the entire length of the road and back which usually took him an hour to complete but having an increasingly hard time controlling himself from rampant shivering. He hadn’t realised until then that it was not foggy, implying wind was in full play. Being the main road, it had none of the shelter of the crowded buildings. Though he was tired – his blood-red eyes gave it right away – sleep was the farthest thing from his mind right then. He started tip-tapping  a message away to no one. The sloppy keyboard of his cheap phone usually made him angry as a bird but now he didn’t seem to mind. Each second seemed to tick with a long tock. He pushed back his phone in his pocket. A garbage message did nothing to soothe the boredom he was crowded in.

He was still halfway through and full 45 minutes had passed. His eyes bulged out. If he kept such a slow pace, his family would have to employ some icebreakers to reach him at all. It was really windy and he tried to cover him the best that he could. He picked up speed and focused right in front of him, marching proudly when he saw a battered hut. This hut must have belonged to Ordinance Depot seeing as how they matched in age and architecture. Somehow, when the road was made and fences being laid, the hut was pushed outside of the boundary and here it stood, awkwardly dangling between the side road and the main road. It acted now as a shelter to the old joggers who could claim back their lives from the clutches of liver-pain in there. In that sense, it was no less than a temple to many of those who walked on that road not taken – there was an actual, if little, temple too 100 metres away. He personally never went in that hut because he always tried to disassociate himself from the elderly gang roaming around with datun in their mouth and newspapers in their hands; he feared the lot.

Either way, the road at that time of year was devoid of any health-wishers. But then he saw one sitting in the hut. As he came nearer, the man turned out to be nearer to his age than any of the white-haired species. Our protagonist being curious and all, stepped inside the hut. It was more of a pyramidal roof supported by wooden planks like the guard tower some distance away. One could sit on three sides of the hut; fourth one was open and the entry. He sat opposite to the man or more appropriately the boy – now that he saw – and busied himself with neck exercises, giving him enough leeway to eye the stranger discreetly but not straining enough to pain him in this freezing weather. The boy seemed to be waiting for someone. His attire was semi-formal, his leather shoes polished, hair gelled and set; he himself looked as far from a jogger as one could, contrasting sharply with the hut and the trees around him. The glances this boy gave into his watch seemed to disconcert Ajay.

‘Ajay? Ajay who?’ you might ask. Alas, but he is the one who stepped outside his home devoid of any sleep. The same one who was backstabbed by his friend. The very same  person whom you saw shivering and chattering his teeth for the past one hour. Yes, my friends, Ajay is our hero.

“Do you come here often?”

“Excuse me?”

Ajay was startled by sudden inquisitiveness of his stalkee and he must have heard a bone crackle in his neck due to the shock.

“You are the only person I have seen since I have been sitting here. In such a cold weather at that; you must really like this place.” Commenting as much about himself as about Ajay, the boy turned towards him.

Ajay noticed the sudden change in his posture. This conversation was not going to end anytime soon and he resigned himself to that fact. He only said, “What’s your name? And what are you doing here?”

The stranger laughed. “My name is Anishk and I have been waiting for my friend to return.”

“Isn’t this a strange waiting place? I am sure enough that you can find warmer places in Delhi.”

“It’s a long story”, he said ignoring the accusing voice, “and I myself am sure you would not like to hear it.”

“Right.” Ajay’s curiosity was piqued but he would not show it. His stalking intentions should stay opaque as they were.

“So what are you doing here?” he asked after an uncomfortable couple of seconds.

“I am waiting. I thought you knew that by now”, said the dressed-up boy, “But since you are so interested, I might even tell you. We were coming back from a marriage when my friend had to suddenly go meet his girlfriend.” He pointed to the apartments on the other side of the road that Ajay had never properly noticed until now.

“You could go in there. Or stay in the car.”

“I am the estranged brother of the girl.”

Ajay couldn’t have imagined a life without a sister but he didn’t express himself.

“And is that why you are hiding in here?” asked Ajay.

Anishk nodded but remained silent. Maybe he shouldn’t have asked after all.

Suddenly a strong current passed through the hut. He was frozen to spot but  didn’t even shiver as a mouse; he didn’t want to reveal his lack of necessary clothes. But the rigidity in his structure must have given it away, Anishk was watching him with a strange look.

“Are you okay? I still think it is a stupid idea for anyone to come for jogging in such a weather.”

“Don’t worry. I am taking part in marathon. And I have very little time. Every second counts right now.”

“Wow. I have never met a marathoner ever”, grinned Anishk, and it made him feel worse for the lie.

“It’s ok. I didn’t meet any until a day ago.”

“So how did you get into one? I like the idea.”

“I don’t know”, said he. The confused look in his partner made him hurry up, “I mean, my sister took care of all the registration. I am just a support for her. Don’t even know the date of marathon.”

“Great. What a sister!” He was used to such compliments about his elder sibling. But since that seemed to satisfy Anishk, he didn’t pursue the topic.

“What do you do?” asked Ajay since they were too much into conversation and he had no intention to stop it now.

“I am doing Engineering.” This answer baffled Ajay no end. “Which branch?” he asked. “Mechanical”, came the answer.

“Me computer science”, Ajay said and a put a hand out, smiling. The air was really cold.

The gesture seemed to intrigue the boy. He shook hands laughing.

They talked for another fifteen minutes when the alarm buzzed in Ajay’s pajama. It had vertical stripes and looked worn and torn. He took out the phone and silenced it.

“Care for a walk?” asked Anishk.

“I don’t think”, said Ajay, “your shoes and your precious feet would like that.” But he still stood up. He was glad he got a partner for a walk. He didn’t remember the time when he came here for a walk and didn’t complete at least one round of it; he would like to maintain his clean record. Anishk seemed to be a brisk walker and he tried to keep pace with him but couldn’t. The wind and sleepiness seemed to pull him back. Anishk turned back and chuckled, “Are you sure about participating in the marathon?”

He was flabbergasted. That boy was now starting to make fun of him and that was not acceptable to him; his social circle was more than enough for now. “You already know I was kind of forced into the whole thing and besides”, said he, pointing in the general direction of air, “weather is not suitable for running.” “You should have covered yourself better”, Anishk commented.

Ajay merely shrugged and suddenly started running at full speed. “You don’t actually doubt my abilities, do you now?”

His partner was taken off-guard and started running to catch up with him. They both ran like they were going to get a prize at the end. Maybe they were: ego-boosts are as much appreciated as food by the youth. They reached the end of road in barely five minutes. Anishk won, Ajay sulked and they both stood there sucking the cold air inside.

Ajay didn’t feel cold now; he felt good he ran the distance. And now taking in deep breaths, he started on his journey back.

“How will your friend find you?”

“We have a certain way of knowing to get to each other”, Anishk winked.

Ajay rolled his eyes but stopped when he took his phone out and waved it at him. Now, he felt embarrassed.

They discussed general things on their way back: how they loved army, why his friend didn’t yet turn up, who used facebook more often, who had won more running competitions – anything that crossed their mind. Finally they reached the hut. The alarm buzzed again. It was 6.30. A sense of urgency ran through Ajay. “Oh shit. I need to catch my bus at 7.15 and it is 6.30 already.”

“How far is your house?”

“It’s at the other side of road. Right in the market area. It will take at least 20 minutes reaching there, however fast I get.”

“Then you should run” said Anishk, “literally.” At that Ajay could just stare at him.

“You really want me dead, no? What are you, a serial killer?”

“I am a well-wisher”, he dimpled at him prettily.

Ajay snorted. He was starting to open up like a friend, but knew it would have to end. They were merely strangers talking to each other for benefits.

“I must go now. it was nice talking to you.”

“Me too. Though I still don’t know how I’ll pass my time now.”

“You could accompany me. Your friend will get to you using that thingy.”

Anishk seemed to think a little but agreed. The conversation died after a while. There was nothing left to say now. Ajay was surprised they had talked so much until now and now regretted inviting him back home. But he didn’t feel uncomfortable, at least. They were just walking together.

At last they reached his home and Ajay started freaking out. “It is sharp 7! I am stinking too. Can’t even miss the bath for the day.” Anishk rose his eyebrows at thought but didn’t comment. They finally bid their goodbye’s.

“It was the best time in my Delhi with you”, Anishk said confusing the other profoundly.

“Whatever you mean by Delhi? You live in Delhi, right?” Ajay stopped in his track. Curiosity overpowered urgency for the moment.

“No, I never said that! I am from Bhopal and study in Mumbai. I came here with a friend, that’s all.” The mock on his face was obvious and Ajay was confused again, now with what had made him assume about Anishk’s whereabouts. He didn’t find any source, and it baffled him more.

“So, now you have taken a 180 degree turn suddenly”, said Ajay, “but still, it was nice meeting you. I generally don’t speak to strangers.” He smiled.

“Just ogle at them”, Anishk laughed openly. Ajay was shocked; so that must have invited him to talk. he chose to merely smile having lost ability to talk.

“Well, bye-bye.” “Bye.”

Ajay ran back the small distance. He had prioritized in his mind what he would do each minute and what he will not at all, as he was entering the door. Everybody was still sound asleep.

His bath took 4 minutes, clothes took 1 minute. Hair didn’t take any. He was out of his home at 7.17 walking to bus stop brusquely – his lack of sleep was starting to take its toll. He made a mental note to get to a general store as soon as he can; he had forgot to brush his teeth.

Published in: on 8 Feb '12 at 5 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Into the bright lights.

Early morning, hospital. Unmindful to the chirping of birds outside, a man is pacing up and down, round and round, impatient and worried in the empty corridor. If you care to notice, he has been mumbling something – prayers? – for some time now. His eyes are flicking towards the closed door every now and then. The shrieks disconcert him and his paces quicken. Hard enough for him to stand at all, he only imagines what she must be going through herself. The sounds of frantic activity and muffled pain is obvious. ‘It is my child, our child’, he smiles at himself.

The idea seems to relax him when looks out of the window. December winds must be harsh on the street dogs. He appreciates knowingly that the guard is trying hard not to dose off. The full moon is not really helping in hiding these little details from his wandering eyes. He stumbles back when – all of a sudden – a leaf splats against the glass, more because he half expected it to slap his face. A frown overcomes is face. ‘As if I need any more excitement today.’ The leaf is still there inviting him to peer at it. It is big and green, it has lines. ‘My kid would eventually ask me about it’. A smile spreads again, widely this time.

An odd soul or two are wandering past him. He suppressed a curious urge to stop the old nurse and pour his heart out. That would be foolish. But it would be an interesting tale to tell to my kid. Oh, he misses her already! ‘Her? It could be him too. 50-50 chance you know’, he reasons and forcefully refrains from not thinking about it. But his mind wanders aimlessly. His feet start to and fro again. His shoulders droop down. Nervous he sure is.

The rhythmic, hushed voices from inside amplify. ‘It is happening now, isn’t it?!’ The mumblings resume as he slackens in a nearby bench – oddly, counting back from 100 this time. The cries seem to reach a crescendo in the room. And then slow down. His pulse quickens though his counting loses steam.

44… 43… 42…

The door clicks and a nurse comes out. A baby is crying from somewhere inside.

‘Congratulations! Your baby is fit as horse, Mister.’

He opens his eyes confusingly to a laughing girl. She repeats, ‘Congrats! It’s a boy!’ when it all sinks in. Everything is all right after all! That cry is his child, his boy! He rushes inside like dust inside a vacuum. The light seems piercing in here. Ignoring several people cleaning up the mess, he looks at his wife in the centre of the room, in the centre of his world right now – Maya. She looks old and crumpled but she’s not looking at him – rather a little bundle beside her is the oblivious owner of her concerned gaze. The child is crying unabashedly when someone tries to soothe him.

Maya looks up tiredly. He, who was fixed at the spot in the room, goes up to her. ‘You are a stinking mummy’, he says jokingly to which his wife merely nods and smiles. She closes her eyes contently as he continues to adore her and their little baby. ‘We are parents after all’. Walking up to doctor for reports feels tenfold responsibility now. An extra pair of eyes is watching him; he can feel it. His boy.

Published in: on 6 Feb '12 at 1 am  Leave a Comment  
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