latest news
  • Letters to my Baby
  • Is now available online, on Flipkart and Amazon.co.uk. 

  • Q&A @ Reading Club
  • Q&A session with members of a reading group in Ruislip on the 9th of October at 9:00 pm.

  • History in the Court
  • An informal gathering for history fans on the 20th of September from 6:30 to 9:30 at 23-25 Cecil Court, London.

  • Book Club Discussion
  • Discussion of the book at a book club in Pinner, which is part of the U3A group (University of the Third Age), on the 2nd of July at 2:00 pm.

  • Book Event
  • Book reading and signing, along with Shahida Rehman and two other writers at Idea Store, Whitechapel, London on the 23rd of June at 2:00 pm. 

quick query

Short Stories

SEE YOU ONLINE... (prize-winning story)

 

 

 

SEE YOU ONLINE...

 

1st MAY

Hey, saw you online so wanted to ask you about your opinion on the debate going on in the chat room right now. Do you also feel what I said was wrong? 

By the way, my name is Tina. Come to MSN if you want to be my friend. 

Love Tina.

 

 

 

2nd MAY 

Neel read the personal message over and over again. It was past midnight but he was still awake. This was the first time in weeks that it was not pain but excitement that had kept him up. He could not wait for Tina to come online. She would be his first online friend. 

Okay, she was online now.

Tina: Hey dude. 

Neel: Hey.

Tina: Thanks for supporting me in the chat room yesterday.  I didn't mean to hurt or insult anyone but just had to say what I felt.  It was not my fault that people got so defensive. Anyways....

Neel: You know, people get defensive when they know that they are in the wrong but don't want to admit it. By the way, how come you are up so late?

Tina: I'm studying. My A levels are going on.

Neel: You are in school?

Tina: Yup, 6th form.

Neel: I see. Got to go. Bye.

Tina: Bye.

 

3rd MAY

Tina: Hey Neel. Why did you leave so abruptly yesterday?

Neel: You want the truth?

Tina: Yes.

Neel: Umm.......I'm 28.

Tina: Oh! 

 

Neel: Well? 

Tina: Well what? 

Neel: Does it matter that I am 11 years older than you?

Tina: Nah. 

Neel: So - still friends? 

Tina: Of course. 

Neel: Okay, got to go now. The old hag is here to give me my sponge. 

Tina: Hag? Sponge? 

Neel: Will tell you tomorrow.

Tina: Bye. Catch you tomorrow.

Neel: Yup.

 

4th MAY

Tina: So what do you do apart from chatting?

Neel: I was a pilot.

Tina: OMG! You're a pilot? 

 

Neel: I said I WAS.

Tina: ????? 

Neel: I met with an accident about three months back. 

Tina: Oh, I'm sorry. 

Neel: Don't be. 

Tina: Now I get it - the old hag and the sponge.... 

Neel: Yup. Now you know why I'm always online - I have no life, no future. 

Tina: Why this pessimism?  Are you bedridden? 

Neel: No, I will be able to walk eventually, but I cannot fly an aircraft again. Can't even play football ever again. You see, my knee was completely smashed in the accident. 

Tina: At least you are not handicapped. There are so many things you can still do. 

Neel: You don't understand. Flying was my life. 

Tina: So? It's best to accept what life throws at you, with a smile. 

Neel: What do YOU know about life? You are still in school. You haven't even seen life. You have no idea what it is like to be in so much pain that you pass out. Do you know what it is like to be in constant pain 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? And no amount of painkillers can dull that pain. Do you know what it is to lie in bed all day when previously you had spent every single waking moment on the move? 

Neel angrily logs out. 

 

5th MAY 

Tina: Are you still mad at me? 

Neel: No. My temper comes down even faster than it goes up. 

Tina: Well, you were right. After all I'm just 17. I have yet to see the world. In my entire life of 17 years, 4 months and 26 days, I have never been depressed. All my problems are taken care of by my parents. I have a wonderful supportive family with no deaths or divorces. So who am I...? 

Neel: Hey, stop this emotional nonsense. You know you're far more mature than your years. 

Tina: Am I?

Neel: Aren't you?

 

6th MAY 

 

Tina: Yippee, exams are finally over. 

Neel: Cool! So now you're free to party all day. 

Tina: No, now I have to work doubly hard to win the Jane Austen scholarship. I hope to become a scribe one day. Then I wouldn't have to live on my parents' money. It feels terrible. I'm 17.5, yet have not earned a penny in my life. 

Neel: So you want to be a writer? Interesting. 

Tina: Yes. I want to create a character that will outlive me.

 

7th MAY 

 

Tina: It must have been something flying a plane! I've never even driven a car.

Neel: It was mind-blowing. Absolutely exhilarating. Flying through those clouds - touching the very gates of heaven. I felt as though I was God Himself, looking down on his creation.

Tina: Tell me something, but first promise me that you won't get upset this time.

Neel: I promise.

Tina: Got any passion other than flying?

Neel: Nope.

Tina: No, seriously?

Neel: Well, now and then I do enjoy playing computer games.

Tina: There you go. Why don't you do a computer course? Become an IT professional or something?

Neel: You mean go back to school at this age? You got to be kidding.

Tina: There is no age for learning. I would rather be dead than stop learning.

Neel: Yes, my guru.

Tina: So will you at least think about it?

Neel: Yes guru.

 

8th MAY

 

Tina: So what have you decided?

Neel: That Twilight is way better than Madagascar 2.

Tina: Not that stupid. I am talking about the course.

Neel: I've decided not to. I left college seven years ago. It's impossible to go back.

Tina: Join an adult or home study programme.

Neel: Nope, it won't work.

 

10th MAY

Neel: Where were you yesterday? Angry with me?

Tina: No. What you do with your life is none of my business. I'd gone to the cinema to see Assassination of Jesse James. You can't imagine how GOOD Brad Pitt looked! I had an idiotic grin plastered on my face throughout the movie. Oh my God, I'm still reeling under the effect. Don't I sound like a gone case?

Neel: Tell me, are you pretty?

Tina: Well, I guess, umm, that's what people say.

Neel: What do you look like? Is your hair short or long?

Tina: Does it matter?

Neel: Nope.

Tina: Have you seen Black?

Neel: Nope, I'm not a movie buff.

Tina: Go and see it. If the heroine of that movie, who is deaf, dumb and blind, can do her graduation, I don't see why you can't.

 

11th MAY

 

Neel: I have some news.

Tina: You've decided to do the course.

Neel: Gosh, you can even read my mind now. Yup, I've decided to give it a shot and all because of you.

Tina: I'm flattered.

 

12th MAY

Neel: Hey, where have you been all day? I wanted to tell you that my plaster's being cut tomorrow. We're gonna party all night. 

 

Tina: Oh cool, have fun. 

Neel: Won't you dance with me? 

Tina: Silly, don't you know I can't dance? 

Neel: Why not? I'll teach you. Seriously, if we meet one day, I'll take you to the most happening disco in town. 

Tina: That can never happen, Neel. I am paralysed waist down. 

Neel stared at the screen. It was past midnight. The only sound he could hear was the tap - DRIP DRIP DRIP....as the words slowly sunk in.

 

© Sangeeta Bhargava 2011

 

 

 

 

EN ROUTE TO LEARNING...

 

Sachin was seated on a bench devouring a hotdog and waiting for the train to come. It was then that he saw her standing on the other side of the platform. The first thought that crossed his mind was wow what grace what charm Her beauty had timelessness about it the way her doelike eyes lined heavily with kohl looked about her or the way her long serpentine plait swayed from side to side when she moved. She was apparently in need of help. There were at least tentwelve bags and suitcases in front of her and the train was about to leave. Every now and then she looked at her watch nervously and then looked around.

Sachin quickly wiped the crumbs from his lips with the back of his hand straightened his collar and made his way towards her. He could hear the words of the famous Beatles number  I Saw Her Standing There ringing in his ears.  

Smiling at her he held out his hand "Hi Im Sachin Banerjee." Then pointing to the cases he remarked "I think you could do with a little help." Without waiting for her reply he began loading all the bags on to the train. Then even before she could open her mouth he hurriedly said "I must rush. Ive got to catch the train on the opposite platform." With that he disappeared.

The next day Sachin had just got off the train at Huddersfield when someone called out to him "Hey Banner Rumi said thanks." Rumi He didn know any Rumi. As he entered the college building Mark called out "Banner Rumi said thanks for helping her with the bags yesterday." So that was Rumi There was a group of girls outside the head of the departments office. "Banner Rumi sai" "Thanks" he finished for them. The same message greeted him wherever he went the library the classroom the lab. By now he had begun to get a little scared. Was this a new kind of stalking or something

That evening Rumi and Sachin met again on the same platform waiting for the same train. Sachin remarked "So we meet again."

"Yeah." Rumis cheeks furrowed into dimples as she smiled at him. "Didn you know I too study at the university I am doing a Ph. D in Mathematics."

"Ph. D in Maths Wow You must be a braino"

It turned out they were both studying at the same university in Huddersfield and commuted to their homes inManchesterevery evening.

"By the way my name is Rumi" she continued.

Sachin gave her a lopsided grin and said "I figured that out by now after receiving your message from twenty different people."

"Oh I just wanted to be sure you got my thanks."

"Well Ive heard Scorpions never forget any act of kindness but this..." His dark brown eyes sparkled with amusement as he raised his forefinger and middle finger in a mock salute.

"How did you know my zodiac sign is Scorpio"

"Lets just say I did my homework" Sachin nibbled at his thumbnail as he grinned wickedly at her.

"Umm... Youve stumped me there you know" she said as she played with the thin iron bracelet that she always wore on her left hand. 

The train arrived just then and the two of them scurried to get their seats.   Sachin met Rumi again on the train going back to Manchester a week later. He was engrossed in revising his notes when he heard her dulcet tones "Oh there you are. Im so glad you e here." Then sitting down on the seat beside him she yawned "Ive been feeling sick all day today." Pointing to his shoulder she asked "May I" On his nodding his consent she put her head on it and promptly fell asleep.

Sachin remembered grandma had told him once "Son when you get yourself a bride make sure she has thick long hair eyes like the goddess Durga and knows how to cook fish curry." Sachin smiled as he watched Rumis sleeping form. Tenderly he tucked a stray lock of hair which had fallen over her eyes behind her ear. She was dreaming. A slight smile hovered around her lips as her eyeballs darted beneath her eyelids.  Grandma would be pleased he thought.

A few days later he bumped into Rumi at the University gate. "Hey going back home so soon" he asked.

She shrugged her shoulders and answered "What can I do My supervisor had gone to Geneva for a conference. His flights been delayed so he isn back yet."

"I have an idea. My grandma lives in Liverpool. Itll take us just over an hour to get there. She is expecting me today and has prepared my favourite ilish maach..."

Rumis huge eyes grew even bigger as she exclaimed "Ilish maach Wow Forget Liverpool Id go to the ends of the earth to have that fish." She held his hand and giggling like teenagers the two of them made their way to the station.

Grandma stuffed them with lots of affection and ilish maach. But she was not pleased. "Shes older than you" she hissed.

"What difference do a couple of years make grandma" Sachin pleaded.

Sachin and Rumi sat on the platform. The train was delayed because of signal failure. They played dottodot noughts and crosses and whatever else they could think of to while away the time. It was January and it was freezing. They decided to go to the waiting room. There was a stale musty smell in there. Rumi screwed up her pudgy nose. "We might as well wait on the platform and brave the chill" she said as she pulled him outside.

As Sachin sat huddled and shivering on the bench Rumi unfolded her huge shawl. She gestured to him to move a bit closer. Then she wrapped the shawl around the two of them. "Why be cold when we can easily keep ourselves warm" she stated matteroffactly as Sachin gave her a startled look. 

Sachin could scarcely breathe now. Their faces were inches apart and he could smell her perfume hear her heartbeat. As for his own heart it was beating so fast he could almost hear it pumping blood. He looked at her full lips for a moment and was mesmerised. He was about to bend down and kiss them when the train hissed into the platform and the spell was broken. "Damn..." he muttered under his breath.

Rumi looked at him quizzically. "Whats wrong Aren you glad we don have to freeze any more"

"Yes yes of course."      

Then she vanished. It was soon summer with azure skies and daylight that lasted until midnight or so it seemed. But there was still no sign of Rumi. Each time Sachin alighted at the station his eyes sought her familiar face. Then on the 11th of August he met her again at Piccadilly Station in Manchester. The aroma of freshly baked cookies and brownies pulled him to Millies Cookies. And there she was chatting animatedly to an old lady standing next to her. Excited at seeing him again she held his hands in hers and said "Hi Sachin its so good to see you."

Sachin was tonguetied. He stared incredulously at Rumis face then at her protruding belly and then at her face again. She was pregnant Following the direction of his gaze Rumi smiled gaily and caressing her bump said "Its due in four weeks....." Then seeing the strickenlook on Sachins face "Whats the matter Sachin You knew I was married didn you"

She was again fiddling with her iron bracelet her wedding bracelet. Maybe the signs had all been there but he had only seen what he wanted to see. He ran a hand over his face quickly to collect himself.

"Yes yes of course I knew" he lied as he gazed at her bracelet.  "Its....its just that seeing you suddenly after so long and like this...." He pointed to her belly.

"Ah well...." grinned Rumi.

 

The train screeched to a halt. Train journeys were no longer the same Sachin thought morosely as he got on to it. Just as he settled down in his seat and switched on his Walkman he heard a voice "Hi Im Nalini. Can I sit beside you" Sachin looked at the owner of that beautiful voice and his heart skipped a beat. He hastily removed his bag from the seat and answered "Yes yes of course."

...The strains of the song Life Goes On wafted across from the Walkman as the train started to move.

© Sangeeta Bhargava 2011

 

 

 

 

THE RECKONING

 

THE RECKONING

 

Belinda groaned. The flight had been delayed by two hours. It was precisely at that moment that she noticed Shirley. Colour drained from her face. Her throat went dry.

Shirley looked the same – just a tad heavier the hair shorter. Not tied in braids anymore. She looked prettier this way. She was with a little girl – talking and smiling indulgently at her.

Belinda put on her shades and looked the other way. Had she seen her She didn’t think so. There were two rows of passengers between them and the girl was keeping her busy.

Seeing her suddenly after all these years took Belinda back to their boarding school. She was in class twelve. Their school was perched atop a hill right next to the boys’ school. That day Belinda stood near the fence pretending to look for something. It was the common fence between the girls’ playing field and the boys’ football field.

Ashley kicked the ball hard. Belinda looked surreptitiously at the ball as it bounced off the fence and then at Ashley who was running towards it. As his feet shuffled the ball around he slipped a note into her hand before kicking the ball back to his team.

Belinda looked around carefully and heaved a sigh of relief. No one had noticed. The girls were busy playing. Sister Anne was engrossed in a conversation with two of her classmates. Belinda crumpled the piece of paper in her moist palm after reading it. She was frightened. If the nuns found it she would surely get the strap. But she was also in love.

She caught hold of Shirley after dinner and pulled her to a corner. “Ashley wants to meet me by the lake at ten tonight” she whispered.

“Tell him it’s out of the question…” Shirley paused and stared incredulously at her friend.

Belinda returned her gaze arrogantly.

“NO” Shirley hissed. “Surely you aren’t…You can’t. You’ll be thrown out of school if you get caught.”    

“I won’t” Belinda replied and walked off.  She didn’t care. All that mattered was Ashley.

Later Belinda approached Shirley as she brushed her teeth. “Can I borrow your red purse”

Shirley stopped brushing and stared at her for a long moment her lips covered in white foam. Belinda fiddled with the piping on her dressing gown. She knew Shirley had noticed. She had her red tshirt and jeans on underneath the gown. Belinda waited patiently as Shirley rinsed wiped her mouth and walked over to her locker. Wordlessly she handed her the purse.

At exactly nine o’clock Sister Anne came and said the night prayers. By 9.15 the entire school was plunged in darkness. At 9.30 only snores could be heard. Belinda slid out of the back door of the toilet and ran across the lower field on to the dirt track. She did not stop until she had reached the edge of the lake.

“Ashley” Belinda’s heart thudded loudly as her panicstricken eyes searched in the darkness. He was there all right right next to the weeping willows. Belinda ran into his arms. Ashley smiled. And then he kissed her. Belinda had never been kissed before. She felt herself melt as his rough chapped lips explored the softness of her mouth.  

Belinda was glad it was a moonless night. The two of them rowed across the lake. The reflection of the lights of nearby houses shimmered beneath the oars. It was perfect. Until after they said goodbye.

 

Belinda started at the sudden announcement. She picked her handbag and boarded the plane. As she sank into her seat she remembered how hard she had been breathing as she ran back up the hill. She stopped to catch her breath as she neared the dormitory. Just then a small light started moving towards her. She gasped and ran inside.

The next morning Mother Fernandez the principal strode into the year 12 classroom. Belinda turned deathly white. She saw Shirley glance at her and looked away. There was a sudden murmur in the classroom. Mother clapped her hands loudly. The murmuring died away instantly. “The night watchman saw someone sneak out from your dormitory last night.” Mother looked around the class before continuing. “Whoever it was had better own up. Else I will have to suspend the entire class.” There was a look of shock on everyone’s face as Mother left the classroom.

 

Belinda shuddered. Even after all these years whenever she thought of that day a shiver ran down her spine. She wiped her brow and touched the television screen in front of her.

“Oh my God Belinda is that really you” It was Shirley bending over her a warm smile on her lips.

Belinda straightened and stole a look at Shirley.

“So good to see you after all these years” Shirley gushed as she clasped Belinda’s hands. “What have you been up to”

“I…I just finished my Ph. D” replied Belinda avoiding eye contact. “What about you”

“Well you know what happened. I couldn’t possibly get admission in any college after that…..But wait till I tell papa. He remembers you. He’ll be so proud. He always wanted me to go to college.”

Belinda licked her lips. “It wasn’t my fault. The watchman found your purse and gave it to Mother. She asked me if I knew who it belonged to. I told her it was yours. That’s all I said.”

“I know” Shirley replied.

“Why didn’t you tell her the truth”

“You were intelligent. You were my best friend…I was going to drop out after school anyway.”

“I didn’t mean to….I was scared….” Belinda blabbered incoherently.

“Of course you were. We were just kids Belinda.” She put a hand reassuringly on Belinda’s arm.

She had forgiven her just like that. Belinda looked at her smile mesmerised. When she smiled she looked just like the angel in the painting that hung in the school office. It was a smile that reached her eyes and made them twinkle like two glittering orbs. Funny despite all her degrees and accolades Belinda had never been able to smile like that.

© Sangeeta Bhargava 2011

 

 

 

 

DEVKI

 

DEVKI

 

“Damru”

“Yes memsahib” Damru rushed over to Devki his gamchha in his hands.

“Tell the khaansama that I will make the kheer myself. And tell him not to overcook the rice...”

“Yes memsahib” grinned Damru. “I know Anurag baba doesn’t like his rice to go all soft and squishy.”

“Yes go now.”

Devki now turned to Suman who was adjusting the cutlery on the dining table. “Suman get that duster and come with me. I want to make sure Anus room is spick and span. You know how finicky he is.”

“Yes memsahib.”

Devki was excited. Her son was coming from the States after five long years. She simply could not wait to see him again. She was sure that he must have lost some weight. She would pull his ears and chide him for not taking good care of himself.

She was brimming with questions. Questions about his life in America about his friends his classmates about America itself. She had not set foot outside her village in the last five years let alone travel abroad. Her childhood had been spent in a small home in Delhi. Unlike some of her cousins she had been fortunate enough to go to school up to the tenth grade. Soon after her board exams she had been married into a progressive Choudhari family that lived in the village of Madanpur.

She had soon adjusted to life in the village. It had moved happily enough until her son Anurag turned five and started attending the village school. There was just one primary school in the entire village. The children there were unruly and the teachers always looked harassed and weary.

One day as she watched Anurag idling his time playing gillidunda with Ramu Devkis mind was made up. Anurag had no future in Madanpur she decided. She would send him to a boarding school in Delhi.

Anurag’s father had been doubtful. “He might become wayward staying away from home.”

“Well he’s not going to become an officer playing on the streets all day that’s for sure” Devki retorted.

Anurag’s father had reluctantly agreed.

The first time Anurag came back from the hostel for his holidays Devki noticed a change in him. He had stopped making a fuss about his food. On the contrary he had devoured it all hungrily. She could see that he was still hungry but felt embarrassed to ask his own mother for more She had quietly placed a couple of chapattis on his plate and refilled his bowls with curry and raita to which he had whispered a thank you. Devki had lovingly patted his head. She got a strange satisfaction watching him lick his fingers.

He had not wanted to go back to school after the holidays and had clung to her making the parting even more painful. With a pang she had wondered if she was doing the right thing in sending him away. But she saw no future for him in Madanpur.

That was the last time that he cried at the time of leaving. His face would sometimes crumple up and she could see that he was making an effort to hold back the tears but hold them back he did.

Initially his letters had arrived every Saturday with clockwork regularity written in a neat hand on lined paper. They had to copy it from the board during letterwriting period every Monday she had learned sitting selfconsciously in the meticulously tidy school parlour...

“Madam should we go home or to baba’s school first” the driver had asked Devki.

“No no. Let’s go to Anu’s school first. We’ll go to my parents’ house later.”

Devki could barely contain her excitement. She was tired and worn out by the long journey but it vanished as the pointed steeples of Anurags school came into view. She hastily gathered her hair and tied them into a bun as the car came to a halt.

Devki and Anurag sat quietly in the school parlour. “I have brought two crates of ripe mangoes from our orchard for you and your friends as well as some pure ghee and pickle.”

Anurag for some reason seemed embarrassed. Averting her gaze he said “Ma next time ask me before bringing anything to school.”

“But you love them” Devki protested. She had expected him to be pleased. “Every summer you squat on the chatai in the courtyard and polish off as many as a dozen of them in one go”

“But ma nobody brings such things to school.” Seeing his mother’s sullen face he fell silent. They said very little after that. Devki looked at her son and then looked around. He was neatly dressed in a white shirt grey trousers and the maroon school blazer.

The parlour had walltowall carpets. The settees and armchairs were neatly arranged around a coffee table. There was a cross on the opposite wall and a painting of some angels and cherubs on the adjoining wall. Just below the painting stood a piano. Devaki realised with a sense of horror that her immaculately dressed child fitted in very well with the background.

While she looked conspicuously out of place in her rumpled up sari creased from the journey and her untidy bun. Besides the sindoor in her hair the huge kumkum bindi on her forehead the red and green bangles and the ugly toe rings gave her a decidedly rustic look that set her apart from the other mothers present in the room.

Next time she must remember to get dressed before coming here she told herself. But then she had been so excited about seeing her child again that she had simply not bothered...

Devki sighed. Life had become one long wait after she had sent her child to boarding school. She had spent twelve years of her life waiting for his letters every Saturday and waiting for him every Christmas and summer holidays when she would prepare all his favourite meals and snacks. Each time he left for school she felt he was moving further away from her. The house would go empty and quiet without him. She would spend hours in his room straightening his sheets talking to his photograph hugging his pillow and touching all his prized possessions.

Once when he was home for Christmas Devki went to his room. He lay on his tummy feet in the air reading a book. “Anu your Sudha aunty was telling me that a lot of bullying goes on in boarding schools”

“Oh ma don’t worry about all that.”

“Nobody has been bullying you no”

“Ma I am in class seven. Don’t you think it’s a little too late for you to be asking these questions” he replied brusquely and then went back to his book.

Devki had spent a sleepless night wondering if Anurag had indeed been bullied when he was little. What if the older boys had made him Anurag Choudhari the zamindar’s son polish their shoes and run errands for them What if they had teased and taunted him and called him names Maybe that was the reason why he had clung to her and refused to go back to school. But as Anurag himself had pointed out it was much too late...

Anurag had been a diligent student and had won several gold and silver medals throughout his school years. He had gone on to do his graduation in commerce from a famous college of economics and commerce in New Delhi.

And then he had won a scholarship to do a Ph.D. in America. Her heart had swelled with pride when she had gone to the airport to see him off.

At first his letters came regularly sometimes even twice a week. They were full of news of life abroad. He wrote about the fast food the fast cars the tall glass buildings the huge expressways and the air that was wonderfully clean. He had taken up a studio apartment on the tenth floor with a breathtaking view. She would read every one of them again and again till she knew every word every comma by heart.

Her letters on the other hand were boring and repetitive. Life in Madanpur was slow and easygoing the heat making the people all the more languid and lazy. So apart from how much milk Lalli was giving or how good the crops were that year and enquiring about his health there was not much else to write. Madanpur was one of those villages that were the last to feel the winds of change.  The last time that something spectacular had happened was three years back when television had finally arrived at Madanpur. She had proudly informed Anurag that theirs had been the first home to have it installed.

And then Anurag’s father had died suddenly of lung cancer. His passion for hookah or gurguri as Anurag called it had cost him his life. She who had been happy within the confines of her home and kitchen suddenly found herself the caretaker of her husband’s immense wealth. Somehow she had managed to take care of the farms and orchards and other ancestral property. But enough. Now that Anurag was coming back home for good he would take over his father’s properties and affairs and she would finally get some respite.

 

A horn sounded. Devki hastily straightened the tablecloth and rushed to the door. She remained rooted to the threshold as a young man stepped out of the car touched her feet and hugged her. Devki did not react but merely stared. The young man who stood before her wasn’t the lad she had waved goodbye to at the Indira Gandhi Airport five years back. He was now a man a total stranger His haircut his slick suede jacket and matching suede shoes his walk the way he gesticulated as he spoke his accent – they had all changed. Devki was speechless. She forgot all that she had intended to ask him.

Devki gave Anurag a second helping of bhindi. “This year I am thinking of having a big celebration for Diwali. Ever since your father died two years back we have not celebrated any festival.”

“But ma I am going back to America next month” said Anurag as he held out the steel tumbler.

Devki stopped pouring water into the tumbler and looked at her son. “But I thought you had completed your studies”

“Yes ma I have completed my thesis but now I’ve been offered a lecturer’s job at MIT. It is one of the best universities in America and only a fool would turn down such an offer.”

“But the village needs you. ‘I’ need you. I am getting too old to take care of your father’s affairs. It was easier when he was alive but now...” Here she paused and wiped her eyes with the edge of her pallu. “If it is teaching that you want to do you can run the village school.”

“Yeah right. Ma my friends will laugh at me if I tell them that I am chucking my job at the prestigious MIT to become a village school teacher”

Devki turned her back to Anurag. “I’ll go and see why it’s taking Damru so long to serve the kheer” she mumbled and left the room.

Devki switched on the television took out her knitting needles and started knitting furiously. So all those dreams of her boy returning home for good were for nothing.

Why she had even gone so far as to decide to get him married by the end of that year. How many days had she spent planning her only child’s wedding It would be a grand affair she had decided. The entire path would be covered with red carpets from the gate right up to the main entrance. And the bride and groom would be served their meal in a silver platter with silver bowl and spoon all of which would be prepared especially for the occasion with the bride and the groom’s names engraved on them. And there would be feasting and dancing for one whole week. The doors of the kothi would be open to any and everybody in the village to come and join in the festivities...And soon the lonely mansion would echo with laughter and the pattering of little feet...

Maybe she had been wrong in sending Anurag to a boarding school. If she hadn’t sent him there he would not have won the scholarship to study abroad and then none of this would have happened. She should have kept him at home with her like Ramu’s mother had.

Just then Anurag walked into the room. Devki did not turn around. Anurag tugged at her sari like he used to do when he was little. “Come on ma say yes. You know I will never do anything without your ashirwaad.” Devki reluctantly said “okay” in a low voice keeping her eyes glued to the TV. Anurag hugged her from behind. “I love you” he whispered.

Devki absentmindedly cleaned her ear with the end of her knitting needle. Anurag’s father had scolded her on several occasions saying that it was dangerous but whenever disturbed or agitated she would revert to her old habit just like a smoker who has recently quit smoking. Maybe Anurag was right. What future did he have here And his job in America at MIE or was it MIT She wasn’t sure. Well it did sound prestigious. She remembered how Anurag’s eyes had flashed when he spoke about it like the tantric’s who lived at the edge of Madanpur near the crematorium.

 

Devki was in the aangan knitting a wee little bootee. She was lost in her thoughts when somebody cleared his throat. She looked up. It was Ramu Anurag’s childhood friend. “Pranam mausi. I’ve left the rice in the pantry. Bauji said that we’ll deliver the ghee and aata tomorrow.”

Devki smiled at him. He was a simple country bumpkin who had not yet lost his baby fat. A little too awkward and gawky. He came forward and touched her feet.

“Get two kilos of laddoos made with pure ghee tomorrow. I have to take them to the temple. I just got a letter from Anu. Alice is on the family way” said Devki.

“Congratulations mausi. Now you too will be a grandmother.”

Devki smiled softly as she looked at the halfknit bootee.

“Okay mausi I’d better be going. My tyre got punctured on the way. I had to literally carry the bike to Heeras shop. Took me over an hour to get there. Then Heera didn’t have a spare tyre so it took him two hours to sort out my bike. Mother must be going out of her mind. You know how she worries...”

Devki shook her head. “You are the father of three kids and you are still scared of your mother”

Ramu gave an embarrassed grin and shuffled to the door his cheap muddy slippers making a clicking sound as he walked.

Devki wiped her brow put away the unfinished bootee the knitting needles and the balls of wool in their plastic bag and then moved towards the pooja ghar. It was getting dark time for her evening prayers. As she lit a diya before the gods she thought about Devki Lord Krishna’s mother after whom she had been named. She too had sent her son away from her. Why were there so many songs in praise of Yasodha’s love for Krishna and none in praise of Devki she idly wondered

 

© Sangeeta Bhargava 2011

 


FROM A RAILWAY CARRIAGE

 

 

FROM A RAILWAY CARRIAGE

 

Shabnam sat at the edge of the berth a little away from the rest of her family who were engrossed in a game of cards. She looked up from her book and sighed. Another two months and she would be the wife of a total stranger.

“Shabbo come and join us” Nilofer insisted once again. Shabnam pointed to her book and shook her head.

The book was just an excuse. Shabnam’s thoughts were far far away. She was thinking about her impending marriage. Her parents had arranged everything with her Phuphi Saira acting as the mediator. She had been merely informed after the date of the wedding had been finalised. Nothing weird or strange about that. After all she belonged to an orthodox traditional family and girls from ‘good’ families never questioned the decisions made by their elders she thought bitterly.

The train had gathered speed. It was on its way to Delhi. Trees yellowishgreen fields isolated streams whizzed past. What does my Prince Charming look like Shabnam wondered. Phuphi had said there was a time when half the town of Lucknow belonged to the boy’s grandfather.

“Our Shabbo is going to live like a queen” she had concluded with a flourish.

The groom’s mother aunt sister sisterinlaw cousins had all come to meet her a few days back. That day mother dressed her up herself. “You look as beautiful as the new moon on Id” she remarked with a catch in her voice.

She was soon presented to the eagerly waiting crowd. Her motherinlaw looked her over from head to toe with her vulturelike gaze. After staring at her for a full ten minutes she asked “Does she wear glasses”

Pat came mother’s reply: “Oh no My daughter has no such vice” and she lovingly patted her head.

“Daughter please can you get me that plate of biscuits” Shabnam’s motherinlaw requested.

As Shabnam walked slowly towards her she remembered as a child her father had taken her once to the village fair just before Id. Butchers were buying and selling goats. She recalled how they had similarly poked and felt each and every ounce of the goats’ flesh before buying them. She closed her eyes and swallowed.

The train suddenly screeched to a halt. The movement caused Shabnam to be jerked forward and she had to hold on to her seat to prevent herself from falling. A lot of young men climbed aboard the adjoining compartment of the second class coach. It was apparent from their clothes and physique that they were in the army. There was a lot of movement as bags and suitcases were shoved and pushed underneath the seats amidst guffaws.

Shabnam looked at her folks. They were still engrossed in their game. She went back to her book. After reading a couple of pages she found her thoughts reverting back to her wouldbe husband. If only she wasn’t so shy. Till today she had not been able to pluck the courage to see his photograph. Would he be handsome she wondered now. Would he fill her dreams with colours of the rainbow; give wings to her aspirations

Just then Shabnam became conscious of being watched. She looked up to find the most beautiful pair of eyes gazing intently at her. He was one of the soldiers who had just boarded the train. He was leaning casually against the wall of the aisle opposite her and staring down at her unashamedly. He was very handsome with the athletic grace and cropped hair that only a fauji can have. Shabnam looked down swiftly. She could feel a hot flush crawl up her cheeks. Feeling extremely selfconscious she adjusted her dupatta and went back to her book.

The game of cards was over.  Mother had begun to doze. Nilofer and Irfan were busy chatting. Every now and then they would burst out laughing. A short while later Shabnam gathered the courage and glanced towards the young man. He was still looking at her. He smiled softly as their eyes met. Shabnam quickly looked away.

Dinner was over. The smell of parathas and pickle however lingered on. Shabnam was washing her hands at the sink. Two soldiers stood at the door on the left smoking. The ticket checker stood at the door on the right arguing with a middleaged man wearing a faded blazer over a dhoti. Every now and then in the heat of the argument he would stroke his belly as though to make a point. Shabnam peered at herself in the small slightly cracked mirror above the sink. As she ran her fingers through her hair she heard a whisper in her ear – “I’ve fallen for you.”

She turned around with a start. It was the fauji who had been staring at her. She fled back to her seat. Luckily no one noticed anything amiss. They were busy preparing for bed.

Shabnam lay on the berth staring up at the blue nightlight. She couldn’t sleep. Finally she gave up her tossing and turning and sat up. Her fauji was still hanging around in the aisle smoking. As though in a trance she slowly walked to the open door of the carriage. It was autumn and a pleasant wind was blowing. It was pitch dark outside. Every now and then the friction between the wheels of the train and the rail track sent a pebble flying.

The fauji threw a glance at her sleeping folks then followed her. Shabnam sat down at the door holding on to the pole her feet dangling. The fauji stood at the doorway watching her. Shabnam did not know what had made her so bold. She had never done anything like this before. The fauji started humming chala jaata hoon tilting his head like Dev Anand. Shabnam smiled leaned forward and looked out. She could see the engine of their train billowing smoke. It was a starless night and a fog was descending. From the corner of her eye she saw the fauji’s buddies giving him the thumbs up.

"What’s your name" the fauji asked her.

The noise that the wheels of the train were making as they raced over the rail track was deafening. Pointing to her ear Shabnam gestured that she couldn’t hear him. The fauji cupped his hands over his mouth and framed his question again but to no avail. Then giving up he held out his hand to Shabnam and pulled her to her feet. Shabnam did not know what made her so reckless but she demurely obliged and followed him. They pushed their way to the next carriage and found an empty cabin.

As they settled down opposite each other he glanced at Shabnam’s book and remarked “The Prophet.” Then clearing his throat he added “Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.” Shabnam was speechless. She had always visualised soldiers with bullets and rifles marching smartly or doing the obstacle course as in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman but never as reading or following intellectual pursuits. She looked at him with open admiration.

…The fauji frowned slightly as he fumbled through the contents of his pockets looking for something. “Ah” he let out as he found it. It was a piece of paper. He began etching lines on it.

“What are you doing” Shabnam asked.

Pointing to the two of them he stated matteroffactly “Oh I am drawing the plan of our house.”

“A what” Shabnam exclaimed. “We’ve only just met” Then she began laughing and shaking her head. “I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

“See” he said pointing to the little scrap of paper “this is the living room…two steps here and then the dining area… as for the main bedroom hmmm… let’s see. We’ll need a kingsized bunk bed.”

“A what bed” Shabnam asked with amusement.

“You know bunk beds that kids use the ones with a little ladder Hmm…but it might be a problem for you to go up that ladder in a sari” he added thoughtfully.

“I’m not going to bed in a sari” Shabnam burst out. Then realising what she had said she blushed and looked away. He gave her a sheepish grin.

“What about the nurseries We’ll need at least 45 of them” he challenged.

“Make that 12” Shabnam shot back.

The fauji drew a few more lines. “And we’ll have a huge garden with a pool at the far end.”

“Not a pool. A pond with a fountain and goldfishes. I love water…” she murmured.

“In that case let’s have water in the house as well. Anything to please milady” he said with a mock salute.

Then pointing to the plan of the house “See the living room is lower than the other rooms so we can easily fill it with water. We’ll have little boats instead of sofas and armchairs.”

Shabnam giggled.

“And if you want we can even have some crocodiles” he continued.

“Croco_”

“Okay okay no crocodiles. Only fishes and turtles.”

Shabnam sat back and looked at the dark head poring over the plans of their dreamhouse. This rendezvous did not make any sense at all. Here she was sitting with a total stranger mapping out her dream home. It was insane. It was so totally unlike her. What had got over her She did not even know his name. All that she knew was that he was in the army. Maybe it was the magic of the moment; maybe it was her romantic heart yearning for adventure maybe…

“Chai Garam garam chai.”

Shabnam was rudely awoken from her reverie.

“I’d better go before someone finds me missing” she whispered. The fauji’s hand shot out to stop her.

“Wait don’t go just yet.  I’ve just been posted to Delhi. I don’t know anyone there. Will you be my friend” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.

“I’d love to” whispered Shabnam. “But I’ll be leaving Delhi very soon. You see I’m getting married after two months.”

Without waiting for his reply she rushed back to her coach and quietly crawled under her blanket. Soon she was lulled into a deep sleep by the swaying motion of the train.

It was morning when the train pulled up at New Delhi station. Porters dressed in their red attire rushed into the compartment to help haul out the luggage. The fauji was standing at the door. His face looked ashen and he was no longer smiling. 

As Shabnam walked past him to get off the train he whispered “I’ll never forget you.”

She paused and looked at him for a moment. For a split second their eyes met. He looked very sincere and she knew he meant it. She did not look back although she knew his eyes had never left her.

 

It was the night of Shabnam’s wedding. Decked in all her wedding finery with the heavy veil over her head she waited for her husband. The bedroom was heavy with the fragrance of jasmine which hung in rows all around her nuptial bed. The bedspread had been strewn with red rose petals. The wedding rites had been performed in the traditional Muslim way with purdah between the bride and the groom and she had not yet seen her husband.

 She sighed. She was tired of waiting. Her mind began to wander. She remembered her encounter with the fauji two months back. “I’ll never forget you” he had said. Just then Shabnam’s husband entered the room. She glanced at him hastily as he shut the door. He was short fat and bald. He turned towards her and grinned. His teeth were crooked and yellow from chewing too much paan.  He looked twice her age. Shabnam closed her eyes and whispered “Neither will I.”

 

© Sangeeta Bhargava 2011