The first short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other stories, click here
“I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…” by Ashwin Sanghi (For more details of the contest/rules click here)
It Happened on My Watch
“No, Ma, no!” I screamed. “I don’t want to go, I want to stay with Papa please,” I cried. “Please Ma, please…” Shekhar, my son! Papa’s broken plea echoed in my ears as I woke with a jerk.
Even after ten years, I still had the same recurring nightmare.
“Chintu, come on get up. It’s time for the newspapers to be delivered.” It was Ma.
“Oh no,” I groaned. I hated the job of delivering newspapers that Ma had arranged for me. It was so demeaning and way below my dignity as a final year student of Delhi’s prestigious St. Stephen’s College. What if some classmate saw me? What would Papa think?
But what did Ma care about such things? I fumed. All she cared about was money. She was always looking for ways to supplement her income – once it was tuition at another it was some tailoring business and now this. I have a strong suspicion that the latest venture of hers was just a facade to get me to earn my keep.
“Chintu, get up, it’s late…”
“How many times have I told you not to call me Chintu?” I snapped as I threw off the blanket in irritation.
“I am sorry Ch…Shekhar.” She smiled in an ingratiating manner, which irritated me even more. “Shekhar, Shekhar,” she practiced. “Come on hurry up, your tea is getting cold.”
“The bicycle is very old and rickety and the chain keeps slipping off,” I grumbled. “It would be faster to walk.”
“I will try to have it repaired. You know we can’t afford a new one Ch…Shekhar.”
Annoyance flooded me. “If only you had not left Papa…” I began.
“Here, this is the list of houses that won’t be requiring the newspaper today. It’s the holiday season, so, many customers are away.” Ma put the list on the table and turned away. “Hurry up.” She cleared her throat.
Fuming, I banged down the half finished cup of tea. “Why do you always change the topic?” I shouted.
Ma turned at the door. “We have been over this a million times Shekhar. I had no choice but to come here,” she said in an even tone.
“There is always a choice Ma,” I said. “Don’t you always keep telling me that?”
Ma put up her hand. “We don’t have time for this argument right now Shekhar. Please go and deliver the newspapers and if you won’t, I will,” said Ma in a steely voice.
Furious, I almost said ‘be my guest’ but I held my tongue – she wouldn’t think twice about delivering them. Besides I would never hear the end of it from our well meaning but interfering neighbors.
I wheeled out the piece of junk and shuddered – God what a dump. The image of my old home flashed before me – an imposing duplex house with a manicured lawn, freshly weeded flowerbeds, the red slide – bitterness engulfed me. I viciously threw one newspaper after another. Precious years wasted, my childhood destroyed, my dreams and hopes shattered – all because of Ma. Papa would be furious if he knew I was working odd jobs. If I wrote and told Papa, he would make Ma stop this nonsense at once. Hope flooded me – yes, Papa loved me; he would do anything for me.
I still remember how he always brought me things, “Shekhar guess what I got for you – ice cream!”
“No Sooraj.” Ma, ever the spoilsport, popped up from nowhere. “Chintu has a bad cold, he was coughing the whole of last…”
“Two negatives make a positive, right Shekhar?” Papa winked. “The cold ice cream will kill his cold.” We pretended to fight with swords, laughing and shrieking. “Shekhar is the winner! He is the king of the world.” Papa carried me around on his shoulders.
Papa was my best friend, he taught me all the games I loved to play – peekaboo, carom, chess and football. I missed him terribly when he went away on long tours, which was pretty often. But he always got gifts for me. The best present ever was on my tenth birthday – a designer watch. I felt as if I had been handed my crown.
As usual Ma was unhappy with Papa. “Why did you buy him such an expensive gift? He is still so young, what if he loses it?”
But Papa laughed her off. “Never mind, I will buy him another. I want him to have the best of the best, after all he is the king of the world.” He leaned over and whispered. “Next time, the new PSP game.” Overjoyed, I rushed to the playground to show off.
I was still basking in the glow of my friends’ admiring looks and envious glances when I returned home. I heard raised voices. I dashed inside and stopped short – Ma swept the big vase off the table smashing it to pieces.
Petrified, I hid behind the curtains – Ma’s face was drawn into an ugly grimace and she was screaming like never before. Papa spoke softly, “control yourself Sudha. Think of Shekhar. Nothing has to change, we can go on as before…”
“No!” Ma screamed and ran into the bedroom. I stood rooted to the spot. Tears streamed down my cheeks; I tried hard to grasp the situation but didn’t really understand. All I wanted were warm loving arms around me but I wasn’t quite sure whom to run to – Papa or Ma.
There were sounds of cupboards opening and shutting; something being dragged and pulled while Papa stared out of the window. Ma came out dragging a suitcase.
“You must think of Shekhar,” Papa urged once more. “It doesn’t have to be this way, Sudha. I am willing to support you both, a nice house in a good locality. Sudha, listen to me please.” Papa was almost begging.
“No thank you.” Ma brushed him away like a fly. “Come on Chintu,” she grabbed hold of my hand and before I knew it, we were gone.
“Shekhar! My son,” his last anguished words still haunted me.
I begged, screamed, cried but to no avail – Ma was adamant. We weren’t going back home. Every time there was a new reason, a new excuse. First she cajoled me by saying Nani wasn’t well and that we were going to look after her. Papa was just fine – he was just a bit angry because he didn’t want to let me go. I swallowed that story for a while because I was happy to miss school and show off my watch. Soon the novelty wore off.
“When are we going back Ma? I want to go to school or I will fail my exams. Nani seems to be fine, why can’t we go back home now?” I nagged her.
“Soon Chintu soon, Papa has gone overseas on a business trip. We will go home when he returns.” She promised. “We can always study here; I brought your schoolbooks,” she said pointing to the table.
“But I want to go home,” I wailed. “Papa can come when he is free, let’s go home Ma, I don’t like it here.” I fussed. “Mami keeps scolding me and Mama also snapped at me when I asked him for another kite,” I complained.
“Never mind dear, you must have done some mischief,” she said hugging me.
“I didn’t!” I protested. “Rohit and Rahul were trying to steal my watch so I hit them,” I stoutly defended my actions.
Ma caught hold of my arm and shook me hard. “Did you say that they were trying to ‘steal’ your watch?”
“So what? I spoke the truth.” I was unrepentant.
“Quiet, you foolish boy,” she snapped. “Go and apologize to your Mami and cousins immediately,” she ordered.
“Never, never, never.” I stamped my foot.
Ma unstrapped my watch with rough hands. “That’s it! You are not getting it back until you apologize.” I could only watch in frustrated helplessness as she took away my crown and locked it away for good measure.
I refused to give in. They were trying to steal my watch – what was wrong in calling a spade a spade? Anger coursed through my veins, I wanted to break everything in sight. With an immense effort, I controlled myself. My time will come, I vowed to myself. I will be king of the world. I will show them all, especially Ma, for holding me prisoner and keeping me away from Papa.
Almost overnight, Ma and I shifted to a tiny one-room apartment. She admitted me to a local school where she also joined as the Hindi teacher. I was very embarrassed and hated going to the same school as my mother for the boys made fun of teachers. I often got into a fight with them over this.
Once I tried to run away to Papa but Ma caught me. Surprisingly, she didn’t scold me at all. She only said, “when you come of age, you can do what you want but till then you will have to do as I say.” She continued after a short pause, “and one more thing, I don’t think the world will accept an uneducated, unqualified boy as their king.” She looked me in the eye. “Don’t you agree?”
That was another turning point in my life – I channelized and focused all my angst and pent up frustration into my books. I gobbled up books and haunted the school library till the librarian drove me out. Stingy as Ma was, she never grudged me any book. Our house was crammed with books – secondhand books. But the ones I treasured the most were the brand new books I received from Papa. I would pore over the few lines he wrote in each: Miss you my dearest son; study hard and make me proud; Way to go my son, King of the world! Happy birthday Chintu; I wish I could come, lots of love, Papa.
I wonder why he addressed me as Chintu? I was even more concerned that although I wrote long letters to him, he never replied.
My heart stood still as a thought struck me.
“Did you ever post my letters to Papa?” I demanded the moment I returned home from delivering newspapers.
The flush, the shifty eye was answer enough. “Did you read those letters and laugh at me? How can you do this to your own son?” I screamed. “You must be the world’s worst mother!”
Ma looked woodenly at me.“Papa’s right here in Delhi, isn’t he?” I said with sudden clarity. “You had some stupid fight with Papa, didn’t you? He begged you to stay but because of your ego and pride you deprived me of all that I was entitled. You can’t hold me back any more Ma for I am no longer a child,” I said coldly.
Ma put out her hand and said faintly, “Chintu…”
I ignored her. “I want my watch. And the letters.”
Ma sank down beside her trunk. Silently she handed me a thick envelope and a battered geometry box. I shoved the envelope into my pocket and opened the box. My crown sparkled and glittered on a fine piece of silk – it still kept perfect time. I snapped it on with a decisive click and stared at it mesmerized – life had come full circle.
It was time to win my kingdom back…
Our house was just the same; if anything it was grander than before. My heart was beating fast. Today was Sunday; surely Papa would be home? I looked at my watch. Emotions overwhelmed me, would he recognize me? Would I have to flash the watch to jog his memory? Or should I play our favorite game? I hid behind the curtains. I was ten years old again – nervous agitation gripped me. I sought comfort from my watch. Just the feel of it against my wrist brought me closer to Papa.
There was a rustle and Papa came out – a bit older and heavier than I remembered, but it was he. He was talking on the phone, “So you will be here in 10 minutes? Fine, I will be at the gate.” He disconnected the phone.
My heart sank; this was obviously not the right time. I set my lips and looked at my watch. I had waited ten long years. I wasn’t going to wait any longer than I had to – mischief stirred within me. I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two.” I timed it perfectly. “BOOOO!” I yelled into his ear.
Papa started and gave a loud yell. Delighted, I burst into laughter – so this was how he looked when he was genuinely startled.
“Are you okay Papa?” a young girl came running, followed by a woman. She glared at me. “How dare you attack my husband?”
My laughter dried up and before I could respond or react, a sinewy arm shot out and grabbed me by the collar, “who the hell are you and what do you want?” A strapping man shook me like a ragged doll – that’s the kind of beard I wish I had, I thought stupidly.
“Relax.” Papa had recovered. He put a hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “Let him go son, I will handle him.” Papa patted his son – his real son.
I stumbled and nearly fell over as my half-brother let me go with a jerk.
“Yes Shekhar, what can I do for you?” Papa crossed his arms and asked guardedly.
I looked at them – the pieces of the puzzle fell neatly into place.
“Nothing Papa,” I shrugged casually, flicking each of them a cutting glance. “I just wanted to return something.” I unstrapped my watch and slapped it on the table. I whipped out the bundle of letters and tore them into pieces. They fell all over the expensive carpet.
Ignoring the hiss of indrawn breaths, I spun on my heels and walked out.
Fury drove me home – how dare Ma keep me in the dark for so many years? Did she think that I wouldn’t be able to handle the truth? Did she have such a poor opinion of her son?
“Ma!” I burst inside, determined that she wouldn’t fob me off any longer.
Ma turned to stare at me; her eyes flickered to my wrist and back to my face.
“I am starving. What’s for breakfast?”
She turned away but not before I had caught the unmistakable glitter in her eyes.
“Ma!” Her frail body shook uncontrollably in my arms.
“Poha,” she mumbled into my wet shirt.
A crack of laughter escaped my lips.
I hated poha.
So what did you think? Was it so-so, boring, irritating…anything you wish to change? If you like you can read some more short stories.