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The Christmas Present

The seventh short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other stories click here

 Author Prompt

It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever. by Jaishree Misra  (For more about the contest/rules click here).

The Christmas Present

Daddy wasn’t going to come home ever.

It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever.

 

Rhea closed her eyes, trying to shut out the present, the past, the pain. But no matter how hard Rhea tried, the memories came flooding back. Her hiding in the dark, pressing back against the shadows, stifling her scream, of her father’s low menacing growl, “Are you hiding in here Princess? I can hear you breathing.”

Rhea clapped a hand over her nose but it was too late. A hand reached out and plucked her out.

Rhea squealed and protested even as she threw her puny arms around him. “Not fair Daddy! If I hadn’t got a cold you would have never found me.”

“Well, that’s your fault isn’t it my little Princess?” Jason pulled her button nose as he strode off with her in his arms. “Remember what the doctor said? It’s because you don’t eat properly that you keep falling ill.”

“Oh but I do eat! Do you want me to eat like an elephant?”

Jason laughed. “But that doesn’t mean you eat like an ant!”

“Daddy do you know how strong ants are? They can carry load up to 50 times their weight.”

Jason put her down and got down on his haunches beside her. “Are you 6 years old or 60?”

Rhea sighed and put her hands on her hips. “How would I know Daddy? I was just a baby when I was born wasn’t I?”

Jason cracked up.

“Come on Daddy, it’s your turn to hide now,” Rhea pulled him.

Chuckling Jason got to his feet. “Later. First have dinner.”

“No! First you hide.”

“After dinner, I promise.”

“You are cheating!” Rhea walked off in a huff.

Jason caught up with her. “Cheating?”

She looked at him knowingly. “You are trying to trick me into eating aren’t you?”

Jason clapped his hands together and bowed. “Yes Granny!”

Please and flattered, Rhea condescended to nibble at her food. “Mummy, after dinner you also come and play. It’s my turn to be the den.”

Gia smiled and pinched her cheeks. “Maybe if you finish all the food on your plate.”

Rhea rolled her eyes. “Not you too!”

Gia looked at Jason, whose shoulders were shaking. “Beware Gia, that’s not your daughter. That’s my Granny – isn’t it?”

“Yes!” Rhea frowned and tapped him on the knuckles with her spoon. “Come on now, eat your food quickly. Wash your plate and don’t forget to brush your teeth.” She dropped her serious veneer and giggled into her hand.

Warm rich laughter erupted and broke over the clatter of cutlery.

It was her turn to find Daddy. She hunted for him high and low, upstairs and downstairs, outside and inside but he was nowhere.

“Daddy? Daddy! Daddy!!!” She woke screaming.

Gia held Rhea close as she blabbered. “”Where’s Daddy? Why doesn’t he come home? Is he angry with me Mummy? I promise I will eat up everything Mummy, just ask him to come home. Tell him that I lost the game Mummy. Please Mummy.”

“Shush my darling shush. It’s okay dear. He has just gone on a long flight, somewhere very far.” Gia wiped her face and consoled her. “You know he is a pilot right? It happens that sometimes he is gone for days on end? Well this time it is just taking longer than usual.” Her voice broke and she turned away to hide her emotions.

“But why are we staying at Granny’s house? When are we going back home? What if Daddy is home? What if he can’t find us?” Rhea was getting hysterical and Gia had no answers. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Rhea the truth – her beloved Daddy wasn’t coming home ever.

“Soon sweetheart, soon.” Gia mumbled as she rocked her to sleep.

“Daddy will come home for Christmas won’t he Mummy? Will you tell Santa I don’t want any gift for Christmas? Just that Daddy should come home.”

“Yes darling.”

But days passed as did weeks and months but there was no sign of Daddy. Rhea stopped asking about him but she continued to wait for him, starting with every car that turned the corner, every knock on the door, every ring of the telephone.

And then one day, Gia stowed their bags in the car and said, “Come let’s go.”

“Where are we going Mummy? To Daddy?”

“Hush. It’s a secret!“

“Where’s Granny? Aren’t we going to say bye to her?”

“She…She’s busy.” Gia hurried her into the car.

“Oh!” Rhea squealed in delight as she spied the red blooms of their hibiscus, “We are home! Daddy, Daddy!” Rhea tumbled out of the car and stopped short.

A stranger stood at the door.

“Come Rhea, come in and meet your new Daddy.”

Rhea stared at the tall man. He wasn’t at all like her Daddy. She didn’t want a new Daddy. She wanted her old Daddy.

“Didn’t I tell you that Santa always listens to good girls?” Gia’s voice was shrill.

“Who is that?”

“That?” Gia’s laugh was forced. “That is your new brother Ron. Say hello to him dear.”

Rhea looked at the scruffy grumpy boy standing a little off. He ignored them and stared determinedly at the PSP in his hand.

Rhea’s eyes swung back to her mother. “Am I going to get a new Mummy too?”

“No!” Her mother’s voice broke on her laugh. “Why would you need a new Mummy? I am here aren’t I?” She paused. “But I am Ron’s new Mummy. Hello dear,” she held out her arms.

“I am 9 years old and I don’t need a new Mummy.” Ron stomped out of the room.

“Hello, I am Jake.” The tall stranger bent down.

Rhea stared at him unblinkingly. “I am 6 years old and I also don’t want a new Daddy.”

“Fair enough. Maybe you would like a new friend?”

“I don’t make friends easily.” She warned.

“Great! I do. So let’s play a game shall we?”

“Game?”

“A game to see who wins – you at not making friends or me at making friends.” Jake held up his hand.

Intrigued and almost reflexively, Rhea gave him a high five. “Game on!” She grinned at him confident of winning.

“Aha!” Jake pointed a finger at her, his eyes twinkling. “Be careful, you are smiling; you could lose the game.”

Rhea hurriedly straightened her expression but it slipped. She pressed her lips and turned away. “I am going to my room Mummy.” She cast Jake a sidelong glance.

Jake grinned. “I am going to win just you wait.”

Rhea stalked off with her nose in the air. She spoilt it by turning back to check if Jake was looking at her. He winked. She giggled and ran off.

Rhea was in a fix – she liked Jake but she didn’t want a new Daddy. Neither did she want a new brother.

But where was he?

Rhea peeked into the guest room. Ah, there he was, glued to his PSP.

She pushed the door open. He ignored her. Encouraged, she entered. “You are staying in this room?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions.”

“That means you are just a guest.” Rhea’s voice dripped with satisfaction.

Ron sent her a withering glance.

Unfazed Rhea carried on. “Where’s your Mummy? Is she also a pilot?”

Ron glared. “My Mummy is dead do you understand? Like your father is dead.”

“My father is not dead. His airplane got lost and he can’t find his way back. When I grow up I am going to be a pilot. I will find him and bring him back.”

“Don’t be a fool. Your father is dead. He can never come back.”

“When I become a pilot, I will hunt for your Mummy too.”

“Get out of my room leave me alone.” He slammed the door on her face.

Rhea knocked on the door until he opened the door. “What?” he snarled.

“My Daddy isn’t dead. He is playing hide and seek with me. He is doing this to make me to eat. I try very hard but I still can’t eat. No matter how hard I try, it all comes out. That’s why Daddy is still hiding from me. But he can’t hide forever can he? Did your Mummy play hide and seek with you?”

Ron’s throat worked. “No. She used to tell me stories. After I finished my homework.”

“Did you do your homework?”

“No.”

“Oh but then that will only make her angrier. Maybe if you did your homework…”

“Stop talking nonsense will you?”

“Mummy also tells stories. Shall I ask her to tell you…?”

“No! I don’t want your Mummy to tell me a story. Go away and leave me alone.”

“I also know many stories. Shall I tell you a story?”

“Of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty? No thanks.” He turned his back to her. But then he turned around again and burst out. “Just becoming a pilot won’t help. When people die they become stars. And pilots can’t reach the stars. But what would you know?” He scoffed.

She stood there beaten, but only for a moment. “Astronauts can reach the stars. I will become a pilot and you become an astronaut. Together we will find them.” She clapped her hands. “This is better than hide and seek.”

“Get out.” Ron pushed her out and closed the door.

She looked up to find Jake staring at her.

“Give him time.” Jake said. “Like you he also takes time to make friends.” He grinned. “Not like me.”

Rhea turned away but he called out. “I was just going to eat mangoes and then plant the seeds.”

Rhea stopped.

“Would you like to help me?”

Rhea nodded.

“Great! Let me call Ron as well.”

Gia peeped in to see all three of them, elbow deep in mango, peels on one side, and seeds on the other.

“Ready to plant some seeds?”

“Yay, let’s go!” Rhea scrambled up from her chair and ran out into the garden. The others followed sedately.

It was hot, sunny, and messy but a lot of fun. There were five seeds and each planted one.

“Let’s plant the last one together,” suggested Jake. So, with great enthusiasm (Rhea) and a show of reluctance (Ron), the last seed was planted rather ceremoniously.

“Well well! Just look at all of us!” Jake laughed. Rhea looked down at herself. There was no denying it she was the muddiest of the lot. “Oh! It will take ages to clean up. And Mummy will scold me for dirtying the bathroom.” She pouted.

“Hmm.” Jake tapped his cheek thoughtfully. “Let me see. How about this?” He picked up the hose and swung it towards her bare mud-caked legs. Rhea squealed and jumped. He leaned towards her. “Come on now it’s Ron’s turn.”

Rhea’s eyes widened. She grabbed the hosepipe and together they sprayed Ron top to toe. He gave a yell and jumped into fray and soon it was a free for all session, even Gia wasn’t spared. Shrieks, screams and laughter cascaded over them in healing waves.

Rhea was sporting enough to accept defeat and accept Jake as her friend if not her Daddy. Ron remained aloof and insisted on maintaining his distance. But that didn’t stop Rhea from pestering him. She would wait impatiently for him to return from school and then sit with him while he had his lunch. She would weave exotic and far-fetched plans to bring back her Daddy and his Mummy quite oblivious of his silence and rejection.

Until one day she didn’t come to sit with him.

Restless, Ron sought her out. He found her curled up in her chair, clutching her Daddy’s picture.

“What happened?” His voice was gruff.

“You were right. My Daddy and your Mummy are dead. They have gone away to a place where no pilot can go.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“How do you know?”

“My teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told her I wanted to be a pilot so that I could bring back my Daddy. She…she laughed at me.” She sobbed. “The…the whole c…class laughed at me. Nobody can bring back my Daddy or your Mummy.” Rhea was quite inconsolable.

Ron stood there feeling the familiar helpless rage creep up on him. “Of course you can’t. Didn’t I tell you that long ago? But don’t worry when I grow up I will become an astronaut. I will bring back my Mummy and your Daddy.”

Rhea’s tears dried miraculously. “Really? Promise?”

Ron looked at her with foreboding. “Only if you don’t nag me. And you can’t tell anyone about this. It has to be our secret.”

Rhea nodded. “Cross my heart and hope to die. And I promise I wont even come and sit with you when you have lunch.”

Ron coughed. “You can sit if you like. I don’t mind.”

Rhea threw her arms around Ron. He let her hug him before pushing her away with a ferocious frown. She dimpled at him. She had another friend! He would bring her Daddy back. She skipped away to her Mummy.

“Why are you packing Mummy? Are we going somewhere?”

“Yes we are soon going away from here Rhea.”

“Where? To Daddy?”

“No, to a new house.”

“But why Mummy? What about our mango tree? The one we all planted?”

Gia shrugged. “We are now shifting to Bangalore where my new job is.”

“All of us?”

“No just us. You didn’t want a new Daddy or a new brother…”

“That was before Mummy. Santa was right. I…I like my new Daddy. Ron too.”

“It’s too late now. They are also leaving.”

And today Ron was gone. Jake too. They would never return, just like her Daddy. Ron would grow up and forget his promise. He would find his Mummy but not her Daddy. She clutched her pillow to crush out the pain in her chest. Ron was just a little boy but how could Jake do this to her? Hadn’t he said they were friends forever?

A paper fluttered. She picked it up. A smiley stared up at her holding a placard –Friends forever. And underneath it was a phone number.

Rhea’s heart gave a leap. Jake hadn’t really gone away. She could phone him anytime!

But…but why hadn’t Daddy left his phone number? Daddy was mean. So was Mummy.

“Mummy, you are mean too. You let Daddy go. And now you let my new Daddy and new brother go too. This time for Christmas I am going to ask Santa for a new Mummy.”

***

Yup, this one didn’t make the list either  – how about you telling me what you think – the good, the bad and the ugly…

But on a positive note – my blogger friend Ramya won the first prize for this prompt 🙂 My heartiest congratulations to her! If you like, you can hop over to her blog for some awesome stories.

Click here for more Short Stories or here for more information About the Blog

 

The Denouement

This should work as a standalone story but for best results, please read this first blushing

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(c) Rich Voza

The Denouement

 

“Shouldn’t you be on the Mumbai flight?” Angel asked.

Laksh shrugged. “A brief detour.”

“Weren’t you dying to meet your sister?” Angel was still smarting. Just my luck – one decent guy in the batch and I look like his sister.

“You can resuscitate me.” Her heart fluttered. If only.

It was a fun flight back to Delhi. At least they were friends.

“Bye.” Angel said.

“Thanks for your company.”

Despite herself, Angel blushed. His eyes were warm. Too warm.

“My Namaste to Didi.” She reminded herself.

“Drop me at the Departure gate?”

Angel stared.

“By the way, I am an only child.”

***

 Words: 102

Written for the Friday Fictioners (flash fiction in 100 words or less) hosted by Rochelle – thanks 🙂 For amazing stories on this prompt, click here.

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Love Jihad

The sixth short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other stories click here

Author Prompt

“Love Jihad

Syed and Gayatri didn’t mean to fall in love. But love happens when you least expect it. It creeps up suddenly. When someone needs attention, care, conversation, laughter and maybe even intimacy. Love doesn’t look at logic, or at backgrounds and least of all, religion.

Gayatri was from a very conservative South Indian family that went to a temple every Saturday. Syed bought goats for his family every Eid. That said it all. Their paths would never have crossed if it hadn’t been for that fateful day. That day when he walked into the coffee shop. Gayatri wondered if destiny chose our loved ones for us. Did we have any role to play at all?

She looked at her watch. Syed was late. They met every Thursday at five pm to catch up. Their conversation lasted for hours. Sometimes at the cafe, sometimes in his car, sometimes in places that she could never tell her friends about. They would never understand. And yet Syed made her happy.

Suddenly her phone beeped. He had sent a message. “On my way. Have something important to tell you.”

Gayatri stared at it and realised she had knots in her stomach. Thoughts flooded her mind. What did he want to tell her?” by Madhuri Bannerjee  (For more about the contest/rules click here).

 

Love Jihad

Syed and Gayatri didn’t mean to fall in love. But love happens when you least expect it. It creeps up suddenly. When someone needs attention, care, conversation, laughter and maybe even intimacy. Love doesn’t look at logic, or at backgrounds and least of all, religion.

Gayatri was from a very conservative South Indian family that went to a temple every Saturday. Syed bought goats for his family every Eid. That said it all. Their paths would never have crossed if it hadn’t been for that fateful day. That day when he walked into the coffee shop. Gayatri wondered if destiny chose our loved ones for us. Did we have any role to play at all?

She looked at her watch. Syed was late. They met every Thursday at five pm to catch up. Their conversation lasted for hours. Sometimes at the cafe, sometimes in his car, sometimes in places that she could never tell her friends about. They would never understand. And yet Syed made her happy.

Suddenly her phone beeped. He had sent a message. “On my way. Have something important to tell you.”

Gayatri stared at it and realised she had knots in her stomach. Thoughts flooded her mind. What did he want to tell her? Had he talked to his parents? What had they said? Was he coming to break off with her? What else could he do? Even her parent would never accept their illicit love.

No! Love could never be illicit.

Yet Gayatri couldn’t see the way out. She shuddered – how could she choose between her parents and her love? Or expect him to? So where did that leave them? Nowhere unless they ran away, leaving their parents to face the brunt of societal ire and agony of betrayal. But they couldn’t do that could they? The knots in her stomach tightened and she struggled for composure.

“Hi!” Syed broke into her thoughts as he slid into the seat opposite her. Heart thudding, she stared at him. She wished she could throw herself into his arms and let them close out the world. She didn’t need anything, anyone, hysteria bubbled up within her. “Where the hell have you been?” She couldn’t help herself. “I have been waiting and waiting. Worrying about us, and on top of it you are so late…”

Syed reached out and put a finger on her lips. “Shush. How can a doctor berate another doctor for being late? I was busy saving lives dammit!” He winked as he pressed a quick kiss on her clenched fist.

Gayatri stilled. Her eyes fluttered as she involuntarily cast a look around the cafe. What was wrong with him? He was not one for public displays of affection. And the look in his eyes! She flushed a beetroot red – yet the world, the society faded into the background. It was just them.

“What important thing?”

He clasped her hand. “Will you marry me?”

Her fingers tightened involuntarily on his. “Are you crazy? What about…”

“Look what Ammi sent.” He opened a box. “Her engagement ring. With her blessings.” He took it out and slid it on her finger. “It fits!” he gave her hand a tight squeeze before releasing it and leaning back into his seat. “I need a coffee!” He signaled for two cups and grinned at her. “What’s the matter?” His voice was innocent. “Don’t like the ring or don’t want to marry me?” He waggled his eyes at her looking smug and confident.

Gayatri worried the ring on her finger which felt odd yet right. “It’s not so simple Syed and you know it.”

“Don’t be so negative Gayatri!” He chided her. “Ammi agreed didn’t she? Your Amma too will.” He cast her a knowing look. “Once you gather the guts to talk to her of course.” He paused as the waiter placed their order. “Or should I…”

“Stop it Syed!” Gayatri was irritated. “One swallow does not a summer make. Just because your mother agreed doesn’t mean anything. What about your father? What about the others?” She looked away. “Does your mother know that I wont change my religion?”

“She does.”

“And?”

He shrugged. “And nothing. I told you she is okay with this marriage. She has given her blessings and taken responsibility for convincing my father, the others. You manage your family.”

Gayatri shook her head. “I don’t believe you. How could she agree? She doesn’t even know me.”

Syed smiled. “But she knows me!”

“Oh stop treating this as some kind of a joke dammit!”

“First you stop making it into a Laila-Majnu tragedy. For your information, this is the 21st Century.”

Gayatri clenched her fists. “Syed, I…”

“Okay!” He raised his hands. “Look, how about you meet my mother and see for yourself?”

Two days later, she was at Syed’s house. Since Syed couldn’t get leave, she was here all alone, nervous and tense. But Syed had assured her of a warm welcome. “I promise you will love her.”

Yeah, right.

“Come in dear. You are Gayatri aren’t you?” A beaming elegant middle-aged lady opened the door. “I am Ayesha, Syed’s mother.

“Namaste…I mean good afternoon Ma’am.”

“Namaste, Namaste. Come in and make yourself comfortable. Don’t worry there’s just us. Here have a glass of aam panna. It’s so hot, I thought this would be refreshing.” She bustled about busily around their cozy house. She carried in a tray loaded with goodies. “No, no you sit. I had it all ready before you came so that we could chat in peace.” She sat down across her. “Here, try this.” She held out a plate of cutlets. “Don’t worry Gayatri, it’s pure vegetarian. No onion or garlic. I even used a new frying pan.”

Tears started in Gayatri’s eyes. She just couldn’t help it. She sank down on the floor beside the baffled lady, put her head on her lap and bawled like a baby.

Ayesha let her cry for a while before forcing her up. “Enough of crying now. Go and wash up, while I make a cup of tea. Or do you prefer coffee?”

The tears started again. Gayatri controlled herself with an effort. “Tea is fine.” She managed a weak smile.

“Good. Wash your face and come into the kitchen.”

“I am sorry.” Gayatri stood behind Ayesha, pleating the edge of her dupatta. “I was very stressed and worried, you were so kind, so accepting.” she choked. “My parents…” She broke off.

“Have you talked to them?”

Gayatri shook her head. “I know they will never agree.”

Ayesha was silent, intent on the pan of boiling water.

Gayatri reached out and turned off the gas.

Ayesha started and busied herself with the tea. “Strange, how our past comes back to haunt us at the most unexpected of ways,” mused Ayesha with a twisted smile. “You could be me, three decades ago.”

“I don’t understand.”

Ayesha wore a faraway look. “When I was about your age, I was madly desperately in love with Indrajit, my childhood friend, classmate and constant companion.”

Gayatri stared.

“Nobody stopped us from playing together and we didn’t even know when we fell in love. And by then it was too late. Yet, marriage was out of the question.” Ayesha paused. “Actually, that is my greatest regret. That we didn’t even ask our parents – who knows what they would have said?”

She strained the tea and allowed Gayatri to carry the tray to the sitting room.

“What happened?”

Ayesha shrugged. “The usual. I cried, he cried. He got married. I got married and we both got on with our lives.” She smiled. “You know, you are the first person I have ever told this to. Nobody else knows, not Syed, nor his father.”

“And that is why you agreed to let your son marry me.” It was a statement not a question.

“Yes, perhaps.” An odd expression flitted across her face.

“What?” Gayatri asked.

“Indrajit has a daughter. Her name is Gayatri.”

Gayatri’s eyes widened.

Ayesha smiled. “When Syed told me, I took it as a sign, a gentle rebuke if I may call it that. I shouldn’t have given up so easily then. It was time to make amends. If not me, at least my son could have the happiness that I couldn’t.” She reached out and clasped Gayatri’s hand. “Don’t do what I did. Don’t give up so easily. Talk to your parents. At least you would have tried.”

Gayatri nodded. “Yes I will. Thank you,” she hesitated, “Ammi.”

Ayesha enfolded her in a warm embrace. “Bless you my dear. If it is meant to be, it will happen. But you have to at least try.”

Armed with these words, Gayatri took the bull by its horns and confronted her parents.

“Amma, Appa can I talk to you?”

“Yes?” Her father muted the TV and shot a look at his wife who shrugged.

“I…I love this guy and we want to get married.” She paled and her breath hitched in her throat but she gritted her teeth and continued, “his name is Syed.”

“You want to marry a meat eating scoundrel!” There was a crash as the remote hit the TV screen. Gayatri’s mother shot to her feet and slapped her. “Over my dead body.”

Gayatri’s neck snapped and she put a hand to her bruised cheek. But she held her ground. “Please Appa, he is not a scoundrel. He is also a doctor, senior to me, well-settled, good family, even his mother has agreed. And I won’t have to change my religion, eat meat…”

“Meenakshi,” roared Ravi, “tell that girl to shut up or I will murder her right now.”

“Appa,” stunned, Gayatri pleaded, “listen to me please. Just meet him once…”

Ravi strode off and returned brandishing a knife.

“Ravi!”

“Appa!”

They ran towards him but he waved them away. “One step forward and I will slash my wrists,” he positioned the knife. “Gayatri, do you swear never to talk about this thing again? Swear, otherwise I will kill myself.” He lowered the knife over his wrist.

“Appa please don’t, Appa,” Gayatri was weeping hysterically while her equally panic stricken mother berated her, “What are waiting for you wicked girl? Promise him! Promise him before he hurts himself. Gayatri does your father’s life mean nothing to you? You ungrateful wretch,” her mother shook her till her teeth rattled. “Is this why we brought you up, so that you could make us the laughing stock of our society? Is this any way to repay your parents’ debt?”

“Appa please just listen to me…

“Gayatri, I am asking you one last time.” Ravi touched the knife to his wrist and began slashing motions.

“Appa!” Gayatri shrieked. “I promise Appa, I promise. But let me meet him once, just once to explain, please Appa.”

“Fine.” Ravi nodded. “Only once. And you can invite him to your wedding next Saturday.” He threw the knife down and walked off.

“Amma! What is this about my wedding? To whom and so quickly?”

“To the first guy your father approves of, what else.” Meenaskhi too flounced out of the room.

***

“Please try and understand Syed,” a tearful Gayatri pleaded as Syed turned his back upon her, “please don’t ask me to choose you over my parents. I wouldn’t be able to live with being the cause of…”

Syed turned back and squeezed her hands before releasing them. “I am not. I am just trying to accept the situation.” His throat worked.

“What else can we do?” Gayatri said dully. “Nothing has changed in three decades.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” Gayatri shook her head. “Appa fixed my wedding. I have no choice but to go ahead with it. You also get married and forget that…” She wept bitter tears for one last time in his arms.

“You do what you think is right and I will do what I think is right.” His voice was cold and implacable.

“Wh…what do you mean?”

“I will never marry anyone other than you.”

“Syed!” her voice was a mere whisper. “Please don’t do this! I will die of guilt. You should at least try to move on.”

“I cannot, Gayatri. I cannot spoil a fourth person’s life. Please do not ask me to.”

“Syed…”

“Goodbye my love.” Syed pulled her into his arms and pressed a fierce kiss on her lips. “Remember that I will always wait for you.” The next instant, he was gone.

“Syed.” Gayatri wept bitter tears. For one wild moment she contemplated jumping off the nearest high rise building – anything to be rid of this deep agonizing excruciating unbearable pain. But then her phone rang.

“Yes Appa, I told him. He has gone. Yes, Appa, I am coming home.”

True to her word, Gayatri didn’t contact Syed. Yet she couldn’t prevent herself from calling Ayesha.

“How is he?”

“How do you think? Completely shattered.” Ayesha was short.

Guilt smote Gayatri. “Please don’t be like that! I thought you would understand. I didn’t have a choice!”

“I disagree.” Ayesha’s voice was hard. “There is always a choice. You made yours. You chose your father over my son. Your father is alive. My son…” She choked.

Gayatri flared up. “How can you blame me, when you also took a similar decision?”

“That wasn’t my decision. It was Indrajit’s. He was too cowardly to face societal ire. I was ready to brave anything but he backed out.” Her voice broke. “And now you. I hope you are happy Gayatri.” She disconnected the phone.

Gayatri broke down – it wasn’t fair! She screamed silently and not for the first time. Why should so many lives be shattered because of the outdated dictates of some faceless, unknown ‘society’?

Taking no chances, Gayatri was married off to Ramesh at the next auspicious date in a quiet private ceremony followed by a gala reception. Society turned out in large droves to bless the happy couple, gush over the ostentatious arrangements and gorge on the lavish spread. Ravi and Meenakshi beamed from ear to ear as they basked in the glory of their appreciation. They heaved a sigh of relief and carried on with their lives.

A few days later, Gayatri burst into her parents’ home and threw up in the washroom.

“What the hell!” Ravi thundered. “I will kill you.” He grabbed a still retching Gayatri by the throat and shook her like a ragged doll.

“Are you crazy?” Meenakshi threw herself into the fray and dragged Gayatri away.

Meenakshi slapped her hard. “Get out you shameless woman. I never should have brought you home from the orphanage.”

Gayatri stilled as the penny dropped.

“And yet you didn’t let me marry Syed?”

“You ungrateful wretch!” Ravi charged at her.

Gayatri held up her hand. “Relax. I am not pregnant.” She looked Ravi full in the eye and said, “I threw up because Ramesh, your beloved son-in-law, insisted that I eat meat.”

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No Place to Run

The second short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other stories click here

Author Prompt

‘What the hell is going on between my husband and that bitch?’ Maya’s patience was at its lowest ebb and she was ready to burst.

Sanjay knew that she was serious. ‘Look, Maya. There is nothing going on between the two of them. Just a little bit of healthy flirting, I’d say.’

‘Flirting? Healthy flirting? Really Sanjay . . .’ she rolled her eyes in disgust. ‘That’s what you men call it? There is nothing healthy about flirting, Sanjay, not for a married man.

Healthy flirting is a term introduced by perverted men who want to lend legitimacy to their extramarital dalliances. Flirting invariably has a sexual connotation to it.’ She got up from her seat and walked around the room gesticulating and muttering something to herself. Suddenly she stopped, turned back, looked at Sanjay and asked, ‘Did my husband sleep with her? You are his friend. Did he ever tell you anything about it?‘- by Ravi Subramanian  (For details of the contest click here)

No Place to Run

Maya ran up the stairs and pressed the bell. She rang until Sanjay opened the door.

“Hey.” Sanjay peered blearily at her. He stumbled back inside.

Maya followed him. “Were you sleeping?”

“For heaven’s sake Maya,” Sanjay said, “it’s barely seven am, that too on a freezing Sunday. What did you expect?” He vanished into the washroom. “Make some coffee will you?” he yelled through the door.

“Okay shoot.” Sanjay sat across Maya at the dining table clutching his mug for warmth.

Maya seemed to be in the grip of a dilemma. She fidgeted restlessly.

“Come on.”

“What the hell is going on between my husband and that bitch?” Maya’s patience was at its lowest ebb and she was ready to burst.

Sanjay knew that she was serious. “Look, Maya. There is nothing going on between the two of them. Just a little bit of healthy flirting, I’d say.”

“Flirting? Healthy flirting? Really Sanjay . . .” she rolled her eyes in disgust. “That’s what you men call it? There is nothing healthy about flirting, Sanjay, not for a married man.

Healthy flirting is a term introduced by perverted men who want to lend legitimacy to their extramarital dalliances. Flirting invariably has a sexual connotation to it.” She got up from her seat and walked around the room gesticulating and muttering something to herself. Suddenly she stopped, turned back, looked at Sanjay and asked, “Did my husband sleep with her? You are his friend. Did he ever tell you anything about it?”

“I…I couldn’t say.” Sanjay shifted in his seat. “Best if you talk to him directly.”

Maya bit her lip. “I wish I could,” she mumbled. Tears filled her eyes.

“Oh man.” Sanjay got up and paced his tiny kitchen.

She hurriedly wiped her eyes. “Sorry.” She blew her nose and offered him a watery smile. “I am okay, really.”

Relieved, Sanjay slid back into his chair. “Talk to me Maya.” He sipped his coffee and waited patiently.

She swallowed valiantly. “The thing is,” she said pulling at her handkerchief, “I am afraid to talk to Adi. What if -, what if he admits he is having an affair? What will I do then?” she asked.

Sanjay sighed. “But how will not talking to him help?” he said gently. “I mean, you came to me to know the truth. Now suppose,” he said looking at her, “just suppose, I say ‘yes he is having an affair’ then what will you do?”

Maya buried her face in her arms and burst into huge sobs.

Sanjay dragged a hand through his hair. “Apart from that,” he muttered to himself. He pushed his chair back and viciously attacked the pile of dishes in the sink.

After a little while, Maya pulled herself together. She got up and began drying the dishes.

“I am sorry.”

“Dump him Maya. Walk out today. Right now.”

“It’s not so simple Sanjay.”

“It is. This is the 21st Century, not some medieval era where women have no choice but to stay on with their husbands and silently bear all the torture.” Sanjay pulled open a drawer and swept the cutlery into it. He opened cupboards looking for something that could serve as breakfast.

“You don’t understand.”

“No.” Sanjay slammed the cupboard shut. He turned to her. “You are the one who doesn’t understand. You are the one who is making things complicated.”

Maya stood there twisting her fingers with a trapped expression on her face.

He sighed and led her to the dining table. He sat down across her. “Look Maya,” he said, softening his tone, “I know it’s not easy but you have to take a stand on this. But, it’s high time, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Sanjay drummed his fingers on the table. He raised his hand and gingerly lifted the floppy sleeve of her kurta. There was a big purple patch on her upper arm.

Maya flushed. She hurriedly pushed the sleeve down. “I banged it against the door,” she mumbled.

“Please Maya, don’t give me all that rot.”

“I love him. He is my husband. I can’t just walk off.”

“Why the hell can’t you? See, this is the problem with you Indian women. You create problems for yourselves. Always lying to yourselves. Always in denial.”

He walked out of the room returning with a packet of cigarettes and a lighter.

“I thought you had given up smoking?”

He lit up and took a deep drag.

“Tell me Maya. Make me understand. But don’t give me all that nonsense about loving him. Honestly, if you ask me, it’s all your fault.”

Maya sat with her head bowed.

“Come on Maya.” Sanjay paced the floor restlessly. “Tell me, where is the problem? You are educated. You hold a good job. You are financially secure. All the laws of the country are with you women.” He ticked them off one by one on his finger. “Walk out. File an FIR. Apply for divorce and that’s it.”

He came and stood beside her but she refused to look up.

He pulled out a chair and sat down. “Just think of it Maya – freedom, peace and your life is yours again – don’t you want that?”

Maya looked at him with helpless, tear-filled eyes. “But it’s not so simple.”

Sanjay’s chair scraped gratingly. “Now you are getting on my nerves. For heaven’s sake, show some spine. Walk out before things become worse.” He stubbed out his cigarette.

“You are saying that because you can’t see the big picture.”

“So show me.” He sat down again.

Maya scrubbed her face and blew her nose. “Even if I ignore the fact that I am emotionally dependent on him – ,” her voice wobbled and she trailed off.

Sanjay groaned and buried his head in his hands.

Maya cleared her throat and began again, “I have to think about the practicalities.”

“Yeah, let’s talk about the practicalities. House, car, maid.” He listed briskly. “Today nothing is a problem if you have money. With your remuneration package, that should not be an issue. You don’t even need financial support from Aditya.”

“I don’t have any money.”

“What do you mean?”

Maya fiddled with a spoon. “When we got married three years ago,” she paused, “you know we had a love marriage?”

Sanjay nodded.

“My family was against the marriage because he was not well off. They cut me off when I went against their wishes and eloped with him. Adi was very upset for my sake and determined to make it big. He wanted to buy a house and show my parents that they had misjudged him.

“So we decided that one of our salaries would be used for the monthly expenses while the other would be our savings, which would be used to purchase a house, pay off loans and stuff.” She looked down.

“And obviously, his salary was saved while yours was used for the monthly expenses,” he completed for her. “But the car loan that you took from the office, that is being deducted from your salary isn’t it?”

“Well, I needed the car. Aditya takes the Metro.”

“How much money do you have in your account right now?”

“Maybe around ten thousand rupees? It’s nearing the end of the month.”

“And how much money in his account?”

“I don’t know. Mine is a joint account but not his. It has only recently struck me that while Adi knows my exact salary, my daily expenses, even the exact amount of money in my purse, I don’t know anything about his finances. What his salary is, what the investments are, I know nothing.”

“Unbelievable. How could you be such an idiot?”

Maya tried to smile but failed. “I was crazily in love with him and trusted him completely.” She bit her lip and looked away. “He was so sweet and caring. He insisted on taking care of the finances. He said he didn’t want to bother my pretty little head with such petty things. He didn’t like me talking to my friends…he said that he liked to have all my focus on him, only him.” She choked. “Because he was so possessive, I lost touch with all my friends. You are the only one I could think of – .”

“Damn the guy.” Sanjay swore. He clicked his fingers. “Fine, I will lend you the money. What do you need the money for? Renting a house right? About one lakh should do the trick,” He raised his hand and silenced her. “You can pay me back later,” he waved his hands, “whenever, not a problem. Okay?”

Without waiting for a response, he opened the Sunday Times. He took out the classified section and began skimming it. “One room studio apartment near the office would be ideal.”

“Sanjay.”

“Now what?”

“What about Chavvi?”

“What about her?” He looked blankly at her.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” Despair was clearly written on her face. “She is just two years old. How can I take care of her and manage a job all alone? You know I have to travel a lot.”

“Who takes care of her now?”

“There is a part-time help. But she does everything under my mother-in-law’s supervision. I couldn’t think of leaving her alone with the maid.” Maya’s face was pale and pinched. “Besides, she is unreliable. She often comes late and is frequently absent.” She turned to Sanjay and appealed, “How will I manage alone?”

“Aren’t there crèches or something?”

“Yes, but it’s not a practical option for Chavvi. She is too young. Besides she has a delicate constitution. The doctor too advised against it. Plus, with the amount of travel I do,” Maya shook her head decisively, “that is not an option.”

“Call your parents to stay with you.”

Maya tried to speak but no words came out. She drank some water. “They are not with me in this,” she finally managed to say. “ ‘You made your choice, it was your decision, now deal with it’ – that’s what they say whenever I try to say something.”

“Okay, how about contacting some NGO?”

“I did try,” she said tonelessly. “The lady at the other end listened patiently to my problems and then said ‘best if you try to adjust’.”

“How about a working women’s hostel?”

“None of them have any provision for housing a child.”

Sanjay fiddled with his phone.

“I know.” He clicked his fingers. “File a complaint with the police.” He pointed to her arm. “That’s a case for domestic violence, the police will come and arrest your husband, maybe even mother-in-law. My friend’s sister,” he tapped his phone, “did exactly that.”

“And then?”

“Then what? You and your daughter continue to stay on minus the monsters, that’s what.” His eyes glittered triumphantly.

“But what about when they get bail? They will come home right? What if he hits me again? Should I go to the police again?”

“Of course. That’s what the law is for. But don’t worry it won’t come to that. One brush with the law, and the worst of them straighten up. Happened with my friend’s sister, they are now living happily together.”

“Everyone is not the same.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know the first time Adi raised his hand at me, I threatened to call the police. You know what happened? He became even more violent call the police will you? Then may as well hit you to my heart’s content, after all they can arrest me only once. And for how long – a few days, weeks? When I come out of jail, you cannot even imagine what I will do to you and your daughter. You have no place to run to – even your parents have disowned you. He laughed maniacally and thrashed me with his shoe.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

Sanjay was horrified. “I guess you didn’t call the police?”

“Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. He took away my phone and locked me in the room. I could hear Chavvi crying in the other room the whole night. In the morning, they let me go to her, as she was running a fever. They threatened me that if I breathed a word about this to anybody, they would get a doctor to certify that I was mentally ill. They would put me in a mental asylum. Take me away from my daughter…” Maya broke down.

“They are bluffing.”

“Perhaps. But I cannot take the risk. Not at my daughter’s cost.”

“But this…this isn’t acceptable. There must be some solution. File a case, demand alimony, child maintenance, bleed the &*%^#$ dry, make him grovel.” Sanjay pounded his hand on the table.

Maya looked at him sadly. “You still don’t get it do you? He wants a divorce. He wants to marry that woman. But he wants me to be the one to walk out so that he can file for desertion. I have no money, no place to go and I will lose my daughter too. He has money, power, contacts on his side. He will do anything to get rid of me without having to shell out any court fees or alimony using Chavvi as the bait.” She shuddered.

“So let him keep Chavvi. After all, he is the father and his mother is capable of looking after her. There are lots of PG hostels for girls. I can immediately arrange for you. Should I?” he asked eagerly.

“Are you crazy? How can I leave Chavvi at the mercy of those monsters? I would rather kill her myself.”

Sanjay looked at her in horror.

“That’s why I came here. To ask if you knew this other woman. Does she know that he is married? What kind of a person is she? Would she back off if I talked to her? At least then he wouldn’t be so desperate to get rid of me. He knows that I am due for a salary hike.”

“That means you will continue to stay in this hell hole? What about Chavvi? Such a home environment cannot be good for her.”

“At least she has a home.” Maya got up. “I better go. Will you find out about the woman?”

He nodded slowly.

“Thanks.” She paused at the door. “Isn’t it ironic that I apparently belong to the privileged 2% of the women of this country.” She smiled mirthlessly. “All the anguish, humiliation, and suffocation that I feel are nothing compared to the disgust I feel for myself.”

A cold clammy sensation enveloped Sanjay. “How can you bear to go back there?” The words seemed to be wrung out of him.

Maya drew herself up. “Don’t worry, I won’t kill myself. Because you see, I don’t matter. Chavvi matters.”

So what did you think? What are her options? Look forward to reading your comments, suggestions, solutions  – thanks. Click here for more short stories.

It happened on my watch

The first short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other stories, click here

Author Prompt

“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.