The winning entry in the LitSoc Creative Writing (Solo) contest 2012-13, written by Rajaram Suresh
What kind of a place is this? Is this even Delhi?
She kept weaving through narrow alleys and garbage beds in the hope of losing her stalkers. The sooner, the better. Her gas was running out; she was already panting.
“Leave me alone, you—“
An iron rod popping out of the dump had tripped Isha. The stalkers were closing in menacingly. One of them kneeled down and held her face with his fat palm, his face inches from hers.
God, please. Don’t let this happen.
He sniffed at Isha’s perfume and shifted his gaze from her face to her top. Isha closed her eyes, bracing herself. She waited for his dreaded touch, but instead, there came a cry from somewhere not far away.
The stalkers – clearly terrified of the voice – got up and ran, leaving Isha alone.
She opened her eyes.
“Who are you and why are you here?”
Oh, god. I know this accent. People who haven’t been to school speak like this. Slumdogs.
“I’m – I’m Isha, from Delhi Public School. I was taking a shortcut to the bus-stop when those men began chasing me. I lost my way in the slum.” stuttered Isha.
“Ahaan! Of course you did. Why else would pretty little school-kids end up in slums like these?”
Isha looked up to see the owner of the voice. It was a woman, not very young, but certainly not past her thirties. She was wearing a shirt and a lungi; except a tiny nosering, there were no bangles, chains, or other ornaments that an average Indian woman – however poor – would identify herself with. Her hair was dirty; she had tied it carelessly in a ponytail. She was chewing paan as well – something that warned Isha against trusting this woman.
“Have you bled yet, girl?”
Isha was taken aback, but nodded after a couple of seconds, too embarassed to reply.
“No wonder they came after you. Anything which walks and curves in the right places never misses them. Assholes. Come with me. I’ll get you coffee,” she said, and led Isha into a narrow street, at the end of which, was a very small shop.
“This is my samosa-dookan. Sit down. Do you eat samosas?” she said, signalling to a broken bench behind Isha.
Isha looked at her hesitantly. She had money only for her bus ride back. But even if she did, she was not for having roadside food; especially not in this slum. Noticing Isha squirm uneasily, the woman laughed loudly.
“I won’t ask you for money, girl. Now, have a cup of coffee!”
Isha nodded timidly. They sat there, having coffee, until the woman broke the silence:
“Ever tried smoking?”
Isha shook her head, too shocked to say no.
“Here, take a puff. I started smoking when I was your age.”
Too scared to refuse, Isha tried to hold the beedi between her fingers – like how they used to, in Bollywood – and took a deep puff. The whiff was too much for her tender lungs. She began coughing uncontrollably. The woman started laughing again.
“Inhale slowly. Feel the smoke filling your insides. Let it spread. Nice and easy. Like that,” she closed her eyes, and inhaled.
“What’s your name?” asked Isha, eager to stray off-topic.
“Sundari. Why does the pretty girl want to know?” she questioned, her toothy grin revealing blackened gums; evidently, she had succumbed to the vices of paan.
“Just – Just wanted to know, that’s all. Listen, it’s getting late and my parents would be getting worried. Could you tell me the way to the bus-stop, please?”
“No. You’ll bump into those assholes again. Come, let me walk you there,” said Sundari.
To Isha’s delight, the bus was slowing down as they reached the stop. Sundari smacked Isha on her back.
“You still have a lot to learn, girl. There are things your school can’t teach you. For instance, you are missing something in life if you don’t try my samosas. Drop by, when you’re ready to.”
Right. Not even in my dreams, woman.
Afraid that she might be caught talking with someone as crass as Sundari, Isha half-waved to Sundari and hurriedly got on the bus.
She was too scared to turn back.
It was 3:45.
Isha hurried out of her school gate, jogging, desperate to catch the 4:15 bus. She didn’t want to miss her violin class. She had promised herself yesterday that she’d never again take shortcuts in her life; however, she was staring at a board on which was scribbled:
Now she’d have to take an even longer route to the bus-stop. As she was thinking of a way to get home, she caught Sundari looking at her. She was leaning against the Ice-Cream stand, smoking her beedi, the tomboyish grin spread across her face. As Isha looked at her, Sundari put off her beedi, and walked towards Isha.
“Want to get home, girl?”
“Yes, please. Could you walk me to the stop?”
“I will, but only after you promise me something.”
The thought of smoking another beedi repulsed Isha. However, she wanted to reach home at any cost. She reluctantly agreed.
“You should have a samosa and coffee in my dookan. Are you up for it?”
Thank God. Not as bad as I thought.
“Sure I will, didi. But quickly, please? I have violin class to attend.”
“Stop saying please and call me Sundari. Didi makes me look old.”
Sundari took Isha to her dookan and handed a samosa to Isha. She took the first bite with apprehension, but to her surprise, she had never tasted anything like it before.
Wow. It’s delicious.
Reading Isha’s expression, Sundari grinned and offered a glass of coffee.
“Take a sip after every bite. You’ll love it.”
They sat there having coffee until Isha’s watch chimed four. She sprang to her feet.
“Shit, I’m getting late for class. Please drop me, didi.”
Sundari glared at Isha.
“God. Sundari, drop me now!” laughed Isha, keeping her tone firm at the same time.
As the bus vroomed away from the stop, Isha turned back to see Sundari waving to her.
She waved back. Twice.
I was waiting near the Ice-Cream shop when I saw her walk out of school, red-eyed. She had been crying. I stopped her and asked her what was wrong. She wiped her tears and dragged me towards my dookan. The girl was evidently too caught up in her problem to notice what she was doing. I sat her down on my dookan bench and gave her two fat samosas and a big glass filled with piping hot coffee.
She needed some space.
As I waited silently, I couldn’t help but notice how strikingly similar this girl was, to me. I could almost see myself speaking through her mouth and expressing through her beautiful eyes. After fifteen minutes, Isha finally broke the silence. She told me about the issue with her best friend and her teacher; that she was to receive an award from the Chief Minister; how Shilpa – her best friend – had stolen her chance just because her father was an MP; that her teacher was an accomplice to the whole plot; how she felt cheated that she couldn’t get to meet the CM; and that she would just cry in front of the TV. I was careful not to nod too frequently; I put my hand on her shoulder, and tried to calm her down.
Thank god she didn’t know how happy I was for her missed chance.
After she was done, she asked me why I was living my life in this hellhole. I opened up to her. I told her all about my past –stories ridden with chagrin. After my family was killed in a caste riot in the south, I and my daughter migrated to Delhi with hopes of a better living. In 1996, the dengue epidemic struck the slums of Delhi; my daughter was diagnosed with acute dengue; the then health minister held my hand and promised my girl free treatment as I couldn’t afford it. We waited and waited. Neither he nor the treatment returned as promised; we were thrown out of the clinic; I watched my six-year-old daughter wilt – slowly and painfully – to a cruel end.
He could have paid for my daughter’s life with his abundant wealth, but he chose not to. My kid is watching me from up there, beckoning me with open arms. I tell her I’ll join her soon.
We sat there having coffee until darkness fell. I walked her to the bus-stop. Before the bus stopped, she hugged me for five full seconds. Before she let go, I thought I felt a tear drop fall on my shoulder.
What is this I’m feeling? Why am I attached inexplicably to this girl? How have my defences been shattered so easily? I’m not meant to be fragile. Yet, I find myself opening up to her as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
What is holding me back from doing what I have to?
Isha was sitting cross-legged on the broken bench. Sundari was puffing her beedi blissfully.
“Did I tell you how stunning you look in this saree?” asked a surprised Isha.
Isha was surprised she hadn’t noticed how beautiful Sundari looked. She had washed and oiled her hair; combed it, and plaited it neatly, making her look a decade younger. She was well endowed, had a healthy complexion, and luxurious hair. Her bright green saree accentuated her figure. All this made Isha wonder why none of the men made advances on Sundari.
God, I just hope she doesn’t have sex with these goondas.
“Try this one, would you?” mocked Sundari.
“You know what, I think I will,” grinned Isha as she took a puff, slowly.
“I could do with some getting used to,” managed Isha, after ten seconds, half-laughing, half-coughing.
“Shilpa is going to get the prize tomorrow,” Isha’s face fell.
“The CM is an asshole,” shot back Sundari.
“Don’t you dare say—“
“Alright, Alright. Would you be happy if I screwed up Shilpa’s moment of glory?”
“Ma…ybe,” grinned Isha.
They just sat there, having coffee, unaware that a pair of eyes was watching them in shock.
After what seemed like an eternity, “Goodbye, Isha,”said Sundari, softly.
“Why are you bidding farewell now, Ms. Sundari?” laughed Isha.
Sundari merely smiled.
Isha covered her cheek, tears in her eyes.
“You think you could loaf around in slums, smoking with slumdogs, and no one would care!?”
“Papa, I’m so so—“
“Enough. Thank heavens, it was only our maid who saw you. Had it been anyone else—“
But he was interrupted by the maid.
“Saab, come here! It’s her! She’s the one!”
On the news channel was running a clipping on loop. It showed the Chief Minister amidst a sea of commoners. A person with a shocking-green saree ran to the CM and prostrated in front of him. Suddenly, there was a resounding explosion and the audio feedback went mute. The stage had been torn to smithereens.
CHIEF MINISTER ASSASINATED
SLUM-DWELLER TURNS SUICIDE BOMBER
Her father looked aghast.
My girl was smoking beedis with this woman. It would have been my daughter in the place of Shilpa. God, you are merciful.
Meanwhile, a reporter was presenting from the blast site.
“Former Health minister and current Chief Minister Mr.—“
Isha just stared at the screen in shock, face impassive. Words failed her; she found the floor shaking beneath her feet. Was it anger, or shock? Was it remorse, or was it disappointment?
Her mind drifted back to the image of Sundari sitting cross-legged, in the green saree, sipping her coffee.
“—I’ve suffered enough in my life to not worry about consequences. He committed a sin. Karma will see to it that he pays—“
They sat there, having coffee until Isha blacked out.