Small dreams and simple hopes (A short story)

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 6:35 PM
Nandu didn't know how it felt to have a full stomach after a sumptuous meal. Life was not very kind to an insignificant washer-man in a small city like Lucknow. And Nandu's life had been spent first helping his mother wash other people's clothes (while his alcoholic father spent all their money on his addiction), and later taking on the job full-time when his mother's bodily strengths had given way to illness and old-age. He tried to stay mellow and that had now become a habit. Nandu had learnt to smile in the face of adversity because growling had never seemed to help anyone in his situation.

His marriage has turned out badly too. His wife, still in the trance of her old lover, had not birthed him a child and left him when he tried to coax her into having one. His second wife was a divorcee herself, and thankfully, they hit it off as seamlessly as a round roti fits perfectly on a circular black tawa. Nandu and Kanta had built a happy life together. After delivering one girl and two boys, Kanta decided to help Nandu with his work as well.

The couple would set off each morning (Kanta would carry their kids with her) to the various households that had employed them. Nandu would attend to half of them and Kanta would attend to the other half. Scores of unwashed clothes from the previous day would first be soaked in water plus detergent in big buckets typically found in all Indian homes. While the clothes got soaked, Nandu would wash cars for extra money and Kanta (in her own other separate house of work) would make small-talk with the lady of the household. Then they would wash the clothes and hang them out on clothing lines to dry. Both would meet to eat the lunch that Kanta would pack for them and then disperse again to return to their respective houses and iron out the bundles of clothes from the previous day. In the evening, they would set out together to go home and prepare their meals.

On a particularly warm day on a June afternoon, Nandu had to attend to his sick mother. So Kanta decided to manage the day's workload alone. She dressed up in a plain red cotton saree (a proud sign of her happy marriage), put a big round maroon bindi on her forehead, cooked some rotis for lunch and headed out to wash clothes with her youngest son on the hip, and another boy and a girl (her two older kids) walking behind her holding her saree pallu. Kanta was a strong-headed, sharp woman. Instead of feeling pressured by the rigours of daily routine work, she enjoyed the time away from home. She also enjoyed making some money of her and helping out her husband, and had learned to treasure her conversations with the primary women in the houses that she worked in. These women were her window to an affluent life that she could never afford. Their stories about their children's troubles in school, the tiffs with their husbands over money matters and their concerns about nosey relatives were Kanta's staple food for thought. She liked these conversations perhaps much more than any other aspects of work and with that motivation, she continued to make long strides towards the houses.

Midway during her morning work, Kanta realized that today was her and Nandu's wedding anniversary. It had been 5 long years since they had tied the knot in a quiet ceremony attended by only a few relatives (Indians are known to exhibit lukewarm, squirmish feelings about second marriages). And yet, Kanta held the day close to her heart because it had made a huge difference to her otherwise sullen life. Her first husband used to beat her and pushed her out of the house after returning home drunk one night. In the scuffle that followed, he had hurt Kanta so bad that she had to be hospitalised later for a dislocated shoulder. It was then that she had decided to do something about the situation. When she threatened him with a police complaint after getting home a few days later, he had poked her with cigarette holes and revealed having an affair with someone he knew for several years. A heartbroken Kanta had then filed for divorce (after much condemnation from her relatives) and her subsequent marriage with Nandu had been a god-sent. Unlike her previous husband, Nandu was jolly and looked forever happy, no matter what the situation. Leave alone hitting her, he never even raised his voice to scold her. Having finally attained a marital bond worth nurturing and a husband who treated her well, Kanta deeply valued her relationship with him.

She wanted to make the anniversary special for Nandu. So after washing and ironing what felt like truckloads of clothes (the domestic banter did help her immensely in passing the day. The regular tea that people offered to her in the evening helped too), Kanta went to the house-mistress of the last house that she had ironed clothes in and asked her if she had any leftover food from the day. Luckily, the woman had huge quantities of food left in her fridge from the meals of today and the day before, which she was more than happy to offload on Kanta (people generally liked Kanta for her affable and friendly disposition). The leftover subzis made Kanta very happy. In reality, with the responsibility of three young kids, the couple could barely make ends meet. On most nights, they would just eat raw onions with roti because buying vegetables was expensive. Nor did they own a refrigerator to save the produce for the next day.

At around 7 in the evening, Kanta tied the tiny polythene bags containing the left-over subzis in a fold of the saree at her waist and picked up her three kids to make her way back home. The sun was almost down and the sweltering hot ground had now turned partially cool in the wake of the evening breeze. Kanta knew that on days like today, Nandu would only come back after putting his mother to sleep at around 9 pm, and so she had plenty of time to bathe, put the kids to bed and set out the food for him. At home, when she finally opened the tiny polythene bags to look at the food that had been doled out to her, she was happy to see small portions of residual shahi paneer, butter chicken, dal palak and some rajma in a thick creamy gravy. The last subzi looked like a left-over from a restaurant meal that the family must have had together sometime on the weekend. The others looked home-cooked and were still a bit cold from being extracted from the fridge.

Kanta did as she had planned. She took a quick bath, fed her kids and put them to bed. Then she made some fresh rotis for Nandu and lay them out on the floor with the now-heated subzis. The family didn't have much furniture besides a bed which all five of them shared. They often just dined on the floor with a newspaper laid out as a mat. Their 'house' was actually just one big room with a kitchen stashed on one side and a bed on another. The toilet was a dingy small room outside and they took their baths behind a small wall partition alongside the house and the toilet. It wasn't much, but the family could make do.

True to his habit, Nandu returned at five minutes past 9, looking tired and worn-out. Taking care of his mother was not an easy task and it drained him off all his energy every time. He first cooked for her, then bathed her, took her to the doctor, bought her medicines, fed her and finally put her to bed. She lived in an even smaller house in the same locality and was now alone, after her alcoholic husband had passed away two years ago from severe liver damage.

The sight of Kanta sitting on the floor, waiting for him with food , instantly cheered Nandu up. He did love this woman who would wait each night for the kids to fall asleep to share dinner with him. Kanta looked clean and fresh, dressed in a new pink saree that she had recently bought for her sister's engagement. Nandu approached her, cleaned up quickly in the kitchen sink, and sat down next to her. They both finally shared a hearty meal together and talked about their respective days. Both shared details of their work and conversations, and after finishing the meal, Kanta slowly reminded him of their fifth saal-giraah. Nandu blushed a little and kissed her gently on the cheek. He wished her and slowly began to help her with clearing up the dishes. He was happy because his wife had remembered their anniversary and made an effort to put together a nice meal for him. He wore a smile too because his stomach was finally full with delectable food after months of eating just onions and rotis (with achaar) for dinner.

As the couple returned to bed to squeeze in alongside their three sleeping kids, Nandu turned to face Kanta and slowly pulled out a small package from his trouser pockets. It looked like a newspaper wrapped around something small. Kanta removed the crumbling paper slowly to find a dozen bright, red bangles staring back at her. They were plain in appearance and wore the hallmark of simplicity that she now associated with her husband. Her eyes welled up when she realised that Nandu must have sneaked out quietly after the doctor's appointment to visit the marketplace nearby to buy her this gift. With tears dripping down her cheeks, she wore the bangles on her wrists and wrapped her arms around Nandu as a sign of loving gratitude. The couple held on to each other in the stillness of the night and quietly repeated their vows in each other's ears. After that, they slowly drifted back to peaceful sleep... knowing that the circle of life was now complete with their companionship and their three beautiful kids...


The hand of fate (a short story)

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 3:27 AM
The sun was still up when she left the office. Summers in Delhi were brutal and the sunlight was still sharp well past 6 in the evening. Dressed in a simple lilac chooridaar suit, with a white silk dupatta around her neck, Lakshmi walked in slow, tired strides towards her car. Her jaipuri jootis felt clammy under her feet and she had already broken into a sweat from the short walk from the office to her vehicle. With bulky files in one hand and car keys in another, she finally settled down into the driver’s seat and revved up the engine.

Grooooom… started her silver Honda Civic like an obedient servant. As Lakshmi slowly steered her way out of the crowded parking lot, she shot a quick glance at the imposing office building. Amidst the several floors and cubicles that it encompassed, she occupied a small desk as the Marketing Associate for a leading FMCG company on the 10th floor. Lakshmi liked her work, but on days like today after several meetings and a multitude of tiring conversations, she felt drained and completely bereft of energy. This, despite the knowledge that it was the earliest that she had left work in months.

At home waited no one in particular. A rusty apartment in a crowded locality in Delhi – Lakshmi’s house by characterized by crummy walls, chipped paint, stained curtains, an empty fridge and a hardly-used kitchen. She lived alone and her kaam-wali bai came to clean and wash every morning before Lakshmi left for work. The apartment was once plush, but the lack of maintenance had reduced it to its sad state of unkemptness.

The relationship that Lakshmi shared with her bai was one of the few that she could sustain at this point in her life. At the age of 32 years, without a husband or a child, life anyway didn’t come easy for Lakshmi. When she had graduated from business school several years ago, her parents had dreamt big dreams for her. But when the pressures of rigorous jobs (and living alone) consumed her, Lakshmi had found solace in the company of a man. A man who had later got her pregnant and then refused to share a part of the blame and responsibility. After he broke her heart on a rainy winter evening and left her to fend for herself, Lakshmi had decided to build a life alone. But an abortion had became imminent, and after wilfully losing her child to a callous surgical procedure, Lakshmi had lost a part of herself too.

She no longer wished to engage in the daily mundaneness of regular life. Nor did she make friends, continued to stay wary of men and falling in love, refused to engage in household work and seemed to have lost all interest in even cooking square meals for herself. Directing all her efforts towards her job, Lakshmi had found a vent for her simmering rage through the way of work. And on days like today when she could leave office earlier than usual, Lakshmi slipped into glumness and dark contemplation. Her mind would travel back to her poor lost child, and with it the lost opportunities, and she would start judging herself through the prism of a miserably failed motherhood. She thought it was the hardest burden to carry, and consequently, she occasionally lapsed into brief spells of depression and severe self-criticism.

As she drove her Civic for a few kilometers and entered a busy market area of the city, she looked around on a red traffic signal to distract herself from her dreary thoughts. Her eyes fell upon a mother scolding her two children for demanding ice-cream each time they saw a vendor. A part of Lakshmi’s stomach churned with over-bearing longing and she thought about how different life would have been if she had decided to keep the baby and raised it alone. But Lakshmi knew that she didn’t have the courage to brave the constant sneers of the society, and she tore her eyes away from the angry mother and looked ahead, waiting for the light to change to green. And thankfully, with the signal, changed her pathetic mood.

After 30 more agonizing minutes of weaving her way through the crowded market traffic, Lakshmi hit the expressway, but was still half hour away from home. The subsequent easing away of the brief spell of road-rage gave way to a pregnant silence, and soon Lakshmi was sucked again into the melancholy mood that continued to gnaw on her insides. No more traffic jams or car horns were around to distract her from succumbing to her now persistent inner unrest.

She knew that deep below, she was very upset. Still hurt and dejected by the betrayal of the man that she once loved with all her heart. Three years had passed since the tragic events, and he was even married to someone else now. What was worse, was that his wife was expecting a baby in just three months. Lakshmi knew all this because she had never stopped stalking him. Sometimes on social media and sometimes through her friends, she knew where he lived and what he was up to most of the time. Even though he made much less money than she did now, he at least appeared to be happy. And that tore Lakshmi apart because she felt alone in bearing the brunt of hardship stemming from the loss of their child and relationship. She constantly lived with the guilt of having exhumed an innocent life because of her cowardly lack of options, even as the man of her dreams who was responsible for the loss continued to live like nothing had happened. She felt tortured and slighted by his ignorance and according to her - his cold apathy.

Something turned inside of her at the thought of her past lover’s unborn child, and the bright future that lay ahead for the baby, and the unfairness of it all screamed out at Lakshmi & ran its pointy fingers on the walls of her fragile heart. The pain in her gut became unbearable to carry and out of nowhere, she decided to turn the car and give a piece of her mind to the unassuming scum-bag. While her purple jhumkas made slight chiming noises along the small bumps in the road, Lakshmi made a rough change of gears, and suddenly steered right to make a U-turn.

And then it happened. BAM!


When an eye-witness was asked for his testimony about what he had seen, he narrated that a furious looking woman had suddenly changed lanes at high speed on a dangerous express-way, and had been hit by a truck coming from behind her car. The hood of the truck had rammed straight into Lakshmi’s car door, and the light of life had almost immediately been sucked out of her as a rod of steel tore through her brain. Her frozen face now wore an expression of frigid horror, like it had never recovered from the sight of the approaching truck. The grotesque creases on her body almost told the story of a life full of disappointments and injustices. Her story of loneliness and betrayal seemed to have come to a sudden, but fitting end, in the savage accident.

The eye witness, of course, had only seen an ordinary woman die in an unfortunate accident. But on a deeper level, fate had dealt its final blow to Lakshmi and taken away whatever little remained in her puny hands. Her struggles with life had come to an abrupt end and maybe her soul had finally been reunited with her unborn child. The child - that was the only source of light (and darkness alike) in her now extinguished life.

The next day when the bai knocked on Lakshmi’s door to clean the house, no one answered. The forever grieving and lonely Lakshmi didn't live there anymore...

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