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Of Childhood and Notebooks

I remember a time, back when I was barely twelve, and we lived in a small house with breaking mosaic patterned tiles, Mom never bought us those ruled notebooks. Instead, she’d buy us sheets of plain, white paper and stitch them up to make it look like a notebook.

I was always fascinated with those hardbound or paperback notebooks, though, for they had pictures of superheroes and superstars and unicorns on them. But Mom never bought us those. All I had were sheets of bright, crisp paper divided into two halves, with a taut white string holding the pages together.

With time, I learnt to make it look better. I’d paste little stickers on it or cut out pictures from magazines and old newspapers and decorate the front page with them. But no matter how much I tried, the cover page of my notebook was never as glossy or gorgeous as the ones they sold in shops. But I never gave up. I started sketching and drawing on the front page to make it look the way I wanted it to be. Often, somebody in school would stop by, steal a glance at my weird, little notebook and ask me if I had designed it. A part of me would be scared to answer because there’d always be this lingering fear in my mind whether it’d be laughed upon or appreciated. My friends would compliment me and shove their notebooks into my hand and ask me to design one for them.

Over the years, plain notebooks without factory-made cover pages didn’t bother me anymore.

Even when I had a chance to buy myself those notebooks I had once envied, it didn’t feel that great as it was supposed to. Rather, the notebooks felt too ordinary when I pulled them out from my bag and saw the rest of the class of forty students pull out the same kind of notebook too. That is when I realized how beautiful those barren, plain notebooks that Mom brought for us, were. My designs on it were unique. Yes, there was no cellophane covering on it, so whenever it rained, I had to go back home, tear away the cover page and make another one, but it was all worth. For they stood out. Stood out from the rest.

Over the years, many other things changed too. Mom stopped buying us those sheets of paper and instead bought us those hardbound, ruled notebooks. I didn’t draw on them. They looked too perfect already. The cover pages were waterproof. So I didn’t have to bother when it rained. In fact, I never bothered at all. I let them lie on the study table, collecting dust. The other notebooks carried a piece of me in them. I’d keep them locked up in cupboards like they were some hidden treasure. And my heart would swell in pride every time somebody would praise them.

I don’t know why I suddenly remembered about them. The thought arrived like a little flash of memory, bringing along with, a fountain of nostalgia.

Years have gone by. I’ve moved on from those “weird”, little notebooks to factory-made, custom designed notebooks to spiral bound ones and more. But I haven’t moved on from those memories. Be it the awkward squirming on seeing a friend pull out a proper notebook to waiting for the class to look at the teacher so that I could pull out my notebook without becoming a laughing stock to garnering appreciation for the same doodles, it’s been a crazy little ride.

A part of me wants to go back in time and find my treasure cove. I want to call Mom up and ask her if they sell those loose sheets of paper anymore. But I know the answer, they don’t. Just like me, they’ve moved on to better technology and better ways. Mom probably wouldn’t make me those notebooks if I asked her to. She is too busy. Yet, a part of me wants that and only that.

It makes me wonder of how we remember so much about the things we shouldn’t have bothered to remember. Perhaps, it is because though the moment had seemed very insignificant once upon a time, it made us into the person we are today. The miles we’ve come; the miles we’ve yet to conquer, we owe it to these tiny, beautiful memories.

Of A-Table-For-One

He had been asked to manage the reception counter for the day. Sitting lazily at the plywood desk, he answered the calls from excited, impatient people, asking for table reservations and the special menu for the night. He hated the task. He was better off serving customers in his oversized T-shirt and his brother’s baseball cap. Somehow, the tightly fitted blue shirt with its crisp collars and intricately tailored black pants made him feel suffocated and out of place.

The evening was setting in and the buzz of crowds could be heard outside.

Pulling up his plastered smile, he greeted the first people who entered – an elderly couple with greying hair and wrinkled smiles. They walked to his desk and peered at the laminated sheet of paper displaying the reservation list. Then, the woman smiled and pointed at the sheet to draw his attention.

“This way, ma’am,” he replied with a polite smile, pushing open the huge oak doors to walk into the dimly lit room with its huge chandeliers and slow music. The forks and plates had been neatly arranged over the red chequered table clothes.

Walking out from the room to his desk, he felt the transition of the aromas. The other room had been smelling of the mystic roses while the waiting lounge smelled of lavender and his own, cheap deodorant.

People started filling in, some being escorted inside while some sat back in the plush leather couches, flipping through journals and waiting. The night had set in. The music in the hall was louder. And amidst the clink and clank of cutlery, he could hear the roar of lightning outside.

But it didn’t intrude the excitement of passionate souls. They ate their dinner, staring at the misted windows and murmuring and smiling all the same. They talked and for some reason, they were happy. While, he was not.

People had started moving out too. By the time the clock had struck nine, the crowd was dwindling. Perhaps it was the rain or maybe, they had other plans, the hall wasn’t as crowded as the other Saturday nights. There were no more calls. All the people in the waiting lounge had been accommodated. He took the time to lay back in his seat and breathe out.

Just then, there was an irritating creak as the door opened and a girl, drenched in rain, clutching her beige overcoat tight, walked inside. Her sneakers dragged, screeched against the marble floors in a painfully slow stance. A mess of wet hair, with trails of dirty rain water running down her cheeks, she was everything he had never seen.

“May I help you, ma’am?” he asked in a slightly irritated tone, mentally wondering if she had entered by mistake, perhaps seeking for shelter.

“Uh,” she stood in front if the desk, her eyes wandering. For one fleeting second, she peered into the hall through the slight opening of the doors and then sighed.

“Table for one,” she muttered.

“One?” he croaked, his voice embarrassingly loud and rude. It took him a moment to gather himself. Then, he spoke again. “If you’re waiting for someone, it’s all right. There’s not much of a crowd today. So you may as well ask for a table for two.”

“One,” she said.

A strange curiosity gripped him. Why one? Didn’t she have a family? Perhaps a circle of friends? Or maybe one old friend she wanted to catch up with on that Christmas night?

Despite the mental outburst of questions, he tore away a piece of paper from the notepad and set it on the table.

“Your name, ma’am?”

She took the pen from him and scribbled her name hurriedly.

“This way,” he spoke and pushed open the doors for the umpteenth time that night to lead her in. He spotted that one empty corner in the room where the lights were not too bright and the music not so loud. Often after the people would’ve left, the boys would huddle there and sing their miseries with bottles of whisky or rum. He was afraid that the table perhaps smelled of rotten bread and alcohol, but then she had asked for a single seater and that was the only one in there.

Yet, somewhere, he didn’t want her to sit there. That corner felt cold and lonely. The flowers were limp. The candles had burnt out.

As he pulled out the chair for her to sit, he couldn’t help but ask, “Will you be okay here?”

She smiled. A painful smile. He could recognize those. Hadn’t he smiled those almost every dawn?

“I’ll be more than fine.”

“And what do you want to order?”

“A cake. A big, chocolate cake. Maybe it could’ve those little flowers on it and lots of ice cream?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but a cake? A full cake?”

“Yes,” she snapped. “It’s my birthday! Am I not allowed to celebrate my birthday with a cake?”

“Indeed, ma’am,” he replied in a timid tone and scribbled her order on a piece of paper. “Anything else?”

“And can you just let me know if you see my group of friends arriving?” she said, almost hastily.

“But ma’am, you only told you are expecting nobody?”

She pretended not to here and pulled out her phone. Taking it as his cue to walk away, he slipped into the kitchen and passed the note to the cook.

“Who orders a full cake for one person?” the hefty man guffawed, but got down to work, nevertheless.

Though she had asked him to keep a check, he didn’t. For deep inside his heart, he knew she was living an illusion. He could see through her pretence. She was broken. She wasn’t happy. She was expecting people who’d never come. She was sitting in silence, yet her lips curled into a smile every now and then as if she was really happy. Even in the faint light, he could see her glimmering eyes. He could hear her breath hitching. He could see her trying to hold herself back when she was on the verge of breaking down.

The tables were empty by now. People had left. Paid their bills. Had their food. And they had walked out, happy.

And then, there was her who didn’t know whether to stay or to leave. She wasn’t bothered about the cake. The rain didn’t matter. The people she was waiting for, did, but they had still not arrived.

“Ma’am,” he spoke, placing the little cake in front of her, dressed with chocolate florets and berries. She gave him a little smile and looked back at her phone again. “And ma’am? Your friends aren’t here yet.”

That made her lose it. Turning away, she took a deep breath but ended up coughing and crying.

“Ma’am?” hesitantly, he put his hand on her shoulder. “Hey, are you okay?”

“I wasn’t even expecting them,” she spoke in muffled tones. “Why would they be? I’ve visited them umpteen times. Been there when they needed someone. Talked to them for hours when they were down. But is that enough?”

She refused to look at him. So kneeling down, he offered her the crisp, white handkerchief that had been tucked inside his breast pocket.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered.

“No!” she laughed. “Why are you apologizing? It’s not even your fault! I’m just expecting a lot too much from people.”

He expected her to push him away but she didn’t protest. Instead, she continued speaking.

“I remember their birthdays. Be it New Year’s Eve or summer breaks, no matter how busy I am, I bake them a cake. I make them cute little videos. I send them handmade collages wishing them. I do everything that they never bother to do. But now I wonder, why I ever did so? Why did I ever take so much pain to bake cakes and cookies? To ping everyone in our friends’ circle and ask them to make cute birthday videos so that I can compile them into a movie? To travel miles to meet them, to be with them? When I’m here, empty and sad and there’s not a single one of them around?”

Though her voice kept breaking, he could feel the pain in her words. He could understand how lonely she felt.

“It’s Christmas. They have plans. They just forgot my birthday. No big deal. They’ve been doing this for years. I don’t get the sweet cards. I don’t get the midnight calls. I don’t get those long text messages. It is as if my place in their lives is not that significant at all. It’s more like they are important for me, but I’m not for them. I woke up late in the morning. I checked my phone, thinking about the hundred messages in my inbox, but there were hardly any wishing me a birthday. I waited for them to call, waited till late afternoon. I looked out at every random car on the road, secretly wishing for them to come over to my house and surprise me. Did I hope for too much?”

He kept quiet. He couldn’t form words. He didn’t know her. She didn’t know him. Yet, it surprised him of how loneliness made people bare their soul out to strangers. She clung to him like an old friend. She didn’t mind him seeing her messy hair and puffy eyes. All she needed at that moment was someone to be there. Someone beside her, so that she didn’t feel as lonely as she already was.

“Table for one,” she huffed. “It sounds like a dialogue from a bad movie.”

“It doesn’t,” he replied. “It speaks to me about a lot many things. I can understand.”

“Everyone says so.”

He nodded. Indeed, she was right. No matter how much he tried, he would never understand her pain. He would never feel the same. His story was different. So was hers.

“Happy birthday,” he said.

“Happy, indeed,” she mumbled and turned around to the table again.

“Why the cake?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s obvious you didn’t want the cake.”

She pulled out her phone and turned on the camera.

“I’ll just take a picture and save it. So tomorrow when they do remember, I’ll show them this and make up a story of how great my birthday was and how much I enjoyed!”

Hours later, the staff had left and so had the cook. He quietly locked the doors and walked out into the dark, empty street and slowly trudged along the sidewalks.

Minutes later, he stood in front of a dilapidated house with a broken sheet of asbestos acting as the roof. Opening the old, tin gate, he stepped into the darkness, hoping for the one voice he knew would be never there. Yet, he smiled. In his head, he heard his little brother’s voice and it was enough delusion to make him live through the night.

Two people spent that one winter night, lonely, sad and empty.

Of Windows And So Much More

Misted windows. That is all he remembers.

He remembers that one lonely Sunday afternoon, when the sun forgot to shine a bit brighter and he sat by that one solitary window in his house, squinting out at the frozen glass to see the mist settling down from the hills.

He remembers the buzzing crowds – crowds disappearing into the mist and the mist disappearing into them; of blinding headlights and screeching car tyres – of the twisted picture of the world right outside his little window.

And then, he realizes he remembers something more.

He remembers the mosaic tiled floor. He remembers the rusting window panes and the wet plaster falling off from the walls. And he remembers the one, beautiful girl who stood right in front of him, her tinted cheeks pressed against the glass.

It is always silent. She knits the days away and he reads. On particularly sad days, he sits up and watches her. She rarely looks up and never meets his eyes.

He wonders, far too often, how someone can be so focused on doing the same thing for so long, but then again, doesn’t he do the same?

Sometimes, when the sun is far too bright or the sky too dim, freckled with looming large grey clouds, he forgets what her voice sounds like; what it used to be to look into her eyes and smile.

However, when the sun fades into the iridescent horizon and the winter night seeps in, with little raindrops, he remembers everything all over again. He remembers her face – as glorious as the world outside his little window. He remembers her voice – as beautiful as the raindrops trickling down his little window. He remembers how her skin felt against his – as mystifying as the first rays of the sun of those eternally dark days that he saw through his little window. He sits by the one solitary window in his house and looks out and remembers the world beyond the sun.

Slowly, with aching steps and shivering smiles, he walks to her and holds her hand. She is his little window to everything.

With a groan, he lies down next to her.

It is always silent. He remembers every little thing now. He has a slight urge to run to the window and look out at the world, but he is tired. So he stays beside her, still.

The world continues outside the window, piercing the mist and breaking the silence.

The window stands there, a sole witness to the painfully parallel worlds on either side.

Of Nights Like These

She sits alongside the pavement, hugging her knees, waiting for the night to fall asleep.

Above her, vastness stretches far and wide. The cars have stopped. The traffic lights keep blinking. The streetlights flicker to a random rhythm. And the wind blows to a silent crescendo.

She looks up at the million infinite stars above her, light years away from where she is. She looks up and sees them twinkling from up there, looking down at her and perhaps smiling. She realizes that the existence is so vast and she is so tiny.

Placing the glass bottle on the stony pavement, she stands up and manages to find her way back home.

That night, when she falls asleep, she remembers to wake up as a newer being. Her life is so tiny when compared with the eternal universe that she resides in.

Looking up at the stars, she smiles and sleeps.

They look back at her and fall asleep.

Of Hopeless Tales of Hope

It had been raining for days. Days and nights.

The eternal mist had settled in front of the windows, draping a cloak of darkness for the people who wished to see the light.

To the tune of ferocious winds, the lifeless trees would sway all night.

To some unheard crescendo of a low moan, the rain would come battering down on the roofs like bullets.

The river would swell each night. More and more. Wiping away everything on its path – every bridge and every house.

Radios would chatter on evenings, coupled with feverish prayers of people.

The nights were scary. The days were as dark.

Each night, under the little light from the candle, as she’d prepare her bed, she’d hope for a miracle.

Each night, before falling asleep, she’d look out at the misted window panes and believe, deep in her heart, that the next day would be different. That it would be bright. That the rain would stop. That a miracle would happen at the dead of the night.

The next day, even though the day would be darker and the rain even worse and no miracle would have occurred, before falling asleep, she’d look out at the misted window panes and believe that the following day would be different.

No matter what, at the end of the day, she held onto the tiniest bit of hope.

No matter what, at the end of the day, she believed.

No matter what, deep in her heart, despite the thousand voices in her head that told her otherwise, she believed.

Of Twisted Tales Of Pain

She wanted to live a happy life.

But each night, after the enchanting chaos of the city had dwindled and the orbs of light blurred in her vision, she found herself walking down the narrow bridge. At times, she’d stop abruptly and lean over the wooden rails to see her reflection in the dark waters. The planks under her feet would creak slowly under her weight as she’d gaze deep into the fading reflection of herself. Her eyes lacked mirth. Her lips were always twisted, painting a frown.

At other times, she’d walk and walk until she’d reach the willow tree at the end of the bridge. Leaning against it, she’d quietly slip into the gravel road and watch the world walk past her.

As the night would slowly merge into darker shades, the tears that she’d been holding would give way and into the silence of the night, she’d scream out all her sorrow. She loved the way the night hid her pain. Never did Darkness let anyone know about the one poor girl who cried into its embrace. Alone.

When the colours would slowly start to melt and dawn would arrive, she’d pick herself up, wipe away her tears with the back of her hand and pretend as if everything with her was just all right. With that brave face of hers, she’d face every dawn, no matter how much she was breaking on the inside.

One Friday night though, when the neon lights at every club were bright and high and oven timers pierced the thick air, and she walked down the bridge, she wasn’t alone. For Darkness followed her step.

When she stopped to look at her reflection, Darkness looked down too.

“You are here, every night, without fail,” it said.

“This is the only place that never fails to make me feel lighter,” she answered.

“And you are the only person here,” it said again.

“It probably seems like I’m the most disappointed person around, doesn’t it? A broken family. Unsatisfying life. A stressful job. And when I get back home, there’s nobody to hear me out. So, I come here, thinking that someone will understand. No one does. They sleep silently, tucked inside their blankets and wake up to loud alarms in the dawn. And they face the day. As for me, each morning, I wish to go back to bed and sleep away forever.”

“It wrenches my heart, dear, to hear you say like that. How I wish I could tell you otherwise. How I wish I could tell you of the stories that hide in the light. You see people, walking straight, heads held high, their shoulders straight, and it is as if they’re afraid of nothing. I’ll tell you a different story – they are afraid. Deep inside, each one of them is a mess. When they talk, they are still thinking of a hundred different things in their brain. When they laze back in their beds, they think of the world. They have broken hearts. They are lonely people. And they hide their true faces under the bright light of the dawn, pretending that nothing’s wrong.”

“It is okay,” it continued,”to be a little sad, to a little frustrated and to be a little broken. Each one of them is. Some of them keep telling themselves that there’ll be brighter days, holding on to the minuscule glimmer of hope in their hearts; while some of them come here on fateful nights and end their stories. What you need to do, is face the dawn. It holds surprises for each one. But if you are busy grieving about the night, you’ll never relish what the dawn has in store for you.”

“It won’t make my life any better, will it?” she said.

“You’ve to hold on to hope and live yet another day to find out.”

That morning, when she walked amongst the crowd of people, she didn’t feel lost. Deep inside her heart, sorrow lingered, but just like the rest of them, she knew she had to keep going on. The very hope that she held was that, the next day was going to be even better.

Of Missing People

The little cafe downtown Larris Road, bears a deserted look. Even though the fog has still not cleared and cold winds brush past every now and then, people don’t stop by for a coffee. She doesn’t want to, as well.

But somehow, she does.

He is there.

The mist has settled on the window panes, painting a rather distorted image of the world outside. Beyond the window, people in their buttoned-up coats and tight scarfs, walk past. She wants to retrace her steps and go back to being one of those busy people trudging down the street, but she’s already inside the warm, little cafe and it feels good there.

With heavy steps, she walks to one of those corner tables and takes a seat.

Her face pulls up of pretence of carelessness. Inside, there is a storm raining down on her heart.

Her lips quiver as she hears a pair of sneakers squeaking down the hallway. A second later, he stands in front of her.

“What would you like-” he pauses awhile. “Ma’am?”

His words sting her. Yet taking a deep breath, she manages to look up at him.

His button-down black shirt is sticking to one side and his dark hair glows under the flickering lights in the cafe. His shoes are worn out, yet he wears them with so much pride.

He is not looking at her. Instead, his eyes are focused on the blank page of the notepad.

“Two coffee, please,” she mutters, with too much care.

He quickly turns around and walks to the counter, without bothering to ask her if she needs something else. It’s as if she has ceased to exist for him.

When he arrives with the two cups of coffee, carefully balanced on the tray, she doesn’t know how to ask him to stay.

As if he can read her mind, setting down the tray before her, he carefully pulls out a chair and takes a seat.

“What are you doing here?” he asks.

Her fingers curl around the cup, and she breathes out a slow sigh as the warmth of it trickles down her skin. Bringing the cup to her lips, she gives it a slight blow.

“I miss people,” she manages to say.

Her fingers jerk tighter around the steaming cup as her eyes start to sting. She rubs at the them at the same stupid pretext that he’s grown accustomed to.

He pretends like he didn’t hear her.

Emptiness wafts around them. She can no longer hear the brisk footsteps of people outside. She can no longer hear the slight squeaking of shoes near the counter. It’s as if the whole world has stopped and is somehow looking right at them, waiting in anticipation to hear the next word uttered.

At the corner of her eye, she can see him fiddling with his cup, his head bent down, probably watching her the same way as she is watching him.

“Why are you here?” he whispers.

At that moment, she bites back her lip to hold the swell of emotion waiting to burst out.

“I miss you,” she finally says. “I miss people when they drift away. These days, it feels so empty. There are people around me, yet, I feel lonely.”

A drop of tear trickles down and she looks up to meet his eyes.

“Why can’t you just let go of things. Why do you have to cater your ego? Why can’t we just go back to being the friends we were?”

“Look-,” he starts to say.

“No,I’m not staying here to hear you push me away. It’s tough to live through everyday, knowing that the people you thought would be there with you forever, are no longer there! I miss you so much! Yet every time I pick up my phone to call you up, I’m afraid that you’d just push me away. I want to go back to the time where things were not so complicated!”

He places a hand on her shoulder, as if trying to calm her down, but it is not working.

“Think of the world we could build! With memories so beautiful! We could go back to being friends again! We could go back to the same old routine of meeting here for coffee everyday! Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” her voice breaks.

Inside, his heart breaks into a million pieces on seeing her cry. He wants to hug her, console her and hold her till an eternity, but he knows that the scars will remain. That, things will never be the same between them as they were.

“We can still meet each other,” he says. “Look, here we are now. Everything will be fine again.”

She shakes her head and stands up.

“You don’t miss me. You don’t miss me like I do. And I know you are lying. You are lying when you say that everything will be fine again. For nothing will ever be,” she says and a moment later, she’s gone.

Through the misted glass, he watches her walk past hurrying people. A while later, she’s gone. Her shadow’s merged into the crowd.

He picks up the two cups, places them on his tray and stands up. For a second, he lingers there.

“I miss you too,” he finally says.

Only, she’s not around.

Somewhere, down the street, the girl stops and leaning against the metal lamp-post, slipping to the ground, she cries.

Somewhere, at the back of the coffee shop, against the rising vapours of the coffee mug, he sits and sighs.

Theirs could have been wonderful stories.

Stories that could have been..but never were.

Of Returning Home

The train jerks to a halt, the metal wheels screeching against the rails, momentarily piercing through the drone of noises in the station. Picking up my duffel bag and grabbing the door handle to steady myself, I stare out at the maddening crowd of people all around.

Hawkers and taxi drivers and stationmasters and masses of men – it surprises me as to how the ground doesn’t crumble under their weight.

Stepping out of the train into the light of a scorching autumn sun, I take a moment to look around and breathe in the air. A smell if roasted peanuts coupled with a faint aroma of lemon oil teases the breeze.

Somewhere a hawker screams at the stray dogs that are running away with s piece of his bread. To my right, a coolie picks up the luggage of an old Lady, wincing under the weight of the blue suitcases. He complains and asks her to pay more as he starts walking, dragging the other bag behind him. Somewhere far away, a little boy sells newspapers, shrieking wildly, running after every person, hoping they’d buy a copy.

Silence is evasive as a xerox machine next to a shop, whirs and clicks, throwing sheets of paper all around. The owner shouts at the boy who is serving customers at the counter and he immediately comes to the rescue. Together, they slam the metal top to shut the machine.

Heels click against the gravel pavement. A little boy who us wearing a pair of oversized bunny slippers, jumps on every drying puddle, clapping his hands in excitement.

It is an unusually noisy Sunday.

But amidst all this, I find a deep sense of oblivion.

Nobody seems bothered. Everyone walks their own wat, occasionally stopping by to take a look here and there. Children hold on to their mothers, tight, while the men load the luggage into the train. Some people are leaving while some are returning back from where they had arrived.

As the evening air quietly blows, I can’t help but spread my arms and take a deep breath. It smells of home.

As if on cue, a frail man dressed in a pair of white pants and a grey shirt, approaches me.

“Madam ji,” he says. “Are you looking for a taxi?”

A slight gasp of surprise leaves my mouth as I withdraw my hands and shove them into the pockets of my overcoat.

“Why,yes!” I reply him after some time.

“Where to?” he asks but doesn’t wait for a reply. Instead, he picks up my bag and motions me to follow him.

“I’ve parked my taxi just there,” he talks as he manoeuvres around the people who’ve fallen asleep on the platform.

As we walk past the swirling rush of people, hearing a plethora of noises zooming into a drone, I can’t help but feel a strange peace within me. The noises don’t affect me.

With a slight spring in my steps, I walk out of the station into the slightly thick air of the parking lot. Every second fills my heart with profound happiness.

I watch him put my bags at the back of the car. Before he gets inside the taxi, he motions me to take the backseat.

Pulling open the door, I glance back at the station again. It seems as if it is moving away from me with each passing second.

Soon, I tell myself, I’ll be home. The little daisies in the garden will greet me and a bowl of corn soup will be waiting at the table.

Mom will be sitting in the living room, sipping in her usual cup of tea and flipping through the pages of some random magazine. Outside, on the street, my brother will be playing with his friends, crying in joy with the other children. And Dad will be glued to the TV screen, watching the latest political debate. They will be waiting for me. They will be calling to each other and sneaking glances at the clock, waiting for me to ring the bell. And when I will, they will rush to the door and hug me like there will be no tomorrow.

“Madam ji,” the driver’s gruff voice breaks me from my train of thought. “Where to?”

Slipping into the backseat and peeling down the windows, I feel the same air brush against my face again.

“Home,” I say and he smiles.

Of Tales Too Tiny

‘Mumma?’ he called.

The old woman in her worn out dress and wrinkled face, turned away from the sink to look at her little son lying on the couch, staring up at the ceiling fan. Rust had settled on its corners and the slight squeaks it caused, made her cringe in distaste.

‘Yes child,’ she said as she wiped off her hands on her apron and walked to him. Dropping down on the couch, she allowed him to rest his head on her lap.

Her heart broke as she held his feeble hands and rubbed them gently.

When he did not speak, she asked again.

‘Yes?’

His eyes met hers and all they reflected was nothingness. Her son’s eyes were blank; they held no trace of emotion and she did not know whether to be happy or sad for that.

‘Mumma,’ he mumbled. His voice shook. ‘Does God love me any less?’

Almost immediately, she shook her head and looked away, blinking back her tears. The last thing she wanted to do was to cry in front of her dying son. His body felt so fragile against hers that she was afraid a slight touch would hurt him.

‘No, child, our God is beautiful,’ she told him. ‘He loves us all the same. We are all his lovely children and He loves us to death.

‘Then why does he let other children run and jump and shout while I lie here all day?’

It was difficult to swallow the lump stuck in her throat. Her temples throbbed as unwept tears threatened to spill.

‘It is because He has something special for you! He wants you to wait so that He can shower you with all the happiness in the world. He loves you, dear child, more than you can imagine,’ she aid and ran a hand through his hair. ‘Up there, He sits, watching over all of us. He picks us up when we fall. And when we cry, He is there to wipe away our tears. Each day, He presents us the most beautiful dawns to create histories. See? He is here with us. He is all around, child. And He loves you. So please, hold on.’

The doorbell rang, filling the house with a lovely tune.

She looked down at her son who was breathing quietly. His eyes were closed in blissful oblivion. She got up and opened the door.

The mailman handed her a letter.

After he took his leave, she closed the door behind her and tore open the pale yellow envelope to reveal her son’s medical reports. Her eyes glimmered with several hundred emotions as she looked frantically at the sheets.

And then, she saw it.

‘Wake up, child,’ she said as tears rolled down her cheeks. ‘Wake up! You’ll live, child! You’ll live for long!’

He remained quiet.

Of Things That Change

I must have been seven or eight at that time. Or probably nine. While I don’t clearly remember how old was I, I do remember I had a pink dress with crimson roses embroidered near the waist. I do remember that when people saw me in that dress with my father, they would bend down and give me their biggest smile or ruffle my hair or pinch my cheeks – things, I was surprised, they didn’t do to the elders. Perhaps, it would have been pretty weird if the chubby man, who lived next to our house, pinched my father’s cheeks. I would have been furious.

Though my father was a busy man, somehow, he managed to make out some time to take me to the bookstore on weekends.

Back then, the bookstore seemed like a clip from a sepia-toned movie – with sienna-washed pages of The Economic Times, hanging near the door, with a couple of other newspapers. Magazines – new and old, with fading letters and missing pages – were stacked into a huge pile near the entrance of the clumsy, old room that smelled of wet asphalt. If you stood on the other side of the road and watched past the speeding scooters, at the bookstore, you’d realize that it lacked colour. Though the books it had, had paint splashed on all their pages, somehow the picture in my mind is devoid of colours.

It was an important landmark in my life – the bookstore.

In there, hid a wonderland, probably as beautiful and mysterious as Alice’s.

Each time we would walk into the single room, the owner would greet us with a happy smile and pat me on the head. While my father would stand in a corner, flipping through the pages of some newspaper, I would look around in awe at the never ending stacks of books around me.

I had this strange habit of picking up a book and smelling it first. The smells enticed me – the smell of the old pages of a magazine or the smell of crisp, freshly-printed pages of a children’s book. It was a smell, so faint, yet so tantalizing, it was like breathing in the strong aroma of hot chicken soup on the coldest winter night. Each book had a distinct smell that haunted its every page. They were never the same. Musty, of drying grass and ink, it smelled of untold stories growing old.

Often, somebody would stop by the store to use the xerox machine. Against the grunt of rusting screws and slapping of pages on the slider, I would read the book aloud, marvelling at the scenes it created in my head.

A lot of things have changed since then.

The bookstore has been renovated, its walls painted a dark white and the marble floor shines when the tube light on the adjacent wall flickers to life. Instead of the single room, they have two floors now. Each book is arranged majestically in large cup-boards and it feels like a new place.

The owner doesn’t greet me, now; not even when I’m wearing another pink dress. No one pats me on the head or stops awhile to pinch my cheeks.

The sepia-toned movie has rolled into a feature film with too many colours.

I don’t know if the change makes me happy.

Any day, I would prefer the old, clumsy, humid bookstore.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is that the books still smell the same.