Authors: Kunal Mukjerjee
‘What are menses?’ I asked.
‘Nothing that you need to know about,’ Rani said sternly, making a face at Dilnaz to shut up.
Dilnaz leaned back and looked at Rani critically. ‘What is your bra size?’
Rani frowned at her and shook her head.
‘You’re lucky. I bet yours are round.’ She looked down at her breasts with disgust. ‘Mine are pointy. I bet all the boys want to talk to you.’
‘I need to go help Ma,’ Rani muttered and left in a hurry.
I felt uncomfortable around the new Dilnaz. As she moved close to me, I backed away into a tree trunk.
Standing in front of me, Dilnaz said softly, ‘Rahul, you have seen a girl’s breasts before, haven’t you?’
I shook my head, both fascinated and repelled.
‘You remind me of my cousin. He is shy just like you and had never touched a girl’s breasts until I let him touch mine. Go ahead, you can touch them too.’ She moved closer. The bark dug into my back.
Dilnaz lowered her voice conspiratorially. ‘There is a boy in my neighbourhood, about your age, who leaves a love letter for me under the doormat every day. Isn’t that sweet? What about you? Has anyone written you a love letter?’
I thought about the letter I had burnt and remained silent.
‘You don’t know what fun you’re missing,’ Dilnaz said archly, moving even closer, pressing her body against mine. ‘Arre? What’s the matter? You know the boys in your class would do anything for this.’ Her voice was mocking.
Once again, I felt like an outsider in a familiar world. Dilnaz took my hand and placed it on her breast. It felt soft and warm. As I jerked my hand away, feeling dirty, she laughed derisively.
‘What is the matter with you?’ she asked again. She turned away and adjusted her breasts. ‘You and Rani are not fun any more.’
‘Rahul. Come in and help serve snacks to Uncle and Aunty,’ my mother called from the portico.
‘Are you scared, Rahul?’ Dilnaz’s jeering voice followed me as I ran to help Ma, shaking my hands and tossing my head from side to side as I tried to rid myself of the feelings of humiliation and discomfort that the incident had brought back.
When I reached the kitchen, Dilnaz walked in behind me, looking nonchalant and humming a tune. Rani and Ma got the snacks and drinks ready and served them. I felt the agitation building in my chest and tried to talk normally with Mr and Mrs Firdausi. As my father opened the windows to let some cool air in, a bat flitted into the room. It swooped in a graceful arc, the black, lace-like wings fluttering like wisps of evening light under the vaulted ceiling. We watched,
transfixed. Suddenly, it swooped towards the window, preparing to fly out, when a breeze blew the gauze curtain around it. Mrs Firdausi jumped up in a flash, putting her dish down with a clatter. She rushed to the window where the bat was fluttering, caught in the curtains.
‘Oh, I hate these disgusting creatures! They look like monsters with fur and wings. They are an abomination,’ she cried as she shook the bat loose from the curtains. It tumbled to the floor, dazed.
‘Mrs Firdausi, stop! Don’t hurt it!’ Ma jumped up, as did my father, but it was too late. Before our horrified eyes, Mrs Firdausi whipped her shoe off, battering the poor thing to death.
‘You dirty, dirty creature,’ she said with each blow, her voice shaking with revulsion. I thought of the soft, furry body with its incredible wings, each tip of it like an extended finger, connected by a fine skin-like web—and then it lay smashed on the floor, bloody and limp. I was overcome by anger and repulsion. My earlier terror and the stress of the past few days rose in my throat and my eyes darted around the room. Dilnaz and Rani were looking away from the scene while my parents appeared to be frozen with shock. Only Mr Firdausi seemed unmoved by what had happened.
At that moment, Firdausi Aunty changed before my eyes from a lovable aunt to a bloodthirsty hag. Her senseless disgust had destroyed a harmless bat—one that had probably lived upstairs. Maybe it had baby bats waiting to be fed. I wondered why people killed things that they found ugly. What were they afraid of? The bat had not been about to harm anyone.
As I ran screaming from the room, I resolved to never, ever speak to Firdausi Aunty again. I buried myself in the
comfort of my bed, sobbing. I recalled again my vision of the dowager leaving the palace in terror. Her finely woven white sharara was covered with splashes of blood and shreds of delicate bat skin. Her harsh voice echoed through the empty palace: ‘Toba, toba, toba …’
The next morning, I sat at the breakfast table, worried. The exams were going to start in less than two weeks. It was the end of my first year at the new school and my parents had high expectations of me. I could not wait for the summer vacation, my favourite time of the year, to begin. Breakfast was a long, leisurely affair of parathas, fried eggs, leftover curry and tea that morning. And Ma was allowing us to loll around instead of cleaning the table and wiping it down after we had finished eating.
‘Do you think you are taller than me now?’ Rani asked. I immediately snapped out of my daydream. The magic words had made it competition time again.
Rani and I measured our heights often, sometimes daily. I was convinced that in the summer I would grow at a faster pace than during the rest of the year due to the amount of time I spent each day hanging from the pole set up by my father. The pole was suspended from the rafters of the veranda. Hanging from it, I was about six inches off the ground. Jumping up and grabbing it with both hands, I would let gravity pull me down, occasionally twisting and turning, willing my spine to elongate, vertebra by vertebra. I was sure that if I did it often enough my bones would grow longer and longer until I was as tall as Rani, who had measured a full five-feet-four the last time. I had been trying hard to catch up all through the school year, but I was still five-foot-three.
‘Yes, I am,’ I said in answer to Rani’s question.
‘What if you’re wrong?’ she said.
‘I’m taller than you,’ I said, now feeling less confident. But there was no turning back now.
‘All right. But if you are still shorter than me, you will have to go upstairs. All the way this time. And if there are ghosts of dead members of the royal family, or even the Ghost Who Walks, you will have to face them. Otherwise, I will tell all your friends that you are a cowardy-custard.’ Her face was menacing as she said this, her eyes thin slits. She was leaving me no room to negotiate. I swaggered over to the doorframe where we measured our heights, acting more confident than I felt.
‘Ma,’ I yelled. ‘Please come and measure our heights.’ I did not put it past Rani to doctor the results. I secretly hoped that my mother would skew the measurements in my favour, but she never did.
My mother appeared. ‘Do you think I have no work to do?’ she asked in mock annoyance. I knew that she secretly enjoyed this game of ours. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘You first, Rahul, and then you, Rani. Hurry up, I don’t have all day.’
I stood against a post in the veranda barefoot. Ma placed a ruler on my head, taking care that it was parallel to the floor and perpendicular to the post. She took a pencil, marked the column and wrote my name next to it. Rani hovered suspiciously, making sure that I was not getting an unfair advantage by error or intention. Then it was Rani’s turn. To my mortification, I was still shorter by an inch.
‘I knew it, I knew it!’ Rani jumped up and down in victory as Ma went back to her work. ‘Now you must go upstairs.’
‘No, I won’t.’
‘Yes, you will. You will, or else I will tell Baba that you were asking about shock therapy and also about homos.’ She whispered the last word.
‘All right,’ I conceded as fear descended on me again. ‘Just don’t tell anyone. Swear?’
‘We’ll see,’ she said coyly and ran off.
I dreaded the coming of night that day, when I would have to go upstairs. I knew that Colonel Uncle lived up there. I wondered if he had a wife.
I went to the kitchen. ‘Where is Colonel Uncle’s wife?’ I asked Ma.
‘Colonel Uncle is a confirmed bachelor,’ she answered.
‘What is a confirmed bachelor?’
‘Someone who never marries,’ Ma said in a funny tone that made it clear that bachelors were a set of people quite different from regular people.
‘Why do bachelors not marry?’
‘Usually because of a broken heart. Or if they have waited too long and realized it is too late. But you don’t have to worry about that. Your father and I will find you a lovely bride. Your grandmother found brides for all your uncles and a groom for me. We don’t have any bachelors in our family, so don’t be concerned about becoming one.’ Ma seemed determined to save me from a bachelor’s fate.
‘But what if I don’t want to marry?’ I thought about how I had felt no interest in Dilnaz, and her reaction to my disinterest. What if I did not want to marry when my parents thought it was time? I felt frustrated that I could not share my fears with my mother. I had always felt close to her, but for the first time, I was scared to tell her how different I felt from everyone at school.
‘What is this madness? Everyone marries. You will too,’ Baba said with a note of finality in his voice. He had just arrived home for lunch and I had not realized that he had been listening to our conversation.
‘Why does Colonel Uncle live upstairs?’ I asked my father.
‘Colonel Uncle has lived here for many years. He was a colonel in the army in the days of the Second World War and was highly decorated. The government allocated the upstairs to him before we arrived here. He used to travel a lot earlier, but is here most of the time now.’
‘Do you know who gave you your set of cooking utensils?’ Baba asked Rani, who had just arrived as well.
‘No,’ she said.
‘Colonel Uncle gave it to you when you were a little girl.’
I developed an immediate interest in Colonel Uncle when I heard that he had gifted Rani my favourite toy set—the shining stainless steel miniature cooking utensils including pots and pans, a stove, plates and cutlery.
‘So how was your day at work?’ I would ask Rani when I played with it, bustling around the make-believe kitchen as I ground spices, sautéed vegetables, boiled rice, rolled out perfectly shaped chapatis and created a culinary masterpiece out of thin air, accompanied by a lot of banging and clanging of the utensils.
‘Fine. How was yours? What did you make me?’ she would demand.
‘Oh, I have made pulao, dal, chapatis, curry, sweets and so much more,’ I would explain, ladling out large portions of air and heaping them on the toy plate.
Rani wielded this girlish interest of mine with great
political skill whenever she wanted to get me to agree to something. She threatened me at the end of every fight, forcing me to concede defeat, saying, ‘I will tell all your friends that you are a girl and play with my dolls and cooking utensils.’
That evening, after dinner, Rani and I went to the back of the house. I looked up at the iron stairs that spiralled around a metal pole, dark and beautifully wrought. I had never gone past the tenth step before.
‘All right, then, here you go,’ Rani said, handing me the old Eveready family torch and pushing me up the stairs. I clutched the thick, red plastic torch and pushed the button forward. As it slid on with a bump and a click, a watery beam of light shone ahead. The lights around the tennis court were on and might have illuminated my path, but their warm glow was devoured by the inky blackness of the summer night before it reached the stairs. The restless wind blew in the banyan tree, making whooshing sounds. The mango trees shivered in response as dry summer lightning forked through the sky, followed by deafening rolls of thunder. Back and forth, the trees swayed, as if speaking to each other. In my terror, I wondered if they were trying to warn me. I paused and then stopped altogether. Maybe I should just return and call the whole thing off? But I was too proud to back out.
I placed one foot in front of the other, forcing myself to go on. Soon, I had crossed the tenth step. By now, my eyes were used to the semi-darkness and I could make out each step before me. With the torch held in one hand and using my other hand as a guide, I moved up one foot at a time.
‘Are you still climbing or just pretending?’ Rani’s jeering voice floated up from below. I was too busy climbing to answer. My hands were clammy and the torch felt slippery in
them. Ahead of me was the first bend of the spiral staircase. Then I walked on to an open terrace covered with twigs, branches and leaves that looked as if they had collected over many years. The gusts of wind caught me off-guard and I staggered for a moment before steadying myself. Leaves churned in little vortexes at my feet and the wind felt cool on my sweat-drenched body. In the dim light of the night sky, I could see that there was a cunningly designed balustrade with urn-shaped railings all around the terrace. The terrace led to a number of darkened doorways. A glow of light came from a window at one end—it must be part of Colonel Uncle’s living quarters, I thought. From where I stood, I could see the dark and cave-like empty rooms, and the smell of bat urine was faint but unmistakeable. I gingerly entered one of the abandoned rooms, my feet crunching years and years of accumulated debris, and was assailed by an unbearable stench. I shone the torch around and up at the ceiling. There were hundreds of fruit bats, or flying foxes as we called them, hanging upside down from the beams in the ceiling. Their black faces and snouts looked menacing and I retreated, frightened by the sheer number.
As I backed away, I tripped over some branches and fell. The torch rolled away, its beam illuminating damp walls with peeling plaster in a slow arc. I scrambled to my feet, picked up the torch and ran out to the terrace, my breath coming in short gasps.
I felt something soft and furry against my leg and then someone pulled my shirt. I yelled, trying to get away, and ran into a large urn, which fell over with a nasty crack.
‘Kaun hai?’ A voice cut through the air like a steel whip, asking the intruder to identify himself. A door opened and light streamed out. I was sitting on the ground, next to a
furry jute bag and a broken urn. My shirt was torn and a piece was still hooked on a stray wire hanging from the doorframe of the room full of bats.