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Check out this Kindle Vella Story: PAINT THE TOWN by RUBY MOHAN
In my world, these crazies happen every day.
“Where is that dratted mouse?” The black snake huffs, puffing as it paces the cottage garden. It’s murder on the Chinese fountain grass that’s flowering with white-greenish panicles in early summer.
The cobra raises its hood. Thick coils gleam bronzed where they catch the fading sunlight. Rich color contrasts the greenish hue of teal.
Its red, bloodshot eyes are slitted. The towering hood rises antagonistic, inching towards dainty picture windows.
It’s too late to curse my compulsive need to clean.
Terry, the sloth, has never suffered for his slobbish habits. Marsha Owl tried peering through his mud-caked windows and got dirt on her beak for her pains.
I cower behind thin curtains patterned with bright sunflowers. I have no desire to see how close disaster looms.
So many things are wrong.
There is too much natural light.
The two-room up, two-room down house plan does not offer many nooks and crannies to conceal from view.
The cottage itself is old. It stands on dry land, but the stone construction is faulty.
Window panes rattle alarmingly as the cottage shakes.
I hear gray, slate tiles pry loose from moorings and hit the ground.
The draughty chimneys come to my mind. What if the snake thinks of those?
“I see, the prodigal’s returned!” Mandira Sen made no effort to keep her voice down. She was president of the Inner Wheel Club and a longstanding member of my mother’s golf four-ball, garden club, mah-jong group, kitty group, and bridge partner.
“Why, it’s dear Kalpana!” Amna aunty expressed exaggerated surprise. “Fancy, that! I thought we would never see you again in this lifetime!”
I turned, my only thought to escape. Tin cans dislodged from their neat stacking, raining down.
One hit my big toe dab smack!
I veered about trying to avoid flying missiles. Hand slapped to my mouth to muffle an instinctive yelp of pain.
I might as well have given free expression.
The shop boy looked daggers at me. He had probably spent a good part of the day artistically stacking those cans, and he did not look keen at having to repeat that arduous process.
“I am so sorry!” It was not hard to look apologetic with watering eyes.
My tears could have been saltwater for all the impression they made.
“You look like you have been doing well.” Mandira aunty smiled archly, eyeing me from head to toe.
It made her barb dig deeper.
“Hello, aunty.” I was polite to my elders, even those who despised me.
“Have you heard the news?” Amna Shaikh’s eyes were round as saucers. “You must have. Why else would you return?”
“Yes, um,” I faltered. I had good reasons, but right then, they escaped my mind.
I heard the shop door open and the tinkling of a bell.
“Excuse me,” I uttered. “I’m in a hurry. I have to go.”
Outside I saw a wobbly red evening sun bump on an oddly shaped cloud and tumble out of view. Fireworks exploded.
An orchestra I had paid no mind to, unobservant as I was, started playing a merry, spirited melody. The kind that made you itch to dance even if you were two left feet.
Two beautiful women, famous singers both, launched into song from a makeshift stage under a brightly lit hoarding of an Indian supermodel promoting a new shopping mall.
A crowd began gathering with people shouting and pointing excitedly.
My sluggish brain noted thick colored ribbons stream from all four corners of the square, and handsome male dancers pirouette down as if in a dream.
They touched the ground gracefully.
It was as if Cirque du Soleil did a flashmob.
I stared goofily at a male dancer gyrating about me. He was eyecatching, dressed in black and gold figure-fitting clothes.
He smiled. No clue who I was. He was a stranger to my troubled history with the place and its people.
With a light touch on my shoulder, he vanished. The music hushed, and rockets exploded with the last hurrah.
“Evening, ladies and gentlemen,” a voice boomed on the mic. “This is your mayor Ambarish Shah. A hearty round of applause please for this performance brought to you kind courtesy of His Highness Jaswant Singh Jee. I will now request him to say a few words.”
His Highness Jaswant Singh and his sister, Her Highness Vijayashree Rane, were our local celebrities.
The Singh family lost their princely state and title after India’s Independence, but faithful subjects still looked up to them with respect and awe.
My family was wealthy and well established in our small town. Yet, the ex-royals moved in social circles beyond our realm.
The closest I got to them was when the queen officiated as chief guest at a school function.
I hurried to my parked car, not wanting to linger. Once the clapping and cheering died, people would regain awareness I was back in their midst.
I did not want to be the center of attention—either of pity or their scorn.
I rang the doorbell of my parent’s house after five years.
It felt bizarre.
All my life, I just turned a handle and walked in assured of my welcome.
Impulsively, I turned the handle.
The door opened.
Mom had redecorated again.
She was one of those restless spirits who fatigued me with her boundless energy. Gaurav, my elder brother, could keep up with her pace.
I was always playing catch-up.
“You are energetic like her,” Gaurav kept insisting. “You just have different interests.”
“Can I help you?”
Mansinghbhaiya*, our elderly butler, shuffled out of the dining room.
He must have been socializing with our cook in the kitchen, I thought.
“Kalpana didi*?” He peered short-sighted.
I don’t know what vanity made the man refuse to wear glasses.
A delighted grin split his ugly mug.
Mansinghbhaiya was an integral member of the Bharadwaj household. He had been my father’s sahayak* till his retirement.
Dad then re-employed him as our butler.
We beamed at each other delighted.
“High time you returned home,” He spoke his mind frank as ever. “Sahib and memsahib miss you something fierce.”
“I miss you all too.” I looked about at the dimly lit interiors. “Are they not home?”
“Where are my manners? Come in, have your milk. Give me the car keys. I will get your luggage.”
I bit back my grin. Mansinghbhaiyaand my mom were two peas in a pod. They would never allow me to graduate to a cup of tea while they had a say in the matter.
“No, thank you. I won’t be staying today. Please, let them know I had come.”
“Don’t you think you should bury the hatchet now? Agreed, Sahib is angry, but he is your dad!”
“I am not mad at Dad, Mansinghbhaiya. But I am not going to sneak back into the house like this. We have to talk first.
Besides, I have to visit Kaushal uncle and Sakshi aunty. I have yet to pay them my respects.”
A shadow passed over Mansinghbhaiya’s face.
“It’s terrible what happened with Krishbhaiya. They are both devastated. The colonel and memsahib have not stepped out of the house since they came back from Haridwar.
Imagine having personal business splashed on the front page of all local newspapers.
Your parents have not left their side, only coming home to eat and sleep.”
“Kalpana beta*!” Sakshi aunty, Krish’s mom, answered the door. “Oh, your parents just left,” she looked about as if disoriented.
Sakshi aunty had always looked pretty as a picture in her colorful chiffon saris and pearls. It was difficult for me to see her in white, the color of mourning.
I impulsively hugged her. We both burst into tears.
“I am so sorry,” I kept repeating over and over again like a broken record.
“Sakshi, who’s it?” Raman Uncle came out of his study. “Kalpana!”
Raman uncle was from the same regiment as my dad. I was shocked at how much he aged in five years that I had been gone.
Raman uncle’s eyes teared.
I helped him to a sofa. Sakshi aunty stood weeping silently in the hallway.
I put my arm around her shoulders and guided her to a seat next to uncle.
I never thought a day would come when the people who formed the bulwark of my life would look so helpless.
But then, I never thought I would see a garlanded photograph of Krish on their mantlepiece. We never had morbid thoughts of death, even as kids.
It drew my attention like a magnet.
“You knew, didn’t you? Isn’t that why you ran away? It would have helped if you had come to us. We were kept completely in the dark. He told us nothing!”
Sakshi aunty voiced her recriminations.
I expected no less.
I did not know how to answer. No matter what I said, all explanations felt like shabby excuses now.
I hid my face in both hands and wept broken-hearted.
“Sakshi, that’s not true. Krish informed me on the eve of his wedding that he was gay.” Raman uncle disclosed in a sad, reflective voice.
Aunty and I stared at him nonplussed.
Raman uncle raised his head to look at aunty.
“He said he sensed my disappointment after he failed to become an army officer. He felt I judged him a failure for breaking our glorious family tradition and distanced myself from him.”
Sakshi aunty could see the torment in Raman uncle’s eyes. She reached out to put a hand on his arm.
“He was a sensitive boy. How could I have forgotten that?” Uncle asked.
Sakshi aunty shook her head in a firm negative.
“He told me that he was marrying Kalpana for our sakes so that I would think him less of a loser.”
Sakshi aunty turned pale. She put a hand to her mouth to muffle her gasp of dismay.
“He said he was doing it knowing well he could never make her happy. Possibly in time, she would grow to resent him. Maybe hate him for ruining her life.
But, he was determined to go through with it if I asked for that sacrifice from my son.”
A heavy silence weighed upon us.
Raman uncle looked at me. “I didn’t.”
“Oh, then why did he take his life?” Sakshi aunty cried bitter tears.
I could not bear it. I rose from my chair to hug her.
“He was perfect, to me,” Aunty wept. “Why was it not enough?”
Glossary of Terms
Bhaiya: honorific used to address an elder brother. (In this context) a respectful manner to address the help not related by birth.
Didi: honorific used to address an elder sister. (In this context) a respectful manner to address the employer’s daughter, younger in years and not related by birth.
Sahib: (In this context) respectful manner of addressing the officer
Memsahib: (In this context) respectful manner of addressing the officer’s wife
Beta: (In this context) my child