Category Archives: Fiction

Uncle bought a Mercedes Benz today.

Half an hour before father’s evening prayers, the house unwillingly tries to adjust its mood to something more sombre. The television shuts down without fail, always disconnected from the main switchboard, never by only the remote. Nanda bai is given her daily reminder to not grind masalas in the kitchen. A dull silence takes over in fifteen minutes, broken only by father’s monotonous singing of selected verses from the Bhagwat Gita while he bathes. Our bathroom door doesn’t close properly, which allows steam to waft through the corridors connecting my room and his. As he reaches the end of the shloka, which I’ve memorised verbatim over years of hearing it again and again, he barks out my name where after I’m expected to fetch turmeric and sandalwood from the kitchen. Father needs the paste to be of a certain consistency. I grind the sandalwood blocks in the kitchen just as I hear the bathroom door open, to make sure it’s fresh and moist enough for prayers. By this time, the entire corridor is flooded with steam and one can barely see the door to the small prayer room at the side.

Our prayer room is the only room in our seventy year old house which hasn’t been touched by renovation. My father and his father before him were very vocal about this. As your cross the boundary of the room, the marble turns to wood, the cream paint that adorns most of my house, save the cracks that land up uninvited till you throw them out during Diwali – slowly vanish to red brick. One’s eyes immediately flash eastwards, towards the main statue of Ganpati kept there in a silver devhara, our only real family heirloom. It’s solid silver, but father refuses to let me clean it with acid because of which it’s become a dull shade of grey. I’ve often asked father how much it’s worth with the antique value of three hundred years backing it, but he refuses to tell me, sometimes even demanding how a son/daughter of his could dare put a price on something so valuable to the family.

Something strange happened today. My father didn’t go straight for a bath and rush to pray after coming home. Instead, he sunk himself in one of the sofas and handed me his wallet. He told me to walk up to the corner and buy a full box of pure ghee pedhas, the ones with powdered sugar on top of them. Years of asking questions and never getting answers from father has conditioned me to simply following instructions. I walked towards the corner where six shops have been standing for a decade without a hint of change to what they sell. The way was littered with Gulmohor pods, just about to flower. I made a mental note to stock these up for school tomorrow. They’re filled with water and make for excellent ammunition to fire mid way through Geography class.

There’s a dwarf that sits on the large stone slab separating Chitale Sweets and Joshi Sweets. He polishes shoes for the entire neighbourhood. I used to be really scared of him when I was small. There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t seen him sitting in his canvas shelter, never bothered by the weather, always flashing a smile to all the regulars. He overhears every conversation that transpires in both the shops, often wincing when people order the wrong things from both the places. He waved cheerily as I entered the lane and asked me if I saw Thursday’s match. I told him I had and added that Ganguli was indeed the star of the game. Pleased at my critical insight, he swore at Sri Lanka, who we had fought, threw a mango toffee at me and picked up the brush and a tub of very brown polish.

The two sweet-shops are almost sacred in Pune’s rigid culinary space. Chitale Sweets is known just as much for its eccentric and rude salesmen as it is for it’s paper thin saffron Jilbis, which people from neighbouring towns have been heard to make entire day trips for. A visit inside is never complete till you’re shown the sweets the servers believe you’re worth. They never greet you, they never smile at you. Over the years, people have warmed up to this show of arrogance. They don’t mind the stabs of humiliation one goes through while one begs and reminds the man behind the counter that a kilogram stands for a thousand grams, not nine hundred and fifty. Only the choicest regulars, the inner circle of buyers who have grown old along with the store get access to the fresh lot of sweets. Still, no one can deny how exquisite the produce from the place is.

Which brings us to Joshi sweets, owned by one of Pune’s oldest families. Every generation that’s owned the outlet has fought bitterly in a very, very public spat worse than the previous one. Every decade a rumour resurfaces where close friends of the family swear by their blood that the shop will shut down any day. It never does. The sweets have not changed in their taste in over a hundred years, a fact verified time and again by their oldest customers. The Joshis are the antithesis of the Chitales. One is welcomed inside with one’s first name. One is asked what one wishes to buy and subsequently taken to every other counter other than the one one wishes to carry out business with. As one is just about to leave the store with the shopping bags heavier and one’s wallet lighter, one is reminded – have you forgotten your so and so? And one has to buy a final item. The portions are always large and the taste is rustic and raw with flavour. There is never any delicate garnish, no sprinkles of dainty gold foil, just eight glass counters and barrels of the choicest food.

I have to admit, I’m loyal to neither. Father never touches anything post the doormat at Joshis, so it’s going to be me facing the Chitales today.

Almost to reaffirm what people whisper saying, the shopkeeper served three people who walked into the store after me reminding me each time – Old people are more important. I sat on a stool, listening to the unbearably monotonous chorus of ‘Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram’, which plays there on loop every single minute of the day. Father had once told me that  old man Chitale had been told to chant Lord Ram’s name ten thousand times a day if he wanted a male heir to his empire of sweet shops. Ever since, he’s played the cassette on loop. It never stops. He even has it as his cell phone ring-tone, just in case. After quizzing me with several questions about school, how my preparations for the terminal examinations were going on and how my sister was doing in college, he measured half a kilogram of pedhas, made sure the sum total was four ninety five grams and pushed the packet in my hands.

I thought about school. Today was an eventful day at school. Yellow house defeated green for the first time in six years to win the annual sports day overall championship. There is no way this could have happened without a certain amount of red tape involved, we suspect Anshuman Thombre, who was seen sneaking out of the PT sir’s house last Sunday. Yellow have had a terrible history at excelling in anything, so it was quite the day for anyone unfortunate enough to have been drawn into the house. I cycled home like any self respecting student, extremely indignant that we’d have to deal with all of them gloating for the next year.

Father was already standing in the backyard by the time I reached home. Our old Esteem was dripping water by the time I walked into the driveway. Our watchman Baban, an old wrinkly fellow with an awful amount of hair sprouting out from his ears and who, to be fair would have been removed a long time back if it hadn’t been for the fact he had served us for a while looked at me approaching and declared that my uncle was going to visit. It always bothered me that he was privy to father’s intimate days months before I was. He would share with me the less harmful details of the future he had overheard, just to remind me how important he was.

Father checked the contents of my purchase to verify if I had brought what he asked. He asked me if I got a receipt, followed by the change. He asked if I had counted it. I replied affirmative to all three counts. He pushed an open palm at my watchman, who placed a packet of 555 cigarettes in his hand. Father opened the packet and lit one up. He would smoke either while he was driving, or when he was having a great conversation with someone, or when he was edgy. He didn’t qualify for the first two right now.  I had no idea why father was so nervous about his brother coming over. Kaka used to stay in America, and had just recently shifted back to Pune. He was always fun to hang around, had hilarious stories about what it was like to be an Indian in America. He still spoke perfect Marathi, which I find really funny, because I can’t. Mine seems strange and foreign. He would switch from an American accent in English to a perfect Kokanastha Brahman accent in Marathi right between sentences, which was very disconcerting the the ears.

The first thing he noticed was that the car had wipers on its headlights. That was a huge deal. What an important vehicle this must be, if its lights needed wipers, he thought. He remembered all the scrap books he had made with entire pages filled with cut-outs of the Mercedes-S class, the Mercedes-M class and so on. The star looked exactly like one of those. It was raven black and shiny to the point where one could use it as a mirror if one wanted. As his uncle parked the car, the smell of fresh leather and foam started taking over the wintery smell of Gulmohor and Chapha. He looked at his father, who nodded before his son could ask the question.

He screamed and jumped on his uncle as soon as he got out of the car. Why didn’t you tell me? When did you get it? Why did you get black? Didn’t they have blue? How many people know? Does it have a phone inside like they say it does – were some of the questions he fired without a seconds pause for an answer.

The uncle touched his father’s feet. They hugged. His father reminded the uncle to offer the pedhas as a prasad to Lord Shankar, without whose mercy the father was sure this extravagance would not have been possible. The boy opened the door and sat marvelling at all the knobs and buttons inside. There’s a real phone here, he exclaimed looking at the car’s satellite phone, a device useless in Indian territory. The boy pressed the first button on the dashboard and the car whirred into life, its mirrors slowly coming out. We need to do this by hand, he reminded his father. He pressed a second button and the windows disappeared into the car, all automated. How many hours of his life he had spent wrestling with the rear windows in their Esteem, he remembered. He pressed the horn and the car blared out a sound so unique he was sure all the neighbours along the street would come out to take a look. He was wrong, for his neighbours were already watching. Some from their balcony like Mr Yadav, with a cup of tea and khari ready at the side. Some had walked to the porch almost disappointed to find out that it didn’t belong to a celebrity, perhaps from the television shows. The uncle pulled the boy’s cheeks and reminded him that the car belonged to all of them. The boy demanded they go for a drive. The uncle asked the father if he’d like to drive all of them along. The father insisted his son and the uncle go on their own, he would watch them from the distance.

The boy was anxiously watching through the car windows. He really wanted his school friends to see him. Of course, he would tell them about the drive anyway, but the actual thrill of having their jaw drop without any sort of warning was what he was hoping for. Neither Utkarsh nor JP were playing in their porch. He cursed their timing at being unproductive.

The car cruised through the lanes of Pune, orange with fallen Gulmohor. People craned their necks to look inside the car. The boy made sure he didn’t make eye contact. Other kids on the road excitedly jumped and pointed to their fathers and mothers, who ruffled their hair and told them not to point. At the signal, a college graduate of Pune’s prestigious Fergusson college poked his girlfriend, who assured him that he too would drive such a car one day. The boy decided it was time he showed of his vast knowledge about automobiles, and quizzed his uncle with a volley of questions about the BHP of the car, the torque and so on. He had no idea what any of them meant of course. The uncle knew this but complied. The boy made notes in his head, he knew he’d have to add this when his friends would argue about how powerful the car really is tomorrow in school.

They passed by Law colllege and went past Kanchan Galli, where the foothills of Pune’s hill start from. As they crossed Maggi Point, a spot made famous by its serving of India’s favourite instant noodles, the uncle asked the boy if he’d like to drive. The boy naturally wanted to but was very forthcoming about his lack of maneuverability in controlling the vehicle. The uncle chuckled and asked him to sit on his lap. The boy complied. Now keep one hand here, and keep the other here, instructed the uncle in a voice that resembled his father’s except it didn’t have the pages of safety instructions his father would have mentioned before.

The boy turned the steering slowly, his uncle making sure he didn’t turn to much. The car turned obediently. The boy was thrilled. He couldn’t wait to grow up and stop pedalling for a change. He asked his uncle whether he could put his foot on the accelerator and change the gear, but his uncle said no. A few more years and I’ll teach you he added, as an afterthought.

The father was still waiting downstairs when the drive was over. He invited his brother for dinner but the uncle refused, lying about a prior commitment at the Gymkhana. The father didn’t try to force him into coming. The boy demanded to know when they’d go out together, the uncle laughed and said they’d plan a long trip to Rajgad or any of the many forts scattered around the Maharashtrian countryside. He reminded his nephew to hang from the bar every day and stretch his spine, the boy promised he would.

Father stared at me again, and he pushed the box of pedhas I had brought a little while back at me. I passed it to my uncle. He opened it, finished one in a single bite and gave me the box back. I thanked him for the drive and he pulled my hair. You don’t need to be formal with me, he said. I’m your uncle, not an outsider.

The house was silent and dark when we walked upstairs. The lights in the prayer room, which are usually gleaming bright by now, had been forgotten. Father threw the house keys on the sofa and asked me how my day was at school. He asked me how prepared I was for the terminal exams. I said I had finished reading all my books once. I would finish reading them again by the time the exams started. Father told me he was very proud he had me as his son. He started walking towards his bedroom. I asked him if I should prepare sandalwood for the pooja later. No need, he said.

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Artwork credit: Aditya Phadke
Instagram – Artyaditya

Story by Sumedh Natu

Twitter, Instagram – @sumedhnatu

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Filed under Fiction, Media, Norms, Uncategorized

Look Brother! I can fly!

das

One dull winter morning, the kind of a morning where nothing of significance happens, where the clouds are a dull grey and the colours of the peacock refuse to excite the eye, Rama woke up to find out that he had grown a beautiful pair of wings overnight.

His initial reaction was one of horror. As muscles in his body that had never been used began to twitch and his eyes saw the outline of this transformation, he wanted to scream in horror, though he did not feel physical pain in any part of his body. His shoulders and arms seemed intact but did not seem the feeble twig like extensions they used to be. He closed his eyes and touched what he could touch of his left wing with his palm and realised that they were made of several folds, and had a much larger span than what he immediately perceived in his mind. Their outer covering was of fur and the inner layer of tight bound muscle.

“How did this happen?” thought Rama as he proceeded to find a mirror to examine himself. His entire body seemed to have transformed to accommodate the wings. He had become toned and lithe, and the cut of every muscle could be seen prominently against his skin. As he willed his wings to open a little and the folds undid themselves, Rama could not remember seeing a sight that was so beautiful. His wings were pearly white against his bluish dark skin tone. He was a picture of perfection, a word that had never been used near or about him since his birth.

“Could I still be asleep?”

It was a perfectly valid question. After all, no one should fall prey to hallucination. He opened the knife he would keep next to his bed and delicately poked himself. A small dot of blood formed at the spot. The pain that came with it, was the sweetest thing he had felt. It was proof that a good thing had happened on an ordinary day.

It’s your turn to milk the deer” brought his elation to the ground. His brother, Lakshman had already woken up and was screaming his set of morning orders from the inner den. Milking the family deer was the least of Rama’s concerns, at this precise moment. How would Lakshman react when he saw the wings? Would he think of his transformation as a disease? And what use were these majestic wings, anyway? Why had he been gifted them? Questions such as these kept wafting through his head.

“Rama!!!!”

The voice intensified. Lakshman had always been the commanding one, though he was older by just a few minutes. The brothers were nothing like twins. Rama was bluish and looked underfed, while Lakshman was a handsome golden bronze oak in shade, handsome as a lion in heat. His legs were like mace irons and his voice sent the python scuttling away despite it being deaf and dumb.

Rama covered himself with his lijaas and walked down the twenty foot passage that connected both their rooms into the common room. The added weight of his wings, as a thoughtful reader might have thought, did not seem to bother him. He was walking with a grace no one who knew him would have ever thought he’d develop. As he opened the door to the common room, he realised Lakshman was nowhere to be seen. He was probably in the kitchen, slow roasting meat. Rama hoped it wasn’t hare. Hare tasted fine, but it didn’t agree with his stomach after a second helping. He would have to exercise control.

Rama cautiously opened the main door, and stepped outside. The sun was just starting to reveal herself, very shyly. The tips of the tallest trees looked scarlet. As he looked up at the sky and saw three hawks cruising through the air currents, he instinctively knew what he was supposed to do and flexed his wings out. The folds of muscle neatly packed to accommodate room for himself crashed outwards in a blaze and stood out in white perfection against his blue skin. He looked like he had been born to tame the skies.

Rama  flapped his wings. His heart gushed blood to every extension, it came to him like the creator had willed it. He began to see every air current like a different person, one calm, one angry, one particularly morbid, one energetic but short lived. As the pressure under his wings started building up and the weight he felt of his own body started reducing, Rama finally came to terms with his transformation. He could fly.

As Rama rose higher, the million doubts that had flocked his mind seemed so breeze away. The trees and man-caves around seemed so small. He could see thousands of miles around. The world was so big. Rama’s eye caught the glance of a current that seemed friendly, so he decided to lock his wings to it. What a beautiful morning, Rama thought, as he levitated peacefully above his door.

“Explain yourself right now!” Lakshman’s voice radiated through the cold winter morning. Rama felt the happiness ebb out of him. How was he to make his brother understand what he was going through. What if Lakshman decided to throw him out of home?

As Rama slowly lowered himself, he prostrated himself before his elder brother and truthfully recounted the events of the morning. Lakshman’s face was inscrutable as he asked an occasional question. As Rama finished the story, Lakshman touched the left wing with his palm, almost with the same look he would have whenever they managed to pan gold at the river bed. He felt his brothers torso, and how hard it had become overnight. He even compared their shoulders, to see which seemed better developed.

The settlement healer was called, to take a look at whether the demons had bewitched Rama. Lakshman didn’t want any bad spirits changing himself, no way at all. As the healer saw Rama fly, he too had nothing to report but bewilderment and awe at the beauty of Rama’s flight. He passed the transformation as the good grace of forest well –wisher. After all, who would gift someone as simple as Rama something so beautiful? The deeper question – why?

Days passed, and news of Rama spread across caves and settlements all around. People would come by making excuses to meet Lakshman in the morning hours where Rama would practise flying. He had become so good. He would be swooping in circles and suddenly dive-bomb to skim the grass. He would levitate like the lazy stream for hours and accelerate like a falling flake of ice the next moment.

Rama’s fame seem to have cast a spell of morbidity on Lakshman. He had become competitive in every small way. He would take small delight in proving himself to be superior in every small aspect, right from who ate more bee honey during breakfast, to who found the fresher catch, when the two went net fishing.

The brothers had felt a strange shift of power in the house. Of course, Lakshman was still utterly dominant. The right to obedience that he once commanded seemed subdued now. A small amount of tension seemed to emerge when Rama finished his hunts hours before Lakshman and always managed to prey on the choicest meat. Once Rama had walked into his bed early to find Lakshman trying to flap his arms in the same way Rama would ruffle his wings after a long flight.

On Lakshman’s twenty-fifth day of birth, Rama bowed his head low and asked his brother what service he could render as the customary slave promise?  Lakshman was quiet for a very long time and asked Rama if he was strong. Rama said yes. He would do anything for his brother.

“Take me for a flight” his brother commanded.

Rama had never been happier. In the two years since his wings emerged, Lakshman had never asked even once how it felt to fly. Rama knew that Lakshman was far too proud to ask him how it felt, thought the curiosity of seeing Rama fly high up amongst the heavens with his trademark arrow like silhouette marked in a haze of blue against the sky had send darts of jealousy through Lakshman every single time.

Gripping his brother tight Rama soared higher than he ever had before. It was a wonderful moment. They were one, for the first time. Rama manoeuvred through giant Aprico trees and hooted at the scabby vultures that would haunt the skies at every alternate hour during the season end. He showed him the spot where the three sisters of Chihara’s family would come to touch themselves.

When they were down, Lakshman started asking strange questions. Do you love me, Rama? He asked. More than my life brother, Rama replied. Would you do anything I asked?

Of course, brother, came Rama’s reply.

“Sit down on this chair and don’t move till I tell you.”

Rama sat. He tucked his wings back into their folds. He wondered what Lakshman could possibly want from him? Maybe he was to go somewhere far and get him something.

As Lakshman came back, he was carrying a strange looking object with him. It looked like a saw, but it had a double blade and a hinge in between. It was almost as if…

“I want your wings”

Rama stared in horrified disbelief at his brother. Surely, he hadn’t just heard what he had heard.

A surge of emotions thundered through Rama’s head. For the first time in his life, he considered physically striking his brother. He felt utterly repulsed at the very face of his brother, the low life that he was proving himself to be. Family were meant to celebrate each other’s triumphs. They were supposed to shelter each other’s faults. He wondered how insecure his brother’s mind was. And yet, Rama sat. He did not unlock his wings and soar away, to a land where family didn’t matter. He didn’t  pick his brother up and throw him from a point in the sky where his head would crack into small fragments if he was released. He didn’t leave and consider never being seen ever again. Rama was a good man and as the observer has frequently observed, nothing nice ever happens to a man who is good.
It was a bound rule of the clan to not deny a person celebrating his day of birth a gift. Rama was bound by family law. He sat in mute silence as his brother smiled to himself and locked his wings in the hinge blade, right at the joint. As he pressed deep, the blade went through the bone with a crunch, as blood oozed out. Rama screamed in pain, but the agony of sacrifice was worse, as he saw the remainder of his beautiful lying on the ground.

No sooner had Lakshman clipped the second wing, than Ram glowed white and returned to the human state he was in. The tight skin and muscle returned to flab. The cuts evened out. The gashes healed on their own and he became once again, what he was so famous for earlier- being absolutely average.

They were equals once more, but as a famous writer had once said – Lakshman was more equal than Rama.

The brothers continued to live together, but never spoke. They did not care about each other’s existence. They just continued to live.

Rama would often wake up screaming, and touch his shoulder blades, the ghosts of wings once present bothering him with their touch. His phantom wings would wince and his mind would ache with the thought of opening them and souring through the night sky with the bats and other creatures of the night.

One winter morning, Lakshman woke up to find out that he had transformed overnight. He had grown a beautiful pair of jet black wings, powerful and strong. As he flew his maiden flight, the cold winter air filled his lungs up like a drug, and he too, wondered what Rama had wondered – How did this happen to me?

As a quiet Rama opened the door to see his brother in the sky, Lakshman looked down at his brother and for the first time in two years, opened conversation with a smile. “Look brother, I can fly” he said.

All Rama could remember was that fleeting last image of Lakshman soaring through the sky, becoming smaller and smaller till he disappeared.

He would never come back…

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Originally published on Aniket Dasgupta’s dfuse.in

http://dfuse.in/fction/look-brother-can-fly/

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