[Issue 2 / August 2012]
Read by William Bruce McFadden
I threw down my schoolbag, slipped out of the uniform, hurriedly gulped the cup of tea Mother scolded me into drinking and ran to Sushil’s house. Sushil’s house was in a lane off G.S.Road. It was made of rough, un-planed planks. The planks did not even have a coat of paint. Sheets of corrugated metal, that served as a roof, held the squat box-like structure together. I edged closer to the window of the house to listen to voices—or the absence of them. If Sushil’s mother was in a temper, grumbling and complaining, I knew that he was back from school. He went to a vernacular school, I to a private one run by the Irish Christian Brothers.
“What do you and your father care about me? I work the whole day like an ox. I’m wearing myself to the bone. You don’t even ask if I need your help. My luck that I should have given birth to a no-good like you! Loaf, loaf, loaf, that’s all you know to do.”
I waited outside, picturing the scene indoors, Sushil stuffing his mouth hurriedly with coarse rice sprinkled with a few leafy vegetables—his mid-day meal at four in the afternoon—impatient to get out while his mother asked, between her litany of complaints, whether he wanted more rice.
Setting my forefinger and thumb on my lips, in the shape of a horseshoe, I blew my two-note whistle. That was my signal telling Sushil that I was waiting outside. Looking back, I don’t understand why we had to resort to this stratagem. The significance of a whistle around four every afternoon must have ceased to remain a mystery even to the dumbest person. Besides, Sushil’s mother didn’t mind us being friends: perhaps because I was a shopkeeper’s son, a rich man’s son, and in her eyes a person who would grow up to be influential.
Neither of us could understand why mothers should store loads of complaints, rather like laundry baskets. Sushil’s mother complained that he didn’t listen to her, that he didn’t love her, that he didn’t help her with household chores, that she had to sweat it alone. What did she think he was, Sushil said—a girl? Why should he stay at home longer than he had to? She, like my mother, even said all sorts of things when he came home to nurse a hurt sustained from a fall or in a fight. We expected that on such occasions at least she should show a little sympathy. She had words for Sushil’s father too. What sort of fish had he brought! What ridiculous prices he had paid for the vegetables he had bought!
Sushil’s opinion was that it was his mother who was responsible for making the atmosphere at home unpleasant. Her thin austere features seemed to mirror her complaining, never-satisfied nature: her long thin nose, those eyes set far back under overreaching unkempt eyebrows, those sunken cheeks, that thin face. Sushil said he just did not pay any attention to what she said; complaining had become a habit with her. I told him that all mothers must have been Complaint Boxes in a previous life.
A few minutes after I blew the whistle Sushil sneaked out of the house, from the back, and scampered down the lane. I sprinted behind him to play and to freedom. Sushil and I had been friends since I could remember. Our going to different schools didn’t make the least difference to our relationship. We were thick as thieves.
Yet we were so different. He was bony with hard stick like arms. His hair covered three quarters of his forehead and half of one eye. I always wondered how he could ever see properly. People who saw Sushil once never forgot him: he had a sixth finger, an inch and a half long, growing on his little finger. The reason his friends remembered him was because he wore the same khaki twill shorts with two pockets in front, two on the sides and two at the back. He had nagged his mother into patching the four extra pockets. Sushil used his six pockets to carry fascinating things: marbles, dead insects, clips, pieces of twine, a photo of his favorite actor Dilip Kumar.
I was drawn to Sushil because I found him so interesting. I considered myself dull. I wore brown, navy and grey shorts made of some uncomfortable fabric. My mother refused to patch pockets on them saying did I imagine I was a soldier? She turned out my pockets when I came home and threw anything I had picked up during play. I was forced to wear shirts with collars. How smart I would have looked in the round-necked T-shirts of Sushil’s. Mother insisted that I keep my hair short, oiled and combed all the time. Sushil seemed to get ideas to do things and to invent games. No such thoughts came to me. I was content to look up to him.
Usually we trooped to a thicket behind my house—the hill town of Shillong still has plenty of them. From there we challenged other groups of boys at marbles or tops or gulli-danda, depending on what everybody played at that time of the year. There were “seasons” for all these games. During the rains we played marbles. We flew kites during the afternoons of our long winter holidays when the sky was clear and the days short, liquid and green. The winds of March were unkind to our kites, so we turned to other games.
Flying kites was really the sport we loved best. Rivalry was greatest during the kite-flying season. Each locality or community had its own team. However, sometimes a really skillful player would gather a faithful band of glory-loving boys from all over town and challenge the local teams. Apart from skill, the other mark of a leader was a reputation of having devised a special formula for treating thread.
Sushil and I formed one such gang, but we kept it a two-man team. We never admitted a third. Sushil was creative where ingenious formulae were concerned. Each group kept its formula a secret; Sushil didn’t share his even with me. Only later would I learn—and was too stupid to remember it the next time—that it was a mere adjustment in the proportions of the same ingredients—glass, glue and egg yolk with a little turmeric or color thrown in.
Every Sunday morning—early, at 5 a.m.—we cobwebbed the hundreds of yards of thread we had bought the previous evening round a few trees. We lit a fire with twigs, boiled the ingredients of Sushil’s current formula, and, when the mixture was ready, coated it on the thread. The coating dried by eight o’clock. Then it was time to start rolling the stiffened thread on our trusted wooden spindles. After an invigorating bath and an equally healthy Sunday lunch we stood on someone’s protesting roof and defiantly flew our brightly colored kites, performing all sorts of aerial acrobatics till a challenger came in sight.
Then, menacingly, the fighters danced closer to one another, but not too close, and hovered threateningly around each other, seeking the most advantageous angle at which to dive and engage the other. A boxing ring in the sky. Often the battle royal dragged on and on, the fighters rising higher and higher against blue, cloudless, sunlit skies, drawing endless yards from the spindle unfurling in my hands. Sushil guided the movement of his kite through looped fingers—the slightest miscalculation, the slightest relaxing of concentration, the slightest tug on the thread, and it would snap—hence the reason why I piloted in the small matches and played second fiddle in the big contests. And when our kite had succeeded in cutting a rival’s thread both of us let out, simultaneously, a full- throated shout, the common victory cry: BO-KATHA! Then as the severed kite wavered and leisurely drifted earthwards against the pure silky-blue sky, hordes of small boys like us, who had anxiously watched the contest, scampered down the lanes and scrambled up roof tops following the seductive drift of the kite. Bagging the severed kite was a minor triumph in itself. But the prize was seldom taken intact for so many pounced on the kite as it touched earth—if it had not got entangled in a pine tree by then—that the successful usually returned with a bit of colored paper or a piece of the bamboo frame. These were good enough as trophies.
Between the marble and kite seasons was the tops season. We carved our own rough-hewn tops out of red pine, driving a menacingly long thick nail in the cone. Our tops were the terror of any roadside meet. The readymade ones, the ones bought in the general stores, split immediately under even a moderate impact from our tops.
Often during these sessions I espied two white-robed missionaries of my school striding up the street in the green-golden haze of evening. Leaving everything, I ran to hide in a side lane, watched them move on, then rejoined the tops fight. I had once been seen by two Christian Brothers. The next day I was given a stern warning; I should not keep such lowly company. Some of my father’s regular customers too suggested that he keep a careful eye on me. Father told mother, and mother found something new to complain about. “It seems you want to turn yourself into a chokra-boy.”
I don’t know why, but I never gave Sushil the details of mother’s scolding, just told him that she had grumbled again. I did once but felt sad afterwards, as though I was letting her down in some way. I remember, one mauve evening the two of us improvised the conversation that would take place between our mothers if they ever met; we mimicked the tone and all.
“My son Sushil is a loafer.”
“Mohan is good-for-nothing.”
“Sushil never listens to me.”
“Listens to you! Mohan will never move a limb in the house. So lazy he is.”
We laughed after the dialogue was over.
Our relationship would perhaps have always remained thus, very close, forever I believe. Sushil developed a fever and it devoured him three days later. On all three evenings, I learnt later, he became delirious and, people reported, said things that made no sense. Mother didn’t allow me to visit him after the first evening.
I don’t remember whether I felt sad when I heard that Sushil was no more. I walked our haunts alone, came home and sat with a book open in front of me, absorbing nothing.
Years afterwards, as a sensitive adolescent, I used to console myself that there was perhaps some good in his going away; our friendship didn’t have to face the bitter estrangement that colored, for instance, my relationship with Lala, the estrangement that comes when we grow to be conscious of distinctions of poor and rich.
Lala was the person who filled the space left by Sushil. Time passed. It seemed as if Sushil had never existed. I remembered him only when Lala made a mistake Sushil never would have.
I was flying a kite late one February afternoon. The sky was a very pale blue above dark green lines of pine trees. Many gaily-colored kites frolicked in various parts of it. I engaged a challenger but my thread snapped immediately on contact. Leaving Lala to pull back the snapped thread, I ran after the kite, watching its course as it floated downwards. My direction lay across the lane in which Sushil’s house was situated.
As I passed Sushil’s house, I saw Sushil’s mother, chin on the windowsill, looking up at the kites cavorting against the sky. Something caught my eye. I turned my head to look again. Her gaunt features had a softness I had never seen before. And her eyes were wet.
Murli Melwani’s short stories have been published in magazines in a number of countries. A few have been published in anthologies, including Stories from Asia: Major Writers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (Longman Imprint Books, U.K), Lotus Leaves (Macmillan, India), Call it a Day (Thought Publications) and The First Writers Workshop Anthology.
A short story of his came in as a finalist in the 2012 Enizagam Literary Awards in Poetry and Fiction. http://enizagam.org/ His book of criticism, Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: An Historical and a Critical Survey were published in 2009. It has received heart-warming reviews. Details about this book can be read at: http://indoenglishstories.blogspot.com
His other books are: A collection of short stories: Stories of a Salesman Writers Workshop 1967. A second edition appeared in 1979. A Play in Three Acts. Deep Roots. 1973. Literary Criticism. Themes in Indo Anglian Literature. Prakash Book Depot. 1973
He is an occasional contributor to The Dallas Morning News.”
William Bruce McFadden, Narrator: Mr McFadden has written, produced and narrated more than 400 programs for businesses, non-profit organizations and government agencies. He has received international recognition and awards for his work.