This is the story of two lives during the pandemic induced lockdowns. Both the characters are in the same room, but live in completely different worlds and both of them have been affected in their own ways. A beautiful story with a powerful commentary.
Bored out of her mind, Anandita clicked on the play icon once again, laid the phone against her ear and waited for the song to begin.
It had been this way ever since she had returned from college, exultant about exams being cancelled, a whole month’s holiday and no immediate work at hand. “Freedom!” she thought and laughed, remembering how passionately the word was uttered during student protests on campus. Here it was, finally- freedom from the sick routine of swotting down whole chapters in half- hours, from the rush to attend classes in the morning, the separation from her songs because they were a ‘distraction’. She could live now, live as freely and gaily as the pigeons on her balcony.
And without realising it, she had promptly fallen into another routine altogether; the routine of purposelessness. Wandering from one room of the house to another, the phone in her hand; wandering from one song to another, one interest to another, one idea to another. Then everything would disappear, once a month, and she would not know herself why she was crying this way.
Today the sky was overcast. The air was heavy and unpleasant. She had drawn the curtains together so that she would not be obliged to look out. Ugly mornings! She would not see any part of them. The song that she had been listening to the previous night came back to her mind again and again, and without wanting to, without having the least inclination to listen to the same melody once more, out of the sheer dull servitude that she had grown accustomed to providing her mind with, Anandita had set her phone to play it anyway.
A slight knock sounded upon the door, and a small, lithe girl slipped into the room. “Didi, will you have breakfast downstairs?” she said in a piping voice. “No, I’m not hungry,” Anandita answered absent- mindedly. The girl lingered nearer. “You know, didi, my Papa will come back home today. He promised to bring a parrot for me.” “Really?” Anandita said, her head buried in her pillow. The younger girl sat on her haunches against the wall. Her name was Falak; a dark, frighteningly thin child, with eyes that, once fixed on you, were hard to ignore. She was fond of play, which she often had to sacrifice when her mother brought her along to work; the load was too much for one person alone. Falak fought bitterly with her mother and was attached most curiously to her father, who earned little and was not often home.
“Papa will come home after one– two– full three months,” she counted on her fingers, “he should have come as soon as the holidays began. But they didn’t let him. Papa lied and said that he would catch a fever if he came right away. But we know, didi— the people he works for don’t want him to go home. They are evil- evil!” “He wasn’t lying, idiotic kid. Haven’t you heard about the coronavirus?” Anandita said, still lying face downwards. Falak fell silent. “We have–heard,” she said doubtfully, “but how could that stop him? Even when Papa broke his foot in an accident, he came home anyway. He said that he recovered much better around us.” “Well, it’s different this time,” Anandita replied shortly. “There weren’t any trains or buses that would bring him home three months ago, for one thing. And if he were to catch the disease, he could die.” Falak looked at her, as if she could make out from her back whether she was telling the truth. “It’s a lie! You’re a liar!” she suddenly said loudly. “Falak! Behave yourself. How dare you speak to me in that manner!” Anandita sat up in bed. The girl subsided, but did not stop staring at her. “I’d have thought you cared more for your papa than you seem to do. Anyway, he
can come home now. He’s still in danger, but at least the trains are up and running again.” “He will- he will come, see if he doesn’t,” Falak said defiantly, and ran out of the room.
It was raining, raining. But the wind was still stagnant, the earth smelt putrid and decayed- petrichor was replaced by manure. The disappointment was an ordinary one, and yet it seemed to add to what was already there.
Anandita had opened all the windows, but she may as well have let them remain shut, for all the comfort they provided. Only the sight of the clouds, grey and overbearing, rising far above the houses, leaving behind a pristinely white sky alleviated her senses a bit. The door to her room stood open. Falak’s high voice floated in. She seemed to be talking to herself, “…and when Papa brings the parrot, we will show it to everyone. And then when anyone calls us ‘ill- begotten’ or ‘slut’, the parrot will tell them that they are the same!” Hearing her laugh, Anandita shuddered. She had half a mind to call Falak inside and scold her for using such words in the house, but something made her stop. “They can’t bear it when we tell them to control their tongues. And if Papa were here, Ammi won’t tell me to stay at home while the holidays are going on. Papa will bring us fruits, too. He knows how little dinner we have now. But if only he comes soon!” A little sigh followed this. Anandita felt sick. “Falak!” she called. The girl came inside, a sullen expression on her face. “Here are fifty rupees,” Anandita fished a crumpled note out of the pocket of her trousers, and held it out to her. “Go and buy yourself some chocolates.” Falak looked from her face to the note, and suddenly her face broke into a wide, broken- toothed grin. “We don’t need this, didi,” she said, “my Papa will buy us all the sweets we want. Only wait till he comes back!” “Yes, yes, but take it anyway. At least until he returns, you’ll have some chocolates for yourself.” Yet the child drew back. “We don’t take bribes, didi. We don’t take bribes to assuage your guilt,” her eyes seemed to say. With a loud exclamation of impatience, Anandita said sharply, “Get out. Get out this instance.” Falak left, still smiling from ear to ear.
By the time evening came around, the downpour of rain had significantly increased. The sky had changed from that startling white to a deep prussian blue. A loud pattering of raindrops disturbed everyone who tried to invest themselves in work, and drew them to their terraces, or their balconies, or their doors and windows; and forced them wonder at the sheer force of beauty that they had caused to erupt all around them. The sanobar, tulsi and pudina had all acquired newer robes of green, and even the amaltas were blooming!
And above all of it, Anandita could hear someone crying loudly. “I won’t go home!” shrieked a high voice, “I won’t go home!” She left her room and went downstairs, only to see Falak’s mother, Seema, trying to drag her out by her arm, while the child cried and resisted with all the force of her little body. “What’s all this? Let go of Falak!” Anandita said angrily. The mother looked at her and said, “Pardon us, baby. She has become too disobedient, that’s the only reason why-,” “I won’t go home! They are not letting Papa come home even now, they threaten to fire him from his job, they think that because we’re poor they can do whatever they like with us! They keep him back only because they know he’s helpless! And I won’t bear it! I won’t go home if he doesn’t come!” “Where will you go, you foolish girl! It’s not the same for us, as it is with everyone else. There’s no freedom from our needs–there’s no better place–where can you
possibly run off to?” Seema cried wretchedly. “I don’t care. I will go anywhere,” said Falak. And before anyone could stop her, before her mother could do little more than lunge at her, Falak ran out of the house and down the road, her small bare feet indifferent to pebbles and dirt and gravel. “Child!” Seema went after her, hobbling as fast as she could.
Anandita stared at their disappearing forms- the smaller, lithe figure skirting past puddles, the heavier one of her mother stepping right into them in her haste. Now it was raining indeed; the air smelt no more of rot and decay, but fresh, fresh as an apple. And through the hard pattering of rain on every surface around her, she could hear– or she thought she could hear– laughing, jeering voices, crying out, “Misbegotten! Misbegotten!”
She slammed the door close as loudly as she could. But the voices remained in her ear.