Suraya screamed at the Sun. Had it been only a week since she met Ravi? How did her life converge at this point…?
The walls loomed large, the vast complex resembling a prison. But Suraya could leave, unlike the others inside. Although she didn’t call it escaping, her heart jangled every evening when the wrought-iron gate of the employees’ exit banged shut behind her bicycle. Usually, her daily conversations with inmates collected in layers upon her chest, compacted under an invisible road roller. Today she felt light as a butterfly and the desire to reach home before the magical moment of sunset lent her fluttering wings.
She leaned forward to pedal harder where the unpaved path sloped upwards in the shape of a caterpillar’s back. She continued to push downhill next to the construction of a new highway. Her cycle screeched to a stop in front of a dilapidated bungalow. She rested the bicycle against a wall and scrambled up the staircase jutting out behind the house. By the time she reached the single room on the terrace, she was breathless. Illegally constructed, the room’s unpainted walls angled away from the building, awkwardly bent like a knee surgery gone wrong. She shared the dwelling with two female roommates who toiled in a nearby matchstick factory and came home only to sleep. The rooftop belonged to her in the evenings, offering openness and space.
Her feet stung on the hot, charcoal-black cuddapah stone floor as she reached the parapet. The Sun skirted behind a row of coconut palms and emanated an orange-red aura of a wise sage. She spoke fast, eager to unload her thoughts before the Sun disappeared, his task completed for the day.
“A newcomer arrived this morning. He stooped and shuffled while entering the facility, as if his soul had deserted him outside the gates. After the registration formalities, I showed him to his accommodation. When I offered a tour of the campus, the tiniest of smiles revealed dimpled cheeks. His egg-shaped pepper-grey beard took me years past and I could not look away from him.”
She paused and peeked at the Sun. He was listening, as every day.
“His name is Ravi, and he is from far-off Mumbai. He strikes as someone who has had the front seat in life. In the garden, streams of light caught his fine hair and made it glint, competing with the shimmering water of the fountain. When he spoke of his recently born daughter, his grey eyes cocooned in a mist. His wife, whom he doted upon, died soon after giving birth. His daughter is his sunshine, and he wants to raise her with utmost love and attention. It’s a good thing he is rich, so has the help he needs. Eligible women flood him with proposals to remarry, but his focus remains on his child.”
When Suraya is born, her mother’s face clouds over. Instead of the desired boy, she believes she is holding a lifelong liability in her arms. Suraya’s father, an autorickshaw driver, doesn’t utter a negative word. He welcomes his firstborn as his Shehzaadi, his princess. Three days later, he drives his family home from the municipality hospital. As the vehicle enters their shantytown, his riotous air blow-horn merrily echoes in the confined lanes. Within five years, two more sisters increase the household. The worried frown on her mother’s forehead creases downwards, but the twinkle in her father’s eyes grows brighter.
“I can imagine Ravi being propositioned by women,” said Suraya to the Sun who slid behind the grey horizon. The weight unloaded on her friend’s shoulders, she headed to the room and pumped the kerosene stove to prepare a dinner of beans and chapati. The sword-shaped leaves of the coconut trees turned dark.
The next evening, Suraya burst out with the day’s developments.
“Ravi observed himself in a mirror and became agitated. He thought a stranger had entered his room. It took me an hour to calm him. Only after the promise of a walk, did he agree to eat food. He nibbled on biscuits dipped in tea while we chatted. He is celebrating two events at the city’s best five-star hotel: his daughter’s tenth birthday and the largest business deal of his career. It is a fancy-dress party, and he has donned a Batman costume while his daughter is Robin. When she cuts and offers him the first piece of the creamy strawberry cake, his heart leaps up to cloud nine. Their bond is unbreakable.”
Suraya’s father refuses to bow to the system. Day and night, he plies the rickshaw to bear the fees of an English medium school for his daughters. When Suraya turns twelve, he celebrates by gathering her classmates and a few relatives. He serves potato crisps, nankhatai biscuits, and rose red Roohafza sharbat in little bottle-bottomed glasses. Suraya receives pencils, sharpeners, and a hair clip from her friends. Her face brightens as her father reveals his gift—a second-hand bicycle he has refurbished himself. She knows she is his Shehzaadi.
The Sun departed, carrying away Suraya’s recollections while the palms murmured in the tame westerly winds.
The routine continued, like several previous evenings.
“Ravi hasn’t remarried. He is at a beach. His fifteen-year-old daughter is playing in the water while he lounges under a rainbow-coloured umbrella, enjoying a drink and making business calls. When an ebbing tide pulls her in, he doesn’t hesitate to jump into the sea and rescues her. Everyone declares him a hero to venture into the treacherous waters. His daughter clutches him tight, their connection fortified by his actions.”
The torrential showers continue for days on end, flooding the slums where Suraya and her family live. A regular occurrence during the monsoons, open sewers overflow, and garbage piles up. People wade through knee-high brackish rainwater. For three mornings, Suraya’s father navigates the waterlogged lanes with his rickshaw and drops off his daughters at school. For three afternoons, he waits outside the gates and ferries them back. According to him, education cannot be compromised. The sixteen-year-old Suraya overflows with respect for her father and his dedication to his family.
She watched on as her monsoon memories evaporated in the embers of the evening Sun.
The cycle track was seared as if a dragon had been breathing upon it all day.
Suraya pedalled, her thin legs pumping tirelessly as the pistons of a ship’s engine. She steered the cycle through the house’s gate and wiped the glistening sweat off the nape of her neck with her cotton dupatta. Gulping a glass of water from a clay pot, she hopped on the still scalding floor to the terrace’s edge.
“Ravi was grumpy today. He perched on the bed, wrung his hands, and rocked back and forth the whole morning. When I offered to go out and sit on the bench under the majestic teak tree, he curled up into a ball in a corner of the room and refused to move. His chest heaved with many a sob stuck in his throat. When he spoke, which was little, his voice was as fragile as the periwinkle flowers planted outside the window. His daughter is leaving for London to study law. He couldn’t recall the name of the university, but it is famous. He is at the airport to hug her good-bye. I wonder if his pain was from your fieriness or from missing his daughter.”
When Suraya turns eighteen, a baker from an adjacent town approaches her father for her hand in marriage. He demands a dowry of fifty thousand rupees and a scooter. Her mother shrinks in her skin as the monsters buried deep since Suraya’s birth emerge growling. Her father intends to sell his autorickshaw, but Suraya refuses to wed by cutting off his only source of income. Proud of his daughter’s decision, he declines the proposal and Suraya continues with her studies.
Exhausted not only by her thoughts, Suraya bid goodbye to the uneasy Sun. The sky-hearth still warm, the night promised to be warmer.
“Ravi didn’t recognise me today. He lodged himself in a chair and questioned what I was doing in his room. To settle him, I gazed out of the window and described the scene—ducks causing a ruckus in the circular pond, sparrows flitting in and out of the neem trees, and ghost-shaped clouds gathering in the sky. As his fear diminished, he narrated his daughter’s life in London. She emails him, wishing him on special occasions and on corporate wins. He visits her during business trips, and they dine at well-heeled restaurants. She has a boyfriend now, and although Ravi feels protective, he is proud of her choice. He recognises it being part of her journey.”
As Suraya and her sisters touch adulthood, the pressure of dowry crumbles her mother. She often falls sick. This drives the determined sisters to make a pact—they will not pay a single paisa in dowry or stay unmarried lifelong. Life trundles along and the siblings separate in the different parts of the country. Suraya achieves a diploma in pharmacy and works at a medical store before coming to this institution. The middle sister becomes a primary school teacher, while the youngest joins a truck rental company as a junior accountant. Their agreement remains sacrosanct.
The palm trees waved to the earth’s star as he departed for other shores. Darkness enveloped Suraya while she picked up the scattered memories of her family.
The next day refused to brighten up. The sky became a canvas filled with pencil lines of charcoal ash. Suraya sat on the terrace, unwilling to start cooking till she had spoken with her friend. Finally, the Sun broke through the clouds in shards of gold.
“Here you are. Ravi’s daughter is getting married, and he is ecstatic. Although he didn’t dance, his luminous eyes were meteors blazing across a dark sky. After a while, he complained of icy hands and feet, and I comforted him with a hot-water bag. His son-in-law is the same person his daughter met at university. Ravi is happy with her choice but afraid of losing her. According to him, the love between a father and daughter is a special gift, made of pure light. His tears, lurking nearby, won and I began crying too. We held each other in a warm hug.”
Suraya’s father escapes his nagging wife by working longer hours or chewing cured tobacco leaves and smoking bidis at the corner paan shop. He blames himself for failing to get his children settled. Some months later, his wife dies, having caught tuberculosis in the last monsoon. His daughters stand by him in the dark days.
The light diminished as the clouds shielded the Sun with their cloak of melancholy again. Suraya waited, but when the Sun didn’t re-emerge, she plodded to her room and slumped in the kitchen corner. She glanced now and then through the window, asking the palms if they could see her companion.
“The conglomerate that Ravi’s daughter inherited from him has grown multi-fold. She flies around the globe, meeting politicians, and industrialists. Between appearing on the covers of business magazines, she seals high-stake deals. He follows her success through the media, hardly ever seeing her in person. He asked me if I have seen her name—Samyukta—on TV or in newspapers. I have not.”
One day, the habit of chewing tobacco sows the weed of cancer in Suraya’s father’s mouth. The dimples behind his silver-white beard disappear and his eyes turn hollow. At the beginning, he sounds as though he has a cold. Soon, he slurs some words and then loses his voice altogether. Suraya takes out multiple loans from a moneylender for her father’s treatment and can only observe as he withers away within a year. On the third evening of bereavement, Suraya clambers up a hillock outside the graveyard and, for the first time, shares her agony with the Sun. The helplessness of not being able to save her father buries her heart under a pile of sandbags.
When Suraya returned home, she threw the cycle on the ground. She ran to the parapet without stopping for water or to wipe away sweat. Her dupatta trailed behind her. She had to share her conversation with Ravi, but the Sun was still combatting the stubborn clouds.
The grey evening drained into a dark, moonless night. Suraya waited. Her thoughts boiled, and the listless palms offered no solace.
On her way to work next morning, Suraya considered the previous conversation with Ravi. In her occupation, she often heard similar stories, and every time she shuddered. The luxurious old age home nestled in green surroundings outside the sleepy town catered to the ultra-rich older generation. Most arrived in their last years, months, weeks, days—close to losing the endgame with themselves. They craved for listeners to share their identities, their contributions, their reflections, even their ancestors’ secrets. She was a caregiver and helped residents on mental pilgrimages to their times past. And each evening, she shared these accounts with her trusted companion—the Sun.
Suraya was so lost in her thoughts that she almost crashed her cycle into the hearse parked at the main entrance. Filled with crippling anxiety, she intuitively knew whom the wagon had come for.
The anvil-shaped clouds washed away in the evening. She screamed at the Sun: “Ravi died in his sleep. He was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s. Yesterday, he didn’t recognise me and requested several times to check at the reception if his daughter had arrived. As we strolled in the garden, he kept slipping between lucid conversation and confusing statements. In a moment of extreme clarity, he said, ‘Samyukta embarked on a trek in the Sahara Desert to collect funds for a charity. Somehow during the trek, she separated from her group and got lost in the desert. Seven days later they found her decomposed and dehydrated body—she died of extreme heat and lack of water. I didn’t even get to say a proper good-bye.’ After this Ravi turned silent. He didn’t eat anything or leave his room the whole day. I managed to feed him a few spoonsful of water while I readied him for bed. He touched my hand and said, ‘Thank you for being here, Samyukta. Please never leave me alone again.’”
Born in India, Ankit Jamwal lives in Switzerland with his wife and two teenage children. During the day, he works in the global manufacturing industry and employs his leisure time to dream up stories. When Ankit is not working or writing, he loves spending time with his family, piloting single-engine aeroplanes, and dreaming of adopting a stray dog someday. His debut collection of short stories is available globally. He is working on a novel next.