by Dinesh Maurya
Tithi lived on her own in a studio flat quite a distance away from the immigration consultancy firm where she worked as a visa counsellor. She hurtled on her scooter every day to travel back and forth through the congested lanes of Old Delhi except on off-days that didn’t seem to fall on occasions she desperately wanted a break from her frenzied routine. So on the varying frequency of days in a month, she excused herself from work in the middle of the week to spend some quiet time with herself – no probable interaction with anyone or drudgery throughout the day – and unwind with her small collection of hand-picked books and periodicals. But more often than not, she ended up doing laundry and dusting her meagre belongings in the morning, calling her close friends for a long relaxed conversation and reminiscing about her home and family in the afternoon, and she went out shopping in the by-lanes of the city in the evening. And today was her one such day, or so she thought it would be, as she’d taken leave from her work on the pretext of poor health.
While organizing the contents of her crammed closet, most of which were very close to her heart and pensively collected over the years, she sorted out some can-do-without belongings: a pair of undersized woollen gloves, a white T-shirt of her ex-boyfriend, worn-out trinkets, some old bills and a pair of beige sneakers. Quite impulsively she resolved not to pay much consideration to either their practical or emotional worth otherwise she won’t be able to throw them away and would have less space for newer things in life. So without fussing, as she used to do before making any addition or deduction of things and people in her life, she put them all into a large see-through poly bag and went to keep it outside her door.
‘Don’t keep it here.’ Gopalan, her next-door neighbour, almost startled her as she bent to place the bag in the corridor. He was standing near the staircase on the right side of her door and frowning. ‘The sweeper is on leave for two days. Better go and place it in the municipal waste bin at the end of the lane.’
Tithi went into a sulk and considered his advice bitterly.
‘These sneakers and the T-shirt look new. Why don’t you give it away to the poor?’ Gopalan who also happened to be the secretary of the building suggested.
‘I’ll do it later, Uncle,’ she retorted after a while and went into her flat, banging the door to vent her annoyance.
The thought of the sneakers kept outside struck her later when she finally sat on her bed pushed close to the open window and took the first sip of steaming black coffee. Water dripping from a leaky tap in the bathroom on the left corner gave out an unceasing hum of the passage of time, adding an uncanny refrain in the background. Her flyaway strands of hair, animated in the late monsoon wind pouring in through the window, kept caressing her face that for some reason evoked a repressed memory of her teens. What a scene she’d created for the gorgeous pairs of new sneakers brought actually for Vidhi, her elder sister!
To keep his word that whoever between the two sisters scored better grades would get a present, their father brought a pair of rather costly sneakers for Vidhi, her elder sister, who had managed to beat her. Not easily available and prevalent back then in her teens, sneakers were certainly a cherished possession in the small town of Jaunpur where she lived with her parents and sister. Tithi – younger and so pampered relatively more – wasn’t prepared to acknowledge the rout and lose the exquisite reward. Out of envy and rashness, she later hid them behind an old cabinet and no one could persuade her to open her mouth; if she couldn’t wear them, no one would.
‘Don’t be foolish, Tithi. Vidhi deserves it, you know that very well.’ Her mother tried to make her approach the matter in a mature way. She always sided with Vidhi on such arguments as she helped her with the domestic chores and acted upon her advice and suggestions, while Tithi was relentlessly cross with her mother, almost to the extent of being highly snobbish.
‘Okay, give it to your sister now. I’ll buy a new one for you.’ Her father agreed at last though he knew it’d be a breach of the former agreement and unfair to Vidhi. As he worked for the Indian Railways as a caterer and earned just enough to cover increasing household expenses and the education of his two daughters, he also mentally considered the cost of one more such sneakers.
As Vidhi was deprived of her reward even after working until late at night for exceptional marks, she couldn’t resist the feeling of injustice. Even after repeated requests from her parents, she remained adamant and didn’t disclose the whereabouts of the shoes owing to her naivety of what such little things can lead to and failed to comprehend the pain she was causing her sister. And when she finally realised her fault, it was too late to set things right as the once-valued thing had overrun its significance. Many months after the episode, everyone else seemed to have forgotten the sneakers and her stubbornness to tell their whereabouts. Vidhi grew over the feeling or pretended to do so, but Tithi developed an unconscious sense of guilt that couldn’t then be subdued by returning the hidden sneakers. Years went by and the hideout of the sneakers kept changing while she remained irresolute about what she could do with them, and it might have happened that others in the house would have seen it but chose to remain discreet. Tithi was five years younger than Vidhi and so she was always bullied around by everyone in the house. Although she was pampered more and anything that came in the house first went to her, she wasn’t contented as her elder sister had more authority and her opinion mattered more during any discussion. Tithi wished to be heard seriously and taken even more seriously in the house. Vidhi’s acts of kindness were unsolicited help for her—an expression of power and a sort of intimidation.
In the course of the subsequent years, the two sisters graduated from the same college and then chose their own divergent futures. Vidhi married a promising chef and shifted to Canada, where he owned an Indian-cuisine restaurant, and later they had a son, Atharva. Tithi went to Delhi to make her mark and carried the sneakers along as a keepsake of her misconduct. Since they left Jaunpur, the two sisters didn’t meet or exchange any sort of communication with each other, but their anxious parents tried to frequently keep in touch with them. Contrary to their father’s ardent hope, they had always been spiteful of each other since a very young age. Their father called them often to ask about their well-being and if they were in contact with each other; they both had sensed, although individually, loneliness and sadness in his voice. Both of you should stand for each other, he often said, and sisters are like mothers to each other. When they were young, he often told them made-up fairy tales at night, and as in every fairy tale is a witch, Vidhi was Tithi’s nasty sorceress whose sole purpose was to spoil his happy life.
By the time Tithi took the second sip of her black coffee, she found it cold and bland; the itching afternoon sunlight pouring in from the open window now fell on her and she realised it had been quite a time since she was sitting still on her bed and the open book on her lap remained unread. She put the mug on the window-sill and on a whim decided to end the matter for once and all. She locked her apartment and picked up the poly bag which contained the source of her despair. Looking around, she felt relieved that Gopalan or any other neighbour wasn’t to be seen in the corridor; she’d no mood to be interrupted in her chain of disturbing thoughts and questions. For once she knew what she must do. She headed straight to the trash bin placed in a corner of the parking lot of her building and she was about to drop the bag in the bin when she hesitated.
Untying the bag, she brought out the pair of beige sneakers – the stolen thing that had deprived her sister of her well-merited happiness – and let the rest of the things fall in the bin. Moving a little distance away from the reeking litter, she wore the under-sized sneakers with much effort after much shoving and adjustment of her feet; she felt she was literally putting herself in someone else’s shoes. Then she started to amble, stamping her feet a little on the concrete floor. Her cramped toenails in the shoes ached but she kept on walking with a mixed feeling of happiness and guilt.
Out on the road, she found the people around judging her, accusing her with their eyes. She was wearing her guilt, in fact, flaunting it to the world. Was there a possibility that they knew? She strode a long distance and at length stopped on the footpath of a canal bridge. She vaguely regarded the horizon and felt the strong wind taking away the heaviness in her throat and heart with it.
In her dedicated cabin of the immigration consultancy firm about two years down the line, Tithi was explaining to a spoiled brat how to go ahead with his twice-rejected visa application although she knew he was just ogling at her breast. She was mentally about to smack him in the groin when her phone rang. Her maternal uncle was on the other side of the call and he informed her about her father’s untimely demise due to cardiac arrest. Her first response was utter disbelief as she had talked to him a day before and he seemed perfectly all right in his voice. He tried her father’s number and then her mother’s too but when both were busy, she embraced the truth in a delirium.
Almost in a subconscious state Tithi took a week’s leave, packed her suitcase – not forgetting the sneakers – and boarded the first train available to Jaunpur. She hadn’t visited the place even once in the last five years even after her parents’ frequent pleas. Late in the evening when she finally reached home, which she had left a long time ago in rashness, she started looking for him but her father had already been cremated at the Manikarnika Ghat. The person, she thought, who would always be there for her was nowhere to be seen.
Vidhi came three days later with her three-year-old son Atharva and what astonished one and all was her being draped in a saree even after living in Canada for years. Now when the two sisters were together at last, by the bereavement of the person who truly sought to see a happy reunion between them, they just swapped glances and said only what was needful. Both had a lot to share and ask, only both wanted the other to take the initiative.
The house was situated at the heart of the town in the middle of a popular bazaar where people from all parts of the city and tourists as well came in swarms to shop for cosmetics and accessories, along with relishing distinctive local sweets and savouries. Countless shops lined both sides of the road and the hustle-bustle in the evening around the house was refreshing and nostalgic for both sisters. Living in these lanes which boosted some of the best and the oldest shops in the city, they had spent a large part of their childhood together enjoying gol-gappas, samosas, sizzling chats, and whatnot. Now since years had passed without even tasting those delicacies, they forgot the loss of their father for a while and passionately craved to eat them but due to the mourning in the house and also their matured ages, they kept their cravings concealed and in control. Whenever the wind brought with it the aromatic smell of spicy snacks being prepared somewhere around, both gazed at each other and tried their best not to wink. Their mother often looked at the two sisters with accusation since they arrived in the house as if both of them were liable for their father’s death. She cried bitterly upon the arrival of any new guest while the two sisters sat in a corner like ghosts, dodging each others’ eyes. Once they caught her mother telling a distant relative that after both the sisters went away, their father felt very lonesome and sad and he missed them dearly.
Atharva addressed Tithi as masi and she loved the way he pronounced it in a foreign accent. Except for the two sisters, hardly anyone could understand his frequent blabbering in English which somehow eased the piercing gloom and silence of the house. One evening as their mother had a severe headache and he snubbed to calm down, Tithi took him to the bazaar for a walk through the crowded alleys where he started demanding every brightly coloured thing, kept on display outside the shops, on which his eyes fell and refused to move on any further. So she had to buy an expensive toy train along with a pair of sports shoes. When they came home, Vidhi first noticed the shoes and looked at her with questioning eyes. She thought it was deliberate – a sort of reparation for hurting her years ago.
‘What was the need to buy these?’ Vidhi asked her.
‘He told me his legs hurt when he walked in the old shoes so…’ Tithi replied. And that was that.
While trying to make Atharva sleep that night, Tithi eavesdropped on Vidhi who was giving hints to their mother that everything wasn’t good between her and her husband and she was considering putting up here forever. Maybe her unintended curse on her sister a long time ago had worked and she was accountable for her doomed married life. She kept musing about it and couldn’t sleep the whole night. It was such a small little matter – just a pair of sneakers – but it became a major cause of the ever-widening distance between the two. The pair of sneakers in reality was the enchantress of their shared fairy tale. No matter how sincerely two people try, a relationship doesn’t work unless one of them is ready to compromise.
A few days later, Vidhi was sitting alone on a woven charpai kept on the front side of the terrace, eyeing nothing in particular. The sun was observable just over grimy tin roofs on the horizon and it seemed composed and pacified as if it were returning home after a day’s toil. Red chillies, spread on a cotton cloth to dry on one side of the terrace, were dispersed on the terrace floor by wind and birds. It reminded her of the time when she’d put a few extra chillies in sambhar her mother was preparing for Tithi as it was her favourite but she didn’t like it.
Just when the sun was about to disappear and Vidhi was loosely planning to get up and return to her upturned life, Tithi came onto the terrace and carefully laid the sneakers close to her, her anklet jingling all the while. She was about to leave when Vidhi came out of her trance and saw the sneakers with a start. She looked up at her young sister with a glint in her eyes.
‘Tithi, wait…’ Words came out heavily from her throat as if too forced.
‘Didi…’ Tithi turned almost in eager anticipation and rushed to cuddle her.
The crow, nibbling chillies in peace up till now, flapped its wings and flew over them in a slight whirring sound in the midst of their sobs. For the loss of their father. For being ever-grudging. For not speaking to each other. For not standing for each other. For the appetizing whiff from the shops below.
About the Author:
Dinesh Maurya is a copywriter and an ESL tutor. His short stories have been published in Muse India, Kitaab and Indian Ruminations.