Friday, January 28, 2011

The Flight to Freedom

The Flight to Freedom
(Brief Background – Makar Sankranti is celebrated in India on 14th January to mark the winter harvest of special crops like sesame and jaggerine which are used as ingredients to make sweet dishes in every household. The occasion is celebrated by having kite flight contests everywhere where rival teams try to cut the strings of their opponents’ kites while aiming to fly their own kites the highest. The sky is filled with a myriad of different coloured kites often amidst background theme music and tray loads of home-made sweet delicacies served by the women of the house.)
Jaideep Mehta, better known as Jai, made his way through the narrow alley flanked on either side by a row of ramshackle hutments. The dilapidated dwellings which passed off as homes of the poor but not so poor to be homeless, were held together somehow by bits and pieces of brick, mud, plastic, and just about anything. It seemed to Jai as he passed rows and rows of such slum dwellings, that these homes were held upright mainly by a million dreams that invited a million seekers to this city every day. Not for the first time, he reminded himself, that anybody in his right mind would have abandoned the plan long back and quit, let the police do the formalities. Why the hell get into this at all, why bother? Yet, some imbecile voice within him kept prodding him on.
A few paces more, the alley led into an open square like a courtyard, and he found himself in a dead end. There were children in the courtyard, of all ages, huddled into clusters led by older kids in their teens. They seemed to be preparing for the big kite fight. Enormous kites of all possible colours and patterns were tried, strings were being checked and rechecked, there were hushed strategies discussed and challenges thrown by rival teams.
Jai walked into the heart of all this festive chaos, and stood trying to decide, whom he should ask for further direction. His abrupt advent was greeted by an immediate lull in the cacophony, and he felt many pairs of eyes studying him, taking in all the details of his appearance from head to toe. He was suddenly conscious of being the only well–dressed, or to be more precise, completely dressed person out there. For the younger kids were mainly bare-chested, wearing a pair of tattered shorts, the teenagers wore a sleeveless vest on torn jeans and the females were more modestly dressed in shabby salwaar kameez. All of them were bare feet. Jai walked up to a boy of about fourteen and showed him the slip with the address written. The boy returned a blank stare and Jai realised that he did not know how to read. So he mumbled a few words in broken Marathi (the local language of Mumbai).
“Is that Madan Chachu’s (Madan Uncle’s) house you are looking for?” The voice came from a girl about ten years old. “Please come this way,” she instructed, without waiting for reply. She led Jai through a narrow gap between two mud shacks and paced down a winding alley (which Jai could not have imagined existed) and slipped through a broken fence and disappeared. With an increasing sense of foreboding, Jai ventured to slide his thankfully lean frame through the hole in the fence and found himself abruptly in the wooden patio of a house made of actual bricks and cement. Having reached her destination, the girl flashed him a toothy smile and disappeared as fast as she had come before Jai could gather his wits enough to reach into his pocket and offer her a chewing gum.
Jai found himself standing alone; facing an open door to a room whose floor was made of mud and was freshly cleaned. On the walls were shelves where pots and pans and various cooking wares sparkled and shone. There was a cot in one corner with some shabby but clean linen neatly spread on it. The room had another door where a floral printed handmade curtain prevented him from seeing further. Taking several deep breaths, Jai went through his prepared speech yet again, and then having nothing more to do, he called out in the local language, “Hello, anybody home?”
The curtain drew back a little, and a pair of bespectacled eyes peered at him. Then a woman of about fifty came shuffling through the doorway and looked up at Jai with a curious half-smile. “Looking for Madan? He is my son,” she declared triumphantly.
 “Err.. Actually, I am his employer,” Jai managed, “He ....” .
He was cut off by a loud voice from inside, “ Mamta, who’s it?”
“It’s Jai saab, our Madan’s saab.”
“Oh is it? Well why are you making him stand at the door? Come in, come in,” the owner of the voice appeared, tall, in his fifties, dressed in pyjamas and vest.
“Asha, do get some water for saab.”
As he said so, the man pulled out a faded plastic chair (probably the only one they owned and meant for such esteemed guests) and ushered Jai to sit.
Having no further option, he sank into the chair while a sari-clad, very pregnant woman came out with a steel glass of fresh lemon sherbet. So this was Asha, presumably Madan’s wife.
“What  great luck!” declared the older lady, “You grace our humble abode on such an auspicious day. It’s Sankranti. Wait, you must taste some of the kheer (rice pudding) and sweets I have prepared with til (sesame) and gur (jaggerine).”
She shuffled out of the room dragging one leg behind, and Jai vaguely remembered his driver Madan recommending someone some herbal oil that had supposedly alleviated his mother’s rheumatic pain.
Draining his lemon sherbet, Jai got up. This was no time to deliberate and he plunged into his speech, “Actually, I am very, very sorry,” he hesitated...all he got was a confused, expectant look from the father.
He cleared his throat and started again, “This is no occasion for celebration, I’m afraid, Madan has been hit by a truck, he was driving the car alone, going to fetch a gentleman to our office,  the truck came from the wrong side, it was totally the fault of the truck-driver, they’ve arrested him...”, he was rambling on, slightly gaining panic, “We tried, I mean, he was rushed to the best hospital in the vicinity, but by the time they reached me, he was ...gone... I mean, I would have done anything, anything at all but he never made it to surgery. I’m so sorry; it was not Madan’s fault at all..”
 He was talking incoherently now; he realised and still went on just to prevent the silence. “I will do whatever I can, nothing can replace his loss, but I will help financially, I could find employment for his wife...”, he stopped suddenly as his gaze fell on the pregnant figure. She stood more still than death itself, one hand on her protruding stomach, gazing out of the door, seeing nothing...wide, expressionless eyes, with a chill that touched Jai and made him shiver.
He slowly shifted his gaze and looked at the figure that had stood motionless by the door, still holding a tray filled with sweet goodies. There were tears in those eyes, and almost in slow motion, the tears welled up and overflowed and from somewhere a muffled shriek tried to find vent.
Jai cursed himself; he cursed his eagerness to break the news himself, to try and make it more humane, to coat the blow with some promise of compensation. Compensation! As if!
He tried his best not to remember the day when his mother had received that call. His father had died in duty, trying to save the life of an elderly couple trapped in a fire that had engulfed their seventh floor apartment. Nobody had come forward then to explain the tragedy in words that could be understood. He remembered his mother running from pillar to post, asking questions, seeking answers, crying, always crying. The days flashed by...his mother starving, to feed him, trying vainly to get a job, any job, so that she could earn enough to cover his education. He felt the fresh surge of anger, for no-one had come forward; no-one had answered the questions.
He jumped out of his reverie by the piercing yell of a young voice. This new arrival was about six years old, covered in dust and full of frolic, impish grin on his face. “Hi,” he addressed Jai, “We will win!” Then he ran and hugged his mother who seemed to wake up and caress her son with the first dawning of an expression that lit her eyes and touched her face with a tenderness, too raw to touch. Amit shivered again.
The boy, oblivious of the drama that had unfolded and changed his world forever, ran straight to Jai. With the intuition of a child he aimed the words straight at Jai’s heart, “I am Chintu. Do you know my Papa?” Then, without waiting for answer, “My Papa will get me the biggest kite ever so that we can cut off the strings of Sachu Bhaiya’s kites!”
Thankful of the opportunity to break the accusing silence, Jai bent down and held the boy by his shoulders. “Come, let’s get you the biggest kite. And the strongest strings. Together, we will defeat Sachu Bhaiya. Our kite will fly the highest.”
“Really?” The boy looked ecstatic. “Come fast, will you, or Raju’s team will get ahead of us.”
“Wait Chintu!” The voice came from the forgotten figure on the floor where he must have collapsed. Jai had never seen such grit as he saw in the face of the father who had just heard that he has lost his son.
“Mamta,” he went over to his sobbing wife and put an arm around her, “Is this the way we treat our guests?” Then he looked at the boy who was getting impatient now, “Chintu, take, this laddoo is for you and give this to Jai Chachu, one must have sweets on Sankranti.
 The boy took this opportunity and grabbed a few sweets. He stuffed one in his mouth and tossed another to Jai. “We will win,” he declared.
As Jai bowed his respect to no-one in particular and was dragged out by his young saviour, he wondered how lovely it would be to fly light and free up in the sky, without the baggage of years of hatred. The sun shone brightly and the wind had picked up by the time the two had prepared their kite for the flight.  Chintu held the spool as Jai tossed the kite up in the direction of the wind. It was the season to let go of the past. Let the wind blow away the anguish. He had just learnt the amazing power of forgiveness and their kite will fly far and light, above the things that tend to weigh it down, to celebrate the festival with the clouds and birds.

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