(This short story is published in March 2014 )
"(c)" Sujata Rajpal
“Skating rink,” Samar instructed the auto rickshaw driver as he hopped into the first vacant auto spotted on the road. His heart was pounding. He hadn’t stepped foot into the place for eight years. That day, something was pulling him towards it.
Samar had turned eighteen last month. Coincidentally, his admission to the University of Pennsylvania was confirmed the same day. This could have been the best birthday gift for any student but nothing excited him in life - neither getting an opportunity to study in one of the top colleges in the US nor birthdays.
“Wow! That’s wonderful news, I am so proud of you,” Anup had exclaimed, stretching his arms to embrace his son when he overheard Samar talking to a friend on the phone. As always, Samar reciprocated his father’s hug with a shrug.
It was the first time Samar would be going so far from home; he didn’t know if he was running away from his father or himself.
His room resembled an ocean of clothes, eatables and books which had to find a place in the new suitcase that his father had kept it in the room last night.
“Should I help you pack?” Anup asked when he saw Samar sitting beleaguered amongst the heap of woollens on the bed.
“No thanks, I can manage,” Samar replied as coldly as he could, his head still buried in the suitcase.
The auto stopped right in front of the huge iron gate. The deafening noise of skates rubbing against the concrete rink could be heard from outside. There was a time when that noise had pumped adrenalin into him.
It was evening. He walked in with hesitant steps. The place was full of children, the instructors blowing whistles, mothers impatiently waiting for their children to finish, like it always had been when his life revolved around school, the skating rink and his loving parents.
Samar lowered himself on a stone bench and watched the children skating on the track.
“Samar, run fast!” his mother’s voice echoed in his ears.
The vacant look in his eyes deepened on seeing a woman holding out a water bottle for her young son at the edge of the rink as she waited for him to complete his circuit on the rink. The boy paused to take a sip of water from the bottle before resuming the race. The scene reminded him of his mother who would hold a water bottle for him in a similar manner, her one foot inside the track.
“Mamma! Stay outside, you will get hurt,” he would tell her.
His mother picked him up from school every day on her scooter and brought him to the skating rink. After gulping down a glass of milk and a few biscuits which she carried with her, he would start his daily practice of fifty rounds. Homework, followed by dinner, reading and a bed time story telling session by his mother, that had been his routine for as long as he could remember.
“Samar, you have the potential to become an international champion, you must practice daily,” his mother encouraged him when he sometimes complained of boredom. All of ten, he was already a state level junior champion.
“Grow up, you are ten years old and still a mamma’s boy,” Anup would reprimand his son affectionately when he would see Sarita pushing bites of chappties dipped in dal into Samar’s mouth while the boy worked on his school assignments . Samar was very attached to his mother. He hugged her a lot and often told her that he loved her. He had a room of his own but would insist on sleeping in his parents’ bedroom at night saying there were robbers in his room. All he needed was a hug and a kiss by Sarita to chase him to his room at night.
Samar had only fond memories of his parents from his childhood. Like all married couples that he knew or had watched on TV, his parents too had their share of disagreements and squabbles but their quarrels would last only a few minutes. Invariably at the end of every fight, the entire family would go out to Baskin Robins for ice cream.
That day it didn’t end with going to the ice cream parlour. Anup and Sarita were sitting on the couch and watching TV after dinner, something they did every day. In between surfing channels, Anup shared highlights of his day at work with Sarita while she flipped through the latest issue of a woman’s journal. Samar who was around ten at that time sat on the rocking chair close by with his new Tintin in hand which Sarita had bought for him while returning from skating that evening. He was too engrossed in the comic to pay attention to his parents’ conversation. Inline skates were the only words he could catch.
“You can spend any amount of money on yourself but not twenty thousand to buy inline skates for your son,” Sarita fumed when Anup questioned about her indulgence on inline skates.
“If you were earning money, you would’ve known its value. You just want to enjoy at home and waste my hard earned money?” he snarled. It seemed he was distressed over something; the demand to buy inline skates by his wife infuriated him further.
“Your hard earned money? Is this not my money, too? To hell with you and your money!” She flung the magazine that she had in her hand on him. His spectacles fell down with the blow.
“How dare you hit me?”Aunp stood up.
Picking up his glasses from the floor, in retaliation he gave her a slight push. Sarita lost her balance and tripped. She banged her head against the chest kept nearby. Before Anup could react, he saw her lying unconscious on the floor, her silky black hair strewn across her face.
“Sarita!”Anup panicked when he saw blood oozing out from her head. The sharp edge of the wooden chest had hit the delicate portion of her head.
“Sarita...Sarita get up...,” he cried reaching for the water bottle kept on the table. He turned the bottle upside down on her face and slapped her cheeks lightly to bring her to consciousness but he couldn’t revive her. He felt her pulse and took his mouth closer to hers to check if she was still breathing.
She was breathing. Samar could see her chest heaving.
“Your mamma has been hurt on the head. I will take her to the hospital. We will come back soon. Don’t open the door to anyone,” Samar heard his father say. “It’s nothing serious, she only requires a few stitches; she will be fine,” Anup added, seeing a dazed expression on his son’s face.
Samar was too traumatized to utter a word.
At home, Samar waited for his parents to return. That day, he wanted Sarita to read the new Tintin. Though he could read it himself, while snuggled in bed with her, the characters would come alive with his mother’s magical voice. Samar neatly arranged the comic on the side table and waited for his mother to return.
After four hours, Anup returned alone.
Samar couldn’t believe that his mother would never come back to kiss him, read stories to him and sleep by his side. In an instant, his blissful world was shattered into miniscule pieces.
Why did he kill mamma? Why he had to shout at her? Why he had to push her so hard? Many unanswered questions hovered in Samar’s mind.
Samar wished they could roll back in time and his parents start their conversation again, discuss amicably, the way they always did. Who would imagine even in their wildest dreams that a slight push could be fatal. He still believed it to be a dream where everything would be alright when Anup would wake up and Sarita would be standing at his bed side with a cup of tea in her hand and a smile on her lips, her long plait pulled in front.
The memories of that night were impossible to ward off. Their lives changed upside down. Anup stopped going to work; he would stay in his room the entire day. He was unable to come to terms with the loss. He was too shattered himself to comfort his son. They shifted to another house. Samar was not sure, if the move could fill the vacuum that had been created in his life.
Every night, after Samar went to sleep, Anup would go to his son’s room and sit by his side.
“Samar, please forgive me! It was just an accident,” he would say, running his fingers through his son’s hair while the boy pretended to sleep.
Samar stopped talking to his father. He only spoke to him when he had to, and it was always in monosyllables. They lived like two strangers under one roof. Samar had lost his mother but Anup had lost both his wife and son.
Sometimes, when there would a power cut in their apartment complex, both father and son would sit across each other quietly in the balcony while they waited for the power supply to resume; in the dark, Samar would hear the soft sobs of his father. Samar had a strange sense of satisfaction on seeing his father crying. He abhorred his father. He considered himself an orphan now. Though the court had acquitted Anup, Samar held his father responsible for his mother’s death.
Later, Anup’s mother came to live with them. She repeatedly told Samar that his father loved his mother immensely; they fought because all married couples fight but there was no animosity between them. It was just a freak accident; he didn’t intend to kill her.
“No, you are lying. Daddy killed Mamma because he didn’t want to buy inline skates for me. I hate him,” he shouted at his grandmother before shutting himself in his room.
The years passed. The entire axis of Samar’s life had shifted, though it appeared to be normal to the outside world. He did well in studies, played sports and made friends. He kept himself busy all the time leaving him with no energy to think of the bygone years but happiness was impossible without his mother. The moment he would enter home, he would go into a dismal mood again. He didn’t like to smile in his father’s presence. He didn’t want his father to feel that he had forgiven him.
Samar wished he could fulfil his mother’s wish of becoming an international skating champion but he had vowed never to wear skates again in life. Skates reminded him of his beloved mother.
“It’s closing time now; better go!” The security guard at the skating rink brought him out of his reverie.
Samar looked at his watch. It was 7 pm. He took out his mobile from his breast pocket to find nine missed calls from Anup. Though his mobile was not on silent mode, surprisingly he hadn’t heard his phone ring. He kept the phone back in the pocket. That night, he was leaving India. After finishing his education, he would take up a job and settle down in the US.
He came out on the road and waived at an auto rickshaw.
“Kings Mansion building,” he told the address of his old apartment to the driver. He wanted to visit all those places that had memories of his once happy family. When he entered the building, he realized that he didn’t have the apartment keys. He climbed the stairs anyway and was surprised to find that the door of their apartment was ajar. Samar walked in with unsteady steps. He stood in the foyer and looked around. Everything was as it was eight years ago –the rocking chair, the TV, the couch where his parents were sitting, the chest, the carpet where his mother collapsed. It had been years since he left that place but it felt like yesterday. He kneeled down and ran his fingers over the spot on the carpet where he had last seen his mother. The sob that was stuck in his throat burst open. The tears wet his face before falling over his hand. Today he missed his mother immensely. He just wanted a glimpse of her, to hear her voice or see some signal that she was watching him, understanding his pain. He wanted to hug her and ask her why she left him. But he was 18 and knew that people who died didn’t come back. He wished for a miracle which could bring her back.
Big boys don’t cry, his mother always said when he would cry after getting hurt while skating. He got up, wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt. He gazed at a spot in the kitchen and imagined his mother, her petite frame bent over the stove, she humming a tune from an old Hindi film song.
He wandered in the house aimlessly. He walked up to his room to find a pair of inline skates on the bed. His eyes brightened on seeing the skates. It refreshed memories of his skating days. He picked up a skate and caressed it.
Wrapping his arms around the skate that he was holding, he closed his eyes lightly and imagined his mother’s smiling face. The tears welled up in his eyes again.
“Mamma, I miss you so much. Mamma, come back....” he sobbed like a ten year old, skate still in his embracing hold.
“Samar, what are you doing here?” he heard a voice from behind.
Samar turned his head to meet his father’s moist eyes.
Samar stopped crying abruptly. He stood there looking at Anup, his face stained with tears. None of them spoke. Anup was holding a framed picture. Samar looked at it intensely; it was the same family picture which they got it clicked when once they had gone to the zoo. All three of them had posed with trained parrots on their arms. Anup had laughed looking at his wife’s scared expressions in the photograph. He had insisted on framing the picture.
The photograph brought memories of happy days. His mother was dead but his father was still with him.
Samar spoke breaking the lull.
“Daddy, my clothes don’t fit in the suitcase, help me to pack properly,” Samar said between sobs as he reached for his father’s shoulder to hug him.
Then both of them wept.