| Sheerin Shahab | October 2023 | Flash Fiction |
The familiar two-storey building, its red brick facade interspersed with tall windows, their wooden slats painted green, stands unperturbed as I gaze up at it once more. My luggage lies at my feet where the eponymous black and yellow ambassador taxi has deposited it. Srijeet, my tween son, stands next to me, looking eminently bored and chewing a stick of gum way past its final death throes. He has handled the separation from his friends and his playstation, where he passes time killing the said friends over and over again, or getting killed in return, well enough for the past two days we have been traveling. It is a mystery to me why he agreed to come at all. The bribe of a new bike isn’t all that lucrative. As it is, Alpna, my wife, could not accompany us due to leave constraints. Not like me. However much I wish, this is a trip I couldn’t wriggle out of.
A middle-aged man on the portly side, clad in a white cotton dhoti and half-sleeved white vest, stumbles out of the main door. His lips are thick and wet with the juice of the tobacco he has been chewing, and the pungent smell of the mustard oil he favors is like an assault on our nostrils in the sweltering heat. Srijeet wrinkles his nose in distaste and spits out the much abused gum there on the side of the gate in some bushes. The man smiles and greets us, and picks up the luggage.
We follow him inside, taking out our shoes at the door. The floor is cool under our naked feet as we cross a couple of rooms to reach the inside courtyard ringed on all sides by a wide verandah interspersed with tall pillars. The man leads us to a staircase and climbs to the first floor. The steps are worn smooth with generations of kids running up and down playing hide-and-seek or nimble sari-clad feet decked in alta, the decorative red paint, going about their daily routine. We follow him, silently as Srijeet looks around in wonder all around. He has yet to see such a house in New Jersey, open, airy, and huge, used as we are to closed spaces inside constricting apartments.
Our luggage is kept in a room that has been made ready for us. The windows have been opened, the room aired, and fresh bedsheets and curtains put up. The other rooms are like time capsules, dimly-lighted, with ancient furniture, moth-eaten books, and wooden four-poster beds swathed in diaphanous nets, courtesy the mosquitoes. Everything is covered in dust-laden bedsheets, spread over each piece of furniture to protect them from the gathering dust. The heady fragrance of mangoes breaches every nook and corner of the house, inviting cuckoos, crickets, and kids alike. This house is everything I associate with my childhood summers.
It is summer once again. And I am back.
The man, who is paid to take care of the ancestral house after the death of my parents some years back, mutters about lunch being ready and withdraws. We need to freshen up but I can’t yet. Something about this place calls me. First I have to take a round of this house before anything else. A pilgrimage to my childhood, reliving those moments once again, albeit in my memories. Srijeet accompanies me, asking questions and listening to my stories. He can sense my wistfulness. Can he sense my dilemma too?
I show him the rocking chair where his grandpa loved to sit in the hall, listening to the radio in the morning. The small temple in the grounds where the family would gather in full force during festivals, the house a hotbed of activities, songs, dance recitals, and mounds of delicacies in the kitchen. The small pond behind the ground the boys would swim in with no care about the thick and succulent water chestnut leaves covering the water like a blanket. I show him the mango trees and the guava trees, the jamun trees and the peepal from whose branches we would hang the rudely made swings.
Once we are done, he simply says, “I think I would have loved growing up here.” And I wonder if I am doing the right thing. Once again.
The next morning I sit in the wide verandah upon a divan spread with pristine white sheets decorated with phulkari work, and hash out the details with the builder. My brother joins us from Singapore on Zoom. After all, it is an important decision and we both need to agree. My son sits next to me, busy in his mobile game, oblivious to the siren call of the tangy unripe mangoes, greedily sipping on a carton of Frooti he prefers to the aam-panna of my childhood.
It is finalized. The house and the grounds are to be handed over to the builder to demolish and build an apartment building with a couple of dozen flats, some of which will be with the builder and the rest will be for us two brothers to do as we please. Both of us need to decide what is to be done with the furniture inside. It would be better to sell it instead of carting the pieces to Singapore or to the United States, where both of us live, on opposite sides of the world.
Once the builder leaves, I feel compelled for a walk in the grounds. The guava tree from where I had once fallen down and broken my arm, stands forlorn in the heat. It doesn’t give fruit in summer and is bereft of much foliage. Surprisingly the malti, the flowering vine with red, white, and pink flowers growing over the back entrance has flourished, unconcerned with the absence of its owners. I reach the mango trees and sit under one of them, enjoying the cuckoo’s song and the pungent smell in the air.
Is it the house or my childhood that I have just signed over?
I pluck an unripe mango from a low-lying branch and head to the kitchen where I peel and cut it, and mix it with salt, some red chilly powder, and a dash of mustard oil just like we used to do on sultry summer afternoons long ago. I can remember the perfect combination of savory, hot, and pungent slices with the tadka of my mother’s scoldings. As I chew on the pieces with vigor, it is hard to say whether it is the salt or my tears that makes them different from the ones in my memories.
Sheerin Shahab is an introvert who prefers a book over company any day. An avid reader, nature lover, and die-hard chai fan, she loves to read and write short stories. A few of her stories have been included in anthologies published by The Hive Publishers and Writefluence.
You can find her stories and poems at https://penmancy.com/author/sheerin-shahab/ and on her Facebook page, Alfaaz-e-Sheerin.
Photo by Shivam Sarkar
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