Buy One, Get One Free

The hand painted board outside says ‘Super Bazaar.’ Plastic buckets and boxes are set on the sidewalk, tumbling out of the corner store and onto the street. Inside things are just as chaotic. The soaps are stacked next to the spices, which are stacked next to the crayons. The store smells of detergent and damp grain.

There is a young boy at the counter. He is dressed in a faded maroon shirt. He wears a new moustache, but you can’t really call it that. Not yet at least. His long, bony fingers drum an impatient tune on the wooden counter. The white pearl on his little finger – no doubt a birthstone prescribed by the family astrologer, seems incredibly heavy in comparison. His left thumb nail is long, it curves like a bird’s talon, and is painted pink. She finds the nail unnerving, but likes the colour. She wonders what brand it is.

The boy looks bored. His eyes are cold and black, and his mouth is fixed in a sneer. He intimidates her, much like the kids who huddle by the corner of her building. She avoids eye contact even though his eyes follow her. He doesn’t offer any help.

She keeps her back to him, and focuses on the shelves, her fingers trailing over the many smudges on the glass that covers them. Soaps, shampoos, lotions, creams, her eyes take them all in. She knows exactly which brand is running an offer, which one gets her an additional unit free, and how much extra product she’ll get for her notes. She picks only those out and places them on the counter next to the boy. Her movements are measured, much like the way she uses her oils and shampoos, not wasting a single drop.

The boy with the pink talon surveys the counter with a smirk. His expression says what he doesn’t. Despite his shabby appearance, she knows he doesn’t have to bother studying the season’s offers. She avoids his eye as he tags and bags her rations.

It comes to a bag full; the boxes and bottles bulge out at grotesque angles. She waits for the boy to write out her bill in pen. It bothers her when he scrawls the total carelessly. It bothers her how little this number affects him – a number she has been obsessing over, silently adding and multiplying, subtracting and eliminating.

It bothers her that he doesn’t appreciate how much value she has managed to extract from that number he has underlined. As she grabs the shopping bag with both hands, she clutches her purse to her side, squeezing it in between her rib cage and upper arm, protecting the remaining cluster of notes that’ll see her through for a better part of the month.

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Tuesdays were for Sweets and Blessings

Aai used to go to the temple every Tuesday. She’d carry a silver thali with a silver diya, the wick was rolled from a fluff of cotton she kept in her sewing box, and dunked in ghee, waiting to be lit; she also carried a fresh coconut and flowers, usually marigold, but at times a soft hibiscus, to offer to the Gods, along with her prayers. On Tuesdays Aai didn’t ask for anything, no matter how great her need. On Tuesdays her worship was selfless, pure.

In the old days, when she was much younger, Aai would wake up even earlier than her 5:30 weekly alarm to prepare Prasad, an offering of sweetmeats, before going to the Temple. The aroma of ghee and sugar would embrace us, discreetly nudging out sleep and replacing it with a ferocious hunger. Later on, when her knees and bones grew indignant, Aai replaced the elaborately prepared sweets with chunks of white rock sugar. She never once complained over the slow creeping changes that forced her to alter her ways.

Aai was always back home from the Temple in time for breakfast. She smelled like sandalwood and her smile was serene. After she had offered the flowers at the temple, she’d pick one up, sprinkle it with holy water and carry it back home. She’d press the soft, cool flower against our closed eyes, chanting a soft hymn. On Tuesdays I always felt invincible. Maybe it was the full stomach, stacked with rich, homemade sweets, or maybe it was Aai’s prayers. Tuesdays were always the best days of the week, better even then the weekends, when we could sleep late.

I was barely out of college when Aai passed away. The grief made a workaholic out of me, but her blessings and prayers always ensured me and my sister led good, full lives. Years later, when I was married and pregnant with my first daughter, I keep thinking of Aai. I’d flip through old family albums and remember long forgotten details; I’d remember the sound of her tinkling laughter; I’d remember a joke she had shared; I’d remember the Tuesday morning aromas and catch a hint of hibiscus in the air.

My daughter was born early on a Tuesday morning. She had Aai’s brown eyes, and as I’d find out later, her laugh. That morning, exhausted but content, as I held my new born daughter in my arms, I knew it was time to revive Aai’s Tuesday morning ritual.


Leaving

She sat in an armchair, her eyes moist and lost, a paper napkin scrunched in her left palm; every now and then she raised the napkin and dabbed her eyes.

His photo sat on the side table. It was the same photo as his Facebook profile. His smile was wide and eyes bright; it was taken on New Year’s Eve in Singapore, at a Bollywood party. She couldn’t remember who took the photo, but it wasn’t her. Now a heavy garland of marigolds swung from side to side, framing his face and an incense stick – sandalwood – was lit next to the frame. She stared at the burning tip of the stick as it turned to ash and the stick itself grew shorter. It kept her from looking at his face, but the longer she stared, the clearer she saw him.

They had been married for eight years, and yet she barely knew him. It was complicated – there was really nothing wrong between them, but things weren’t right either. After a couple of years together they simply drifted apart, inch by inch, till the gulf was too wide to bridge. She had often thought of leaving, she had even packed her bags once or twice, but she never did walk out. Now he was gone, leaving behind the simplest solution. It was a clean break, and yet her eyes welled up.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” a soft voice crept up to her, forcing another set of tears out.


When We Declared War

He left a trail of filth all across the house.

I forgot to make his lunch.

He said I was being overtly emotional.

I turned to ice.

He created a scene in front my friends.

I keyed his car – one hormonal spool of venom from bumper to bumper.

He grew a mood and threw a punch.

I cut out his shirt sleeves – all of them.

He attacked. I retaliated.

I attacked. He retaliated.

We matched each other step for ugly step. When he inched ahead, I pulled out my claws. When I nudged to the lead, he jerked his way back to even. It was intense. It was exhausting. But we were so focused on going for the jugular, we lost score. And in the sudden silence that spooled forth, we sat numb and confused. What comes next, we wondered; it was our first civil conversation. It felt alien, uncomfortable. Like a dental procedure.

Before the evening ended, we figured there was only one way to get back on track – we had to start afresh. The ticker went back to 0-0.


The Funeral

Read my new Flash piece, The Funeral, on Every Writer’s Resource.


Locked Out

Gina had to get back within the hour, before the Sun hit the ground, and disappeared for the night; before the city gates shut.

“Why do we shut the gate at night, Mama” she had asked as a five year old. “To keep the monsters out, so sweet little girls like you aren’t troubled with nightmares,” came the reply.

The sky was changing rapidly. First the blue turned into something deeper, then it changed to a soft pink, before that too turned into something deeper. The darkness spilling out was growing with every step she took, turning from swirling patterns to a blanketing silence.

Gina twisted and turned, pulling the quilt with her, leaving parts of her body bare. It was a cold night, and the dark chill soaked into her skin. She mumbled in her sleep: “No, wait. I’m here. Please open the gates!” She shouted at the stocky medieval town wall. She threw her balled up fists against the heavy wood of the gates; her frail fists made but a soft thud. “Please,” she cried out desperately. “Please, let me in!” But the doors didn’t budge. There wasn’t even a crack; no room for lucky escapes. Gina braced herself for the coming nightmare.


Catching Sun

I spent much of my winter nibbling greens and nuts, hallucinating about bread, cheese and rice. At my weakest, I wanted to pile them up, add layers of mashed garlic potatoes, and dive in, face first.

It was cold; the rowdy winds were matched only by hunger pangs that cut into my sides. But by the time the Sun bobbed up, my red bikini sat gently against my skin, not a bulge or crease appeared. I was at the very top of the food chain; the summer might as well have surrendered.

There was so much to look forward to, and yet here I am, stowed away under the shade, covered in little white flakes that appear like tidal waves. Despite a pharmacy of sun creams at work, my skin is peeling, tearing my hard earned form into nothingness.

I adjust the soft wrap across my body and spend the rest of my beach holiday under the shadow of lost feasts and calories full of joy.


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