Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Anshu sat on the footpath and cried. Back then, it seemed like a good idea. Soon, people at the streets looked at her and pointed her out to their friends and family. While some of them laughed at her, others came over to enquire what the matter was with her. But she kept on crying and did not answer their queries, so they went about their business.
“A clear conscience is what your heart should desire for,” Ramesh, her father, always said to her. I’d prefer a hot pizza or a burger right now, she thought. To hell with the conscience! She loved to eat.
How had I come to such a crossroads in my life? she thought. She continued to cry again as she failed to figure out a suitable answer.
Since Anshu was an optimist, there was still some glimmer of hope left with her. But what good is optimism when you know the outcome? A positive outlook wouldn’t change the inevitable. But I would be better prepared for it, she thought.
Anshu glanced at the road. She sat on the right side of the traffic light. The bus stop was towards her left. Sandesh, the big restaurant that served good South Indian food, was directly ahead of her. She’d often been there with Kamlesh, her fiancé. That reminded her that she’d already been out for too long and yet Kamlesh had not come out to look for her. He couldn’t have missed her as she was only two blocks away from his house. There was no way he couldn’t have located her if he’d come out to look for her, or maybe he did not want to look for her.
Shreya, Anshu’s mother, had advised her time and again against her decision of moving in with Kamlesh. Although Anshu was liberal and had managed to convince her papa that it was okay for her to live in with Kamlesh, Shreya had strongly disapproved of her idea of living in with Kamlesh. She was madly in love with Kamlesh. They were very compatible, and he too was, like her, an investment banker, and she was sure that he was the one for her.
“There’s something missing in that boy. I can’t figure out exactly what it is, but something is amiss. He is pretending to love you. It just feels that he is not really into you. I hope, for your sake, that he is not looking for a time pass in your relationship,” Shreya had said.
But Anshu had just laughed off her mother’s comments. “No, Mother, you are just being paranoid.” But, like always, her mother had hit the bull’s-eye with her assessment of Kamlesh.
All the problems started when Devki, Kamlesh’s mother, arrived from Bangalore to Delhi. Kamlesh was very excited about her visit.
“This is your chance to impress my mom,” Kamlesh said.
Anshu knew it would be a tough task. Her telephonic conversations with Devki had not been very encouraging. Mostly, she had asked her to speak to Kamlesh, and she did not even reciprocate her namaste, and once, when Kamlesh had been out, she had talked to her on her own. The only thing she had said was, “I do not like this new fad of live-in relationships, and also, you are not from our caste.” That’s what she thought of her son’s relationship – a fad!
But Anshu had tried her best to impress Devki. Once, she even took a three-day leave of absence from work so she could cook for Devki.
“This dal tastes like rubbish. Didn’t your mother teach you properly?” she had said. Almost everybody in her neighbourhood and office had praised Anshu’s cooking; she knew that the dal was edible. Devki just wanted to be mean to her.
“So, can you teach her mother? I bet it will taste more horrible then,” Kamlesh had said, trying to make a joke of his mother’s cruel words.
In the following days that Devki stayed with her son, she poked her nose into every aspect of their life, which proved to be fatal to Anshu.
“While I am here, you two need to sleep separately,” Devki had ordered to both of them. Not that they were planning to.
“And why the hell do you have this bird here?” she had asked.
“It’s a house sparrow, Mother, and they have been listed as an endangered species in urban areas; in fact, the Delhi government has declared it as the state bird. This one just flew in one day and could not fly back because her wings were broken, and we kept it since then,” explained Kamlesh.
“Who keeps a bird as a pet? Keep a dog, if you wish to. A bird is not a pet. They are smelly and litter a lot,” Devki had said. The idea of keeping the bird was Anshu’s, so it was natural for Devki to be all the more disapproving.
Devki’s unfriendly attitude towards Anshu became clearly visible when she ordered her to wash all the household utensils before going to bed daily. She also confirmed her she would then personally inspect every item and ask her to wash it again if there was any hint of a stain. But Anshu did not mind it. If this was what it took to impress her, she was willing to do it.
“No, don’t feed this much food to the bird, they eat very less,” she said when Anshu was planning to give the bird her daily ration of grains.
“But it eats that much amount. We have been feeding it the same amount for the past six months, and it always finishes it. If it wasn’t hungry, I think it would not eat it all, would it?”
“You know nothing… From now on, I will look after the bird,” she had ordered, which was something she did not like about Devki. She left no room for a discussion; always, it was just an order. Whatever she said had to be followed without question, without any room for negotiations. And this was not even her house. Anshu tried discussing this matter with Kamlesh that night, but he simply shrugged it off. She was beginning to feel that he’d been avoiding her ever since Devki had arrived. They hadn’t even spoken to each other even once ever since his mother had arrived.
In the coming days, the sparrow’s health condition deteriorated significantly. It would squeak in its tiny voice and keep tapping the cage with her beak. Anshu knew that this was its signal of showing its hunger, but Devki never seemed to go out of the house and feed the bird. Once she had tried to feed it surreptitiously, but Devki had stopped her to do so. It was as if she was waiting for the bird to die. How cruel of her. Maybe this was her way of getting back at her.
The bird died of starvation about a fortnight after Devki’s arrival. Anshu had abused her in a fit of anger.
“You killed her. You wanted to, you evil woman,” she had screamed.
“Now, now, Anshu, be reasonable. We both knew that the bird was sick,” Kamlesh stepped in defence of her mother.
Devki had simply shrugged. She looked unperturbed. “Who keeps a bird in the first place, good riddance!” she had said and then, to rub salt into her wounds, had smiled. I can kill your bird if I want to, and there’s nothing you can do about it, she seemed to say.
Anshu had lost all her control. She kept on abusing Devki, which angered Kamlesh.
“I cannot stand this, Anshu,” he had screamed in return.
“Throw her out, you deserve better,” said Devki. And she followed her words to the latter. Five minutes later, Anshu was out in the street. A minute later, Devki also threw out the dead sparrow; it fell right there on the footpath beside her. She had picked the bird and walked for a while until she broke down crying with the sparrow on her lap.
What had just happened? Why was Kamlesh not out looking for me? Why couldn’t he take my side and realise that his mother was in the wrong? It must have been two hours since I was thrown out by his mother, and he is not bothered. Was this the same guy who kept on pestering me with messages and calls when I was even a few seconds late from the office? she reminisced.
Her chain of thoughts was disrupted by her cell phone’s vibrations. She wiped her tears and smiled, thinking Kamlesh was calling at last. She fetched the cell phone to reply, but it was her mother.
“Why are you crying, child?” asked Shreya.
“Mother, I . . .” She could not say anything more and sobbed.
“Where are you, Anshu?” asked Shreya. Five minutes later, she came to pick her up. Shreya just nodded while Anshu narrated the entire happenings.
“We need to bury the bird,” she said after they reached home. That made Anshu realise she was still carrying the dead bird in her hand. They buried it, and she felt sadder.
The next morning, Devki came and talked to Shreya for an hour while Anshu stayed in her bedroom. She had had enough of both Kamlesh and Devki. She was so-so over him.
“What did she want? I am not going back,” she said after Devki had left.
“She came to return your stuff and this,” Shreya said and pointed to the empty cage. Anshu could not control her tears again. She felt empty inside.
“It’s all right, child. Home is where you can always return to.” Shreya smiled.
Anshu knew she had to be strong-willed. She was not some weakling, some unemployed woman who was dependent on her boyfriend for financial support. If Kamlesh could go and marry someone else and start life afresh, so could she. She thought for a minute and then said, “I’d like to keep another sparrow, Mother.”
Namaste- Indian greeting
Author’s Bio- Karishma Khanna is a nomad and travel writer. She read English at NUS and later pursued Journalism.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)