It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever.
A strange freedom.
Nila looked out to the lightening balcony, where he’d snatched up her papers and torn them. All scraps had flown into the sky. Except one, fluttering underneath the weight of the hibiscus pot.
With a sudden urge, she sprang out of bed. She plucked it out and turned it over in her fingers.
Nila gasped. The sorrow inside her cracked. Fresh hope came seeping through the broken shards.
‘What are you up to?’ A cheeky voice erupted.
Nila’s hands froze on the mango sapling she was sowing. She saw a flash of red shirt, dirty shorts. Unruly hair. A flushed, dirty little boy- barely ten – was perched on her railings. On the sixth floor.
‘I’m Bunty. You?’
The news on the computer flashed before her. The three Delhi murders, a missing Bihari child, robberies at Ooti’s local clinic. She’d read it, as her morning ritual for the past three weeks. They’d said it would give her ideas, the happenings of the world.
And here was another one waiting to happen.
Nila imagined the child slipping. Falling down like a flightless bird. Past the ledges and ridges he’d just climbed. A haunting shriek.
Maybe, a dark voice whispered within her… it would give her something to write about. Time was bleeding. She had a scant week left to complete the story.
Nila shut it out.
‘Don’t say much do you?’ His bright, reckless voice surprised her. It was strange, not having heard a human voice for what felt like weeks.
‘I’m Nila. Where are your parents?’
‘Ah. Popped the biggie straight away.’
‘This is serious.’
‘So am I sweet heart.’ The boy had watched far too many Bollywood movies.
She caught hold of his thin arm.
‘You’re in a stranger’s house. I’ll turn you over to the police.’
His face hardened. ‘I thought you understood. You don’t really look like one of them.’
‘Those cocky urban types. You look like one of us from the village.’
He looked up at her nimble, earthy frame. The boy had touched a nerve.
Most of Nila’s eighteen years had passed in the leafy fields of outer Ooti where she had studied in a Government school. She had read books only after walking miles, tucked away in someone’s libraries beneath dusty shelves. And so she gleefully invented some stories of her own, oblivious of the real world outside.
Her publishing uncle had brought her away to the inner town of Ooti. A small flat with internet and a challenge for a story in a month’s time. And she was lost amidst noisy neighbors and an eerie rush in the streets. Nila discovered the famous, daunting authors in something new called Google.
Of course, the promise of her own story never came.
‘What do you want?’ She turned to face Bunty, who had wandered into her flat.
‘I have work to do.’
At her words, the boy picked up the erring sheets of work paper. Famous writers’ quotes off the internet. She had walked 5 km down the hills to get these printed.
Idling for some inspiration. Perhaps.
And she knew what would happen before it did. He tore them to pieces.
‘Work done. Now,’ the boy said cheerily. ‘Take me on her day out to Ooti.’
‘I’m a tourist. You have responsibilities to me.’
‘Then you’ll tell me where you live?’
‘Tough one.’ Bunty flashed a white grin. ‘But okay.’
A spurt of anticipation awakened her. Days after endless days of monotonous struggle, Nila was dying to get out. And here was her big chance.
‘In that case,’ she said. ‘Deal done.’
A few weeks ago, Nila wouldn’t have believed where she had landed up. Miles away from her familiar little home. From the friends who demanded her stories and her lined notebook in which she always scribbled.
She had no idea her uncle was paying attention. Watching carefully.
As they clattered downstairs and onto the streets, Bunty clutched her hand. Above the narrow roads where people and cycles trundled along, the tea fields of Ooti towered in leafy green hills, half disappearing amongst the clouds.
Bunty abruptly slipped around a hedge. School children with brown backpacks were crossing the path.
‘First assignment,’ Bunty whispered. ‘You see that ice cream vendor over there?’
‘I haven’t got any change.’
‘Who said you have to?’
With that, he darted over the edge as Nila went running after him, her dress whipping in the wind. The clamorous wind filled her lungs like a lost childhood surprise.
Bunty crept behind the unsuspecting old man as he dug out two ice creams from the freezer which was joint above his bicycle.
‘Don’t do it!’ Nila huffed.
As the small children peered above the counter to hand over the money, Bunty slipped the two ice creams down his shirt’s cuff. He sidled across the road, pulling a bewildered Nila along with him.
‘Oy! Wait you darned thieves!’
They turned just in time to see the pot bellied man glare. He strutted grimly towards them.
Bunty grabbed hold of a bicycle parked by the fence.
‘What are you waiting for? Sit!’
He kicked the cycle into motion and Nila whisked around as she saw the fat man running, huffing like a strangled fish.
A strange fluttering was rising within her. She burst out in peals of laughter.
‘Don’t worry Uncle! It’s only two ice creams. But they seem to be wanting the whole horde.’
The poor man glanced back to find the children fingering the open freezer. He hopped towards them on, on the double.
Bunty pedaled away faster. ‘My arm’s freezing, get the ice cream.’ He snapped his arm back as she slipped the two of them out.
The wrappers flew up from her fingers as they sped away, laughing uproariously and licking their ice creams beneath the lime green trees, as the wind laughed along with them.
Her parents had brooded. For them, who had slaved away in the fields their entire lives, it was odd. Their expressions had changed from horror to disbelief, then slow conviction with some coaxing.
She peered through the crack in the wall as her portly, respected uncle reasoned with them. A junior assistant at a small Delhi publishing house, he was by far the biggest success of the family.
Outside, the rain cracked against the windows.
‘I’m not a stranger, Kunal. I’m your own brother. Nila will be in a safe place, provided with the best facilities. It’s only a month. Don’t you trust me?’
‘And what will she do?’
‘Write a single story. I’ve convinced a senior in the office. My niece has real talent. I won’t let you throttle it.’
On reflection, it had been Nila herself who had throttled it. When she discovered people online. Authors all over the world, the famous books. She had never really seen herself as a millionairess, whipping out autographs.
She was a story teller. For in stories, she could dream. A secret pleasure, a understanding with English none of her companions really understood. A magic dust which flew her around the world, all the while sitting in a small Indian village.
Now of course, Nila saw the unbridgeable gap. How deep down the well she really was. She could never be as clever, brief, entertaining as the rest of them. A time had come when it hurt to look at a pen anymore.
Nila closed her eyes and the broken faces of her parents drew out. The disappointed strangers at the publishing house. A bleak future surfaced, outlining Nila the dark path which would lead to matrimony.
The whole world was crumbling. And Nila knew she couldn’t bear it.
‘Nila? Oy?’ Bunty tapped her. ‘I thought we were here to see a view.’
The boy pulled her to the edge of the cliff. ‘Not a bad place.’
The mist shadowed the bright emerald hills, rising and falling as far as her eyes could see. Small white houses dotted along the landscape, but the main town with its streets and bridges was crowned in the centre. A secret land amid mysterious forests.
Cold water swirled in froth fifty feet below. Nila spotted their bicycle, a shiny speck at the end of the hill.
‘Look.’ Bunty pointed up.
‘They have those in Bihar too.’
On the cusp of a leaf above, a jet black cuckoo sat. The blue sky glowed behind her. Something shifted in Nila as the bird let out a ringing call, echoing amongst the valleys.
She suddenly spotted the child’s face bobbling up under hers, shone with pure wonder. Nila looked at him, and she suddenly saw it through his eyes. The absolute beauty of the place. In the air they breathed. The land and water.
Reality hit her. Bunty was a lost boy. Far poorer, unluckier then she had ever been. His problems were far greater than hers, yet she couldn’t find a hint of sorrow in his eyes. The boy compared himself to no one but simply walked along his own path.
He still dreamt, observed and marveled at the world, while she had shut herself in darkness.
His simply courage disarmed her.
‘Hey, watch out.’ With a sudden yell, Bunty jumped from the cliff.
Panic gripped Nila as she saw him plummeting.
She dived too, the air whistling in her ears as the waves hit her.
She burst above the cold waters, kicking madly.
‘Bunty what – ’
Then she saw the boots. Holding them above his head, he dunked them headfirst into water. The air trapped in the passage couldn’t push past the water and he bobbled like a beach ball, a boot under each armpit.
‘My father taught me this.’ Bunty flashed her a lop sided grin. ‘Smooth, eh?’
‘Nice trick.’ Nila followed suit and soon, she was afloat too. ‘Anyway,you got me wet – you little goof – I thought you were going to drown.’
‘Ah, look she cares for me.’ Bunty crooned in mock surprise.
Then, Nila suddenly saw his wrist and her stomach turned over. Neat black letters were printed there and her memory was tugging, tugging frantically.
The internet news.
A missing Bihari boy whose poor parents had stamped his home address on him – wary of their wandering son who went out seeking adventure. In a red shirt and torn shorts. She remembered tweets after tweets of that very same wrist shared, sent out by the police and forwarded all over the web.
Now of course, Nila knew what she must do. A police station flitted before her eyes, the one they passed by a corner on the bicycle before. She would trustfully get Bunty home. This boy, who had come to her almost as a blessing.
Who had freed her.
With a sudden impulse, she waded across the waters and hugged him. But the waves, boots and bewildered Bunty toppled, and they were washed downstream, bobbling in spurts of laughter.
Nila turned the paper over in her fingers. She smiled at the irony as the words sank into her. Funny, the single quote left untouched by the boy who couldn’t read.
‘Only the brave fall on the battle field. Cowards are already on their knees, defeated before they ever fought…’
The words sank into her.
Nila let out a sudden yelp of realization. The pain, the expectations vanished.
She could never be the famous and mighty. She could only be herself, a storyteller and observer of the universe.
She already had a path. But only now did Nila find the courage to tred it.
The pen patiently waited on the table. Bursting with the magic still trapped inside.
Nila sat down and began to write.
I wrote this story for the national Write India competition. I enjoyed the journey and, perhaps you can tell, Nila’s struggles were my own as well.
I thank you for making it all the way in this story, and that it gave you some hope. If this brightened your day, do me a kindness and share it!
I’d love to hear from your thoughts on failure, fear and redemption. What is your fear?
Have a good day ahead!