“Bhaiya! Bhaiya! Where are you?”

Shalu is breathless. She wants him to see her bangles. She wants him to admire her wedding sari, the gold earrings and necklace; her shiny new slippers. The red lipstick and bottle of maroon nail polish. Her bhaiya has bought them all for her wedding next month.

Vir hears her. But he remains sitting near the culvert, watching ants devouring a lizard. One tiny morsel at a time. Vir’s heart winces. It seems like Shalu was a baby just yesterday. He is twelve years her senior, and has practically brought her up. Ammu used to scold him for spoiling Shalu. But Ammu is no better herself. Shalu, born eight months after Bapu died, is the apple of their eyes. Now barely nineteen, the light of a thousand lamps shining from her eyes, Shalu is to be married.

Vir shudders. But he cannot share his terror with anyone. He must keep his secrets inside him, even as they start to devour him, bit by bit.

“Here you are, Bhaiya! Why are you sitting by yourself? Are you missing me already?” Shalu laughs and pulls his hand. “Bhaiya,” she cajoles. “Come home. I’ve so much to show you!”

Vir lets himself be pulled up. She’s his baby sister. He can fight a hundred demons for her. His eyes fill up. Vir blinks and looks away. Afraid she’ll notice.

Ammu notices. She ruffles Vir’s hair. Hands him a mug of tea and sits down next to him. She is so proud of this dutiful son of hers. He’s never let her feel her husband’s absence even once. Even when he was a little boy of twelve. His schooling had ended abruptly after that fateful day. And, he’d taken up a job at a garage, while she’d sold cow dung cakes. Tired, dirty and hungry, in the evenings, his only joy had been his little sister. From errand boy at the garage to trucker’s assistant, until he finally became a truck driver himself. It had been a long hard climb for Vir. But he’d done it. Made sure his Ammu didn’t have to sell cow dung cakes any more; and he’d saved money for Shalu’s wedding, too. He was the father that Shalu had lost as a baby, right from the start. Her Vir was a good boy.

Vir drinks the tea. He avoids their eyes. He senses his life receding, fast. The long roads uncoiling behind him like black snakes. He sees the bottles tossed out of the speeding truck. He remembers the hurried deals, the furtive encounters. Vir trembles. Now it’s too late.   Now Vir has ants inside his body, eating him up; one tiny morsel at a time.

Vir listens to Shalu’s patter. Soon her innocent talk and Ammu’s love quietly flowing out towards them lulls him into a sleepy sense of security.

That night, Vir dreams of his sister’s wedding. He’s sees her looking radiant in her wedding finery, surrounded by family members and friends.   Someone announces the groom’s arrival. Vir goes out to meet the dancing crowd leading the groom on a horse. The groom’s face is covered by a veil of jasmine flowers. There are happy people all around him. It’s a happy scene. Vir feels overwhelmed with emotion. Love for his new brother-in-law wells up in his heart. Love and a little pang in his heart. Now the man behind the fragrant veil would be the one who would care for his little Shalu, not Vir. And, afterwards, it would be to this man that little Shalu would run, looking up to him with all the light in her eyes. Vir dreams and stirs in his sleep. The man unveils his face. The crowd draws closer, and lets out the usual oohs and aahs when the groom shows his face. But Vir freezes, in his dream. His sleeping body judders, every cell straining to be free.

During weekdays Rumjhum Biswas writes her stories and poems, and curses her fingers for not being able to type faster. She dreams of a machine attached to her head that will write out her thoughts into neatly typed stories and poems. During weekends she runs away to the beach.

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Every Day Fiction

  • Avis Hickman-Gibb

    Seems like a novel is in here straining to get out! And who is behind the veil? Rich and flowing prose. Nice one.

  • Mary Butler

    What a powerful story. I love this one.

  • Wonderful!!

  • rumjhum

    Hey! Thank you all for your feedback. 🙂
    What I love about Everyday Fiction is this instantaneous response/comments and the good advice/comments by the editors – Jordan and Camille. Thank you!

  • Scary! Nice build up of anticipation, priming me to look for further to read.

  • rumjhum

    Yes. AIDS is scary. Truck/other long distance drivers in India are specially vulnerable to this disease.

    The chap under the veil could be any male – Vir’s friend/a groom he knows has AIDS/Vir himself? In the first version, I had let the cat out of the bag. But thanks to Jordon’s timely suggestion, the published story is better finished.

    Maybe there’s a novel/novella here, may be not. I started out writing this as a flash fiction, because the idea was to leave a lot unsaid, and thoughts circling in eaders’ minds. Hope I have achieved that. But I don’t want to rule out any possibilities. So thank you to those who see a bigger work here. Maybe this will grow someday. Options are always open.

    This story means a little more to me because it addresses a real social issue. Thank you for being with me – my garrulousness, :-).

  • GMoney

    I liked the story, but I have to say that personally I didn’t get the AIDS link, so was a bit confused at what the secret was. Not sure if you were just a little too subtle, or whether it was just me! Now I’ve read your comment, and have read the story again it makes it a lot better, thanks.

    • I also did not directly get the AIDS link, but what I did get, and liked, was the sense of ‘fill-in-the-blank-with-the-many-options-of-what-it-could-be’ – without identifying it there is the raised sense of dangerous information, such as nefarious deeds done in connection with criminal activity by the brother or others for multiple reasons – survival, advancement, favor, sexual abuse, barter . . . there are all sorts of options here.

      I’m not saying it’s the greatest flash piece ever, but the simple fact for me is, the story has so much more power simply because it leaves it up to me to decide what the terrible secret is – and I thought of some nasties that I sure hoped it wasn’t – AIDS is, quite honestly, a let-down, as it’s no where near the magnitude of what I’d thought of.

  • Me, too, GMoney, I didn’t get the AIDS bit at all. I was left lost wondering what his secrets were. I knew I had to find what I could in the line about furtive encounters but I simply couldn’t get it. I do think a little hint added would make it a more fulfilling read. Otherwise, good writing and loved the tension and emotions portrayed here.

  • rumjhum

    Actually, in India, it’s pretty clear. It’s a social problem with truckers and such like. So I guess, people get to it pretty quickly, here. Perhaps, I’ve been too hasty in giving a context to the story. The story was best left alone. But, thanks all, for your comments/opinion.

    • I thought the initial AIDS reference was a little blunt. I agreed with Jason that it was far better to leave it to the imagination, but it looks like I’ve been outvoted!

      Any blame for the mysteriousness of the ailement can be laid at my door 😉

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