“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 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.