An Enlightened Fly
Chapter Two: Diwali - A Joyous Homecoming
“Shikha,” Mr. Sinha called out. “My tea, please.”
The voice seemed to have echoed around walls that were only beginning to take shape. Green hues of fading paint lined them, giving this small room a faint, morning glow. It was the ground floor, with some lady screaming in the neighborhood. Children played. The swish of brooms could be heard from the ground outside. Water was falling in spurts somewhere else. Elsewhere, footsteps, laughs and songs of Bollywood filled the air without break. This clearly wasn’t a house rich in provisions, but there was a drift of obscured prosperity lingering in the backdrop. What iz itz nature? And what on Earth am I doing here? The fly couldn’t afford much thought as a girl interrupted its sight. Hardly past her teenage years, she came out of an adjoining room, with confident steps, a cup of tea in one hand. She had already bathed and dressed and prayed. That was the magnetic charm of a season of celebration that India underwent with a spring in its step towards the eclipse of monsoon and thick of winter. And this was Diwali--the brightest, noisiest and most decorative of them all.
The fly had always been in a dilemma on the subject of Diwali. The brightly, lit houses in every city made for too much of a good thing for flies. Flash a hundred torches at someone’s eye in one go and you’ll know why. Its compound eyes ached. The crackers, on the other hand, were hazardous in the true sense of the word, making all air space perpetually dangerous not only with explosions but also by a choking pollution of sulphate and nitrate-based smoke. The deafening sound that accompanied these would have made things worse had flies not been impervious to sound. Instead, they felt vibrations--something that went unnoticed by humans but had great impact on creatures sensitive to its existence. So all in all, it had every reason to hide away during the bright nights of euphoria. Only, it could not. For, one positive that Diwali held for any sane fly was enough to supersede all difficulties. Sweets. Raining invisibly on to every conceivable container every few steps, there lay assortments of countless variants of delicious sweets in every home and shop around. Can you imagine over three million square kilometers potentially dotted with pockets of freshly made sweets, chocolates and savouries? That was India for flies during Diwali.
It took some time for the fly to snap out of the daydream, aided by attempted bitterness of an otherwise sweet voice: “How you managed all these years as a bachelor, I’ll never know!” Shikha retorted, handing the tea over to her husband. Amused, the fly flew around to see her face, simultaneously at a loss at how effortless and feathery its flight now felt. Clearly, it was dead. But why couldn’t it feel it so? Souls must at least have knowledge of who they are, right? It didn’t matter, for her face made it inconsequential once it came into view.
Shikha! The fly thought. There she was, the girl it had seen not many days ago in Kanha’s house, weeping. She looked bit older now. How long haz it been? The fly tried to remember in a haze. This was the girl who used to take tuitions with Kanha’s mother, while her mother helped with household chores. She was young, diligent, sincere and most interested in her academic routine—at least in comparison to all other kids of her rough, poor neighborhood, who neither cherished nor understood the importance of such a thing called education. Perhaps, the same was true for their parents too. It was evident no more so than on the day Shikha had broken the heartbreaking news to her teacher. Always keen on studying, and intent on making a career against the odds, she had wept, uncontrollably, as she spoke about her untimely marriage.
In an impoverished society with no one to listen to her, she had had to give in to the orders of powers-that-be—her family—to leave school and marry into a richer family that had been chosen and arranged for her. And, just as an imprisoned bird falls silent after helplessly beating against the metal bars of her cage, Shikha had quietly stepped out into the new phase of her life—with bitter acceptance and unanswered questions.
Here she stood now, still a girl but no longer meek. That is what sustained, unfavorable circumstances do to the good. The fly felt hurt and in a flash—the first flash—it felt its heart resonate with Kanha’s. Suddenly, it knew beyond doubt, exactly what had irked and pained the lad when he had heard Shikha’s news and watched her helpless tears. It was disappointment at the ignorant habits of a self-limiting species, and fear of the future repercussions of that habit on naïve hearts that meant no harm to anyone but, eventually, caved in under the loss of hope. In a flicker, the feeling was gone and the fly’s attention came back to the couple.
“The guests are about to arrive. Don’t you think I have enough work already without having to bother about your damned tea?” Shikha spat out, waited for a reply and walked off. Mr. Sinha looked down at the cup. He wanted to say something but all he uttered was a gentle but inconvenient smile. It did not seem directed at his wife but to himself—like a consolation of some sort. He took the slightest of sips from his steaming cup and sighed before returning to the newspaper—a small, morning routine that made him feel at home, gave him the energy to start his day. If only there could be a sprinkle of love in the mix.
The clock ticked on, for a while, as rushed footsteps kept crisscrossing the small apartment. It was a one- bedroom setting with room to the east, kitchen on the southeastern end and living space enveloping the entrance on the northwest. The shabby walls showcased décor of the simplest nature, highlighting feeble attempts of the lady of the house at introducing some level of attractiveness to the space. It was, after all, her only diversion from unwanted reminders of a married life she had turned herself to stone for. It was the only way she could bear the hurt of lost dreams. Its unanticipated fallout, however, was a significant decline in her capacity to interact socially and nurture relationships. It was as if she was at war with everyone and everything. Why was life unfair? She wanted an answer before she would ever warm up to it again.
The doorbell rung at half-past ten as another couple arrived for their scheduled brunch at the Sinha residence. Shikha let out a deep sigh in the kitchen. “Here we go,” she murmured, intending to get done with hospitality as soon as possible. She adorned her robot conduct of fake smiles and courtesies and walked out to greet her guests. Mr. Sinha was already at it—gentle, as always. Chit chats over more tea, sweets and nibbles followed before the four moved over to the dining table—a round black-wood structure with four chairs, positioned exactly in the center of the house. Upon it lay the Indian spread—puri, rice, lentil soup, some veggie preparation with curry (and one without), pickle, curd and sweet halva. The hosts served the other two and took their seats. One was busy talking to his guest, the other visibly uncertain, her controlled demeanour gone. The reason? Spoons.
Mrs. Sinha did not come from a wealthy family— far from it. She belonged to humble settings of what may be categorized as the urban poor. Mr. Sinha, employed and earning, was financially better off but only by comparison and certainly not by a large margin. The difference was never entirely pronounced except in little ways, one of which was visible at dinner time. The couple ate with hands as per traditional Indian culture. Spoons were rarely used and only for fluids. Rare guests who visited the family similarly preferred to use their hands. The ones that had arrived today were different. One was Mr. Sinha’s boss at work and, with her husband, was already enjoying the brunch with those ominous spoons. Shikha watched her husband pick up his, still engaged in a discussion with his boss. She could have managed a bite or two but to survive an entire meal was a challenge she couldn’t possibly master in one go. Would she embarrass herself and her husband? No, wait. She doesn’t care about him. But would she come out as lowly and undeserving of a seat at that table? A hundred insecure thoughts, iteratively worsened, ran through her mind in a matter of seconds. In a classic fit of uninterrupted exaggeration, everything wrong about her life came flashing by in one go. The interruption came with a sudden animated gesture of her husband who half-raised his palm towards his boss.
“Ma’am, please. I can’t possibly inconvenience you,” Mr. Sinha said, shaking his head.
“Not at all, Ray. I want to.”
“C’mon, you are just being modest now.”
“Not at all. Culture says one must always follow the host.”
“But, ma’am, it also says that guests are gods and their comfort is always a priority.”
“You are too kind. But I insist. Now let me enjoy this delicious food with my hands. Did you make it all by yourself, Shikha?” she asked, with a wide grin, cheerful as she had been from the outset.
Shikha was at a loss at first. She didn’t realize what had happened until she noticed her husband’s plate. He had put his spoon down and had dug into the food with his hands. Why would he do such a thing? Why would he risk spoiling an impression here? That is when he looked at her with eyes that spoke loud and clear as love always does, when couples are receptive enough. And she knew. He gave a prolonged blink that told her one thing, and one thing only: Calm down. It is okay.
“Yes,” Shikha answered, in trembling voice, eyes moistened.
The get-together wrapped up another hour later and the guests left. Mr. Sinha came to the table to help his wife with the dishes. Neither spoke. At last, Shikha uttered, without looking at him, “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Eat with your hands. It was a risk. You know our society. People tend to judge too easily, and she is your boss.”
“What do you mean, ‘so’! You don’t want her to give an impression that-“
“You really think that would single-handedly ruin an impression?” Mr. Sinha interrupted. “Look, I know you don’t care much about things, about me. I don’t know why and, until we talk about it, I can only guess. But I did what I did for what was my priority at that time. You.”
Shikha burst into tears at the last word. She couldn’t remember them having had a detailed discussion on anything ever. Did she feel guilty now?
“What do I talk about, Ray?” she barked, pushing away all other thought. “I wanted to study, to make something out of my life, to support the very people who pushed me into a life of hopelessness and of continued illiteracy and suffering.”
“I belong to the same society, Shikha.”
“But at least you had a proper home and the liberty to choose your career. Think how much more unfortunate they are who do not even get such basic privileges.”
“On the contrary, I think they have an advantage over the likes of us. Pain lies as much in mind as in physicality. The people you speak of enjoy a universally accepted and measured scale of struggle that they can compare with, receive empathy for and truly enjoy the height of their success against. This is entirely unlike those who cannot even explain their inexplicable, nearly forgetful, wordless ways in which life became a hidden struggle every single day amidst the ‘so-called’ basic provisions of comfort. Otherwise, why would the rich and famous and educated ever be driven to suicide?” He paused before adding, “Shikha, you have a problem that we both can understand, can define and do something about. But it is a problem that was brought by circumstances. You were married only because it was difficult for your parents to support you. Your brothers were pushed to work because one breadwinner with meager income wasn’t proving enough. Your parents did what they thought was best. Their limited awareness or education may have blinded them to better alternatives, but can you really blame them for that? Is it really fair? Shikha, we all try to do our best, to our capacity, but maybe because we don’t know any better, or because all choices are equally difficult, it often seems otherwise. Perhaps, if you look at people’s intentions rather than the action alone, it would be easier for you to accept what happened. No one says it was right, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be corrected.’
“How?” She spoke, amidst her sobs. “How?” Her voice broke again.
“By going back to school. And hopefully, better than the one you could go to previously.”
A gasp of air left her lungs, tears froze on her cheeks. Shikha stared at Ray in shock. He continued, “I had spoken with your parents soon after marriage to see what the problem was. We thought it would fade with time but now that I see how important it is to you, I will do what I can. As I said, invisible hurts are far more painful, and I do not intend to start my days as we currently do, for the rest of my life.”
The lady fell down on her knees, unable to absorb the development. Was this really all that she had wanted? Now that the fog had cleared somewhat, it felt trivial in light of greater issues of a newfound love and financial affordability that had been, or could be, at risk. Was life really unfair? The question did not matter, for she realized a far more important question: Was life really unfair only to me? It wasn’t. However it was—good or bad—it was so to everyone, even if not at the same time. And while few lost themselves under pressure, there were others who quietly chose to do something about it, often for the sake of the former few. What would she choose to be like?
School was important, but as noon struck on Diwali day, she opened up for the first time ever to education. And that went beyond just the books. She looked up at her husband, still teary eyed, stood up and embraced him in the most auspicious kiss that could ever be conjured. The Sinhas were ready to celebrate that curious thing called life. Against itself, the fly smiled even as the images faded and its journey continued.
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