Fiction Jade Edition
Jinxed in Love
A Girl called Hira
A toy ukulele for Christmas is the start of Ian’s life-long passion for music. He is accepted in the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, much to the pride of his parents. But Ian decides to join a music band in New York instead. What does destiny have in store for Ian? Steve Carr narrates a beautiful and touching story.
I grabbed the white, plastic toy ukulele from the back of a mostly emptied shelf of assorted toys. As a Christmas present, the ukulele had no significance. It was simply handy, easy to grab, an afterthought, something to add under the tree. The price of $6.99 was as cheap as the toy itself. I pitched it on top of the cart filled with other presents, checked out at the cash register, and left the store, happy to be free of the din of marauding last-minute shoppers. It was Christmas Eve.
Christmas morning it was the ukulele among his toy trucks, cars, fire engines, balls, action hero plastic dolls and electronic games that Ian became fixated on. Sitting among ripped Christmas wrap, ribbon and bows, he pensively strummed on the nylon strings, attempting to form music. Neither his mother nor I had any musical talent. He had learned how to hold the ukulele and run his fingers across the strings by seeing it done on television. Ian was five. An average youngster. Our only child.
From that morning on, when not at school, he carried his ukulele around the house all the time, plucking and strumming the strings attempting to play the songs he had learned in kindergarten. He never sang the words to what he tried to play, he only hummed along. It was his humming that allowed us to identify what he was playing. That was until one evening he played the first notes of ‘Old MacDonald.’ The tune was unmistakable.
Up until that moment I had observed Ian with a sense of detachment. It wasn't that I didn't love or care for him, but it was his mother who tended to his needs who spent the most time with him. I was never certain of what my role as a father should be. My own father never talked about being a father, and I observed him in the same way I observed Ian, as if I was seeing him from afar, not actually attached to me. I had read somewhere that what a child will do for a career later in life is formed in the child's first five years of his or her life, along with their personalities, in general. The idea of having a son who would play the ukulele for a living both excited and alarmed me. Hearing him play the tune to ‘Old MacDonald’ awakened me to my son's potential. To nurture his talent, I also knew it meant I would have to do what I hadn't done up to that moment: be an involved father.
The summer that Ian was twelve, we sat on the dock at the cabin we spent two weeks at every year, the acoustic guitar Ian held, resting its body in his lap, was as nearly as large as he was. I was watching my fishing line, hoping for a bite, dubiously hoping that Ian's playing wasn't scaring the fish away. He had acquired an interest in sea shanties and was teaching himself how to play ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor.’ By accident while surfing the internet he heard an acapella rendition of the sea shanty ‘Spanish Lady’ and it captured his interest.
“Why?” I asked him.
“I like the idea of sailors from the olden days out at sea on those old ships and playing their guitars while singing that song.”
“I think they sang it without any musical instrument at all.”
He looked at me quizzically. “Are you sure?”
“I think so. Guitar accompaniment is a relatively recent thing.”
Before I could say another word, he Googled ‘guitar shanty songs.’
A week later at the music store I wouldn't have recognized that he was playing ‘The Drunken Sailor’ song if he hadn't been humming the lyrics along with the rapid strumming of the guitar strings. He wasn't a very good singer and resorted to humming or whispering through parts of it, as he did all songs. The salesperson urged Ian to consider buying a beginner's guitar, which was smaller in size, but Ian wasn't interested.
“I've been playing the ukulele and banjo since I was five,” he told the salesperson. Ian didn't mention that he had only graduated to playing real and not toy ukuleles and banjos when he was ten and that while he had mastered the ukulele, he was far from mastering the banjo.
At sixteen, Ian stood at 6'0” and was still growing. He had been asked to play on his high school basketball team, but hating sports, he declined. His red hair was as unruly as he was – he took being a teenager seriously. His moods fluctuated wildly from outright hostility to regressing to that little boy who sat with me on the dock playing his toy ukulele. As a guitarist he was a marvel to hear play. He made use of discordant chords on his electric guitar in a way I had never heard before. He played rock music as if his entire body had been set on fire and the only way to extinguish the flames was to pound and pluck music on the strings at a madman's pace.
He formed a 3-person band that practiced in the back storage room of Shelly Forbes' uncle's furniture store. Shelly was the singer and bass guitarist of the band. They named themselves Rusty Bullets for a reason Ian could never adequately explain to me.
“It's just something to think about,” Ian said. “A rusty bullet. What comes to mind?”
“A bullet that's rusty.”
I often sat on an overturned crate and watched the band rehearse. Actually, I was there to watch Ian, but it was hard to ignore Shelly or Jesse Cairo, the drummer, another female. They were attractive girls and decent musicians, but they changed their hair color so frequently and to such extremes in the choice of color and style that the only way I recognized them sometimes was by the instrument they played. In height, he towered over them. At home I pressed Ian about his interest in either one of them other than as band mates.
“Dad, I'm there to play the guitar, that's all,” he would say, rolling his eyes.
They played on the Sweeney River Park stage a few weekends during the summer. With the slow-moving current of the river in the background and the lights that lined the bank reflecting on the water, it was a beautiful sight. A few hundred locals, mostly older crowds, showed up every weekend with blankets to sit on and coolers stocked with refreshments and baskets of snack food. They weren't a rock music crowd. Ian tried to arrange songs that had titles or themes that fit the location, like ‘She Took Him to the Lake’ by Mallory Knox and ‘Walk Into the Sea’ by Johnny Marr. It was obvious the audiences weren't into it. They spent time while the ‘The Rusty Bullet’ played with their heads in the baskets of food, sorting out what they were going to eat, and shouting to one another, attempting to be heard over the loud music.
In his senior year, after a trip to New York and an audition, Ian was accepted into the famed Julliard guitar department.
Before he left, we went to the cabin for our annual two-week stay. Despite his mother and I acting chipper, a cloud of gloom hung over us, somewhat muting our joy in Ian's achievement. He was 6'3” and had already lost the appearance of still being a teenager, so treating him as if he was going away to summer camp was out of the question. Every morning he and I went down to the dock where I cast out a fishing line while he played tunes on his old acoustic guitar. I had watched and heard his evolution as a musician and marveled that other than the past year of receiving training from a guitar pro to refine his skill his ability had been mostly self-taught.
On the last morning before heading back home, we sat on the dock just as we always did. He slowly plucked the strings, as if pausing between every note, playing the Otis Redding classic ‘Sittin' On The Dock of the Bay.’ The tune was unmistakable but surprised me since he rarely played rhythm and blues or soul music. When I looked over at him, he smiled at me, wanly.
“I don't want to go,” he said.
“Yeah, going back home is always a letdown after being here,” I replied.
“No, I don't want to go to Julliard.”
“It's cold feet,” I told him. “You'll feel better when you get there.”
“Let me put it another way, Dad. I'm not going to go to Julliard. I'm going to New York City, but I want to try hooking up with an up-and-coming band and try my hand at playing at concerts and clubs.”
Ian's mother and I had always encouraged Ian to make his own decisions. How could I tell him that he was making a mistake? I bit my tongue, waiting for the next shoe to drop.
“Dad, I need a loan to see me through until I find a paying gig.”
“How much do you need?”
A few days later I accompanied Ian to the airport. His mother was too upset to go along, although she hid the reason why from Ian. From his fifth birthday to the age of seventeen I had always been close enough to wherever Ian was that I could get to him in a matter of minutes if he needed help of any kind. As I stood at the airport terminal window and watched the airplane as it lifted up from the runway, its wheels disappearing inside the underbelly of the plane, my heart sank.
It wasn't until several days later that we heard from Ian. He called me on my cellphone.
“Dad, I've met a girl who I really like.”
He dated sometimes, but never really showed much interest in getting involved with the girls he met and rarely mentioned them.
“Who is she?”
“She's a cellist with the New York City Philharmonic. Her name is Sue Lin”
“Where did you meet her?”
“On the plane coming here. She took me on a tour of the city. On the ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty I decided to give up the guitar and try my hand at playing the cello. If you came here, you'd really like taking the ferry. It's not a lot of time on the water, but it was fun.”
“Wait, Ian. Did you say you were giving up playing the guitar?”
“Yeah, but it's no big deal. One instrument with strings is a lot like the other.”
I had no idea if that was true or not, so I didn't challenge him regarding it. I asked him to call his mother more often because she worried about him. He assured me he would and hung up.
His calls after that were infrequent, with irritated claims he was busy learning the cello and building his relationship with Sue Lin when we called and asked him to call us more often.
After a year he called me in the middle of the night. “Dad, I'm going to Venice?”
I was barely awake. “Did you say Venice? Venice, Italy?
“Yes, that Venice. I got a job playing the violin for a small restaurant. Background music. While customers eat.”
“I didn't like the cello.”
“What about Sue Lin?”
“We broke up. Well, I have to get ready for the flight. I'll email you as soon as I get there.”
“You're leaving no . . .?” He cut me off.
“Bye, Dad. Give Mom a kiss for me.” He hung up.
Debris from the plane Ian had been on was found floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A tag with Ian's name on it was found attached to a violin inside an empty life raft.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 600 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
Jinxed in Love
July 12, 2025
Priyanka lives her life on her own terms. She shuns a loving and devoted husband, when she finds that he has no respect for her intelligence and ability. Will her relationship with Ankit suffer the same fate?
Swaying slightly in her favorite hammock chair on the terrace, sipping her early morning decoction, Priyanka picked her mobile to play some music, when she saw some text notifications from Ankit. She stopped her frown from gripping her brow, rather decided to ignore him. She wanted to enjoy the morning moments with herself, not allowing anyone to spoil the blissfully tranquil beginning of a new day. Ankit had been the cutest thing that had happened to her, but her fondness for him too had fallen prey –though an early one –to the jinx which she had been under, all her life. Her relationships didn’t stay for long. She couldn’t even blame others for the breaking off of those bonds, because she honestly took upon herself the responsibility of severing all the love ties. Ankit was just another number in the long series. It’s not that she didn’t grieve the loss; she had just chosen to be helpless before the jinx. Priyanka’s chain of thoughts was broken by Qudrat’s thin shapely arms garlanding her neck from behind; Priyanka was startled and exclaimed, “Had a good sleep, Sugar?”
Priyanka Singh was called Seductive Singh… out of love by those who admired her, out of disdain by those who envied her, and out of custom by all others. Priyanka Singh –average looking by the Indian standards but entrancing by all the rest –had an attractive figure, long well-shaped limbs, shiny expressive eyes, thin oval face, symmetrical lips with a well-defined cupid bow, dull black hair tied in a thin pigtail with the shorter strands cupping her face from both sides, and a sexy, husky voice. Priyanka was 41, divorced for ten long years… and happy. She had a luxurious house, enough resources, and a well-paid job of a college professor. Priyanka loved her job –not just out of her love for literature, but for many other reasons as well. She wanted freedom to think, to perceive, to form and express opinions, to do things her way, to defy, to dictate, to approach, and to turn away. She was anything but a conformist –a freedom loving woman – weirdly in love with life; who donned a diehard progressive attitude. Perhaps this was the culprit behind her broken relationships. She would often sigh, “Human relationships are all about fitting-in. The ones which promise space, turn out to choke you in the worst way.”
Waiting for Qudrat at the breakfast table, Priyanka glanced at the life size family picture, shot at Disney Land ten years afore – she and her husband dressed in funky t-shirts and shorts, holding the three year old Qudrat by the forearms, shouting with joy, her hair all frizzled and flowing… She again slipped into memories –this time her nuptial memories –Amrit’s memories – her handsome, rich, hotelier ex-husband, who, she was sure, still loved her. If not, then why would he have personally come to her place to drop Qudrat when he had a huge paraphernalia of cars and drivers? He did this every time Qudrat came to stay with Priyanka for her monthly visits. She would sense the sea of questions surging inside him. Amrit would look into her eyes, and frantically search her face for any leftover traces of love for him. Mostly quiet over coffee, Amrit, out of his obsession to admire her, would admire the new crockery, new books and the new rugs and curtains instead! Even though he was busy as hell in spreading his business overseas, he still found time to drop a message once in a while to enquire about her migraine headaches. Priyanka appreciated his thoughtfulness, which everyone in Amrit’s family called foolishness. Amrit’s mother, Gurbani, had even called her once, requesting her to convince Amrit to remarry, for she knew that even after the legal divorce, her son was madly devoted to the cold-hearted Priyanka.
Priyanka was classy – she didn’t make herself easily approachable – She was taciturn, reserved and solitary. She would be mostly seen sitting with a book under some shady tree in some quiet corner of the campus –sometimes reading voraciously, and sometimes just staring into vacuum without turning a single page; maybe contemplating something. Why not? Her life had been full of strange episodes to be looked back upon, mused upon –giving her smiles and tears in equal measure. Priyanka had met Ankit on the campus itself when he had visited the college seeking students’ personal data for his Skill Development Centre, which he was certainly denied. A little uneasy over this, he had decided that he needed a cup of coffee to gulp down the setback. At the college canteen, he had spotted the seductive Priyanka sitting in the sun with Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns on her lap, her eyes half closed. Ankit had instantly fallen for her, though he could make out that she was almost double his age. He had initiated a conversation, not quite welcomed by her, but he stuck to his guns. Ankit was every inch a well-groomed businessman; he had excellent conversation skills, and also a good sense of humor. By the time coffee was finished, he had managed to get some of her attention, though she openly showed her disinterest. She felt she was too wise and mature for his puppy love. The smitten Ankit would keep dropping her formal, courtesy-messages on WhatsApp, to which she never responded, though she didn’t mind him doing so. Gradually, her interest in Ankit grew and she met him over coffee once or twice. Ankit talked a lot, rather a bit too much. Priyanka would smile, thinking that he was young and full of himself… obsessed with his own intelligence and achievements; he would be bubbling with energy. But, that was it.
Their last meeting was almost a romantic date –coffee at Starbucks, Priyanka’s favorite place in the city. While dressing up, she caught herself making an effort to allure Ankit, then smiled at herself, “O, come on…He’s just a kid!” That evening, Priyanka let herself loose…she let him hold her hand for a while, looked into his eyes over coffee, and when he held the car door open for her, she brushed cheeks with him briefly. Suddenly, she realized that something was not right…On her way home, driving absent mindedly, she knew something was amiss…and upsetting! Priyanka had to find out. She had an intuitive mind and a sharp sense for vibrations, and could read people in and out. And lo! She saw a notification from Ankit flashing on her phone, “Hey beautiful! Hope you enjoyed your evening. Looking forward to another coffee date, this weekend!” Priyanka hated this message –the words used, the thought behind it, the expression, the feeling conveyed, and the energy released by the message –all were obnoxious! She blamed herself for allowing a 15 year younger guy to dally with her. She at once comprehended that this meeting had made Ankit so comfortable that he had surmounted the awe with which he viewed her. As soon as she reached home, she deleted his numbers and decided to walk out of this fledgling relationship. She would not allow anyone to take her for granted –not anyone in the world!
Priyanka once again tumbled into the abyss of her complex mind… ten years back, just one smile had changed their lives…Amrit had smiled at the blunder she had committed by signing a wrong cheque, in his absence…he probably didn’t want to make her feel bad, wanted to dismiss the mistake as a trivial one… But Priyanka’s mind had perceived the smile differently. She had created her own story –about Amrit taking her lightly, Amrit doubting her intelligence, Amrit ridiculing her, and what not! Once she had woven a story ready in her mind, nobody could change her mind about it.
Qudrat was fond of both her parents and still wanted them to be together, though she had stopped begging for it as she did in the initial years of separation. During every visit, she would ask Priyanka to narrate some childhood incidents to her, hoping that nostalgia would drive her mother to think of reviving the broken ties once again. Qudrat lay on the couch with her head on Priyanka’s lap, and Priyanka narrated one of her favorite anecdotes, yet another time. “So… it was you and papa, riding…and suddenly…the horse galloping… Pahalgam… laughed... all of us… pictures…”
Pooja Singal is an Assistant Professor of English, posted at Govt PG College, Kalka. Her interests include travelling, reading, writing, and blogging. She writes under the pseudonym 'Parastish'.
Kaira had married Dhairya for love. But the marriage had deteriorated into a toxic relationship. Would Kaira find her way out of the maze of physical and emotional abuse?
The crunch of gravel and the distant howling of a dog nudged her back into the present. She looked around, disoriented for a moment. She was sitting in the back of a car, with the cab driver looking at her impatiently through the rear-view mirror, waiting for her to alight. She began to gather her purse and duffel bag, but the scarf wrapped around her head slipped, revealing a fresh gash above her eyebrow. She quickly covered her forehead and made sure her sunglasses covered her eyes completely. She looked at the rear-view mirror furtively. Had the cab driver seen her fresh wound? Surely not. He seemed to be talking to another customer, explaining the intricacies of the place of pick up. Kaira heaved a sigh of relief and fished out her mobile to make the payment for her drive. She then alighted. She winced hard as she put her right foot down. She probably had sprained it in the scuffle with Dhairya. She walked slowly up the stairs to the wrap around porch of the huge bungalow nestled in the hills of Dalhousie. The beauty of the flowers blooming in the pots on the porch was lost to her. She was in so much pain that she could not think straight. She just wanted to find a quiet corner and lick her wounds in solitude. She lifted her hand to ring the bell and winced as her elbow protested.
She heard quick footsteps and the door opened. A middle-aged woman wrapped in a shawl and with a weather-beaten face looked at her curiously.
“You must be…”
They both stopped. Kaira cleared her throat.
“I am Kaira. Neena madam must have told you about me.”
The woman’s face cleared. “Yes. Yes. Madam called me and told me you would be coming and would stay here for a few days.”
She put out her hand to take Kaira’s bags. Kaira surrendered the bags with relief and limped into the huge drawing room, full of all the beautiful artifacts Neena had collected during her travels in India as well as outside. Neena loved travelling and even now was in London for a Legal luminary conference. She almost smiled fondly but her facial muscles refused to make the effort. She grimaced. But even that cost her. She felt drained. With slow dragging footsteps, she followed the woman towards the door on the right. It was the guest room. She knew the place like the back of her hand. After her own childhood home, this was the house she visited and loved the most.
The woman…what was her name… She racked her brain but couldn’t remember. She sat down on the bed with a thump and without realising what she was doing, out of force of habit, removed her scarf and her sunglasses. She turned towards the woman, thinking she would ask her name. She saw the look of utter shock on the woman’s face when she saw her battered face. She almost reached out for her scarf to cover up but then decided there was no point in doing that anymore.
“What is your name?” she said.
The woman still looked shocked and horrified.
Kaira raised her hand to her face. “Don’t look so shocked. It is not as bad as it seems. I fell down in the morning,” she said with a poker face. “Can you give me a glass of water? I need to take some pain killers.”
The woman nodded her head and left the room. She heard her talking on the phone. Probably speaking to Neena, she thought. She didn’t really care. Anyway, Neena knew all about her… her situation. What was there to hide? She removed the warm coverlet on the bed and somehow managed to lie down, pulling the coverlet over her battered body. She must have slept off or passed out. She did not know. She awoke when someone gently shook her shoulder. She opened her eyes blearily. She could feel the swelling in her left eye. She would probably have a nice shiner there, as they said.
Neena’s maid was looking down at her with concerned eyes and what looked like pity.
“Madam, I have brought you some ginger and turmeric tea and some cheese toast. It will help with your…um…bruises. Neena Madam said to give you the First Aid Kit. It has some pain killers and ointment. Madam said to call the doctor.”
‘No doctor!” Kaira almost shouted. She tried to get up, but her body felt stiff. Neena’s maid bent down and gently helped her to sit up, placing some cushions against the headboard, so she could lean against them. Kaira blinked back tears and took the glass of water she was proffered. She rummaged through the first aid box and found a strip of voveran. It was a strong pain killer and always helped her. She swallowed the medicine with a huge gulp of water. Meanwhile the maid had placed a lightweight table across her lap and put a tray with her tea and cheese toast on it. Kaira sipped her sweetened tea and felt a warmth slowly pervade her cold and stiff limbs. She felt the toast would choke her, but she did not want to hurt the sentiments of the maid, so she tried to chew through the toast. Her throat felt scratchy and ached from all the crying she had done. Somehow, she managed to finish it and instantly felt better. She lay back and let the maid minister to her cuts and bruises. The maid cleaned her face with a warm wet towel. She then applied ointment to her cuts and gashes and ministered to her eye with a small ice pack. Kaira had never felt so cared for in her 5 years of marriage with Dhairya. A tear slipped down her cheek. When the maid left, she stared vacantly at the curtained picture window. She knew the window would look out into a green valley and a magnificent mountain range. But she didn’t want to look at it now. Maybe tomorrow.
The tiny clock on the mantelpiece ticked quietly. Kaira looked at it. It was 6.30 p.m. Dhariya would be returning home any time now. As if on cue, her mobile started ringing with Abba’s song Chiquita, tell me what’s wrong. She knew it was Dhariya. She did not pick up the phone. But its continuous ringing was getting on to her nerves. She covered her ears with the coverlet. After some minutes the ringing stopped but there was a barrage of pings. She ignored them. The phone rang again. This time it was a different caller tune. She looked at the screen. It was Neena. She picked up the phone.
“How are you sweetheart?” Neena said, her voice resounding with concern and also what sounded like impatience. Kaira braced herself for what was coming.
“Kaira you cannot stay with Dhariya. One of these days you will end up in hospital or worse. Please get out of this toxic relationship.”
Kaira did not stop Neena this time or interrupt her with “He loves me” as she normally did, every time she was hurt by Dhariya.
“Let’s not talk about this right now Neena. I’m too drained,” she said in a low voice. “I will give serious thought to what you have said,” she said and disconnected the call.
That night Kaira slept dreamlessly. She had taken a sedative to help her sleep. The next morning, she was woken up with bright sunlight streaming into her room and the delicious smell of freshly brewed coffee. She opened her eyes to find Neena’s maid placing a tray on her bedside. Kaira heaved herself upright. Her aches and pains were a lot better today. Neena’s maid, God she couldn’t keep calling her that! was placing the tray on her lap. The plate had a nice fluffy looking stuffed golden omelette and some brown buttered toast along with a tall mug of coffee. Kaira first took a huge swallow of her coffee and then tucked into her breakfast ravenously. It had been ages since someone had served her breakfast in bed. She savoured the coffee. Out of habit, she picked up the phone and began scrolling through it. There was a message from Neena apologising for her brusqueness and sending her lots of love. There was a message from her mother asking her how she was. And there were innumerable messages from Dhariya. She didn’t have to read them to know what they would say. They all apologised for hurting her. They all said he loved her dearly. And yes, they all said that she should not do things to make him angry. He had been saying that every time he raised his hand at her. And she had started to believe him.
It had all started with him insisting she give up her profession. She had resisted because she loved her work. Then it was because he felt Navin, her colleague in a law firm was behaving inappropriately with her. Then it was because she won a case he was defending. He insisted that her morals were so low that she paid off the cops. It went on and on. Fed up with the everyday squabbles, she had quit her job. But the physical attacks did not stop. Then it was because she did not cook well or behaved appropriately with his friends. In the five years of their marriage, her confidence had hit rock bottom. She had started to believe that there was something wrong with her. The self-assured woman who had been followed around by a bevy of admirers in Law School, was gone forever. The confident woman who knew she had the ability and gumption to win her cases was gone forever. And Dhariya? He was emboldened by her passive acceptance of his aggression. The angry pinch of the cheek or the painful squeeze of the initial days had turned to hard slaps and this time he had smashed his fist into her right eye, twisted her arm and pushed her so hard that she had twisted her right leg as she fell on the floor and hit her forehead on the glass top of the table in the room. She was scared that he might come looking for her here.
Kaira knew that if she thought about her relationship with Dhariya now, she would just break down. So, she took another pain killer and sedative and escaped into a dreamless slumber. When she woke up again, dusk had fallen, and her phone was ringing. It was Neena.
“Hi Sleepyhead. How are you doing?” she said cheerfully.
“I’m feeling much better but I’m worried that Dhariya might land up here. I need time away from him to think things out.”
“Don’t worry my dear. It’s all taken care of. Dhariya called me to ask about your whereabouts. I told him you had gone to Mehak’s place in Hyderabad and would be back by tomorrow. So hopefully he will be off your back till tomorrow. Just relax and recover. I will also be back in a few days.”
“Thanks, Neena for being such a support. Before I forget, can I use your laptop? I need to do some research.”
“Of course, my dear. I’ll share my password on WhatsApp. I need to run now. Will talk to you again in a bit.”
Kaira clicked the phone shut. She was dying for some tea. She also needed to get out of bed and freshen up. She collected a fresh set of clothes and then went into the shower. She felt a lot better physically although the sight of the number of bruises on her body shocked her. What kind of woman would take so much of physical beating? A timid mouse? A doormat? a spineless being? Had she become such a woman? There was a time when she had fought for women battered by domestic violence in court and also in an NGO she had worked for in Law college. She had always felt pity for such women and also impatience at the inability of these women to extricate themselves from such a situation. In her various talks on the subject, she had quoted the Stockholm syndrome and compared the husband-wife relationship to be one of captor and hostage, where the hostage could not see the captor for what he was. Had she become one of them? She knew she needed a counsellor.
She went to the kitchen and requested Neena’s maid for some of her ginger-turmeric tea and then gathering courage she called the Counsellor she had worked with in her college days and fixed an appointment with her for the next day. She then sat down in the rocking chair next to the picture window and sipped her tea. She pushed the curtains aside. The lights glimmering on the hillside offered her comfort and warmth. She felt like a huge burden had lifted. Tomorrow would be a new day.
Kritika Dixit is a student of literature from Delhi University and has renounced a lucrative job in the corporate sector to pursue writing. Her writings have been featured in various literary periodicals. She is working on a collection of stories which is likely to hit the markets in 2023.
A Girl Called Hira
Hira, a childhood playmate is banished to the village and forced into child marriage on account of a misdemeanour by the author. Even after several decades, the author is unable to shrug off her sense of guilt on this account. Ranjit Powar narrates an interesting anecdote from her childhood.
Life for a kid growing up in an army family could be lonely. A soldier could be stationed anywhere – out in the hills, in remote, sparsely inhabited areas with few other families or cantonments still waiting to set up a school. It sometimes meant that I had to get home-schooled and fill in the vast vacuum caused by a lack of playmates by turning to books, drawing and talking to pet dogs, who were a permanent feature of the household.
The ancient city of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, famous for triggering the war for independence against the British Raj in 1857, was one of the better stations one could hope for. My father was allotted an old bungalow adjacent to ‘Ashok ki Laat’, one of the pillars set by King Ashoka inscribed with Buddhist scriptures. This old bungalow stood on an acre of land, with two paved inner roads flanked by tall Jamun trees leading up to the house. The trees were laden with juicy, purple fruit during the season, many of which fell to the ground, bursting open to spread purple patches. The garden and fruit trees were irrigated by a small well, which was totally out of bounds for the children.
The tall, heavy, cast-iron gates on either side of the inner roads opened out to the two city roads that ran on either side of the premises. The cream-coloured house had a double roof with red shingles and a veranda running around it. There was a ‘Gol kamra’ in the centre surrounded by other rooms, with a hidden loft on the roof. The floors were beautifully patterned in multi-coloured geometric and floral designs. There was a row of staff quarters on the rear side of the property, housing the dhobi, the cook, the ayah, the sweeper and the gardener.
Hira was beautiful. Going back more than half a century, I still recall her heart-shaped face with deep black eyes, a mole on the left side of her chin, and thick black hair plaited and tied in a red ribbon. She never wore frocks as I did but mismatching salwar kameez. Class awareness seems to be imbibed from one generation to another without being taught. Hira seldom showed visible emotions like anger, excitement or despair. She generally wore a placid expression, spoke when spoken to, rarely challenged me even in play, and was mainly content to follow my directions. She would readily play at whatever I chose and follow the given role. So, I loved Hira.
Hira did not go to school and was adept at household chores like sweeping and rolling out rotis at age eight when I was not even allowed to enter the kitchen for fear of scorching myself accidentally. When we played at make-believe houses, Hira rolled out chapatis from kneaded mud while I brought little branches to set out a garden around a miniature brick house. She seemed to know many intriguing stories that I was ignorant about.
“Don’t ever go into the gol kamra after dark.”
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “My grandfather says that ghosts still live in the loft.”
I looked fearfully in the direction of the gol kamra.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. My grandfather said so. The ghosts cry out for water sometimes when it’s very hot.”
Straining our ears for sounds, we could often catch the cooing and flapping of pigeons who had colonised the loft, our hearts beating faster for hearing the ghosts! I steered clear of the gol kamra after that, hoping that the trapdoor in the roof was strong enough to keep the spirits in their dwelling place.
It was a sunny winter afternoon when I returned from school to find a lot of commotion near our boundary wall by the road leading to the iconic Mehtab Cinema. A row of large cage wagons had halted by the roadside. They were pulled by camels, now detached from the wagons for a rest. I could see the gipsy owners putting up a small shabby tent and unloading some cooking utensils and cloth bundles. A cacophony of animal grunting, squealing and growling noises could be heard from the cages. What a thrilling drama in the dull routine of a child’s life! I hurriedly gulped down my lunch, calling out to Hira to share the excitement.
“Hira, have you seen the animals in huge cages by the road? And the tents and strange-looking people? Let’s go and see them.”
“But Memsahib said not to go near the gates. She will get angry.”
“Oh, don’t be such a coward. Mama and Papa are taking a siesta. No one will even see us. I bet you have never seen such animals or people before. Come, or I will go without you.”
Hira looked over her shoulder hesitatingly, then followed me to the boundary wall of the house, a row of hibiscus bushes running along its length, interspersed with some bel trees. We crept through the bushes to peep at this newly sprung gipsy colony, staring wide-eyed at a pair of striped hyenas pacing to and fro in a cage, white and black baboons in another, and a monstrous black Himalayan bear in a third one. There was a terrible stench from the unclean cages, but we did not mind. Two women dressed in colourful ghagra choli sat on their haunches, cooking a meal on a chullah made by placing a couple of bricks together. They wore numerous bangles up to their elbows, thick silver anklets and had tattoos on their faces. Two little girls looked back at us curiously, pointing out and giggling. They minded a restless toddler and a howling baby, both naked waist downwards. The men wore oversize turbans, dhotis and jackets and earrings. They had impressive handlebar moustaches and kohl-lined eyes. One of them saw us and smiled.
“Will you like to see the animals from close up?”
I hurriedly shook my head in a no. Hira tugged at my shirt.
“Let’s go back.”
There was pandemonium in the house. We had been missed, and a hunt was initiated. Disturbing the holy siesta hour of my parents made the situation worse. Hira’s mother Devaki had found us missing and raised the alarm.
“Haven’t you been prohibited from going near the boundary wall? Don’t you know that these gypsies kidnap children? They could put you in a sack and disappear before anyone even knows! You are grounded. You will not go to the movie at the club today.” Mama shook me by the arm.
She was scary when angry, and this was beyond cruel. I had waited eagerly for this movie, “Striped Trip.”
“But it was not I who wanted to go near the wall. It was Hira. She kept asking me to come and see the animals. I refused and told her we were not allowed to go to the boundary wall, but she kept insisting till I agreed. I accompanied her only because I did not want her to go alone.”
For a while, Hira looked at me incomprehensibly. Then she hung her head and said nothing. Devaki gave her a tight slap and dragged her away by the arm.
“Look at this naughty girl! Where will you land up in life if you do not learn to obey?”
I was taken to the club for the movie that evening but was too distraught to enjoy it. I did not even ask for chips and Vimto, my favourite milk and rose drink. I was ashamed and did not call Hira to play with me for the next few days. I saw her sweeping the front yard of her house from afar one day and went in to avoid meeting her eyes.
A whole week passed, and I was still agonising over how I should make up with Hira. Should I say sorry to her? The punishment would be harsh if my parents found out about my lie. Should I call her and pretend that nothing had happened? Would she come? Maybe she would. She never refused me anything.
“Stop daydreaming and finish your homework fast.” My mother placed a glass of milk on my table.
I rushed through my homework and made my way toward Hira’s house. I was not allowed to enter the staff quarters and called out her name from a distance.
No one replied.
I called out louder. No reply.
Teli Ram, the gardener, came out from the adjacent quarter.
“Bebi ji, Hira is not here. She has gone with her parents to their village.”
“Gone to her village? All of a sudden? But why?”
“Her marriage has been fixed.”
My mouth hung open in shock and grief. I rushed home to mama.
“Teli Ram says Hira’s parents have taken her to the village to get married!”
“Yes, they have.”
“But she is just as old as I am! How can they marry her? Why did no one tell me? How could she leave without meeting me?”
“I cannot speak for her. I did try to speak to Devaki about it, but it’s useless. In their community, they do get their girls married at a young age. Don’t be upset. They might come back.”
Hira never came back. She left me to carry the weight of my guilt long after I was a big girl and had lost fascination for caged animals.
Author of 'Dusk over the Mustard Fields' and 'Living a Good Life', Ranjit Powar writes freelance and reviews books for newspapers, most often with her dog Teddy sprawled next to her desk. After serving in the Punjab Civil services, she presently runs a non-profit organization, Nishan Educational Trust, training school teachers in psychological orientation in pedagogy. Deeply involved with humanitarian issues and cross-border peace efforts, she hopes to resume her second passion soon – travelling.