By: Upasana Sharma
I’m never quite sure when I fell in love.
That summer was a lot of things, but bad it wasn’t; summer of 2011. For the past couple of years, I had known nothing but monotonous weeks that involved perspiring profusely, running from and to friends, moving around town aimlessly and learning the art of street slang. My father has been away from us for the last five years. Mom and I, we live comfortably – comfortably aloof from each other, that is.
Mom comes in from work every day all sweaty and hardly in the state to walk another ten feet. She works as a nurse, you see. Takes morning and afternoon shifts but returns in the evening because she has to take care of me. But sometimes, she stays in for night shifts too because we need the extra money and mom takes her books with her to study. She’s trying for a law degree this time. Books on all sorts of law and order have been piling up on the dining table for about a month now.
Mom’s determination is rigid for now, like it always is at the beginning. But in the next couple of months, it’s going to wane. No, in weeks, actually. I know the drill; I’ve seen it happen twice before. Once she pulled through and got her Bachelor degree in Education. The second time, she wasn’t so lucky. And this time, it’s law. Mum wants degrees like other people want children. Here in this house though, the only parent – only functional parent – I can think of is I.
I come home from school, dump my books and uniform on a chair here. I take a bath and then heat up lunch for myself. Then I do the dishes and fill water bottles, and get my chores done by 3:30 pm. Mom comes around and she literally falls flat on the sofa, still draped in a saree and all, stinking vaguely of antiseptic. She always dozes off for twenty, thirty minutes at first and then gives out a cry – like of a cat being beaten to death and I always wonder why she does that – and then goes off to undress, leaving her bag and books for me to sort. I always do. Then I heat up the food for mum, whatever it was that had by then gone rock cold.
At 5:30 I quietly close the door behind me and leave home. We live with around 8 other families in a double-storey building and there are three families on each floor. The apartments are so small; I’ve seen entire bedrooms at my friends’ homes that cover more area than the total square feet in one apartment. I never thought about this too much before, when I was younger. But now that I’m 17 and growing in my need for privacy, I feel the need for more space. I vow to myself at least three times a day that when I save enough money from whatever profession I decide to take up later, I will buy a big house ASAP. I don’t think about doing my parents any sort of wish granting. I want that mystical dream house for myself, imagine myself playing some cool sort of video game with my friends and having enough privacy to maybe, sort of have a girlfriend some day and chill with her there.
Well, I leave at around 5:30 everyday, or sometimes later, depending on my mother’s nap. I go out from our building turn left and up ahead, where the unpaved road meets cement, there is a little corner shop where I and my buddies chill till we can’t tolerate the mosquitoes no more (which usually means like two hours or more). These buddies are not from my school, but simply guys who live around close by – rich boys, poor boys, don’t-know-if-I’m-going-to-come-back-here-tomorrow boys, boys who are looking for company just to mooch off some cigarettes if possible, boys who want to get close to you if they have an eye on your sister, and so on. But you get my drift.
Anyway, so what happened one day was, I was walking from that corner shop to this intersection at the end of the cemented road that was old and sort of weary but had these nice old cement benches where we usually sat to smoke or chew tobacco. I was with Rahim and he was telling me about the new tattoo he’d gotten on his neck – another tribal design. I wasn’t really amused or impressed by it because it didn’t make any sense, but I kept on gushing about how awesome and cool it was anyway. Rahim let me mooch cigarettes off of him, and I had no reason to make him feel bad over some shitty tattoos, really.
So Rahim is about 20 and everyone knows that he’s the only son in his family that live at the teaching quarters around three streets down. His father is a teacher at the government Girls High School nearby. Mr. Alam has three daughters and only one son, Rahim. All his daughters are underage and Rahim is damn possessive about all of them. The youngest is in primary school and the oldest has just entered high school. I have never known any of their names. Actually, Rahim had told me their names once when I asked about if he ever got them mixed up himself, but they all started with the same alphabet, ‘A’, which is why I always got them confused and decided to just forget about it.
So anyway. Rahima and I were going to go see our other pals who would be chewing tobacco/Center fresh by now and someone would’ve started a game of cricket. It was summer and climate change had not begun seven years ago – not this viciously, at the least. It was the kind of summer day that you want to preserve in your nose and eyes, the kind you want to picture when you read a nice little summer detective story with kids; all orange skies and cool breezes. I was going to talk to him about my new stack of pirated CDs that had just come in from a source in Shillong when I saw this girl coming up the lane towards us. Girls don’t usually come up these streets much. What’s more, girls who looked like her were rarer than the number of solar eclipses in a year. I’ve seen skimpily clad girls who ride on different motorcycles every day and I’ve also seen salwar-sworn ladies who don’t even look at us if we happen to be nearby. But this girl, well, she was wearing a pink flowy dress kinda thingy, except that she was also wearing pants below. White skin-hugging pants that were showing off her really slim ankles and proportionate calves. That dress she wore came down to below her knee and it had like, meters of cloth invested in itself – so flowy it was.
My head was turned towards Rahim but my eyes darted to the left, all too frequently. I thought she would pass away, instead, about a nanosecond later; she was standing right in front of Rahim and talking to him about “Ammi’s medicine got over today after lunch. She asked me to come fetch you so she could give you money to buy more”. My head snapped back. Rahim’s sister. I stood there standing like a dumb fool right between Rahim and this apparition from the heavens who not only looked like the goddess Summer herself, but sounded like a siren had just arrived on land. White cheeks flushed in the heat, slender fingers that tapered to neat little pointy tips and one fierce, plum colored mouth that I could not stop scrutinizing.
“Aisha, you could have waited till I came home. There was no need to come here. You should’ve stayed home. It’s too hot and too improper for you to be barging into here. And what are you even dressed in. Tie your hair and go home.” Rahim was whispering to her, low and urgent. He was fidgeting quite a bit too, eyes darting back and forth between me and her.
They were lingering now, immersed in more conversation. I tried hard to act nonchalant and pretend that I didn’t believe in her existence then and there. I looked at my feet and then looking past my shoulder and for some time I played with a rock with my left big toe. I did not realize I was behaving weird till my play with that rock went a little too far and I ended up aiming it at her ankle. They were still talking of course, I didn’t really hear what it was about but Rahim seemed to have calmed down.
Until I threw in that interruption, of course.
Both their heads snapped up.
“What are you doing?”, said Rahim, temple scrunched up while some obvious anger showed itself
“I’m sorry, so sorry. I was playing with that and unintentionally hit your sister.” I apologized. I turned to her, “I didn’t mean to hurt you, sorry”
I had not really looked at he in all he entirety till that moment. But I saw then that her brows were furrowed and she looked like she was examining me and my explanation. Her pink flowy dress thingy, I would learn years later, is called a kaftan and it was in fashion a long time ago and would be again in years to come. But that day when I met Aisha, kaftans were not the most popular clothing options in the country but she was making it work better than a ramp model.
Her cheeks were red like apples and her skin was so fair, it was hard to believe that somebody could be that resistant to tan. There, I sound like I’m describing Snow White. But I guess it was worth it because she also had those ebony eye brows that were all wilderness on that day, but I knew that someday, those eye brows would be inspiring poems in boys and ambitions in salon ladies that we had not anticipated.
Aisha stared at me and didn’t say anything. Her final gesture was a nod and nothing more. She said bye to her brother and walked off. And her brother and I watched her walk away.
“My sister, oldest among the three. She’s in 10th grade now.” He said. We watched her silhouette fade away. “Starting to become real stubborn too”
I’d like to think that was the first time I ever fell in love.
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