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Idaiveli (Gap)

A story by Vaasanthi
Translated from Tamil by Sukanya Venkataraman

The dream engulfed him until he was prodded awake with a stick. He was still smiling from the memory of his dream. He was sitting like a dot, a point in the center of a long row of flower shops. She was standing beyond mountains of flowers, like a flower herself. Like her name. Gulabi. Rose.

Garlands of yellow marigolds and red roses hung in chains, swinging when people jostled them. He gazed at her silken face amidst them, unashamed. Her beetle-dark eyes eagerly scanned the mountains of flowers. Her pomegranate lips smiled in awe. Was there ever such a wonder in Allah’s creations? How would it be if he touched her? He extended his hand.

‘Hey, wake up. Are you dreaming?’

The cane prodded his waist painfully. He woke up with a start. He saw the cane first. Like an unravelling film reel, the dim light revealed Javdekar in his police uniform with his sharp eyes and a mocking smile beneath his moustache. He sat up on his side, fearfully. What was Javdekar here for today? Would his antics start early in the day?

Didn’t I tell you to get up?

The others in the room were still asleep.

He held onto his long shorts, which were slipping, and tied them. The tie-up cord was frayed at the ends. Before he could stand upright, he felt a sting on his knee. The same place that he had been struck yesterday.

‘Come on. Got the news last night that you are being freed today.’

He looked around, bewildered. Was this being told to him or was it meant for someone else? The others were curled up, eyes closed.

‘What are you gaping for? Are you happy hearing this or not? You must give me something for telling you this good news. Ok, now move…’

He walked as if in a dream. When would the news have been transmitted? Before he was hit or after? He felt like taking a pee.

‘I’ll take a pee and be back,’ he said, his head bent as if he was mortified to say so.

‘Ok, go and then come to the office room.’

He could not see the path to the restroom in the dawning light but walked swiftly towards it on instinct. Initially the smell would turn his stomach. Now nothing bothered his senses. He opened the tap in the lavatory and washed his face. The cold water felt good. It seemed to penetrate his brain and move aside the cobwebs there ever so slightly. The sky was turning grey when he walked out and looked up.

What did Javdekar say?

‘You are being freed today.’

Was it the truth? Or was it another trick to beat him up further?

He hesitantly went and lingered by the office room door. The warden was sitting at his table. His face seemed less harsh today.

‘Come, Ayub Khan. Come in and sign your name. You can go home today.’

‘Why now, out of the blue?’ he wanted to ask, but did not. He signed where they asked him to. He saw the picture of an adolescent boy on the form. It seemed like someone else. He bent down and peered at it. Javdekar and the warden looked at each other, smiled and shook
their heads.

‘Here is the money you earned here.’

He accepted the money and counted it. Two thousand and eight rupees. It seemed like a lot of money. All new notes. He was afraid to even touch it.

Javdekar held out a small package. ‘Your clothes. See if they still fit you.’

He went aside and tried to wear his clothes. The shirt was tight. His waist was too big for his shorts. He pulled the rope from his long shorts and wound it around his waist.

Javdekar laughed.

‘Go get yourself a lungi. Or you’ll find one at home. Your house is here, right?’

He shook his head to indicate no.

‘Then where is it?’

He did not respond. That was his private business.

Instead, he shrugged. The warden looked at his file. ‘Mysore,’ he said with some surprise.

‘Great! Then buy a lungi here,’ said Javdekar. ‘Many buses go to Bangalore. Take a bus from there and go home.’

‘Who is there at home?’

He turned around, stunned. Yes, it was the warden who had asked him. He had never experienced anything but harshness in that man.

He thought for a bit. It seemed like the cobwebs were suffocating his brain again. He closed his eyes in thought. He saw a big inner courtyard. He saw every face, dull like an old family photo. The courtyard was bright. As if the sun was resting there…

‘Well, go on then. Don’t get into any trouble from now on.’

He started again, wondering how to respond. He moved to leave the room in silence, still doubting his freedom.

‘Ayub! Do you know why they freed you?’ asked the warden.

He shook his head to indicate no.

‘The court decided that you were not guilty.’

Ayub looked at the warden in surprise.

‘Today is August 15th. Independence Day. You are also free and independent. Aren’t you happy?’

He did not know. It seemed like they were mocking him. He felt unreasonably agitated. His heart palpitated. His blood rushed to the nape of his neck and his face grew warm.

How does happiness feel?

‘Go on now. Go home. Make an honest living and survive.’

He came out. He had seen similar scenes in many Hindi movies. A girlfriend or friend would be waiting to welcome the prisoner. The entrance was devoid of life and there was no one.

His shorts hurt his waist since they were too tight. He would have to wait until the shops opened. Footpath shops could be cheaper.

Mumbai was not yet awake. He was surprised to see so little traffic. The Mumbai he remembered had been bustling, crowded and dirty. The opposite of Mysore. The streets of Mysore were wide with cooling trees on either side. The streets were clean. It was a quiet town with gentle folk. But he had liked Mumbai. He had been awestruck by its speed. It seemed like yesterday when he had stared with an open mouth at everything, like a villager who comes to a city for the first time. Gaping at the sea. At the massive cinema posters. At the urchins standing outside the sky-high walls of movie star bungalows waiting for a glimpse of them. At multi-storey buildings and the wealthy residing in them. Streets with buried secrets. The pav bhaji1 in street side shops…the filth piled in corners. Dogs and cows hovering around plastic bottles and bags…the casual indifference of people who always seemed to be in a hurry…the celebratory laugh of the frothing ocean…

Nothing registered today. A sleepy Mumbai seemed strange. Like a dull piece of art, its paint faded and peeling.

He walked where his feet led him. The sea breeze wafted in. He saw smoke in a corner tea shop. There were two others when he reached it. He got a paper cup of tea, along with some change, for ten rupees. Masala tea. The fragrance wafted into his very being. He savoured its heat with closed eyes as it penetrated his body. The shopkeeper laughed when Ayub opened his eyes.

‘Do you need another chai?’ he asked in Marathi.

He thought about it but decided to have one at breakfast instead and continued walking. The ocean seemed to come closer as he walked on. Mumbai started to bustle again as more pedestrians and vehicles began plying the streets. He noticed that the seaside street shops were open and walked towards them. Jeans and tee shirts were in huge piles.

‘Get yourself a lungi,’ Javdekar had said. He was not used to wearing a lungi. The boy at the street shop selected a pair of jeans and a tee that would fit him. The boy sold them for 80 rupees after intense bargaining. ‘Ok, you are my first sale of the day,’ he reasoned. Ayub felt new energy inside him after changing into his new outfit in a fairly private space.

He discarded his old clothes in a street corner trash pile and moved forward. He sat on the parapet wall near the sea and gazed at it. The horizon glittered like diamonds, as if the sun was sitting on the waves. Those closer to the shore seemed a darker blue. He stared at them vacantly for a while.

He felt stunned. It seemed as if he and the universe were standing still. Gulabi came floating on the waves. ‘Do you remember me, Gulabi?’ She laughed her tinkling laugh.

‘How can I remember you when I never knew you?’

He felt cheated and buried his head in his knees. His memories lengthened, like a long list. They expanded with those he had seen in the sun-lit inner courtyard. They would remember him for sure. Vappa, Amma-jaan, Bhai-jaan… would they remember him? The courtyard spun
below his head. The aroma of Amma-jaan’s kothu parotta beckoned him.

‘Come Ayub, I have made kurma2 just the way you like it. With coconut milk…’

Tears flooded his eyes and spilled over. Will you recognize me now? Will you make parotta with kurma for me?

He wondered where all these tears had been before today. He allowed it to flow and ebb on its own. Sunlight stung his neck. He stroked it, looking up. He wiped his face and eyes.

A boy was sitting in the vicinity. He laughed at Ayub.

‘Why are you crying? If you need a job, I can get one for you.’

Ayub got up hurriedly and walked on without replying.

‘Hey, are you deaf or dumb?’

That boy reminded Ayub of himself. He turned around and looked at the boy who was wearing Ayub’s discarded shirt and shorts. He felt like giving a resounding slap on the boy’s back.

In truth, it seemed like he had forgotten how to use words. He felt like he could not utter even a single sentence. It had been days since he had spoken…He had forgotten if it had been days or years. He vowed to never open his mouth until he left Mumbai.

He joined the long queue at the bus stop. He understood that the arriving bus was going to Dadar railway station. He boarded it. It felt like an invisible hand was shoving him.

His body and brain worked like a machine. The crowd inside the railway station left him breathless. Waves of unstopping humanity flowed forward like a deluge. He reached the ticket counter, floating on that wave. The man at the counter must be a robot. He took the money and issued tickets in silence. His speed, heavy silence, and his betel-leaf chewing mouth agitated Ayub. After asking several times and getting scolded, he got a ticket to Mysore.

Sweat poured down his forehead as if he had run a mile. The train departed only in the evening. He came out and started eating the pav bhaji at the corner shop with relish. His stomach shamelessly asked for more, regardless of how much he ate. Mango juice –Aam ras. His mind was saturated with happiness.

‘Are you happy now?’

It seemed like this was happiness. It seemed like a new invention. He could not believe it. No fear of Javdekar’s cane or the mockery of others…No need to try and hide from their unbridled atrocities…How had this become possible? ‘The court has decided that you are not guilty.’

You bastards…Climbing up and down endless steps of wandering, onlookers spitting on him and lowering his head because he was unable to digest it…the countless ups and downs of that rutted, rough path were branded in his brain… That walk had aged him inside and out…It was a scene out of a movie. An absurd, unbelievable story. He was the loser hero of that story.

He wanted to laugh out loud till he shook. It could have been that he wanted to cry too. He got up when he saw some young men at the next table staring at him. They would laugh if he told them his story. They would not believe him.

‘Do you think we are fools?’ they would ask.

This was his private humiliation. There was no need to tell anyone. Everyone would ask when he went home. What should he say? The truth?

‘Is that you Ayub? Where did you disappear to? Everyone thought you were dead…’ This was more or less like death.

‘Are you Ayub’s ghost?’ they would laugh. ‘Yes, I am a ghost,’ he told himself. The old Ayub is dead. He had carried him and thrown himself away. Like discarding that old shirt and shorts. Now there is a different person inside. He was worried if they would accept him. Amma-jaan came to mind. His stomach churned and his eyes filled. She would need to believe him. She would believe him even if no one else did, he consoled himself.

He rose and searched for a tap to wash his hands. There was a tiny wash basin in an isolated area with a mirror hanging above it. The face in that mirror was that of a stranger. He washed his face thoroughly and arranged his hair using his wet hand. He felt stronger after wiping his face with the handkerchief he had bought in a street shop. He did not know how to spend his time until evening. There was a park a short distance away. He sat on a bench there. He could see a school opposite it. The national flag was visible above its walls. He could hear students singing the national anthem. What was it today? Oh, August 15th. The warden would hoist a flag too.

He buried his head in his knees. ‘Jhanda ooncha rahe hamara…’3 He was running carrying the flag, like in A.R. Rehman’s ‘Maa tujhe salaam’ music video. His heart rose higher and higher.

Maa tujhe salaam…’ He was wearing a Gandhi cap. His friend Basavappa was running with him. Basavappa would always wear vibhuthi (holy ash) on his forehead. His family would buy flowers for divine offerings from Vappa’s shop. Their fathers were dear friends. And so were he and Basavappa, always together, used to sit next to each other in school.

Would Basavappa recognize him now? Would he hug Ayub like in the old days? An entire eon had slipped by since then. Beliefs and relationships would have disappeared along the way too. He felt like crying again for no reason. As if weeping for someone who was dead.

He composed himself and rose. Children in uniform were emerging from the school laughing and chittering. He looked at them eagerly for a while and then started walking back towards the railway station. He remembered how he had been unable to leave for Mysore earlier. Now, he would have to ensure he left before anything similar happened again.

The railway coach bound for Mysore was empty. He had got a nice window seat with a sleeper. He bought a meal packet for dinner, returned to his seat, and leaned against it. It seemed strange that he had been unaware of this fact—of sitting on a train to Mysore—until early this morning.

The coach started filling up. These people lived defined lives. They knew what they would do tomorrow. He was impatient for the train to leave. Every delay meant his departure was doubtful. A khaki uniform might ask him to leave, press the nape of his neck and order ‘Walk to the station.’ Thank God, the train moved. Finally. He looked at the receding outer world for a while. Mysore was at the end of this journey.

He ate and lay down. Sleep made his eyes heavy, but he was afraid to sleep. Ghosts would surround him as soon as he closed his eyes. They would threaten him, whip in hand. ‘Who are you, Ayub Khan? Tell us! Which gang do you belong to? Who are you?’

Blood would pour out of his cracked back. He would forget who he was in his hazy consciousness as they repeated that question. He would even forget his name. He once said his name was Basavappa. ‘Are you lying, you rascal!’ Oh God! The beatings made him feel like his hands, legs, and back had been ripped apart.

Hometown streets came chasing the ghosts today. Vappa and Amma came running towards him. Devaraj market expanded without end. Vappa was sitting amidst a pile of flowers and hollering in Kannada. ‘Quarter kg malligae4 is 20 rupees! Quarter kg rose is 10 rupees! Come! Come!’ His elder brother Ahmed was dragging him along. ‘Come on, we need to string many garlands. Tomorrow is Lord Ganesha’s festival.’ Buyers were grabbing garlands even as he strung them. He waited. Gulabi came. She was not smiling. She shrugged.

‘Al Qaeda or Indian Mujahudeen? Who are you? Tell us!’ Saare jahan se achaa…Hindustan hamara. Janda ooncha rahe hamara…He was holding a flag like in A.R. Rehman’s song.

It was bright when he opened his eyes. He sat up with a start. ‘Did we pass Bangalore?’ he asked the old man sitting opposite him.

‘Sure, half an hour ago. Do you need to go there?’ ‘No, Mysore.’

‘How come you slept like a person who has never slept for years?’

He went to the lavatory without responding. His very blood cells seemed jolted awake as they neared Mysore. His mind was restless. The climate had changed considerably. There was a strong, cool breeze. His palms sweated despite that.

He looked around with yearning when the train arrived in Mysore. It seemed as if there was no connection between the bursting Mumbai station and this calmer one. He was overcome with emotion and his eyes filled when he stepped onto the ground. Which demon had lured him there?

He emerged from the station and took a deep breath. The palace was a short distance away. Beautiful, like a pearl. Krishna Devaraja Wadiyar’s statue was at the crossroads. Devaraj Ars Road was in the vicinity. Devaraj market was beyond that. The place where his Vappa and Ahmad sold flowers. They would be there now. He wanted to see them. He would understand the situation more if he went home first.

Ayub felt an unusual thrill and sense of safety among the bustling market crowds. He realized his manic hunger and that he was standing in front of a hotel only when the smell of puri and masala wafted towards him. He was unaware if breakfast would be ready at home at this time. He entered the hotel, which seemed new, and ordered a cup of coffee along with dosa. He looked around sharply but did not see any familiar face. Or maybe no one recognized him.

He closed his eyes and leaned against the chair. He was back in town. His birthplace. Among familiar, simple people. He was the son of respected flower seller Mehboob Khan. The prodigal had returned. Like a lamb returning to its fold. Someone touched his shoulder. His shoulders tensed in involuntary fear. He opened his eyes, startled.


A man with holy ash on his forehead was standing in front of him. Recognition hit.


Ayub got up swiftly, stretching forward to hug him. The outstretched hands stopped. It was many days since he had bathed. The man standing opposite him was the epitome of cleanliness.

Basavappa laid his hands on Ayub’s shoulders and laughed as if he could not believe himself. ‘Where did you run away without telling anyone? How many years has it been? Where were you, what are you doing?’

Ayub’s eyes dimmed with tears. ‘Did you even recognize me? I am amazed. I cannot recognize you. You have become very fat.’

Basavappa burst out laughing. ‘This is what happens when you eat dosa every day. You look like a scarecrow. Your face is unchanged but slightly older. What happened? Why didn’t you even write a letter? These days, even the rickshaw man and those who launder our clothes have cell phones. Why are you like this?’

‘That is a story, Basavappa. A horrifying story. Maybe you will believe it. Maybe you won’t. But after hearing it, you will not even touch or speak to me.’

Basavappa looked at him thoughtfully. ‘Did you think I might have changed? Will the mind change like our appearance does? Can I forget our friendship?’ He laughed and sang ‘Janda ooncha rahe hamara’, beating the table in rhythm.

Ayub laughed, nodding his head. Something rose like a ball from the pit of his stomach and constricted his throat. ‘Basavappa, would you believe it if I say I get tears in my eyes every time I hear this song?’

‘Definitely. I feel that way too. My kids think I’m crazy.’ Tiffin and coffee arrived.

‘Why don’t you eat too?’ Ayub asked Basavappa.

‘The first offering here is for me. This is my hotel. Is dosa enough? Eat idlis too. Hey, this man is our guest,’ Basavappa replied.

Ayub’s stomach was full. He had even forgotten all these tastes.

‘Now tell me your story.’

Ayub felt embarrassed. ‘First let me go home, Basavaa.’

‘Ok, go home. Your mother will be happy. Poor thing, how she cried. She thinks you are dead, but I refused to believe that. Thank God you are alive. Why did you run away like that? Doesn’t anyone else fail in their exams? Don’t their parents scold them?’

Ayub bowed his head. He had forgotten his father’s angry face, his spanking and his own anger long ago. ‘Yes, I made a great mistake, Basavaa. Do you believe in fate?’

Basavappa looked at him steadily. ‘If you had stayed here, fate could not have done anything to you. Come on, I’ll walk with you until you reach home. Let us catch up as we walk.’

‘Not now, Basavaa. I will tell you another day.’

‘As you wish. You need not tell me anything. I’m so happy to see you. I am going to open a hotel in Srirangapatnam. Tipu Sultan’s town. So I am going to call it Tipu’s Café.’ He winked and laughed. ‘I need someone to help me. You can supervise it. Now look here, you should not keep crying so often.’ Basavappa patted his back. ‘Let’s meet this evening. Let’s go to the Krishnaraja Sagar dam. There’s been a lot of rain this year. So there’s a lot of water there. Will look amazing,’ he said.

Ayub smiled, nodded his head, and walked towards his house. His felt at ease. He could not believe that Basavappa had never changed. What would he say if he knew my story?

‘You need not tell me anything.’

How come? Hadn’t anything changed around here?

The streets were the same. He could not yet see any multi-storey buildings like in Mumbai. There were no glittering malls. Mysore was at peace, as if meditating on itself. The street he lived. The dusty ground in which he had played till he was 16 years old. The place where he had played cricket. The school he had studied in with Basavappa was in the next street. His father had not sent Ayub and his elder brother to the Madrasa school. ‘You should study in the same school as other Indian children. We are not different. Education is your weapon,’ he would say. ‘Are you going to live your life selling flowers like your illiterate father?’ he had asked on the day he beat Ayub, but Ayub did not feel like it was below his dignity to sell flowers. He could see Gulabi only there.

His feet halted abruptly. His house. Vappa and Ahmad would have gone to the flower shop. He stood outside the front door and pressed the bell.

‘Who is it?’ an old lady asked as she came to the door. His throat constricted. His eyes flooded. Her hair was white, her eyes dull.

‘Ammi!’ he said in a low voice.

She was shocked. She stared at him for a while. ‘Who? Ayub? Have you returned?’ she said and wept as she hugged him. ‘I knew you would return one day. That you were alive. I was so angry because you were the stone-hearted boy who rejected us all and left.’

He broke down. Her warm embrace was cathartic, his tears washing away all the sorrow and humiliations of the past decades. He wept as if his heart would break. He was unable to speak.

‘Don’t cry. Come in. You ran away in anger. Do you understand how we suffered these past 20 years, not knowing if you were alive or dead? Did you remember home only now, all of a sudden?’

He shook his head firmly. He wiped his face and composed himself.

‘There was never a minute when I didn’t think of you these past 20 years. You must believe me.’

‘Couldn’t you call or write a letter?’

‘I couldn’t. I was the victim of a strange situation, Ammi. It is a horrifying story.’

His mother’s eyes widened in fear. ‘Did you do something wrong like some other idiot boys that would spoil our name? If so, leave immediately before Vappa returns.’

He was stunned at her intense expression. ‘No, no. You must believe what I say.’

‘Come in and tell me.’

The hall was dim as always. They both sat down on the old sofa there. Amma-jaan looked at him with tenderness.

She stroked his jaws. He felt despair when he saw tears flowing from her eyes. He wanted to dissolve his sorrows by hugging her.

‘Did you have breakfast, my dear? Do you want coffee? Let me bring some,’ she said getting up. He stopped her.

‘No need, Ammi. I just had my breakfast.’

He grasped her hands. ‘Ammi, every word I say is the truth. I will never lie.’

‘Tell me. My daughter-in-law has gone to have her bath. There is no one at home.”

‘Ammi, can I lie down on your lap?’ ‘Yes dear.’

Her thigh felt like a cushion. Its soft warmth seemed to heal all his wounds. It seemed that he had lived for this very moment, waiting for it. He closed his eyes. He felt like a fourteen-year-old again.

How it rained that day! Ayub was lying on his bed in intense thought. He was unreasonably angry. Didn’t anyone fail their exams? Should he have been beaten so brutally for that? He was sad that he had failed but even sadder that Vappa, who had never laid a hand on him, had belted him, and humiliated him with awful words. He found that unbearable. It created an unreasonable rage against Vappa. The place where Vappa had whipped him on the back stung like fire. Vappa had angrily pushed Ammi away when she had approached Ayub with some soothing balm. Everyone went to sleep that night as if nothing had happened. He could not sleep. He could not even cry through his anger. It was raining heavily outside.

He left after everyone was asleep. He had to go somewhere without telling anyone. Not even Basavaa. He would let Basavaa know later. He ran blindly, getting drenched in the rain.

He boarded a train in the station. He felt a strange freedom and agitation when it started moving. He had never gone anywhere alone. He had no money. He had never even thought about what his plans were. He hid from the ticket collector in the lavatory. He got down in the final stop. In Dadar, Mumbai. He had heard that Mumbai was a huge city. He would survive doing some job here. He only knew how to string flowers. What job would he get as a person who had failed his tenth standard? He was hungry.

He saw a jewellery shop. Ayub showed his gold ring to the person at the counter and told him he wished to sell it. Ayub had seen the white cap on the shopkeeper’s head and realized he was a Muslim. So, he spoke to him in Urdu.

The shopkeeper looked at him keenly. ‘Did you run away from home?’ he asked.

Ayub lowered his head without replying. ‘What is your name?’

‘Ayub Khan.’

The shopkeeper weighed the ring, counted the money, put it in an envelope, and gave it to him. ‘Keep it carefully. Mumbai is a dangerous place. Where are you going to stay?’

Ayub looked bewildered.

The shopkeeper smiled and took a woven white cap from a nearby shelf.

‘Wear this on your head. You must not wander around without anything to identify you as a Muslim.’

He waited until Ayub had donned the cap. The boy wore it. In Mysore, he wore it only when he went to the mosque.

‘You are my boy from now on. You can stay and eat in my house.’

Ayub was disbelieving. How many good people lived in Mumbai! He felt that reaching this place signalled a victory in some way. He would write to Ammi soon.

‘Please let Vappa know that I am very happy here. I will soon earn on my own and show that I can become a big man.’ Yasin Mubarak seemed to be someone respected by all in that locality. There were four other boys like Ayub in his house. They spoke to Ayub kindly. He got three meals a day. They prayed five times a day. More than 50 people gathered during prayer time. He did his errands cheerfully.

Ayub had never expected to get such an easy life in a strange town and his heart filled with gratitude. He was wonderstruck at how good Yasin Mubarak, the man everyone called Bade Bhai (elder brother), was.

That day dawned as usual. Yasin Mubarak had risen early and was talking continuously on the phone with various people. In a change to the usual routine, Ayub was alone during prayer time.

The women of the house had disappeared. He was told that they had gone out of town. Breakfast came from a hotel. Yasin Mubarak did not go to his shop that day. Bhai had sent away everyone except Ayub and was sitting in front of the television.

News started trickling in. There had been blasts in several places in Mumbai. Ayub gasped as he watched from a corner. People died. Panicked crowds scattered, screaming. The hurt wailed. TV reporters were shouting in loud, anxious voices. He could not understand what they were saying. He froze in terror. He heard ‘Aatankwadi attacks’ repeated several times. ‘What is the meaning of Aatankwadi?’ he asked in a loud voice. Yasin Mubarak looked at him, startled. ‘It means terrorists,’ he said, slightly irritated.

‘They are murderers. Devils. Why should they kill innocent people on the street? Are they our enemies? Are they Pakistanis?’ Ayub asked, agitated.

‘Shut up. Don’t talk like a big man. Go do your errands,’ said Mubarak with an anger Ayub had never seen before.

He got up and went to the room allocated to him. His heart was still beating in fear. What was happening in this city? He had never seen anything like it in Mysore. It was surprising that Bade Bhai had not gone to work today.

He wanted to bid farewell to Bade Bhai and leave for Mysore as soon as things calmed down. The street seemed deserted outside his window. Everyone was locked inside in fear. They stayed at home for the next two days. Bade Bhai did not go to his shop since the entire market street was closed. He seemed ready to leave for some place on the third day. The police came when he was trying to slip away through the back door.

Ayub was stunned. They pushed him and the other boys by the nape of their necks into a police van, even while he was observing these happenings with wide eyes. They were sent to jail straightaway. The crime he had committed and the reason he had been in jail remained a mystery to Ayub. He spent 20 years in isolation, unaware of what was going on in the outside world. The horrors he had experienced during that time…

He stopped. He could not bring himself to tell her the atrocities he had suffered. The beatings, kicking, and electric shock to his privates. The sexual perversities of guards and fellow prisoners. How could he tell all this to his mother?

‘’Ammi, I cannot describe to you what it was, the last twenty years. I suffered very much without understanding why. The day before, out of the blue, I was told that the court had decided that I was free and not guilty.’

‘Did it take them 20 years to say that?’ his mother asked, her eyes brimming with tears. She was silent for a long time, as if in deep thought. The warmth of her body made him sleepy. He felt relieved after having unburdened himself to her.

‘Ayub, tell me the truth,’ said Ammi softly. ‘You didn’t do anything wrong, did you?’

He was traumatized and got up with a start. ‘Ammi, don’t you believe in me? I told you the truth, Ammi.’

Ammi’s eyes were full. It was obvious that she found it difficult to speak. She spoke without meeting his eyes, looking into the distance. ‘Times are not good, Ayub. Many among our people are not even aware of what their kids are doing. Others look at us with suspicion if we even utter our name. We die with fear every time there is a blast in this country. Children disappear. Vappa will die of humiliation if the police ever come to our house.’

He looked at her, stricken. He seemed to see new worry lines in her face, already wrinkled and aged beyond her years. They seemed to increase like a netted web, transforming her face. He wanted to tear them away in his panic. How? On what should he swear to make her believe him? His stomach trembled. A nameless fear and confusion engulfed him. It was unbearable to recognize that Ammi would never believe him even if he explained it to her several times or swore on the holy Quran.

‘Ammi,’ he started, but she covered his mouth and grasped his hands.

‘Ayub, please don’t misunderstand me. Please go somewhere else, make a living, and survive. But please don’t come back here,’ she said in a low, furtive voice with tears in her eyes.

He stood looking at her in disbelief. Panic seemed to be compressing her. Ammi, it appeared, was waiting for him to leave quickly. Words came exploding from within him. ‘Even the court has declared me innocent. I want to live a normal life too, Ammi. I want to work. I want to marry a girl I like. I will help father and support Ahmad. I have been waiting 20 years for this moment.’

‘You leave, dear. If my daughter-in-law Gulabi knows, she will make a scene,’ Ammi said, as he was wondering whether to say all this to her.

He was stunned and taken aback. ‘Who?’

‘Gulabi. She used to come to the flower shop. Ahmad liked her. They got married 10 years ago.’

Ayub took a few seconds to absorb what he had heard. The dream castles he had built crumbled in front of his eyes. They scattered into infinite pieces that could not be scooped up and blocked his heart.

It seemed like Ammi had been buried among those pieces. After a few seconds, he reverently placed her hands against his eyes and smiled slowly. He felt like there had never been a more insane person than himself. ‘I’m going, Ammi,’ he said and walked away without looking back.

His mind was blank. He walked to the bus terminus, stupefied. He quickly walked past Basavappa’s hotel, boarded a bus at the terminal and sat near the window. The wind blew strong and cool. Dried leaves danced lightly above the ground, as if to signal that it was going to rain.

Published by Niyogi Books, Vaasanthi’s Ganga’s Choice and Other Stories (2022), is translated by Sukanya Venkataraman, Gomathi Narayan and Vaasanthi herself.

Vaasanthi is a leading writer, journalist and columnist in Tamil and English. She has published 30 novels, 6 short story collections, 4 volumes of journalistic articles and 4 travelogues in Tamil in the last 40 years. She was the Editor of the Tamil edition of India Today for 10 years.