Aqsa Eram

Exiting the railway station, a drizzle came upon me like a sinking cloud. It was still dark outside and I could see no taxis or auto-rickshaws around. In the gloom, the building looked ethereal and I was certain I would find some shadowy figures gawking at me from the tall windows. Before the sweltering rain could damage my sanity further, I looked away to the muddy road nearby.

I could only see one rickshaw parked at the entrance of the station. I hurried over to it.

"Wake up, bhaiyya."

He stirred, slowly opened his eyes and begrudgingly closed them again. He was a young man, so I hesitated for a while.

The drizzle was gradually turning into large raindrops now, and I could see no other option around me. So I shook him quickly, and asked him (alright, pleaded with him) to take me to V-- colony. I wished I had thought twice before deciding on making this surprise visit.

He mumbled something, which I hoped was the fare cost. Then he took out a sheet of plastic, covered himself with it and hopped on to the seat. I fumbled at the back seat with my bags, climbing quickly too.

As he started pedalling, a slithery chill ran through me, the light wind hitting me. I was worrying about my dampened clothes and cursing my luck simultaneously when the man spoke:

"Weather is so unpredictable these days, starts raining any time."

"Yeah, must be a summer storm," I replied. The humid air was a reminder of my summers in this town. How Nani used to get angry at me for going out in the rain.

The man didn't speak again. He seemed to be worrying about something, or maybe he was just lost in his thoughts. The narrow lanes at the sides remained obscured in darkness. Only the main road was lit up with streetlights. Occasionally I could see candles burning or emergency lights in a few shops. At half-past four in the morning though? The rickshaw made a creaking noise as it lurched forward. Other than that, it was an unnerving quiet.

"Do you usually sleep outside, bhaiyya?" I croaked the question out.

"No, madamji. I have a home here. Actually nearby where we're going. I didn't find any passenger from the station so I had to sleep there." It felt good, making conversation in the dark and the silence. "This is not my daily job though. I have a small shop too," he added. I could feel him glancing back at me.

We passed a railway crossing. I didn't reply, distracted by the surroundings which overwhelmed me with memories. I hadn't visited Nani for many years (how many has it been… ten or more?) but I still remembered the way to her home. Ammi had taught me once, "Station - crossing - hospital - intersection –"

"You have your home here?" he broke in my thoughts.

"Yes, in a way. I used to visit when I was a small girl."

Back then, visiting Nani was an opportunity to get away from the spying eyes of my father. Since he wasn't there, I could get out of the four walls. I even avoided my cousin at all costs as I feared he would snitch on me. And after all, it was more fun exploring the area on my own, there would be no one to scold me.

The huge bungalow at the last lane from our home attracted me immensely. Even if I could never see the bungalow itself for it was surrounded by huge yellow walls, I could see the trees. The four date palm trees which swayed with the wind were nothing like I had ever seen. When I first saw the well next to that bungalow, there was a crowd of women with buckets in their hands. Nani told me later that day that the well was built for the community but only the poor used it those days.

The rickshaw turned left at the hospital. The rain was slowing down but it was as dark as midnight still. The reddish-black clouds seemed to be in turmoil. I asked the rickshaw puller to hurry up since the rainfall seemed to be stopping. He laughed easily, "Rest assured, madamji!" and continued with his own pace, spitting at the road periodically. I only looked forward to being dry and resting in a cosy bed.

An image of a boy pierced through my thoughts. At the well, I had met a small boy. He seemed younger than me. And I remembered.

One of the summers, I had run out, escaping my summer homework. The sixth grade was not as fun as I had hoped. I reached the bungalow, watched the still trees. There was no one around that day either, and I had been visiting for consecutive three days. I crept up to the well. Looked down it. It was creepy even in the day. I tried to figure out the shapes in its dark but sun-lit bottom. It was dry but for a few plastic bags, a pile of clothes and a single slipper.

A pungent smell of rot and moisture came up and I turned quickly, almost slamming into a woman. I recognized her but she didn’t. She was the lady next door to our's, or Mrs Lady-next-door as I liked to mentally refer to her. She gave me a nasty look and threw a plastic bag in the well. (Now looking back, my yellow knee-length shorts and unkempt hair must’ve not gone well with her).

I watched Mrs Lady-next-door turn around and walk away, following her with my eyes. Then I resumed my task.

"What are you looking at?" A small boy enquired, looking at me curiously. He seemed to have appeared magically.

"Nothing." I averted my eyes, feeling exposed.

"I see you every day looking inside here," he gestured down the well. I didn't want to share my secret spot so I looked away, hoping he would leave me alone, and trying not to fall for the obvious exaggeration as well.

A realisation dawned on him as his eyes widened. "Oh!" he exclaimed.

He then ran towards the adjacent ground, making sure to look back at me in between. The neighbourhood boys were playing cricket there. I followed the boy, unthinking. When he saw me coming after him, he smiled. A dimple on the left cheek and one canine missing. I am older than him after all, I revelled in that thought and started running like him. Ahead of me, his faded white shirt flapped behind him appearing to be a bird's wings. Laughing, we ran through the ground and through the trail in the grass, everything else only a blur.

By the time I looked around, we were in a narrow street which had poorly or even half-constructed houses. The boy had stopped. I remembered Nani telling me to not go to that colony where "those" people lived.

I was afraid suddenly; I had never explored this far. From a grey plastered house emerged a woman. Her long brown hair was in a braid and she wore a pale green suit. She looked at me intently and then called to the boy, "Ahmed, come!" He whispered something to her. His mother smiled at me and asked if I'd like to have water. I was still panting after the run. The heat was slowly catching up, making itself known visibly as my cheeks reddened. So I went in.

"It's so hot outside. A girl shouldn't roam around like this," she said as she handed me water in a steel glass. "What's your name, doll?"

"Fatmah" I muttered while drinking.

"Sorry about this, Fatmah. We cannot get fresh water these days."

There were only a few things inside the house - or was it only a room? There was no plastered floor, just a smoothened yellowed ground. The plastic green mat poked into my buttocks when I sat down.

The boy sat down in front of a small television and switched it on. It was black and white, not like the coloured pictures ours showed. He looked at the screen but occasionally glanced at me, making sure not to stare. So I shifted beside him and we watched the cartoon show. I slept.

I woke up scratching a mosquito bite. The ground emanated heat instead of the sun. I looked outside the open wooden door: the sky was pink. I looked around and saw Ahmed asleep with his head in his mother's lap.

"You head home now or your parents will be angry. Visit anytime you'd like," she said with an unfamiliar warmth.

While returning home, I saw the swaying kites being reeled back. It got dark when I reached. Nani fussed around me seeing my dirty clothes. I looked for Ammi but she was busy preparing tea; she didn't notice me.

I didn’t see Ahmed after that one encounter. And after that year, my parents split up. Ammi and I had to move states and hence stopped the annual visits to Nani's home during summer vacations. Until now. Now I could afford to come alone and –

"Which house?" the rickshaw puller interrupted me, unaware. I pointed to the fourth one with the black painted iron gate. It still looked the same. We had reached.

At five in the morning, the sky was dull blue. The clouds had almost withered away but a haze remained.

He helped put down my bags while I paid him. After this ritual, I rang the doorbell. As I waited, I looked back at the rickshaw which was now headed away from me.

He didn't look back at me. I entered the home.


This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's June 2020 Issue. Read the full issue here:

Illustration by Dhanashree Pimputkar

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