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The day that Mrs Gandhi died started out as every normal day of the year would. The death sparked debates that would serve as casual political conversation among the babus during coffee break. The stories would spin around like a ball of yarn, and a web of pointless debate would ensue, making the men feel as important as men of their status were given credit for. The rioters, angry as they were that day, vindicated by the fall of the bountiful tree that shook the earth; thrust out their chest in vague importance of being a part of something big. It’s a shame they thought, that my parents hadn’t gone out with the crowd, to express exactly how angry they should feel at a death so sudden. I heard the rioters were devout followers of Mrs Gandhi; the paper boy who didn’t read, the milkman who sold water, the dark, lean boy I had seen lurking around on the dark corners staring pointedly at the girls who passed by, the magazine seller who hid pornographic magazines under his table. They were all people I hadn’t noticed before, people who had become more like accessories to my town, available at the same place everyday.
That day I was throwing a tantrum at not being allowed to go play with Amanvir. A huge pile of homework that had mysteriously reproduced like mice, smiled at me mockingly as my mother set her ground rules. When no amount of pouting assuaged her, I ran to my cousin for a final plea of help. He pulled my flimsy cotton frock and pinched me on my cheek as he always did, when he saw me running towards him. I found him exactly where he always was, sitting beside the window and listening to the radio. My brother never wanted to study, which in my opinion was the start of a great man. For him, being part of something grand and significant was much more important than a bunch of books. What mattered to him was to be noticed and heard, words held no value to him, unless it was being said by an important person. For me though, a person who finds the nuances of addition and grammar uninteresting is a friend in my misery, and definitely a savior from homework.
My cousin found it his personal business to comment upon the happenings of the country, convinced that he could do a better job of cleaning up any mess. The MLA of our town was a great person, my cousin would tell me, he would walk our roads every year during the election, cringing his nose at the open drainage, and proclaim that all our troubles would be over when he will construct a shopping complex in our block. I would giggle uncontrollably as he would sit with his friends emulating the MLA and debating grimly over the grave importance of a shopping complex in our block. As much as he would try, my cousin was not as great as the MLA, nor as empty-headed.
That day as I sat on my cousin’s lap, narrating the misery of homework, I noticed how as the news on the radio progressed, the colour on his face was starting to drain away. Forgotten in my observations, he made a few quick calls, following which the most unexpected thing happened; the MLA of our town called him. I knew it was the MLA because of the way he puffed out his chest and spoke with utmost reverence on the phone. As the call progressed, I saw my cousin’s nods become more vigorous and fervent, and as such, by the time the call ended, his face had pulled on the deepest shade of red and an expression of the smug importance he probably felt. With a voice as croaky as a toad’s call he said, “Something needs to be done! This is outrageous”, and with that walked out of the house.
My mother did not explain to me why Amanvir and his family paid such an unexpected visit an hour later. Amanvir ran to my room and he and I started playing with my toys, hardly believing the luck we had. Through the window I saw spirals of smoke at a distance and assumed that the garbage that would collect near the big water tank was being burnt finally. My mother, a sworn claustrophobic, insisted on keeping the windows shut and after a while of playing we went to the living room where both families were sitting. The conversation ranged from mundane topics like the rain in Bengal to the newly bought cotton sarees, but what caught my attention was the way Amanvir’s mother pulled at the frayed ends of her kurta continuously as she spoke. The room looked like it did each evening, except the untouched tray of food, the strained smiles and a significant heaviness in the atmosphere. My mother later told me that Amanvir’s parents were the strongest people she knew.
The distant sound of slogans being shouted was what made my mother finally get up. Like the perfect host that she was, she escorted the visiting family in the next room with the elegant grace of the distinguished. Nothing was said during this somber exchange of rooms and as my mother returned to the living room she sat nearer to the door as if waiting for something to happen. Something did happen, an hour later, when the sound of slogans got louder, and the spirals of smoke grew heavier, almost akin to columns of skyscrapers; our doorbell rang. My mother jumped up, and to a person who had never seen her mother behave anything less than elegant and poised, this was a great surprise.
The door was opened, and I heard a wide range of questions being asked. I heard harsh voices and a lot of words like ‘sikh’ ‘Indira Gandhi’ and ‘revenge’ being repeated. I stood in the shadows, trying to make out what was being said, when something of a much more exciting prospect caught my attention. Among the faces of people hidden by the half opened door, I managed to get a glimpse of my cousin. I rushed forward in the excitement of finally recognizing something that made me a part of the adult affair. On the threshold of the door were standing 10 or so people, many of whom I knew, and who had on many occasions been invited to our house for dinner of sorts. These were the same assortment of people who would be the most enthusiastic in helping out the MLA during elections. A dull silence fell upon the group at my sudden appearance, I looked at Mr. Bansal and smiled, but he looked away. I tried the same tactic to draw attention to myself with all the other people I knew, and got the same reaction. Miffed, I looked at Mr. Bansal and said, “I heard Arun isn’t well uncle. Don’t worry; I would help him out with the classes he missed. Don’t be angry uncle; I was just teasing him when I snatched his new pencil box from him. I’ll never do that again.”
Mr. Bansal shifted uncomfortably on his feet and when I still didn’t get the response I wanted, I ploughed on shifting my attention to Sharma uncle and said “Uncle, how did your trip to Shimla go? Rohan told me all about it………..” my voice trailed away as I noticed Sharma uncle look away. By this time everyone was shifting uncomfortably on their feet looking at anything other than me and my mother. Everyone seemed to be carrying kerosene cans and sticks and it was then that I noticed the pungent smell of burnt rubber and the red stains on the shirts of many. My mother stood stiffly, legs parted and fists clenched, there was a very determined look on her face which only a mischievous girl like me could identify with.
I looked at my cousin, now shrunk in the shadows and suddenly remembered something that would definitely induce some room for conversation. “Amanvir’s father fixed the old radio that you have bhaiya, and he said that his years in the army taught him many useful tricks. Isn’t that great? And Amanvir told me that he would help me in maths, and you know bhaiya how bad I am at maths? Well he said that I only needed practice. He is the class topper and cricket team captain and he wants to join the army like his father, but I think he should be a cricketer, don’t you think? Bhaiya, why did MLA sahab call you? Is he finally making the shopping complex? You know bhaiya? You should ask him to fix our drainage too, he would listen to you na?” My cousin startled at being brought into attention stood transfixed and red in face. The smug arrogance characteristic to his face was wiped off and in its place was an expression I had difficulty recognizing on his face. An expression of grave remorse and shame. When I looked around I saw the same expression creeping onto the old faces of the people at our door. Slowly and shiftily they left, dazed and in shock. For the first time in the history of our household, visitors to our home had not been invited in. My mother sat down heavily in the couch and stared at me in disbelief, her mouth wide open and her eyes ready to pop out.
The day Mrs. Gandhi died a tree fell to the ground and shook the earth. In its rumbling rage the earth responded in the unlikeliest ways, it cracked open an invisible line of divide that we had grossly overlooked for so long. I can’t explain what had happened or why for that very day man suddenly felt so important. Why for that very day man felt that being the most important, it had unprecedented control over the lives of others and for that reason he created a mob to exercise this control. What raged within my cousin’s heart can never be explained, because I never saw him again after that day. If I ever meet him again I would show him the drawing Amanvir had made of him shaking hands with the MLA while we played in my room that day.