She splashed water on her face and eyes, looking into the mirror above the washbasin. She took the hand towel from the towel ring nailed on the wall and dabbed her face dry. She took another look in the mirror and stared at herself for a few minutes before she went out.
She stood still, towel in hand, staring at the water stains on the old faucet and the spreading rust on the towel ring. It had been nineteen years since she was wed into this family and took this part of the ancestral house. The brother-in-law older to her husband, along with his family, settled on the other side of the house. They had been living under the same roof for years now, but the communication was sparse and only on the days of festivals when friends came to visit and invariably expected to see the joint family in the same living room. Somehow, they managed to keep up that pretence.
Nobody came out to help her yesterday. Not a soul.
“Noor, are you coming out? I need to go. I’m getting late,” yelled her husband from outside.
“Yes, I’m c-coming!” she managed to say.
It wasn’t very often that she broke down nowadays. She had always been the fragile sibling in her own family. But with habit and stoic acceptance of her husband’s temper, she had learned to tame her tears before they threatened to pour out. Today, however, was a different day. Suhail, her 15-year-old son left home the night before. A normal life had suddenly come to a pause like a static in the running commentary of a cricket match on the radio.
The night before, flashed into her memory like something unreal and hurt her mind with the sound of a shrieking static that broken radios emit.
The living room fan was moving at the steady lazy pace that it does, when summer–time electric traffic is too high and load-shedding goes on indefinitely, leaving only the poor inverter to run the few basic electrical appliances in the house. Parvez was sitting under the yellow light of the bulb, reading the day’s newspaper, and occasionally checking the wall clock anticipating the 7 o’clock news. Suhail was sitting in the next room, playing games on his cell phone.
The dead body of a rhino was discovered without its horn right in the middle of the Kaziranga forest.
A woman was raped, killed and left to die in Kharupetia.
A couple of college boys battered cabs parked next to their college hostel. The police have arrested about four of them and they are currently under interrogation.
Parvez flipped the page on the newspaper, raising his eyes once a while to look at the TV. Today had been awful. The office boy (who was the boss’s ally and spy) talked back to Parvez, in the presence of the boss as the latter laughed at his audacity and sent him off. Parvez recalled the insult and his blood boiled. Meanwhile, on TV –
Two young boys, aged 14 and 17, were nabbed by Basistha police today. They were involved in the bike theft racket that has been piling files over files on the desks of city police. We have been informed that the two boys come from well-to-do families and have no obvious financial motive in committing the theft. The Officer-in-Charge of Basistha police station says that the lynchpin of this racket is probably sitting somewhere else, and recruiting these young boys with the lure of easy money, fun and/or drugs…
Parvez found his breath growing heavier as he watched the news. In the other room, Suhail and his sister Zebin cackled with laughter at some game.
“Suhail, come here!” Parvez yelled for his son. Suhail, unaware of his father’s rising temper, came to the living room still laughing and cell phone in hand.
“What are you doing?” asked Parvez.
“Huh?” said Suhail, not clearly hearing his father’s voice over the blaring TV news.
“What the hell are you doing right now?” yelled Parvez, startling Suhail in consequence.
“Nothing! I was just…,” Suhail held his cell phone tighter and almost froze.
Parvez noticed the cell phone in Suhail’s hands and looked at him with anger and disgust. “Is that all you do? Is that why I got you the cell phone?” Parvez snarled.
“I was just…,” Suhail was unsure of what to say.
Hearing the commotion from the kitchen, Noor stopped what she was doing and came in to see what was going on.
Parvez looked at his wife and asked, “Do you know what he keeps doing on that cell phone all day?”
“He plays games…,” Noor tried to say.
“Bullshit! He probably sends messages to girlfriends or his friends all the time, Noor. You have to keep an eye on him. He’s not a kid anymore. These people can do anything nowadays, do you even know?” Parvez accosted his wife.
“But father, I took the phone only for an hour. I was not here before that,” Suhail tried to reason.
“Then where were you? Do you tell us where you go? Do you inform your mother? Or do you just find a way to sneak out and smoke a cigarette or waste your time at the paan shop at the end of the lane? I’ve never seen you studying or cleaning your room or doing any chores. Then what do you do? I’m telling you, Noor, someday he’s going to shame us,” said Parvez.
“Why would I shame you?” Suhail looked at his father and then turned to his mother, anger and confusion building up simultaneously. Zebin stood behind him, clutching the door curtain, her bare feet taking turns in squeezing each toenail.
Parvez continued, “You’d shame us for being worthless, what else? Don’t think I don’t know what boys of your age are interested in, nowadays.”
He continued, “How do you know what I’m interested in? And why should you worry about me anyway? You don’t allow me to do things I am interested in. You don’t let me play cricket or the guitar or go meet my friends…” Noor looked at her son and stared him down to shush before his father.
But before that could happen, Parvez landed a hard slap across Suhail’s face, as he went on complaining. “Mukh solaiso? Bapekor agot mukh solaiso? (You dare run your mouth in front of your father?) This is to teach you how you ought to behave in my house.”
Noor tried to intervene, “Please stop. Please!” Suhail held his reddening cheek and turned to face his father, with indignant eyes.
Parvez said, “No Noor, these young boys have to be taught a tough lesson. You always take his side and that is what’s making him so hopeless. And now he dares to talk back to his father!” He heaved as he spoke those words.
Noor tried to cajole both father and son to keep the peace. She turned to Suhail, “You shouldn’t behave this way with your father Suhail. Apologise to him. Abba only wants the best for you.”
Suhail looked at his mother with pity and said, “How does slapping me bring out the best for me? He’s just beating me up because he’s frustrated.”
Parvez, who had turned to go to the TV room, snapped on hearing that and didn’t spare a moment. He slapped the boy over and over again, chasing him from the living room to the corridor. “Get out of my house, get out!” he roared in fury, Noor chasing the duo helplessly, crying and pleading them to calm down. Her pleas remained unheard, as the men looked at each other with increasing vengeance, one standing his ground and the other retreating to his room, screaming, “I will. I will leave your goddamn house!”
Noor sat there, calming her husband and giving him a chair to sit. “You shouldn’t get so angry. It’s bad for your blood pressure. He’s just a kid, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I will talk to him later. He will apologise to you. He didn’t mean what he said. Please calm down,” she said, rubbing his arms. “Zebin, please get a glass of water, ma,” she called out her daughter. Zebin, who was observing the whole scene with shaking hands and tears in her eyes, ran to the kitchen. She came back with a steel tumbler, full of cold water and gave it to her mother. Noor offered it to her husband, constantly rubbing his arms and shushing him slowly to relax him. Parvez drank the water, slowly placing the tumbler next to his right foot on the ground. Zebin couldn’t find the courage to take away the glass and kept standing next to her mother, as her father took deep breaths, grabbing the right armrest of the chair and rubbed his chest with the left hand.
A few minutes later, Suhail came out of his room, dressed up and wearing a backpack, heading straight to the kitchen. He took a bottle of water and a pack of biscuits with him. He came out into the corridor and walked towards the main door of the house.
“What are you doing?” asked Noor, as Parvez gazed offensively at the adolescent. “Where are you going? Baba, just leave the bag and come to the living room. I have to talk to you,” she said, shivering with fear, knowing the intention of her son.
“You have my phone number. Call me if you need,” said Suhail.
“Are you crazy? What do you mean…? No Suhail (she said firmly), put down your bag and stop this nonsense!” Noor tried to hold off his backpack but was fragile, compared to his brute adolescent strength. “Please, baba, please stop this! Abba was not really asking you to leave the house, please understand. He said that because he was worried about you. Please don’t be unreasonable now!” She broke down as she pleaded, breathing in between gaps.
“Let him go, Noor!” Parvez growled, sitting in his chair, “It is better not to have such a mistake for a son!” he said, kicking off the tumbler at the foot of his chair.
Noor cried louder, grabbing the backpack, again and again, insisting her son to stop and let her reason with him. Zebin sobbed inconsolably, holding on to her mother’s sari end. Suhail held his mother’s hand for the last time, with a sign of decision and walked away. He opened the creaking old, green gate at the end of the tiny garden, with the paint chipping off at places, where it had swollen up battling weather and age.
“Are you sleeping there?” Parvez banged on the bathroom door and yelled. “I’m leaving.”
Noor breathed hard and blew it out to stop her tears, as she looked at her son’s unwashed T-shirt and a pair of shorts in the washing tub.
Parvez yelled at the bathroom door, “I’m off, I said. I’ve had my breakfast.”
“Okay,” Noor managed to say. She put back the towel, patted her eyes dry once again with the end of her kameez and opened the door.
Zebin was standing in front of her.
“Why aren’t you ready? Don’t you have a dance to perform today at school?” asked Noor.
“No, I’m not going,” said Zebin.
Noor looked into her daughter’s eyes and noticed that she had also been weeping. She held Zebin’s face, in the palm of her hands and asked, “What happened? Don’t you want to perform, ma?”
“No,” said Zebin, her pretty eyes welling up with tears, as she caressed her mother’s cheek.
Noor held her daughter tightly to her chest, breathed in her smell and sighed, as her tears made way down her cheeks.