She could feel his gaze rest on her hair and then slowly slither down to her shoulders. He hesitated, but carried on, as if she were his property. His eyes, they halted at her waist, almost as if he was giving her time to deal with it. She clenched her hand into a fist, and his gaze shifted downwards. He could see the nape of her neck. He had always loved her hair. Thick, dark, laden with coconut oil and tied in a neat bun.
She was looking out of the window at the tea-stall a few hundred yards away. Shalini was with her.
“Move back.” He said it calmly. He had no sense of urgency or any intonation of worry in his voice. Shalini looked at her friend with questioning eyes. Surely, she had heard her brother’s command? Neethi ignored it and continued to fascinate about the rain.
“I asked you two to move back.” He was still calm, only this time he was louder. Neethi shot back “Why are you bothering us?”
“Simply because the tea-stall is going to burst in a minute or two.”
Shalini’s eyes widened with disbelief. “Move Neethi, I smell it too now that he has mentioned it”
The air was slowly growing dense with the aroma of leaking gas and tense emotions. Arjun walked toward the two girls and physically brought them away while sheltering their frail, delicate frames from the splinters which came from the tea-stall that was.
Neethi had never liked Arjun. He was her step brother. Her amma had died when she was nine and her dad had remarried. The new amma was good, she was kind to Neethi and tied her pony tail every morning before school. Arjun was her son. He was thirteen when they had first met and ten years had passed between then and now.
While the tea stall kept burning ablaze, it started to pour heavily. Neethi noted the play of nature and smiled, while shrugging off Arjun’s protective hand from over her shoulder. Arjun let go, they were safe now.
“I need to go home, Neethi. I have assignments to do for classes tomorrow”
Neethi and Shalini has been friends for the last three years. It was difficult to find girls of the same tastes, and more importantly; caste and background these days. Arjun never approved of her choices. Some were too loud or too shallow, the others weren’t from Tamil Nadu or weren’t Brahmins. Neethi felt claustrophobic around his narrow mindedness, but that was until she had met Shalini.
Now that her only friend had left, she was left alone with Arjun. They sat under a blue tarpaulin sheet tied by two knots on either side to a bamboo stick. There were three broken cardboard boxes, on which they sat. One waiting for the rain to cease, the other hoping it would never stop.
“Do you like the rain, Neethi?” Arjun wanted to know her. She was always so quiet around him. It has been more than six years since she had properly spoken to him. One she had started thinking for herself, it was as if she did not care about his existence. He knew that she did not respect him for what he believed in but he had his reasons. Someone had to hold on to her, isn’t it?
She looked straight ahead, pretending to have not heard the question. She hoped that her indifference would squash his efforts of this rendezvous. But he was persistent. She heard him clear his throat and repeat the question. “Neethi, do you like the rain?”
“Yes, I do.”
Her reply was curt, just like he had expected it to be. She was a child in ways that couldn’t be counted on the fingers of both hands. A crow flew across the sky, took two turns and rested itself on the highest pole in the vicinity. Neethi looked at it and envied the freedom it had. The crow, it could fly anywhere, and pretend the world was its oyster. And indeed, it was.
She looked at Arjun. He had a stubble. Hadn’t he shaved in the last few days? No, she couldn’t recall it. His round cheeks and the dimpled chin suited his dark and shiny skin. He was robust, stout, and any girl would be happy to have him around. His hair was damp with the rain dripping on him through a hole in the tarpaulin. His fingers were podgy, with a ring for each stone on eight of his fingers. She looked at her own frail hands, they lacked any accessory and had long nails. She made a mental note to trim them as soon as they headed back.
“Would like to go there?” Neethi looked up from her hands and saw Arjun pointing toward a small hill. It was basically a heap of pebbles which had grown over time.
“Yes, right now. You said you enjoy the rain.”
“I am going. Follow me if you wish to.”
Neethi saw her step brother get off the make shift seat, brush is pants off the dirt, then rub his hands together; as if he was beginning a feast. Then, he walked off toward the ‘hill’.
Several years ago, Neethi had cut her hand while wearing a bangle. It was pink, with glitters and made of glass, and their amma had purchased two dozen such bangles. Often, Neethi would wear them and pretend to be a bride and ask for her brother’s permission to marry a certain make-belief-husband. But he used to always deny, and that is how the game ended for her each time. She could distinctly remember the disdain in his eyes when she asked to marry a SRK. “How can you marry a mussalman, Neethi?” is what Arjun had said. Slowly, she stopped asking for his permission. The game became a lot more fun, after that. The bangles broke, one by one, and she stopped playing.
Neethi got off too. Her sari was wet near the hem. Her chappals were covered with mud. She curled her toes in and tweaked her nose. She loved the rain, but it made her messy and she did not like the feeling. “WAIT!”, she shouted, “I’LL COME!”
Arjun waited in the rain while she tapped her feet on the ground and looked at the tea-stall. The flames had burnt down and there were just the black remnants of the shop that was there. The glasses had shattered and the road was covered with soot.
That bangle had cut her quite deeply. Red, gushing blood oozed out from her index finger. She had big, fat tears dripping down her cheek. She was scared of their amma scolding her. She was in pain and he couldn’t do much to ease her discomfort. He never liked her game in the first place. Why would she want to marry other men when it was him that she was supposed to desire? She had gradually stopped asking him and he had forgotten about it. But the broken glasses…
He held out his hand and she took it, without hesitating.
“Let us go.” Neethi instructed him to walk ahead. With one hand, she held up her sari and with the other, she held on to Arjun tightly.
There was one day in school, where he had held her hands. There was torrential rain. His grip was firm, almost hurting, but he never let go. His small hands held her smaller hands and they had walked back from school together, jumping over and navigating between puddles. His grip had not changed.
As children, Arjun and Neethi would climb up the ‘Mountain’. Both of them thought of how childish the game was and how big everything looked then. It was barely a few steps high, now. Had they grown or was the Hill never that big? Neethi let go of his hand and sat down. Arjun looked at her and smiled. He knew exactly what she was about to do. He sat down beside her, their feet touching each other. He looked at her waist peeking through the sari. Water dripped down, making tadpoles across the clear skin of her back. Her hair was coming undone, three stray strands of hair were embracing her shoulder. His hand ached to touch her again.
She slid down, laughing. Her head was arched backward in joy. He hadn’t seen her happy. He realised that he was the cause of many of her sorrows. He shook his head, in disgust and then laughed at how cruel life had been with them.
This wasn’t the time for melancholy.
He slid down too, laughing. There, they met again. There, they were surrounded by joy and laughter and a sprinkle of happiness. She touched his hand. She looked deeply into his eyes and then, almost as if someone had whispered into her ears to not do so, she recoiled her gesture as quickly as she had done it. And there, he was left feeling distraught, drained and alone all over again after what felt like what it would have been like, had there been more rain and less reign in her life. He understood, but he wouldn’t change. Silently, she got up, and they moved back into their routine, as if the last hour had never happened.