The Weight of Things that Mattered (Short Story)

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Founder-Editor of Open Road Review, a literary journal with an international footprint, Kulpreet Yadav’s own writings have appeared in various magazines and newspapers in India and elsewhere. His collection of short stories titled ‘India Unlimited – Stories from a Nation Caught between Hype and Hope’ was released in Feb 2013 during the International Book Fair at New Delhi. When not writing, Kulpreet loves to travel, experiment with food or do photography. He lives in New Delhi. More at www.kulpreetyadav.in

 

THE WEIGHT OF THINGS THAT MATTERED

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.When Thomas Reddy arrived with his wife Maya at New Delhi from Vijaywada, the young couple discovered happiness and independence in their escape.

It was early October and winter was approaching at the time. They ate cotton candies at India Gate on the very next day after settling into a new house and felt the tips of their noses turn cold as the winter intensified. Before Thomas left for office a week later, they rubbed their noses and kissed long enough to remember each other’s smell during the day.

Maya was selected to be Thomas’s bride by his father in accordance to the custom of arranged marriage. Being a ritual abiding, devout Hindu, Thomas felt on top of the world when the marriage was solemnized at the village temple on the outskirts of Vijaywada on the banks of the river Krishna. Vedic hymns were chanted as they sat around the holy fire that was purified by ghee. In the wee hours of the morning the priest announced them man and wife.

But within a year of marriage, tragedy struck their family as Thomas’s father died of a heart attack. The relatives said Maya had brought a bad omen to their family. How could a healthy man of fifty die all of a sudden?

Thomas thought it was cruel of them to think like that and he was disturbed for weeks. He didn’t have a mother, or a brother or sister, and in their absence, his relatives tried to convince a grieving Thomas to abandon Maya so that he could remarry and restore the good omen. Weeks passed. When the pressure became unbearable, he fled with Maya to New Delhi, away from their influence. He chose to abandon his relatives instead of his wife and never once regretted the decision.

*

Thomas and Maya spent the initial few months discovering Delhi: mangoes tasted different as compared to mangoes in their small town, the milk was thicker, the girls bolder and the men meaner. A few of the roads around the India Gate area resembled those from the 1970s, like they had seen in Hindi movies, with black ambassador cars and old bungalows. The wedding season brought the entire city out on the roads and guests danced in celebrations to the music of Hindi film songs all night long. Thomas and Maya attended a few weddings but didn’t enjoy them as much. Alcohol was the fuel on which the ceremonies began and ended in Delhi. They found the music loud, smiles excessive and clothes shiny enough on women to compete with the lights and make-up.

To celebrate their first marriage anniversary, Thomas had one drink too many. After they had eaten at their favorite restaurant—butter chicken and naan, their favorite Delhi food—and returned home, Thomas made Maya sit next to him, and told her why he worked in a cramped office of a publishing company at Darya Ganj. He felt confident and thought his life’s secret was more important than his urgent desire for sex.

He had written a few short stories and poems but hadn’t shown to anyone as he was not quite sure if they were finished. He started well, but while writing, the intensity of his thoughts made words to mesh so intricately that after a while it ceased making sense. When he reached that stage, he stopped, hoping to revisit the work later. But when he revised, the words defeated him and he couldn’t fathom their need in the first place. So he tried another one, a fervent thought, an incessant longing, an idea that nudged his inside, but gave up to writer’s block once again. He thought he had something to say and one day it would spring up. Just like that.

Maya nodded. They had brilliant session after that. His ambition, suddenly, he thought, turned into their ambition that night. Perhaps, their destiny, if indeed he became a great writer.

*

The morning after the anniversary, on the way to office, Thomas waved to Mr. Kapoor, his septuagenarian neighbour who stood in the balcony. Over the last one year he and Maya had almost become Mr. Kapoor’s family. Doing errands for Mr. Kapoor gave Thomas happiness and the old man thanked him profusely. Thomas replenished his medicines when due, escorted him to hospital appointments and paid his electricity and telephone bills on time. But that morning he didn’t appear his usual cheery self. Thomas asked if he needed anything, his voice full of concern.
The shaking palms of his hands directing his voice, the old man whispered, ‘My son has returned from USA and is demanding money.’

Thomas knew about the old man’s son and cursed under his breath, before whispering back, ‘Be careful.’ He left for the office after that.
Mr. Kapoor had said that he owned a large shop in Karol Bagh, that was three story high and had more than 30 salesmen at any given time. Kapoor had said this with great flourish, to a visibly impressed Thomas that he once had been rich. But as he continued further, Mr. Kapoor’s confidence ebbed and shoulders slouched. He said after his retirement he had handed over the reins of the shop to his son who sold it and fled to USA the very next day.

After Mr. Kapoor exhausted most of his money, he sold his large house and moved to this lower middle class society. A few days later, Thomas and Maya moved in and became his neighbors.

It was due to these reasons that Thomas felt sympathetic and helped the old man as if he were his son, though he had never met the real son.
The day on which Mr. Kapoor was not his usual cheery self, Thomas returned from office and knocked on his door. He was determined to meet the son. The old man opened the door. To Thomas’s relief he appeared to be at ease. He said, ‘I sent him away. I said I had no more money.
‘Did he go so easily?’

‘Yes, I was surprised too, but he gave me a look and walked out the door.’

*

Thomas returned from his office a day later to find police at his house. He walked inside on wobbling legs fearing the worst. The furniture in the living room had been pushed on one side and right in the middle on the carpet was a dead body. He knew it was a dead body as it was covered from head to toe in a white cloth. A few incense sticks were stuck in potatoes kept near the body and emitted streaks of smoke that curled towards the ceiling. Thomas knew who lay under the sheet—his wife. A man identified himself apologetically that he was a doctor and said his wife had a heart attack. Thomas couldn’t cry for a few minutes but after Mr. Kapoor came and touched his shoulder, he broke down completely.
The loss of his wife threw Thomas Reddy in an unknown gloom. His urge to become a writer died with her. He burnt all that he had written and never wrote a single word after that. Ideas kept forming and un-forming in his mind but he never gave in to the temptation. It wasn’t easy and he soon took to alcohol. It helped. He thought of getting married again and searching for his first wife in the second. When he drank too much it made sense to him but the old man convinced him it was not a good idea. Loneliness turned his alcohol poisonous and instead of missing his wife, he printed pictures of her, several of them, and pasted them all over the house.

To convince himself that she could still hear him, he would whisper sometimes in the darkest of nights when he was sure no one was listening, not even the old man next door who slept light, ‘I love you.’

Thomas’s life turned mechanical over time. With Maya not with him to explore, he began to dislike Delhi—cold winters, too hot summers and hardly any rain. He transformed and merged with the locals—his voice hoarse and rude—and elbowed angrily through the crowded market at Pahar Ganj to his office, a whitewashed building from pre-independence days that rose mightily against a sky obscured by mango trees. The wooden door which gave access to the office on the second floor was thick and sturdy, but like all things in Darya Ganj, its looks were deceptive. It was so light that Thomas pushed it with his little finger. He no longer loved doing that, feeling the power to open the door of a large publishing company with a little finger.

Thomas received many calls from the authors whose books the company published. Unable to kill the closet storyteller and poet that were still trapped inside, he thought of them as his competitors and promise them all the help, promises he seldom kept.
One winter night at ten Thomas was preparing to sleep when the doorbell rang. In the darkness his face was gloomy as if it had sucked all the darkness. He was drunk and staggered to the door, cursing under the breath.

It was Mr. Kapoor. Thomas invited him in and switched the lights of the living room on. It was cold as the room heater was off. Thomas frowned at the smell of whiskey on the old man’s breath and asked him to sit on a chair, and when he did, wrapped a shawl around him. The old man was perspiring as if he was not well.

Thomas sat next to him. He had no idea what the old man wanted.

‘I am sorry,’ said the old man.
Thomas spotted a tear escape from the old man’s eye and he lazily got up to brush it with his bare hands. But another followed and he let it be.
‘You are sorry for what, Mr. Kapoor?’

The old man seemed to take control of him after a few minutes as Thomas waited and finally said after a long breath,’ I know who killed Maya.’
Thomas was thunderstruck. The mention of his wife’s name caved in the past. Time shortened and Maya’s passing was not so distant. He jumped to his feet and shook the old man, ‘Kill? But the doctor said it was a heart attack. Why didn’t you tell me before?’

There was silence. Thomas was shaking with anger but the old man was quiet. He opened a new bottle of whiskey, drank half of it, without offering it to the old man. The shaking reduced but his eyes were different when he said, his voice barely a whisper, ‘Who was it?’
‘It was my son.’

Thomas pushed Mr. Kapoor and the chair toppled. Under the shawl he didn’t move. After five minutes when Thomas lifted him, the old man was dead.
For the first time in his life, Thomas Reddy had completed a poem, finally.
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*****

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