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Stories

Nobody in the Sky

Story by S Ramakrishnan, translated from Tamil by R. Sathish

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Midway through the movie, Chitra felt very hungry. But she did not fuss over it.

Like clockwork by 8pm, the stomach rang its hunger alarm. She always finished her dinner before 9. But on movie-going days, she couldn’t do much, though.


She was munching on popcorn. But that barely satiated her hunger. She couldn’t focus on the movie. She badly wanted to go home.

Karthick, sitting next to her, was fully immersed in the movie. She softly asked Priya, her eight-year old daughter seated to her right, “Are you hungry?” She nodded. On most days, Priya would be in bed by nine.

Chitra wondered if at least the two of them could step out for some quick bites. But Karthick wouldn’t like it. How long for the movie to finish, she didn’t know.

She sat tight and bore with it. No more interested in the movie, she browsed through the Whatsapp messages on her phone.

That day was their wedding anniversary.

They were celebrating their tenth.

Chitra had taken a day off from office. But not Karthick who promised to come early in the evening. Well, quite strangely, they didn’t know how to celebrate their anniversary. Year after year, they routinely put on new clothes, visited a temple, watched a movie, and ended their special day with a non-vegetarian meal at a hotel. Chitra found this utterly boring.

If we unable to make ourselves happy, we cannot have anyone bring that unexpected joy for into our lives. Be it a wedding day or a birthday, we celebrate pretty much in the same way. Hardly any difference.

For a few years, they invited some friends home for birthdays. But those interactions were anything but real. Fake smiles and pretensions. Complaints about how a certain person was not invited on purpose and a critique of the dinner fare. Such needless problems made them stop hosting parties. 

As for the anniversary, whether it was the ninth or the tenth, the milestone made no difference. On that day, we had to look happy and cheerful.

She had given Priya a day off from school, and kept her home for company. Karthick scolded her for this.

“What is she going to do by not attending school?”

“What am I going to do, by the way! Never mind, let her be with me “.

“That’s indeed what I am also asking you. We are not kids, Chitra. In fact, even you should be going to the office. We are going out only in the evening. Aren’t we?”

“I don’t feel like going today. And I have informed my office.

“That’s your choice. But, let her go”.

“Nothing will be lost in a day, pa”.

“Your choice”, grumbled Karthick with a tight face. Wedding day… so, Chitra did not want to quarrel.

As he got on to his bike, ready to leave, she gently asked, “You will be home for lunch, right?”

“Will see. Have a lot of work.”

“Shall we…. come over to your office? We can all head to ECR for lunch from there.”

“No need, I will try to come early.”

“I am cooking many items: Aviyal, Curry, Koottu, Pachadi, Payasam,…

“Okay, I will come. But can be a little delayed.”

“Will wait for you.”

Karthick, dapper in his new clothes, rode off to his office. Chitra and Priya hung around in the house. Chitra pulled out her wedding album, flipped through the photographs. Have put on a little more weight now. Wedding makeup doesn’t look good. Hair is dishevelled near the ear. Didn’t notice at all.

Many of the jewels she wore at the wedding belonged to her aunt. She had loaned them for a day. Chitra wished to buy them all by herself one day. After all these years, that day had yet to come.

When young, Chitra dreamt that angels would descend from above and lavish her with lovely gifts. After the wedding, she realised that one must create one’s own moments of joy. There was nobody high up in the sky to delight her.

It was already 10:30 when she and Priya boarded the “share auto” to go to the supermarket. They got down at the main road. Beyond the signal and to the left was the supermarket. Along the way, when they crossed Shivani Readymade Store, Chitra asked, “Priya, would you like a new dress?”

“For what?”

“Should only Amma and Appa wear new clothes for the wedding day?”

“So, I also get a new dress?” Priya asked eagerly.

They entered the store. As she was choosing the dress for Priya, Chitra looked around for any new sarees for her too. She found one. In her favourite ‘peacock neck” colour. But she hesitated.

“Buy it, ma. Appa[1] won’t scold”.

Chitra considered checking with Karthick. She had already set aside a silk saree for the anniversary. But this would look better on her, she felt.

Priya chose an ethnic party wear in white with floral patterns. Chitra wanted to wear this sort of dress when she was young. But her father never bought them.

“No white dress for girls,” her father would say sternly.

The ethnic dress looked so pretty. She checked the price tag. It revealed 8300 rupees! Karthick would definitely scold her. But Priya likes it! She looked pleadingly at her mom.

“Okay, take it,” said Chitra.

They both looked thrilled when they left the store with one new dress for each of them. She wished there could be someone who would take her out and allow her to buy what she wanted.

At the supermarket, Priya bought a chocolate bar and hid it to give them later as her gift. On their way back, with handfuls of bags, they stopped by an ice cream parlour next to a tailor shop. They treated themselves to an almond ice cream. Priya had never felt happier.

Once home, almost instinctively, Chitra started humming her favourite song from some Tamil movie — “A pleasant mind embraces music (oru iniya mandhu isaiyai anaiththu chellum)”. While enjoying the song, Priya asked, “Did anyone sing at your wedding, ma?”

“No, not really”.

“But I see people sing and dance around the couple in movies”.

“Oh! That is a film wedding. This is a real wedding”.

“Why don’t they sing at the real weddings?”

“Yeah… why shouldn’t they? But anyway who knows to sing?”

It was getting late for lunch. Chitra got down to cook. Meanwhile, Priya put on her new dress and stood before Chitra. How beautiful she looked! Chitra recalled how she must have also looked pretty like Priya when young. Pulling Priya towards her, Chitra hugged her tightly and stroked her hair.

“Do I look beautiful, ma?”

“You look pretty”.

“Reema is the most beautiful girl in our class. You know, how her skin shines!”

“That is not natural, my baby. Only your skin is natural”. After all, she could but only console herself.

Excited about her new dress, Priya took a selfie with Chitra’s phone, and doubtfully asked, 

“Amma[2], can I send this photo to daddy?”

“No, let it be a surprise”.

Songs kept springing forth as she cooked. Only sometimes was she able to cook with such joy. On most days, it was a chore. An unavoidable work.

It was a big spread she made that day. She and Priya relished a glass of payasam[3] each as soon as it was ready. After arranging the dishes on the dining table, they waited for Karthick.

Chitra came out of the bedroom dressed in her “peacock neck” blue saree. She so wanted to try it out.

“It looks super, ma”, said Priya adoringly looking at her mother.

Does amma look beautiful?”

“Very beautiful,” said Priya as she went to her and tenderly moved her hands over the saree.

They both waited, dressed in all their fineries, for Karthick. It was 2pm, and he had not come home yet. Chitra phoned him. He did not answer the call. They were famished. She really wanted to eat. When he came at last at 2:30, she did not show any anger.

“Sorry, Chitra. Colleagues demanded a treat. Went to Buhari.”

“That’s okay, but you could have told me that”.

“I ate very less biryani. Wanted to eat with you at home, you know,” Karthick replied with a fake smile.

They ate together. He made no comment about the many dishes she had whipped up. She had lost her appetite waiting for him, so couldn’t quite relish her meal. Karthick helped himself to a glass cup of payasam, sat before the TV and asked,

“The baby is in a new dress. When did we buy this?”

“Today morning. Amma and I bought it. Even the saree she wears is new,” chimed in Priya.

“Why a white-coloured dress, dear? It will get dirty soon.”

His words sounded exactly like her father’s. Suppressing her anger, she responded, “We can wash it if it gets dirty.”

“But why a new saree for you? You do have a new silk saree. Don’t you?”

“I don’t have this colour.”

Good heavens! He did not ask the price of Priya’s dress.

“I need to go back to the office. You both come over directly to the mall at 6pm.”

“What about to the temple?”

“We can do it another day. No time today.”

Karthick left as soon as he got a call from the office. Chitra and Priya changed over to their regular clothes. Priya switched to TV. Chitra withdrew to her bedroom and dozed off. Woke up only at 5pm.   

Strangely, she had a dream in an afternoon nap! She wore a new saree even in her dream! With a nice hairdo and the new silk saree, Chitra was now ready for the evening. Priya was already waiting for her, all dressed up. They hired an autorickshaw[4] and reached the mall.

It was not bustling with shoppers. Chitra and Priya leisurely window-shopped. Took the escalator, landed at the multiplex on the fourth floor, and sat waiting for Karthick. Chitra wondered if there would be any more “anniversary couples” in the mall. Many young men were streaming out of the cinema after the English movie.

She called Karthick to find out if he had left. No answer. They spent their time watching the various ads on the big, wide screen.

“We should also have a car like this, ma,” Priya expressed her desire.

“It costs forty lakh rupees.”

“Then, let us buy some other car.”

“First, house; then, a car.”

“You have been saying this for a long time… nothing has happened.”

“Need at least sixty to seventy lakhs to buy a house,” said Chitra with a sigh.

Chitra realised that a man, in a light red linen shirt, had been staring at her. She felt he was only admiring her. Luckily, Priya didn’t notice it. Soon, a girl in jeans and black top joined him. Holding hands, they proceeded to Screen no 4. She had never walked hand-in-hand with Karthick in a public place. Was this also something to wish for… She chided herself.

When Karthick turned up, it was 6:40pm.

“Movie starts at seven.”

“We could have come late, after all.”

“Didn’t notice. Saw it only after coming here.”

They got into the cinema hall. Karthick walked along but was busy talking to someone on the phone.

It was 10 when the film ended.

“There is a restaurant on the second floor. Let us eat there,” proposed Chitra.

“That is a costly place. Chicken soup… 400 bucks. Not worth it. Food is also crap.
Let us eat at the newly-opened Red Chillies.”

“Where is it?”

“Will check the map.”

“It is already 10pm.”

“It is close by. We will be there soon.”

They rode off on his motorbike. There was no restaurant at the place indicated by the online map. After some roundabouts, they spotted it beyond a couple of streets. It was a small joint. Crowded. They got a table after waiting for some time.

Tired-faced, in a dragged voice, Priya said, “Feeling sleepy, ma.”

“Eat your favourite veechu parotta[5],”suggested Karthick.

Priya nodded her head. It took half an hour for the food to be served. It was very spicy. She couldn’t eat. Karthick ate his kothu parotta 5with relish. Priya nibbled on her parotta drowsily. When they left the place with their leftovers packed, it was past 11.

They lived in Jafferkhanpet. There were many stray dogs around. Karthick didn’t like to live in a multi-storey apartment. Though the house was far inside from the main road, he could get an independent house there. The street leading up to the house ran parallel to Cooum, a polluted river infested with mosquitoes. Theirs was a two-bedroom house.

They did not quite interact with neighbours. They had a motorbike. So they could do their shopping at the main road easily. The place also had many “share autos”. Chitra used them to go to her office and come back home.

Sensing that they might come late, Chitra had switched on the corridor lamp before leaving the house. It shone distinctly to be spotted from the beginning of the lane.

“Keys?” Karthick asked for them as he parked his bike and closed the gate.

She shuffled through her handbag. The keys couldn’t be found.

“Where is the key?” Karthick asked irritably.

She opened her handbag and searched all over. She undid the zipper of the pocket outside and the zipper of the pocket inside. She couldn’t find it.

“The key is missing,” said Chitra with trepidation.

“Didn’t you buy popcorn during the intermission? And taken out the money from the bag.”

“But I unzipped the pocket on the side to take out the cash.”

“So, where did it go?”

“No idea.” said Chitra, worried.

“Could it have fallen down in the cinema?” asked Karthick, filled with anger.

“Possible,” said Chitra nodding her head.

“Let me go and check. You both wait here,” said Karthick frowning at her.

“You didn’t take the keys, ma. I saw them on the key holder.” Priya reminded her.

“Why couldn’t you tell me then?” Chitra scolded her.

“I thought you would be taking it while leaving.”

Chitra realised she had locked the door by shutting it but had forgotten to take the key.
The door lock came with a small key. A modern type lock which locked itself when one shut the door. If it had been a key of the older model, no one could forget it. Amma had it tucked to her waist always.

Now, there was no spare key for this either. Karthick had lost his in his office.

“The key is inside the house,” said Chitra.

“So, how are we to get in?” asked Karthick with anger intact.

“Shall we ask someone for help?”

“Do you know what time it is now? 11:30. Whom can we ask at this unearthly hour?”

“Shall I talk to Nithu?”

“Do whatever you want. Let me see if I can get any help at the main road”

Karthick left on his motorbike.

Standing outside her locked house, Chitra phoned Nithya, her friend. Half asleep, “What happened di[6]. Is someone not well?” she enquired.

“The key is stuck inside the house. I don’t know what to do.”

“Come over to my house. We will figure out in the morning”.

“Can we find any locksmith now?”

“Not at this hour.”

“If you have any contact number, give me.”

“Nothing now. Just come over to my place.”

“Okay, will think about it.” Chitra hung up.

How much more longer could they wait outside like this! Not one house in the street had a bench on the veranda or even a staircase step to sit on. Only iron gates. Couldn’t someone have at least left a plastic chair outside? Could have been helpful in such times, she felt.

Priya, overcome with sleep, asked, “What should we do now, ma?”

No place for little Priya to rest. The street suddenly looked scary to Chitra.

Who could they seek help from? What could anyone do? Head to Nithya’s place without further delay and spend the night there? 

Karthick returned, keeping a tight face.

“The locksmith is on the way. Wants thousand rupees”.

They waited outside the house. The street lamp at the end of the street shone brightly. Clueless, Chitra walked towards the lamp. A dog opened its eyes and lifted its head towards her. It did not bark.

A fifty-something man came on a bike, with a bag full of keys. He asked Karthick to point the flashlight from his phone at the keyhole.

He couldn’t open the lock even after trying with different types of keys.

“Only an original key can open this lock, sir. This is an expensive lock. The company alone has a duplicate key for this”.

“What am I to do now?”

“Take the help of some carpenter. He will break open the door.”

“It is a rented house. Can’t break the door, you know.”

“No other way. None of my keys is pairing with the lock.”

“Please do something. We have only you to depend on now.”

“Poor thing, your wife! Your kid also looks lost. Let me see if I have any more keys at home.”

“Shall I come along?”

“Not necessary, sir. How could you leave the womenfolk alone in the dark?”
The locksmith went away on his bike. Chitra felt guilty at having been so forgetful.

“Shall we spend the night at Nithu’s house?” Chitra asked very hesitantly.

“If that chap can’t open the door, then we can,” replied Karthick.

No woman has ever not worried about losing the keys. Yet she bears the brunt even
if others lose theirs. If only Karthick had come home in the evening, this wouldn’t have happened. But could she risk telling him that? He would turn livid.

A movie she didn’t like, food she didn’t relish — and to be standing outside your own house at this hour. All this irritated her. Such a situation would never have arisen in an apartment. Even if it did, the watchman would be around to help.

The three of them kept standing outside their house. Priya was leaning against the bike. Nithya called to ask if they were coming.

“I don’t know. The locksmith is yet to come with a new set of keys”.

“Shall I speak to Karthick?”

“No. He is seething with anger. He might even bark at you.”

“Come anytime,” said Nithya and disconnected the call.

Chitra felt like speaking to her mother. But she would panic on receiving a phone call at this odd hour. A situation like this would also leave her confused. But wait! Wasn’t she the one to force me to marry Karthick? Why shouldn’t I call her?

The locksmith hadn’t turned up yet. Karthick kept calling him. No answer. Not a soul to help them in this big metropolitan city. The house looked like a cave without an entrance. Irritated, Karthick also began walking towards the street corner.

The locksmith returned with another man. Together, they tried. The locksmith’s partner scraped the key continually and slid it inside the keyhole. Keeping his ear closer to the door, he studied the sound. After a long battle, the door opened.

Priya rushed to the bathroom. Karthick paid them off and thanked them.

As soon as Chitra entered the house, she looked for the key on its holder. It was dangling there, attached to a tiny elephant. She showed it to the locksmith.

“Who doesn’t forget, ma? If it was daytime, this wouldn’t have taken so long. I travelled all the way to Saidapet to bring this guy for your work. I am not familiar with these new types of lock; but he is an ace.”

Chitra gave the young man five hundred rupees.

“It is okay, akka[7]. Sir has already paid us.”

“This is for the trouble you took to come at this time.”

“Keep this key as a spare.” He handed her a key he had made.

After they left, she stood there staring blankly, not knowing if she should close the door or leave it open. Tears welled up. As it was their wedding anniversary, she consoled herself. Karthick had gone to bed after changing his clothes.

Chitra stepped out of the now-open house onto the street. It was past 2am. She had never seen the street at this hour. The warm street lights and the silence of the houses in the street — to her it was like a painting that had come to life.

She felt hungry. She did not eat well at the restaurant. There was some batter in the fridge. She thought of helping herself with a dosa[8]. But no, she felt she must punish herself by starving.

Putting away all the memories of the just-concluded chaos, she shut the door. In four hours, it would be another morning. To cook. To get Priya ready for school. To rush to office. She was already gasping for breath.

While dosing off to sleep, she realised that they had not even taken an anniversary photo.

As if all I miss is only that, she muttered.

[1] Father

[2] Mother

[3] A dessert

[4] Motorised version of a rickshaw

{5} Different types of paratha or pan fried flatbread.

[6] Elder sister

[7] Sister

[8] A crispy crepe made of rice and lentil

S Ramakrishnan is one of the most prolific and celebrated writers of modern Tamil literature. His vast body of work spans fiction, plays, screenplays and essays. He has written and published 11 novels, 55 collections of essays on world cinema, world literature, Indian history and painting; 20 anthologies of short stories, three plays and
21 books for children. He has received many major awards for his literary works, including the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2018, Tagore Literary Award and Maxim Gorky Award. Sancharam, the novel which won him the Sahitya Akademi award,is a poignant portrayal of the lives of Nadaswaram (a wind instrument) artists — an instrument that is a part of all celebrations but the artist who plays it is not part of the celebrations. His short stories and essays have been translated and published in English, Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada and French.

R Sathish is a translator from Tamil to English. He is an advertising professional, and lives in Hyderabad.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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