तथास्तु – Part I

Coincidence, people of Sarmyna believed, was a thing of movies. Fate was a rich man’s dog and fortune was a rich lady’s cat, their stories said. In their daily hardships the simple people of Sarmyna did not have much time to ponder over the workings of the divine alchemy that balances the universe, nor did they see any worth in discussions of metaphysical philosophies. As for God, they believed him to be a wish granting salesman who had mastered the art of ignoring their wishes, maybe because they had no barter to interest him.

Which is why when the denizens of Sarmyna ignorantly cast their wishes into the space that one Wednesday night believing them to rise and fall purposelessly like paper planes, no one could’ve prepared them for what happened next.

Hope is a dangerous thing, and irresistible more so. No matter how many wishes get lost in the oblivion unheard and unanswered, the human mind can never reign in its vast array of desires. Or do we fail to notice the prayers that got answered because we are too busy fussing and mourning over the ones which did not? Struck by an aberrant fancy, that night Fate decided to answer all wishes in such a way that no one could ever complain about their prayers dying unheard again.

~

The fire started a few hours before dawn. The acrid smell of thick smoky clouds rising from the chimney, as well as the windows of the shop sent the street dogs into a barking frenzy. It seemed to take hours before the rapidly spreading sooty fog alarmed the humans out of their stupor; and by then it was too late.

~

If only she had more money, she’d build her husband a better and bigger bakery. None of his cousins would jeer at him then. He’d bake bread for the entire town in his new bakery, he’d be a household hero. ‘My Rajan, a hero’, Shyama could actively picture their climb to prosperity with her eyes closed. Her husband was a hardworking laborer at the town bakery, but he was too complacent to demand better wages. It was her responsibility to steer them forward, she believed. All she needed was more money. That night while Rajan was out working, like almost every other night, Shyama wished for some miracle that would bring them the money she needed to fulfill her dream. A trunk of treasure willed to her by some distant relative; or maybe a pot of gold hidden in their meager backyard, she mused herself into sleep.

‘My Rajan, a hero’

~

Like vindictive termites, the flames began to devour everything that stood in their path. The destruction was complete and irreversible.

~

Dhuni paced to and fro on the terrace, raking his mind with a poisonous desperation to find anyone, anything to blame for his misfortune. He deserved the promotion. Of course he did! He had better qualifications and better experience with cloth than that oafish excuse for an engineer. He had been working harder for months to get promoted; why should a villager half his age who could barely string two sentences in English get what was rightfully his!? What did his brainless boss say? The boy knew the updated machinery better? Utter nonsense! He deserved this chance! How they laughed at his barely concealed shock when the announcement was made. The humiliation, the rage. Dhuni paced till his feet couldn’t take anymore. Fury had flooded his nerves; cursing the stars was his last memory before sleep blessed him.

‘The stars! You too shine this brightly to mock at me! One day, my dazzle will be belittle your pretentious twinkle! I am Dhuni, the blaze!’

~

Every new space of land the flames engulfed sounded like the burps of satisfaction from a fiery demon who had consumed in excess the all the dreams and aspirations and efforts that puny humans had ossified into structures of brick and mortar, and yet the demon worked its way ahead hungrily preying for more.

~

The lamps were finally out, but Aamna couldn’t get rid of the nervous flutter in her stomach. Tomorrow was an important day. She was going to be on stage tomorrow evening, speaking before a crowd of hundred and fifty. Every syllable of the speech her teacher wrote for her was sharply etched into her young mind, and yet that did not subdue the unreasonable sense of foreboding she felt. Quietly slipping out of her humble shack, Aamna began practising her speech again below the moth-magnetic street light. Halfway through she stopped; her eyes were reflecting on the wild glow shining somewhere far away from her slums. Must be another of those obnoxiously rich weddings, she thought to herself trying to refocus on her speech. But she couldn’t. Her nerves were cracking under a pressure she was too proud to even admit to herself. Clothes. Everything she possessed (which wasn’t very much to begin with) was patched and frayed and faded. How was she to stand up on the dais with a torn skirt and her father’s old work-shirt that was too large for her? Even an expert seamstress like her mother could not salvage her impoverished wardrobe and it would take a fortnight before her father would get his salary. Lost in unusual diffidence and sorrow, little Aamna went back in the house hoping for the nightly shadows to let her hide in them.

‘Clothes. If only I had better clothes, just for tomorrow maybe.’

~

The fire branched and then merged with itself, growing uncontainable. Like the sword of a warrior intoxicated with rage, it shattered all barriers; like the lithe limbs of a master artist, it gracefully danced its way through and across the stages of devastation.

~

The baby had kicked for the first time today. Pankhi was overjoyed! She spent the entire evening trying to figure out what exactly made the baby kick so that when Bhaanu would return from work, he could witness it too. She imagined a really wide smile that would spread upon her beloved husband’s face when the baby would kick against his hand. She imagined how he would happily lift her and swirl around, celebrating the little joys their marriage was built upon. They would laugh together with glee and maybe spend the night debating over baby names. She had had a list prepared for days, but no chance for discussion came up. Her buoyant mood of the evening was equally and oppositely matched with the dejection she felt as the night fell. Once again, Bhaanu had returned from work thoroughly exhausted. His eyes were drooping halfway through dinner and his brain couldn’t think any further than monosyllabic replies. Whenever Pankhi complained, all Bhaanu could say was that the economy was callous, that he was working so hard for the baby’s future; Pankhi couldn’t protest to this. Sometimes their fights grew ugly, Pankhi would lash out with taunts as sharp as razors just to shake her husband out of the monotony of his life. But with time Bhaanu stopped fighting back, his attempts to placate her were half-hearted. Pankhi missed her husband’s enigmatic smile, his witty rejoinders, his small gestures of love. The new city, the double shifts, the financial burdens had taken an unhealthy toll on their lives. Swallowing her tears for another night, she desperately wished for a way out.

‘I just want my husband back. I want his time, his presence, his attention. I want my Bhaanu back.’

~

Fate must’ve smiled insidiously to itself as it ordained these wishes to come true. The fire doused itself as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving in its wake pale white wisps of desolation.

(To be continued)

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