Girls and Boys : Winning short story by Vrinda Baliga

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Girls and Boys : Winning short story by Vrinda Baliga

First Runner Up at the Short Story Competition organised by Bengaluru Review.

The fickleness of boys never failed to surprise us.

"Weren't those two fighting just yesterday?"

"Yeah, literally had to be pried apart."

And we would look in wonder at the two boys placidly kicking a ball together in the lane. Such casual treatment of friendship was just further proof that boys were a simpler, less-evolved species.

With us girls, friendship was a serious matter, governed by strict hierarchies and complex rules. The tags of "best friend," "second-best friend" and so on were badges of honour that were not bestowed carelessly. We nurtured our hurt feelings and grudges with the same self-indulgent glee that boys reserved for cuts and bruises – like they were proud battle scars. It wasn't as if our quarrels lasted forever – we hadn't yet learned the rigidity of adults – but if the quarrels of boys were like passing zephyrs that barely ruffled feathers, ours were more like summer squalls – furious and passionate. We stretched our friendships over the whole elastic range of our emotions before we allowed them to snap back into their original shape.

And so it was between my best friend Shilpa and me. We could laugh together till tears ran down our faces, and fight bitterly to that same end. We would confide our most treasured secrets, our deepest hopes, and fears in each other one day, then not be on talking terms the next.

The year was 1984 and our Bangalore neighbourhood was the typical heterogeneous hodge-podge of homes of all shapes and sizes, of corner shops and vendors pushing their hand carts and calling out their wares, of narrow lanes that were as welcoming of children’s games as of vehicular traffic – a place where people in vastly different circumstances could live as neighbours. My family lived in a tiny rented apartment on the first floor of a squat building across the street from the two-story bungalow that was Shilpa’s home. The television set, refrigerator, telephone, and other things that littered her home like casual pieces of furniture were considered luxuries in mine, indulgences we didn’t need, and certainly couldn’t afford. Shilpa's father ran a flourishing garments business in Chickpet, mine was an accountant at a factory manufacturing machine parts. The Bansals owned a car – the new Maruti 800 model, all the rage in the city – that stood proudly in the garage abutting their house; we had only my father’s beat-up scooter that was parked in a corner of the Bansals' garage because our building had no parking space.

The world of children remained largely immune to such differences. Kids were always in and out of one another’s homes; adult boundaries were permeable membranes through which our games flowed unobstructed and unabated. I certainly never had second thoughts about going over to her home at any time of day, or about staying over for evening snacks. She had a room all to herself, so it was only natural that we should play there, instead of at my home where my irritating younger brother could always poke his nose into our affairs. And as for watching the Sunday cartoons on Doordarshanon her television, I considered it no more than a rightful privilege owed to me as her friend. True, her mother was a little standoffish, but her father always went out of his way to make me welcome.

For the longest time, I never realized how heavily this one-sided flow of favours sat on my mother’s mind.

My mother – warm, simple, easygoing. The comfortable cotton sarees she wore at home had a pallu that was all-purpose – it wiped away tears; its soft, warm fabric soothed away the bumps and scratches of our misadventures; it became an impromptu towel for wet hands, even an occasional napkin for a runny nose. On the few occasions that the Bansals visited, however, she would pick out one of her “good” saris – the artificial silks or poly-cottons that occupied the topmost shelf of the Godrej almirah and were fiercely guarded from insects by a battery of naphthalene balls. In the presence of Shilpa's mother, her demeanor changed, too; much like her saree, her manner became crisp, polite, formal – synthetic. At such times, I would avoid running to her with complaints or demands. I instinctively knew I couldn't take liberties with this version of my mother any more than I could wipe my hands on the pallu of her good sari.

"It's high time we bought a melamine dinner set. Didn’t you see how Pushpa looked at the stainless steel plates? Like they were dirty or something."

In our single-bedroom apartment, my parents slept on the bed, and my brother and I on mattresses unrolled on the floor for the night. Sunil fell asleep almost at once, but I would lie awake sometimes, and I would hear my parents' conversing softly – about work, about finances, about the neighbours. Most times I wouldn't even be listening; I would simply let the contours of that adult world settle gently down upon my own now-drowsy world and lull me to sleep. Sometimes, though, snippets of this and that would snag on my semi-consciousness – news of, say, the quiet, unassuming teenager who lived at the end of the street scoring a whopping 94 percent in the boards, or Sheela Aunty from the next building losing several thousand rupees in a fraudulent chit fund scheme, stories of small triumphs and tragedies – and a veil would lift, very briefly, revealing a face of the neighbourhood that was normally invisible to me.

"If you're so self-conscious about these things, why do you invite them in the first place?" I heard my father say now.

"Our kids watch television at their place. You park your scooter in their garage. Are we beggars to keep taking without offering anything in return?"

"We always do what you want!" I protested. We were in Shilpa’s room, surrounded by her stuff. It wasn’t that I particularly wished to do something else, I just felt antsy.

Shilpa raised her brows, annoyed. "You like playing with this tea set too."

"Why do we always have to play with your things?"

"Because mine are better," she stated, matter-of-factly.

I took offense and left. We didn't talk for all of two days.

It didn't help that my new awareness of our inequality coincided with things going rapidly downhill with my own family. The factory my father worked at was beset by labour trouble. Sunil and I weren't told much, of course, but, in the manner of kids, we sensed that all was not well. My father increasingly came home with worry etched on his face, his bespectacled eyes tired and dull. Sometimes, after he had parked his scooter, we would see him standing deep in conversation with Shilpa’s father in the Bansals’ compound, running his hand worriedly through his sparse hair as Shilpa's father offered words of encouragement.

There was talk of looking for another job but, one way or the other, nothing seemed to come of his efforts in that direction. At the dining table, he sat in subdued silence and limited himself to monosyllables. But the nightly conversations between my parents that had once draped me like a soft comforter now bristled with anxiety, with thorny, jagged words like "rent," “school fees,” "strike," "lockout". The atmosphere at home was tense and we knew to stay out of trouble and our parents’ way.

Shilpa's home, in contrast, remained sunny as ever. Her father, cheerful and energetic, always took the time to come and sit beside me, pat me on the back, ask me about school and make those pretend-exclamations with which adults profess interest in children's affairs. And though I was shy and didn’t particularly like the attention he showered on me, I was beginning to prefer Shilpa’s home to my own and felt guilty for feeling so.

Then, suddenly, things changed. My father had gone to Bombay for an interview. When he returned he had a new job. With better pay and perks. The taut, tense atmosphere at home gave way to a kind of relieved joie de vivre. We went to Commercial Street and my father, on a sudden impulse, bought us new sets of clothes, though Diwali, the default occasion for buying new clothes, was months away. On a school night, the mood caught my parents to go to the cinema, and we went to the Lido to watch an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Over the weekend, we indulged in a rare luxury – dinner at a restaurant on the up-market M.G. Road. It was like a cloud had shifted from our lives, and everything was, all of a sudden, bright and dazzling.

Perhaps it was because of this festive mood, these suddenly changed circumstances, that I began to make the stories up.

"In Bombay," I told Shilpa, "we're going to live in a big house near the beach."

"My father is the MD of the new company," I said.

I knew there was a beach in Bombay and that an MD was an important person; the rest I extrapolated. Once I'd started, the stories took on a life of their own, adorning themselves with lies and exaggerations, filling out with everything I had ever envied and coveted.

Shilpa's attitude towards me became more subdued, respectful even. If I felt an occasional pang of guilt, my new standing in our friendship more than made up for it. Besides, who was to tell if they really were lies? Here I was, after all, wearing a bright new dress for no particular reason than that I felt like it. Who was to say, then, that things wouldn't be like I said they were? Why, they might even turn out better.

My father resigned from his old job and left for Bombay. We were to join him at the end of the school term. Meanwhile, in little fits and starts, we pared down the possessions that would accompany us into our new life. Our potted plants were adopted by neighbours, our old clothes, books and toys given away; in an uncharacteristic burst of extravagance, my mother even disposed of the rickety cot. Yellow postcards and blue inland letters carried news and plans back and forth between my parents. Sometimes, though, something urgent would come up that required a faster mode of communication.

It was on a Saturday, then, that I accompanied my mother to the Bansals' when she needed to use their phone to talk to my father. Shilpa and her mother were away for the weekend, attending a family function. It was her father who ushered us in.

My mother fished out the number of the inn my father was temporarily staying at and, perching nervously on the edge of the sofa, dialed each digit carefully, checking the next one on the paper as the dial whirred back into position. Unused as she was to the phone, the knowledge of the distance between Bangalore and Bombay subconsciously manifested in the increased volume of her voice. When she put the receiver down, in the sudden silence that followed, she must have realized how loud she'd been.

"Uh… they've sent someone to fetch him," she mumbled, embarrassed. "He'll call back in a few minutes."

We sat in awkward silence, willing the bulky, black telephone to ring. My mother, quite obviously flustered by Puspha Aunty’s absence, seemed at a loss for words. And I wished Shilpa were home, so I could go to her room and play.

Noticing our restlessness, Shilpa's father got to his feet. "Deepa, why don't we go to the kitchen and see if we can find anything interesting to eat."

My mother immediately said, "Oh, please don't bother! As it is, we are disturbing you on a weekend—"

He waved away her protests and led me inside.

He was opening the kitchen cabinets one by one when the lights went out. Power cuts were a matter of course and Shilpa's father didn't have to hunt far for candles; there was one on the kitchen table for just such an eventuality. He lit it and smiled at me.

"Not much hope of finding those biscuits now, I'm afraid," he said.

I assumed we would go back to my mother but, just then, the ringing of the phone echoed through the dark house, then stopped as my mother answered.

Shilpa's father pulled out a chair and sat down. "How about we wait here for a while? Let your mother talk in peace?" He patted his lap.

I looked at him uncertainly. It struck me suddenly, and for no particular reason that I was aware of, that this was the first time I was alone with him.

"Come, I'll teach you to make shadow figures." He balled one hand into a loose fist in front of the candle flame and propped up the little finger. "See? A bulldog?"

I smiled politely at the shape on the wall.

"Let's see if you can make a bird." He drew me onto his lap and took my hands in his. "Here, spread out your fingers, hook your thumbs like so, and…see, there's a little bird trying to fly away." The fluttering shadow dissolved as I took possession of my hands and tried to get down. He held me tight.

"Wait, what's the hurry now?" He ran his hand up my leg and under my frock. I squirmed, trying to get off his lap. "So, I heard you're looking forward to going to Bombay?"

I continued to squirm.

"You must be, what with the beach house, an MD for a father and all that, eh?"

I stared at him, startled, momentarily forgetting his hand. Somehow, it had never occurred to me that Shilpa would discuss our conversations with her father.

"Do you know I'm the one who got your father this job?" He paused, letting the words sink in, then nodded sagely. "Yes, I know all about it. You've been making up a whole lot of stories. Quite an accomplished little liar, aren't you?" His words exposed my falseness even as his fingers wormed their way into my inner garments, and a wave of shame washed over me. My face flushed and I fought back tears. "Now, now, it's alright," he continued. "You don't have to worry. I won't tell anyone. It'll be our little secret, okay?"

I struggled against his tight grasp. Then, suddenly, my mother’s voice came from the living room.

“Deepa! Where are you? Come on. It’s time to leave.”

He loosened his grip, I slid off and ran out of the room.

I didn't keep it secret. All my mother had to do when we reached home was ask why I looked upset and I blurted everything out.

She sat still for a long time, her face a mask of shock.

Sunil ran in breathlessly. "Amma, where's my truck? I want to play with it."

My mother looked at him, then glanced around the room, taking in, as if for the first time, all the stuff lying in half-packed crates and suitcases.

"Amma, where is it?"

"Hmm?"

"My red truck!"

"Not now!" she snapped. "Go play something else." Taken aback, he beat a hasty retreat. She turned to me and continued in the same harsh tone. "You’re not to speak of this to anyone. Not your friends. Not your father." I looked at her, frightened. She gave my shoulders a small shake. "Do you understand?"

I burst into tears, convinced she was angry at me for shaming her with my false stories. "Amma, I promise I won't tell lies again."

She drew me close and held me tight as I cried.

There were no more phone calls at the Bansals'; my mother went to an STD booth two streets away.

When Shilpa came on Monday to call me to play, I refused. "Amma says I can’t go,” I told her.

Later, from the balcony, I heard her tell the others, "Don't bother calling Deepa. She's such a big show-off. Too high-and-mighty to play with us."

And I burned with shame all over again.

A few weeks later, it was time to leave. My father, who had returned to help with the moving, oversaw the loading of our furniture into the truck. We ourselves would travel by train.

We were bundling into the auto-rickshaw that would take us to the railway station when the familiar red Maruti pulled in at the Bansals' gate.

"Just a moment," my father said, tapping the driver on his shoulder. “I’ll just say goodbye to Bansal and be right back,” he told my mother and crossed the street.

They stood at the gate, talking, laughing, shaking hands. Shilpa's father slapped mine on the back, jovially. My mother sat in the auto, looking straight ahead, Sunil fidgeting on her lap. Shilpa's mother was nowhere to be seen but, from the corner of my eye, I could see Shilpa standing at her first-floor window, watching us. She didn't call out or wave, and I pretended not to notice her.

That was the last time I saw her. I have no idea where Shilpa is now, and even Bansal's face is just a hazy blur, but that evening in their home remains etched in my mind. For a long time, I would not touch that memory, afraid to unleash the shame it contained. It was years before I finally unraveled its strands enough to separate my innocent offense from the larger one that occurred that day and realized that the shame had never been mine.

All this came later. On that day, though, as I sat in the auto-rickshaw, with my mother rigid beside me and Shilpa at the window of her room, I watched our fathers standing there, chatting easily across the gate. And I was struck, once again, by how different they were – the friendships of girls and boys.

***

Vrinda Baliga lives in Hyderabad and is the author of two short story collections-- 'Name, Place, Animal, Thing' and 'Arrivals and Departures'. Her work has appeared in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 (Kitaab International, Singapore), Asia Literary Review, Himal Southasian, The Indian Quarterly, and several other literary journals and short fiction anthologies. She is the winner of the 2017 Katha Fiction Contest and has also won prizes and recognition in the FON South Asia Short Story Competition 2016 and New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2016.

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