“Sardar ji, kithey?” Preeto called out from inside the kitchen.
Sardar ji went about tying his turban around the frown lines on his forehead. He wrapped the final end of the cloth and tucked it inside securely.
“Main kahya ji, where are you going now?” Preeto emerged from the kitchen, her hands covered with wet flour. Her hair whiter than women older in years. Her skin wrinkled more with worry than age.
“Just going out,” Sardar ji mumbled.
“Where out on a Saturday? Why don’t you take the kids too?”
Sardarji didn’t miss the weariness in her voice. His heart sank further into depths even he had not known before. Is this the life he had promised her?
“Kids…,” Sardarji rubbed his forehead as he spoke, “Where are they?”
“Monty and Preeti will be home in ten minutes from tuitions. Bablu is on the balcony.”
Sardar ji peeked across their only bedroom, his eyes seeking his youngest.
“And, I was saying… Get Amma’s medicines too.”
Sardar ji’s eyes roved back to the narrow cot in the living room, permanently occupied those days by the emaciated body of his ailing mother. The cancer had eaten away most of her once proud self. With his mother’s body, his meager savings dwindled with alacrity. Monty was now ready for college. How would he manage the fees? He was failing them all.
“Where are you going anyway?”
“Office? What will kids do there?”
“No one around. They’ll enjoy. They can ride on the elevator.” He tucked in the loose end of his turban, avoiding her questioning eyes.
“Achcha… Okay… Get them ice-creams too,” she almost begged.
“Mummy, I am leaving,” Sonali announced.
“Why on a Saturday, beta?”
“I have to submit the project this week.”
Mummy sighed. “You’ve been a little off lately. Something the matter?”
“I am fine. I’ll be back by lunchtime.”
“Is Dad dropping you?”
“I’ll take a rick.”
Sonali stared at the computer screen as it whirred and grumbled around her code, then threw up a long list of errors and warnings. She closed her eyes and sighed. Why was she letting him affect her so much? He didn’t deserve her. Her project, it should have been over two days ago. But, ever since Abhilash told her they were history, she found it hard to concentrate. Home was worse with no distractions from her thoughts. Sonali got up from her desk and dragged her feet to the coffee machine and poured herself a cup. The air conditioning was off on holidays and the fan wasn’t enough to ward off the sweat beads kissing the nape of her neck. She walked out of the stuffy room into the open foyer and stood by the window. The fifth floor didn’t give her any exemplary sights, only a glimpse of the mundane routine of life. A life she didn’t want to live anymore. She bit her lip and let a tear trickle down her cheeks. The coffee went cold in her grasp.
Sonali glanced down at her coffee, the froth having settled over the brown liquid. Flat and uninteresting. Like herself. Like her life. She threw it in the bin close by and started towards her desk when her eyes caught an activity on the so-far vacant bridge connecting the towers. Some children. And a man in a turban. The older two appeared to be observing something below, their necks craned, bending at the waist against the railing, their feet raised on tip-toes. The girl’s long braids swung in the open. Sonali’s eyes darted across to the man, perhaps their father. He stood behind them, almost too close.
Why wasn’t he pulling them back?
The third, a young boy, his patka barely reaching the railing clung to the rods. Sonali whipped around searching for a guard to warn them. But Saturday saw fewer guards on duty than weekdays. She swiveled and found the older boy flailing his arms at his father.
What the hell was happening? Was the man indeed their father?
Sonali’s steps started off in the direction of the bridge, her eyes fixed on the group. The girl also appeared to struggle against the man’s hold. The youngest now hung at the man’s ankles. Sonali crossed the elevators and for few moments lost sight of the group. Her pace quickened and she turned a corner to reach the bridge when a loud scream stunned her senses. Another scream followed and Sonali sprinted ahead. Paces separated her from the man, now cornering the littlest one.
“Hey!” she shouted and continued to sprint.
The man jerked his head, but his hands had already grasped the kid’s shirt. In one swift movement, he hauled the five-year-old off the ground and flung him across the railing. Sonali stopped, too stunned to react. Her ears went deaf. The man turned his eyes upon her and peered down from his six-foot frame. They were bloodshot, crazy even. He took a step towards her, his head bent low like a hunter. He tugged and pulled open his turban, letting loose his waist length hair that flew across his face in a mad, wild dance. Sonali stared back at him, her eyes wide open like a deer fearing its end.
I don’t want to die! Not yet.
The sudden thought shook her awake and she staggered backward. The man lunged forward, prompting her to turn around and run. But no hands reached out to grab her. An ear-splitting bellow and then a thud echoed against the building walls. She slowed down and glanced downwards, fearing even to get close to the rails. A crowd had formed around the huddle below. A crowd consisting mostly of the guards around the campus. Someone shouted, “Ambulance is coming.” A few sat on the ground close to the bodies. Others stood by and watched. Sonali felt the contents of her stomach rise up her food pipe and she ran to the closest washroom.
Later that night Preeto slashed her wrists in a vain attempt to join her children. Amma lay in her cot, drifting in and out of her drug-induced sleep. Friends and colleagues pooled in to finance Amma’s treatment, but two months later she left Preeto all alone. Preeto joined her husband’s office and every day went great lengths to avoid the large dull-red patch in front of tower four. But the scars on her wrists left her in sobs every so often.
Even years later, Sonali wakes up on some nights, drenched in sweat with memories of childish screams and little flailing arms haunting her sub-conscience. One act – many victims.