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The Budding 90s by Mahesh Nair
July 25, 1994. Amit was studying in a high school in Delhi, but skipped school that day, lying to his parents that the school had declared a holiday due to extreme heat. He wanted to walk, and it was hot.
“Heading to a barista,” he said hoping, his mother heard him in the kitchen.
“Be back soon.” Her fuzzy voice was either due to the heat or the lack of confidence about her son’s early return.
He stepped out of his house at noon, in a maroon v-neck, khaki shorts, and sneakers; a crimson waist bag slung over his shoulder. The vindictive rays of the sun walloped him like a lightning strike would a building, but he hardly broke a sweat for he didn’t think about heat as though he had a metal rod crowning his head to conduct the strike to the ground through the wire of his will. His walking partner, Samir, was absent that day.
“Why extreme heat?” Samir had asked Amit three years ago after they’d become friends in school.
“I can handle it. You too can. Walk with me.”
Since then, they’d traveled many a mile together; walking in summers had shaded their complexion from wheat-colored in May to beige in June, to dark brown in July.
“Sweating like crazy.” Samir had whimpered before emptying a bottle of Coca-Cola. It was 45-degrees Celsius the early days of the previous July.
“Don’t drink if you want to break heat barrier.”
Their bond gushed like the two rivulets of rainwater that joined together, before falling into a conduit to never flow separately. In school: they’d sat together in the classroom, exchanged notes if either had been absent, stood up for each other if there was nettling from another student. Outside: they’d scared off a snake charmer who’d threatened to lob a cobra at them, fought a bullying group of profanity-hurling eunuchs.
Their bonhomie had brought their respective parents together, but Samir’s parents moved back to their village in the western state of Rajasthan in late 1993.
Amit meandered a street, treading an uneven terrain of gravel and crushed stones before he reached a t-point, turning left, and from where it was an uncurved stretch: a mile long road he’d sauntered over and again. He sighted in the path ahead a daily-wage laborer, who rode his bicycle on a puddle of water, leaving Amit ambivalent if, the sight resulted from the slanting rays blurring his eyes or the mirage of the noon. Whips of wind with guttural roar swept the dust off the tarred surface that had several gashes spanning its length. His eyes followed the evanescing laborer, who was the only other person then unless he too was floating for someone behind him.
He had joined Samir in the latter’s house on the Independence Day mid-August, two years prior. They flew kites with hundreds of others, within feet of each other, from their matchbox building terraces in a lower-class residential area. The lines escaping their spool winders had crossed one another cutting some kites, leaving the rest to eliminate each other. A tense battle, except for a few that fluttered freely. “We are the free kites in the air,” Samir said, letting go of the line that emptied the winder…soon disappearing — the dusk casting a shade of pale gray.
“Why did you do that?”
“I told you. We are free.”
Amit covered one-third of the stretch, saw people who, on the either side of the road had lain relaxed in the plastic chairs of their makeshift shops; which, until a few months ago were concrete structures before being razed, since they’d sat on a government land. The shopkeepers threw sluggish glances at him, easing in the shades of their tin ceilings.
From Ahmed’s store where bangles green and red hung on a wire, danced in the breeze, jingling, and clanking — to Shyam’s tea stall where the stained kettle was not on the stove and cups waited to be cleaned — to Robert’s grocery where the owner’s snore was louder than the freezer’s whir. Amit knew these people but didn’t want to stop. The shops and their products as he advanced, wore a line of sophistication since they were owned by a non-resident Indian: the shops with concrete ceilings, a bribed affair with the municipality so they remained on the government property but, with a caveat, that they’d be bulldozed if municipality lost the next election. His shops sold Onida and BPL television sets and Kelvinator refrigerators from where Samir’s father had bought a fridge.
How Samir had carried bottles of chilled water for Amit. They’d held hands, laughed, gazed at each other and, when their eyes had locked, a shiver of affection surprised them.
A group of right-wing fundamentalists had demolished Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in late 1992; followed by a group of terrorists who, in retaliation, had planted bombs in various parts of Bombay. Both events had triggered riots between Hindus and Muslims in most parts of the country, but Delhi was spared a great deal, and yet, a sense of suspicion had prevailed between the followers of the two religions in the capital city.
This was also the time when, among the issues the right-wing had trumpeted, homosexuality had turned their faces red with rage.
Fronting as a furniture shop, Shri Ram Woods was a symbol of preparedness for Hindu radicals; several trishuls and bamboo sticks were stocked in its storage for mass distribution if a riot were to start. Madhav, the owner, had a fleet of trucks under the same name. “I have political connections,” he’d told Samir one day.
“I don’t care. Your encroachment and your truck almost killed a child last week.”
“You, a Muslim?”.
“You almost killed a child, I repeat.”
“Go to a country where there are only mullahs.”
“Was born here, will die here.”
“Your parents are scared of us.”
“In your dreams.”
“Leave or get thrashed,” Madhav had warned. Amit intervened and took Samir away. He knew it was in their interest that they’d avoided Madhav since he’d also had seen them walk by his shop holding hands when, what two boys or men usually did upon meeting was a handshake or a brief hug, anything beyond which had triggered homophobia.
When he crossed the halfway mark of the stretch, a sudden verve in the air was evident. The vegetable vendors were calling out to the few people who were rushing to their homes. When one heralded that his tomatoes cost less, his helper sprayed water on them; no sooner another announced that his cucumbers were fresh than his assistant sprinkled water. It favored the vendors that their shops stood at a vantage point since a narrow lane had cut right into a residential area; Samir and his parents had lived in the A-block.
A cumulonimbus cloud had carried dusk with it one day as if, storm’s urgency craved twilight’s composure. Samir and Amit had met in the former’s house when his parents were away.
A twin-sized bed sat in a corner, the smell of the worn teak was saccharine. A rumpled cream sheet appeared rested on a thin grey mattress. Rain whipped leaves, thunder wailed, chirrups of the unseen sparrows were unexpected. Across from the bed was a square window left ajar and through which, rain slanted in, spraying Amit’s arms, cooling his reserve of heat. He glimpsed at Samir who’d sat on the bed, glancing back; the ceiling corner right above the bed was a circle of fulvous mold ready to dribble water. The silence in the room discharged a feel of sweet uncanniness.
Water trickled in from window and ceiling, forming rills on the floor, but yet to cross each other’s path. Amit had closed the window and inched towards the door. Both were 17, in the repressed India of the 90s.
When he reached the end of the stretch, he met another t-point — a proper, wide road where: big vehicles plied their routes, proud shop owners rejoiced the swarm of people since a bus stop was nearby, encroachment caused jams and inconvenience. Shri Ram Woods was one of the shops. Amit unzipped his waist bag, yanked a kitchen knife before stuffing it back in; then, pulled out an Archie’s card, and a notebook: stuffed between its pages were faded petals of dried rose.
At the bus stop, his watch struck 1.30 pm. He read from the card: Your sensitivity and my charm have become too apparent to be missed — the glare and the snap of the people will be humiliating rather, more painful than from being stoned to death — the riot of religion I know, cannot rough up the strength of soul which, can confront threat in pursuit of truth, can destroy the strongest of walls that often stood on shaky grounds…
A year prior today, he’d stridden from this stop into a grocery – the nearest one then was a shop next to the vegetable vendors – to buy a bottle of water for Samir, who’d stayed back at the stop to watch the traffic. Fifteen minutes later, he’d glided back to Samir whose eyes had let out a gleam of yearning; hand had held a rose. Amit handed him the bottle that he barely held as a truck had hurtled towards them. He flung the bottle, pulled Amit aside, but was late himself to steer clear of the monster’s rush. The truck scraped Samir, its impact tossing him down to a side where, in that violent fall, his head hit a sharp edge, crushing his skull upon contact. In his dead clench, his fist had the rose, its stem breathing out from the other end, like a cupid’s arrow. Amit clambered to his feet – his body torpid and drenched in sweat – not realizing, he’d dropped a card.
With tears rolling down now like a runnel of rainwater surging alone, he read the last line. Let’s break the barriers.
Mahesh Nair studied fiction at New York University, learned acting at Lee Strasberg, and is working on his first novel, an autobiographical fiction. His work has appeared in The Bookends Review, Smokebox, and Crack the Spine.
–Art by Felix Lu