“One more time!” Shriya scolded herself.
Looking around, she observed how people so effortlessly went on with their daily routines. No one hesitated, no one stalled, and no one stopped like her in front of the moving stairs. Sorry, ‘es-ka-le-tar’, she giggled a little as her tongue played with the word “escalator”. The ‘tar’ reminded her of tamatar, a vernacular word for tomato and matar (peas) her mother cooked that morning and the motor her dad used to repair before his liver failed him.
“Excuse me madam, why don’t you move? Do you have a lot of free time with you?”
Shriya was jolted out of her reverie by the rude voice from behind. She became conscious of her surroundings and remembered why she had, in the first place, landed at the Chandni Chowk metro station where she had got stuck at the escalator.
She often got lost in her thoughts; it was her escape mechanism. Whenever reality became too real for her, she zoomed out and got lost in her own world of flashbacks, preserved memories and stolen moments from her past.
A similar struggle had gotten her perplexed today.
Her father had lost his life to liver cancer almost a year ago. She remembered crossing those billboards and discarded pamphlets with gory, ghastly images warning alcohol consumers to quit, but like most others, she had hardly given them a second look or thought.
Shriya had not been exposed to death till her father’s demise. None in her family had died of unnatural causes. Her grandmother had passed away before her birth and since then it had just been the five of them – her parents, her two siblings and she.
And then one day, while cleaning the wash-basin, she saw some red stains on the pot of the sink; her sister must have missed them during her chores. She winced as she recalled how she had assumed them to be drops of the local hena initially that her mother occasionally applied. But on careful examination she realized what that they were. She ran frantically to maa to enquire about the spots. The ground jolted fiercely and shifted from beneath her feet as her mother’s silence confirmed her inkling. Since then, she had been counting the days. Her father’s cough increased with increasing volumes of blood.
Both cure and care were quite out of their bounds. It had taken all their savings to be able to afford the one consultation with the village patriarch, bade sa’ab’s doctor, the appointment granted out of favour and pity towards their mother in return for her dedicated care for the saab’s ailing mother.
In between the medical gibberish that doctor spewed, maa only caught a few words owing to her very limited understanding of English. With no other viable option or door to knock on, father withdrew from the hullaballoo and spent his remaining days in the company of his pocket radio, Pankaj Udaas and his baatli, a bottle of dark liquid. With every swig he looked up, tears rolling down his cheeks incessantly. Each swig brought a stream of apologies. She had tried to hide the cheap alcohol, but he always said he had no other balm left to reduce pain. So she eventually had stopped- stopped arguing, stopped fighting and just worked towards making his passage comfortable.
Shriya recollected the day after her father’s demise. She couldn’t find maa anywhere and had even ventured in the nearby bazaar to ask around. She finally found her sitting in front of the garage where her father cleaned and serviced motors, still as a lifeless statue. It was quite unsettling and heart wrenching to see maa like that.
That day itself she had decided to find a job. It was up to her now to educate her siblings so they would be well informed to not let a similar misfortune befall upon them. She had to ensure that they would be financially stable to tackle any fatality. Further she wanted her mother to rid herself of the chains that leeched out her soul and energy bit-by-bit, day-by-day. She wanted to free her of the many burdens that curved her back and weakened her spine, blow by blow. It was a necessity for her, more than a choice, to wear her father’s shoes.
Nevertheless, she was proud that she could fit into his shoes, for very few girls in her community were given the choice or the voice to ask for it. It pinched her that the cost had been a life, for her to enter a man’s world. But she was ready to change that and custom-fit her father’s shoes so she could own them, establish her own footing and find her own path.
But was she ready?
“Attention please. The train for Huda City Centre is going to leave from platform number 1.” The announcement broke her trance and as the noises started trickling again, they made her more and more conscious of her circumstances.
Shriya was standing at the Chandni Chowk metro station. She was to travel till New Delhi metro station from where she would have to catch a bus for Khan Market. Her childhood friend Rekha had pulled some strings around and gotten her a job at the same parlor where Rekha worked. Though the job wasn’t of her liking, the pay was good and Shriya knew better than to be picky at this moment of her life.
She was determined though that she would be able to save enough money so that Riya and Mohan could start school and maa would finally be able to retire. She would use a part of her salary as investment and hopefully, maybe one day take a computer course and open a small cyber cafe in her neighbourhood. She wanted other girls, like her and Riya to never be held back. She wanted to push them forward and give them the freedom to dream. Her cyber cafe would become the bridge they would need to cross – from dream to reality. She would try and build a sturdy and lasting one. But she needed time and money for that; the paucity of both had got her stuck where she was standing now, facing her own bridge that needed to be crossed.
It was one more “es-ka-le-tar” she had to climb to reach the platform. But she was hesitant, much to her bewilderment. She kept coaxing herself, “one more time!” But it felt as if her legs were disconnected from her brain and the command was ineffective. Her legs were rooted and as much as she tried, they barely moved an inch.
The distance wasn’t as much as the board above her read. It was merely three green dots that the train had to cover, Chandni Chowk- Chawri Baazar- New Delhi. Her life hung between them and she would find herself swinging like a pendulum between the three stations for the next one-year, laboring tirelessly without a single complaint. Cleaning unwanted hair, mopping the floor at least five times a day, serving water and multitasking many odd jobs – just to earn those four hundred rupees at the end of each day.
She would lose weight and her appetite but the four hundred would be worth every fight. For when she would see Riya and Mohan excel at school and fluently speak English she would realize that she had done something right. For when her mother would dance like a high school girl in the saari, Shriya purchased with her second month’s salary, Shriya would conclude that the distance she travelled was not merely about three stations but a bridge that brought her unprecedented joy and her father- some respite.
She inhaled and exhaled, slowly at first and then more paced. She knew she was generating murmurs and agitation for she had been blocking the staircase for quite a while now. She stepped aside and let the slowing human traffic resume its course. Overhearing passers-by she was surprised at the sheer complacency.
“Do you want to head to Connaught Place? I am pretty hungry.”
“Yes, let’s go. I will pick pastries from Wenger’s too.” She overheard two passing girls.
“Listen, you want to catch a movie?” She caught an exchange between a couple, who were probably planning their night.
And then she caught her reflection in the lift’s glass shaft across her. Why was there an uncertainty in her reflection? Was she scared?
She sighed and dragged her feet across the hall and slumped against the wall.
Yes, she was scared. It was a huge responsibility and every moment was terrifying. Her father had once told her that he had first started drinking when Shriya was born. The consumption increased in frequency with her siblings appearing. Soon it turned into an addiction and though he sometimes woke up at night screaming in pain, he knew he couldn’t stop. It calmed him, he said. It took away the pressure and anxiety for some time. As life became more and more complex and necessities started weighing him down like shackles, he resorted more and more to escape reality, even if only for a few moments.
She was petrified, that the stress might consume her too. She was frightened that she may end up like her father- cold, weak, apologetic and eventually dead.
Shriya looked up and realized her cheeks were wet. Frenzied, she dabbed her face with the back of her palms, to avoid attracting attention. She let out a deep sigh and inhaled deeply. Once calmed and composed, she got up and shook herself inside out.
This won’t stop her. Her father always said that Shriya was unstoppable; that if she set her mind to something, nobody could hold her back. Reflecting on his words, she couldn’t help but notice that she was smiling. She closed her eyes and sent a silent prayer to her dad as his words kept ringing in her ears. ‘Nobody can hold her back. She is unstoppable.’
Gathering herself and her belongings, she whispered to herself, ‘let’s do this Shriya. You have dreams, and nobody can prevent you from achieving them. You promised Riya and Mohan a happier and easier lifestyle in their future and maa a carefree retirement and you promised your father peace. So don’t let your past haunt you or your tomorrows overwhelm you. Those steps, those three stations are just a bridge that you are meant to cross, that you need to cross! Don’t falter now, this isn’t the time to halt or look back. Stop the train and hop on. Out of the numerous destinations, one is written for you. It is up to you to create your own map and chart your own course. You are ready. You have been since the day you saw those bloodstains, when maa’s quivering voice rattled the house. You have been prepared since the day Riya and Mohan asked you, innocent and unaware if father was going to die. You have been ready since a very long time now. Get on that es-ka-le-tar, for one day you will learn to pronounce it right and will never be afraid to take that flight. It is time. It is your time now!’
She smiled. Silently she prayed for success and climbed the escalator.
Old Delhi to New Delhi, past to future, Shriya wasn’t just crossing three stations, but was taking a huge leap from her unforgiving yesterday to a blank future, one that was ready to ink. Just like the train, she knew where she was headed. Her destination was clear and her focus was unflinching. And just as the train for Huda City Centre was about to depart, she hopped onto it with courage and curiosity running in her veins and her father’s voice reverberating around her.
And with that thought, she leaned against the sliding doors and tapped her feet to a tune her dad used to hum before putting her down to bed. ‘Ruk jaana nahi, tu kabhi haarke….!’