Gaining a brother: A short story
As India celebrates Raksha Bandhan this weekend, we bring you a short story by Indian-American author Rituparna Chatterjee from the book Celebrate: Your Fun Festival Handbook Rakhi And Bhai Dooj. Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh
It was the last day of Rati's HAAAAW (Historic Adventures + Any Additional Adventures Week). She had coined, what she thought, was a rather intelligent acronym after much thinking. Well, she was in a 200-year-old palace after all, so historic adventures wee bound to happen. True adventurers like herself must also be prepared to stumble upon any additional adventures, which could show up anytime and anywhere.
Unfortunately, she had been so incredibly busy avoiding Ritin that she had had no time left at all for an adventure! Or, for that matter, even for a Miss Adventure, which as Vinitha Aunty had revealed, was a special adventure in a surprising disguise which happened only to lucky little girls. Like the one last week, when they were on a chocolate-chip cookie-baking adventure. What came out of the oven looked like cookies alright, but tasted more like muffins. So they ate Muffies! Rati liked to record her adventures in her private journal and listed this under Miss Adventures.
She was annoyed with herself. All these years, Ritin had never mattered to her. Whenever she visited Vinitha Aunty, she found him perpetually buried in his tablet and an assortment of gadgets. After a while, she stopped noticing him, pretty much like she stopped noticing the painting on their living room wall. Or the more-interesting shark-like lizard which hung around on the wall on occasional summer days.
But now that Vinitha Aunty and her father had gotten married, he was suddenly her brother. 'Correction: Stepbrother,' she told herself.
Her parents had divorced when she was just two, and after six years of rarely seeing her mum (who lived in Finland), Rati barely missed her. But she had always adored Vinitha Aunty.
Unlike the stereotypical wicked stepmother, Vinitha Aunty was the best mom she could have asked for. Their neighbour for all these years, Vinitha Aunty pampered her and even looked after her when Papa was away on business trip. She felt close to Vinitha Aunty, who worked as a marketing executive in a toy company. She was smart, intelligent, loving and super fun. Rati knew what she wanted to be when she gew up. She wanted to be Vinitha Aunty! Except for one crucial difference: she didn't want to work in a toy company but do something more grown-up and adventurous. She wanted to be an archaeologist.
When her dad had hesitatingly asked her if she approved of the 'suggestion' of having a new mommy in the form of Vinitha Aunty, she had hugged him and said 'Yes, yes, I do!'. Now, she could have both Papa and Vinitha Aunty.
But Ritin had suddenly appeared from nowhere and become a major obstacle. Her little time with Papa was now cut in half. For example, the week before, Papa had cancelled their super-sacred Sunday brunch ritual at Big Chill, to go watch the vintage car rally with Ritin. Papa had invited her, and when she declined, promised to get her a piece of her favorite Squidgy Chocolate Cake. Although, she was dying to see those gleaming historic automobiles, she'd rather study than go with Ritin, never mind the Squidgy Chocolate Cake.
Meanwhile, Vinitha Aunty, the darling that she was, had stayed back. They had all kinds of girly adventures like making Play-Doh creatures except that you could eat these because they were made out of yummy marzipan. And then there were Muffles. She loved it! But she missed her dad. Why couldn't she be with both of them. Why couldn't they just send this cold Ritin to boarding school and let her stay behind?
Until now, she was convinced that Ritin was not human. She thought he was some kind of a machine sent by aliens to study human behaviour. He was glued to gadgets because he was constantly transmitting signals through them. She had tried to warn her dad, who laughed it away. Even if Papa did not believe her, she had to be on alert. Rati had even nervously told Vinitha Aunty, afraid that she might be angry at her son being called an alien conspiracy. But Vinitha Aunty being the rock-star that she was simply winked and whispered, 'I know honey!'
They were at her granny's house. 'Correction: haveli,' she chided herself. Papa and Vinitha Aunty were both away on business trips. How she had begged them to take her with them. She'd stay quietly in the hotel room and watch TV all day long and paint and be a good gir1. They wouldn't even notice that she was there.
Instead, she had been left behind with her least favorite person in her most favourite place.
'You guys need to get to know each other. After all, you're siblings now,' said Papa.
'Um...step siblings,' Rati corrected her father.
'Come on now Rati. You finally have a real brother to smear with tilak on Bhai Dooj, rather than Chhotu,' said Papa.
'You can never compare a boy to a dog. Especially a step-statue brother to Chhotu,' said Rati stomping off.
The haveli, called Raahat Bhavan, was located just outside of Jaipur. Made in 1760, it was designed specifically to give its residents raahat (meaning relief) from the fiery desert heat. The strategic positioning of its windows utilised natural winds thereby creating an illusion of mysterious invisible fans at work. Raahat Bhavan's thick stone walls, high ceilings, and its endless dark cool corridors provided magically natural cool comfort.
Rati's holidays in Raahat Mahal had been few and far between. But they were memorable, full of fun and fantasy, as all holidays in havelis have a way of being. Occasionally, local women came to the haveli and Daadi used to teach them things like language and arithmetic. Rati would watch them for hours fascinated by the myriad bright hues of their ghagra kabjas (scarfs), and their bold kohl-lined eyes.
'Was there a clue of him being an actual human?'
At the haveli, alone together, Ritin had even tried to be nice to Rati, inviting her to play on his PSP with him. He was like a tortoise carrying his world on his back, in his backpack. And like she had guessed, it was full of all sorts of useless game-related gizmos. He was always digging in it, sort of like how Chhotu and she 'excavated' their neighbourhood park for 14th-century treasures.
'No thanks, I prefer Wii,' she said politely and walked off. Was there a clue of him being an actual human, now that he was being warm?
'Trying to be warm,' said Rati in her characteristic style. An adventurer, especially an upcoming archaeologist, must never let her guard down, especially around suspicious creatures.
As usual it was time for Daadi's afternoon siesta. Her snores echoed through the haveli's dark, cool corridors. Frustrated with her zero adventures, or even Miss Adventures, and unable to sleep, Rati took a walk through one of the corridors. She had her camera strapped on her neck, for emergency recordings, which she could then put into her diary. A blinding light waited patiently at the end, and as if hypnotised, Rati walked towards it.
At the edge, was a spider, spinning a complex web. At night, the tube lights would be turned on, attracting a variety of insects, some of which could get trapped here, while lizards would take care of the others. Rati thought it was fascinating and continued to watch the spider in rapture.
'Hey, come here. Look what I found. Far more interesting spinning here, than your boring spider.' What? Could it be that Ritin had abandoned his gadgets for once? Had he really turned human? Anyway, she must not go, in case it was an alien plot to capture her.
But it was so tempting!
Giving in and burning with curiosity, she tiptoed towards him cautiously.
'Closer, look here,' he said. He was kneeling down holding a small plastic rectangle in his hand. Was it really what she thought it was?
'Yes, it really is a cassette!' said Ritin.
The history buff in Rati was ecstatic! She had heard of cassettes but she had never seen one in real life. How could she? Cassettes were almost obsolete. 'Where did you find this?' Rati 'asked urgently.
'Right up there...there's a whole stack of them,' he said, pointing to a shelf on the whitewashed stone wall, right by the intricately carved ventilator and beside a lamp.
'I've seen these before. See, everything is on this reel of magnetic tape. The player spins it and it plays.' Rati was furious at herself -- she had been here before, and this cold-alien-conspiracy-statue had seen it on his very first trip.
'That's one of the perks of being older,' Ritin said, reading her thoughts.
Rati, suspicious as ever, asked, 'But how can you be so sure about how it works?'
'Ramesh Uncle explained it to me.'
Papa explained it to him. To h-i-m! And not her? Rati was fuming.
'He says I'm too digital and must at least understand a few mechanical and analog concepts. Ramesh Uncle will soon be teaching me how to solder and eventually take me to lathe classes as well. I can't wait to use my hands on some real machines.'
'Wait, you call him Uncle too?' asked Rati, somewhat relieved that he was still only her Papa.
'Yes, well, just like you still call Ma, Vinitha Aunty. You're not used to it yet either, are you?' Rati was embarrassed. Ritin was suddenly getting less creepy by the second, which was a pretty creepy thing on its own!
'Well, ummm...actually, I don't know how to tell you this. But I think I should,' Ritin said after a long pause. 'You see, you're rather fond of my Ma. But you're younger, it's easier for you. You practically have no memory of your own mother, right? But I remember my Dad, and I miss him. But I also hate the way he treated Ma. She's so happy now,' he said softly. 'It's very hard to wake up one fine day and call someone else Dad. And worse, there's a stepsister attached in the package. I'm sorry I was so cold to you...practically like a cold alien statue.'
Rati cringed. She hated the 'step' prefix attached to her. She realised how alike they were. She didn't know where to look. How could he have read her exact thoughts?
'At first I hated you. There you were with ribbons in your hair always jumping and ready for an adventure. But you're not so bad,' he smiled. 'You see, like you, I too am adjusting. But I must admit, your dad's a great guy.'
'So is Vinitha Aunty. She understands that I'm a girl and not all girls are interested in lathe machines.'
'Haha! Yes, you're right,' Ritin said with a smile. 'Now, let's go hide the tape before Daadi wakes up. You do know, we aren't supposed to be going through all this. These must be private recordings,' he said, holding out the cassette and its box for Rati to see.
Rati was quivering with excitement at this treasure. She ran her fingers over the cracked plastic cover. Nestling inside was a worn out yellowing paper with faded handwriting.
She assumed this was Urdu. What was inside it? Perhaps, confidential cryptic voice messages were inside. A dozen questions swarmed through Rati's head leaving her slightly giddy with curiosity and excitement.
'Let's explore the rest of the boxes and stash it away before anybody comes,' said Ritin.
Rati was now holding a cassette in her hands. A real cassette. A real, vintage treasure! This was so much better than undertaking excavations in the neighborhood garden. And she had a real partner, who was not her dog.
'See, you can totally pull the tape out and then put it back in and I believe it will still work,' said Ritin. He rolled his finger through the groovy hole in the cassette and using his other hand, he pulled out a few inches of the magnetic tape out of its plastic holder. Then he simply reversed his motions and put it all back in together. Rati watched fascinated.
'Sisters were always trouble, he thought'
'Let me try it,' she said pulling out some tape and carefully rolling it all back together.
'Isn't this spinning fun?' Rati grinned and nodded. It was indeed! Rati now understood that the music word 'rewind' actually meant physically winding the tape up. So cool! They took turns, each time unrolling more and more of the smooth ribbon and putting it back.
'Oh, I know! Let's have a spinning contest,' Rati suddenly suggested.
'Ssh, lower your voice, remember we're trespassing on private property. And trespassers are always prosecuted,' said Ritin.
'Okay, okay!' Rati lowered her voice down to an urgent stream of whispers. 'So, whoever pulls out the most and puts it back the fastest, wins. I'm smaller, so I go first,' said Rati. Before Ritin could respond, she pulled and pulled and jerked off a long ribbon of tape. Rati ran through the corridor. Her endless ribbon tail merged with the darkness.
And then the faintest flick danced across the walls and echoed through the corridor's empty hollowness. Rati looked and to her horror realised that she had snapped the tape. She was really scared. It wasn't just a cassette. It was a piece of history, worse, a private piece of history. It was somebody's precious belonging and she had damaged it. Large salty drops of fear rolled off her big cheeks, somewhat soaking her tee-shirt.
'We'll fix it, we'll fix it. Don't worry,' said Ritin, running towards her. 'But we must hurry. It's a long mess and there is no time to cry. Be the big eight-year-old that you are now.' 'Eight, going on nine,' corrected Rati angrily, wiping the tears away.
'All the more reason then,' said Ritin.
He had now started to rewind the roll of tape. Rati helped by holding up the closest bunch of the excess tape on the floor, keeping it ready for rolling. They did this as meticulously and quickly as anyone possibly could. Unfortunately, the tape had knotted up. They continued to wrap it up the best as they could, knots and all. Eventually, Ritin had a small spool of tape in his hands. Just a couple of feet more and they'd be done. They could then start rewinding it in the cassette.
Just then, they felt a tug. It seemed bigger than the small knots, most of which they had painstakingly removed, and it seemed to come from above. They looked up and noticed that some of the ribbon was stuck behind the lamp on the wall, right next to the shelf where they had originally found the cassettes.
The cool evening breeze must have lifted the almost weightless tape causing it to get stuck there. Ritin, being the taller one, hopped and pulled gently, but with no luck.
Rati, who knew the haveli well from previous holidays ran to the store room and got out a black umbrella with a sharp metal tip. This relic was one of her very own discoveries, from former exploratory missions.
'Great thinking,' said Ritin. He shoved the umbrella's tip, trying to fish out the tape, which had wrapped around the lamp. They tried several times. But neither the gaming aficionado nor the upcoming archaeologist had kite-flying or fishing skills, which could have been handy in this situation.
Ritin was rather frustrated. His hand ached to the point of cramping. Why should he even put up with this. It wasn't his fault after all. Whether step, real or cousin, sisters were always trouble, he thought as he impatiently shoved the umbrella from his right to his raised left hand.
'What happened, who is that!' screamed Daadi, suddenly awakened by the crashing noise that travelled through the whole haveli. While exchanging the umbrella from one hand to another, Ritin had mistakenly shattered the beautiful vintage lamp. The trapped tape fell on the floor along with the glass in smithereens.
'Quick, shove it all in your backpack,' said Rati, pulling Ritin's backpack and already starting to do as she said.
'How would that help?' said Ritin.
He was scared. He knew he was in trouble because this was not just another lamp but an expensive antique, as most things in the haveli were. The kids had been told to be as careful around the haveli, as they would have been in a museum. And although Rati had created the tape mess, Ritin had broken an antique treasure.
'What is it?' asked Daadi. Echoes of the thak-thak of her lathi (stick) got louder and louder, which meant she was close. By now Rati had packed the empty cassette, its cover, and the knotted spool of tape in Ritin's backpack.
'I know Daadi! There that one did it,' Rati quipped pointing right at Ritin's head. He looked baffled by her betrayal, that too, after all this...after all the trouble he had taken for her.
'Argh, I knew it! The pests!' said Daadi, looking angrily right behind Ritin. He looked up and saw two pigeons behind, clucking away. He let out a sigh of relief. 'This is not the first time they have smashed something here. If only I knew how to get rid of them. But they have been here much longer than I have,' said Daadi.
Ritin was ashamed. Rati had stood up for him and he had doubted her. 'Anyway, Ramesh will be here any minute and can help fix this mess. I keep telling him, donate these antiques to the museum. Just no point keeping them,' said Daadi.
'Here we are!' Rati heard her Papa's voice as he emerged from the shadows with Vinitha Aunty. 'Did you kids trouble Daadi much? Rati did you fight with Ritin?' asked Papa, bending down and holding his hands out for Rati.
'No, no Rati is a darling. Ritin, I hope you at least got your head out of your games for a little while, and kept her company,' said Vinitha Aunty, hugging Ritin.
Copyrighted to Rituparna Chatterjee. Excerpted with the permission of publishers Hachette India from Celebrate: Your Fun Festival Handbook Rakhi And Bhai Dooj. Rituparna is a science and technology journalist in Silicon Valley.