The man in the suit walked out of the station gates. He moved to the side of the staircase leading down the station and stood silently, watching the world go about its business.
There was the pani-puri seller, his stall at the bottom of the staircase. He was doing booming business, even though it was just after lunchtime.
At the opposite corner of the staircase was the balloon seller. He didn’t only sell balloons, though; he also sold wooden dolls, little plane figurines, those long cylinders that exploded into streamers and some liquid when twisted, and paper Ferris wheels attached at the end of a long plastic stick.
Another woman was sitting on a mat a few feet away from him, with a charcoal burner. She was selling corn-on-the-cobs, and was doing almost as well as the pani-puri seller.
The man in the suit smiled and jogged down the rest of the stairs, looking around for an auto rickshaw. He found one soon.
“Wodeyar Park?” he said.
“Main Street or Devanahalli?”
The rickshaw driver considered, taking into account the suit and the heavy smell of perfume emanating from his potential customer. He pulled out a paan and popped it into his mouth. “Two fifty rupees," he said, the red juice of the paan trickling down his chin and onto his shirt. That stain wouldn’t go away anytime soon.
“Not a paisa less than two hundred.”
“Done.” The man grinned and got in.
The rickshaw started with a roar and hurtled down the crowded roads, constantly honking.
“Where did you come from, sir?” the driver asked to his passenger.
“Hyderabad,” the man in the suit replied.
“Hyderabad,” the driver repeated.
He briefly turned to shout at another careless driver who had come in their way. “You know, sir,” he said to the man in the suit, “I have a cousin in Hyderabad. Very smart, sir. Not like me, an auto driver. She is working in a big company, sir.”
The man in the suit nodded. He stayed quiet for the rest of the journey, just listening to the driver ramble about his family problems and previous aspirations.
They reached in less than half an hour. That was the good part about auto rickshaws and drivers; they knew every small shortcut to any place, and the auto was small enough to fit anywhere. With a taxi, the man in the suit thought as he paid the driver, I would have taken easily more than an hour.
He turned and stared at the big tree at the center of the park. Then he turned on his heel and strode purposefully across the narrow road. He rounded the corner and arrived at an apartment building.
He frowned. This wasn’t supposed to be here. He looked around. A lady was passing by, rather hurriedly, rummaging through her brown leather handbag.
“Excuse me,” he said, putting an arm in her way. “Where is the grove that used to be here?”
“The grove?” she said blankly. “Oh, that grove! Half of it was cut down to make way for this apartment. You’ll find what’s left of it behind.” She gestured.
The man in the suit turned to that direction, but when he turned back to thank the woman, she was gone. He shrugged and made his way behind the apartment.
There was a smallish grove with a number of large trees. One very tall and thick one stood regally in the center, like the ruler of the grove. The man in the suit grinned as he spotted another smaller tree in the periphery, overlooking an empty compound. The compound had not always been empty. There had been a small house there, once. That was long, long ago. Now the apartment complex wanted to buy that plot of land, but it was registered to a person living in Hyderabad and try as they might, they couldn’t get to him or her.
The man in the suit cautiously opened the rusted green gates of the grove. He looked around for any security, but no one and nothing stirred. Who would, in this bright summer sunshine? Most would be taking their afternoon siestas.
He walked quickly down the length, with quick small steps, his polished black shoes occasionally sinking into the wet earth.
He reached the tree that overlooked the empty compound, and looked up, with a satisfied grin on his face. He grabbed hold of a low branch, and shook it, testing for its strength. It seemed sturdy enough. With a sudden effort, he pulled himself up onto it, then the next, then the next, grunting loudly each time he did so.
Within five minutes, he had reached a dense convergence of thick, strong boughs, upon which stood a very small wooden house. It was about six feet in length, and the same in width and four feet in height; just large enough to fit a beanbag and a shelf of books. It was walled on three sides, but the side facing the compound was left open.
The man in the suit gingerly crawled along the branches, taking care not to hit his head, till he could open the door. He could straighten a little more once inside, as there was a thick floor. He looked around and smiled. Nothing had changed since he had last been here.
He walked a little further to the beanbag, remembering fondly the number of times he had sat there, a pen and a book in his hands. Indeed, it was on that very beanbag that he had written his first story.
The boy sat there, a blank sheet of paper in his hands, a ball pen in the other. He kept his eyes closed, and his brows knitted together in a frown of concentration. Occasionally he chewed the top of the ball pen, staining part of his gums blue.
Then, as if he received a shock, he straightened and opened his eyes. A slow smile spread across his face. He settled more comfortably in the beanbag and began hurriedly scribbling on the paper.
It was almost an hour when he finished. His arms were aching, his cheeks and hands were stained blue, but the rush of joy he felt seemed to diminish all his pains.
Then, a knock on the door.
‘Come in,' he said. A woman crept in, on all fours. She was about thirty-five years old, with dark hair that she had streaked with red at the ends. She was fit and lean, despite her years, and had relatively less difficulty scaling the tree to the tree-house.
‘There you are,’ she said, ruffling his hair. ‘I’ve been searching for you all morning. Come on, we’re going out soon. You’ll have to get ready.’
‘Look, Mum,’ the boy said, apparently oblivious to her orders. ‘I’ve finished my first story!’
The woman’s expression changed from one of playful admonition to one of genuine delight and surprise. ‘You wrote a story?’
‘Yes, Mum. The whole thing!’ the boy said. His face was shining.
She took the paper from him. ‘“The Dragon’s Tale.’ Hm, not bad. Ai, ai, ai. What is this handwriting? If you want to be a good writer, you’ve got to make what you write legible first.’
The boy’s smile faded. He looked disheartened.
‘Oh, cheer up, son,’ said his mother. ‘There’s plenty of time for that. The first step is to start writing.’
She quickly scanned the page.
‘Are you done? How is it?’ the boy asked excitedly.
The woman didn’t answer at once. Then she took a deep breath. ‘It’s beautiful. It’s really a wonderful effort for your first time. It needs a bit of work, but where did you learn such big words?’ she laughed. ‘Did you know, I wanted to become a writer, when I was young.’
The boy looked surprised. ‘Why didn’t you?’
‘Your…’ the woman’s voice broke. ‘Your father didn’t want me to. I used to write daily for a magazine before I married him.’
‘That’s stupid,’ said the boy firmly. ‘If you want to write, who’s Dad to stop you?’
‘Hush, now, dear boy, that’s rude. Don’t talk about your father like that.’ She held up the paper. ‘But you can write. You have the gift, son. Never lose it. Never stop writing.’
She hugged him, a tear glistening in the corner of her eye. ‘Now come on, we really have to go.’
The man in the suit took out a white handkerchief and wiped his eyes. He wished his mother was there now, to see him as a best-selling author. He had never stopped writing from that day. And it had paid off.
He glanced at the bookshelf. It was nearly empty, save for a few loose, scattered papers. He picked one up. It was soft and crumbly, like a chocolate chip cookie. The text had almost fully disappeared, but a few words were still visible.
He grinned as he read them. They were from a book called, ‘The Little Red Balloon and Other Stories.’ It was his favorite book when he was younger. His mother had bought it for him, and every day he used to pick up a story from it, use its plot and rewrite it with changes. It was an exercise his mother had asked him to do. She said it helped stimulate creativity and would be of use to him later as a professional writer.
His smile faded. A large teardrop landed on the paper. It was this book that he was reading when he got the news.
The boy sat, furiously scribbling on the pages of an old diary he had dug up from his mother’s wardrobe. He was writing a short story for a competition. He had gotten the idea from ‘The Little Red Balloon and Other Stories,’ and it was about a greedy man who hoards every single coin he can find, till he finds a rare, archaeological coin that spews out water and ruins all the money in his safe. It was the boy’s first story that crossed a thousand words, and he was extremely happy.
By the time he was done, it was almost dusk. He joyfully clambered down the tree, eager to show his mother the story, but couldn’t find her in the house. The door was still unlocked, so he didn’t think that she had gone out. His father wasn’t there either, not that he would be; he’d be at work.
A sudden fear gripped his heart. He ran back out, shouting and calling out for her. No response. Then from the distance, emerged a car. It was a sleek, black sedan, and he recognized it almost instantly. It was his aunt’s.
The car stopped in front of him, and his aunt got out. She was crying. He was ready to burst into tears too, although he had no idea why she was crying.
‘Oh, you poor boy,’ his aunt said, suddenly embracing him fiercely. ‘Oh, you poor, poor thing.’
‘What is it? What happened?’ he demanded, fighting back the tears that were threatening to fall.
‘It’s your mother, dear,’ his aunt said, softly. ‘She fell down the stairs. She’s in the hospital now.’
There was no stopping the tears now. They fell freely and fast. His aunt drove like a maniac; they were in the hospital in less than fifteen minutes, even though it was far.
The boy stood next to his sleeping mother, staying quiet as a mouse. He had stopped crying now, but he looked dazed and confused, as though he didn’t understand what was happening. His aunt didn’t blame him. ‘Poor, poor thing.’ she kept saying.
‘Son?’ said his mother suddenly. The boy stirred.
‘Son, is that you?’ she repeated, stretching a thin finger out to him. The boy stepped forward and clasped the finger.
‘Listen, boy,’ continued his mother, ‘I don’t have much time left. I want you to know that I love you.’ She coughed. Then she continued, ‘And one more thing, never stop writing, darling. You have to…’ she coughed once again, ‘You have to promise me that you’ll never stop writing. I don’t want your talent to go to waste. Be good to your father. And always, always remember, I love you.’
The tears were back.
The man in the suit sat still for a long time, clutching the page from the book. His breathing came out in short gasps. They got shorter and shorter, till he screamed out in pain. He grabbed all the loose papers and crumpled them up. He kept screaming, as he collapsed onto the beanbag. He kept screaming till his throat and head ached and he couldn’t scream anymore.
A great sob wracked his body. Then another, then another, till tears were streaming down his face like a waterfall. Defeated, he curled up into a ball and fell asleep, his face wet with tears.
He didn’t get up till midnight. He cautiously climbed down the tree and once on the ground, looked up at the tree-house. He sighed and left.
It wasn’t part of his plan to visit the tree-house; he was supposed to be halfway home by now. But now that he had visited it, he didn’t regret it. He didn’t regret it at all.