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Desi Coming of Age Fiction

Avatar sat like a mute, amongst the elders of the village, gathered under the banyan tree. It’s shade extended beyond the entrance of the old haveli, where they were guests of honour. They were seated cross-legged, his father, his uncle and the girl‘s father, sipping tea while discussing his engagement ceremony. Avatar could never understand why his father preferred to sip hot tea in a stainless steel tumbler, on a sweltering afternoon.

He preferred a cool glass of lemonade with ice floating on the surface. He tried to sit cross-legged like the others, to please his father, but he felt his muscles strain and he winced as the pain surged through his limbs. He gave up and instead dangled them on the edge of the cool, concrete platform. His father would disapprove but he was past caring. He felt like a foreigner in these strange surroundings.

“Be the change” the words echoed in his head.

He looked around at the thatched houses with cow dung pasted on its mud walls. An old tradition of drying it in the sun for fuel for cooking and other household chores. Cows and goats grazed in harmony on the thick shrubs beside the huts. The lushness of the paddy fields and the thick, mango groves, were a balm to his tired eyes and the tranquility that surrounded him soothed the turmoil in his heart.

Not far from him lay a straw bed upon which blood, red chillies dried in the sun. In the distance he could hear the grinding of the millstones as they crushed grains of corn. Their arms rippling with sweat and heads covered in bright dupattas, the women spun it around to make fresh maki ka atta.

The breeze rustled the branches above and woke the bulbul, who immediately burst into a beautiful melody.

It was so different from the hustle and bustle of his city, the noise and the pollution. They had travelled far, from Mumbai to Punjab-first by train and then bus and then a bullock cart ride to the small village of Mishriwala. He was tired from the journey and longed to fall asleep under the cool shade, but his father would object, his bushy eyebrows would narrow and his eyes would glint with anger. Father had a fierce temper and an iron will. Any spark of rebellion would be squashed under that withering look of his. He forced his eyes wide open and pretended to listen like an obedient son.

He had just turned 24, graduated from Engineering college when father decided that it was time to find a bride for him. He had dragged him to this remote village to be engaged to a total stranger. His feeble protests were swept off by his father’s enthusiasm and firm conviction that his friend’s daughter would make him a good wife.

Avatar disapproved of arranged marriages and the old tradition of accepting dowry from the girl’s parents. He had argued and lost friends over it, except Chandani who had supported him all along. Both were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. They poured over his books in search of quotes that gave them strength, wisdom and direction. Their favourite was- “Be the change, that you wish to see in the world.” They would discuss the pros and cons of it until it grew dark and the canteen closed for the day.

But his father had insisted and nobody, not even his mother, could challenge his decision.

The girl’s father pressed his palms together, knelt before my father and spoke, his turban slightly askew in the effort.

“We are so honoured to have you in our humble residence,” and he pointed to the vast, sprawling haveli.

My father, equally humbled, replied. “Thank you for having us.”

Inside the haveli, preparation for the tilak ceremony had started. Yellow marigolds decorated the doors and windows of the house. Music floated from within. The aroma of sizzling onions and the sweet fragrance of barfi drifted towards Avatar. His stomach grumbled and his parched throat craved something cool. But he did not stir from his seat.

Be the change- the words echoed in his head.

Then he heard his father’s voice. “Your daughter will be happy with us. We have a huge mansion in Mumbai. She will not miss her home.”

Avatar looked at his father in disbelief. How could father lie to this man? What huge mansion was he talking about? The two bedroom flat on Manor Rd? He had to sleep on the balcony because his sister needed privacy! Where was his future wife going to sleep?

“ My son is going to America soon.” He added, enticing him with false promises.

The girl’s father nodded and looked at his prize with admiration.

More lies! thought Avatar. He squirmed in embarrassment. He loved his city and had no such desire.

‘Then his father dropped a bomb. “Let’s discuss the dowry, shall we?”

The girl’s father beamed, pleased at the way things were progressing. His daughter would be safely married and out of his hair.

Avatar lost his balance and fell on the ground. Father was asking for money from this man! He was parading him like a young bull, bargaining in the flesh market, looking for the best price for his handsome son. It was illegal to ask for a dowry! Yet they were discussing it like two business men signing a contract for the sale of a property.

Avatar got up, brushed the dirt from his shirt and walked towards the kitchen for a cool glass of lemonade. He saw the bushy eyebrows furrowed in anger but he didn’t care anymore. He was tired of playing the role of an obedient son, of pleasing and catering to his father’s every whim. This had to end now!

He swallowed two glasses of lemonade, the cool liquid dribbled down his chin and into his shirt. He wiped his mouth with the cuff of his sleeve and slammed the cup on the counter, shattering it into small, glittering diamonds. He had never broken anything before. Instead of remorse, he felt light-hearted, free like a bird released from its cage. He strode back to the two men deep in conversation.

He stood in the sun and stared at his long, scrawny shadow and laughed out loud. He staggered slightly, regained his balance and shouted at his father.

“Father! I am going back home!”

Then he turned to the girl’s father, pressed his palms and continued. “ We don’t have a big mansion in Mumbai and I am not going to America! I plan to stay in my city and marry Chandani!”

Then he did something that shocked his father. He winked, whistled a tune and turned his back on them and walked like a vagabond towards the village square to hitch a ride back home on the bullock cart.

April 07, 2021 14:00

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