Mira gazed at the horizon from her window as the setting sun stroked her face with its rubicund fingers. It was the time of the day when it painted the greys in her hair orange.
On the flaked wall, chimed her old cuckoo clock. Exactly at 6 pm, the bird came out of her wooden gates and cried out ‘koo-kooo’. After its third cry, it retreated. The cuckoo inside the house had always amused Mira. She remembered from her exams back at school – for it was a question they often asked.
‘Which bird never builds a nest and lays eggs in other birds’ nests?’
In strong cursive letters, Mira would jot down the answer – ‘cuckoo’.
Of late, the song of the errant bird had started to gnaw at her heart. Her avian companion had begun to sound enervated, almost sepulchral. At times, she stopped after the second cooing. The clockmaker had fixed it several times. The last time, he had offered 500 bucks for it.
“It has served well, ma’am. Its time is done. A few years later you will have no choice but to throw it in a junkyard. Why not sell it now?” he had asked.
Mira’s lips had curved into a sad smile. How would he know the value of what appeared to him as just an old clock? Somewhere in its ticking, it had offered her a fresh lease of life. It had taught a younger, contrite, and defeated girl to survive. To love the setting sun, which used to induce feverish nightmares even while she was awake. Besides, it was reminded her of someone she loved.
“Thank you for your offer. I don’t want to sell it,” Mira had replied.
As twilight stole the fading colours of the sun and splattered its ethereal canvas with hues of orange, pink, and purple; after many years, it brought back memories of a similar evening to Mira. One she had struggled to forget throughout the best years of her life.
She was 15 when it had happened. For someone that young, life was supposed to be a rollercoaster ride where only the highs mattered. Not for Mira though. She was a good student; dare she be otherwise with her scholarly father monitoring her academic curve like a soldier tracked enemy movement on the border. Her father, Mr Manikaran Swamy, had done his doctorate in physics and held a respectable job in a government agency. To even imagine that his progeny would not match up to his prodigious achievements was blasphemous to him.
So, while Mira’s friends went to the movies, she sat alone in her 5x7 room, her head buried in books. Her study table and chair were her lone companions. The cuckoo clock looked a little brighter back then. Her grandmother had gifted it to her on her twelfth birthday and her father made sure that it was serviced well.
Distractions of any kind were dealt with severely by Manikaran. “Everything in life must be hard-set like a foolproof plan. It stops us from derailing our lives, keeps us focused,” he said.
Mira used to respond with a demure nod whenever her father repeated those words like a sermon. But someone should have told her at that point that life isn’t a canal whose course could be charted. It is a stormy ocean whose tempestuous currents could topple even the strongest of vessels.
In Mira’s life, that current came as someone whom she came to know as Koel (meaning ‘cuckoo bird'). Her family moved into the house facing theirs in the spring of 1970. Spring was just a name for a mythical season in southern India. A torrid prequel to summer was more like it. Even in that scorching heat, the first time she saw her new neighbour, it felt like a whiff of azure breeze in that stifling weather.
Mira had blushed upon seeing Koel wave her hand at her. “Hey,” she had cried out from behind her front gate, “I am Koel. And you?”
Mira had never been into boys, nor befriended any. She knew how proud that made her father. In traditional Indian households, the purity of a girl’s character was measured by her interaction with the opposite sex. The lesser she was seen in the company of men, the holier she was deemed. Mira never understood the rationality behind it. But she was content that at least someone was happy because of her disinterest in boys.
But that day, upon seeing Koel, her large doe-shaped eyes, her guileless smile…something stirred in the deep recesses of her heart.
The funny part was that every time the cuckoo clock cooed, she was reminded of her new neighbour. She had no idea at that time that the emotions which had sneaked their way into her heart were about to change her life forever.
The Williamson Higher Secondary School was the obvious choice for most parents who lived in Mira’s locality. It was old, and once a prestigious institution that had been established in pre-British India.
Time had diluted the standards of education over the decades. But the school still received a lot of admission requests during the first quarter of the year. Also, it didn’t follow a strict code for admitting transfer students, provided it received a hefty sum of money for its charitable fund. Koel was one such addition to its rolls.
Mira often saw her during the morning assemblies. Koel was in the ninth grade just like her, but in a different section. They met during lab periods and also shared a few of the extracurricular activity classes. In the beginning, even though they saw each other often, no words were exchanged from Mira’s side.
Koel had tried to initiate a conversation and every time it started with her disarming smile. That did it. Mira didn’t know why, but she could smell a distraction from afar. The frightening part was that it tempted her like a siren’s call lured a sailor.
At times like those, she thanked her father for his constant reminders. “No frolicking around with your friends. Your exams are just a couple of months away,” he said.
But Fate had its own plans for Mira and when she tried to stave them off, it found a way to introduce them into her life.
It started with a history project. Their history teacher, Ms Kannagi, was somewhat peculiar than the rest of the teaching staff. Rumours were rife that the other teachers refused to share a table with her during recess hours. The problem according to them were her teaching techniques and the fact that she got along really well with the students. A history textbook with all those dates and truckload of Movements and Acts dating from the ancient to the modern ages was a student’s nightmare. All through their childhood, they had been taught to memorize every word written in their textbooks. Ms Kannagi was the first teacher to break that pattern.
Mira got a taste of her unorthodox methods when she received an assignment to produce a small skit about a famous Mughal ruler.
“You can pick your team. Choose what roles each of your team members will play. You have two weeks to present your skit before the class,” she had informed Mira.
“But ma’am, how will I…I haven’t ever done anything like this before,” Mira had tried to protest.
“Mira, if you don’t step out of your comfort zone, you shall never know what you are capable of. Besides, there is a first time for everything,” Ms Kannagi had smiled, “and who knows, you might end up liking the entire exercise.”
That afternoon when she was walking back home from school, someone called out to her.
“Hey! Mira! Wait a second.”
Mira turned to the person who was now panting as she stopped before her. It was a gloomy day with a mellow sun. But Koel’s face radiated in its tepid light.
“I have been chasing you from school,” she said.
“What for?” Seeing her around always made Mira stutter like the keys of a rusty typewriter. She hated herself for it.
“Well, I wanted to know if I can be on your team. For the history project?” Koel asked.
Mira turned a shade paler as she considered Koel’s proposition. How to say no to a person you don’t wish to say no to, she wondered. But then, there was no reason to refuse her. Somewhere in those tiny neurons of her brain, she knew the answer. But to confront oneself wasn’t something Mira had learnt to do.
Thankfully for her, Koel had gauged her awkwardness within the first few seconds of the discomforting silence that lingered between them.
“Look,” she'd said, “I know I come across as a little forward. I like to talk; make friends, and I can see you are just the opposite.”
The thought of being told that she was a social gimp didn’t sit well with Mira and she was quick to react. “What do you mean? Do you think I don’t have friends? I don’t have a life?” she snapped.
“Do you?” Koel appeared amused at her sudden outburst. “I mean I recall waving at you the day we shifted in the house across the road. I even called out to you. But you just stared for a brief second and well….”
Mira scoured her mind for a way to explain her strange behaviour that day. But none came to her.
Koel, on the other hand, was watching her intently.
After a few more seconds, Mira sighed, “yeah, okay. You can be there on my team.”
“Great! When do we start scripting and rehearsing?”
“Scripting? Rehearsing? This is just a class skit.”
“Precisely. That’s why we should try our best. Ms Kannagi might be scoring us based on our skit. You don’t want to put a dampener on your star-studded report card, do you?”
“Well, then…how about we start tomorrow? I know just the spot where we can practice,” Koel had beamed like the first bloom of the season.
“Okay…” Mira had nodded and stared at Koel half-dazed while she did so.
That day when her cuckoo clock announced the time, for the first time, it sounded sweet to her.
It was an old deserted park near the school where Koel had gathered their team for rehearsal. Mira was amazed at her organizational skills. Koel had not just found the perfect location but also streamlined the roles of each member as per their skills. They were off to a great start.
But then the monsoons decided to grace the skies earlier and soon, Mira and her group found themselves sharing umbrellas back home.
Manikaran was a little sceptical about the extra classes Mira had told him she had to attend after school. But he kept quiet when he received a confirmation from one of Mira’s classmate's father. His daughter too was busy working on the history skit.
“Focus on your studies, Mira,” he continued to repeat.
“Yes, pa,” Mira replied. But deep down in her heart, she knew something was growing. Something that had been undercover for countless years, like a diamond underneath layers of soil. But with Koel around the corner, it was finally seeing the light of the day.
Koel…with her unbridled laughter, those eyes which gleamed like pearls at the bottom of the ocean; no matter how hard Mira resented the thought, she was in love. The worst part was that she could sense that Koel could feel it too.
Certain things are organic like Nature. You cannot control them; you cannot ignore them. And once they reach the brim of that pounding lump of flesh in one’s chest, they refuse to stay put.
It happened on one of the cooler afternoons. The continuous rain over the past few days had calmed the parched earth and coaxed it to release the sweet petrichor from its bosom. It was Koel’s idea to go to the beach and watch the sea. She stayed till everyone had left and waited for Mira.
“Umm…are you in a rush to get home?”
Koel’s voice startled Mira who had her back towards her.
“You know my father,” she bit her lips as she replied.
“Well, I will tell him that you were with me, studying,” Koel winked. “Isn’t that the magic word?”
Mira thought of a thousand reasons to turn her down, but instead, she blurted, “okay. But not for too long.”
And so, for the first time, she transgressed the boundaries she had grown up within. First, they went to Marina Beach. It was less crowded than the other days. The overcast sky had probably driven the crowds away. But for Mira and Koel, it was the day they had perhaps waited for all their lives.
“Are you hungry?” Koel asked, “There’s a guy selling corn cobs around that corner.”
“I don’t have money….” Mira said sheepishly.
“I do. My treat,” Koel didn’t wait to hear her answer. She just grabbed Mira’s palm and sprinted towards the stall.
While they savoured the snack and watched the high tides, Koel told her about her life. Her father served in the Indian Army and often had to move around the country. That day Mira learnt that Koel’s mother had passed away two years ago. She had cancer.
“I am sorry to hear that,” Mira had said.
A faint smile lined Koel’s full lips, “Don’t be. You know, I think God was kind, so he freed her.”
“Freed her?” Mira had never heard something like that before.
“My mother was the most remarkable woman I knew. She encouraged me to be myself…no matter how weird that might seem to outsiders. I wanted to learn jujitsu. People told her it wasn’t a ‘girly’ thing. But she found a training centre for me and three days a week, she and I would travel for an hour to get there. I wanted to join the school’s drama team when we were in Mumbai. She went against my Dad and admitted me to the drama club. ‘My little drama queen’ – she called me. Before she died I cried like I never did before. But she told me that this was God’s way of freeing her. All her life she was forced to do what others wanted her to. But she taught me to live my life my way,” Koel’s eyes glittered with a watery sheen.
A vacuum as deep as a chasm filled Mira’s heart. It was as if Koel was narrating her story to her.
“You remember that day…when we moved into your neighbourhood,” Koel continued speaking, “and I waved at you?”
Mira remained silent.
“I felt something that day…when I saw you.”
“Wait! Let me finish,” Koel pleaded. “I know this will sound unnatural. But I like you, Mira. I used to peep at you during our morning assemblies.”
Mira rose all of a sudden and started to walk away. She ran as she heard Koel crying out her name from behind.
She swerved and saw Koel rushing towards her. It only hastened her pace. As she reached the main road, hot tears meandered down the contours of her face.
She was about to cross the road when Koel grabbed her arm from behind.
“Leave me, Koel,” she tried to yank her hand off Koel’s grip. But she clung to her.
“Please, please, Mira,” a pink sliver of light outlined Koel's face as the setting sun peeked through the caliginous skies.
“This, this isn’t possible, Koel. Let me go.”
“Mira, I really like you. I know you have felt it too,” Koel cupped
Mira’s face in her soft palms. “Look at me, tell me it was all a lie. The day I asked you if we could work on the skit together…I had seen your face. Tell me if I had read your eyes wrong?”
“No!” Mira freed herself and pushed Koel to the street.
Before Koel could spell out her name, a speeding bus hurled her into the air. The driver had pushed the brakes but it was too late. Koel dropped to the ground only to be crushed by the cars that ran over her.
The traffic policeman rushed to the spot as did the people in close vicinity. Cars came to a halt and the road was abuzz with the honk of several vehicles at once.
Oblivious to the rising clamour around her, Mira stood frozen to her spot. The setting sun had by then wrenched its way out of the dark clouds, stroking the sky with a bold mélange of red, orange, and pink. Though exquisite a sight, for Mira, it had rendered Koel’s bloody and lifeless body an eerie effect. Somehow she mustered her courage and walked to where Koel lay. She kneeled before her body as tears stained her face.
“Koel! Wake up, please. No, no….” she didn’t know at what point she fell unconscious.
It was the continuous screeching of the cuckoo clock that made the housekeeper pad inside Mira’s room. She found her staring at the faulty clock.
“Akka*, I think your clock needs repair again.
The maid’s gaze darted between Mira and the clock. The bird, though inanimate, appeared to have gone berserk. It almost sounded accusatory and threatened to continue its racket until someone paid heed to its call.
“Akka?” she called out to Mira again.
She had been working in her house for years. But all she knew about Mira’s past was that she had lost her mind after witnessing an accident. Even after multiple treatment sessions, she never recovered fully.
The maid walked up to Mira’s bed.
“Akka?” She gently patted her shoulder only to step back, as Mira’s dead body slid to one side of the bed.
It was then that the bird stopped crying.
Akka* - Tamil for 'sister'