How does a teenager feel going to his/her native place after 13 years? Most would not remember anything from their past (of course, they would have been too young then). But being gifted with a good memory, I remembered little details about my childhood in Kanpur – like being hit in the face by a plastic cricket ball while sitting on sky blue pillows near the store room window, the pane of which was wooden and spiky at places, enough to drive a three-year-old to use a blade to slice the protrusions. At four, I was too young to interpret the problems a family faces when it shifts from a place like Kanpur to a place like Mumbai, that too without money. Deep in hardships, my parents made sure my sister and I got the best possible education, food and shelter. As time passed, the situation turned better and better and 13 years later, I was able enough to take my entire family back for a visit (I worked while I was still studying).
My entire khandan waited there for us when we reached, and in the moments that followed, there were hugs and tears of joy. I looked in awe, the number of people I was related to, some that I never even heard about. In one corner of the house, a little girl stood and kept looking at me. Not glancing in her direction purposefully, I could feel her gaze not moving elsewhere. I made eye contact and went to her and asked her name. She smiled, revealing her rodent-esque front teeth. The size of her eyes decreased and her petite nose wrinkled at the sides. The next second, she hid her face behind the curtain along her side and whispered “Alina.”
“How old are you, Alina?”
“Will you not answer?”
“Well, do you know who I am?”
(A slight nod behind the curtain)
“Looks like you don’t want to talk to me?”
I left the conversation, hoping I didn’t scare her or that she was just shy. For 2 more days, she would just stare at me, smile and do nothing else. On the third day, she sang “Agar tum mil jao, zamana chhod denge hum…” (If I have you, I will leave the world) for me in front of everyone. Her voice was sweet and the diction was remarkable for a 4 year old child. While all laughed at her hand movements that accompanied her singing, I was astounded. No one realized what she was singing, except me. I was red-faced. A girl, 12 years younger to me, was singing a love song for ME! After the song was completed, she came to me and kissed my hand. “She has shock value”, I said to myself.
At the end of the week, we had to leave, and when the day came, her smile diminished. While I was about to leave for Mumbai, I went to her room and found her hiding her face from me again. Perhaps, she had heard me entering the room. I lifted the blanket from her face, with her little hand resisting my force in vain. She had been crying for hours over this little separation that was about to occur. I wiped her tears and her swollen eyes looked at me, crying even more, but making no sound. I kissed her forehead and wrapped my arms around her to embrace her. No longer able to contain the sobs trying to escape her little mouth, she cried her heart out.
“Please don’t go!”
“I have to, my dear. You know that your brother studies, right?”
“When will you be back?”
“Very soon, I promise! But you don’t cry, or my promise will be broken.”
She stopped crying immediately. I left with my family for Mumbai and talked to my mother about how popular I was amongst cousins, to which she simply replied by saying that it was so because I was the eldest of the brothers.
She is eleven now, and her parents have brought her to Mumbai for the treatment of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer. I met her thrice in a span of one week, and the third time, she could barely move due to weakness from her chemotherapy session. She waited for me the entire day, despite knowing that I leave from my office in the evening. No sooner she saw me, than she stood and gave me a tight hug. She is much taller now, and her head reaches my chest, on which she rested it as if it was the world’s most comfortable pillow. I asked her to sit or lie down, but she wouldn’t let go for another 5 minutes. I helped her stand, her legs too weak to do the job. On the side of her neck was a recent biopsy wound, about the length of my index finger. The area around it was still red, which prompted me to ask whether it was hurting. She shook her head and complained only of the smell of the medicines she was prescribed. I sat her on the bed and caressed her cheeks. She asked if she could borrow my phone to play Angry Birds. I readily gave it to her, but she returned it seconds later. Upon being asked the reason, she said that she wanted to talk to me. We had a long chat about everything from her education to my love life. Her keenness was astounding! As I was leaving, she kissed my cheek and said that I was the world’s best brother. Not many times do I find tears so difficult to hold back in my eyes. I took out my handkerchief and pretended to wipe sweat from my face.
It was me who was hiding face now…