‘Sample Chapters’ The Unwanted Shadow
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I remember the first time I sat on a bus, some twenty years back. I had a lot on my mind backthen.Now,I am much older and strangely my mind has shed away all those thoughts that once used tohaunt me.The view isbeautiful as ever. I can see the river bending at a faraway place. It’s been quite a while since I saw something so green. I seem to have forgotten how serene this place can make me feel.
The milestone says Punia is one mile away.We will be there soon.
I have been sitting in this bus for the last couple of hours; the bad road and the diesel smell always makes me nauseous.
The bus stops at the next fuel pump. The driver gets out and walks down to the person at the other end of the booth. Another staff at the boothrefuels the tank as the driver shares a cigarette with his friend. They must be seeing each other a lot whenever the bus passes this way. Making friends on the way!I don’t know why but the idea amuses me.
The fuel tank has been filled, but the driver is still talking to his friend as he takes another drag of the smoke. They are delaying, but what do I care. I have got all the time in the worldtoday.
After a long wait, the driver throws the cigarette on the ground and starts the engine. People finallyseem to be relieved to get some fresh air through the window. The hot and humid weather can be suffocating for them, but nobody could have felt more suffocatedthan me. I have left a lot of things behind me now, things I thought I wanted but never reallydid. It is funny how things turn out many times in life; till the time you don’t get something you think you cannot live without it but when you finallyhave it, everything seems vague.
The bus stops after a while.The bus standis just as I remember it, though everything elsearound has changed. ‘Bhebarghat Bus Stand’,the signboard proudly proclaims.My home is still four miles from here. I will be lucky to get a lift,but I think it would be better if I walk the way. Everything seems to have come out of a dream I kept having for the last two decades. I remember all of it as if a part of some long forgotten memory.
It’s a windy day and I am thankful for it. It would have been pretty difficult to walk such a long distance otherwise. I remember cycling through the same road everyday to school, froma time when I was younger. It was a different time really, and a different place, a place no one would be able to find again. As forme,I don’t even know if my family is alive or if they have been killed. I am nervous of what I am about to find out.
I now realize it will be very late by the time I reach my house. People here sleep early, or atleast, they did sowhen I was here. I know none of them rememberme; they probably think Iam dead. Well, in a way, I am…
The twenty-first century started off rough for most of the world. 9/11 and the war that followed still hollow the memories of the generationfrom within. It’s strange how itcontinues to affect us, and deep down we know it always will. When all of this was happening, I was busy running my errands at home. I lived in a small town named Mangaldai, funny name for a place if you ask me. It was untouched by all of it.The newstookdays to reach us and when it did, it didn’t mean anything. Itwas from a different world, and we had our own lives to take care of, ourowncomplications to get through.
My name is Mohan Sharma, height 6’2. I don’t think I am handsome but everything isat theright place on my face; so I guess I am not so ugly either. I was brought up in a conservative way in this remote part of the country. I have three elder sistersandoften heard my grandmother say that my parents wanted a boy all along and in that way, I was a gift. Soon, this became evident in everything they did. I was given an egg in breakfast while my sisters got nothing at all;not even Neetu who was only two years older to me. I was the one who got new booksandtoys. My sisters never complainedthough, despite the fact that they had to do all the household chores also. I think they too had accepted that they could have done nothingabout the whole situation;having beenborn in a place like this didn’t give you the right to question things.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t like this arrangement, but still I could never gather enough courage tosay it in front of my mother. From time to time, I would get angry at my parents for treating my sisters like that,a few days would pass and things would go back to whatthey were. Sometimes, I wondered if my parents just loved me because I was a boy and by law was endowed to take care of them.
My father was a teacher in the town high school, and with the income from the tuitions he took, we were doing well, better than most of the families in the town.Hisbeing a teacher also meant we had to be regular at school, unlike other children in the neighborhood. My father made it a point that my sisters attended school too, and when they wanted to study more, he agreed, and for that I am thankful to him. My mother clearly and vehemently disagreed with him on this point,but the house rules applied to her too;the man of the house had asserted his decision. So, with a happy heartI watched my sisters go to college everyday and waited for the daywhenmy turn would come, the day when I would head towards my dreams.
But as I grew up, whenever I would bring up the topic, I saw tinges of reluctance in myfather’s eyes. Later, I came to know the reason.My father might have been a teacher in school but he was no modern thinker, he thought like the rest of the world. He wanted me to stay back, live with him, teach in the school like he did,and then someday get married so that my wife would serve him. He never expressed these expectations out loud, but I knew this was the future he had thought for me in his mind, because it had been in my mind too when I was younger.
But I knew it couldnever be my life; so contrary to his wishes I got busy inweaving dreams of my own. And it was these dreams that gave me the incentive to study late in the night, till my eyes ached. Education meansa lot of things to people,butfor me it was an escape. With all the work in the house, sometimesthings drove me crazy, but I knew that if ever I could leave this place, education would be my only saviour. And for that, being good in studies wasn’t going to be good enough. I had to be better. I had to be extraordinary.
I was eighteenyears oldand had just finished taking my board exams. My days consisted of talking to friends and doing odd jobs to earn some money for my education. The construction site provided me just the opportunity. The pay was less, but it was at least something, and working for my education gave me hope that one day I would indeedbe going to college. I didn’t tell my father any of that. I just told him I had nothing to do; so I workedthere. But I think he did guess why I was working, although he didn’t say anything. By then my elder sister, Priya,already had a job as a teacher in the same school where my father worked.
One fine evening, my father was out and mother had asked me to get some groceries from the shop at the nearby chowk. It was a windy evening, and I was leisurely walking back home with thoughtsplaying on my mind, watching a kid runa cycle tyrewith a stick, watching people coming back from theiroffices in their motorcycles. I was planning on what I would do that night when suddenly I heard noises coming from our house. At first I assumed that some relatives had come to our house, but then I heard a wail, and then I heard my father shout. I could notclearly make out what he was saying, but I was able to figure out that he was terribly angry. Who was crying, or who had he been shouting at,I had no idea…
Saying a silent prayer under my breath, I walked faster, wondering what hell had befallen our home now. Five minutes later, in the living room I found my father in his chair, breathing heavily and Richa, my second sister, standing beside him.
Neetu still hadn’t returned from her classes, I noticed.
Priya stood beside Richa. It was as silent asit could get, and respecting the mood of the moment I stood at one corner, saying nothing. I had no clue what was happening, but when I looked at Priya and managed to hold her gaze, she shook her head and indicated that she would tell me later. I wondered if father had hit Richa. It was so not him. I mean yes, he did get angry from time to time, but I had never seen him so angry.
Nobody said anything for a while. Finally, after a few minutes of silence, dad shoutedat Richa to go to her room.
Richa obeyed without any protest. Itseemed as if even a light breeze would have gother off her feet. And then slowly Priya got up andwent back to preparing dinner as if nothing had happened, while he sat in the room for some more time. When he realized that he had done what he had to do, he went to the nearby store to have his regular smoke.
Immediately after his departure, I went to talk to Richa but she wouldn’t open the door; so I went to the kitchen to talk to Priya instead. She was busy chopping vegetables when I walked in. I didn’t say anything for the first few minutes, just watched her hands mechanically chop the vegetables. When mom went away, I fired her with my questions.
“What happened? Did she get kicked out of school or something?” She raised her eyes at me. I could see that she was sad and realized that the matter was much more serious than that.
“No, dad saw her with a guy from college. They were kissing. He was really angry today. He even slapped Richa.”
I knew this had happened when I saw Richa’s face this evening, but the shock of hearing it was still there.“Mother didn’t stop him?”
“No,I tried…” She let the sentence hang there, realizing she had already said too much.
“What? Did he hit you too?” She tried to protest, but when I held her gaze, she told me.
“Now, you don’t start fighting with dad again. Okay? He didn’t mean to hit me. He was just angry.” I knew what she was trying to do. The last time dad hit Neetu, I had had a big fight with him. I mean I could go on like nothing’s wrong when he treated them like that, but hitting was something I strongly felt about. This time I said nothing. Priya would like it more if I did nothing, I knew, and after having such a hard day, I owed her that.
“I knocked, but Richa is not opening the door,” I finally said to break the silence.
“She will be okay. She told me about the guy some days back. I should have told her to stop then, it would not have come to this. I don’t know what dad’s going to do now.”
“He already hit her, what more can he do?” I shouted. “And why didn’t she tell me about it?” I asked, remembering I was the only one not to know about this.
“She made me promise not to tell you or Neetu. She was scared dad might know.”
I kept silent after that, while she continued to work with the dough. The plastered walls of the kitchen had been blackened by the smoke emanating from the gas burner below. There was no fan in the room,although father had promised to get it installed soon. The smoke was suffocating in there, but the women had to work here all day long. They didn’t seem to mind. Maybe they were comfortable in the heat just like my father was with his life.It seems impossible to do something when you watch it from a distance, only when you are in it that you come to know.
I looked over at Priya.She was shaping the dough into small spherical balls, sweat dripping off her brows. I would have offered to help her, but I would make more mess than dinner.She gave me a small smile when she saw me looking at her. I returned it the best I could. We both sat in comfortable silence.
“She really loves him.”
“Sorry! What did you say?” I asked.
“She really loves him. I met him once. He is good.” I nodded, but both of us knew it didn’t matter if he was good, father would never agree. Even Richa knew that.
What scared me was if Richa could go on living like nothing had happened, and accept it as her fate? That would be hard, but there was no other option.
The front door opened and both of us craned our neck to look who arrived, expecting neighbors who had heard the fight, or worse…..dad.
To our relief, it was Neetu. She went to keep her bag inside the room,which she, Richa and Priya shared, but found it locked. She knocked for a while but no one answered it. I shouted for her to come to the kitchen.
Priya poured her a cup of tea from the pot. Neetu kept her bag and sat in a chair. She had noticed how silent the house was. Usually there would be some sort of noise – sometimes neighbors, sometimes mom.
I told her what had conspired in the evening, though I spared her the part where dad hit Priya and Richa. She didn’t say anything when I told her the story. She was probably imagining how it might have happened. Maybe she guessed that dad had hit Richa.
A while later, mom went out for a walk, but not along with dad. In my town, one rarely sees husband and wife taking an evening stroll together. There was no rule against it, but that’s how things were. Men hung out with other men in the neighborhood, while women stayed in the house or went to their neighbor’s house and talked stuff. I guess mom just needed to clear her mind. I didn’t know when dad would be back. Normally, he came back half an hour before dinner. It was already seven.
And as for Richa, I wondered for how long she wouldn’t be taking dinner. I asked Neetu to come with me and help to get Richa open the door. It was after ten minutes or so that she answered our call.
“Leave me alone for a while,” she said in a cracked voice.
I urged Neetu to say something.
“Let us in! Nobody’s at home except Mohan and Priya Di. Please open up, you are worrying us.” The door opened after a few minutes. As we entered, I could see that her eyes were swollen; she must have been crying the whole time. I couldn’t blame the guy who fell for her though, even with her swollen eyes and red nose she looked beautiful.
We sat in her room, Neetu trying desperately to lift up her mood. Priya couldn’t be there; she had a lot of work to do since mom wasn’t there to help her. I wonder now what it would be like to teach forthe whole day in school and then come back and prepare dinner for the family. I feel guilty sometimes for letting them rot in that piece of hell. But there were few things that could have been done.
Richa’s mood lightened up a little by the time mom came back, but we all knew that when dad would come back, nothing would be normal again.
Father came back an hour later than usual. Dinner was taken by everyone in complete silence. Even Neetu, whose voice wouldusually ring during thedinner,was silent. Father didn’t talk to Richa, and my mother too didn’t, because she was afraid it might offend dad.
Later that night, I heard Richa sniffing in the other room. I heard Priya say something to her, though I couldn’t make out what she was exactly saying. Theirtalking went on for a while, after which they both fell silent. I couldn’t sleep well that night. The thought of what would happen the next day still terrified me. I wanted things to get back to normalat the earliest. And I believed they would, sooner or later, like always. But for me, it was the first time that they didn’t.
Father was true to his words. Richa’s marriage was fixed the very next week, to a guy none of us had everheardof before. Fathertold us that the guy was from a well-off family, and that he controlled a huge network of shops. That was probably what described a good guy- a good income. The first time he toldus the news, Richa was sitting by the window in the living room. I saw father steal a peek at her, but he didn’t say a word. Richa was staring ahead, poker faced. As for me, I didn’t have any idea what to do. Andabout Richa, I thinkshe had made peace with that decision long ago. She totally knew this was coming.
The next few days weren’t good. No matter how much me and Priya tried to reason with father, it always ended in a fight. It was finally one day that Richa told both of us to put a stop to this. She said she had hadenough; ormaybeshejust wanted everybody to live in peace. I was in no way thinking of giving up, but when she made me promise, I couldn’t refuse.
In a few days, all of us got busy preparing for the wedding. There was so much to do in such a short span of time. Richa never talked to father, and father was too proud to make an apology. I thought they would beokay, given some time.
Richa spent her time between working in the kitchen and watching us make preparations for the wedding. Nobody would have said anything even if she did nothing, but maybe she just wanted to feel normal again. She would otherwisekeep to herself, except for making some small talk with us at times.
Looking at her, I would have thought she was feeling better,but once in awhile I would hear her weep in the bedroom. I didn’t know if it was because she nevergot to meet the guy, or because she was being forcefully married off. I think she just wasn’t ready to embrace such a huge change in her life at that young age. But I never walked up to her and talked about this, because I did not know whatto say or how to say it either. I could have said everything would be alright, but it would have been a lie. And I wasn’t going to do that. God! Those words felt hollow to my own ears.
It would be fair to say it was this incident that turned my indifference towards the behavior of my father to hatred. The hatred grew as the wedding approached. Fewer words transpired between us and whatever we talked, it was never related to how we felt. It was just a daily routine, talking about stuff in the house, things that needed to be done. It was as if we were separated by a wall and silently I knew that was exactly what it was, and that the wall was never going to fall.
Things went on well on the day of wedding. I saw little of Richa.I was too busy running around, and she was busy entertaining the guests. I could only imagine how much effort it took to act normal in front of so many people all day long. Had I been in her place, I would have screamed my lungs out.
The bridegroom arrived at midnight, accompanied by dozens of his relatives. The bus stopped a few metersfrom our house. The wedding took place at around threea.m. Richa didn’t talk to father before she got up in the bus, neither were there any tears in her eyes. And I just stood there. I didn’t sayanything, only kissed her forehead. As the sun came up, I watched the bus drive away. It was the last time I ever saw Richa.
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