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Streaks

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A dirty buffalo sauntered down the street, flinging its hairy tail at an unfortunate passerby's face. Rusty oil lanterns hung from the edges of the riddled tin roofs and their trembling wicks cast funny shadows on its thick black skin like an ancient mural enchanted to life. The haggard inhabitants of the slum were returning home, clad in a shimmering coat of golden sweat.


Your brown eyes shone softly in the flickering light of the oil lantern. "Watch me," you said loftily while your jaws moved in a breakneck speed, grinding the paan leaves into a thick juice. I scratched my bare scrawny chest and squatted next to you. I was eleven and you were two years older than me and a head taller. You wiped your hands in your mud smeared pink skirt to dust off the excess lime powder. Hitching up the skirt to your hip, you puckered your dark lips and spat out a bright red missile of betel and lime. The grime road in front of us was painted ruddy with erratic streaks of maroon. You turned to look at me in triumph and raised an eyebrow. "Your turn." I mimicked your rudimentary moves, determinedly chewing the leaves and dusting off the powder like a villain, but left my battered khaki shorts alone. With your hands crossed across your chest, you waited for my performance. Mustering all my maxillary strength, I launched what I thought was a decent spray. You sighed and shook your head, scattering your unkempt brown hair across your thin sand-colored face. "Long way to go."


The creak of the tin door made us look back. A large woman with a rather hard face and a billowing chest stood at the threshold of your rusty cottage. A cheap white plastic bag dangled from her brown beefy arm and even in the fleeting light, I could not mistake the small cardboard box that always repulsed the paan spitting thirteen year old girl. A bunch of flies gathered around the bag, which also had some crumpled betel leaves and jasmine flowers entangled in the fallen strand of your mother's black hair. Her congenital frown shifted from me to you. "You should think of quitting your little paan games with this hapless boy and come help me with the real ones." She spat at her daughter and disappeared into the hovel. You vengefully tore the remaining leaves and ran away, angry tears welling in your eyes. I looked at the little green pieces on the ground. I wanted to practice.


You disappeared for a few days, sitting in your shack and weaving jasmine buds into the threads. They usually adorned our mothers' long, single braids every morning and ended up in the white plastic bags at night. I waited all evening on the dingy street, clutching a new set of paan leaves, which I had stolen from my mother's bag. I waited till my nails punctured crescent shaped holes in the leaves and left them wasted in front of your house.


Eventually, my persistent presence made you rekindle our evening ritual and a week went undisturbed and normal, while we painted the sand red again.


And then you disappeared again. This time there was no disgusted look at the white cardboard box to tip me off. Just a lingering unexplained absence. When no one was looking around, I peeped into your hut after school. The basket with the jasmine buds laid still and unperturbed. And then our puffy lipped teacher said that you had left school. Nobody seemed to care. "Why?" I asked, sad and curious. He turned to smile at me, ominously flashing his decaying front teeth. "She has gone to do better stuff that people like. Rather than wasting time here in this class." He chuckled like a mouse and smacked his reedy lips. I blinked and looked at your empty spot on the ground. I was really going to miss you.


I finally found you sitting on the dirty mattress in your hut. Our street was desolate that Friday evening, with most of the people gone to pray and light oil lamps in the near by temple, making the holy place brighter and our slum even darker. In a bursting frenzy, I pulled out some paan leaves that I kept hoarded in my tattered bag and ran to you and hugged you. The glistening trail of tears down your cheeks - now flushed - was the last thing that I noticed. Your deafening slap caught me off guard. We were shut in a bowl of silence, punctuated only by your heaving breaths and the pounding heat waves behind my ears. I scrambled to my feet, holding my swelling cheek and bolted out. The blood clots on your lips and the tiny scratches down your ears and neck did not escape my eyes but a pungent mixture of anger, hurt and disappointment blocked my mind.


There were no more streaks of vibrant red. Only glossy streaks of snail slime down your sand-colored cheeks.


As our paan streaks faded into the tedium of the trodden grime, I hardly saw you. One night I laid on my back looking at the chaotic sky, heavily littered with every possible star in the universe, made visible by the eternal black-out that shrouded the slum like a thick cobweb. My mother tossed on the threadbare charpoy and snored like a bulldozer. I scrutinized the white cardboard box in her bag and contemplated the various possible reasons for your obvious hatred toward it. A sharp siren pierced my awakened sleep and the landslide snoring came to a sudden halt. My mother flung her loosened sari across her chest and sprang to her feet. "Run!" Her hoarse voice shouted. "And don't ever look back." I heard my mother speak to me for the first time in months. I instantly obeyed her and embarked on my fleeing journey amidst the jostling throng and crying babies and far away from the lashing sticks and oiled beards.


The spider had finally descended on its cobweb, now fraught with writhing flies. I ran and never looked back. Not even for you.


A self-given haircut and an unexplained insensitivity to heat qualified me as a loyal helper boy at a small tea stall by the beach. I worked numbly all day, wiping benches and cleaning canisters, listening to the unceasing roars of the furious ocean. And sometimes, a particular engulfing wave looked ever so welcoming, but the dribbling paan from the munching mouths of the men who came to the stall kept me at bay - or rather, kept my doom at bay.


Time was elusive like a mud horse in river and in no time, I was caught in the gripping currents of misery. My voice turned squeaky and my throat started to bulge. The charitable man living on the beach turned me out of his little house, pointing at his blushing young daughter. "You're a grown man now and my daughter's yet to be married." I blinked at him and left the house, followed by a string of unusual nightly accommodations.


Monday afternoon was always a holiday as most of the portly men worked their sweating heads off in the steely skeletons of concrete buildings. The roasted chickpea vendors called out to the ignoring crowd as I sat on the sand and looked at the ocean's foamy hemline. The darkening sky did not bother me and I told myself that I deserved the day off. Just as the horizon tucked the sun in for the day, a white horse trotted down the shore, carrying a beer bellied man and a young brown-skinned woman. She jumped off the horse, extricating herself from the man's uncomfortable hug. He paid the horseman and slung his huge hand around her, making her slender frame stumble. He planted his lips in her ear, to which she issued a fake giggle. Lighting a cigarette, he swiftly walked away and melted into the dark night, leaving her all alone.


She rearranged the pleats of her sliding blue sari and looked up at the beacon. The sea breeze pushed her long brown hair out of those unmistakable brown eyes that shone ever so softly in the flickering moonlight of the twilight.


I looked up at the sky and saw it. Like a brilliant paan streak across the grime, a white shooting star shot across the sky. I wished on the streak and looked at you.




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