- Paresh Tiwari‘I don’t think you should be sitting here all day long doing nothing,’ said Sia.
‘And I think you are just jealous,’ Rusty rolled his eyes. ‘Jealous that I can sit here all day doing nothing, when you have to worry about fitting in that year-old school dress, catching the old tuk-tuk to that stink hole of a school, do your homework whether you want it or not, prepare for exams. Phew, I get tired just thinking about all that work.’
Sia pursed her lips and balled up her fists. ‘You know what mister,’ she said. ‘Next time, you can get your own food from Maa. As such I am tired of saving you my food.’ And with that Sia stormed out of the bedroom.
‘But she doesn’t even believe that I exist. You would leave me here to starve all day?’ he called out behind her, but didn’t move an inch from his chair in the balcony. The balcony was his window to the world. He could stay there all day long, watching the world go by its business, unmindful of him. The road under the balcony teemed with life. Mr. Sharma hurried by on his way to work, cursing anyone who crossed his path. The shrill horn of Rustomji’s car pierced through the scent of frying delicacies from Chandu sweet shop. Hamideh shuffled by, her ample bottom swaying dangerously in a bright yellow sari, haggling with the vegetable vendors.
Rusty would stay rooted in his chair, waiting for Sia to return and then recount the day’s adventures to her. He would weave his stories around the lives of Mr. Sharma, Rustomji, Chandu, Hamideh, and the stray brown dog. The two would add spurious details, inconceivable characters and unfathomable events to the tall tale. The story would become a living, breathing entity, Sia filling in where Rusty faltered and he doing the same for her as if they thought, believed and acted as one.
*Sia had met Rusty when she was four years old. That evening at the colony park, none of the kids wanted Sia in their team because she was too young, frail and awkward for a game of football. So, she sat down under a mango tree in blossom, sobbing quietly and Rusty had dropped from an overhanging branch, landing on his toes nimbly as if he had been doing this all his life. Sia had taken an instant liking to him. In fact, she was the one who had named him Rusty. Not that evening. That evening she had simply called him a monkey and he had chattered, whooped, screeched and scratched himself with such vigour that in a few minutes both of them had doubled up with uncontrollable bouts of laughter on the freshly cut grass.
That was seven years ago. In the beginning, they used to meet in the park. Soon Sia started visiting the park only to meet him. They became inseparable. He liked to answer the call of birds and whistle to strays. She liked to pelt him with Jamun seeds. Sometimes he imitated the rowdy colony boys who liked to rough each other up, especially because it made Sia laugh so hard. That was their secret, Sia’s revenge on those who didn’t want her in their team. Soon they had a new brood of friends. The spotted mongrel – Lula, who chased a ball or her own tail with equal pleasure, the black cat – Sleepyhead, who purred and bristled her tail against Sia’s shins, and the squirrel – Stripes, who would hang motionless like a ripe mango about to fall from the branches, then dart down to pick up the crumbs which Sia offered.
A few days later he moved to Sia’s home. He still remembered that day like it was yesterday. It was Sunday and they had played together for hours, built a castle with small stones and had raised a bright red flag - fashioned from an old torn kite, on its tallest minaret. Rusty had even told her the story of that kite, the places it had visited, the things it had seen. Sia had heard it all with rapt attention. But when the sun went down behind the onion-dome of the mosque, Sia’s mother had come to the park calling out for her, worried that she hadn’t eaten anything since afternoon.
Sia had held Rusty’s hand and together they had sprinted to meet Maa.
‘Meet my best friend in the whole world Maa,’ she had squealed.
And though Maa had seemed a bit confused, she had asked ‘And what’s her name?’
‘Her?’ Sia had rolled her eyes. ‘Maa, his name is Rusty, say hello to him Maa.’
Maa had smiled, still not looking at Rusty and asked ‘Would he join us for dinner then?’
‘Will you? Will you?’ Sia had pleaded bouncing around like a ball, ‘Please, please say yes.’
And he did. Seven years ago. Since then they had lived together, sharing the bedroom, the toys, the window, the food and the balcony.
*Sia was in an unusually sullen mood as she boarded the black yellow auto-rickshaw -the tuk-tuk. She hugged her blue rucksack and rocked on the balls of her feet, seething silently. She didn’t like quarrelling with her oldest friend.
A few stops later, Urvi climbed the rickshaw and plunked her bag on the pitted floor. Sia shifted to make space for her.
‘Bad mood, eh?’ Urvi elbowed Sia.
Sia looked at her and shook her head.
‘Yes, of course,’ said Urvi. ‘The next thing you would tell me is that you didn’t have one of your little spats with Rusty!’
‘He is bloody insufferable,’ said Sia, ‘And a lazy bum to top it off.’
‘And not to mention . . . invisible.’
The look Sia gave was enough to shut her up for the rest of the journey.
*The sun went up high into the sky, beating down with fury. But Rusty hardly felt it. He liked the way sunlight played with the slats of the balcony, painting neat rows of shadows on the tiled floor. He heard Maa open the door to Sia’s room. It was time for the daily cleaning. She would pick up Sia’s clothes, arrange her books and dust the table. Sometimes she even came to the balcony and sat down with Rusty. On days like that they shared a comfortable silence.
Sometimes Rusty did try and talk to her, tried to tell her how much he loved being a part of this family. But Maa often ignored him. Yet he liked her. He liked the gentle warmth that her mere presence brought to the room.
Today, Maa sat on the corner of Sia’s bed with her painting folio. She took out the paintings and spread them over the bed. Rusty got up from the chair and sat by her side. He could see these paintings for hours. Paintings of the time Sia and he had spent together chasing pigeons, dancing in the rain, running circles around a tree, making sand castles on the beach, playing in the snow . . .
If there was one thing he missed terribly, it was their family vacations. They were hard to come by now, what with Papa’s work pressures and the extra expenditure on Sia’s music class. Not to mention the new friends she had made. Sometimes she deliberately left him behind when going out with her friends.
‘It’s an all girl thing, Rusty. What would you do there,’ she had said the last time she went out for a movie with her friends.
As if he didn’t know.
‘Why don’t you just admit, you are ashamed of me,’ he had spat back.
*All through the day at school, Sia missed Rusty. He had been her friend for as long as she could remember and she hadn’t been fair to him of late. Secretly she was embarrassed of having a friend that no one could see or hear. And yet he was always there when she needed him - with a wise-crack, a story or a hug. But she liked her new friends too. She liked painting her nails, doing up her hair or looking at the mirror for hours, as she tried out new dresses.
*When Sia reached home, Rusty wasn’t in his chair. He was sitting in a corner of her room, their room, head bent over a large sheet of white paper. She went and sat down cross-legged by his side. He was painting another one of his Sia-Rusty series. There must have been more than a hundred of those in Sia’s painting folder now.
‘What are we painting today?’ Sia asked.
But Rusty ignored her resolutely, bending down even further over the painting.
‘So you are not going to talk to me? Like ever?’ she asked. Then added after a moment ‘I haven’t been a good friend, have I?’.
‘Not really,’ Rusty said in a small voice and looked up. ‘And neither have I.’
‘Well, that’s true too. But if I am truly honest with myself, I have been acting a bit like a bi**h.’ Sia said without a hint of smile. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to be friends with you anymore. Or that I don’t like spending time with you, but there is so much more that I wish to do too. I am changing Rusty and I don’t like it much. And then sometimes I do. What in the world’s happening to me?’
‘You are asking me?’
Rusty laid down his brush. ‘You know what pupas do? They are like caterpillars one day and then they sleep through the night inside an ugly looking molt and emerge all resplendent, with wings to boot. I think you are that pupa, ready to live a new story now, one that you are weaving for yourself.’
‘A pupa? Did you just compare me to a pupa? Like for real?’ Sia widened her eyes in mock disgust.
Then smiled and covered his hand with hers. ‘Do you do that too? Live your own story sometimes?
‘I have been living it for over seven years now.’
*That night Sia and Rusty held each other and slept like twins in a womb. The less than full moon slipped past the balcony unnoticed. Countless stars twinkled and faded away as the pink of dawn spread over the neighbourhood. As the pale beams of sun spilled in through the window, Sia woke up.
And Rusty wasn’t there.
It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever.
She raced to the balcony and the kitchen. The bathrooms and the garden. She looked for him in her parent’s room and in the study, under the bed and the table. And then she ran outside the house in her bed clothes, unmindful of the growing patch of red-brown spot on her skirt.