Flight

Picture Credits: Lode Van de Velde

Courage tries again, in vain, to explain to Eustace that his beloved
Muriel is in danger.

Eustace kicks him muttering, “Stupid dog.”

Courage says, “Oh no, Muriel, I’ll save you.”

I’m watching Courage the Cowardly Dog and eating
cornflakes. Courage lives in the middle of nowhere. Creepy things happen in
nowhere. And the narrative always relies on him to save the day. I live on this
small island in the Gulf with my parents. I could have been anywhere else but
I’m still here. Stuck like Courage. I used to love how Courage always saves the
day, saves his family. But I don’t think I do anymore. What if Courage could be
free from the burden? Muriel and Eustace would be just fine without him. He
could walk away anytime he wanted. But no, dogs are loyal. And so are daughters
expected to be. Birds are not. We had birds before. I loved them a lot and took
care of them. I opened their cage to test their loyalty. I was a fool. But they
deserve their freedom … I guess.

“Eat your cornflakes before they get soggy,” Mom yells from the bedroom.
Our living room is flooded with tube light even though it is 8am. Dad and Mom
have forbidden me to open the curtains, for perverts lurk everywhere. They
stare into homes, at young girls, using binoculars. Dad has left for work.
Mom is almost ready. Her driver will arrive soon. Mom and Dad are hoping I land
a relaxing job here after I finish my Bachelors at the university. They don’t
want me to go through the rigmarole of Indian transportation just to get to and
fro for work.

I can feel Mom run about the house getting ready for work, but I know
her eyes are on me. I finish up the cornflakes before she leaves. She’s happy.
As a good daughter, I do things to keep my parents happy. Mom watches Saavdhan
India
 almost every day and makes me watch it with her. And every
single time she says, “Thank God we didn’t send you to India. See what happens
there.” I’m still not allowed to go to the theatre with friends. She says
before leaving, “Don’t watch TV too long. You have to study, you know, right?”

When the lock clicks, I wait for like a minute before I change the
channel to Star Movies. I remember to change channels twice
before switching off the TV because I know Mom checks the previously viewed
channel always. We don’t have internet at home. I don’t have a mobile phone.
But I do read Sidney Sheldon. I switch on my PC and play the free Kellogg’s PC
game. I toggle left and right to get the milk in the bowl. If I miss, I lose a
point.

After the TV and PC fail to entertain me for long, I draw the living-room
curtains with more force than I intended. A curtain ring breaks. I slap my
forehead at my stupidity. I pick up the fallen ring and look out. No one’s
looking at me. I look down at the vegetable shop opposite our building. A
housewife bends over the array of veggies on display. She holds a brinjal, inspects
it. Puts it down and inspects another. While her husband is out at work, what
could she be doing at home? Her husband could have left her and the kids (if
they have kids) in India. But he got them here, thoughtful of him. Many husbands
can’t afford to keep their families here, and leave them back home. And what do
those lonely men do to keep themselves occupied?

After the woman leaves, the shopkeeper lingers outside the shop and then
he looks up. At me. And smiles. I duck and crawl away from the window. I sit on
the couch looking at our window. My heartbeat races. The shopkeeper is one such
man whose family is far away. He might as well be a bachelor. But he isn’t. All
his money is saved up and sent home to his family. After having sent the money
home, how do these men satisfy their desires? Just yesterday I read about this
Indian man who visited India after twenty years and didn’t recognize his family
anymore.

To avoid thinking about the shopkeeper and the lives of men like him, I
focus on the window. The tape imprints on the glass are a reminder of the Gulf War.
Of a time before I was born. Mom and Dad could have left. But they stayed. To
provide this sheltered life for me. Maybe they should have left. Growing up in
India makes one street smart. They wouldn’t have been able to restrict me there
the way they do here. Not with all our relatives around. But not all born and
raised here are as sheltered as I am. Some have had experiences. My friends
have invited their lovers home when their parents are out. Maybe I would have
done too, if I had one.

In school, I did get close to one guy. I go to my bedroom and take out
my slambook. I leave the curtain ring on my study table. My slambook is full.
Two pages are stuck to each other. I had glued them together for fear my
parents would see what’s hidden in there. I slowly pry the pages apart. They do
come loose but the impression of one lasts on the other. I can read a few
words, though. I smile at his writing. He must be in India now. Like most of my
friends. None of their parents cared enough to make their kids stay back. Higher
education sucks here. All the failures in school who repeated classes for years
are now with me in college.

I guess my only shot at love is if I leave this damn place. I might meet
someone smart and mature who’s at least been with a few girls before and who
would teach me things but also respect me. He would teach me to French kiss.
David’s face comes to mind. David and I studied in different schools. But we
met in college. He is my classmate. He is the only guy I talk to, maybe because
he is not threatening. At least, he wasn’t threatening until yesterday. After
our test, he had confessed his feelings for me. I wonder if I should tell him,
about wanting to leave this stifling island. I’m sure he wants to leave too. He
had confessed his feelings for me after the story. Does it mean he wants to
stay and that he likes it here because of me?

*

The story was about a small boy who was born on this island, like me.
And is now all grown up, like me. But he finds himself stuck on this island
with his haunting past. David said I wouldn’t know what that felt like. I told
him I wanted to know the boy’s name. He said he preferred if the boy was
nameless.

He took me to the boy’s past. The boy is sent to the cold store, a
little away from the boy’s house, by his parents almost every day to buy bread
or milk or eggs or chips. The shopkeeper notices that the boy is coming all by
himself every day and that when he engages the boy in idle conversation and
when more time passes, no one comes looking for the boy. After a few
months, he finds ways to bribe the boy with candies. The boy doesn’t know what
the shopkeeper is doing to him. When he does realise, it’s too late. The man
knows by now that he can use fear to make the boy do more. Much more. The boy
grows up to have a feminine gait and everyone mocks him for it, in school and
now even in college. 

He paused, his voice cracked when he said, “It’s not really my fault
that I walk like that. Do you think I walk like … like..?” 

I looked away so that he wouldn’t see the rage in my eyes. “Where is
that bloody shopkeeper now?” I said, still looking away.

“Forget I told you about it, okay?”

“Do you like men?” I asked, looking him in the eye.

I shouldn’t have asked him that but it just slipped out.

He looked shocked.

“No way. I … I like you, idiot. Why do you think I told you this? No one
knows this till now. Not … not even my parents.”

“Maybe you should tell them, that it happened right under their nose.
That they should have been vigilant. You are their child. Jesus. What?”

“Why are you so angry?”

“Oh please, do you expect me to dance?”

At night, he called me on my landline. Dad answered. He wasn’t happy
that a boy is calling me.

“You can discuss whatever you want in college, no? Why is he calling
here?”

“I don’t know, Dad. He’s a good friend. Maybe something urgent about our
test.”

Dad raised his eyebrows.

“Don’t worry,” I said hurriedly, “he’s … he’s most probably … gay.”

“What? How…?”

“Nothing. Forget it. I’ll tell him not to call anymore. Sorry.”

I felt bad for calling David that behind his back.

I slept restlessly. I dreamt that I met the shopkeeper. He crossed my
path on a dark road. I lifted a brick and flung it at his head. It missed. This
kept happening. There was no dearth of bricks. I kept aiming it at his head.
And I kept missing. Next, my foot was on his neck. He cried for forgiveness. He
told me he regretted it and that he wished he could start over. He had no
outlet for his desires and he couldn’t afford to fly home, not for a long time.
And that it had made him a monster and the easiest target was the small boy. I
pressed down my foot harder. He choked and died. Next, I was Courage the
Cowardly Dog, in my living room. Mom looked just like Muriel and Dad like
Eustace. Torn between staying with them and rescuing David, I picked David, but
when I reached the shop … the damage was done. What happened next is exactly
what Mom told me would happen if I left them. The shopkeeper raped me, saying, “You
thought you could kill me? You can’t even defend yourself, let alone your
friend.”

I woke up, screaming.

*

I keep the slambook inside my drawer. I fix the curtain ring with magic
tape. I quickly pull the curtains and fit the ring in the ring hole. The rest
of the day I try to study. But I’m restless, wanting to talk to David about
leaving this place.

The next day in class, I tell David that I want to go to India and that
I feel stifled here. I tell him he should go too and that he would finally be
free from his past. I tell him I’m sick of my parents’ vigilance. And that boys
here have no exposure. I would never find a partner here.

“Did you forget that I said I like you? We can go together, get
admission in the same college. We will always be together.”

He leans forward and kisses me. I’m so shocked that I slap him. I blank
out in the exam. The guilt makes me puke in the loo. I wipe my lips every five
minutes.

At home, I try to pry my window open.

I’m a whore. I let the shopkeeper look at me and fantasise about me. I
let him rape me in my dream. I let David get molested in my dream. I let him
get close and finally kiss me. No one will believe me if I said he kissed me.
Everyone thinks he’s gay. I even told Dad so. What if he will do something more
tomorrow? I haven’t told him that I only see him as my best friend. I’ve just
kept silent. How can I hurt someone who’s been through so much? I can’t let him
down. I’ve let my parents down. I will never have to face any of them if I
leave this place. Only if I learn to fly.

The window slides open, finally.