Bal Kishan is a hitchhiker standing by the motorway, waiting to hitch a ride. He is a young boy in khaki shorts and a t-shirt with a torn hem. A car stops. He opens the door. His voice a cute lisp. ‘Take me to the river. The one with the muddied banks and the red ball tangled in the branches of the tamarind tree. I need to get it back,’ he says. His stare turns inwards, fixed on a map only he can read. The places spin, blur and bleed. He pins them down with a shaking thumb. What went wrong. ‘Here I am running by the Jhelum, a twig of a boy chasing a striped ball. Can you see me? Aren’t I cute?’ He turns to his wife, all fingers pointing to himself. 'Yes, yes’ she shrills, nodding her head, rolling her eyes, tipping his rainbow coloured pills into a plastic box with a million dividers. ‘Is your constipation fine? Did you eat those prunes or should I give you some castor oil?’ Bal Kishan does not reply. Go, go away. He is still inside the car speeding to the river. Two hands, palms pressed hard against the small of his back push him out. There he stands, head held tight against the warm hum of his mother’s belly that smells of turmeric and oil. She is singing him a lullaby of the moon eating stars...chanda mama dum dee dum dee is that how it went. He scratches his chin. Mother sing me your song. Please. ‘Tilt your head,’ his wife commands. He opens his mouth, the gums soft coral pink. The syrup is a river slipping down his throat. ‘This should kick in soon. You’ll feel better and leave me in peace,’ says she turning away. Now he lies in bed, arm encircling a beloved’s naked waist. A woman who will never be his wife. There are marigolds in her hair he recalls, his trembling fingers reaching out to pull the flowers slowly petal by petal. ‘Till death do us part they promised each other. Where was she? We pay him a visit. Bal Kishan sits in front of us, hunched of shoulder, bald of head, damaged limbs walking nowhere. A plate of fried eggs waits on a tray next to him. I stick a finger in the yolk. Cold as a fish eye but he won’t care. He could be King Lear if he wanted, but I am no Cordelia waiting in the wings to sweep him away. Dull and solid I stand my ground. His granddaughter’s bib, the one with dancing teddy bears, we tie around his neck. ‘Eat the eggs, dad,’ we shout. ‘It’s protein and Omega 3.' ‘I want a haircut,’ he says running out of the fairground of his memories. ‘And my red striped ball, I left it behind.’ He blinks back at us. Why are they forcing dead food inside me. All I want is a guava from my father’s orchard. ‘Yes of course, dad. But you’ve got no hair? You want a Yul Brynner haircut?’ We speak loud and clear to this man with a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering. And ball? ‘What ball?’ We shrug, our mouths stitched in tight smiles. ‘It’s raining. We’ll play with the ball another day. The barber is shut,’ we lie, clucking our tongue. We are vulture hens pirouetting around Bal Kishan, our voices quiver with worry and rage. Why won’t he sit up straight, walk faster, be stronger, take his pills and go to sleep or just be goddamn quiet. ‘I want a haircut,’ he says. ‘And my red striped ball. Now.’ Who are they? These bitches. Stubborn he sits, folded hands curled into fists on his lap. Saliva threads his bottom lip. His head busy unspooling a fresh film, he is getting ready to hitch another ride. Take me away. Far, far away.
About the Author
Reshma Ruia is a British Indian writer based in Manchester. She has published one novel, Something Black in the Lentil Soup and a poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties. Her novel manuscript, A Mouthful of Silence was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Award. Her writing has appeared in British and international journals and anthologies and commissioned for Radio 4. Her short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness will be out in October this year. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani, a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers.