Chitra would be fifteen tomorrow.
She held Akanksha’s index finger, a bright smile lighting up her face as she followed her. Though her mother said it was a childish habit, Chitra liked it too much to mind. Besides, she had a good excuse. How else would she manoeuvre the pitch dark streets ahead of her?
“Are you sure father’s coming tomorrow, mom?” Chitra asked. “He didn’t say anything like that on the phone. He even said he might not make it this year, more work and whatnot.”
“Oh, I’m sure he will. You should know by now how abrupt he can be. He is just being silly, trying to surprise you or something I guess,” Akanksha answered as she deftly manoeuvred through the crowded streets. “He wouldn’t miss the chance to see you no matter what. Work or no work.”
“Yes!” Chitra did a little skip on the road. She stumbled a little when her foot caught a stranger’s shoes. She lost her grip on Akanksha’s finger.
Akanksha turned around, tightening her grip on her wrist. “Be careful! You’re not a little kid anymore!” she chided her daughter, and then turned her attention to the stranger. “Sorry about that, mister. She is a little excitable.”
Chitra sensed the man’s glare like a prickle on her skin and put out her tongue in embarrassment. The man’s lips curved in disgruntlement as he grumbled, “Just watch the ro-” he trailed away, spotting the dark glasses Chitra wore and the white cane she carried. “Hm, just be careful alright?” he said more kindly, walking away with an awkward expression on his face.
“How many times have I told you to be careful on the road? If you do anything like this or let go of my hand on the road again, I’ll never take you outside!” Akanksha threatened, her fingers tightening on her daughter’s wrist like a vice.
“Ow!” Chitra instinctively tried to retract her hand but stopped herself. It was kind of her fault, after all. “Sorry, mom! I’ll be careful next time,” she said in a guilty voice.
“Hmph! 'careful next time'. You always say that. Just like your father.”
The word ‘father’ took away whatever sense of guilt Chitra had inside her. “I hope he brings some good books with him,” she said, excited.
“Sure he will. He absolutely loves spoiling you and wasting money. That’s why your grandpa doesn’t like him.”
“Grandpa doesn’t like me either,” Chitra grumpily said.
“Chitra!” Akanksha frowned back at her daughter. Despite being only fourteen, she was slightly taller than her. “You know that’s not true. He is just a little too serious.”
“It is true.” Chitra pouted. “Only grandma likes me.” she stepped forward and hugged Akanksha from behind. “And you like me too, don’t you?”
Akanksha unclasped her hand and turned around. “Silly girl, you’re embarrassing me,” she said, playfully tapping Chitra’s head. “Of course I do! Why? Do you doubt it?”
“Nope. I know you love me.” Chitra reached out and touched Akanksha’s face, running her fingers on her soft, rounded cheeks, broad forehead and small but straight nose. She saw her mother with the tip of her fingers. “And you love father too, I know,” she said, with a knowing smile. “So why don’t you two get back together again?”
Akanksha rolled her eyes. “Someone’s learned how to lead people on, I see. Is this something you learned from all those romantic novels you’re so into recently? Should I take them away?”
“Nooo! Not my novels! They are my...” Chitra stopped, her dark eyebrows drew together in consideration. “I suppose if you and father are willing to get back together, I shall sacrifice my novels for the greater good! However painful it may be,” she said in a heroic voice. She clutched her chest, face twisted in mock pain.
“Clever girl! But no thank you. Your father always acts irresponsibly. Always looking for an excuse to squander money.” Akanksha pinched Chitra’s cheek. “Of course, you’re no better. Always encouraging him, asking him to buy this and that whenever he comes.”
“Nope, this matter isn’t up for discussion.” Akanksha looked at Chitra’s downcast face. Her expression softened. “Well, not like this is completely out of consideration, but your father needs to learn to be more responsible with… everything first. Only then I would consider remarrying him.” She leaned toward her daughter. “And you also need to wait a few more years before you’re ready to discuss such things. Now let’s go. We have put on enough of a show for all the people on the road.” she pulled Chitra’s wrist, leading her forward again.
“So you really left him just because he was irresponsible?” Chitra asked after Akanksha, drawing close to her she lowered her voice. “Not because he was cheating on you?”
Akanksha nearly stumbled on the smooth road. Catching herself, she turned and gave Chitra a peculiar glare. Speechless, her expression went through many changes from incredulous to amused as various emotions played in her mind. “I’m curious to know who’s been teaching my sweet daughter such wonderful ideas. Care to tell me the name of this person?” she asked.
“It’s aunty!” Chitra blurted out. “She says you left father because he cheated on you.” she conveniently forgot to add the word “probably” her aunt Anushka had added to that statement.
“Oh? It’s your aunt, is it?” Akanksha dragged Chitra forward, her pace quickening slightly as a frown formed on her face. “It seems I have to sit down and have a nice, long chat with her when we return,” she bit the words out.
A slightly sinister grin of satisfaction stretched Chitra's lips behind Akanksha’s back. But it was gone as quickly as it had come; instead, she tilted her head, lost in contemplation. She had to get them back together, no matter what. How to teach him to be responsible enough for mom’s taste… well, she supposed she too would have to sit down and have a nice, long chat with him when he arrives tomorrow.
“We are here,” Akanksha said, standing in front of a store displaying a variety of clothes and dresses for women. “Be careful, there are a few steps here,” she said, gently tugging Chitra’s wrist to lead her.
“I know mom,” Chitra said. She extended the stick in her right hand to probe and prod at the elevated ground as she climbed up the stairs quite nimbly.
“Here, try this one on. It would be perfect for her looks.” the plump shop employee handed Akanksha a dress. It was a dark red one-piece with gold and green thread work on the collar and the hem.
“Thank you, Mona.” Akanksha put Chitra’s hand on the dress. “What do you think? Like it?”
Chitra ran her fingers over the fabric for a moment. “I don’t know. I still like this one better.” she held up the new, green shirt she wore as a test. “It feels good on my skin. So smooth.”
“Of course it would. The one you are wearing is silk, while the red one is cotton,” Mona said. “But trust me, the red one would look a lot better on you.”
“I don’t really care about looks that much.” Chitra shrugged.
Mona shook her head in exasperation.”You’re a girl. You should have a better sense of fashion than the guys. Only if you could see—” Mona caught herself, immediately and apologized, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to say anything like that.”
“How could you say such a thing, aunt Mona?” Chitra's face fell in an expression of sadness. She looked like she was about to cry. “I know I can’t, but you shouldn’t…”
Mona started panicking. She never really intended to say anything like that, it was just a slip of tongue. She was about to apologize once again when Akanksha slapped the back of Chitra’s head.
“Stop doing that. You’re scaring aunt Mona,” she said and then turned towards Mona. “Don’t worry, Mona. She isn’t that sensitive about it. She just likes making fun of people.”
Chitra caressed the sore spot at the back of her head and dipped her head in apology. “Sorry aunt Mona. And don’t worry about it.”
She swung her hand in a grand gesture. “My world may be dark, but what you call colours, are just a product of one sense. How grand can they be, compared to the various nuances of music all around us? Compared to the thousands of layers that smell of all things carry, compared to my sense of touch that can show me the tiniest of shapes of things that your eyes might often miss, compared to the subtlety of flavours in even the simplest food.”
She leaned toward Mona as if she could see her, the flabbergasted face of the woman reflected on her black glasses. She held up her five fingers. “In other words, with only my four senses, I’m far superior to you. You, who miss all these wonderful things despite having five senses, because you all are too occupied with only one of them,” she said in her best villain voice as she closed the fingers one by one until only one remained.
Clap, clap clap!
Akanksha clapped her hands. “Wonderful, wonderful. Should I hand you your oscar or should I mail it to you?” she shook her head and held up the dresses. “Enough playing around. We have other places to visit too. Hurry and choose which dress you want.” with a slight pause, she added, "Though I think you should take the red one like Mona said. I can tell It’d look great on you.”
“Why not both then?” Chitra asked.
“Ambitious! And a big spender, just like your father,” Akanksha said, tapping her chin. “Well, why not? I want my girl to look her best during her birthday.” she handed the dress back to Mona. “Now let's go and change the one you're wearing. Bring it back so Mona can pack it.”
She led Chitra away to the dressing room at the far end of the hallway decorated with rows of various clothes. “Do you want me to help you change?”
“Nope, I got this,” Chitra entered the small room with a full-sized mirror on one wall and closed the door.
Suddenly, Mona’s voice came from the other end of the room. “Akanksha, can you come here for a moment?”
“Coming!” Akanksha called back. She turned towards the wooden door and said, “I’ll be back in a while, wait here if I’m not back when you are done. Don’t try to go anywhere, or there’ll be no tandoori tomorrow, understood?”
“Understood mom,” Chitra answered as she fumbled with the cloth belt at her waist.
Chitra stepped outside the room. She was back in her blue t-shirt and jeans.
“Mom!” she called out, but no answer reached her above the conversations of the other shoppers all around. Her mom was too far away to hear her it seemed. She wiggled her shoulders in discomfort
Should she shout louder? No. with so many unfamiliar footsteps all around her, it would be embarrassing. She prodded with her stick, reaching a nearby bench and sitting down. She laid the green shirt down beside her and rested her face on her palms.
She thought back to a while ago. When Mona had mentioned her eyes. Though she hadn’t really lied about not caring about eyes, it would be false to say she had no desire for them at all. What did it feel like to have eyes? What lay beyond her world of darkness? These questions always tugged at her mind, drawing her imagination to a world where colours were actually various forms of sound. Individual music that clung to each and every object.
After a while, Chitra got up. She would have brought a book if she knew she’d have to wait so long. She cocked her ears and listened to the footsteps all around her. So many people! She felt a little suffocated. The sterile air of the air conditioning wasn’t helping either. Should she go outside for a bit? Get some fresh air?
Chitra shrugged. Just standing at the gate shouldn’t be that dangerous. Akanksha would find her easily if she searched a bit. Also…
A mischievous smile formed on her lips. Lately, Akanksha was always a step ahead of her no matter what prank she pulled. This seemed like a great opportunity to tease her a bit. Akansha should’ve threatened her with her books instead of food if she wanted her to listen.
She stepped toward where she assumed the entrance should be.
Akanksha grumbled as she walked back towards the dressing room. The red dress was a defective product. Mona only noticed it while packing. Luckily they found a replacement for it, but it still took them a while.
She glanced towards the dressing room door. It was still shut. Chitra wasn’t finished yet? What was taking her so long?
She went towards the bench and was about to sit down when she noticed the green dress laying on it. She picked it up, her eyebrows drawing together in a frown. Yes, This was the one that her daughter was trying out, she was sure. Why was it outside?
The noise of the dressing room door opening drew her attention. She looked up as the person inside stepped out. It wasn’t Chitra.
No! Where had she gone? Akanksha stumbled forward in desperation. She reached out and clasped the hand of the girl who came out from inside.
The girl frowned and looked at her. “Excuse me?” she asked, displeased at Akanksha’s rudeness.
“My daughter!” Akanksha gulped down the panic in her voice. “A- a girl wearing glasses. Have you seen her? She was in there before you.” She let go of the girl and held up her hand in an indication of height. “She’s about this tall. She should be easy to spot.”
The already disgruntled girl felt even more annoyed as Akanksa indicated the height. She was about a head shorter after all. Still, looking at the worried face of the older woman dissipated some of that anger. “If you are talking about the blind girl, I saw her standing beside the entrance.”
Akanksha whirled around and started hurrying towards the entrance. She stopped midway and turned her head. “Thank you!” she said to the girl and started running once again.
The noise of the people, the horns and engines of cars passing by to her right, and all the other sounds of the road created a cacophony around Chitra. A throng of people all around her pushed her around, getting her farther and farther away from where she wanted to go.
No, she wasn’t even sure where she was supposed to go. The noise and smell and everything around her left her mind in a confusing mess.
She hadn’t wanted to come out on the footpath. A group of gossiping girls exiting the shop had pushed her along before she could stop them. Really, talking about videogames and whatnot and not even paying attention to other people. Now she was stranded among this sea of people. The crowd was too much, it felt ten times bigger than before she entered the shop and denser too.
Chitra clenched her teeth. Mom would be so worried if she didn’t find her. She didn’t mean to worry her, she only wanted to surprise her a little. It was too dangerous for her to be here. She had to get back to the shop. She had dropped her stick somewhere, but that’s something she could worry about later. She guessed the direction where the shop might be and pushed against the surrounding crowd.
Among all the pushing and confusion, she managed to push herself away from the crowd. The sudden emptiness around her made her stumble. She flailed her arms and caught herself before she ended up falling, and released a breath of relief.
Her ears caught the shout of a voice. “Get away from the road!”
She spun around in surprise. The car horns blared around her as they passed by her side, the smell of fuel and dust clogged her nose and the wind gusts of their passing battered her.
Oh no! She was on the road. She had to get away from here!
She took a step forward in her panic and immediately backed away. A huge bus passed just a foot away from her, blowing her hair all around her like a storm. She took a deep breath in shock and sat on the ground.
Some people in the footpath were making a fuss, shouting at her to get away from the road. Some shouted at the cars to stop, but none of it made a difference. She couldn’t move and the cars wouldn’t stop.
“M- MOM! Where are you?” she cried out in a frightened voice. Fear and anxiety made her heart pound against her chest. If only she could see, she wouldn’t be in this situation.
“Chitra!” Akanksha’s shout came from the footpath.
“Mom! Here!” Chitra raised her hand and shouted back.
“Wait there, I’m coming!”
“Watch out for the car!” someone shouted.
Chitra’s breath caught in her throat. She could feel it. A sense of tremendous pressure from her side. A palpable sense of threat.
“MOOOM!” she screamed, dread clenched her heart in a vice grip as she tried to crawl away from the road.
Suddenly, two soft hands held her and drew her in a warm embrace. She recognized the warmth of her mother. And for a moment, she felt safe as if nothing in this world could hurt her.
The noise of tires skidding against the road was like nails against a blackboard. The impact that hit both of them carried the force of a thousand sledgehammers. Chitra’s whole body shook. She was lifted off the ground and flung into the air, but Akanksha’s embrace still didn’t leave her. They hit the ground, mother and child, and Chitra cried out from the piercing pain on her lower back.
All the cars screeched as their drivers pushed the breaks. And then a quietness settled on the road. Cries and gasps and shouts for the ambulance and the raindrop of footsteps around her didn’t seem to reach Chitra’s ears, only the warm wetness soaking through her clothes and a numb pain inside her stayed.
“M- mmm...” she groaned through a numb mouth, unable to call out to her mom. She tried nudging at the body embracing her, but Akanksha didn’t respond; instead, a tremendous pain shot up her spine like boiling hot acid. It tore at her nerves until she couldn’t even draw a breath. Chitra’s stomach churned. She ran from the pain, ran from everything, even from her consciousness.
And then, she remembered nothing.
End of prologue.