The Grill Door

I’m one who watches movies in installments. I finally got to watch the first story of 5 Sundarikal on my flight this time. It was the most disturbing story in that movie. 

Time to plug in a story I had written a few years ago.

Sanju plodded up the stairs and rang the doorbell. Rama aunty wouldn’t open it soon. She stood there waiting impatiently, digging on a flake of peeling paint on the yellow wall. The schoolbag was weighing her backwards. A good five minutes later Sanju heard shuffling footsteps.

“Hello Sanju, back from school?” Rama aunty gushed as she opened the door, and then went back inside for another two minutes before she came back with the keys.

“Why don’t you come in and have something” she asked in a baby voice.

Sanju shook her head. “Bye aunty”, she said and lugged her bag up the next flight of stairs, clutching the bunch of keys in one hand.

“Rama aunty is doing us a big favour by keeping our house keys. Never impose on her. Politely refuse if she offers you a snack, and never go inside their house” These were her mother’s strict instructions, and Sanju followed them scrupulously.

Rama aunty was not actually an aunty, Sanju thought. She looked more like her grandmother in Kanpur. But since her mother and father both called her Rama aunty, Sanju too did the same. The old woman too probably felt some satisfaction, being called aunty by a nine year old. How come there is a grandmother in that house when there are no children? Sanju always wondered.

She missed both her grandmothers a lot. She hardly saw them. Sometimes she visited on Diwali or for a few days during her summer vacations. She treasured those moments with her grandparents. One was in Dehradun and the other was in Kanpur. Both of them never visited their house in Noida. “There is nothing for us there” was their reply whenever they were invited to stay over.

She stood outside her house and fumbled with the keys. She pulled out the silver key and opened the silver lock. The iron grill door opened. She then pulled out the golden key and opened the golden lock. She struggled to close the grill door, holding two locks and the key bunch in her left hand. She then opened the wooden door and went inside the house, throwing both the locks and the keys on the couch in the living room.

She ran to her room and threw her school bag on her bed, and went straight to the dining table. She poured herself a glass of water from the jug. “No fridge water” her mother always warned her.

“If you drink fridge water, you will lose your voice and will not be able to sing anymore” Sanju loved to sing.

Her mother had put out the green tuck box today. Sanju eagerly opened it, waiting to see what goodies lay in store for her that afternoon. Apples. She scrunched her face and closed the box. They had become brown and the room smelled like the Sector 22 market as soon as she opened the box. She looked around; there was nothing else that her mother had put out for her. No cookies, no cakes, no Munch. Angry, she went to the kitchen to search for something to eat. The big box was sitting right on top. She could see the Namkeen packet inside, pressing against the translucent white plastic, trying hard to break free.

“No, I cannot reach it even if I stand on the stool” she thought with frustration and ran back to the dining room.

She opened the thermos flask and poured out her Bournvita into the yellow mug. She took a sip. It was tepid, as usual. She spat out the bits of cream floating on top that stuck to her tongue. She hated that. Holding the mug in one hand, she opened out the door to the balcony and stood outside. She smiled at Rakesh who was standing on the opposite balcony. He was holding a red mug.

“Next month, I will get the red mug with my Bournvita” Sanju decided. He took up his right hand to his mouth questioningly, “Did you eat?” he gestured. Sanju shook her head back slowly, sadly. He shrugged back.

They stood for a while smiling at each other, sipping their chocolate flavored health drinks from free mugs. Both wishing they had the other colour. Hers was tepid, but his would be hot enough she thought. Shiny didi would have mixed fresh Bournvita for him and strained off the bits of cream. Shiny didi was in eighth standard and was allowed to light the gas stove.

Rakesh was also in her school, her class. In fourth standard, but he was in section C. She was in section A. The three of them, Sanju, Rakesh and Shiny didi along with Karan and Rinkie from R block were rickshaw mates. Every morning, Sanju’s mother dragged her out of bed, hurriedly dressed her, made her stuff two slices of bread into her reluctant mouth, wash it down with a yellow mug of Bournvita and literally chased her out of the house to the waiting rickshaw already overflowing with children and schoolbags.

The rickshaw uncle would then pedal the five of them and their schoolbags for another two kilometers to school on his broomstick legs, coughing and spitting every five minutes. Sanju hated the rickshaw uncle’s smell and always sat at the back, her legs hanging outside, facing the opposite direction, smiling and waving at the cars they tried to cunningly overtake in the traffic jams. The same rickshaw uncle would pick them up at three o’clock and drop them back home.

Rakesh, Shiny didi, Karan and Rinkie had come for her birthday party the previous month. Why is my birthday only on 16th of July, she wondered. Couldn’t it be on the 16th of every month? This year, she had actually celebrated two birthdays. On her Real Birthday, she had to go to school, but she took a box of Alpenlebies to distribute to all her friends and a tin of Haldiram Rasagullas for her class teacher. They had all sang Happy Birthday and clapped. Everyone was so nice to her that day.

And then that Saturday, she had a Second Birthday with a party at home. Her Delhi uncle and her Ghaziabad uncle had come with their aunties. Reema aunty and uncle had come from Sector 61 with her little cousin Coco. She was a bit disappointed that none of her classmates from school had come though she had announced that they were all invited before handing out the sweets on her Real Birthday.

Three other kids from their building had also come. Sanju smiled at them sweetly, though she didn’t like them. All of them wore the party hats, ate the goodies laid out and admired the decorations. They are all so jealous of me, Sanju thought. They all sang Happy Birthday again as she cut the clown shaped cake.

Her mother had dressed her up like a film star that day and she even allowed her to apply a touch of lipstick. Sanju had pouted her lips for the rest of the evening, trying hard not to press her lips together lest the lipstick faded away. She ran up to the mirror every now and then to check whether it had worn away. They had taken a lot of pictures and videos and her father played it on his laptop after the guests had left. The three of them had sat on her parents’ bed and watched happily.

Rakesh and Shiny didi had given her a pencil box that opened on both sides. Karan had given her a doll and Rinkie had given her a shiny necklace with matching earrings. The three kids had brought some fluorescent crayons, sketch pens and a Spiderman doll. She hated the Spiderman doll and hated the kid who brought it even more now.

Her uncles and aunties had disappointingly handed her envelopes of money. Her mother had allowed her to remove the one rupee coins stuck to the envelopes but took away the money inside.

“I will put it in your name in a bank account Sanju, the money will grow with you” she said.

“That is my money,” Sanju thought angrily. “They gave it to me and I want to buy that doll house from Geepee Store.”

But she knew that her mother would scold her if she said it out loud. No,not today. Her mother had been so sweet to her since morning and she did not want to spoil that. It was afterall her Second Birthday.

***

Sanju wished so badly that her mother would be there to open the door for her every afternoon when she returned from school. Make her hot Bournvita and Maggi noodles. She wanted to tell her that Miss had praised her in front of the whole class for finishing her sums first. She wanted to tell her that a frog had hopped inside their class today and Rita had screamed and climbed up on the table. She wanted to tell her mother that Vijay had Made Toilet in his pants today.

Sanju giggled recalling how Miss had pushed him outside, muttering unapprovingly “You are in fourth standard Vijay, what is this?”

But she knew she could never share all this with her mother. Even if she did, it would just be acknowledged with a grunt from her before she started yelling at her to finish her homework.

But Sanju was glad that her mother came home to her every evening. Rinkie lived with her father and her grandmother. Her mother’s office had sent her to America six months ago and she had not come back yet. Rinkie said that she phoned  every day and promised to bring her gifts, but still, Sanju decided that she was luckier. She prayed that her mother’s office would never send her to America.

She finished her Bournvita and turned the yellow mug upside down to show Rakesh on the opposite balcony. He did the same with his red mug and they both giggled. Shiny didi came and shooed Rakesh back inside the house. They both smiled and waved at Sanju before closing the door. Sanju wiped her mouth with her school tie and went back inside the house.

She went to her room and changed into the clothes her mother had laid out on the bed for her. She hung up her school uniform on the cupboard handle and pondered for a minute. She could start doing her homework, but then she decided not to. If she finished it now, her mother would not sit with her for even those few minutes in the evening. Everyday, her mother darted back and forth from the kitchen to the dining table where Sanju sat with her homework. She was always irritated and raised her voice at the tiniest mistakes Sanju made, but somehow Sanju cherished these moments with her mother. She asked her the silliest doubts and enjoyed it when her mother tried to explain to her.

“Is it Either or Ither mummy? You say Either but my Miss says Ither” she would ask in between long division and her mother would reply in an exasperated tone “Both are right Sanju, now finish your sums.”

So she put her homework back in the bag and looked around the room wondering what else she could do now.

She was bored of the computer games. She wanted to ask her father to download some new games, but didn’t know when to ask him. He always sat with his laptop on his bed and never did anything on the other computer. These days he signaled angrily at her to leave the room whenever she went up to him.

She switched on the TV and surfed channels for a while. She tried to watch Disney channel for sometime and then went back and forth from Pogo to Hungama. She was bored. Kareena Kapoor was dancing on Sony. Sanju loved Kareena. She turned up the volume and began to sing with her. She climbed on the couch and began to dance. She had been in the group dance for the annual day last year and was hoping to do a solo number this year. She jumped up and down happily with Kareena mimicking her movements and her facial expressions. She folded up her pink T shirt high up to her chest and pulled her pants a bit lower to expose her belly button. She ran one hand through her hair and the other all over her body, singing along, pink with excitement. She plopped down on the couch happy and exhausted after the song was over. An advertisement.

“I will become an actress when I grow big”, she decided. She made a mental note to dig into her mother’s dressing table later. It was forbidden, but then Mummy is not here, she thought.

She sat waiting in anticipation for the next song but it was a boring one. Disappointed, she changed channels again. Hannah Montana was crooning away on Disney. Sanju sang along with her loudly, trying to get the words, the tune and the accent right. She moved away from the TV, still singing along. Hannah Montana didn’t dance as well as Kareena.

She opened the wooden living room door and stood behind the iron grill doors, looking out through the holes. Her mother had told her never to open the grill doors once she came home.

“It is like I am in jail,” Sanju thought angrily “Anyway, mummy is not here.” The bolt squeaked loudly tickling her teeth. She opened the grill door and stood on the doorstep, not knowing what to do next. She stood on the door and swung it back and forth, staring into the empty hallway.

The door of the opposite apartment opened. An Uncle came out. He was not a new Uncle, she had seen him many times, but her parents had never spoken to him. She didn’t know his name.

The Uncle smiled at her and nodded, wriggling his fingers gesturing to her to come to him. Sanju shook her head and smiled shyly. He gestured again. And she shook her head again swinging the door almost closing it.

The Uncle went back inside. “Oh no”, Sanju thought. “He is angry with me. I should have gone when he called.” She stood on the door and swung it back and forth again, loudly, hoping he would hear it and come out.

A minute later he came back and stood on his doorstep. He had a Munch and a packet of Lays in his hands. He smiled and called her.

Sanju’s face broke out into a huge smile. She ran to him.

The iron grill door swung slowly and banged against the wall.

Hannah Montana continued to croon on Disney channel.

A housefly buzzed greedily over the sticky yellow mug lying on the dining table.

Inside the darkened apartment, the Uncle smiled again. This time, Sanju didn’t smile back.

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10 thoughts on “The Grill Door

  1. I wonder why you don’t write more often. You have an eye for detail – it shows in your narration. It also holds the reader till the end. I didn’t like the ending, otherwise it was a neat piece of writing. I somehow don’t like stories with these sudden twist endings – that too those which end bad. I think you should write a parallel narrative starting from the time she goes back inside. Or another one where the uncle happens to be a nice guy. Or where she outsmarts him.

    Do not depend on surprise endings to create an impact – even without it it was compelling.

    • Thanks. I am dark and twisty and so I like the dark and twisty surprise endings. Otherwise I feel that it just blahs on 🙂 Also, most of it is inspired from real life, so if I make it end bad in fiction, maybe real life will end better. But yes, I have been planning something with parallel endings. Let me see how that works out

  2. You spoiled the movie for me – now I can’t watch it peacefully, I’m imagining all sorts of things.

    • The first and the last story in that movie are really good. I’m glad I didn’t watch them in the same sequence because after this one, I don’t think the rest would have made any impact on me.

  3. Somewhat recovered from the that double dose of bad endings. One thing I had wanted to mention, that I felt on reading your story was, that the story read like a screenplay in terms of the detailing of the scenes.
    – getting the key
    – opening the door
    – drinking the bournvita (the mug) in the balcony
    – description of doing hw with mommy cooking
    – thinking about the birthday party
    – watching TV and dancing with Kareena (that was genius)
    – opening and shutting the door.
    Actually it is good enough to be made into a short film.

    What I thought was missing was the characterization – the mother, the grandparents and even that of Sanju. Just an observation – maybe for a longer written narrative these things would make a difference.

    BTW have you thought of collaborating with a Nalaiya Iyakkunar aspirant using this script?
    It would be well worth the effort.

  4. Pingback: The Lovely Bones- Alice Sebold | The Book Story

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