AS SHE READ HER KIN’S NAMES ON DISPLAY, SHE FELT SHE WERE ON FIRE

“THE FOE WITHIN”, A NOVEL, BY P. SHEELWANT; CHAPTER 1: “THE DISASTER STRIKES”

The Kolkata International Airport Terminal was bustling with people. Worried family members of travellers on board AI 666, bound for Kolkata from Singapore, were reaching in hoards. The flight had lost contact from anywhere. Display board was flashing DELAYED against the names of most flights.

Sona was ashamed of herself for the dilemma she was in. She didn’t know if she was awaiting information about the ill-fated AI 666 or for her mom, her dad, Rupa, and Iqbal to emerge from the exit gate. Sona felt a crunch in her lower belly and a butterfly flapping on her belly button, for not knowing which one she was doing. She knew her dad would never call her and not even let her mom do it.  But  act of her elder sister Rupa, , and of Rupa’s hubby Iqbal, , the thinker, had upset her the most.  If for nothing else, Rupa should have at least called for knowing the well-being of Guddi – their six-year old daughter, a St. Joseph High School boarder. How couldn’t she care even that little for the chirpy child with shiny blue eyes of Iqbal, and a mole the size of a pea, as if bindaas babe was wearing a bindi!

I am not the only one to cause this dilemma and they have also contributed to it, Sona thought. They have also a responsibility to inform me which flight they were taking or if they were not taking any flight at all. Rupa and Iqbal could’ve done that; rather they should have done that, must have done that. I know Dad must have made them swear that they would not talk to me but when matter relates to such a lovely child any oath is worth breaking.  Had they done that, I would have been here to greet them. I think I am not sure that I would have been here. I know Dad’s presence in the scene colours my perception. But I can hardly help it as they have hit me the hardest even with no apparent fault on my part. They had treated me unjustly. Even if I knew the date on which they were leaving for Singapore, I hadn’t come to see them off at the airport. That was because I knew that Dad wouldn’t approve of it. Dad had put me in such a jam that I am still in that jam.

An invisible bird cage had caged Sona as effectively as it had caged Sitwa.

Sona knew she wouldn’t have come to the Airport had it not been for the news about AI 666 having lost contact. In dining hall of Diamond Working Women’s Hostel, Sona and Aarti were teasing Ganesh about stuffing himself with dum aloo.  Aarti was opining five middle-aged huddling diners in a corner to seem plotting. It was at that time that Sona had heard the news about the AI 666. And she had been unsettled ever since. Though Sona knew they were to fly back home on that date, she didn’t know the flight details. She also didn’t know if they were extending their stay and not flying at all. All of them had switched off their cell  phones. Aarti suggested going to the airport and they were there. 

“Gentleman, you should have manners, gentleman and you should go to the waste bin and gorge yourself out as much as you wish.” Ganesh said at one of the hagglers at the entrance gate who had spat out a mouthful of paan saliva on the floor that marked a foot-long red spot like a shooting star. Sona, Aarti and Ganesh had missed the projectile by skin of their teeth. That had infuriated Ganesh. 

Man didn’t bother to reply and used the small cotton bag in his hand to wipe off sputum splayed on his lips. The bag was as shapeless as a grocery bag, had oily spots all over and looked dirty. The “grocery-bag-man” turned around after a long moment and took a long look at Ganesh. 

“You think I was born yesterday” he said. “I need not learn manners from you. I am of the age of your father…” 

“Cut that out…”

Ganesh started arguing with the man.  But Sona could hardly hear what they were talking about. Her dad’s words echoed in her ears. 

Her father had shouted “WAS I BORN YESTERDAY” and snapped at her wrist. He had pulled out the TV remote from her hand and switched off the live tennis match she was watching. He had branded her a rogue living in a fool’s paradise.  He had called Sona a lousy girl dreaming to be World Tennis Champion like Helena that she would never be. He had trashed her dream of becoming as successful a writer as Vikram Seth, He had also yelled at her further that the wretch of stories she wrote would take her only to her doom. He had accused her to be an addict living off her parents. 

Her father had continued shouting calling her names but Sona had resolved that she wouldn’t retort. However, she couldn’t keep that resolution when he said “we regret the moment Radha conceived you the most” that had set her blood on boil. When she had shouted at her dad that he had no right to dishonor her very being, she hadn’t recognized her own voice. Surprisingly, she had seen her right index finger almost poking into her dad’s eyes. She had screamed at him not to speak another word or he would regret that for rest of his life.  And then, a blow had sent Sona sprawling down on the ground. 

The remark of Sona’s father had set her blood on boil no less fiercely than Ram Bahadur’s relative stealing wood had set his.

Aarti’s intervening in Ganesh’s argument jolted Sona out of her reverie. The security guard had told them to go to a special counter  for more information. As they moved forward, Ganesh twisted back and glared daggers at the man. 

The airport had hoisted a large electronic display board to provide information about AI 666. The trio closed in. As Sona read the names of her parents, Rupa and Iqbal among the list of passengers on board, she felt as if her body had caught fire all at once.  Her eyelids had forgotten to bat and her heart had forgotten to beat. Had Sona seen the reflection of her façade in a mirror, she would have found her eyes opened the widest ever, jaws slumped down to her chest and the colour, drained off. Sona felt her nerves stunned as if by an electric shock which had led her head go blank. She felt weak in her knees as a severe shudder passed through her frame and she slumped down. Horrified Ganesh and Aarti attempted to prop her up. They couldn’t. 

Aarti and Ganesh lifted her to a nearby bench and rested her there. Ganesh sprinkled water on her face to get her consciousness back. 

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