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An Evening Walk
An Evening Walk
“Are you mad at me?” she looked up at him, trembling.
Perplexed, he stared at her tear stained face, “And why would you think that?”
“Because...ever since you came back, you have not said anything to me. Even before you left, you just ignored me,” her sniffs turned into sobs, “Did I do something wrong?”
She was always able to sense things when something went wrong, and naively, she would assume that things were wrong because of her. Considering that he spent most his day cleaning after children of an elite private school and most of his life living with a band of orphans wild and directionless, he could safely say that his nine-year-old sister was unlike most children her age.
Six years younger than him, Asha never really needed an explanation of their difficult circumstances or the answer to why she could not buy new toys and clothes all the time like the girls in the school her brother worked in. It was as if she always understood why it was so important for him to work despite the minimal wages he received even after working for long hours. Though she spent half of her life in the diminutive, drafty, and dingy box of a home in an equally indigent slum of a metropolitan with barely any opportunities and prospects of a better future, she was perfectly contented with her life, demanding nothing but her brother’s love and care.
Ishaan would miss this; he really would, he thought with a smile. In fact, as he began consoling and reassuring her that he was (and never can be) mad at her, he prayed that he would never have to encounter anyone like her. Though he loved her understanding and contented nature, he knew that every time he would ever come across someone like her after this day, it would remind him of what he did to her.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he said as he opened the door.
Her eyes lit up, as the daily midevening walk around the neighborhood was her favorite part of the day. It was the only time the two could get a break from their normal routine and share stories of their day, “Can we?”
“Don’t we always go for a walk?” he chuckled, as he wiped her tears from the corners of her eyes, “But first, you have to promise me that you will stop crying. I hate to see you upset, you know that.”
She nodded, “Now that I know that you are not mad at me, I am not upset anymore. However, something is still bothering you. And don’t deny that.”
His words could escape her watchful eyes, but not his own eyes. He had learned this quite early with her and naturally, he would be compelled to tell her why he was upset. Despite this, today was a different story: even if he wanted to, he could not share what was wrong. And just the thought that he was hiding something from her brought tears to his eyes and made him shudder.
“Is everything alright?” she asked, slightly alarmed.
He swallowed over a lump in his throat and fought the tears away, “No, everything was not alright, but now that I am with you, nothing can go wrong.”
She smiled, “Then, let’s go!” She tugged his hand and prodded him to the doorway.
The siblings were glad to get out their drab one room home and onto the streets of their neighborhood. Clearly, it was nowhere near the fancy neighborhoods in the opulent parts of Bombay. The narrow walkways were blocked with so many trashcans and garbage bags that the brother-sister duo frequently found themselves walking around the cans or jumping over the bags. Even the streets were so small and given that there were at least a hundred people living on the one street, a car would never be able to fit through. However Ishaan knew, everyone in their neighborhood would never be able to afford a car in their lives; even if they saved every single coin they earned for years. There were so many small homes that Ishaan could barely see beyond them; it was a notion that both frightened and fascinated him.
As they walked on the pathway, trying not to slip on the street, which was not only dirty, but also wet and muddy from the recent flood, they silently watched a group of boys in tattered shorts and torn shirts kick a ball made of rags. Outside a nearby hut, three women sat mingling with each other; their saris were faded of color and their hair were tied into messy buns with lose flyaway strands. Even so, they carried on a lively conversation; their laughter was so animated that it seemed alienating in their gloomy surroundings.
This was exactly the life that Ishaan felt guilty for giving Asha. He did not want to let her live a life so meager of opportunities, with not even a single prospect of a better future. He had promised his parents that he would always take care of her. And to this day, Ishaan had succeeded. But it was coming to point at which he could only do so much more for her. Asha needed a home, not a vulnerable tin box that was not even big enough for the two of them. She needed an education, not a school that often showed hostility towards girls. She needed happiness, not contentment with the minimal things that she had. In other words, she needed everything Ishaan could not give her.
These thoughts along with the suffocating odor that permanently plagued the neighborhood sickened Ishaan, “Let’s get out of the neighborhood for a while. It’s nice to see life beyond our settlement once in a while, right?”
Asha nodded her head solemnly, but Ishaan knew that she was excited to escape for a few hours. Ishaan and Asha walked out of their neighborhood and into the more metropolitan area with a peaceful air of silence. Unlike their usual surroundings, there were cars and all sorts of vehicles everywhere, making noisy sounds as they proceeded in the heavy traffic. There were tall brick buildings everywhere, but Ishaan could still see the round and bright sun shining, as it prepared to set. Though nighttime was about to fall, the city was still bustling with energy, with movie theaters, street vendors, and restaurants decorated with gaudy curtains and vivid colors.
“So today,” Asha broke the silence, “Miss Riya was teaching us about animals, and she told us something really weird. Sometimes, they abandon their young and leave them to defend themselves. Which mother would ever do that to her children? I don’t believe her.”
Ishaan smiled at her naivety, “It’s true. A lot of animals, actually, leave their children like that.”
“But that’s terrible!” Asha exclaimed, horrified by that thought, “Doesn’t the mother feel bad after doing that?”
“They are animals, Asha,” Ishaan explained, “Some animals don’t have that maternal instinct that makes them attached to their children. It makes it easier for them to leave them.”
Asha was not convinced. “What about humans? Ms. Riya said that sometimes, even humans abandon their loved ones. But humans have that maternal instincts in them, don’t they? So why do they abandon their children?” She challenged.
“Think of it this way: many animals give up their children because they do not want to care for them and many humans give up their children because they can’t care for them. Sometimes, when you love a person so much, the best way to assure that they have a good life is to let them free.”
Another pause of silence settled between the two of them, as Asha absorbed what she had just been told and Ishaan fought the tears that threatened to seep out.
“But are they happy?” Asha pressed, “Are the children happy? Are the children of humans alright when their loved ones abandon them? “
Ishaan felt a lump in his throat rising, “I don’t know, Asha. What do you think?”
After a few moments of contemplating, Asha spoke, “I think that the most important thing someone needs is love. Once they are set free they might achieve everything they wanted and fulfill all their dreams and desires. But none of that would ever make up for what they lost: the love and affection from the one person that meant the world to them. “
They came to halting stop as they stared sliver of the glimmering Arabian Sea. The sea’s curvature was the proof that the world was in fact round, not flat.
Asha continued, “Sure sometimes the best thing to do for a person is to set them free. And they will have a good life, but only in the sense that they will get whatever they want. Anyway, what about the person who actually abandoned their loved one? They might feel the satisfaction that they made their child’s life better, but that hollow feeling of emptiness and absence will haunt them for as long as they live, don’t you think so?”
Asha looked up at Ishaan with an expression of knowingness, but when she realized that her older brother was crying, this expression was quickly chased away by a look of alarm, “Ishaan, what’s wrong?”
Ishaan hastily wiped his tears, “Nothing. Nothing. I was just wondering where my ten year old sister learned to say all this from.”
Relieved, she laughed, “Anyone who has a brother like you would know. “
“A brother like me?” he asked, curiously.
“Yes, a brother like you. A brother who has given so much love and care despite what he has to go through every single day that even the world’s greatest riches and luxuries would fall short in front of it. Ishaan, sure you haven’t given me tons of toys and dresses every year. But you have given me enough love for both our parents, and nothing could beat that. “
There was no point in relentlessly fighting tears, Ishaan realized, because today, he had lost to them. He turned away to avoid Asha and pretended to watch the ocean.
“Ishaan, promise me that you will never leave me like that. Because then, no matter how much happiness I get in this world, I will always be unhappy because I won’t have you to share it with.”
Ishaan closed his eyes, as he was taken back to time when Asha was a small and young girl. It was he who had taught her how to braid her hair, encouraged her to face her fears when she first started going to school and consoled her when she occasionally came back upset. But today, the tables had turned. Today, it was Asha who was consoling him, encouraging him, and helping him restore his lost faith.
He simply nodded at Asha because he knew that anything he said would fall short. She offered him her hand, and gratefully he took it with his own.
Hand in hand, they continued to walk along the streets. It was funny how a few moments ago; everything seemed harsh and cruel; as if the world was made of shards of broken glass that would cut him at every move he made. Now, it seemed mellow and soft, gently cushioning his every movement.
“And I just know it. One day, we are going to be rich. I am going to be a famous writer and the owner of a huge clothing line, while you are going to be someone big and famous. Ishaan, one day, everyone will know your name and wish to be you. And the two of us will live in a massive mansion with hundreds- no thousands of servants. One day, Ishaan, everything will be perfect... Ok fine, maybe not perfect, but definitely good. And now, don’t ask me how I know all of this- I just do. “
Ishaan laughed. Taking his cue, Asha joined in with his laughter, as they both savored this light moment. The siblings continued their walk, allowing the ocean breeze to kiss their face and the fleeting sunlight to descend before them. As they walked, Ishaan noticed the building: Taarini’s Hostel for Underprivileged Girls: the place where the siblings were going to say their final farewells, where Asha would start a new life and Ishaan would carry on with his own.
But Ishaan realized that he could not get himself to let go of the person he loved the most. Because as much as Asha needed him, Ishaan needed Asha much more. As long as they had each other, Ishaan knew they could fight any obstacle.
“Ishaan, where do you want to go next?” Asha asked.
He turned around and stopped looking at the hostel. It was part of the time in his life where everything felt wrong. But that time was part of his past. Now he is living in the present, where the past can never be welcomed.
Ishaan smiled at Asha, “Where ever you want to go.”
Tightly clutching each other’s hands, they walked along the gravel brick street through the nightfall fearlessly, because they knew that when the sun rises again, it would chase away the darkness and fill their world with light.