“Tara!” A silver cobweb tingling my elbow tore as I scurried into the dark, crouching below. “Tara!” My younger brother ran along the corridor that hemmed the many nameplates under one chawl. I could hear his footsteps pacing the length, shuffling outside the shut door. A thin strip of light had rolled a larger than life shadow of him on the floor. Youngest in the family, he was the most loved. In his nine years of existence, he had come to understand that he had obliged us with his birth: a ray of light in the dark world of daughters. Therefore, when his milk tooth mouth began spurting names, we didn’t care for the appropriate tags to claim our place in his world. My mother urged him with a platter: Didi, Tai, Choti. But he refuted with his sweet impudence – something we lapped as his favouritism for us. We even fought between ourselves for his claim over us, believing we were winning in some battle. But over the years, his voice grew the molars of my father. “Tara!” he yelled, desperation rising in his voice. I ducked my head between my knees. Pickled in that musty blackhole, I could hear termites trilling the scaffoldings and my eyes that started seeing. A cloth bundle, old newspapers and my mother’s harmonium that I had never seen her play. There was a time, we were told, when she invited the dawn with the swell of raag bhairavi, breathing life into our crammed gully. So, was it my arrival then, followed by the avalanche of my two sisters that had brought an end to her songs? Over the years her voice has been hushed into a whimper, sobbing at nights, refused by my father— unable to overcome his three daughters, sleeping on the floor below, growing inch by inch, even in their dormant states. Adolescent energy bursting in my limbs was making it difficult to remain still, as a semicolon. But what good were we besides thinning our father’s wallet? Although something new always arrived for my brother. And like him, his toys were also noisy. Too shiny and fragile. Whenever he cried, we worried that we’d be found, for something we had not done. We could’ve kept him happy. We could’ve played with him. The door opened. My mother entered, bolting it behind. A whiff of lemon- jasmine detergent with its sweet-smelling acridity trapped the distance between us. Everything was blind around her, as was her love for her son. But arriving early, I could see. Her tinkling wrists were holding up a red shirt that she examined, pulling at the creases of a burnt triangle on its arm. My brother’s birthday shirt! He will be celebrating his tenth birthday today. Ten years since her hands had caressed us into sleep, fed our mouths, fought the slaps on our cheeks. She lifted the mattress, nearly revealing my face looking at her through the alternating planks, as she shoved the mess beneath it. Something that remained to be found. To be discovered with a screech. Along with an offender in denial. Though, it would only mean a beating for all of us in the end. And all of us would wailing. But I realised at that moment, how in all these years, my mother had been together with us— another semicolon. In that dark, I could no longer unsee her frailty. She needed us as much as we did. “Peekaboo!” squealed my brother, waddling in. “I found you.” I was found, indeed. As I had found.
ANTARA MUKHERJEE is a writer with a Master’s in English Literature and has worked as a communication professional for several years. Her short stories and poems have appeared in Kitaab, Sahitya Akademi, Muse India, Joao-Roque Literary Journal, Usawa Literary Review, The Chakkar, Teesta Review, The Alipore Post and Verse of Silence, among others. In 2020, her short story was the winner of ‘All India Literature Competition’ hosted by Anthelion School of Arts. She has co-written a playscript for a local theatre group in Bangalore which will be staged in Bangalore International Centre in 2022.