A collection of flash fiction stories
Edited by Abha Iyengar
By Saritha Rao Rayachoti
Mrs. Usha Bhalla was insistent. “A young woman like you must not stay cooped up at home on this grand, gala evening with music, dance, and party games…to celebrate women!”
Lata’s reluctance intensified.
“Besides,” Mrs. Bhalla added, “Sheela is away, visiting her brother. I would be very grateful if you could accompany me. You will be rescuing me from the ‘pressure’ of my own company.” She laughed uproariously at her own wordplay.
Lata rolled her eyes, glad it was not a video call. She had relented and agreed; then spent the following hours trying to quell her mounting anxiety.
Later, as Lata stepped out of the elevator, she stopped to observe, through the ajar front door of Mrs. Bhalla’s home, the sight of her in her wheelchair.
Dressed in a baby pink salwar kameez with a dupatta pinned to her shoulder, Mrs. Bhalla looked like an infantilised version of herself. On second thoughts, Lata realised the pink was a shade too bright to be considered worthy of the ‘baby’ prefix. Large hoops in her ears, bangles at her wrist, and an exquisite pair of mojaris on feet that would never walk, completed the picture.
But it was the rest that left Lata self-conscious on Mrs. Bhalla’s behalf. The septuagenarian’s hair was coloured a striking black with a tinge of burgundy, and she wore it in straggly plaits with a sequinned hairband to keep flyaways in place.
As Lata stepped closer, she smelled Parisienne, a fragrance that in small doses evokes femininity and youth, but in this instance, hinted at incontinence. A mild revulsion took hold of Lata, but the sensation passed.
Mrs. Bhalla had noticed her. “Come, Lata! We’re already late,” she said, as the evening’s announcements from the ground floor boomed in the tenth floor apartment.
Lata smiled haltingly. Taking charge of the wheelchair, she navigated Mrs. Bhalla into the elevator. Lata’s eyes settled on their hazy reflection in the brushed steel panels of the elevator. Was this her future? She had nobody in her life to ‘take care of her’, but then again, having ‘a husband and children’ had not insulated Mrs. Bhalla from isolation.
“You look pretty today, Lata,” said Mrs. Bhalla, regarding her in the mirrored panel.
“Thank you, Aunty. ” She mustered a smile. Then, as Mrs. Bhalla continued to look askance at her, the objective of the compliment struck her.
“You look wonderful yourself, Aunty,” she exclaimed. Mrs. Bhalla smiled modestly at the wangled compliment.
Even before the doors of the elevator slid open, they heard, ‘…welcome on stage, the Pink Ladies – Kavya, Ekta, and Alia!’
A hot, pulsing beat began, and as Lata pushed the wheelchair through the crowd, Mrs. Bhalla waved and greeted numerous people. They noticed Lata but said nothing, apart from an acknowledging nod to her as the elderly lady’s companion. But Lata knew that they knew about her because their gazes dropped.
Despite having lived in the complex for two years, Lata barely knew anybody. She remembered how her teachers in school had complained to her parents, “Lata isn’t friendly, she needs to be less arrogant.” Her recent situation was only an effective excuse to burrow deeper into the cave she had begun to build as a child.
She returned to the present, carefully wheeling Mrs. Bhalla to the first row, to watch the performance on stage.
The Pink Ladies turned out to be little girls. The audience comprised their proud families and cheering neighbours, applauding their every pelvic thrust and come-hither glance. Mrs. Bhalla cheered them on with the same misguided enthusiasm as the rest of the audience.
Lata realised that the girls were dressed exactly as in the item song from the movie, down to the sequinned flowers where their breasts should be. They were made-up to appear older than their single-digit years and had perfected their coached expressions of longing and ecstasy.
‘They are all broken.’ The thought thudded in her veins, and her body began to react. She needed to get away.
Lata excused herself, requesting a woman nearby to keep an eye on Mrs. Bhalla. She walked quickly to the elevator, riding the floors with the item song still echoing in the lift well.
She let herself into her apartment and took a few shaky breaths, to gauge how long she had before her body reacted. She shut the windows that overlooked the revelry, drew the curtains, and berated herself for abandoning the elderly woman. But Mrs. Bhalla was resourceful and by now would have harangued someone into fetching her an early dinner from the buffet.
The thought of food, the paneer-butter-masala-ness of the evening, and the revulsion within her that had steadily risen led her with urgency to the bathroom, where she threw up the remnants of her anxiety.
She rinsed her mouth and rested her throbbing forehead against the mirror.
She wasn’t alone.
They are all broken.
We are all broken.
And we find ways to feel whole again.
Some use gold. Some use lacquer. To fill the cracks.
Some stall the rampage of time with hair colour and pretty mojaris. Some accelerate their ripening into alluring adulthood, aided by parents who would themselves feel whole if their children had opportunities they were denied.
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