Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A short story: The Swing

Chapter One: The balloon

Rajat spotted his target. Feigning a nonchalant pace that would not give aways his intentions, he walked towards it. As soon as he drew level with his prey, he brushed the lit end of his Marlboro against its smooth rubber surface.

He was now a few steps away, still searching for that 'pop' that would certify that his prey had indeed succumbed. He turned, risking a look. The erstwhile balloon hung limply onto its thread like a rag. Its 5 year old owner staring at it in disbelief, clearly on the verge of tears. The balloon had defied him! It had not burst, choosing to deflate silently instead. This annoyed him. He did not appreciate defiance. Why resist when you can't win?

Casting a final look at the tearful face of the boy, he smiled. He took a satisfied drag on his cigarette and expelled the smoke slowly. “At least the boy knows what to do.” he thought and walked away.

Fairs amused him. Though at 15, he was now too old for most rides. He came here for the sights and sounds. Little kids bawling at their parents to let them try a ride too big for them. And other kids who'd realized in mid air that the ferris wheel they were on was too high or too fast for comfort and were half crying, half begging to be let off. Alka Yagnik and Kumar Sanu blared in tandem from tall black speakers, imploring listeners to fall in love under the moonlight. Reciting their own experiences with an accompaniment of chorus and bongo sounds. Often the decrepit tape recorder would break down and spew out ribbons of tape while emitting a high pitched incoherent jumble of words. A group of children would burst into laughter as the filmy duet would turn into squeaky gibberish. Rajat took a deliberate step towards the bunch. But then shaking his head, stopped in mid step. Crushing the cigarette stub under his heels, he turned to walk back home.

Chapter two: A swing and a miss

A few months ago...

The match had just concluded. The Jhilmil colony boys, led by Rajat, had emerged victorious. Having sealed the match with a last ball six, Rajat was the man of the moment. The last standing batsman, needing a four to win, had had a go at the last ball of Rajat's over. Both teams had cheered as the ball had soared past the bougainvillea shrubs. After a brief, high decibel argument over what rules had been laid down before the match, the Jhilmil boys had prevailed. “Ma kasam. Maine bola tha waha out hai!” Rajat had announced, bringing the argument to a conclusive end.

The team took turns drinking water from the hose that watered the grass in the colony park, as Bittu, their youngest teammate and a perennial kaccha neembu, held the pipe. Rajat bent down and rubbed his palms under the jet of water. A boy on the swings caught his eye. Mowgli! What was he doing here? Hadn't he been told to stay out of this colony, let alone play in their park? Rajat gulped down the water as it splashed on his cupped palms. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he looked intently at Mowgli, sizing him up. “Six year old. No problem. I'll take care of him alone.”

He moved menacingly towards the boy in slow, oblique steps. Mowgli hadn't noticed. He would whoop as the swing would lift him off the ground and bring him back in reverse. His feet brushing the sand as the swing described slow creaking arches. But he would need another push soon. The swing was slowly whining to a stop. “Dhakka du?” said a voice behind him. Mowgli turned and gulped. “Rajat bhaiya!” he mouthed. “Haa!” came the reply as Rajat pushed the swing with all his might. Mowgli screamed, clutching the swing's chains in terror as the swing soared. “Aur ooncha udega hero?” Rajat pushed him harder.

It all happened in slow motion. As the swing rose to its maximum, Mowgli's head lolled backwards against the sway. His body relaxed. His grip loosened. And then without warning, he fell. His limp body lay on the ground and stared emptily at the evening sky. Rajat turned and ran for it. “Tu to yeha tha hi nahi. Tu to match khel reha tha.” he said to himself as he sprinted away from the park, his team close behind.

Chapter three: Troubled Sleep

His mother opened the door. “Der ho gayi?” she asked rhetorically. Rajat didn't reply. He sat down on the sofa, untying his shoelaces as his mother disappeared into the kitchen. She reappeared with a glass of water and placed it on the table. His throat felt unpleasantly cold as he gulped it down. Just Chlormint, he'd realized, didn't work on his breath after he'd had more than 2 packs. He'd taken to chewing Pudin Hara pearls before coming home. “Khaana khaake so jaao. Kal school hai naa,” said his mother as she prepared to lay down the meal.

Rajat lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. He was among the few teenagers in the locality who could boast of their own rooms. An offshoot of being a single child in a two bedroom house. Posters of Azhar and Kapil Dev adorned the walls. While GI Joe action figures stood guard on his desk. There was a time when under their watchful gaze, sleep would come easy to Rajat. But now, even after being drowsy after a long day and a hearty dinner, sleep eluded him. It was quiet outside. The silence being broken only by the watchman's whistle and by vehicles that moved on the road nearby. The light from each of these vehicles, as they sped past his room, caused shadows to move across his walls. Shadows and silhouettes of everything that lay between the road and his bed, including the swing in the park.

The swing from which he had run away that fateful evening had sent over its shadow to visit him. Every night.

Chapter four: A farewell to fear

Traffic was heavy today. Multiple apparitions of the A shaped frame of the swing danced around in his room. Rajat squeezed his eyes shut. “Enough!” said a voice inside him. “Fifteen year old boys don't believe in ghosts. Come on you bed-wetting coward, face your fears!” Rajat opened his eyes to look at the shadows galloping across his walls. He grinned, shaking his head. He couldn't believe he had been so afraid of these formless shapes. Even the traffic had abated for the moment. In his dark room, Rajat climbed into bed to enjoy the first sound sleep he'd have in a while now. A lone motorcycle chugged along on the road. “Sounds like an Enfield,” thought Rajat. How he'd love to drive one of those. “Or is it a Rajdoot?” Rajat stuck out his tongue in disgust as he pictured himself riding one. A single, shadowy version of the swing moved slowly across the wall. “See Rajat. See what you were afraid of. A child's plaything. You know what, go and ride it tomorrow,” he thought, casting a final glance at his former fear. He later wished he hadn't.

Rajat eyes widened. A lump formed in his throat. In the final few seconds before the shadow merged with the darkness in his room, he had seen the impossible. There was a kid on the swing! “This is it. I've finally cracked.” he thought. No! He had surely seen it. A silhouette of a kid sitting on the swing! He gulped.

Chapter five: The Swing

Shivering under the bedsheets, crazed thoughts raced through his mind. It had happened. Night after night of being haunted by the memories of that dreadful evening, he'd finally gone insane. “It wasn't my fault,” he thought aloud, “all I did was swing him hard. I don't deserve this. Please take this away. Please.”

“Get up Rajat!” the faint voice of courage was back. “Get up and ride the damned thing. Go see for yourself how, absurdly harmless it is. Do it now.” Rajat stood up, bolt upright, determination etched on his face. Slipping on his chappals, he tiptoed to the door. He slid the bolt silently and opened it, stepping outside. It was a hot night. Clouds obscured the stars. There was no trace of a breeze. No sound of rustling leaves or of dogs raising their voices to the moon.“Summer's not a favourite with ghosts,” the voice inside him said. Rajat smiled. He walked to the park, ears pricked. Listening carefully for the watchman's footsteps. He climbed over the park fence, careful not to rip his pajamas on its pointed barbs.

There it stood. A wooden plank suspended by two iron chains, illuminated by the orange glow of the streetlight. Absurd it was indeed. A haunted swing! What was he thinking? He slowly walked around it, hands behind his back. “So,” he spoke to the swing, “For months, you've troubled me. Why should you? When you're nothing more than a rotting wooden plank. You can't touch me. You're imprisoned. Imprisoned by these chains. Come on, get me. Eat me up!” Rajat kicked at the plank.

The plank rose to a height and then swung back, creaking while it arched back to the ground. Rajat grabbed the plank to stop it. He hopped on to have a seat. Just a regular swing. A regular swing on which a kid had an accident. That's it. Oh how foolish he was, having been scared of it. He sat there, swaying back and forth, enjoying the simple childlike joy of having overcome his fear.

The swing stopped. It didn't just slow down. It just stopped dead. The left chain twitched. Then the right one. Rajat's blood froze. He tried to jump off the plank. The swing anticipated him. The chains jerked, twisting the plank in a circle. Rajat could not budge. The chains had intertwined to keep him there.

The plank began to twirl in a deadly carousel. The chains intertwined with each circle to close the gap between Rajat and themselves. “Oh my God, they are trying to strangle me!” he screamed inside his head. “Yes I am,” whispered the swing.

Chapter six: Epilogue

Rajat's father was the president of the colony's welfare association. He had the swing dismantled and its parts sold in scrap. It was replaced by a concrete bench dedicated to his son. Rajat's parents shifted soon afterwards.

Elderly joggers sit on the bench now, their backs to the inscription that dedicates the bench to Rajat – the boy who loved to pop balloons.

No one remembers the swing.

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