Photo by Sydney Rae / Unsplash

It was midnight when I reached my hometown. My chest hurt with anxiety at the thought of facing my parents. I had quit my job as a sales trainee with a milk products franchise to prepare in Pune for my MBA entrance exams. I’d been panicky and struggling. It had not been my choice to take the entrance exams without having the aptitude for an MBA; it had been Baba’s. I’d ignored the fear like my folks had conditioned me to. When it got so tough that I felt I’d lose my mind, I ran to the highway and bused home. I had quit school too.

Aai opened the door with a mixture of worry and disappointment; I had a quick word with her. She said she couldn’t believe that I’d run back. I went to stand in front of the giant wall that was my father. If this were an old comic strip done in four colors on newsprint — “Doga faces Rage!” — Baba would slap me. I knew he wanted to. But if he did, that would reveal his inner bully.

Instead, he spoke a few scorching sentences. I registered “disappointment,” “wastrel,” “letdown,” and “failure.” I mentally accepted his assessment as tears trembled in my eyes. After inflicting hell, he looked away and went to the sofa facing the TV. He snatched up the newspaper and leafed angrily through it. The front page reported the prime minister’s speech on righting historic wrongs and making India great.

The sight broke my heart. I didn’t know how to tell him I couldn’t do an MBA because of my anxiety. I’d get low scores, which would mean a low-paying job that would disappoint Baba greatly. Then he’d take it out on me for who knew how long.

I went to my room. As I pushed open the door, I smelled disuse and wall paint. I flipped the light switch, expecting to see shelves with my beloved comic books, hundreds of them. My DCs and Marvels — old Phantom, Mandrake, and Flash Gordon reruns but also a few Indian-made Indrajals, such as Bahadur. They were printed on cheap, delicate paper and hadn’t been published for decades. Some had torn pages with panels missing. It did not matter to me; I took them as they were. They were stories of people who were kind and optimistic, adventurous and supportive, gifts from Hari Uncle when I was little.

Hari Uncle had come down on my birthdays or on festivals and flipped through comics with me. Or we had played board games. Or we had gone for rides on his mobike, which he’d ridden across two cities to reach me. We had met a few times a year. Once, he hinted he’d go abroad after graduation. When he went to the US for studies and found a job and settled there, we lost touch. Until I got a mobile phone years later, it was just me and his comic books.

On my birthday before he left, Baba and Ma had made it all about their quarreling. Hari Uncle had come, but there were no guests to see. I’d sat on my bed in despair. He’d come in, sat beside me. I’d mentally checked out.

He’d smiled kindly and said, “I know what’s happening. It’s not your fault. You good boy!”

I’d believed him, but my tears had begun. When he’d put his arms around me with a sigh, I’d felt the softness of his jean jacket. I’d broken down.

“Ohh, man,” he’d said. “Listen. There’ll be misery — you know there will be, but it’ll end. You’ll get a chance to be happy.”

“How?” I’d sobbed.

He’d squeezed me tight. “You like Green Lantern?”


“Me too. What do you like about him?”

“He is strong, and he protects.”

He’d nodded. “He has a power ring, right? But what’s stronger is his big heart.”

After Hari Uncle went abroad, I was mostly alone. I did not bring my school friends over, as I was fearful and ashamed of how things were at home. When my parents argued over money or accused each other of infidelity, or when Baba got drunk and called me a pansy who had my dick in picture books as boys my age were smashing windows with lofted drives, I vanished into comic books.

* * *

Some nights, I remembered how Hari Uncle had whispered, with a gesture, “Like Green Lantern, everyone has a ring on their finger. I have one; you do. Your ma and baba have theirs, just that they don’t know. It becomes visible when you recognize it. Know what your ring does, and find the lantern to charge it.” He had beamed. “Your lantern’s waiting for you.” I had felt his warm, healing love, which I lacked at home, and kept it safe in me.

* * *

I dropped my bag on the floor of my room. It was like a part of me had been snatched away. It hurt, the realization that Baba had been biding his time to act on his grudges against my comics.

Sixteen years ago, when Hari Uncle had gone to the States, Baba had come into my room and leafed through a comic book. He’d said, “Such abnormal things make you lurk here?” He’d tossed the comic on my bed and continued: “I won’t have it. You become what you consume, out of touch with the world. These things will go.”

That had made me read frantically. I went to the forest where bullies and dictators were brought down by the Ghost Who Walks. I called out to a superheroine with a golden lasso who watched over me. An animal-man said that if someone had a problem with us, they could talk to a set of claws shooting out from his hands. A caped superheroine who could change the weather promised me justice. When I couldn’t bear it any longer, I imagined having my power ring on my finger.

Four years passed, and I stopped worrying about Baba’s threat. Stories came to me. They were different from my comics; their characters were kind and clever and lacked superpowers. They lived in alternate dimensions and helped each other escape tough situations. Out of shame over my own thoughts, I wrote nothing. Instead, I tried to turn my mind to studies, but I could never focus.

After junior college, by Baba’s wish, I labored over a degree in commerce. It was when my folks gave me a mobile phone. At last, ridiculously easily, I was again in touch with Hari Uncle and Sara Auntie, his Czech American wife. I opened up about my situation. When I told Hari Uncle about the stories in my head being stifled for fear of my folks, he said not to fight my thoughts. Accepting them brought me some peace, but it also made the stories come on stronger.

I scraped through degree college, and Baba said, “Prepare for MBA.” He sent me to Pune for classes. I took a few comics along as keepsakes.

Now, I was back to my single bed and study table with its lamp, set against stark, bare walls. My mouth opened in a silent wail. I knew Baba had burned my comics like he’d threatened to.

I collapsed inwardly. I decided to do nothing with my life. I had always told myself that I lacked ambition, but now I had no wish for even modest success. I slept until noon, waking only to eat food gone cold on my study table or drink tea growing a layer of malai. Then I went back to sleep. I did that for a week before Baba stepped in.

* * *

One day, around lunchtime, Baba opened the door to my room. He approached my bed and held out his phone. “Speak! It’s Bal!” he hissed. I took the phone, though I felt too heavy to move. I liked my cousin Bal.

We’d played together back on our school vacations. I’d daydreamed of superheroes and drawn them with ballpoint pens on pages torn out of notebooks. I’d sensed Bal was not into comics but dared to show him a few sketches, and he’d said they were nice. I’d felt grateful for his politeness. Later, Hari Uncle had loved them. They were then stored between the pages of my comics.

Bal and I had fallen out of touch when he went to IIT Delhi, then for an MBA in the US. He’d settled there, gotten married to a fellow computer engineer, Sonia, and had a son, Ajit, who was now five.

“It’s been good,” Bal said.

He told me briefly what he’d been up to, and I congratulated him on his marriage and child, and on recently moving to Mumbai as the CEO of a multinational’s Indian subsidiary.

He replied, with a faint American accent, “Thanks, thanks. Listen, Uncle said you are home on holiday. Why don’t you come stay with us for a few days? We’d love to have you. And you’ll meet Ajit, who could then play with his uncle.”

I didn’t feel like going anywhere or meeting anyone, much less someone as successful as Bal. I looked at the phone with its glowing red “End” button.

Bal said, “How’s the day after?”

Tentatively, I said, “What station’s close to where you live?”

He laughed. “No worries. I’ll send my car.”

After Baba left my room, I sat up in bed, struck by something Bal had mentioned. He had said Baba told him I was “home on holiday,” which didn’t sound like Baba, who liked badmouthing me to relatives and neighbors, especially when I could hear him. No doubt he’d told Bal I’d run home. Bal had been diplomatic over the phone. Why had he invited me to his place? For a pep talk or to give me a traineeship or internship at his company? Both pep talk and job offer would make me feel terrible — being raised by a disapproving father and smothering mother had made me tongue-tied.

But the thought of seeing Ajit — my young nephew, as I’d been to Hari Uncle — made me feel warm and tender inside. I had to see him.

* * *

Bal’s blue BMW pulled into our compound. A white-uniformed driver rushed out of the car and, after a few words of greeting, took my large bag. As the car left, under the probing eyes of neighbors, the driver told me his name — Hasan. I settled into the air-conditioned comfort, barely feeling the potholes as the car soundlessly surged ahead. 

We were crossing the Belapur Bridge when I remembered that Aai had given me cash to buy a gift for Ajit. But what to get? His folks were rich. I had a five-hundred note. A toy set? He would already have lots of toys, which were the first things that parents got for their children. Clothes, then? I didn’t know what Ajit’s size was and had no clue what clothes a five-year-old would like. Just then, we passed a children’s store, which gave me an idea. I asked Hasan to stop.

Once inside, I went to the single shelf of comic books. These were not the comics from my childhood, which I had loved so much. These were new ones, but still. I flipped one open. It was a mint Marvel, the colors popping on nice, shiny paper, engrossing like the others. But none I saw affected me like I expected. I’d outgrown comic books, I realized.

Why, then, was I angry with Baba for burning my collection? Clearly not because I wanted to read them anymore but because he was a disapproving, discouraging, critical asshole who had thwarted and stifled me. I was less of a man because of him. Maybe that was not fully true, but it felt true enough.

My hands, shaking with rage, put the Spiderman on its shelf, and my fists bunched up until my nails dug into my palms and it hurt. Some idea, half-formed, struck me. I walked across the store to pick up a suitable gift. 

* * *

The trip to Powai took two hours more. I had fallen into a restless half sleep, and when I woke up, it was like I was in a different country. Hasan had driven into a neighborhood where many of the crossroads had traffic circles with spouting fountains in them, and all the buildings looked similar, with similar shades of paint, and the road was canopied with tall trees.

The car stopped in front of a building called Heliopolis. I didn’t know what the name meant. It sounded impressive, though, and fit the building, which was painted light brown. All ten floors were fronted by terraces green with plants. As the car entered the parking area, I saw imported SUVs and long cars. My cousin was a real-life Richie Rich. As we took the lift up, I glanced nervously at its golden buttons and at the marble floor and my off-brand T-shirt and old jeans.

I felt love-hate for money, as it was one reason for my parents’ spats, but also much more. It made people judge. They looked at your face and clothes and decided how to treat you. I’d sensed it in Pune, stepping out into the city. In the coaching class and hostel, I was somewhat like my batchmates, so they had accepted me and my awkwardness. For the first time, I’d had a loose circle of friends. We’d studied together, and sometimes, for as long as my cheap smartphone allowed, I’d played mobile games with them. My room had been similar to theirs, with an iron grille on the window to prevent the off chance of jumping.

I’d never seen such wealth. The marble of the lift continued into the corridor on the tenth floor, where Hasan left me with my bag. There was one flat per level. I went to the only door and rang the bell, breathing deeply, telling myself that maybe Bal wouldn’t look down on me.

The latch turned in under a minute, and a girl in a green salwar kameez looked at me questioningly. I gave my name. She smiled and gestured for me to enter. I was in a long corridor, where I took off my strap-on sandals before going to a huge drawing room with a high ceiling and beautiful wooden furniture. I chose the sofa and sank into its comfort. I got up briefly to look at framed photos of Bal and Sonia’s wedding and of Ajit. What a beautiful boy, I thought fondly. What a lovely smile, and what sparkling eyes, so trusting and innocent. This is my nephew. I loved him already. Smiling, I went back to the sofa and waited for my hosts. They were not long in coming. Bal walked out first with a delighted grin, much to my joy, followed by Sonia, who was beaming with Ajit in her arms. Bal and I hugged, with lots of backslapping. I hugged Sonia as she held Ajit, which made both of them laugh.

Bal had the same face, though of course he was older. He had some gray at the sides of his head and was a bit plump. Sonia was beautiful, with shoulder-length straight hair, a long face, smiling eyes. Ajit looked a lot like her. She went off to make tea. Ajit stood looking up at me. I offered him my hand. He shook it and smiled.

Ajit and I sat on the sofa, and Bal took the sofa seat facing us. I congratulated him on returning to India in a high post, and then the conversation flowed easily, with Bal highlighting his success over the years. Sonia came back with a tray holding three steaming cups and a plate of dates and dried figs. We sipped tea, and she took up the thread of the conversation. She mentioned being the first in her family to study abroad. Then I asked about her life in the US.

Sonia said, “I was into data science. I left my job when we had Ajit. We felt I should be home to raise him properly.”

Bal said, “We’d like to make the most of my stint in India. Here, Ajit can get in touch with his roots, which he might not abroad. You know how it is in the States.” He looked out of the window, saying, “Mind you, here too — liberal media are distorting history.” He looked at me to see my response.

Flustered, I blurted out, “Nice!”

Bal and Sonia laughed. I mentally kicked myself.

Bal sipped his tea and said, “Now the old culture is asserting itself in the country where it originated. About time, wouldn’t you say?” His pointed question made me uneasy.

Wanting to be liked, I said, “I see what you mean.”

My parents, though not atheists, were indifferent to religion, and it had rubbed off on me. As a child, I’d watched mythological series on TV for special effects — like an arrow turning into many in the air — and for characters seeking a way out of tough situations, as I identified with them. I didn’t say this to Bal, who clearly wanted another answer. This side of him was new to me. I turned to Ajit.

I saw his fist curled. “What’ve you got in your hand?”

He screwed up his eyes. “Magic!”

“Show me!”

He brought his fist close to my cheek and opened it finger by finger.

I feigned delight, saying, “Chocolate wrapper!”

He nodded.

I asked, “For me?”

He paused. “Yeah!”

“Thanks! What is it for?”

“It becomes wings. You fly.”

“When’s it do that?”

“When you go outside.”

I thought it was delightful. I said, “That’s really cool!”

Bal sighed. “Baby, wrappers go in trash, remember?” He leaned in and took the wrapper from Ajit’s hand.

To me, Bal added, “He keeps playing with these. He won’t swallow them or anything, but it’s silly.”

“It’s a magic wrapper!”

Bal said, “Beta, it’s chee-chee, dirty stuff. Play with toys.”

To me, Bal said, “Cannot indulge their fantasies.”

Ajit groaned, and Bal tickled him until he chortled. I looked away toward the wall with mirror-work ornaments.

After tea, Sonia invited me to see the house. During the tour of the three-bedroom flat, Sonia said she’d be glad if Ajit and I hit it off. “We want Ajit to develop a sense of identity based on our values. We’d love that he’d learn from his uncle too.”

I smiled. “Maybe he’ll teach me how to be bubbly.”

She grinned.

Bal joined us and stood beside me. I said, “What a lovely place.”

“Thanks. My family took out a loan to send me abroad. I mustn’t get complacent.”

“No, of course not.”

“I’m glad you get it. What career interests you?”

“I’m figuring it out.”

“I’m told you have sales experience. Mail me your CV? I’d like you to join us as a trainee.”

I said gratefully, “So kind of you.”

The job would pay well. If only I could take it. Yet I told myself to think it over. Bal’s offer would get my parents off my back. I would no longer be, as they said, a wastrel.

Bal picked up Ajit, who was now at eye level with me. Ajit puffed up his cheeks and raised his eyebrows at me. I did likewise and felt lighter.

Bal patted Ajit’s cheeks. He sucked them in and made like biting Bal in play. He said to me, “See my room?” He made Bal put him down and took my hand. Bal and Sonia followed us.

Ajit’s room was huge, bigger than the drawing room in my parents’ house. And it was filled with toys — or, rather, puzzles. Bal said the games were educational, designed to develop a child’s brain. He handed me a red-and-white box.

He said, “This’ll give him a head start when he joins school.”

It was a game about counting birds. Bal said, “Numerical skills. There’s activities for his limb coordination and other purposes.”

Sonia looked anxious. “We aim for his overall development. It’s competitive out there.” I felt for her.

Bal cooed to Ajit and said, “Ajju, show Uncle how you solve the cow puzzle.” Ajit dutifully took a tablet lying on the bed, opened a puzzle, and began counting a herd of cattle. He swiped them into pens by color and whether or not they had horns.

There would be no picture books here, no chance. I bent to look beneath the bed for a spot to put the red-and-white box. I pushed it under and saw a piece of craft paper tucked in with a scrap of pink ribbon and a rubber washer from a table, maybe, all awkwardly hidden where the gray carpet touched the wall. For a long moment, I took it in. I straightened up and winked at the jungle crow, who’d been looking intently. He laughed and dug his head into his father’s shoulder.

* * *

By lunchtime, Ajit had fallen asleep and been taken to his room by Sheela, the maid. Bal, Sonia, and I ate lunch in cane chairs on the covered terrace, surrounded by beautiful potted plants. The conversation turned to politics. Bal wanted to know what I felt about the government. Feeling put on the spot, I squirmed.

Bal said, “Now our people can protect our culture and nation.”

“I don’t know anything.”

“Plain to see, right? We have a mandate to scrub centuries’ worth of anti-national cultures.”

I detected a bullying tone and couldn’t stand it. My muscles tensed up. I burst out, “At my hostel, some batchmates were angry with the government over its handling of the economy. Two guys said their families were pinched by rising prices. A friend said law and order was badly affected. He played a video on his phone of a famous actor in a TV panel discussion; the actor said the new government made communities fight each other. My friend said afterward the actor was raided by Income Tax, and his movie was trolled on Twitter, so it flopped.”

There was an awful silence. I froze, mentally cursing myself for talking back.

Bal scoffed. “There are structural issues in the economy, which they inherited. They’ll set it right. What’s the alternative to them? Professional and selective complainers who can’t stand our heritage reasserting itself? Let them get their comeuppance!”

“Looks like strong people are doing what they want.”

That seemed to have needled Bal. He sneered and said, “You need a little taanashahi to make an economy grow. Look at Singapore — clean, quiet, rich. They don’t need democracy. Too much of it in India.”

I felt that my words had been registered to be dismissed. I spooned rice into my mouth, trying not to spill. I was a dropout, while Bal was an achiever. He had a beautiful wife, a lovely child, a great job, and a big house. Who was I to question him?

After lunch, I pretended the conversation had never taken place. In the evening, we three watched some OTT. When they put on a documentary about a financial scandal, I feigned enthusiasm. But I was hooked by the fast-paced documentary, with concepts like the US housing bubble and foreclosure explained by experts in snappy cameos. Around halfway in, though, the lack of interviews with people who’d lost their homes bothered me.

Ajit trotted up to us and told Sonia he couldn’t sleep. She asked, “Want Mama to tuck you in?”

Ajit replied, “No, I want him,” and pointed at me.

“No, baby, Uncle is our guest.”

Ajit stuck out his lower lip and wailed, “No, him!” Sonia frowned.

“I’m happy to,” I said, feeling warm in my heart.

Ajit, who needed no further invitation, took me by the finger and led me to his room. Half of it was moonlit, and the other half was pleasantly dark. Ajit climbed into bed. I pulled the thin floral-patterned sheet over him and murmured, “Are you sleepy?”

He shook his head.

I said, “Okay. How do your mama and papa get you to sleep?”

He said, “They pat me on the chest.”

I said, “Let me tell you a story.”

I made something up. A bit came from what Ashish, who’d shown me the video on his smartphone, had told me in Pune. He’d explained it was a folktale from his forest community. Some parts came from my comics, the Phantoms, Mandrakes, Flash Gordons, Bahadurs. “I have heard once it happened,” I said to Ajit.

“The sun didn’t set. It was bright as day. The night animals woke and asked their mothers if it was morning, and the mamas were confused. The animals of the day wanted to sleep and couldn’t. Birds chirped, which puzzled bats and insects. Flowers stayed open and got tired. The world had gone totally ulta pulta. And it got hot in the sun, real hot. The animals gathered before the tree where lived Sister Owl, the cleverest and short-temperedest of all. Sister Owl sat on a branch and said, ‘Who-hoo-hoo thought this day would come? Something must be done, or else — sizzle, sizzle, sizzle!’”

Ajit smiled.

“She said, ‘Seek out Wing Horse. She might be able to save us.’ Wing Horse agreed to help. She took help from her friends. Powered by Magician’s spells and Mask’s bravery, the spaceship soared toward Sun, with Flash at the wheel and Wing Horse by his side.”

I paused. Ajit was hooked, but his eyelids were heavy. I said, in a softer voice, “It flew to Sun’s house, made of clouds. When Wing Horse asked Sun why he was awake, Sun said it was because he was alone and no one came to meet him. He was angry and would heat up the world and make it burn. Wing Horse said she understood. She chatted with him about his life and hers, what they did, what they ate, what they’d seen. Then she asked if he wanted to play. A surprised Sun said yes! They played tag from East to West, which made Sun happy. Promising to return, Wing Horse sang a lullaby. Sun lay down on a cloud and fell asleep.

“Wing Horse kissed Sun on his cheek and left. It was dark and cool outside. Night had fallen, and the world was as it should be. She brought her friends to her cave for a party. The night animals came out and ate while the day animals slept. The next day, Wing Horse went to Sun’s house again, and again the next day, and again after that. Since then, they have been good friends. Their friendship keeps the world alive.”

Ajit’s eyes were shut, and his chest rose and fell slowly. The sight filled me with tenderness and love.

I sat there and recalled Ajit’s words. They didn’t tell him stories. Nor were there any painting books or crayons. I thought fondly of the comics and sketchbooks that had kept me sane and alive during my stifled childhood. I wouldn’t exchange them for this palace. And Bal, too, though peaceful, was uncomfortable with imagination. What if Bal curbed imagination in his son, like Baba had tried with me?

Quietly, I went out and returned to the sofa, where Bal and Sonia were talking about someone who had shorted something. The moment the end credits began, I told them I was sleepy and went to my room. There, I lay awake in the darkness. Something, stifled for years, came over me.

I opened the Notes app on my mobile phone and tapped in a vision: On a dying planet, a humanoid society that hates stories and is obsessed with information makes a sailboat that can float to the moon. Their philosophers had said the moon was empty, but their explorer finds himself standing before the Woman of the Moon, who is weaving yarn from moonbeams. Because he is trespassing, she snatches his ability to feel happy and tucks it into her hair bun. He will live with a hole inside forever, she says, unless he runs an errand for her. She is alone, and there is no one else to do it, so he has to. A fire-breathing dragon has stolen a story from her, and he must recover it. He braves great dangers to reach the dragon’s lair. The dragon has a gambling problem. He says he lost the story in a game of chance at a shady bar called the Crater. The story, meanwhile, has changed hands many times. At the bar, the explorer finds himself in a crowd of questionable and dangerous characters. The trail of the story will shake up his ideas of himself and the world. Why do so many want it? What is the story? What does it do? Has it changed along its way? And will he get back his ability to feel happy?

I decided to figure it out. I slept peacefully with the phone in my hand.

I woke up late in the morning. Sonia, dressed in a gym outfit, was sitting at the dining table. She tapped on her tablet, looked up, and beamed at me. “Good morning!” she said. “Bal has gone to the office, and the maid has taken Ajit for his walk.”

I sat facing her. She flipped the cover flap over the screen and said, “Ajit asked for you when he woke; I said you were asleep.”

“I told him a story.”

“That’s nice.”

Gesturing at the spread on the table, Sonia said, “Help yourself!” There were uthapams, pea samosas, tamarind and coconut-chili chutneys, a pineapple milkshake, a green salad, and a heap of pancakes next to a teapot. I put a pancake and a samosa with chopped fruit onto my plate alongside two slices of toasted bread, then filled a glass with the milkshake.

I asked, “You like stories?”

“Oh, movies once in a while.”

“They’re stories, right?”

“They’re time-pass.”

* * *

When Bal came home with biryani in an earthen pot, it was late evening. But much to my delight, Ajit insisted on joining us for dinner. We ate on the terrace, sitting in chairs arranged near a tube light buzzing with bugs, and made small talk. Then I saw Bal and Sonia exchange glances, and Bal cleared his throat.

“Your father has spoken to me.”

I sighed. It was exactly as I had thought. This was no casual invitation.

“What did he say?”

With a frown, Bal said, “That you had trouble preparing for the MBA entrance exams.”

I nodded. “What does he want you to tell me?”

Bal took in a deep breath. “He wants you to give it another go.”

I didn’t say anything, out of respect for Bal.

“Dude, we are not people with jaayedad.” I must have looked puzzled, because Bal rolled his eyes. “Well, we don’t start off that way. We gain a qualification, a solid one, and that gets us a job, which we build up from.”

I said, “A degree I have to get. A job I must do, although I’m not good at it.”

Bal put down his spoon. “What will you do?”

“I’ll figure it out.”

Bal burst out, “Your dad fears you might become a writer or artist,” at which Sonia looked startled and put her hand on his arm.

I sat up straight, as if I had been stabbed. Far from understanding me, he was brainwashing me on behalf of my parents. Feeling desperate, I got up. “Before I forget, I have a gift for Ajit.”

I went inside and brought out the parcel. At the table, Ajit’s eyes lit up as he unwrapped a drawing and painting kit with notebooks, notepads, crayons, paints, and brushes. His parents looked put off.

“Hey, buddy, look.” I handed him a felt-tip pen and notepad. “Draw something, won’t you?” Bal groaned. I looked eagerly at the page. A cloud in the sky, two clouds. The sun. Waves, fish. And, in the middle, a boat with a tree growing out of it. I imagined a greenhouse ship saving a crop from polar melt. A greenhouse ship invented to transport a chunk of a forest to another planet.

Sonia said, “Ajju, that makes no sense! You’ve got to make sense!”

Bal chimed in, “Yes, Ajju, that makes no sense!”

They explained trees grew on land, not in boats. He looked doused, which made me angry.

Bal took away the painting and coloring kit and stowed it on a high shelf in the drawing room. He and Sonia innocently returned to the subject of my career goals. I said it was getting late and went to pack my bag in my room.

That night, Ajit asked me to put him to bed. Bal and Sonia went into their bedroom but left the door ajar behind them. When I tucked Ajit in tenderly, he was looking at me. I asked, “What’s the matter?”

“Will you stay?”

I touched his cheek. “I have to go tomorrow. I’m sorry.”

He nodded and looked sad.

I whispered, “Let’s play a game.”

Ajit slipped out of bed and came with me. I reached up to the drawing room shelf and took the painting and drawing kit down. Holding my breath, I shut the door to Bal and Sonia’s room. The door did not creak, but its heavy brass bolt went in with a slight clunk. That alarmed me, and I broke into a sweat. Gasping for air, I put my ear to the door.

No voices or sounds; Bal and Sonia were sleeping peacefully. I breathed in and out to calm myself and rushed to the guest room. I brought out my bag and planted it by the front door.

I opened the painting and drawing kit in front of Ajit. I whispered, “See that wall? Paint on it as much as you want. That’s the game. The rule is we can’t wake up your ma and pa.”

Ajit drew a three-headed cat eating an ice-cream cone. As it took shape, I felt panic in my chest: my parents would have come down hard on Ajit for this. Then I reminded myself that this was a different time and place, and Bal and Sonia weren’t like my folks. They might not verbally abuse or punish him.

He was drawing a trampoline with fish bouncing high to cloud cities. It was adorable. I said, “More.” He added a horse with wings and birds using clouds as rafts.

I padded into the utility area, where next to the washing machine I’d seen cans of paint left over from a renovation. I chose a thick and a thin brush and two cans of pink paint, hefted them to the wall facing the one Ajit was decorating, and splashed color around. I painted a house and in its front yard a pile of burning books. Stepping out of the flames unscathed were superheroes.

I paid loving attention to details. The mask and skull ring. The lasso. Knuckle claws. Power battery at Oa. Bat logo. Superman logo. Top hat. Kurta with off-center buttons. Winged ankles. Hammer and helmet. After an hour, I realized my wall was covered.

Stepping back, I admitted to myself it was wrong, but not as wrong as killing Ajit’s imagination. Maybe this way he wouldn’t lose his creativity. I looked at the kind faces I’d drawn, and they gave me courage for what I needed to do. I signed my wall.

Half of Ajit’s side was doodled up. I whispered to him, “Keep going.”

I video-called Hari Uncle.

He said, “Hey. What’s the matter?” I turned the phone around and showed him the walls.

He gasped and burst out laughing; I turned the phone back and told him what had led to this.

He said, “Lemme be honest — this is a major thing, getting the child involved.”

“I’m sorry for that. You think he’ll be in trouble?”

“Ajit is too small to know what’s happening. He should be okay; Bal dotes on him. It’s you I’m worried about. Kiss that traineeship goodbye.”


“And Bal will tell your baba, who will go apeshit. You know what that means.”

I gulped. “I don’t want to go back home.”

Hari Uncle murmured, “Son, please.”

I began to cry. “I’ll suffocate.”

After a pause, he said, “Alright. What will you do?”

“I’ll live by myself.”

“Okay. How will you get by?”

“I’ll learn a skill and work while writing and drawing.”

“Artists take time to mature, you know?”

“I know, but I have to do this.”

“You sound decisive. Good.”

“I’ll live here. The stories are here.”

“Mumbai is an expensive city. So find a job fast.”

I willed myself to voice what I needed and said, “Hari Uncle, I have very little money. My savings from my sales job were mostly spent in Pune. Please, lend me some?”

He sighed. “Things are tight over here. I wish I could.”

In my parents’ place, life was miserable but predictable. Here was total risk and a chance at happiness. It was mine to choose.

“What are you gonna do?”

“I’ll stay.”

“You got this. I believe in you.” He paused for a moment. “I’m always here to talk and help how I can.”

The warmth in his voice was more precious than anything else. I sobbed. “You and your comics saved my life, you know.”

I heard him sniffle.

“That eases my guilt.”

“Uncle, don’t say that!”

“I saw what was happening in your home. Your parents aren’t bad people, but they can’t see their flaws. They hurt you. You were always on my mind when I came here. Once I married and you got along with Sara, I thought of bringing you over, but they wouldn’t have allowed it.”

“I love you, Uncle.”

“Love you too. Now go.”

The video call ended.

I wiped my tears and went to Ajit. I kneeled before him and said, “Little dude, I have to go now. It’s part of the game. Uncle loves you.” I kissed him on the forehead and tore myself away. I quietly unbolted the door to the master bedroom, picked up my bag, and left, latching the front door shut behind me.

Outside the building compound, the moonlit city stretched out. I took deep breaths of cool air and began walking toward, for now, a backpacker’s hostel on my mobile map. I’d get a job and find a graphic design course, then better-paying work. I could write science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels fueled by dreams and, on the side, cans of spray paint. As I walked, I was already scoping out pristine blank walls.

Suhit Bombaywala

Suhit Bombaywala’s fictive and factual writing appears in India and abroad. His short stories have appeared in journals such as Litro (UK) and Out of Print. His poems are included in the anthologies The Penguin Book of Indian Poets and Rivers Going Home.