Flat 23

The girl verses tiger I saw her waking up from her sleep. Every night, this was her routine. She will wake up sweating, panting, and shaking. Why? I did not know. She would drink water, wash her face, hug her daughter, and go back to sleep. She had a unique name, Arcturus. What a unique name. I have seen people naming their kids Vaali and whatnot. But Arcturus, what a name it is. She doesn't know I am watching her closely. Yes, you can call me a stalker, but I am inquisitive. So, I don't care what people say about me, and I watch people who interest me. This young lady is of great interest to me. She looks like a child herself, but she is the mother of Four-year-old Ardra! Ardra! Ahh, now I get it. Ardra is the name of the star Betelgeuse, and her name is also the name of a star from the Bootis constellation. Eureka! But why she doesn't sleep well every night? My curiosity is triggered. I generally do not step out of my house. But tomorrow I am going to follow her to understand her.  The next morning, I saw Arcturus start her day like any other.  "Ardra…Ardra, wake up da, we need to go to school."  Looking at her daughter's face brought a sense of satisfaction.  "Maa, I am sleepy," sulking. "Hey, lazy bone, wake up!" and got Ardra ready for school and dropped her at her preschool. Except for Kasturi, no other parent spoke to her. As no one knows who Ardra's father is, they have not seen any relatives of Arcturus. Today was Parent Meet Day. It happens every year once. All parents, or those parents who are interested in meeting, would meet at a coffee shop next to the school and get to know each other. Arcturus never took the initiative to attend this meeting for the past two years. She was scared to allow or tell people who she was. But this year, Kasturi perused her to do so.  "Hey, Arc, you need to tell them. Let's assume no one accepts you or judges you. What worse can come out of it? And are you not already facing it? So what? Even if one person accepts you, Ardra will have one more child to play with other than Anuj. So, please come." Arc accepted the invitation. But now, as she was standing outside the door of the coffee shop, she had second thoughts. Should she leave now? Will they be comfortable with her? What if it becomes worse, and asks Ardra to leave the school? She was trembling. As she was standing there, another mother of another kid passed her.  She looked at Arc and said  "Aren't you coming in?"  Arc looked at that lady; she knew her but not by name. The lady smiled at her, giving Arc the strength to go in. There were a total of eight of them, including Arc and Kasturi. Kasturi smiled at Arc warmly and tapped on the chair next to her. Arc could feel five pairs of eyes looking at her. She wanted to become invisible right now or run back to her home. She knew she had no choice but to fight the fear. "For Ardra, for Ardra" in her mind, she was changing only this.  Kasturi said, "Hey ladies, this is Arcturus, Ardra's mom. She is as unique as her name. I wanted all of us to know her and get inspired by her, like I did."  Looking proudly at Arc. Arc was shocked and surprised by this intro. She never would have thought she and inspiring  would be in the same sentence. Is this how Kasturi saw her?  Everyone was looking at Arc. One of the ladies said, "Hey, Arct..Ar..Arc.. sorry yaar, I am not getting your name. I will call you Arc. Hi Arc… I am Swathi, Rihaan's mom. Nice to know you. We all have been longing or curious to know you and Ardra. Please tell me about yourself."  All the other ladies did not even bother to introduce themselves. Arc could feel they were not happy that she was here. Even Swathi was just being polite. Before she could speak, another lady blurred out. "What does Arada's father do? We have never seen him." Arc looked down at her finger, and now she regraded coming to this meeting. Kasturi's hand covered Arc's hand as a gesture of comfort.  Meanwhile, Swathi said, "Please, Radika, allow her to speak." Kasturi tapped Arc's hand and nudged her. Taking the plunge, Arc lifted her head and started : "I am Arcturus, named after my dad's favorite star, and he was a scientist and stargazer. I grew up in a town in Tamil Nadu. It was a small town near Chennai, Kalpaakkam. I studied there. I moved to Mumbai after I got admission to IIT Mumbai. Whenever it was stressful, I would go to Kashid Beach to relax. It was a clean and safe beach, reminding me of my home."  She paused "It was the same that night, too. As I talked to my mom over the phone, I lost track of time, and the beach became isolated. As I returned to the hostel, my phone was dead, and I noticed three guys approaching me." Again, she paused, and her voice grew shaky as she continued.  "I never thought anything would happen to me, as it was Mumbai, and it's pretty safe. But the stars were not in the right place on that night. These three young guys, one must have been a year or two younger than me, were drunk, silenced me, took me to an isolated place, and raped me one after other till morning." the tears were running down their cheeks.  "The whole time, my mind told me it would be over soon, this agony would be over. In my mind, I was thinking, were these guys going to murder me after this? Would I see my mom again? Hug her? I think my stars heard my prayers and left without murdering me. I don't want to go into details about the next few days after it, but I still don't have the energy or mental strength to discuss it. I got pregnant due to this incident. The mom, whom I loved the most, and the dad, whom I thought most liberal, let me down. They did not want me to have this baby. I did not know I was pregnant until it was too late. I thought due to my stress, my monthly periods were not there. I had no choice but to have the baby, and with the help of an NGO and my professors from IIT, I finished my course and had the child almost simultaneously. After finishing, I joined a company; thankfully, COVID was there. I was able to nurse my child and work from home without hassle. So, Radika, I don't know who is Ardra's father. And it does not matter to me. As long as she has me, she doesn't need anyone. I fought those tigers alone. I will fight this life alone." By this time, Radhika stood up and came up and hugged her.  "You are an inspiration. I don't know about others, but I am there for you like a big sister. Don't ever bend your head down for others; those men were not real tigers. We were for judging you. Your parents are for letting you down. You fought us and tamed us. One day, your parents, too, would be tamed by your courage."  By this time, all the women were hugging Arc, and she had done the right thing to come today for the meeting. She chose correctly to fight her fear, which was the real tiger, and now she gained a family.  I was seeing this from a distance, and I knew I was invading her privacy; I had been stalking her since morning, and I, too, was in tears. Arcturus is one the brightest stars in the sky and was shining today. A Girl: who Was a cub, too! A new family moved into the block. Oh, they were busy moving and setting up one room. It looks like a kid's bedroom. Why were they giving the bigger room to kids? Then I saw him, and he looked very pale and sick. An oxygen tank was attached to his wheelchair, and then I noticed that his beds were not typical. He had the one similar to the hospital one. His mom entered the room and looked at him anxiously,  "Are you okay, Rigel? Are you in any discomfort?" "No, mom, I am okay," he said as he started to read his comics.  I noticed he is not even in his teens; he should have been 10-11. As you all know by now, I am curious about this child.  Then I heard his mom say, "Deneb, Please ensure you are next to your brother. If you want something, please call me."  She left the room, rushing. That was when even I noticed her. She was sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. She should have been a year or two younger than her brother or even more. But she looked like she was angry about something. And something in her expression made me feel uneasy.  She came and stood next to her brother's wheelchair with a toy in her hand and started medaling some value on her brother's oxygen tank. I was stunned and couldn't move from my place. What did she do? Oh My God! How can I help this boy? I was frustrated and knocked on the door of my window. Like magic, the door of their room blew open, and both parents came rushing to the room. They saw the oxygen level was dropping and opened the valve.  Her mom slapped her face and shouted, "How many times should I tell you not to come near your brother? Are you possessed? For God's sake, why can't you be good for a change? I have one child, who is heaven's gift, but God punished us by giving him a terminal illness and, on the other hand, you devil's incarnation."  Rigel started crying, " I am sorry, mom, for causing you so much pain."  His mom hugged him and said, " No, darling, you did not." But Deneb was staring at them without any expression, and Her father told her Firmly, "Say Sorry now, Deneb, both to your mom and brother."  She said, "Sorry." and returned and sat in the corner.  Both parents looked at her, worried. Deneb sat in the corner, started playing with her doll, and acted like nothing had happened. What is wrong with this girl? Her parents scolded her, but she was not even crying. How stubborn is this girl? If corrective action is not taken, she will become evil. The next day after they moved in, Mother laid the breakfast, asking the son, "Can you eat alone, or do you want help with it, Rigel?"  "No, mom, I don't need help. I will eat on my own. Thanks, ma. Love you." Deneb had already started eating, so her mom did not ask anything of her. As soon as she finished eating, she picked up her plate and dropped it. Hearing the noise, the mom came rushing to the dining room and saw what Deneb had done.  She said with a sigh," I am so tired. Why are you doing this, Deneb?"   Deneb stared at her mom, not uttering a word.  "Please go back to your room, Deneb. I don't even have the energy to clean it."   As Deneb moved out of the room, her father came in. Rigel was looking at Deneb.  He heard his mom complaining to his dad, "Why is she like this? Should we send her to boarding school? Maybe the right school will correct her actions."  His dad said, "I think that's a good idea."  Hearing this, Rigel shouted, "She loves you guys. How can you think so bad about her?"  Both the parents looked at him in shock. "You think we think bad of her, Rigel? Look what she has done?"  Rigel replied, "Did you tell her what she needed to do? She was trying to help you. She is younger than me, but you treat her like a grown adult. Have you guys asked her what she wants? No, always you tell her what she got to do. Yes, I am sick, I understand. But she is still a child. Why did she not take her to the park as often as you did to me? I know every night she wakes up and sees if I am ok. I know that. She cries in her sleep. I know that, too. But whenever I try to talk about her, you guys do not want to hear about it." His mom's was in tears as she said, " Because we assumed she did something wrong, and it hurts to hear that. We never thought that we did not speak to her kindly. As you are sick, we wanted her to understand it."  "But she is just a child who needs your love, too. Yesterday, you said evil words against her. I am confident she would not have hurt a hair on my head. Ask why she did it. Hear her answer. Please, mom and dad. She is an angel. Go and talk to her." Her mom, listening to this, suddenly felt she was wrong. She went to the kid's room to see what Deneb was doing. She was sitting in the corner with her toy in hand.  "Deneb..." Deneb looked up.  "Are you ok, Darling?"  Hearing her mom's loving words, Deneb started crying.  " I am sorry, mom." she stammered.  "I am not crying, and please don't worry about me. I am sorry, I am not crying." tears ran uncontrollably down Deneb's cheeks.  "No, Sweetheart, it is ok to cry. I am sorry. I am sorry."  Deneb could no longer control herself, blurring,  " I don't know why I am evil, mom. Even yesterday, I saw something blinking in Rigel's monitor and thought he was falling sick. I did not think I would be putting him in danger. All I thought was I should help him like you do. But I am bad, so I do everything wrongly." Hearing this made her mom shake in sorrow and think, "Oh my God! What have I done to my daughter? I made her believe she is evil for helping and caring."  Deneb continued, "Even this morning, I wanted to help you by bringing the plate to washing, but my hand started shaking, and it dropped. I am sorry, mom. I am a bad girl. But please don't send me away. I love you, Dad and Bhaiya. I will try to be good. But please don't send me away."  "No, sweetheart. You are good. Rigel was correct. You are an angel. Sorry, I was wrong. Can you give mom a chance to love you more?" "Even  I am sorry, Deneb. I should have cared for you when your mom cared for your brother. I should have filled in. I am sorry to you and as well as your mom." Said her father, who was a man of few words.  "So, you guys love me too?" "Oh, we love as much as we love Rigel. We are sorry we did not tell you before. Sorry." said her mom, picking Deneb up and planting her will kisses. Deneb hugged her mom tight.  I saw all these and heard every single word. I, too, was in tears. I was cursing myself for judging a child. Now, I could see this child was emotionally hurt and broken. I became deeply disturbed. Woof Woof Woof He looked at me. He was the first person who noticed that I was looking at them. All he did was turn his head out of curiosity. His eyes had sorrow in them. He was standing next to the Blind old man who sat outside our apartment. The old man hardly left that place, and people from the apartment would give him leftovers, which he happily shared with the little one, too. He uses the public toilet nearby for cleaning and washing. Whenever the old man left, he would call "Raju, Aaja bacha." he would obediently follow.  One, I noticed that Raju was next to his old man. He always used to sleep next to the old man's hand as he was blind, and Raju never made a single sound. He saw a group of three guys passing them. The alcohol smell was reeking from them. They started to kick the old man out of nowhere, and Raju tried to take as many blows as possible. I witnessed an old incident and tried to rush to the scene before those brainless cowards fled. Raju was crying out of pain, but still, he was checking if his old man was okay. Suddenly, he felt my presence there, turned, and looked at me with those longing eyes. I did not notice any critical injuries on them, so I was about to leave the place. That was when the old man started to talk, hugging Raju. I did not make my presence felt, so he did not know I was there too.  "Raju beta, I know you can't talk. Where did you come from? But the day I met you was the best day in recent years. You never left me. You are always there to help and guide me where I want to go. If not for you, my days would not be possible to pass. Playing with you. Tickling you and feeding you gives a sense of happiness. We all are searching for what would make us at peace.  Till today, I was selfish and thought you would be there for me till I die. But what happened just now makes me deeply worried. What will happen to you after me? Who will care for you? Oh God, please take care of this mute thing." He was crying unstoppably.  I wanted to assure him, don't worry. But I knew that telling anything would not have any impact here. So silently, I left the palace. The following day, I saw a crowd gathered around where the old man sat. I made my way in to see what was happening there. I saw the old man lying motionless, and Raju was beside him. I could see tears running through his eyes. I heard people saying from morning the corporation was trying to remove the body, and Raju was not allowing anyone to come near the body. I heard one say, "Just pushing him away." Another said, "Maybe someone should hold him when they take the body away." "But he is biting people like a wild animal." Then I saw Deneb and her mother in the crowd. She was looking at him with all love. She looked at her mom and asked, "Maa, Can we help? I always liked Raju. Bhaiya also loves him. Can't we help?"  Deneb mother looked at her daughter's loving and kind eyes until recently, and she did not understand how kind her daughter was, who loved everyone unconditionally. If this would bring happiness to her, then why not, she thought. I, who was looking at her mom's face, knew what she was thinking.  "I don't know what your dad will tell Deneb, but if it would bring you happiness, yes, sweetheart, we can help."  Then Deneb and her mother moved towards Raju, and Raju looked at Deneb, and for the first time, he, "Woof, Woof," barked.  "Come on, Raju, I am your sister."  Raju knew Deneb as she always fed him biscuits on returning home from school. And he came running towards her.  "Bhaiya said he would have named you Orion for the three dots on your face. So your name is going to be Orion from today. Bhaiya is going to be very happy."  Raju, from now on, Orion, for a last time, licked his old friend's face and said his final bye to him. The corporation people took the old man away, as Deneb held  Orion's Collar. The Man’s Last Battle  I have watched him in close quarters. He was the very first person who I observed. He was living in that flat all alone. A few years back, he had a wife who lived with him. He was always accepting whatever she threw on his face. I have been seeing him from the day he got married. I can sense his marriage hit rock bottom on the wedding day. Renuka had never even seen him before their engagement. His parents were from a wealthy background, and they were well-known in their community and town. Renuka belonged to the same place. He told both his parents that he was not ready for this marriage and it would spoil the girl's life, too. But he gave an ear to his request. So when the formal arrangements were made to meet the girl, he spoke to Renuka and said he was not ready for this marriage. He would not be able to satisfy her emotionally or physically. He gave a hint that he would not be interested in her. He thought this would make the girl turn down the hand in marriage. But to his surprise or shock, she wanted to marry him. He was naive to think maybe she liked him for his honesty and tried to help him. He understood how dilutional or idealistic he was on the night of his marriage.  "Hey Renuka, You are a girl of a different make. I am amazed and honoured to know and have you as my companion."  Renuka looked at him, "I am not ready for a physical relationship yet. Will it be ok if we wait?"  "Hey, don't you remember I spoke to you on the day we met that I may not be able to get Physical with you?" "what? When? Oh My God! I just learned about this. "  I looked, oops, no; he looked at her in shock. The blood from his face drained. Did he imagine that he spoke? What was her reaction then? Did she nod in understanding, or did she not hear him? Oh God, did she not understand what he meant? He should have been more clear. She was a young woman from a small town at the end of the day. She might not have had exposure to such a concept. She looked at him and asked,  "What do you mean? You don't like me?"  "No... No... not like that."  "Then, if you like me, what is the issue?"  He knew it was already too late. And he must explain to her another day once he returned to Mumbai. He can't do much now.  "Renuka, you sleep now. It was a long day. And anyway, you asked for time, so let's take time. Now sleep." "But you said something.." he stopped her before she could complete her sentence and said  "No, don't worry about it now. Just sleep." With guilt-conscious and uneasy feelings, he, too, slept that day. Has he just ruined a girl's life? He should not have been an escapist and took responsibility and told his parents he was not ready for marriage. He assumed she understood his situation and came like a guardian to help him. What is he going to do with her? Renuka was a sweet and straightforward girl. And that's what he thought till one day. They returned to Mumbai; she took her around and showed her the city. She enjoyed every moment of it. She started to wear modern dresses, and some were way too skimpy even for his standards. He did not want to come in her way of freedom. Out of his guilt, he pampered her a lot. She got whatever she asked for, from the iPhone to the iWatch. Whatever she asked or even wished for, it was at her disposal.  After a few months of their marriage, a distant cousin visited her. He was looking for an opportunity in Mumbai and said he would be there for a few months. His name was Rahul. She asked her husband, can Rahul stay with them? As the PG was too expensive in the city. He accepted it without even thinking twice. One day, he overheard their conversation when he woke up a bit earlier than usual. He was not an eavesdropping type, but their discussion topic made him overhear it. "So you are sure? He is gay?" Rahul asked "Yes, I understood it correctly when I met him."  "Hey, you were loud. What if he wakes up and all our plans will be ruined." "No, it will not. We have crossed eight months in marriage. Nothing can go wrong now." "What was your plan?" He asked as he walked into their conversation. Rahul panicked and said, "Oh, what plan? We were discussing some Netflix series we were seeing yesterday." But Renuka was calm and composed.  "Me and Rahul have been in love for the past three years. We wanted to get married, but our family was not for it. So, when you said you were gay, I thought, finally, I can escape my family legally." Her husband looked at her, " You could have said this to me. I see no wrong in it. I would have helped you happily. Why lie about it? Now that I know, I will arrange our divorce; you can marry legally." Renuka laughed. " Not that simple, dear. I need four cores as settlement." "What? But why?" " I am still a virgin. Why do you think I did not become physical with Rahul, even when I knew you would not object? To prove you are impotent or Gay, whichever you choose. Gay is better, as it is a fact. I will say you cheated me."  " But, I did not cheat you. I have been honest with you from day one." "Who knows that you have been honest with me? Do you have proof for it? What if I tell the entire town who you are? Will they respect your parents after that? Wouldn't your parents die of shame? It is the price you pay for them. Pay me that. Otherwise, I will fight you for the rest of your life." I was trembling. I was scared. Her words gave chills to my bones. How the girl I thought was sweet and innocent turned into a devil. She revealed that I am gay, which did not bother me much, but what would it impact my parents? They are well respected in our community. Will she do it? Is she that ruthless? Before I could finish my thoughts, she said, "Ok, now that you know. I can't be in the same house as you. I am not that bad, that I will send you from your home. So we will move out today to a hotel in separate rooms and send you the bill.  Please let me know within a week. I have my needs, too. I can't wait forever. Think about it and let me know how you will settle." The same day, she moved out. He was worried. He felt trapped. He thought he was going to bring down his parent's world. They did not make any mistake other than giving birth to him. Why do they need to be punished for his mistakes?  He did not move. He couldn't move. He felt his world was becoming dark. As he knew he was gay, He had no friends because he isolated himself from others.  He felt so lonely. He had no one to discuss his problem. He felt no one would understand his pain. They would all blame him. Why has life got to be so hard on him? Then, in a tense moment, he decided to let go of it.   I wish he had let go of his fear, but he decided to let go of his life. The next day, when Renuka came to pick up a few of her things, which she forgot to take, she saw his lifeless body hanging from the bedroom fan.  Who am I? When a young girl who had fought the tiger and dared to fight the world, even when she was broken into a million pieces physically and Mentally, why I did not have the courage to face reality?  When a child has the emotional strength to accept that her family loves her brother more than she still loves them without any expectation, why I did not trust my family and leave them without any chance for them to understand me?  When a dog does not even have a future, it still has the hope to be loved, why I did not have the positivity to create my circle of friends and hope for love? Why was I, So different from them?  You all will be thinking, who am I? I was Sharavan, the Man who lost the last battle, by hanging myself in the fan. It was my flat, Flat 23. Renuka let it out for rent after my death, and Arcturus and Ardra moved in. Later, when they moved out, Rigel and Deneb's family moved in. It was they who adopted Orion. My Soul was wandering to understand life and why it's happening to me. But now I know. Maybe I'm cynical, but I don't think any of that stuff works for anyone who is truly broken. It serves us better to keep barrelling forward and hope that demons can't keep up, so you might as well be who you are. Now that I know this, I am ready to travel to light, which will take me on my next journey. I don't know what it would be, but whatever it is, I am ready; with that, he vanished.   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!