New Delhi, present day
I clutched the white and yellow daffodils bouquet carefully with one of my hands, clasping Amma’s finger with the other. Amma looked at me with adoration as we walked inside the kabristan towards a tomb at the far end of the enclosure. The soft rustling of the trees made music in contrast to the cawing crows in a distance bringing about a sense of melancholia as we approached the tomb. A pleasant glance from Amma prompted me to take out a candle from my bag, light it and place it next to the tomb. We raised our hands in dua and closed our eyes as we sat there in silence for a few minutes letting out a prayer for the departed-
Here lies a rainbow who left his pot of gold behind.
June 23, 2003- January 12, 2020
As we moved away, I turned towards Amma and asked, “Is he going to return?”
It was as if Amma was expecting this question and so she replied, “What is gone is gone, my child. He shall never return.” She held my hand and we walked out of the kabristan gate and sat on a bench outside.
New Delhi, January 27, 2007
As the sun rose in the eastern sun, a shrill, squeaky noise echoed in the Hilal residence. The sound emerged from the farthest room in the house. What sounded like the wail of a meowing cat was in fact the announcement of a new life. The beaming father turned towards his three-year-old son and announced, “it’s a girl!” Lovingly running his fingers through the boy’s hair, he said, “you have a sister.” Shiraz, the boy, let out a hesitant smile, a mixture of confusion and glee. From the youngest in the family, he had now become an older brother.
The relatives, neighbours, and friends joined in the celebration to welcome the new arrival, a few days later. A temporary awning was placed in the street to cordon the area. A troupe of eunuchs was brought in to bless the new addition and for some mild entertainment. Shiraz joined the troupe tapping his feet to the dholak that one of them was banging with fervor. The family encouraged his unabashed synchronised steps, all the while clapping to the songs that seemed to be emerging from the trail of the previous one. Exhausted by the time the music, dance and claps ended, Shiraz crept on to Abba’s lap and slept peacefully till all the guests left.
New Delhi, April 4, 2012
By the time, I was five and had started going to school, Shiraz was old enough to go out in the street and play with the other boys. Cricket; more so than anything else. And sometimes they got together for kite flying.
“Baba, I need my own kite now,” announced Shiraz one night as he was about to sleep. “I can’t keep holding Adil’s reel and stand behind him all the time.” Baba nodded with a smile and put him to sleep. As soon as he woke up, the next morning, Shiraz jumped up and down in the anticipation of getting a kite of his own.
“Yes, yes… I shall get it in the evening when I return from work,” Baba promised and left for the day. Shiraz came back from school only to sit by the window awaiting his father’s return, hopefully with a kite as big as the window frame.
“Did you get it? Did you get it?” he sprung in excitement. Realising that his father was not holding any, he retreated to his room, onto Amma’s lap. “He’ll get it tomorrow,” she consoled. The dejection in his eyes was enough for Baba to let him have his way. He approached him and handed him a Rs. 50 note, “tomorrow you can buy one. Make a grand choice.” Shiraz beamed as he took the money and placed it in his school bag. That night, he slept content.
At school that day, Shiraz’s reverie was broken as the teacher glowered. “Shiraz Hilal,” the teacher hollered at the distracted child. “Are you paying attention?”
After a prolonged interim, the school bell tinkled at last. He hastened to Zeb chacha’s shop at once. His eyes wandered around the array of kites dangling from the wooden beams on the ceiling. The tiny store had a stock of kites that Shiraz had not anticipated. His eyes fell on the prettiest rainbow-colored kite. He knew this was the one.
“How much for that one, Chacha?”
“That one?” the old man said pointing out to his subject of adoration. “That one is for 60 rupees, my boy.”
Cast down, Shiraz turned around to leave when the old man called him, “how much do you have?”
“Only 50 rupees,” Shiraz said softly.
“Okay, that should be enough.”
Shiraz gleamed at the prospect of owning the most beautiful kite that he had ever seen. Holding it in his hand, he ran back home, the glorious tail tassel flowing in the air. As soon as he entered the main door, he dropped his bag off his shoulders and rocketed off to the terrace.
“… arrey, have something to eat…” yelled Amma.
“… later,” he called back.
There was no stopping him now. At 9 years old, Shiraz found himself grown up enough to make a purchase. What inflated his pride even more was that he could make his own choice. Not only was he in possession of the most precious thing he could lay his hands on but also the realisation that he was in control. That evening, it was not just the kite that was flying high. At night, Baba slept on one side and the kite on the other, Shiraz smiling ear to ear as he drifted off.
Kite flying was not just a passion that he pursued or a sport that he engaged in. It was his lifeline. For him, the thrill of flying a kite was not about cutting another’s kite but to watch it soar higher. He was usually found steering his kite away from the other boys, who always seemed to be engaged in a duel or two. Oblivious of the power play that the other boys were occupied with, Shiraz would stay mesmerised with the visuals of his kite wafting in the sky to the music that his heart played on the invisible strings of the breeze. Zeb chahcha’s shop never had a shortage of supply and Shiraz often had a surplus. Always the same: rainbow-coloured kite with long tail tassels.
Over the years, nobody knew when those tassels started growing on the hem of his kurta. From the corners they started finding their way to the middle and then all the way around. Eventually it resulted in lifting his feet from the ground and tapping to every sound of music emanating from the house, or the alley, or a street-side store. Every time he would be caught in that trance, he was ridiculed by the street urchins and the beedi-smoking neighbourhood cognate, alike. All the giggles, scoffs and prattle did not make much sense to him then. He was unable to comprehend the ways he was made to feel especial.
Amma’s protests did not stop him from sewing the tassels on to his kurta. She declared that she would tear all his kurtas if he continued to add any more and that he would have none to wear to the mosque for Friday prayers. She practically waged a war against his dance performances when she picked the only music system there was in the house, took it up on the terrace and dropped it right in the middle of the courtyard. Baba was worried, but he had no idea what to tell his son. How do you ever tell your child right on their face that their happiness is no greater than social acceptability? It takes courage and my parents had a long way from acquiring the sorts.
New Delhi, June 23, 2016
I jumped from behind the door to alarm Shiraz as he entered home that day. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” we all shouted in unison.
His teens were welcomed with an elaborate dinner cooked by Amma and gifts from everyone- a watch from Baba, a skull cap from me and a salwar-kurta from Amma. When Amma and Baba went off to bed, Shiraz and I danced to our pretend tunes up on the terrace. His exemplary footwork and graceful moves were always awe-inspiring. Every time I would watch him dance, he would exude an unparalleled radiance. It was as if some celestial power was drawing him in and making him drift away from the foibles of this world.
I always wondered what made Amma disapprove of his dancing. For one, he was just the best dancer I had ever seen and secondly, to my ten-year-old mind I did not understand how was this ever haraam. This was clearly devotional in so many ways.
Exhausted we sat on the ledge, looking at the cloudy night sky and the vast expanse of the city beyond us. It had rained the previous night and the clouds were still low- just the perfect summer night to spend out in the open.
“Did you like the gifts we gave you,” I asked. He nodded. Even though he seemed relaxed, the usual sparkle in his eyes was missing.
“Isn’t the salwar-kurta nice? I chose the colour,” I chirped and then like a wise owl I suggested, “you must stop putting tassels on any more of your kurtas now. Amma does not like it. Nor does Baba.”
He considered this for a while and then said, “what if these tassels make me fly…just like the kite?” All of a sudden, it seemed like this was a question, not for me, but for himself. And then he fell silent.
“Is there something wrong?” I finally got around to ask him. He looked at me, tears brimming in his eyes.
“I did not really want those gifts,” he finally said, courting the tears from falling.
“What did you REALLY want then?”
“A waist band.” A lone tear trickled from his eye.
“What is that?” I had never heard of such a thing ever. He sat silent weighing his words, it seemed.
“Don’t worry,” he smiled through his tears. “I will save for it.”
New Delhi, January 11, 2020
The unfortunate day when the tempers were already rising in the country and Delhi was becoming the hub of all hatred, Shiraz got caught in one such fire. While returning from school a few youngsters started chasing him and cornered him at the end of street. Shiraz was unsure what was it that they wanted from him. One of the boys raised a hand and his school bag dropped off his shoulder as he got pinned to the wall. “Go for it,” the others shouted. “Hit him hard,” another one said, while the others egged him on.
“Hey, isn’t he the one who danced at your uncle’s wedding last summer?” yet another asked. The boy who was holding Shiraz by his collar paused to corroborate and then nodded. They all burst into a unanimous snigger upon confirmation. “Won’t you dance for us, you sissy?” his hand moved from the collar and ruffled Shiraz’s hair. Fright gave way to humiliation as Shiraz felt the blood rush to his face much to the other’s amusement.
Just then, the boys heard a few footsteps approaching them from around the street, so they left him be and ran away.
Shiraz sat there for a few seconds, expounding the extent of his shock. His heart felt in his mouth. His whole body was shaking with dread, angst, terror and a mix of everything that one can feel when they are staring at the face of a near-death experience. He gathered his belongings and bolted his way home. He locked the door behind him and ran off to his room. Switching on the music, he let the tempest in his mind rage. His heartbeat sounded off from his temples and a concoction of fury, guilt and shame boiled in his heart’s cauldron. It was not the first time that he had cried himself to sleep that night. But it might just be his last, he decided.
The next day, on his return from school, he fetched a flag, ascended a pole on the terrace and tied it about. The rainbow-colored flag unfurled, waging a war on Shiraz’s behalf against the world. He needed to free himself, and now was the time.
“Would you just take it down,” Baba demanded in the sternest voice that he could muster.
Shiraz’s eyes turned glassy, tears threatening to run south. He looked down at his feet, his face cerise red.
“There is no question about it, Shiraz,” Amma added. I stood by her side, hoping Shiraz would relent. What was the point in disturbing the calm? Shiraz looked up at Baba, and I realized that he had always been wrestling with this storm. Where would there ever be calm if the squalls rise and fall with every breath that you take?
“I WILL NOT,” Shiraz shrieked and stormed out of the door.
“Where is he going at this hour?” Amma implored Baba to go and get him home. “As if there is not enough for us to deal with at this time. Why did he have to give us a hard time too?” Amma’s smacked her forehead with her hands as she bundled up on the floor. Baba wrapped a shawl around him and leapt out of the door looking for Shiraz.
I tried to comfort Amma but she had her own battles she was worried about facing. The mood in the country was getting grim by the day and no one seemed to be safe anymore. And a boy, barely sixteen, was definitely a soft target.
Shiraz moved up the alley across Zeb chacha’s shop and over to the next bazaar. It was not as quiet as he had hoped. A lot of men roamed about on their bikes or opened up bars in their cars outside a snack corner. Finding himself in an unfamiliar neighborhood, he traced his steps back. It seemed like all of a sudden everything had gone darker. He heard a light bulb snap somewhere close. A couple of tins and drums clanged from a den on the street. Possibly a domestic clash, he thought, and turned towards another unfamiliar bylane.
Adil, his childhood friend, stood at a corner along with a few other boys. All of them noticed Shiraz approaching them.
“What’s going on?” Shiraz asked them, looking at Adil.
“Nothing that concerns you,” one of them said.
“Go on… go home kid,” another jumped in.
“Adil, what’s going on here. Tell me.” Shiraz demanded.
“Nothing!” Adil exclaimed and pushed his shoulder. “Go back home, chamiya.”
On an ordinary day, Shiraz would have taken it in his stride and left them alone, but not that day. He pounced on Adil and ripped off his shirt as the others tried to tear him away. A few punches on his face and another few on his stomach was enough for him to be bundled on the floor. Blood started oozing out from his mouth and a forehead slash. Within a few minutes the constant blows had benumbed him.
“Let’s just leave him here…let’s go,” Adil suggested his friends. The others conceded and ran away from that alley.
“Adil…Adil,” Baba called out as he spotted a few boys running towardst him. “Have you seen Shiraz?”
“No, chachajaan,” Adil lied and went past him, joining his gang.
Baba continued his frantic pursuit scaling the length and breadth of the network of alleys. Outside a butcher’s store he saw some blood spill on the floor and a few dragged foot marks that led him in the opposite direction. He followed the steps that got lost in the darkness of the night.
New Delhi, present day
It had been almost half an hour since we’d been sitting here outside the kabristan.
“Is he going to come?” I asked Amma following her glance that was fixed on the road ahead.
“He said he would. Let us wait a bit more,” just when she said this, we saw Baba emerge from behind a tree, clutching a brown packet.
“Is he here yet?” Baba asked peeping inside the kabristan gate. As if on cue, Shiraz emerged from inside the gate.
“You didn’t have to do this, my boy,” Amma hugged him tight.
“Oh, I had to… that part of me is gone forever.”
Shiraz looked at me- the familiar twinkle in his eyes was back. “Grown taller, haven’t you?” I smiled, handed him the bouquet I’d got for him and hugged him. Our tearful reunion lasted a few seconds longer than I had anticipated.
Baba placed his hand on Shiraz’s shoulder and turned towards him. “We’re sorry, my son,” he whispered as the pain became visible on his face.
“Don’t say that, Baba. I have no complaints at all now. I am happy in the space that I am in and love doing what I do. When I started learning dance, a few years ago, I had no idea where it would lead me.” He sat us all down on the bench. “And now, nothing can be clearer. I want to pursue this and if I stay here, you will always keep landing in some or the other societal web. I can’t let that happen.”
“We never took down the flag,” I butted in, bringing up the memory of the fateful day when Shiraz left home forever.
“And let it stay there as a reminder of me,” he smiled as he softly pinched my cheek.
Baba held out the packet he was holding, “Is this what you wanted?”
Shiraz took it in his hand and unwrapped it. Drawing out a sparkled waist band that clinked, he said, “Just what I always wanted. This is perfect.”
“Come home. Forgive us.” Amma would not stop crying.
“I would be so busy with shows all over the world now, Amma, I won’t be home, anyway. And when you wish to meet me, just close your eyes and place your hand on your heart. Shiraz is here.”
Glossary of words:
dholak: a two-faced drum
beedi: local made cigarette
chamiya: derogatory terms for a dancer
Disclaimer: The incidents/events mentioned in the story are not intended to hurt the sentiments of any community, religion or ethnicity. The sole purpose of the author is to tell a story.
Author’s note: The story has been inspired by the immense courage displayed by Ehsan Hilal in the face of adversity to pursue his passion and paint the whole world red with his sparkling performances. I wish to salute the efforts of all the children who never give up on their dreams and continue to believe the tiny voice in their heart that eggs them on to live it up.
A special thanks to Aashtha Singh Raghuwanshi whose “Somesh’s poem” also inspired me to write this story. Here’s the poem-
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