He left for home at seven and promptly got stuck in traffic at Pragati Maidan. The driver behind him, despite realizing it was a jam, honked away merrily. A street vendor holding a bunch of red heart shaped balloons tapped on his window, made a half hearted attempt to sell him one, and then walked away to a better prospect. Right when the rest of the drive home seemed to be smooth, he got stuck again near Lajpat Nagar. He saw the plethora of sign boards on the left. Geeta Coaching centre – BBA, MBA, BCA, MCA, BE, B.Arch, B.Tech, BScIT, MBBS. Sachdeva School, Indian School, Shiva Coaching Centre, Saraswati School. With many more degrees. He didn’t even know what half of those degrees stood for. It was like they jostled with each other to shout the loudest. So Delhi, he smiles to himself, competitive, every one fighting for space. A city of ten million. Ten million souls breathing together. Ten million dreams dreamt every night.
At Chirag Delhi crossing, he saw Imran, a load of magazines and books balanced on his tiny body, thread his way to him.
Sameer rolled his windows down and shivered in the cold January air. The traffic fumes burned his eyes. “Kaisa hai?”
“Very fine,” Imran responded in English.
Sameer smiled. So Imran was trying his English on him. “How’s school? You go every day?”
Imran nodded vigorously. Looking through his pile of magazines, he added, “Sir, no new Business Today or Women’s Era.”
Wearing an oversized coat and a muffler that covered his head, Imran didn’t seem bothered by the cold, the pungent air or the cacophony of traffic around him. Under the flyover – with posters of Sanjeev Kapur selling Tata salt with a slightly constipated smile – a bunch of ragged children sat around a make shift fire, warming their thinly covered bodies.
“Sir, books? Chetan Bhagat, Arvind Adiga, Fifty Shades, Narcopolis. Good books, sir. Booker awards.”
“You know I don’t read those big books. I don’t have the time – or the patience.”
Imran flashed his white teeth in his most charming smile, “I know.”
Sakeena, Imran’s mother, peered from behind Imran, joining them. She sold incense sticks on this crossing. “Sahib, one request.”
“His shoes are all torn.” She took one of Imran’s shoes off to show him. “The other kids make fun of him at school.”
It was tattered, a gaping one inch hole at the top. He took out his wallet and handed over a five hundred rupee note to her as the traffic light turned green. “But this goes strictly for his shoes –and I want to see those shoes tomorrow.”
He winked at Imran. “What color?”
“White,” he said without a moment’s hesitation, flashing his white teeth again.
“White.” Sameer pointed to Sakeena, as drove away. Driving the home stretch, he felt more cheerful than he had all day. An encounter with eight year old Imran always did the trick.
He reached home after eight. Damn the traffic. There was a talk of moving the corporate office to Gurgaon. Life would be a bigger hell when that happened.
Pari, his nine year old, sprawled on the living room sofa watching a Hanna Montana rerun.
“TV as usual. Homework?”
“All done, daddy.”
“Don’t know.” She shrugged. She hugged him without taking her eyes off TV. He held her a little longer; she smelled of talcum powder but then let her go back to Hanna Montana.
Kavita was in the kitchen, an oil stain on her faded cotton top, helping out Ammaji, their long time help.
He had noticed that of late, their conversations were increasingly in mono syllables.
At the dinner table, he didn’t see Tania, his older daughter. Kavita said she had eaten already.
“Whatever happened to the rule of dinner at the table together?”
“You have to give her some space, she’s growing up.”
Tania had turned sixteen last month. Sweet sixteen. Very little sweet about her these days though. Loads of attitude. And acne.
“You lecture me on not spending quality time with the kids – and now you’re defending her. Ask her to come – spend some time with the family.”
No reaction. Kavita fussed over Pari’s plate, “you have to eat cauliflower.”
“Fine, I will fetch her myself.” He pulled back his chair and got up.
He knocked on Tania’s door. ‘Keep out. Danger Zone,’ the sign on the door with skull and two crossed bones said. Of late, it did seem like a danger zone. What times – he had to knock on the kids’ doors now.
“Yes?” She shouted from inside.
Justin Bieber glared at him from the bedside wall. Tania sat on the pink floral bedspread, her eyes on the laptop, cell phone on her ear. God knows who she talked to with the door closed. Her candy cane pyjama bottoms ended on her shins. She seemed to have grown half a foot taller overnight. The old toys, Winnie – the pooh and Ted – the teddy included, huddled in a corner, discarded in favor of her new toys – laptop, phone and Justin.
She looked quizzically at him.
“Dinner. We’re all waiting for you.”
“I’ve eaten already, Dad.” The phone was still on her ear.
Look at her. She treated him like he had disturbed her in the midst of her final discussions on world peace.
“We always have dinner together, as a family,” he persisted.
She seemed annoyed but sensed it wasn’t going to be the thirty seconds conversation she had hoped for. Whispering into the phone, she put it away. “We don’t always have it together. You eat alone in front of the TV when there is a cricket match on. We can’t have a rule you enforce only when it suits you.”
Tension at the dinner table. Pari, who always had plenty to say, knew better than to start any conversation. Kavita quiet. Sameer fuming.
It hadn’t always been like this. Dinner used to be a fun occasion. The girls recounted stories of the day, vying for his attention. They raised hands for permission to go first – when Tania talked, Pari had to wait for her turn. Kavita joined in the fun too – raising her hand to get a word in. They had been happy. What had gone wrong?