The doorbell was taped. He was doubtful if pressing that doorbell would result in a buzz or not so he preferred knocking upon that rusty door. After a couple of knocks, someone’s shadow appeared through the aperture. The door opened and a girl appeared in front of him. She was probably in her late teens but she looked different. She carried a decent and mature expression on her face, quite rare an expectation from other girls of her age. To him she appeared to be an epitome of simplicity, to her he was a question. A young man standing at her door with a bag pack on his shoulders was not what she was used to see often.
Before her inquisitiveness grew, he asked her, “Is this house number B-59?”
She nodded in affirmation, and started making guesses about the visitor.
“My name is Sandeep and I have been referred here by Mr. Shukla, who I guess is your uncle in Kanpur. I am on my way to Muzaffarpur, and I need a shelter to stay overnight. Mr. Shukla is my colleague and he gave me this letter to hand over to you.” he said and extended the letter towards her.
She took that letter and read it slowly, slowly as a snail. It was obvious that she could read but has not been to school for much. As soon as she finished reading it, she reemerged out of the paper and faced the man again.
She guided him to a dimly lit room and took leave to continue with her daily household chores. He started digging into his bag, looking for a towel and a kurta-pyjama which he eventually found after much exploration of his over stuffed bag. He came out of the room and asked the girl about bathroom. She pointed towards a corner without pausing the work at hand, he nodded and proceeded towards the corner.
The clock was striking seven in the evening when he looked at it lying on a cot in the very same room, and then he resumed reading his book. As he had just regained his reading concentration back, there appeared a knock on the door. He opened the door and found her standing in front of him, this time it was a call for the dinner.
He moved towards the kitchen area and sat down in order to be fed. A question constantly arose in his mind. The house and its furniture gave an impression that there were few people living there, but nowhere to be seen. Just then someone patted his back, and he turned to see a kid, some eight years old. Before he could ask anything, the kid bombarded him with several questions.
“Who are you? Why are you eating in our home?”
Before he could utter a word, there came an answer from the girls’ mouth.
“He is our guest, he is going to a distant place, so our Shukla uncle referred him to spend his night here. Come on now, sit down and have your food” she added.
He readily understood that the kid was her brother, apparently a very dear one.
Being reminded of where he was headed to, he started thinking about his destination, his village and excuses he was going to give when he reach there. Lost in different thoughts, he tried to distract himself from the flood of thoughts that he was being driven with.
He continued reading his book, but it wasn’t very helpful. So he decided to stay thoughtless for a while, but even that was not possible. He could hear the boy and the girl talking and could not help listening to it.
“Did they write a letter this week? When are they coming?” the kid asked.
“Yes they did, I have already read that letter thrice to you.”
“Do they know about this visitor?” he said, lowering his voice but still it was loud enough to be heard by the visitor himself.
“No, I will tell them in our next letter” she almost seemed ready with the answers.
“Did you had a good day at school today?” she questioned this time, changing the topic.
“Hmm” he nodded.
“Do you miss them?” she asked.
“Hmm” he nodded again.
“Shall I tell you something?” she wanted him to pay attention to her, only her, “When I miss them, I start looking at things around me, feel how beautiful they are, and I wish you to do the same. Promise me that you will do the same.”
He nodded in affirmation.
Come, I will show you how to find the brightest star out of a constellation.
She carried him to a cot and started telling about stars and all.
In the room, he sighed seeing the poor kid miss his parents and they are probably in a distant place for an unknown reason.
After a while, he started feeling sleepy, and decided to call it a day. Putting off the lantern, he hid himself in a blanket, trying to hide himself from the various thoughts haunting him.
Morning brought an essence of boiling hot tea, and for him it was now a time to move on to the later part of the journey. He was almost done with packing his bag when she arrived with breakfast.
He was feeling uncomfortable giving troubles to the girl, but was so shy to convey it, so he remained silent.
Sipping his tea, he gave a closer look to the room which was now appropriately brightened, it had a family photograph, probably a recent one, with the girl standing between her parents and the kid in the arms of the dad.
Winding off his breakfast, he moved out to say goodbye to the girl, his anonymous host.
As he stepped out, he saw her writing a letter and assumed that she was writing it to her parents, who were away, he guessed.
He could have said a bye and left the place, but don’t know why he wanted to talk to her. So he started the talk with the very first thing that struck his mind.
“Writing a letter to your parents?” he asked.
She lifted her head and looked into his eyes.
“Oh sorry, I unintentionally lent an ear to your conversation with your brother last night”, he explained.
“That’s ok, I am not writing this letter to my parents, they are writing it to the two of us”, she answered.
“I didn’t understand”, he exclaimed.
“Maybe my uncle Shukla couldn’t tell you about this. I lost my parents in a road accident a few weeks ago.”
Shocked by the turbulence that she created, he understood the whole thing. Her parents were dead and ever since then she was writing letters on their behalf to keep things in place.
As he slowly recovered from the sad news he just listened to, he asked a question.
“Why are you lying to him? His parents are dead and he ought to know this. Maybe he would cry for days, but he would recover, every one of us does.”
She put on a feeble smile as if she knew he was going to ask this.
“Sir, I don’t wish to keep him in dark, maybe today or tomorrow he would discover the truth and would recover from it too. Every one of us does. But what I am doing here is for a purpose.”
He kept looking at her face, expecting her to say more.
“Who taught you to ride a bicycle?” she asked.
Surprised by this out of the topic question, he thought for a while and answered.
“My dad”, he said.
“How did he do that?” she readily asked.
“He used to hold my seat and ask me to paddle, after a few rides I noticed that he was not holding the seat anymore, I never knew when he started doing that. Once I noticed that I could ride it without my dad holding it, I paddled harder and learnt how to ride.”
“Exactly my point. It hardly matters if someone is there to hold your seat or not, until and unless you believe that there is some one. I just don’t wish to shatter his belief, until he notices it himself and rides his bike one his own.”
He had no answer. Rather he was enlightened. Any more words would have made the conversation a little less beautiful. So, he just replied with a smile, picked up his bag and said a goodbye.
He was not just leaving the house at that very instance, rather he was entering a new world with a new frame of reference. All the way to his village in Muzaffarpur, he kept thinking about the girl, unaware of his surroundings, his co-passengers. Just when the bus stopped and the conductor called up for Muzaffarpur, he regained his consciousness and unboarded the bus.
As the bus left, leaving behind a minor storm of dust and smoke. He saw his parents on the other side of the road waiting for him. He stepped out of that storm, the parents stood up to envelope him into their arms. He felt warmth like never before, and hugged them back like never before.
On their way back to their home, they kept asking how the things were in Kanpur and if he had been feeding himself well. He still was enjoying their happy faces and opted to answer all their questions with a smile.
On reaching home he stepped into the house and entered a state of nostalgia. He never expected it to happen this way. But the way things were happening, he was enjoying the unexpected.
That night when everyone was about to sleep, his mom entered the room with a glass of milk, he was trying to finish the novel he stared reading. Looking at her, he immediately stood up to receive what she brought. She was smiling as a beautiful day. He had never seen her so happy, but today was her day, the day when all her prayers had been answered and her son was home. She sat down beside him as he started consuming the ambrosia she made.
As she was about to leave with the empty glass, she abruptly stopped to ask a question. A question that was playing on her mind ever since she saw him stepping down from that bus.
“For how many days have you arrived this time?” expecting everything but what he said in return.
“Forever”, he said.
She smiled with all the might she had, as a tear rolled down her cheek.
As she left, he flipped through the pages of the novel in hand to find a return ticket to Kanpur. He found it and tore it into pieces, realizing that there wasn’t a better world waiting for him than here.