a short story by Aby Sam Thomas
When the balloon seller gingerly stepped into the train, Madhavi’s eyes were immediately drawn to the riot of colour that he brought into the blue, crummy interiors of the train. A cluster of balloons, in a myriad of colours, shapes and sizes, weaved their way into the otherwise sordid confines of the compartment they were in. Madhavi smiled, as she caught her coloured reflection in the bright balloons.
Madhavi nudged Amit standing beside her, and demanded, “Amit! I want a balloon!”
Amit pretended to not hear her—he closed his eyes and swayed his head to the music playing through his earphones.
Madhavi wasn’t impressed. She yanked out one of his earphones; and spoke in his ear, “Amit Desai, you are going to buy me a balloon.”
Amit sighed. While he had grown accustomed to Madhavi’s idiosyncrasies in the one year they had known each other, he still found her demands, most of the times, to be curiously silly and juvenile.
“Maddy… grow up! You are twenty-three years old. Why on earth do you need a balloon? And that too, you want one in a Mumbai local train—come on!” he waved his hands, gesticulating at the cramped space of the train.
Madhavi stared back at Amit, her eyes unflinching. “Amit, just do it, will you? It’s been so long since I’ve had a balloon. I have only my credit cards on me at the moment; otherwise I wouldn’t have to suck up to you!”
“Madhavi—for God’s sake, why do you want a balloon? Give me one good reason.” Madhavi’s face went awry as Amit enunciated the last three words.
Madhavi bit her lip, thought for a moment, and said, “Balloons are perhaps one of the most enigmatic creations of our times. How can a snip of rubber, inflated with air, dangled on a flimsy string, so entice the young and old alike?”
Amit looked at her, eyes wide open in horror. Of all the retorts he expected, he hadn’t thought he would be subject to a monologue on balloons. Amit shrugged, as he noticed the balloon seller, a boy no more than fifteen years of age, manoeuvre his wares in the fairly empty compartment.
“Because I think they symbolize freedom. There’s something so divinely fascinatingly free about a balloon that you can’t get in any other mechanical contraption they call toys nowadays.” Madhavi paused to catch her breath. “If anything, Amit, the balloon’s freedom, the sheer sight of it flying away high up in the air is absolutely glorious. I would be gloomy, perhaps for an instant, if I were to let go of a balloon; but I am sure that the sight of my balloon soaring towards the heavens would fill me in an effortless, blissful wonder.” She quickly spun around, and stared at Amit. “And I want to feel that exulted state now. Now! And that’s my reason. Are you satisfied, or should I go on?”
Amit shook his head, chuckling. He playfully smacked Madhavi’s cheek, and threw his hands up in failure—it was Madhavi’s habit to always get what she wanted. The two had first met at a restaurant where Amit had his eyes drawn to Madhavi shaking her fists at the waiter for having brought her a ‘tepid’ soup; when she had actually ordered ‘hot’. He also remembered how he had once pulled back an angry Madhavi from actually mauling a teacher who had ‘dared’ to oppose her candidature in a college election. On their six-month anniversary of being together, she had steadfastly refused to celebrate until Amit brought to the table her favourite brand of strawberry ice-cream.
Amit gestured at the balloon-seller. The boy looked tired; yet he had bright eyes set in a sunburnt face. He had floppy black hair that covered most of his forehead; and he was wearing a tight maroon shirt together with dirty beige trousers that reached only up to his knees. He held a long bamboo pole, onto which all his balloons were tied with white twine. Almost all of the balloons he carried were filled with helium, ruthlessly tugging at the twine that bound them to the pole; while there were a few flaccid entities, content to be pulled along wherever the boy went.
Madhavi grabbed a bright green balloon, and grinned widely at Amit.
Amit sighed. He handed the boy his cash, and Madhavi looped the twine of the balloon to her finger.
The train was chugging along a little speedily now, and Madhavi held onto the train’s bar with her right hand, while she precariously perched herself at the edge of the train. Amit looked on dispassionately, as Madhavi stretched out her other hand, the green balloon wrestling tirelessly against the twine that she was holding. Madhavi let go of the twine, and gleefully watched as the balloon got caught up in a gust of wind, flitting away until it was just a green spec in the expansive aquamarine.
She turned around, and spied the balloon seller with his pole, standing at the opposite door. She saw all the balloons, rebelling to be let go in the wind that consumed their airy frames.
She quickly weaved her way to the other side, where the boy stood; his back to the stick holding his balloons.
Before Amit could recognize what she was doing, Madhavi had quickly spotted the parent thread that was wrapped around the stick, onto which the rest of the balloons were attached to. It looked to be a long piece of thread, looped around several times around the pole, and tied up in a tight, strong knot.
Amit was still looking at her, not able to comprehend. He often wished, in later years, that he had been faster to understand what Madhavi was intending to do.
She pulled out a nail-cutter that she had in her bag, and positioned it near the knot of the looped twine. The boy was still staring out the train, the wind flaring into his face.
Amit suddenly understood, and he cried out, “Madhavi, no!” Madhavi tossed back her head, smirked at Amit wickedly and snipped the twine. The twine unrolled itself, and one by one, the balloons freed themselves to the wind. Madhavi cheered and let out a whoop of delight.
Startled by Madhavi’s voice, the boy had turned around, and his face fell as he saw his wares flying away in the wind.
For an instant, his and Madhavi’s eyes met. For the entire part of her remaining life, she often thought about that one instant in time.
The boy looked again at his balloons spiralling out in the air, his eyes quivered, and he muttered, in a hoarse whisper, “No…That’s my money…”
Madhavi was still staring at the boy, when the boy flung himself out to grab the few remaining balloons that hadn’t gotten away.
Amit had rushed forward, throwing out his arms in a futile attempt to grab the boy. Madhavi watched as the boy flayed his bony arms at the balloons; gravity then grabbing hold of him as he fell onto the rusty tracks of the parallel train track. His head hit the sharp edge of the track; a popping sound as his limbs thrashed on the gritty stones and wood boards that lined the tracks. Blood spewed out of his head, a gruesome crimson pool accumulating around his head.
Amit grabbed a shuddering Madhavi in a tight bear hug; even as her eyes followed the last purple balloon that swirled up in the air, right above the motionless body of the boy.
[image courtesy: http://vi.sualize.us/view/21c717e32efc85baef5c6a0c4bcb57dc/]