Archana gave the final touches to her painting – a face of an unmasked clown drawn juxtaposed to his smiling mask. The abstract vibrant and cheerful background in the painting seemed completely unaware of the clown’s grief and slow depression that rendered him hollow within. After sweeping the last strokes of color, she let out a sigh of deep satisfaction. It was after a long hiatus that she has been able to complete a painting. The easel stood near a huge glass window in her tiny studio. Behind it lay her work, neatly labeled, resting against the wall – some ready, some unfinished and yet some more discarded. She moved back to have a view of her piece of art and savour the moment. She intended to bring out melancholy in the clown’s expression but somehow on closer scrutiny she seemed to have failed. .
She ran her eye over her to-do-list for the day. She had to pick up a few things from the market before cooking dinner. Since morning she had been listless and anxious apart from the time she was immersed in her painting. Mindless thoughts had been lingering at the back of her mind like ripples in water from incessantly pouring rain drops. A ripple faded away into nothingness but each thought left a deep imprint that aggregated. She couldn’t seem to put a finger on the source of anxiety. Perhaps it was the grim weather outside. Or was it the painting? She fetched the car keys and set off for the grocery store.
The shop owner greeted her enthusiastically and tried to strike up a conversation with her. Normally she enjoyed small talk with him about his profit, sales, the weather and so on. But today she excused herself curtly after buying the essentials. She took the cemented path to the parking area to avoid the puddles created from the downpour since morning. Today the other shops seemed to have closed earlier than usual. The seemingly deserted path was dimly illuminated. She is fumbled for the car keys in her handbag when a hand touched her elbow from the back sending a chill down her spine. She dropped her bag in the shock. An array of coins and the keys spilt out making an endless tinkle that resounded in the surrounding silence. She bent to grab the keys and noticed a tiny figure busy salvaging the coins - a little girl drenched totally from head to toe, faintly shivering.
She immediately averted her eyes as her experience with strangers had taught her to be prudent, to look with the lenses of suspicion and distrust in such situations. The girl clumsily gathered a few coins and extended her hand forward, a fistful for her small size. Archana asks her to keep them. Archana looked at the large black eyes smudged with kohl, the smear running down her cheeks. They were sorrowful yet determined and exuded immense pride. Archana proceeded to ask her what she was doing there in the dark, unaccompanied - the girl didn’t reply. Tears appeared to well up in those eyes. Few more minutes of prodding brought incomprehensible words tumbling out of her with an outburst of suppressed emotions. What Archana could grasp was that she had come to the Delhi with her chacha who had said would be back after attending to few errands but hadn’t come back.
Leaving the girl stranded there was definitely not an option. Before dropping the girl at CR Park police station which was 10 minutes away she needed to change her rain drenched clothes. Archana anticipated resistance from her to the proposal. She would have apprehensions about going with a stranger. Surprisingly the girl agreed readily. As soon as they reached home, she made the girl comfortable, switched on a cartoon channel on TV and went to the store to search for some of Rohan’s old clothes which she had planned to keep till eternity. She chose a bright yellow T-shirt and shorts assuming it to be the right fit for the girl. She could still remember vividly Rohan running into her arms in them. How time flies, she sighed. Shrill peals of laughter from the living room brought her to the present from her stupor of nostalgia. She smiled.
As she entered the room, the girl was about to break into another chain of laughs. In an attempt to break the ice, Archana enquired ‘what did Doraemon say so funny? I like him too’. And it was not altogether a lie. She still enjoyed catching a glimpse of the episodes in between surfing channels just to relive Rohan’s childhood moments. And that query certainly helped. The girl went on to narrate the scene in broken sentences. Archana handed her the clothes and in the meantime went to fix her something to eat. She quickly fried a frozen tikki and makes a burger. The girl looked fresh now and was most delighted to see the burger. There was mirth and a twinkle in her eyes which couldn’t have been missed. She went on talking about her younger sibling’s antics. A bit of maturity and wisdom beyond her years in those twinkling eyes were clearly evident.
Their unending chatter was broken only by a message from Raghu that his flight landed earlier than expected and he was five minutes away from home. He also mentioned he was exhausted and will immediately retire to bed once he reached. As far as she knew Raghu, he wouldn’t have approved of Archana bringing over the girl. Archana didn’t want her to give him any further stress at that moment. She showed the girl to Rohan’s room and asked her to rest there till she finished some pending tasks.
‘We will soon head to the police station and ask them to look for your chacha’, she said to the girl. Her eyes lit up briefly‘. Will you stay with me there till they find him?’ the girl asked pleadingly. Just as she reassured her that she would, the doorbell rang.
She decided that once Raghu is off to bed, she would do as she has planned without giving him any hint. She attended to Raghu and soon he was off to bed. She quietly went to check on the girl and found her in deep slumber. She smiled at her recollection of checking up on Rohan at night when he was a child. She could hear her little snores and found it reassuring. She didn’t have the heart to disturb her sleep. She adjusted her blanket and thought about delaying the trip till early morning. Perhaps before Raghu wakes up.
When she lay down on her sofa, peace and calm had replaced her restiveness even though an arduous task still lies ahead the next morning. She thought of going back to her painting but decided not to and picked a book. She didn’t know when she fell asleep on the sofa and was woken by a call from the guard room. Raghu reaching for it and she could hear him ask the guard,’ What Chacha and which Bachchi? There must be some misunderstanding. Ask him to come tomorrow morning’. Archana intervened gesticulating fiercely and urged him to listen to her. He wearily muffled the receiver with his hand and listened patiently to her as she summarized her predicament that made her give shelter to the girl. He was appalled but in a restrained voice told the guard to send the person in. There was a loud altercation in the corridor. She could hear the words ’kidnapping’, ’arrest’; the girl instantly shouted `Chacha’ and before Archana realized, she ran to the corridor. Archana followed her.
Amidst her wailed, Archana could hear her say, ‘She forcibly got me here’. Archana felt dazed for a moment. The person added, `I will ensure you face the consequences for this crime. Thankfully the boys witnessed you luring my niece at the parking area’. Archana recovered and firmly told him to go ahead. This agitated the person even further.
Raghu signaled Archana to refrain and tries calmly to placate the man, ‘What do you want?’ The man said this was a legal matter and Raghu cut him short, ‘How much?’
While the man left with the girls, the latter’s large kohl smudged eyes that radiated innocence not so long ago had betrayal written all over.
Archana knew she wouldn’t get any sleep. As she switched the studio lights on, the painting stared at her. The face of the clown seemed to smirk at her. The worms of deceit had hollowed it out. ‘One more to the stack of discarded paintings,’ she said to herself.