Parinita Shetty: The Ties that Bind

From the Mumbai Duckbill Workshop. Our thanks to Parinita for letting us use this on the Duckbill Blog.

Komal adjusted the sock around her left ankle and straightened up. She saw Mrs. Fernandes marching across the auditorium towards her, her face set in grim determination.

“You’re doing it again Komal,” she tapped her foot impatiently. “Our main characters are just about to enter a haunted house. The music cannot be happy.”

Komal twirled the flute between her fingers and looked at her music teacher. “I told you Ma’am,” she replied softly. “I can’t do eerie. Happy music is all I play.”

“I think she’s suggesting additions to the plot Ma’am,” Rohan called out as he rested his violin against the stage. “Now the ghosts have to break out into a Bollywood song-and-dance routine. Then Komal can play all the happy music she wants.”

The rest of the cast and crew erupted in laughter. Mrs. Fernandes smiled at Rohan. “Maybe you can write the script for the next school play,” she said. “For now let’s try that scene again. Take it from the top!”

Komal turned around to look at Rohan and continued staring at him as the rest of the musicians took their places in front of the stage.

*

“All set for tomorrow’s test Miss Happy?” Komal heard Rohan’s voice behind her as she returned her flute to its case.

“I haven’t had time to study,” she muttered. “These rehearsals have been keeping me busy.”

“I guess Math isn’t for everyone,” Rohan shrugged. “Hey, would you still play your happy music if you failed?”

Komal didn’t reply. She picked up her backpack and turned to walk out of the auditorium.

“Wait up!” Rohan hurried after her. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever even seen you get angry. One day you’re just going to explode if you keep all those emotions bottled up. KABOOM!”

“I have to go study Rohan,” Komal said without stopping. “Not everyone can be a Math whiz like you.”

“I’d offer to help you study,” Rohan was now beside his classmate. “But I’ve seen your previous Math scores. I’m not risking them being contagious!”

Komal bent down to scratch her ankle, stood up and looked at Rohan. To his surprise, she flashed him a disarming smile. “I don’t need your help,” she said sweetly and walked out the door.

*

“Time’s up!” Ms. Bhatt called out. “Hand in your papers everyone.”

The class broke up amid a rustle of papers, the creaks of dislodged chairs and the chatter of relieved sixth graders. Komal sighed and packed her bag. The test had gone worse than she’d expected. The only positive thing she could glean from the entire debacle was that the results were a week away.

As she left the class, she overheard Riddhi exclaim, “Mrs. Fernandes is going to freak out! You know how she gets even when one person is missing from rehearsals.”

“Yeah,” Sonya replied. “I can’t believe Rohan actually bunked his darling Ms. Bhatt’s test. You know how he loves being her star pupil.”

“He’s just a suck up,” Riddhi rolled her eyes. “For his sake I hope he’s sick.”

“Yeah I think Mrs. Fernandes will only accept deathbed status as a reasonable excuse for being absent,” Sonya giggled.

“I hope he’s back soon though,” Riddhi said. “The violin is pretty important to the background score.”

Komal shook her head. Why anyone would place so much importance on an instrument as inconsequential as the violin was beyond her.

*

Komal slowly made her way to Bhatia and Sons, the store down the lane. Getting out of the house was a huge relief. Home hadn’t been a happy place ever since her miserable Math test results had become common knowledge. So when Ayush had refused to go grocery shopping (“It’s not good for my image Ma! What kind of 14 year old lugs home bottles of hair oil and this dhaniya nonsense?”) she’d jumped at the chance.

“Hi uncle,” she greeted the owner and took out a piece of paper. “I have a long list of things I’m supposed to take home.”

On spotting who it was, Mr. Bhatia went through the drawer on his left and brought out a large notebook. “And I have a list of things for you too,” he said in an annoyed tone. “A long list of things your family hasn’t paid for yet.” He thrust the book in her direction. “The balance is Rs. 1056.”

Komal blinked. “Um, I only have enough money for this time Bhatia uncle,” she said softly. “Ma didn’t say anything about the rest.”

“Which means I’m lying I presume?” Mr. Bhatia said indignantly, his voice rising higher with every word. Some customers looked over at the two curiously. Komal glanced around quickly before looking back at the angry shopkeeper. “I’m not selling you anything until you clear out these dues young lady!” he exclaimed.

Komal rubbed her right foot against her itchy left ankle. By now, more people were starting to look at the source of commotion. “But I’ll come back with the money as soon as I can uncle,” she mumbled.

“That’s when you can buy these things you need then,” Mr. Bhatia slammed the book shut and turned his back to her.

Komal stared at the large back quivering with irrational suppressed rage and could think of nothing to do but smile. “I’ll be back,” she promised and calmly walked out of the store.

*

“How am I supposed to eat a burger without ketchup Ma?” Ayush complained. Komal rolled her eyes.

Mrs. Kapadia looked at her son apologetically. “I forgot to get some,” she said. “I’m just so used to getting everything from Bhatia’s. The store’s been closed for four days now. God knows what random vacation he decided to take.”

“Maybe he’s sick,” Komal looked over at her mother.

“Yes,” she replied. “But if only -” She was interrupted by the arrival of her husband.

“Sujata! You’ll never guess!” he sounded flustered. “That Bhatia’s gone and killed himself!”

“What?!” Mrs. Kapadia’s mouth dropped open in shock. “How … how do you know? How’d he die?”

“I just met Kulkarni,” Mr. Kapadia loosened his tie. “His son is friends with that Bhatia girl. They found the body in the storeroom.”

“He was inside the shop all this while?” Ayush asked with morbid fascination.

His father nodded. “Hung himself with some sort of coarse twine apparently. The police are surprised it didn’t give away under his weight. Didn’t look all that strong.”

“Anand,” Mrs. Kapadia admonished. “I don’t think this is the kind of conversation we should be having in front of Ayush and Komal.”

“Ma!” Ayush looked affronted. “We’re not five!”

Komal left the kitchen and walked to her room. She decided she could do with some more practice with her flute.

*

“Komal!” Mrs. Fernandes called out loudly. She proceeded to glare at the giggles that burst out from a few scattered students.

“Yes Ma’am?”

“It’s the same thing all over again!” the teacher said exasperatedly. “You aren’t even trying!”

“I told you Ma’am,” Komal replied in a low voice. “I can’t play that type of music.”

“Well then,” Mrs. Fernandes said in a huff. “If you can’t allow yourself to be flexible and follow directions, I might just have to give your part to someone else.”

“But I’m the best flutist in school!”

“You’re not leaving me with much choice Komal!” Mrs. Fernandes exclaimed. “Just try the melody we need,” she continued gently. “I don’t want you out any more than you do.”

Komal felt a sudden burning pain just above her left foot. She tried to ignore the uncomfortable sensation and faced her teacher. “As you say Ma’am,” she said politely and smiled.

*

“Why aren’t you ready yet?” Mrs. Kapadia wanted to know. “It’s 8 already. You’ll be late for the bus!”

“No school for two days Ma,” Komal replied. She was sitting on the floor with her back leaning against the sofa. Ayush was still in bed while her father was stirring his tea with one hand and shaking open his newspaper with the other.

“What? Why not?”

“As a mark of mourning,” Komal said, gazing at the blank television screen. “One of our teachers was found dead outside her house.”

Mrs. Kapadia stopped dead in her tracks. “What?” she asked in a horrified whisper.

“It’s in the paper!” Mr. Kapadia exclaimed. “The mutilated body of Mrs. Louiza Fernandes, 55, was found at the door of her Malad home at 6 am on Sunday,” he read. “The ankles had been bound together with thick twine of unusual strength. Based on the abrasions on Mrs. Fernandes’ face and body, police officials suspect she had been dragged over quite a distance. They caution -”

“Who would do such a thing?” Mrs. Kapadia gasped. Her husband continued reading silently. “Did you know her well Komal?”

Her daughter shrugged. “She taught us music and was in charge of our Annual Day play.”

“Don’t you -”

“Sujata!” Mr. Kapadia cried out. “There’s an article here about another murder in the school!”

“What?!” Mrs. Kapadia rushed to her husband’s side. Komal stood up and stretched her arms. She now actually had time to start reading a book she’d bought 3 months ago. As she left the living room, she could hear her parents’ excited voices discussing the case of a 12 year old boy who had been found suffocated to death, his body tightly wrapped with the same kind of twine that had been discovered on the teacher’s body.

She walked over to the table near her bed to find something to read. She went to pick up the 3 month old book and her hand brushed against a copy of the school play’s manuscript. She decided she’d read that instead and curled up with it on her bed.

As she tried to settle into a comfortable position, she absently rubbed the bump on her left ankle. She could feel the edge of the twine respond to her touch and move against her finger. She wondered if anyone else had this strange anthropomorphic growth gently protruding from their lower limbs and whether they could bend it to their will like she could. She shook her head. Nope, not possible. The world would have been a much politer place then.

She pulled the script towards her and smiled at the title.

Something wicked this way comes.

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