Feroze was having a very pleasant afternoon. The after-taste of the spicy biryani was still lingering on his palate and soft kernels of rice were lodged lazily in between his wide, spacious teeth. His mother had always ensured the tall, lanky grocer stayed well fed, but she outdid herself that day. The intermittent loud belches were a testimony to how much he enjoyed his meal; the smell of sautéed onions mingling with the rust of garlic and ginger displayed for sale.
Fetching a match-stick to let loose the grains, he wearily glanced at the incoming call on his mobile phone. His wife was calling to remind him to get sweet curd. He had promised all day yesterday. The one from Baji Dahi Waale. The brown one with topped pistachios.
Grumpily he tightened the loosened noose of his dhoti and shouted over a honking car at his teenage son to keep watch over the counter. Wiping the funnels of sweat underlining his brows and fetching his umbrella, he set off with a purposeful stride.
Barely ten minutes into his walk, a strange sight greeted him. From what Feroze could muster, a thin European man with an oversized khaadi shirt and shorts was flying a kite. His fishing hat and large sunglasses hid most his smallish face. His knees bent in a somnolent manner. He looked like he had been there a while. Crazy chap. And in this heat too.
A whiff of roasted milk solids reminded of his task at hand and he broke off into his determined stride once again. The curd shop was devoid of its usual bustle. The summer heat warded away most shoppers. Impatiently handing over the money, Feroze was scampering back to the shop. The sun seemed to scorch through the umbrella’s thin sheets. He was perspiring even more. The biryani was seeping out, as he liked to put it.
The European was still near the pond, looking up vacantly at the sky. He resembled a colonial statue if someone had decided to create one of a rather underdeveloped Caucasian for a national health museum. The shoulders were dropping profoundly, the knees sagging like dehydrated bamboo stems.
Feroze could take it no more.
What doing? The grocer shouted from a convenient distance in the meagre English he knew from the Hollywood movies his son watched. No haat feel? Fly in shaam ko. Postpone sunset.
The man looked at Feroze puzzlingly and muttered undecipherable words at him. The earthen pot of curd was starting to get warm and probably needed to sit for a half hour in the fridge if not consumed immediately. Roped into the conversation, Feroze walked up to him. Go home. Don’t fly patang in sun. Body go fever. You like fever?
The man, his face now pink with exhaustion, exclaimed that he very much liked to avoid the fever, but he gave his word to some kid to hold the kite’s string while the latter finished lunch. It had been over half an hour and the boy must have been having a rather large meal, he assumed.
Feroze looked around. The vacant, dry farms and empty streets indicated there was no one around. Kids did fly kites in the cool hours of the mornings or late evenings, but never during the afternoon. Surely someone was out to prank this simpleton.
Leave kite. Go home or die. Heat kills. Thousand kill last maheena. Google.
But the European was determined to hold on to the string as much as some of his forefathers did with India. He reminded Feroze that it was a matter of grave responsibility and he was in no mood to make a young kid cry. Plus, he wanted to avoid being a matter of village folklore as the white guy who lost a boy’s kite and faced his family’s wrath.
It took a while for Feroze to understand everything, but the man was right. People were beaten for far less in these parts.
Leave string with tree? Baccha come later take it.
The kite may lose altitude, hit a tree or worse – have its string cut by a rival who could claim it as a victory trophy.
The man knew his kites and there was no getting around it. Feroze was about to do something he was going to regret instantly, but the man’s tomato-red face, sweat-soaked shirt and non-existent upright stance forced him into it.
You go. I here. Give dor. Rest in my dukaan in market. Only dukaan with red kaddoo. Baccha get dor, 100% guarantee.
The man chuckled. He enquired if he was being duped like those countless hawkers that groped him in every town market he visited. He showed Feroze his fruitless purchases like the miracle bracelet on his hand, a compass that pointed in all directions and slippers as thin as the rumaali rotis from the lunch shop in the alley.
My guarantee 100%. Aal customer give my guarantee. Go market as Feroze dukaan guarantee. Aal say 100% guarantee. Pakka.
The man removed his sunglasses and looked at Feroze deeply. The face seemed rounder and smaller. Feroze smiled back.
I no see you outside. Not good. Hot out, and you can’t be. Fever. Vomit. Sick. I no see you fever. Rest in dukaan. I give string to baccha. Guarantee.
The man nodded his head slowly. Handing the string over, he let out a smile and thanked Feroze with folded hands and a wave.
Ruko! Ruko! Take dahi to dukaan? My baccha there. Give dahi to baccha. Okay? Okay.
The man chuckled once more and shook Feroze’s hand this time. He turned back to wave at Feroze several times until the road bend, his white hands a stark contrast against the yellow-green hue of the neem trees.
Feroze stood there for what seemed like an eternity. The relentless sun seemed even hotter with nothing to do. Finally, he chose a clean spot on the side of the road and sat down, cocooning under the shade of his umbrella.
Time passed at a snail’s pace. The slight tug of the string was all that kept Feroze from drifting off, and very soon the sound of hoofs forced him to look up. A farmer was taking his buffalos to the river and quizzed Feroze on his delirious endeavour. After relaying the story, Feroze asked the farmer if he knew any family in the area that allowed their crazy child to fly kites midday.
The farmer stared at him. A child flying a kite in this heat. A foreigner volunteering to hold the string come what may. A family man out to buy curd giving up his afternoon nap to relieve a stranger from the embarrassment of losing a child’s kite.
Where is the string? The farmer looked behind Feroze and asked.
I tied it to my umbrella stick to ensure I did not have to hold it.
Where is it now?
Still on my…
It was not there. The noose must have come off while Feroze was drifting in and out of sleep. The starchy biryani takes a lot of energy to break down, which drains your brain of vital oxygen – a digestion concept he explained to his son before excusing himself for afternoon sleeps.
Feroze looked around exasperated, trying to convince the farmer of his story. He got up and scampered about trying to find it in the bushes and small twigs lining the road. The heat was forgotten as desperation set in. He would be forever remembered as the man who lost a kite string entrusted to him by a visitor to the country who was himself entrusted by a small kid who must be crying from his window seeing his kite go down.
Pandemonium was the feeling drowning Feroze. He kicked the dust, tore into shrubs and looked up at the sky in desperation and hope that the kite was still airborne. There were none. No one would fly a kite in this sun, reminded the farmer.
It’s the heat. I think you may have fainted on the way and imagined everything.
An angry Feroze shouted back pleading his innocence. He was no creative genius to think of such a story. It was surely not a case of summer hallucination. It could not be. And why would he dream about a foreign man holding a kite? The farmer shrugged back. It was surely the heat and the exhaustion of stepping out at this hour. He asked Feroze if he could drop him at his shop.
The shop! The man! The curd! That was the proof. Ecstatic, Feroze hopped on to one of the buffalos and set off. Upon reaching, he yelled for his wife and son.
Get the foreigner too! What’s taking you both so long!? He looked at the farmer grinning widely, nodding with the fevering enthusiasm of a seven-year-old receiving a lollypop.
The son walked up and told him the wife was refusing to see him. Something about some curd. The one from Baji Dahi Waale. The brown one with topped pistachios.
That lying woman!
The curd is with the white man who stopped by to give it to you. The man whose kite string I was holding.
The sound of crashing steel glasses silenced Feroze. The wife yelled that he was making stories up. That he had consumed the curd or slept at his friend’s shop instead.
Eh, where is the foreigner? You stupid moron, I am asking you. Feroze looked at his son.
Arre, THE foreigner. A thin white guy must have come here. Khaadi shirt and shorts with a hat and sunglasses. He had a pot of sweet curd. You rascal, what are you smiling about? You must have just shooed him off gone back to watch movies on your phone.
The son was holding his stomach now, laughing in fits. What papa? You have a crazy imagination. The heat is making you intelligent.
A hurtling garlic broke the laughs. Feroze was reaching for another when the son ran to the wall in the shop and pointed at poster stuck there.
Is this the foreigner?
The face of a white man with a fishing hat and sunglasses stared back. This is a very famous actor. We watched his movie last week, remember? He gets lost in Mexico. Brad Pitt. Very famous.
Feroze walked closer to the poster. Was this his mystery man? Did he imagine all of that? Did he actually collapse on the way and fall unconscious? It was all a dream?
A man passed Feroze asking if he had enjoyed the curd, thereby breaching the grocer’s threshold of patience. Some garlic pods greeted the passerby smack on the buttocks before he let out squeals that he was coming from the curd shop and had seen Feroze buy a pot.
The farmer had had enough now. Muttering something under his breath, he set off. Another clank of steel glasses from the kitchen broke the silence. The son had told the mother the story. It seemed Feroze had consumed the curd and fallen unconscious on his way.