The earliest smells I remember are the cigarettes and the smell of poverty. The smell of poverty was all around us; in the clothes we wore, in the poorly prepared Saaru and rice we ate, in the tin houses on almost every street in Dharavi where we lived. The cigarette smell; that was dad’s smell. He smoked like a chimney- my Aunt Pooja’s words not mine.
Aunty Pooja worked as a maid in one of the houses in Shantiniketan. She dropped by occasionally to see her brother, my father. She told tales of the people in Shantiniketan who ate with gold cutlery and walked on gold streets.
My imagination ran wild trying to imagine golden streets. Would they walk with their bare feet? Was fish sold by the sidewalks?. I wanted to see it for myself; the gold spoons, the clean streets, the bejeweled women. We were poor and I knew it but I hoped for a better life someday.
“I want to live on Marina Drive,” I blurted out one day as aunty told her stories. Pa laughed long and hard. “Don’t be silly,” he bellowed, flecks of spit flying from his mouth as he smacked my cheek. Mum cowered by the corner, staring at him and aunty drink themselves to stupor. She couldn’t help me because Pa would beat her like he always did.
I teared up a little as I walked out of the house. I would go and see my classmate and friend Raghav. Raghav would understand me. He always did.
I played with Raghav everyday after school. His father sold fish on our street. “Original fish for sale,” his dad yelled whenever one of the women walked past. Raghav and I stifled our laughter as we ran around the street playing catch. Was there fake fish?
He always tugged my ponytails and chanted; “Horse hair, horse hair.” I would feigned anger. Scowling and turning my face to the side, I usually muttered “Badir(idiot),” while trying to get him to let go of my hair.
Once, I kneed his groin while he pulled my hair; something I learnt from watching mum fight with dad. Raghav doubled up and lay whimpering on the floor. I laughed hysterically. He was cute when he cried. Someday, when he was less troublesome we would get married. We wouldn’t fight like mum and dad. Maybe some hair-pulling, but nothing serious.
Two days after his tenth birthday, Raghav suddenly disappeared. I didn’t see him at school and his Papa didn’t open his fish stall either.
Was raghav sick? Was he avoiding me?
I waited for two more days before I sneaked out after lunch. I saw Sanjeev’s mama, raghav’s neighbor. She cackled as she saw me peeping into Raghav’s house which was empty.
” Didn’t you hear?,” she said, “they’re gone.”
“Gone to?” I asked.
“His dad won the lottery. He couldn’t wait to be rid of our type. They left three days ago.” she said with disdain as she hissed and spat at the open door.
I cried myself silly on the way home. Raghav hadn’t even said bye. He had left me all alone. Alone with the dirt, the urine stench and the poverty.
Life wasn’t fair.
Two months after Raghav left, Pa died. He was knifed in a bar brawl. The man who killed Papa disappeared and was never found. No one bothered to look for him. No one cared.
Aunt Pooja came for the funeral. She ground her teeth and sighed loudly. Ma was silent. She didn’t cry for Pa. I was sad and happy that Pa was gone. I was sad because I was expected to be sad; he was my father after all. I was happy because he wouldn’t hit me or Ma anymore and aunty would stop coming around.
A month after, we cleaned out our house. Ma wanted to turn the first room into a small shop where she would sell vegetables to make ends meet. There were only two rooms so it took us less than a day to clean up. We threw out Pa’s stuff which had always been piled in a corner of our “sleeping” room when he was alive.
“ Don’t forget this shirt”, she said as she tossed Papa’s black shirt- one of the three he had- to me. I went out and threw it in the street, near the general compost heap. I turned to go in when something in its breast pocket caught my eye. I picked it up. It was a folded piece of paper with TO ALMAS written on it. It was in Raghav’s scrawl.
“Dear Almas”, it said.
Papa won the lottery yesterday. I know I won’t get to say bye, so I’m leaving you a note. I’m sorry I didn’t come to school. Papa said he can’t stay here for another minute so we are leaving in some hours. I will miss you so much. You are my bestest friend. When we buy a big house, I will come back for you. I promise. I will. Don’t ever forget me and don’t be sad.
Your future husband,
A tear trickled down my face.
Papa had never given me my letter.
I held it to my chest as I tried hard to suppress the tears. Ma came out to see why I was taking so long and saw me clutching the note.
“What is it’, she asked. I showed her the letter. She held me to her bosom as I let the tears fall. Raghav hadn’t forgotten me after all. He would come back one day.
I hear raghav is now a famous singer. I am still waiting for him. My raghav never breaks a promise.
He will be back!