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A one by one meter, two decades old window is crumbling with wood louses and moss. During monsoon in Rohtak, it is a laboring task to stand near it and stand its breath. But in spite of this, someone does. For that someone, it is a world of possibilities.

While everyone else sees and curses the holes in the window, she stares at the window opposite to her crumbling window. Inside that window, separated from her own by a slender street, she sees a rack of books. Books with covers of limitless oceans, mighty castles, sprawling meadows, glimmering armor, lighthouses and everything else that sleepless dreams are made of.

Those books are Kanak’s sleepless dream which may take her away from what she has to call home.

Kanak identifies a book in the rack — Gulliver’s travels. The one book, other than textbooks, she has read at thirteen. Bought excitedly by her uncle Jay, hidden from her aunt, under his vest.

She is fifteen now and the rest of the book rack is a world of uncharted lands.


Anna Karenina.

Maila Aanchal.

The Sun also rises



Alice in Wonderland…

Unchained by countries, or by language.

She is so lost in the book covers that not once did she realize that precisely at one-thirty in the afternoon, someone pauses in the road outside. With no apparent reason, whatsoever.

He is not supposed to pause or even cross that way. He is supposed to return home via the same school bus, through which he reaches his school every morning. Not by this track. Not by foot. But the damn private school bus won’t return via this path.

Why didn’t buses travel through streets? He wonders.

And he won’t stop walking four kilometers just to get her glimpse. To look at her round face, lopsided on the window sill and the rare deep dimples.

She is fifteen. He is sixteen.

She turns sixteen and his legs still shake on the idea of talking to her.

It is not that she still hasn’t noticed him. A year passed by in accidental eye-contacts and hurried withdrawal afterwards.

He may be shivering on the idea of exchanging anything other than awkward looks, but she is not. Silence is the last thing on her mind.

After sixteen years of being locked in the house, when her aunt Meenal left for her beauty parlor, she is dying to talk, to know, to share. But the world outside, now seems too much of an illusion to be believed in.

Like the boy who stands outside. Like a mirage.

White shirt and blue pants. Light brown hair and rabbit eyes.

She is used to the emptiness of the large hall or the single bedroom. The one reality she knows is Meenal’s imposing figure and scrunched nose. Or the tailor Jay’s round spectacles and small hands. When Meenal’s only son, fled with a girl of another caste, an untouchable caste according to Meenal, the house became the boundaries of Kanak’s world. To prevent the same catastrophe from recurring. And as boundaries exist, dreams cease to…


Kanak hears the cackle of two girls as they fly kites in the coral winter sky on the opposite roof; as she turns a chapati over the kerosene stove. She waits for the chapattis to turn slightly brown and crisp over the heat. Then she places them in the casserole.

Six for chachaji, Four for chachi.’ She speaks to herself and hides one chapati in a steel box for the mohalla’s stray dog.

But would Motu even come tonight? The thought silences her words and she returns to her task.

Meenal enters the kitchen while knitting a sweater for Jay. She scans the dinner while pretending to look for a bowl.

How many times have I told you that we had to cook peas on Friday not beans?’ yells Meenal.

That was two weeks ago,’ says Kanak.

This stupid girl!’

Meenal is returning to the terrace. Her jaw is clenched. Kanak murmurs with a sigh, Friday... Aren’t they all the same!

Meenal hears her and pauses. Her eyes quiver transiently, but her lips stay still. She continues walking, knitting through the jumbled threads.


One day, when the streets and skies were churning water in mouthfuls, he ran over to the other side of the street. He stands still, under the roaring thunderbolts, and then realizes instantly what he is supposed to do.

He extends his flushed hand through the window’s bars. She withdraws back, shocked. He drops a large polythene bag that he is holding inside the hall. And splashes away, almost falling into a manhole.


The municipality sweepers brush through the last specs of litter, from the drains, distributed by the rain. The husband and wife at the overnight dhaba, along the highway, count the coins and the occasional note from the night. Under the parching sun, the dust on the roads wakes up from its sleep, to be jolted in the sky with the rhythm of running vehicles.

Kanak opens the polythene tenderly, and there it is displayed in black letters. ‘A Kingdom of Dreams’ by Judith McNaught. A library card is snuck in the back. The book was borrowed for a week.

In the week that follows, the milk boiled over the pan. Flies swarmed over the verandah. The dustbin was undisposed. Meenal, who was habituated to running almost every chore through Kanak, has thumped her head and her luck a zillion times in the past two days.

If we say that the Singh house is in a state of mess, it would be an understatement. Even Kanak’s tutor, Pooran Rathi is puzzled. Pooran teaches her English, Science and Maths while Hindi and Social Studies are taught to her by her placid uncle Jay. Jay had hired Pooran for Kanak after Meenal researched under every pebble of Rohtak that the tuition fees couldn’t be any less. Pooran is Jay’s close friend and charged the least. It worked wonders for Meenal.

Kanak is not the hardworking and extremely obedient person whom Master Pooran has been teaching for over a year. She is the one flashing torchlight under the sheets, consuming yet another chapter. Engorged eyes ready to cry. But the end was always so near. Until it came:

‘‘Jenny was crying as she smiled back at them. After all, it's not every day a woman is given a kingdom of dreams.’’

The next day, across the road, they look at each other. No accidental eye-contacts. No hush-hush reassembling afterwards. Kanak refuses to look away. He dares to move beyond shyness and finds something more than curiosity in her eyes. Into soft hazel eyes, smoldering blue eyes dovetail their stories of the past nights. Of wriggling legs on anxious chairs.

More books are issued. More polythene bags are dropped. But not a word is shared.

Until that day, when Kanak finds a note scribbled in a corner of the last page of Wuthering Heights. The note was: Jennifer.

Written in one of the most charming handwritings she has seen. A maze of vines crafted around it. Just one word — Jennifer.

The valiant beautiful Jennifer from ‘A Kingdom of Dreams.’ The Jennifer who fought every breath to live life on her terms. Jennifer, for who even the dreaded Black Wolf couldn’t stop falling for.

Kanak grazes her fingers over it. She keeps doing it again and again. For the first time in her life, she stands in front of the dressing table doing something she couldn’t imagine doing before. She seals the word with a cherry imprint of her lipstick.

He also does something he didn’t imagine to do before. He runs his lips over her imprint, in front of her, from across the road. Her heart pounds. She clutches an iron bar. The moment was spontaneous. Which left in its wake, a shroud of something similar to post-orgasmic guilt.

He doesn’t visit again. For the next three days.

And when he does, he appears directly in front of the window. Not at the opposite side of the road. Not with the pain of a safe distance. This time, he hands over a red plastic tiffin box.

But equally surprisingly, she holds his hand, ‘Jennifer?’ she says in almost a whisper.

Jennifer.’ He says, his smile reaching his eyes.

And who are you… wouldn’t you tell me that?’

He speaks, with a desire to clear his voice, ‘Aatish.’

Like the sky?’

Like the sky.’


They talked for the next hour. This day, the next and the days following it.

In addition to novels, rewaris, onion paratha, jalebis, aloo tikkis, nose pins, earrings and the most bizarre combination of things one can think of, are shared through that window. She travels through Rohtak, through its mad flavors, smells and sights via him.

She stealthily spends extra hours in the kitchen for him. He browses around girls’ cosmetic shops for her.

She gives her tenth class board exams from an open school board. They celebrate her 82 percent result over a box of ras malais. It is the highest, anyone ever has achieved in Jay’s family.

Jay is thinking of enrolling her in the city’s Central school. Meenal always turned the topic when it comes to Kanak’s result. While Meenal is busy with her parlor, restrictions on going out are getting a tiny-very-tiny bit loose. Urgent excuses for fooling Meenal, so that she doesn’t lock Kanak are being sheepishly plotted.

Dimples are teased. Fingers intertwined. Hairs are tangled.

Little rays of hope. Small buds of affection.

Late in the night, staring at the scarce moonlight from the skylight, Kanak revisits the shapeless scar below Aatish’s jaw; the neat arch of his eyebrows when he is surprised.


Aatish and Kanak never dare and decide on a date. In those days, when a date meant meeting accidently at a chaat stall.

Pehla nasha pehla khuma’ rhymes from the radio during the five hours without power cut. The time when they meet.

We have this games period when all you do is play games.’ He says.


Other than regular periods, you can participate in singing, dance, drama… Whatever you want to. We have this very cool house-system of participating in an event. Sports weeks are the most fun.’

And?’ She continues to ask and ask more. He continues to tell further.

It would be so much better than being home all day.’ She says, looking down.

I bet it would.’ He holds her hand and winks.

Did I tell you that I may be able to attend a school from next month? Chachaji is thinking about it. Central school.’

I will totally change my school for you.’ He replies without blinking.

The possibility of being together for eight hours, without some iron bars, is in front of them for the first time.

His fingers criss-cross with hers. Fitting precisely. They don’t even know this, but they are very close. Their lips are very close like they had been many times before, but they never surface on each other. They just remain parted like happiness, felt but untouched.

The air between those lips stands guard — of morals, of reluctance, of prying eyes all around. Kanak has never let Aatish into the house. Even when it was unlocked.

The guard of shame.

They distance away like a split second, if measured in distance, longing with the desire to touch, but never actually touching. They stand there in a trance. Hands held. Slightly away from the iron bars.


It breaks the trance. Blood spatters from Kanak’s broken fingers. Bruised. Trembling. But that does not stop Meenal from hitting Kanak with the hot steel rod she has brought from the searing roof.

Kutiya. Haramkhor!’ Meenal screams, spitting along with her words.

As her slangs mix with spit, she beats Kanak harder who lies on the ground, trying to stand up, but not begging to stop. Aatish wails outside the shut window. He bangs to open it in vain.

You disgusting slut. How can you be whoring around in your own house?’ Meenal yells.

Kanak grinds her teeth. She says till she runs out of breath. ‘I am not a slut. Not a slut.’

One neighbor took it as her parenting responsibility to inform Meenal about the only romance she had seen in her life by catty peeks through her terrace every day. It was only after she got bored of it when she decided to tell Meenal.

Meenal stealthily entered the house and caught Kanak for what was no less than murder for her.

Kanak could have attended a school.

Could have. Would have.

A phone call is made to Kanak’s native village. To the father, Darbar Singh, who never supported her birth. From an aunt, supposed to be her second mother.


A day later, Aatish puts his head against the closed window. As Kanak puts her head outside the window of a bus to feel the air on her teary cheeks. The air is thick with sand and debris. She keeps her head out.

Kanak is being deported from Rohtak to her village Jaiva. It is the same village where Kanak’s mother had given up on overdosing her with opium. Like every other time when a baby girl is born in the village.

Given up or broken down or succumbed to the thought? No one could tell really.

I wish I could stop it. But it is your father’s decision.’ A teary-eyed Jay keeps repeating it. At six in the evening; at three in the morning. He fails to tell it to Kanak.

They both knew this in their hearts, if Kanak is to ever call anyone a father, a mother or any relation that she has known from birth, it was him. Jay Singh — her uncle, her only family.

From attaining the age to attend a school, she has attained the age to have a husband. In the period of a phone call. She is ready to be disposed of now.

-- The End --


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