Sunday morning was the busiest time of the week. People came in from eight in the morning. Chicken had to be weighed, fish had to be sorted and mutton had to be cleaned. Dressed in his black pants which he folded till his knees and the white ‘AFIDAS’ t-shirt, Kishore knew he would hardly get time to breathe. He was just twenty five, but already knew every nuance of running a meat and fish shop. Khan Saab ensured that Kishore and the other two boys who worked for him did their job well. On bad days, there would be unending profanities coming out of his betel stained mouth, and on good days, he would give them carefully weighed three hundred grams of meat or fish in a black polythene cover.
Lunch would be as late as four in the evening. And that is why he kept his pocket loaded with chewing gum on all days. With every bite, the juices from the gum filled his stomach, killing his hunger and the monotony of chopping, cutting, cleaning and billing. The other thing that kept him going was music. He plugged his earphones and as soon as Kishore Da’s yodelling began, his namesake would get transported into a world far far away. His hands would work swiftly on the sharp knife and the big wooden chopping board, but his heart and soul would be amidst green mountains, the not-so-overbearing yellow sun and the cool breeze of his small village in Shillong. Kishore never noticed his customers laughing at him, listening to his loud singing. He would be blissfully unaware of his displaced chords, and the questionable lyrics. He never heard Khan Saab mouthing through his paan, ‘Pata nahin itna khush kyo rahta hain?’ Music, Smile and Chewing Gum: they never left Kishore’s mouth.
Business had been good today, which meant instead of six, he would be able to leave by five. Khan Saab deftly handed over the black polythene cover and rode away in his old, noisy scooter.
Kishore started to walk towards his home. Music in his ears and on his lips, a rhythmic movement in his legs and a faint smile as he chewed the last chewing gum of the day. The blaring horns, the rushing vehicles and barking dogs did not bother him.
As soon as he reached home, he walked up to his wife and sang, ‘‘Mere sapno ki rani kab aaogi tum……’ Kajal did not respond. She never did.
‘Aaj mutton fry aur soup. Theek hain?’ He whistled and kept the mutton on the kitchen slab.
Soon the house filled with a delicious aroma of mutton getting slowly cooked in an array of spices, ginger, garlic and onions. Just the way his mother made back home.
‘Yeh shaam mastani….’ He hummed and tasted the soup. Spicy! Just the way Kajal liked it.
He served the soup in a bowl and went near Kajal. She looked at him, and tried to lift her hand. It refused to budged. Kishore placed a towel around her chest and poured a spoonful of soup in her mouth. She clumsily drank it, spilling half of it on the towel. A tear drop escaped Kajal’s eye; a glistening validation of the remorse she felt, of the last one year, of the terrible haunting day when she lost her ability to walk or feel anything below her neck. Kishore swiftly cleaned the tear and the soup.
‘Radha aunty aayi thi? Roti aur doodh diya?’ Kishore’s eyes went over at the table where the left over milk and roti was kept. He reminded himself to gift Radha aunty a red saree on her birthday. She took good care of Kajal when he was away at work.
Kishore ate his dinner sitting right next to Kajal. There was nothing much to do at home. He had sold off the TV, radio and his guitar for Kajal’s treatment.
There was no place for sadness or the unending questions that sprung time and again from his neighbours and family. Love had taken over all the vacant spaces. The hollowness of despair had been replaced with the warmth of selfless affection. She was his Rani and he, her Raja.
He laid down next to her, his arm across her body, patting her softly and humming to himself. ‘Dil kya karen, jab kisi ko kisi se pyaar ho jaye…..’