Ruined by the Bell
By P. Pareek
The man steers his car to the left, into a shabby street after the grocery store. It has been fifteen years; still, besides a few new constructions, there aren’t many noticeable differences. The road is still without markings; Kids still play hide and seek among the trees in the community park, Mr. Mehra’s ambassador still parked in his driveway, and the garden restaurant at the end of the street still visible in all of its glory.
His family used to own this restaurant. After his father’s death, his mother took it upon herself to keep the family business up and running. He was six years old then. He would come here with her every day. In the evening, his mother would collect the leftover food and distribute it among the homeless children on their way to home.
One of those days, they were on their way back. All of the leftover food had been finished and that is when they saw her. A little girl, about the same age, as he was. Hungry and alone. Her hair was golden. Eyes like a cat. She wore a white T-shirt about double her size. Her mother let her come into their car. She said nothing, only smiled in gratitude. Her smile as if half the full moon. They took the girl home and fed her. For weeks, it went on, until one day, his mother decided to adopt this little girl. She gave her a name. Mansi. He was happy. He finally had a sister. It didn’t take him much time to befriend her.
A bump on the road! It pulls him out of his past. His eyes fix themselves towards the end of the road, on a giant metal gate with iron bars. A sign hangs from one of those bars that say, “CLOSED.” He stops his car by the side of the road and pulls himself out. He stands in front of the gate, imagining how life used to be, before that storm. Before he was sent to an orphanage before his mother stopped recognizing him.
He was ten years old then, playing in this same garden with his adopted sister. Their mother had bought a new artifact for the restaurant. An old brass bell, about 6 feet high and three feet in diameter. She had it put right in the middle of the garden so that every customer could see it.
“The bell has magic,” Mansi said abruptly, while they were busy finishing a bowl of noodles their mother had given them as evening breakfast. He laughed at her, teased her for an hour repeating the word “magic” in twenty different accents. He kept making several kinds of faces until she was angry. “If you close your eyes and take a complete round around the bell, it creates a double of yourself.” She said.
He did as she said. Only to make her happy again. In the evening when they reached home, he smelled something different about his mother. She did not hold him in her arms. She stopped him from entering the house and when he tried to remind her that he was her son, she cried for an hour.
“I lost my son four years ago,” She said. She kept repeating it. Mansi said nothing. She just smiled and ran inside the house while he was out there in the cold for a few weeks. His mother didn’t seem to be in a state to face him again. Until one day, a man came. He took him to another restaurant, fed him with his favorite south Indian meal. He carried strange currencies. It didn’t work at the restaurant. He had to sell his shoes and watch to pay and some extra money. The man took him to Delhi and got him enrolled in an orphanage.
Fifteen years later, he returns, not as a son, but as a food journalist, covering an article on the oldest restaurants of the city. He opens the gate and enters inside the boundary. Few round dining tables spread across the garden at regular gaps. Slow, rhythmic music flows in the air. The trees around the fence create a sound as air flows through them, making their leaves slide over each other. There is a brass bell in the middle of the turf with some other artifacts. Again, besides a few new constructions, there wasn’t much to make this place alien for him.
Seeing him entering the compound, someone approaches, a woman, about the same age as he is. Golden hair. Eyes like a cat. She wears a white T-shirt that fits her well. She pushes a wheelchair ahead of her that carries an old woman about sixty years old. She smiles as she comes addresses him and offers a handshake. Her smile like half the full moon. “You must be Amar,” Mansi says. “We received a call from the paper in the morning. They said you would reach by 12:00. What took you so long?”
“I was driving slowly,” He replies with a smile. “Is she your mother?” He asks pointing towards the old woman.
“Yes,” She says. “She met an accident a few years ago. Since then, she doesn’t walk. She stopped talking a few years before that. Now she only produces gestures when she wants to.” She says and then she shouts turning towards a small building by the grass. “Amar!”
“Coming,” A young voice replies from inside.
In a few minutes, a boy, hardly twenty, comes out running and takes the old woman in wheelchair away without even looking at him. The journalist looks at the boy with deep interest. As if, he has already known him for many years. He feels a familiarity with this boy. An attraction. At that moment, he feels something in his heart. The boy looked exactly like him, only a few years younger. His heartbeat raises itself, and as it occurs to him, a statement begins echoing in his brain several times as if a tape playing itself in a loop. “If you close your eyes and take a complete round around the bell, it creates a double of yourself.”
For a few minutes, his eyes fix themselves on the bell. A state of stillness for his body. His brain tries to process it. His sanity now depends on the validity of this incident. The words still echo in his head, until a soft feminine voice attracts a part of his attention. “Kids don’t lie,” Mansi says.
He takes his eyes off the artifact to his adopted sister. She smiles. “H… How?” Words barely flow out of his mouth.
“Doubles don’t come out of thin air,” Mansi replies.
“How did you convince my mother for a younger version of me?”
“She didn’t care for logic after her son returned.”
“Why?” A question again. It is as if his whole vocabulary has fallen shorter to a few WH words.
“Acceptance. I did it for acceptance and I never regret it. When you look at me, you still picture me as a poor little girl standing under a bridge. Hungry and alone. You never accepted me as your sister and you know that. Him, he is you! Four years younger. He hadn’t met me before you brought him here. For him, I am his sister, not a hungry orphan girl.” She says.
He stares at her for a few minutes and then plummets on a chair beside him.
“You might want to hurry if you want to save yourself, brother, and don’t forget your watch; Money used to be different fifteen years ago!” The girl with a half-moon smile says and turns around towards her family restaurant, which still sprawls by the end of the street, in all of its glory.