She sat on the windowsill, smoking a lone cigarette, her palazzo pants making her legs appear slimmer than they were, and the faint tinkle of the anklet, signaling a feminine touch, that was otherwise absent in her whole outlook. The tank top, the short cropped hair, the tattoos on her shoulder and back, the pierced ears, and the dark kohl in her sharp eyes, and most of all, her unsmiling face, all but yelled “stay away from me!” as loudly as possible. No wonder she made so few friends everywhere she went. And she traveled a lot! Which was obvious, considering she was a travel photographer. She earned money by clicking mind blowing pictures of the unique aspects of a city and bringing it in front for the entire world to see. Half of them were sold to travel magazines for a fortune, while the other half landed on her website and Instagram page, created under a pseudonym of course, where she already had a million followers. She moved constantly, traveling to all nooks and crannies of the country. She revered her lifestyle… A different city every few months… A different house, different neighbors…
Her current house was a garden flat, in a small building, with her own private entrance. That ensured no accidental meetings with neighbors. She preferred it that way, as she wasn’t really the one for idle chit chat. Today, however, was slightly different. It was Diwali. As far as she could see, there were strings of lights, oil diyas, fairy lights, lanterns… The city was alight with a vibrancy, she could almost feel touching her very bones. She longed to do something exciting. Maybe, light some fire-crackers, wear new clothes, meet some friends… actually laugh a loud laugh! Her mind wandered to her childhood, when she had experienced all this, albeit on a much lower scale than people generally do, since they didn’t have many relatives. However, they still had a lot of fun, every year, till that fateful night of the car accident which tore her parents away from her, and threw her at the mercy of distant aunts and uncles, who couldn’t wait to wash their hands off her, soon as she grew up. She grew up strong and resilient, and withdrew from the society that had turned its back on her.
Diwali was always different though. It always brought out all the old memories, and she relived the happiness that she had shared, and the unending difficult question of “what if?” What if they had chosen to take a cab that day?
And what if they had stayed back a bit, instead of hurrying home towards her, as they thought she would get too lonely? What if… What if…
She brushed a speck from her eye, when she suddenly heard somebody call out her name. She turned in surprise to see who it was. And then she realised. It was her neighbor aunty. She always waved at her with a friendly wave, if they ever happened to cross paths, which was very rare. However, the thing that had struck her was that the aunty always smiled and waved with a very clear indication of friendship, and absolutely no amount of judgment that people generally viewed her with. This was very surprising.
“Hi Sonali! It’s Sonali, right? Kamat Kaka told me you had rented his place for a few months.”
“Hi…” It was impossible not to smile back at her. “Yes, it’s Sonali.” She hurriedly doused the cigarette discreetly behind her back. She had been removed once from a previous society for smoking, and she didn’t want a repeat performance.
“Happy Diwali, dear! Aren’t you going home for the festival? Where are you from?”
“I’m from Mumbai. But, no, I’m not going home. I don’t really have any family there. So…”
There was just a fleeting glimpse of sympathy on her face, and then it again lit up. “Hey, then why don’t you join us today? We always have a big feast.”
“Oh, no! Thank you so much for the invite. But, I really couldn’t intrude like this.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t be silly. Join us. It’ll be fun. I’ll wait for you. Come by around half past seven. Most of us would have gathered by then. Our flat is B-104. Okay? Do come now. I’ll be waiting.” And with a big wave, she was gone, completely ignoring the spluttering denials of Sonali. ‘Oh, great!’
“Oh my God! Look at you, you are looking so pretty!” Kamala aunty exclaimed as she took Sonali into her arms.
“Thank you, Aunty!” Sonali blushed, glancing down at herself. She had dug up an old punjabi dress that she had, brand new as it had been hardly worn. The danglers in her ears had been gifted by a roadside vendor for clicking her picture, and bangles were gifted by another family, whose house she had featured in one of her blogs. After a long time, she was sporting so many colors on herself, and to her own surprise, she was actually feeling good about it.
In no time at all, the youngsters in the family had pulled her in, and were exclaiming over here jewelry, and her jhola (another gift!), and were asking her in awe about her various tattoos and their meanings. In a very short while, she found herself telling them, stories about her travels, and her experiences, and the different people she had met. Everybody listened to her with open mouths, wondering at her brilliance, and patting her back for being so courageous. Nobody saw anything amiss with her, because she didn’t follow the traditional ways of a girl. Because, she didn’t do a sedate job, and get married at the right age, and had kids at the right time. Smiling at everyone, she lifted her jhola, to make way for a small girl to sit next to her, when she realised what the heaviness in it was. She took out the mithai box inside it, and handed it over to the family.
“A small gift. Thank you so much for having me over.”
“Oh, come on. No formalities, please. This was absolutely not required.”
Sonali smiled. “I know it’s not required. But, I wanted to get it for you all.” Saying so, she opened the box, and started distributing the small brown laddoos inside to all the family.
“Ooohh! These are heavenly! Where did you get these from?”
“I made them.”
There was a two second silence at this proclamation, and then everybody jumped at once on her.
“You cook as well!”
“These are so awesome? Where did you learn to cook like this?”
“Please give me the recipe! These laddoos are mouth-watering!”
Sonali laughed at their delight. She was so happy. “I’ll definitely give you the recipe. Actually, I love cooking. I travel so much, I’ve tried so many different cuisines and flavours. India is truly a very rich country, especially when it comes to food. Since I move a lot, I can’t stock a kitchen. So, I prefer to rent a fully furnished flat wherever I go. And I never miss cooking at least one dish for Diwali. I’m so glad I’m sharing it with you this time.”
“Sonali, I just have one question for you.” Kamala aunty’s elder son asked her in mock seriousness.
“Will you marry me?” The room exploded in laughter. “What, seriously? I mean, this girl cooks. She is intelligent. And best part of all, she’ll be gone most of the year. What more can a guy ask of a girl, right?”
Sonali laughed along with the rest of them, realizing one more time what Diwali really meant for everybody. It was fun, laughter, joy, sharing, and showing that you cared, irrespective of who you are. She was immensely thankful to Kamala aunty and her family, who helped her come out of her shell and enjoy the festival as it was meant to be enjoyed. Her tattoos, and pierced ears didn’t matter, when she could make delicious laddoos like those! India is truly amazing! A true blue fusion of cultures!