‘Angel’, read the title on the sheet of paper.
11-year-old Rajan stared morosely at his open notebook lying on the table. After more than an hour of trying, all he had been able to come up with was the title, which, incidentally, had been suggested by his English teacher.
Mrs. Gomathi Sundaram, the strict English teacher of Rajan’s 5th standard class, had assigned them the task of writing a creative story on the subject of an angel for the weekend. She had stressed that it should be something different, something unique. “Try and churn your soul. Use your imagination. Be creative. I want to read something beautiful. Not a bland essay,” Mrs. Sundaram had declared, rather haughtily, in her thick Tamil accent to the class.
It was Saturday evening now and Rajan hadn’t been able to think of anything creative to write on this subject. He was getting frustrated by the minute. He had racked his brains hard to come up with some dazzling lines that would blow his teacher’s mind. But, unfortunately, English was a subject Rajan wasn’t naturally good at. Especially when it came to writing essays and creative stories. He was fine with mugging up lines. But hated it when he was forced to imagine and put his thoughts into flowery words.
To him, the visual of an angel had always been this: a divine lady dressed in floral whites, having two wings, a radiant smile and a sort of a glittery aura around her. He had formed these images through the descriptions of angels in cartoons, comics, and books that he had seen and read over the years. But when the teacher announced this topic, a few girls in his class had proudly proclaimed that the angel in their life was their mother. Some others even called their sisters as their angels. They certainly had their stories set.
Rajan felt a little isolated then. He wanted to write about his mother as his angel. But the thing was, he had never seen her. Or at least, he didn’t have any recollection of her. Rajan’s mother had passed away when he was just 15 months old. He didn’t have any sister either. He lived at his little house in the city of Indore in Madhya Pradesh, along with his 17-year-old brother and father.
Growing up, Rajan had heard tales about how beautiful and righteous a woman his mother was from his aunts and grandmother. He had desperately wanted to know more about her but rarely got that chance. His father was a very reserved man and spoke only when necessary and Rajan was always at loggerheads with his elder brother, Jayesh. So, Rajan never really had had the opportunity to get some pleasant anecdotes about his mother from his family.
And now, Rajan had no female to look up to as an angel for his story. Hence, his mind repeatedly drew a blank when he attempted to write something on his notebook for his creative writing assignment. In the past one hour, all Rajan had done was stare outside the window close to his desk at the trees outside their ground floor house. With no idea creeping into his brain for his work, Rajan had resorted to his favorite pastime – daydreaming.
All day, too, Rajan had whiled away reading comics and dozing away in his little room. His father had gone off for a work-related field trip to Pithampur, a nearby town, and was to return on Sunday evening. As his brother was now almost an adult, he had been assigned the task to look over him. But instead, Rajan’s brother had plonked himself on the sofa in the hall that opened outside their room and had been watching wildlife documentaries all day.
With no one to nag him about his studies, Rajan had spent a lovely Saturday afternoon doing the things he loved. But as evening dawned, he began feeling anxious as the thought of the incomplete writing assignment kept troubling him. Tomorrow, being a Sunday, he would also have to take care of his other school homework. He had to finish his writing work now.
Rajan had already failed to put up proper creative essays three times in a row this session; he had submitted incomplete versions of three different titles much to the teacher’s chagrin. He simply could not afford to slip up any further lest Mrs. Gomathi Sundaram lost his patience on him.
Rajan sighed and turned his gaze at the picture frame on the corner of his desk. Two smiling faces – of a beautiful middle-aged woman and a six-year-old curly haired boy holding a crying infant – looked back at him. The woman had a twinkle in her eyes and was holding the child safely in her hands while the boy stared in wonderment at the infant, whose head he had cusped safely in his palms. Rajan’s mother and elder brother appeared so thrilled and elated in this picture. His father, who once upon a time had a real liking for photography, had taken this photograph.
It was Rajan’s favorite photo as a young boy and he always kept it close to him. But as he was growing up, the picture, much like his relation with his brother, had grown distant from him. Now, the picture to him seemed to have been taken from the life of someone else. These were faces he did not relate to anymore…Smiles he wasn’t used to seeing in his house any longer…
Rajan got up from his chair. He needed a break. He wasn’t going anywhere with his writing and needed to clear his mind to refocus on the pending work. He looked at the wall-clock: it was 6:55 PM. Good, Rajan thought. He would watch some cartoons, have his dinner and then return at night to finish his work.
“Zindagi suhaani hai…
Gaadiyan, lasers, havaijahaj…
The song had an instant effect on Rajan’s sagging spirits. His favorite cartoon show ‘Duck Tales’ was being repeated on Doordarshan tonight and he couldn’t have asked for a better way to refresh his mind.
He lay there sprawled on the tiny sofa in front of the television and hummed the song that came on the television while swaying his head to its beats. He could not find his brother in sight and wanted to utilize the time as best as he could.
“Hey, give me the remote,” came a gruff voice from above him.
Rajan looked up to find his brother, Jayesh, staring at him in disdain, his left hand extended towards his face, waiting for the remote.
Both Rajan and Jayesh were poles apart, in behavior and in appearance. While Rajan was a scrawny looking boy with wavy hair, his older brother was a tall, well-built young man and had a curly mop of hair that went all over the place.
Even in behavior, while Rajan was quite easy going and chirpy, at least among his friends, his brother was somber and grim most of the times. He was in the 12th standard now and even with the prospect of his board exams looming large in a few months, Jayesh spent most of his after-school hours in front of the television watching nature documentaries.
Their small home made it impossible for them to stay away from each other. They shared the same tiny room with one bed, one cupboard and a study table and fought most of the time because of it. While one brother would be one room, the other would move towards the hall. Their father’s room, which opened on the wall near the television set, was out of bounds to both of them.
“But I am watching my cartoon show now,” Rajan said defiantly to his brother.
“You have already watched this in the morning,” said Jayesh and snatched the remote from his brother. He then proceeded to sit on the sofa and roughly removed Rajan’s legs from it to make space for himself.
Rajan was furious. “But you weren’t even here,” he shouted, trying hard to control himself from bursting out. It was yet another moment where his brother had defied him deliberately.
“I had just stepped outside to get milk,” he said coolly, not even bothering to look at Rajan.
Jayesh switched the channel to his favorite nature documentary one and leaned back on the sofa.
“Don’t you have any studying to do?” he asked Rajan. “Go on, move from here.”
More than getting to miss his cartoon show which he had already watched in the morning, it was his brother’s disrespectful attitude toward him that yet again infuriated Rajan.
“You give me the remote right now. I want to watch my cartoon show,” Rajan demanded and attempted to snatch the remote from his brother.
But Jayesh was too strong for him. He caught hold of Rajan’s elbow and shoved him down. Rajan fell down from the sofa and hit the floor, elbow-first. The impact wasn’t much as the distance between the floor and the sofa was hardly a few inches. But the impact on Rajan’s self-esteem was much more severe.
Jayesh looked down at his brother. For a moment it felt like he was about to say something. But Rajan did not want to allow him that pleasure.
Shaken, hurt and humiliated, Rajan got up and charged out of the hall towards their main door. He stepped outside their house and banged the door shut in anger. Sitting on the little platform that connected to their main door, he then wept quietly while rubbing his elbow.
Rajan felt miserable as he sat there breathing in the still July night air. Nothing moved. Not even the leaves on the trees outside the house. There was not a person in sight and their quiet neighborhood seemed to be busy relishing their Saturday evening with their respective families.
“Why can’t I too have a normal family? Why did God snatch my mother away from me before I had even known her?” Rajan reflected within himself desolately.
The child in him really missed his mother tonight. He needed someone kind and protective to put an arm around him and console him. If she were alive today, she would have protected him like a guardian angel. But no, fate had to be cruel to him.
All his friends had good families. Heck, they even had great rapports with their respective brothers and sisters. But Rajan and Jayesh always seemed to be at each other’s throats. What irked Rajan the most was the condescension his elder brother seemed to have towards him. He still treated him like a child. And Rajan absolutely hated that.
It wasn’t as if Rajan and Jayesh were always like this. There was a time, about 7-8 years back when the two of them had had a great bond. With their father spending almost all his time with his work and books, the two brothers found companionship in each other. They played cricket and other games and even rode their Tobu cycles to the park nearby on Saturday afternoons where they used to have great fun. And even though Jayesh did not speak much during those days as well, he was still always around his brother.
But over the years, the two brothers had drifted apart as the pressures of school life took a toll on both of them. They had both developed their own set of friends and hobbies and hardly had time for each other now.
Rajan wondered why his brother couldn’t be more understanding, friendly and compassionate towards him like the brothers of his friends were. Why did he always have to be so cruel to him?
With his father always busy and reclusive, and his terms with his brother getting sour by the day, Rajan felt suffocated in his own home. He was lonelier than ever now.
He wiped his eyes and looked at the clear night sky twinkling with a million stars. There was not a single cloud above. It was a bright and pristine night.
“Maa…” Rajan whispered, more to himself than to anyone else. A solitary teardrop trickled down his face.
He needed her. He needed his angel in his life. He was sick of the grimness that had enclosed his existence. His heart ached for the company of his loving guardian angel. The one who he had never met. But the one who he desperately required today.
Suddenly, the main door behind him opened.
“Hey, it’s time for dinner.” It was Jayesh.
“I am putting the bread in the toaster. We are having milk, butter, and bread. The cook hasn’t…”
“I am not interested. I don’t want to eat,” Rajan cut him mid-sentence and stood up, without turning his back to look at his brother, lest he saw his tears.
“Don’t be stupid. Come inside,” Jayesh said and tried to grab Rajan’s arm.
“You leave me alone,” Rajan yelled at the top of his lungs and wrested his hand away, his voice quivering from the effort of holding back his tears.
And without bothering to look at the reaction of his brother, Rajan took off.
Rajan ran like the wind. He ran until his sides ached. He wanted to leave everything behind. His home, his brother, his loneliness…
The wind was knocked out of Rajan as he tripped over a rock and fell on the road. Searing pain shot through his knees and elbows as Rajan tumbled along the road. His slippers came off and Rajan was left gasping for breath. He had been running blindly and failing to see the pile of rocks lying on the side of the road, Rajan had tripped over a particularly large one.
It took Rajan a couple of minutes to comprehend what had happened to him. The bottom of his palms, and both his forearms and knees had been bruised as he had hit the concrete road with force. Luckily for him, his hands and knees had taken the brunt of his fall and his face had been protected. But the bruised parts were throbbing with pain and Rajan lay there, on the side of the road, unsettled and disconsolate, and checking out his wounds.
Rajan looked around. He was on one of the corners of the Shivaji Park, the same park he and his brother used to visit every weekend once upon a time. The place was deserted now and he could only see rows of trees and darkness inside the park from its bordering grille.
In his writhing anger, Rajan hadn’t realized how far he had run and what turns he had taken. He had run wildly and now was almost at a distance of fifteen minutes from his home, lying all alone outside a desolated park with no one else in sight in the lane. Only the flickering yellow streetlights illuminated the deserted road.
Rajan felt petrified and alone. He did not know how he would now reach his home now in this condition. His face contorted in disconsolateness. It felt as if he was being punished for something.
A startled Rajan turned around to find three men looking over at him. He hadn’t noticed them earlier.
“Hey, your father had asked us to take a…Take a hundred rupees from you,” said one of the men. He was shaggy all over and wore ragged clothes.
The other two sniggered. One was bald and was wearing sunglasses over his head for some reason. And the third one was standing behind the other two. Rajan couldn’t get a good look at him but he appeared tall and lanky.
Rajan inched back, his heart pumping madly.
“What are you talking about? I haven’t seen you ever in my life,” Rajan said, mustering all his courage and trying his best to hide the fear rising in chest and throat.
“Well… we…we are old friends of your father’s. He had taken…Taken a hundred rupees from us last month. And had…Had requested us to take it from you,” said the shaggy man standing in the middle. His speech was slurred and he looked to be unsteady.
“You…You are lying. Leave me alone. I don’t have any money,” Rajan said, his voice was breaking now. Every cell in his body was trembling in fear. His chest beat so hard, he felt it would burst through his ribcage.
The man bent towards Rajan and tried to smile. Rajan could see his yellow uneven teeth and bloodshot eyes. His hair was unkempt and he had putrid breath. The man had probably not taken a bath in a long time and Rajan had to move his face away from him to avoid the horrible smell emanating from his body.
“Well…son…you will have to give us...give us something at least,” he croaked and extended his right hand towards Rajan.
A foot had landed on the man’s shin and yelling in pain he had fallen a few feet away from where Rajan was sitting.
The shaggy man was caught unawares and he looked around wildly at the source of the foot.
“What…Who?!” he sputtered.
A tall, well-built, young man with curly hair was standing over him, his eyes raging in fury.
Rajan gaped in shock at his brother, Jayesh. He seemed like a man possessed. Even as he kept his eyes locked on the three men, Jayesh swiftly held Rajan up with one hand, without any apparent effort, and moved him behind his back.
It seemed like Jayesh was holding himself back from exploding completely onto the three men. He was breathing heavily and trying really hard to keep his mounting anger in check.
The shaggy man struggled to get up and kept stumbling as he attempted to stand. One of his mates, the lanky fellow who stood behind them all this while, came to his aid. The bald one in the group looked annoyed and moved towards the two brothers.
Jayesh immediately bent down and picked up a big piece of rock, the same one over which Rajan had tripped, and held it firmly in his palms. With his left hand, he held his brother tightly behind his back and had the other one – the one containing the rock – balled into a fist.
“I will smash your head into a pulp if you move any closer. I swear to God,” Jayesh said, slowly and clearly, through gritted teeth. He stressed on each word as if saying the words and not performing the action he badly wanted to was causing him great physical pain.
“Go on…Leave…Now…Noooww,” he roared. His words resonated across the empty street. There was a certain mad frenzy in his voice that Rajan had never heard before. His whole body trembled as he heard his brother’s deafening voice from behind him. He didn’t know what would happen now and looked on at the scene in front of him paralyzed with fear.
The bald man looked at Jayesh’s fist and then at his face, the contours of which was lined with all-consuming fury.
He knew Jayesh wasn’t bluffing. He took a step back and said to the other two, “Come…Come, let’s go.”
The shaggy man was still in shock and was rubbing his shin. The other two held him up and headed in the opposite direction.
They stumbled and looked keen to get away from the scene. Within a minute, the three of them had disappeared behind the crossing of the lane and were out of sight.
Rajan let out a breath of relief. He hadn’t realized that he had been holding his breath in the last couple of minutes. He couldn’t believe what had just happened; his falling down, the three men harassing him, his brother coming to his rescue; all of it had happened so quickly. His heart was still pounding madly in his chest.
Jayesh then turned around. The moment he did so, Rajan bent his head down. He was scared to look at his elder brother. He knew what was coming. Already so infuriated with the happenings, Rajan could sense his brother was about to really chide him, or perhaps even hit him, for running away from home at this hour.
Rajan closed his eyes and awaited his admonishing.
But Jayesh held his brother’s shoulders and bent down close to his face.
“Raju…Are you okay? Did they hurt you?” he enquired softly.
Rajan looked up at his brother, surprised. There was a tenderness in his voice that he wasn’t accustomed to. His eyes were still red from all the outrage, but there was genuine concern in them. He was scanning his 11-year-old brother’s face for any marks of an injury.
Rajan shook his head.
“Don’t worry. They won’t bother you anymore. No one will,” he said gently.
Rajan looked on at his brother’s eyes. He could feel something bubbling inside him. Something that was about to burst…
Rajan wrapped himself around his elder brother and burst out crying. He sobbed and sobbed and let everything out. In that moment, he wanted to say and ask a lot of things to his brother. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. His tears soaked his brother’s t-shirt but Rajan did not care. Nothing else mattered to him at present. Nothing… He just wanted to stay there, entwined with his brother, and cry. He felt a strange relief as he did so. A lot of the torment that had squeezed into him finally seemed to be flowing out…
Jayesh held his brother with one hand and patted his head with the other. He let him cry for a few minutes and did not allow him to see the tears that were streaming down his own face now.
After what felt like an eternity, Jayesh finally bent down and holding Rajan up wiped his face with his hands. “I am sorry…,” he whispered. “Come, let’s go home. You must be hungry.”
Then, he put one arm around his brother’s shoulder and proceeded to walk him back towards their home.
Rajan staggered and limped a little as his knees still hurt. But Jayesh held him firmly. He wasn’t going to let his little brother fall again.
“Do you want some extra butter?” Jayesh asked.
Rajan shook his head and quietly munched on the toasted bread and butter along with warm milk his brother had prepared for him for dinner.
Both the brothers ate in silence in their small dining table in front of the sofa.
It had been more than an hour now since they had returned home from their ordeal earlier. Jayesh had deftly cleaned Rajan’s wounds with an antiseptic lotion and then bandaged them thoroughly.
They hadn’t spoken a word about what had happened after entering their home. The two seemed to have entered an unspoken agreement that the incident will not be discussed any further.
After finishing his meal, Jayesh got up and disappeared into the kitchen. He returned a couple of minutes later and switched on the television. Putting the cartoon channel on, he placed the remote next to Rajan.
“Don’t watch it for too long, okay?” Jayesh said politely and patting his brother on the head lightly dispersed to their room inside.
Rajan sat there, staring at the television screen and munched another piece of his bread after dipping it in milk. Even though one of his favorite cartoon shows was on, he couldn’t concentrate on it. His mind was still numb from everything that happened in the last couple of hours.
Even after completing his meal, Rajan sat there, his eyes just capturing the visuals on the television screen and his mind completely distracted.
After about forty minutes, he finally packed up and went towards their room. He found that only the little dim light was on and his brother was sound asleep on their bed.
Rajan stood there at the doorway and looked at his brother sleeping so peacefully. Crystal white moonlight fell on his face from the window directly above him. Rajan’s eyes then turned towards the study desk beside the bed. It still had the picture frame at its corner, the one where his brother and his mother were holding him with a smile. Although it was dark, Rajan could still make out his brother’s figure in the picture, holding the head of his infant version safely in his palms. The young Jayesh looked so alive and delighted, standing there with his little brother and mother.
Rajan felt overwhelmed. He was seeing his brother in a new light today. All these years he had failed to realize one thing: that his brother too had lost a mother. Rajan had always thought about himself; his pain, his loss, his loneliness. But he had never paused to think the effect of their mother’s death on his brother. They had never ever discussed anything about this subject but Jayesh must have been carrying a lot of hidden grief inside him. Rajan was too young to even comprehend anything when his mother had passed away. But his brother…He was young and vulnerable then with no one to console him as their father had retracted into his own shell after his mother’s demise. How must he have coped with the loss? How had he managed to bury the memories of his moments with their mother? How had he carried on?
Rajan could feel himself welling up again. He wiped his eyes and stepped inside the room.
Usually, Rajan slept on a mat on the floor while his brother took the bed. When they were younger, both the brothers used to sleep on this bed. But as they kept growing tall the bed became too small to contain both of them and Rajan had to sleep on the mat on the floor instead.
Like every night, Rajan found the mat neatly spread on the floor beneath the bed tonight too. However, he didn’t feel like taking the mat today. While his brother slept on the bed, Rajan quietly tucked himself on his left, with his head resting near Jayesh’s legs. He felt safe and calm this way. The horrible images of his unpleasant experience a couple of hours earlier were now slowly ebbing away.
A languid breeze trickled in through the window and Rajan looked at the night sky, twinkling with stars. He suddenly remembered his writing assignment – the one about the angel. He still hadn’t finished it. It seemed liked ages ago when he was sitting in this very room and racking his brains to come up with some proper lines for his writing piece.
And now, as Rajan looked at his sleeping brother and then at the gleaming stars in the sky, the image he had formed of angels all through his childhood was slowly dissolving. Angels, he realized then, need not always be women in floral whites with wings. They don’t even need to be females, really. And as he understood this, Rajan somehow knew that he will not be disappointing Mrs. Gomathi Sundaram this time.
With an irrepressible feeling of affection, he observed his sleeping brother’s face again, a little closely this time. He recalled the fury on Jayesh's face when he was facing those three men on the street, the way he held him tightly behind his back and the concern on his face when he checked on him after the men left.
Rajan sighed…He knew that things will be back to normal the next morning. He and his brother will fight again and get irked with each other again. Nothing will change. And yet, for Rajan, a whole lot had changed in that one moment…
Very quietly, Rajan then moved his left hand and wrapped his little fingers around the thumb and index finger of his brother’s left hand. He didn’t know why he did so, but doing this gave him great comfort.
Another breeze wafted in through the window, this time a little stronger. Rajan looked outside one final time for the night, at the stars and the pale moon. He knew then that he will always need and miss his mother’s presence in his life. But… things will be okay. They had to be, Rajan thought confidently, and clutching his brother’s fingers a little tighter, he finally closed his eyes. Why wouldn’t they be? His angel, after all, was with him …
All rights reserved
(Footnote: None of the incidents that I have narrated in the above story have actually happened with me. However, I did take inspiration from the little nuggets of my relationship with my own elder brother from my boyhood days while forming this story. In my mind, I have dedicated this story to my brother, or my relationship with him to be precise.
The real inspiration for the story, however, came from this little song. It's a very old classic from the 60s.
I can't really explain why or how, but listening to this made me reminisce about my childhood days with my brother; the fights, the anger, the various little activities we did together. For some reason, this song churned out those memories. And while writing this story, I would listen to this again and again and again until the entire story came out the way I wanted it to.
This particular one will remain a special story for me. Many may find it to be a plodding bore or nothing entertaining. But I will always hold this one close to my heart. It has helped me in different ways and made me realize some of my hitherto undiscovered abilities. I am not a natural storyteller and getting this done has given me immense confidence and faith in my abilities.
Lastly, while writing this as I was looking back at some of the memories with my brother, I realized that not all relationships, especially those in the family, have to be perfect. I and my brother may not share the greatest of rapport - as many in my life have pointed out from time to time, but we are brothers. And, no matter what, I shall always want him as my elder brother, my guardian angel...In this life...And the other...)