Cobwebs

Short story

Cobwebs

T S Ronnie is an advertising professional, a closet writer, a comic book enthusiast, a student of mythology, and a lover of all things metaphysical. Ronnie likes to observe and understand people and cultures. She draws inspiration from contemporary writers like Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Grant Morrison, and studies the works of brilliant minds such as Joseph Campbell, Andrew Lang and Conan Doyle. She has been scratching away furiously at a graphic novel series in the time she culls away from being a working mother, a console gamer and a voracious reader.

If you chanced upon me in normal setting on a bus or in the office elevator you wouldn’t really think to notice me. I am of an average build, my voice is non-distinct, and my smile isn’t one that would send chirping birds and open skies your way. My colleagues, they see me, move their lips at me, even sometimes acknowledge me in the corridors, but I would not go to the extent of thinking I’ve left a mark on any of them. Not even when the manager yelled at me that one time on the floor, for botching up files that needed to be submitted to the audit team. The security guard of the building I live in has stopped me thrice since I moved in last summer, asking me for identification. 

But this cosy cloak of anonymity is lost the minute I stumble upon candied peanuts.

*******************

I used to love them as a child. Peanuts held together by a lattice of jaggery; pressed into a hard cake or rolled into small misshapen balls. My grandma used to make them for us in anticipation of school holidays. The jaggery needed to be dissolved in water and cooked on a stove for what seemed like hours. This sweet syrup had to be of just the right consistency for it to hold the roasted salted peanuts. Watching my grandmother make them used to be one of my greatest childhood joys; that and the fact that I got the preview pass to taste before any other cousin. 

The candied peanut bars that my grandmother produced in her wood fire kitchen were unique to the whole region. Firstly, it was not a taste people in the area were familiar with — she had learned of this sweet snack from a visiting south Indian trader’s wife. Secondly, she only made them when she had a particular type of jaggery, which came from some remote corner of the country. And thirdly, most importantly, it was loved for its simplicity, portability and full-bodied flavour. I was a popular boy growing up. A popularity fuelled by my impressive collection of marbles won and bought, and the humble but delightful peanut confection I always carried around. Sure, the town would soon get its supply of commercially-made peanut candies, but they weren’t a shade on my grandmother’s original recipe. They didn’t look, taste or feel like the ones everyone in town was used to by now. So, my cousins and I remained popular, and cool. 

*******************

That was then. Today, I was on a local train headed home; we had crossed Bandra; I would get down at Andheri and switch over to the Versova-Ghatkopar line. I had managed to wrangle half a butt-cheek of space on the hard iron bench when a bespectacled paunchy man pulled out a bar of glucose pressed peanuts. The sound of wrapper being fidgeted with knocked out the sound of the wheels on the tracks, the whooshing of air in tight spaces around the heads of passengers both standing and sitting, the din of hawkers selling combs and bhel and pens and stickered cartoons, and the seemingly un-putdownable high pitched wail of the street urchin with a pair of clanking percussive stones. My heart fled its cage and found its place somewhere between my throat and my tongue as my mouth ran dry and blood rushed with deadening force to my ears. The sweat glands in the palms of my hand, soles of my feet, armpits and back went on over-drive, as the paunchy middle-aged man who had no idea about the psychological changes his seemingly harmless act of wanting a snack mid-journey wrestled the candy free of its restrictive wrapper. 

A flood arrived at my chest, tugging and yanking at my lungs, forcing them to engorge and shut down. By now, both men at my sides started to get the sense of something going on with me as I writhed and squirmed and unbuttoned everything from my shirt to my pants. I wanted air, I need some space, and most of all, I wanted to be nowhere near that sweet, compressed junk that taunted my senses from two feet away.

My stomach was churning up a storm; one that would find its exit violently, messily. But I couldn’t worry about that now. Now, I was trying to will my legs to stand and they were jelly. I could feel hands pushing me away from the seat onto the packed aisles. There were voices yelling; at me, to me; faces peering: some curious, others anxious, some others angry. This was a bad time to be causing commotion. Everyone packed like crabs to a basket, hurtling down at breakneck speed in a rectangular metal box. 

Hang in there. It’s only two more minutes to Andheri, a voice said. I tried to focus on it, but it seemed garbled and distant. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stand. I was drenched in sweat. And I’d been moved by the crowd to near the footboard at the exit.

I vaguely remember being pressed out through the train by the exiting crowd, splashing the sidewalk with my spew, the ticket inspector walking up to inquire and investigate. I don’t remember the rest of my journey homeward or how I came to lose my wallet. 

*******************

I haven’t touched candied peanuts in over 10 years and I cannot entertain the idea of ever being near or setting sights on one. Over the years, I have cultivated an ability to deftly navigate cigarette shops and grocery stores and avoid the unpleasantness of an encounter. But there have been times in the past, when the mere mention of chikkis has left me deeply affected, and onlookers, deeply disturbed. I’ve passed the emotion off to allergies, to vertigo, to recovery from sickness. But if you’ve witnessed the aftermath of my exposure to the candied sweet, you will remember me. My face, how I smelled, how tall or short I was, what I sound like, my name. It’s amazing, really. I go from totally anonymous to ‘aren't you the guy with peanut allergies?’ like I did at my friend's betrothal. 

After my grandmother passed away, her daughter, my aunt, took up the mantle of the family sweet maker. What used to be joyful once has become a cause for family avoidance. Everyone in the family wants to know how something I loved so much growing up could now be so repulsive. My mother is the only person I’ve managed to have a conversation with on this dreadful aversion. Yet, even with her, I struggled to come clean. Ultimately never managing to. 

The truth is, I am a damaged man. A man haunted by demons of actions past. A man who, at the cusp of youth, did unspeakable and unforgivable things. 

In a bid to prove to myself that I am not that man, I try everyday to understand what I could have done different. What I would, if I could repair the damage.

I would not have gotten out of bed that morning. I would not have borrowed money from my brother for that movie ticket. I would have refused the extra cash he lovingly pushed into my hand. Treat your friends to lunch, he had said. 

I would have told my friends I didn’t feel like celebrating my first job offer in the city yet. I would not have gone out of the house to meet them at the town square. I would not have stood in line and faced the rejection of no tickets. I definitely would not have let the bully in the bunch use my money to buy all that liquor. 

I would have made excuses and left for home. 

Never to turn back and look at the others cornering the mechanic’s daughter. I would have gone away the next day without tainting my memory of the three I called friends. 

Come to think of it, I would not have met them at all in the first place. 

If I had not known them I would have asked the girl to run in the opposite direction. Maybe I would have run to get help. 

I would not have been a coward. 

I would have fought off my friends: with words, with bare fists, with rocks. I would have reminded them of their mothers and sisters, the gods and goddesses and everything pure. I would have asked them to consider the consequences of their actions. I would have stopped them from hurting her. 

I would not have given in to the stirring and would have refused to join in their savagery.

I would have stilled the hand that dealt the cruelest blow.

I would have refused to walk away and stayed by her side as she breathed those ragged last breaths. 

I would have covered her modesty and her dead eyes. 

I would have gone to the law and told them what we had done. 

I would have stayed in town. 

Instead, I passed my batch of peanut candies around as we walked away from our innocence. 

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