Short Story: Leap Day by Utkarsh Sharma
Winter had worn off like an old sock, and an urgent, prickly summer under the garb of spring had creeped in. February had grown like a welt that year. Amin did not know if it was the sun’s temperate gaze or the flames from the shops underneath that were causing this rise in temperature. He, and the six members of his family, were perched at the roof of a two-storey house － the Trivedi Villa, a two storey building of a grossly utilitarian fashion; they were tenants on the first floor.
“Who knew,” Amin thought to himself. “Those were all stories back then.” That which he saw seemed to him truer than the stories that his family － his parents, their parents, his aunts and uncles － had muffled with sibilant utterances at dinner tables and family unions at Eid. The reverberating screeches held up in those voids of conversation seemed anticipatory or rather a product of years of one who has listened to them and realised their incomprehensibility. Amin had been following the news about student presence on the streets since December; he had even participated a couple of times himself without his family’s knowledge but after a photograph of him protesting appeared on the family group, his movements were greatly restricted.
After the state elections in February, unease persisted because of police presence in protest areas like the winter smog to which people had grown accustomed. The capital had become a maze of national antagonisms. History was flayed open inside lawns and on the streets with slogans and speeches; the television reported conspiracies of neighbour nations fondling with the country’s “ancient peace and virginal integrity”; counter protests sprung up in the favour of the government against the alleged divisive forces while a section of the population was content to find a day’s wage and another happy to find a day’s commute to the office unperturbed.
That day in February was no different as a periodic occurrence. Indeed, it would have seemed unremarkable in the historical scope of things that were under debate; perhaps even constitutional: who knows? A man had come running through the street that morning (one would have assumed from his whistling and panting that he was running one of those marathons that were so popular in the university) with a little wooden handle stuck on his back with a crimson stain encircling its root. His kurta, otherwise pristine white, slung around him as a sleeve was shorn completely from the torso and one could see his equally white vest diffusing into shades of pale red. He ran from one end of the mohalla to the other, at an unrelenting pace like an English steamer of old, screaming, “They’re coming, they’re coming!” while his skull cap fell off as he disappeared at the end of the lane.
Those were the only words Amin heard from the street that day. Soon, a somnolent hush smothered the lane － the shops closed, gates and windows shut and barred, and mouths sealed. There was only a wait now, as Amin and his family ascended to the terrace. His sister lay in his mother’s arms, his aunt snuggled next to her, comforting her own newborn, while his father and his uncle stood guard at the door that led to the terrace － his father held a slaughter knife, usually preserved for Eid, while his uncle held a cricket bat, Amin’s own. Amin himself held a cricket stump between his hands.
People had been out on the streets for some time now. There were uncomfortable silences between every skirmish over the years. That tenuous relationship was nearing an end, everyone knew. “People in power are as adamant as an infant in dire need of spanking.” Amin had heard someone in college make that analogy. “That spanking has been long due － seventy years, I say.” Another had broken into his speech and claimed, “A hundred years almost, now. That mercy-petitioning-playwright should have kept to his trade,” while an old friend was unflinching in their stance when they chipped in, “It has been a reality for several thousand years. These men are only a by-product of ______” Amin could not remember that particular phrase that they had used then, something he knew he had heard quite frequently in the past few months.
It felt like it had been a while now since that man ran through the street. When are they coming? While they waited there like wax statues under the melting winter sun, it seemed like the scene from the morning was a dream, a shared psychosis as it were as Amin had heard about in a lecture. He looked around at his family, and he felt like he would faint from the heat. He took off his sweater, spread it out on the dusty terrace floor and sat down on it. He felt the chill of the receding winter only now.
A woman shrieked. Or was it a child? The hair on Amin’s arms stood up. From the sounds of rustling of cardboard and shifting wood, he could make out an act of rummaging from the street, akin to rats looking for scraps from the dustbin. Perhaps they were making a pyre, as smoke spiralled up in several dark, billowing tornadoes that populated the skyline like ghosts of aldermen.
Amin sat with his back to the farthest edge of the terrace. His sister withheld a sob from breaking. Was she the one who raised that cry? He did not know. There was another sustained roar from below. Amin lay down on his stomach and began to crawl towards the edge of the terrace. He held the stump across his chest and pushed ahead with his feet. The first motion was smooth enough but his right foot was clamped in a hot, sweaty vice at his next effort. He turned to see his mother, with eyes worming red, clutching at the fold of his jeans. He turned to look at his father who made a sweep with his hand, a gesture of letting go. She loosened her grip with great struggle till Amin was free.
He began his crawl again. A few chunks of gravel poked the meaty bottoms of his palms, his t-shirt browned with the dust on the unswept floor. There were sounds of breaking glass, from somewhere in the distance echoed bangs and pops (who knew if it was a bullet or a bike misfiring), but there was an obnoxious silence that seemed to return. He tried hard to gather if he could hear any dialogue from the alley but there were no words spoken. It was not a skirmish, that he knew now.
He inched ahead till he could barely peep through the floral cuts and welds of the iron railings. He saw a mob, branding flags the colours of which seemed indiscernible through the soot that rose but he knew what they were there for. He lay there motionless, watching men with faces covered and uncovered go on rummaging through an open shutter across the street. They worked in silence. Every jerk, every swing was computed and almost graceful. They broke windows of cars, brought people onto the street, stripped, beat and stabbed them, but never once did they seem unsure of their movements. They were certain, scientific and precise － almost surgical. They entered the next house. There were screams from women and children, curses and cries of anguish, but that silence seemed to envelope the alley all at once again.
They came out with streaks of red dripping off their swords and knives and sticks. They went on to the next shop and the next house. Amin looked on. The thought that they might want to enter his own house was nibbing at the tip of his tongue and burning in his throat like acid rising from his stomach － it perhaps was. He wanted at once to hurl stones from above to scare them away but he knew that that would be certain ruin. Amin checked his impulse and stayed put.
The men ambled up to their house, stood by the gate and scanned the complex from the outside and, to Amin’s confused horror, walked past. They moved on to the next house, screams rose from there. Amin looked back and motioned to his father that they had moved on. His father wiped his brow but stood still. His mother’s palm was stifling a scream from his sister’s gullet. Everyone stood motionless. Amin turned back to observe the men. His heart had been leaping up and down with every hit and squirm before but now he felt that his heart was stiller. Surely the men could not be so careless in such a perfect execution as they carried out. There was routine there. They beat each door, each gate － some had to be yanked with a rope, or kicked, once or twice more than the others, but they all fell － and then they went inside, repeating the exercise and then out they came in the same colours. Amin looked on, the men walked till the end of the block and turned right.
Many months have passed since then. Amin said nothing to anyone on orders from his father － perhaps why he did not disappear unlike many of his friends from cricketing days or perhaps why, up to this day, the law is yet to decide the colour of the flags. Those who knew then know still, and lives continue in silences.
Utkarsh Sharma is an English literature graduate from University of Delhi. Willing to pursue literature further and fascinated by its role in people’s movements, he can be found reading, debating and sloganeering.