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A Sad Christmas (The Man in the Santa Suit)- A Short Story

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It was Christmas night. It was a day of exuberance, of joy, of resurrection of faith. Happy delightful lights filled up the darkest crevices of night. The sounds of kids playing, the melody of sweet laughter, the Christmas carols running in looped consistency swallowed the dark sadness of a cold, December night. The air was full of warmth of close embraces which floated away, melting the freezing air. Beautiful people, dressed in lovely clothes, kids overdressed, men impeccably dressed, and women scantily dressed, wandered around in the air-conditioned interiors of the mall, trying hard not to bump into one another.

Rameshwar felt tired. His eyes waded through the crowd to the opposite corner of the Atrium where some good looking and rich-looking women had set up stalls selling cakes and other things to eat. He had been there during the afternoon and the upturned brows of the exquisite ladies setting up those stalls and the prices mentioned made him quickly retreat. Some people said it was for the support of poor people which amused him. From the look of those girls, you can make out that their knowledge of poor people is limited to what they have read in books, seen in movies or watched moving past their car windows. There was a very good looking couple. The man was tall, almost his height, well-built with thin moustache turned downwards as was with many men these days. The woman was also tall and thin, with thoughtful fair face. She held the man’s arm with a sense of unmistakable pride. Rameshwar felt the crowds nudging him. He did not understand much about Christmas. He had heard it was not only a day for happiness and love; it was also a day to pray. He did not know how to pray. The couple on the other end of the atrium did stroke something soft in his heart and he felt a prayer escape his lips with the wind of exhaled exasperation.

He fell into a momentary delirium. Some images from the past stay stuck in our thoughts, to mock, haunt and sometimes comfort us. They keep visiting us like the ghosts of our pasts. Rameshwar saw that image from his past. Surilee would use that iron pipe, blowing wind into the earthen stove, and look at him with a love and admiration which he had never known. Just like the lady on the other side of the atrium. The smoke would rise and those deep, dark kohl-bordered eyes would become mystical, almost unreal. The smoke rising from the stove, against the Sun sinking right outside the door, would add to her allure, almost giving a goddess like feel to his wife. Rameshwar would provoke her with feigned anger as she would look at him through the smoke while the food simmered on the stove, with, “What?”

“Ekdam Angrej Lagte ho,.Firang (You look almost a British, foreigner)” She would say with a smile and a mild cough. She would always make fun of his fair color. She knew her husband was the fairest in that remote village on the border of India and Nepal. Rameshwar would sit mesmerized looking at her as the Sun settled into the night outside their hut. He would tell her stories of the city where he worked. Most men in his village worked there. There was no job for them in their town. It was like an island which was left behind in the pace at which the rest of the country was running. Rameshwar wanted Surilee to come to the city. She would always have that look of disbelief on her face when he told her about the roads of the city where three buses could run side by side, in one direction alone. But he could tell she loved hearing it from him even if she did not believe what he said. She would laugh when he told her about the lights which would automatically turn to red and traffic would stop and how trains would run underground and their doors would open automatically. Whenever she laughed, Rameshwar always felt that such a laugh did not belong to those dusty village lanes. He always felt as if Surilee were some princess in hiding, some mythical princess sentenced to be there for some time by bad fairies his grandmother told the stories about. Her laugh ringed with the clear innocence of the mountain river. Sometimes a soft, mild cough would rise as she would make fun of his fair skin, and her smile would assuage all the wounds of poverty, or inadequacy. When he went to the village last year, the laughs became less frequent and the sounds of cough became more, as if the laugh had ceded the space to the invading armies of cough and sickness. The smile was feeble and when he saw it rising one last time to her eyes, it mingled with her last tear drop.

He came back to the city with his six year old held in his arms like a lost man. He was not only a man who had lost his biggest fight, he was a man who had no other fights to fight. The woman is the anchor and the compass which holds the vessel which a man is. He came back to the city as a sip which did not have an anchor, floating in a tempestuous angry sea, going nowhere. He would wake up to the voices whispering into his ears, “Firang (Foreigner)” and he would sit down, tears rolling his cheeks, listening to the fading sounds of sirens of police patrol piercing through the dead silence of the night.

“That man is fair. Almost like a firang. Do you think he can do it?” So said the voice of the man in suit last week as he stood in the queue outside the mall.

“Firang” The word this time did not make him blush. If anything, it made him wince as if someone had plunged a knife deep into his breast and twisted it twice. He thought of his son, Raghu. He had mild fever for last one week and he coughed. The doctor in his slum asked him to take Raghu to city hospital for a thorough check-up. Raghu was all that he was left with of Surilee, of his past, where laughter and smile did exist. He thought of his child and how Raghu would hide behind his mother every year when he visited home. It would take days for that awkwardness to fade away and his heart would be heavy every time he departed for the city with the thought of losing out on the childhood of his only son. He thought of how Raghu would hold his finger as if afraid of letting go when he got up on the Tonga to ride to the railway station. He thought of those little palms which would cusp around his finger. Then he looked at the little boy in front of him who had stretched his arm. He shook his hand as trained and said the well-practiced, “Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas.”

He thought of incessant questions of Raghu, like how the malls stayed lit up all night, and whether it was really like day inside the mall even through the night. The crowd pushed.

“Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas.”

He thought how Raghu would always wonder as to how the kids in the mall would not feel the cold even through the coldest of nights. His thoughts wandered to his damp, cold room which would be a tomb but for the living inside. He thought of the tattered blanket and thought how Raghu might be fending off the cold without the comfort of his father’s embrace. He felt nauseated. The crowd was getting excited. The crowd pushed and as if on a cue, he said, “Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas.”

He had not eaten anything since morning. He felt tired and the white beard itched against his skin. The thick cloth on the midriff felt heavy. He worried whether Asha, the lady in the neighborhood, would have given the glass of milk to Raghu. He had promised them that he would pay for it tomorrow. He wasn’t sure if they believed him. Poverty made cynics out of the best optimists. He hoped they did. His heart wept at the thought of Raghu going to bed without any food. The crowd pushed. He reached into his red bag of cookies and offered cakes to the tiny palms outstretched in front of him.
“Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas.”

He wanted to settle down on his knees and cry. He wanted to run away and snuggle with Raghu. We, in our adult ego, believe that we support kids by snuggling on to them. Seldom do we realize that it is our broken self which gets support from their innocent touch. He longed to hold his son. He felt something rising through his gut. He felt he was getting sick. He looked at the man in suite on the corner, standing behind the crowd. The man signaled ten minutes with his fingers. The crowd was getting more and more excited. He had never waited for the clock to hit twelve in all his life. His head moved in circles, with images floating, Sureeli smiling at him, Raghu in his tattered blanket. Tears were flowing through the white beard. No one noticed them. The crowd pushed and cheered.

“Ho-ho-ho. Merry Christmas” He kept repeating.

( The Story was first published on www.storystar.com as A Sad Christmas. Click to Read on StoryStar)
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