Raja thought of himself as someone who didn’t like attention, but quite often, attention found him. You see, he couldn’t hear very well. His mother liked to make up stories that might be considered mythical, or foolish. In one of these stories, a young Raja would have an accident. After a prolonged surgery, the doctor would tell her that the boy had been saved, the bleeding in his brain was stopped, but there was some damage to his ear, which would be reversed in a few years. Raja wondered why he didn’t remember any of the accidents he was involved in. By the time he was six, he knew these were lies. An unpleasant incident had revealed the truth. During a summer spent with cousins at his grandmother’s house, he had overheard two of his aunts talking about a boy who was deaf. Towards the end of their conversation, they had implied he was the boy. This certainly clarified many things for him, such as why he had no friends at school, except when the other kids formed groups and dragged him into conversation, to laugh at him.
Raja spent his life apologizing. People shouldn’t have to talk to him while standing in front of him, just so he can understand them better. He apologized for not being fully deaf. Apparently, everyone assumed he was oblivious, and he almost always heard things he wasn’t supposed to. He said sorry when he had to make someone repeat their sentences, and he apologized when his friends looked guilty after laughing at deaf jokes. Sometimes his enunciation wasn’t very good, and occasionally he lost his balance; he apologized for all of that too.
Raja usually walked home from work. It took him about forty minutes, not because his house was far away, but because there usually wasn’t any space for pedestrians. This was what had become of Chennai, city of the famed beach and endless summers. He didn’t mind. Raja walked past the old lady frying batter in numerous formations, the carts stacked with vegetables and tender coconuts, the shops selling flowers, and the temple that rose up from the filth, as though the presiding deity was affirming that he was indeed present everywhere. He stopped at a tea stall where the boy knew his name. Raja signalled to him, and a glass was placed in his hand. Scalding hot tea, one spoon of sugar. The boy was saying something to him.
“Anna, you left your lighter here yesterday.”
“I don’t…,” Raja stopped mid-sentence.
The lighter had his name engraved.
He pocketed the lighter and was on his way. Fifteen minutes more, he’d be home, hopefully in time for the serial he had started watching. Waiting to cross the road, he started fidgeting with the lighter. He clicked it, and instead of the flame he had been expecting to see, he heard a cacophony. His knees almost buckled, but he steadied himself and tried to pay attention: an advertisement for gold jewellery from a car radio, and the windows weren’t even rolled down, a hawker marketing his spinach over fifty metres away, a lady asking her child to hold her hand, a man on the phone, walking towards him, and Raja could hear every syllable. It overwhelmed him, these harsh sounds that had seemingly sprouted on his everyday commute. Nervous, he clicked the lighter again, and the world fell silent.
Raja ran home and shut himself in the bathroom. He knew his mother would come knocking, turning the doorknob this way and that, making sure he noticed. He sat down and clicked the lighter. He could hear his mother’s anklets as she walked, whistles of the pressure cooker from his neighbour’s kitchen, the serial’s title song. This lighter was dangerous, he decided. He washed his face and went to the bedroom, where he hid the lighter amidst his clothes.
Routine blurred time. He celebrated a birthday, continued to stop for tea on the way home, and kept the lighter hidden. On a day like any other in November that year, the rain came down in sheets. The sky was dark when he woke, and refused to lighten up. Raja dug his lighter out, stood on the balcony, and clicked it. He listened to a downpour for the first time. He heard the puddles, the wind howling, the trees swaying.
His eyes will go moist, and he will tell no one about this.
Genere: Magical realism
750 word limit
I never imagined such a day would come: a Tamil translation of this story was published in Aroo.