“Why’re you standing here, Ma?” Suman stepped onto the balcony. “You know this polluted air aggravates your asthma. Come inside.”
Suman gasped. A hundred and twenty miles away, through the sky suddenly clear, wide gleamed the blue-white Himalayas.
Moist-eyed, Grandma turned. “It’s been thirty years since I’ve seen the Himalayas here.”
Non-essential shipments: suspended.
The Nike tee shirt Arnab ordered hadn’t been shipped. Neither had Rumi’s D&G aviators. Slaving all day, Arnab and Rumi had fallen into ordering something every evening. Something to look forward to.
Home now, across their office-desk, Arnab glanced up at Rumi. A smile hesitated at Rumi’s lips.
After hours queueing, Trisha entered the supermarket. Vegetable-shelves: empty. Everything was being rationed. Still—production curtailed, transport disrupted—supplies were simply insufficient. Swallowing tears, Trisha bought potatoes again.
Fumbling for keys, Trisha glanced at her garden. Half-withered tomato saplings. Shrivelled pumpkin creepers. Enthusiastically begun, gardening had given way to old habits.
“I’m bored, Ma!” cried Girish. “Dhanush is playing outside!”
Suman hesitated, glancing outside. “Dhanush doesn’t have asthma.”
“Let him go,” said Grandma. “The air’s clean now! He’ll be fine.”
Girish ran off. Grandma approached the air-purifier. “Let’s turn this off now, daughter. This burns electricity. Dirties other people’s air.”
Arnab and Rumi had been in love. Ten years ago. Slaving all week, offices worlds apart. Collaborating, flirting, commiserating—with colleagues. Weekends consumed by binge-watching shopping binge-drinking.
Arnab brought the chamomile tea to Rumi at the window-seat. She’d had chamomile tea every evening for seven years. He’d just learned this.
Trisha uprooted the weeds. White flowers. Parthenium. Finally she’d learned the name of this weed she’d seen always.
A bird landed near her. Mynah? No. Coucal.
How could she mistake it? She’d been a birder. A lifetime ago, she’d seen coucals here in Bangalore.
Sun-yellow tomato flowers nodded in the breeze.
The lockdown lifted.
The government had promised more buses. More bus routes. So that the cars that’d left the streets could stay off. So that Grandma could keep watching the Himalayas from the balcony in Jalandhar.
Simran bought another air purifier. She changed out Grandma’s anti-pollution mask, and Girish’s, every week, now.
The lockdown lifted.
Arnab and Rumi had promised: dinner together. Weekends together. They’d bought this house together. Now, they’d conceived a baby. They’d stopped ordering shiny things online. Arnab had started missing Rumi when she nipped from their office desk to the bathroom.
Working. Shopping. The twin sirens reclaimed them.
The lockdown lifted.
Trisha promised: she’d keep gardening. Feeding the bee-eaters time-travelling to her, iridescent green in the sunlight. She’d develop, at least, vegetable self-sufficiency. Against the next emergency, courtesy irresponsible world leaders. She’d start voting. Buy only organic.
Blood-red tomatoes withered on the vine. Parthenium reclaimed everything.
Between Grandma and the Himalayas, gray-brown skies fell again. Herded back indoors, Girish demanded an Xbox. In her Audi, Suman grew reaccustomed to zero visibility.
Again, lovers became strangers. We moved out. Sold our houses. Married our colleagues.
Coucals and bee-eaters disappeared. For good, this time.
We made promises. But old habits reclaimed us.
Amita Basu is a cognitive science PhD candidate. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine, Kelp, Gasher, Fearsome Critters, The Bookends Review, Potato Soup Journal, Star 82 Review, Proem, St. Katherine Review, Entropy, Muse India, Dove Tales, Novel Noctule, and The Right-Eyed Deer. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Curious Reader, Deccan Herald, Qrius, Countercurrents, and Parent Edge. She is working on a collection of literary short stories, and a mystery novel about art. She lives in Bangalore, India and blogs at http://amitabasu.wordpress.com/
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Promises”:
As you might expect, we’ve received (and continue to receive) quite a few submissions that deal with various aspects of Covid-19.
But author Amita Basu uses it only as a backdrop to deal with larger issues of human nature. This is what gives her piece universality that takes it beyond one current event, and that’s precisely why we chose it.