Balloons is a short story that is a part of Potluck, a new literary collection that was recently released in India. From the intimate to pure fantasy, from first person experiences to travelogues, Potluck is a compilation of stories and reflections by a group of Mumbai-based writers from diverse backgrounds, who came together as The Critique Group during creative writing courses conducted at the Xavier’s Institute of Communications in Mumbai. Working mothers, single women, senior executives, a Catholic priest, a Hindu monk, and a writer from Slovenia, are all a part of the Critique Group — and just like the group, there is no common thread that connects the stories. Each voice in Potluck is unique. Check out the book by buying it here.
As the balloon seller gingerly stepped into the compartment of the Mumbai local train Madhavi and Amit were in, Madhavi’s eyes were immediately drawn to the riot of colour that he brought into the crummy blue interior of the train. A cluster of balloons in myriad colours, shapes and sizes, wove their way through the otherwise sordid confines of the compartment, which was empty, except for the three of them.
The balloon seller stopped opposite Madhavi, and she smiled as she caught her coloured reflection in the bright balloons. She nudged Amit, who was standing beside her, and shouted, “Amit! I want a balloon!”
Amit pretended he hadn’t heard her — he closed his eyes and swayed his head to the music playing through his earphones.
Madhavi wasn’t impressed. She yanked out one of his earphones, and spoke in his ear, “Amit Desai, you are going to buy me a balloon.”
Amit sighed. While he had grown accustomed to Madhavi’s idiosyncrasies in the one year they had known each other, he still found some of her demands curiously silly and juvenile.
“Maddy, grow up. You are twenty-three years old. Why on earth do you need a balloon? And that too, you want one in a Mumbai local train — come on!” He shook his head, as he gestured toward the cramped space of the train compartment.
Madhavi stared back at Amit, her eyes unflinching. “Amit, just do it, will you? It’s been so long since I’ve had a balloon. I have only my credit cards on me at the moment, or I wouldn’t have to suck up to you!”
“Madhavi, for God’s sake, why do you want a balloon? Give me one good reason.” Madhavi’s face went sour as Amit enunciated the last three words.
She bit her lip, thought for a moment, and said, “Balloons are perhaps one of the most enigmatic creations of our times. How can a snip of rubber, inflated with air and dangled on a flimsy string, so entice the young and old alike?”
Amit looked at her, eyes wide open in horror. Of all the retorts he had expected, a monologue on balloons certainly wasn’t one. He shrugged.
“I think it’s because they symbolise freedom,” Madhavi explained, as she flicked a balloon with her fingertips. “There’s something so divinely — and fascinatingly — free about a balloon that you can’t get in any of the mechanical contraptions they call toys nowadays.” She paused to catch her breath. “If nothing else, Amit, the balloon’s freedom, the sheer sight of it flying high up in the air, is absolutely glorious. I would be gloomy, perhaps for an instant, when I let go of a balloon, but I am sure that the sight of my balloon soaring toward the heavens would fill me with an effortless, blissful wonder.”
She spun around and stared at Amit. “And I want to feel that exalted state now — now! That’s my reason. Are you satisfied, or should I go on?”
Amit shook his head, chuckling. He playfully smacked Madhavi’s cheek, and threw his hands up in failure — it was Madhavi’s habit to get what she wanted. The two had first met at a restaurant where Amit’s eyes were drawn to Madhavi shaking her fists at the waiter for having brought her a ‘tepid’ soup, when she had actually ordered ‘hot’. He also remembered how he once pulled an angry Madhavi back from actually mauling a teacher who had ‘dared’ to oppose her candidature in a college election. On the six-month anniversary of their being together, she had steadfastly refused to celebrate until Amit brought to the table her favourite brand of strawberry ice-cream.
Amit gestured at the balloon seller. He was a teenager, a boy of no more than fifteen years. He looked tired, but his eyes shone in his sunburnt face. He had floppy black hair that covered most of his forehead, and he was wearing a tight maroon shirt with dirty beige trousers that reached only to his knees. He held a long bamboo pole, onto which his balloons were tied with white twine. Almost all the balloons he carried were filled with helium, ruthlessly tugging at the twine that bound them to the pole; while there were a few flaccid entities content to be pulled along wherever the boy went.
Madhavi grabbed a bright green balloon, and grinned widely at Amit.
Amit sighed. He handed the boy a few rupee notes, and Madhavi looped the twine of the balloon the boy gave her onto her index finger.
The train was chugging along a little faster now, and Madhavi held onto the bar with her right hand as she perched precariously at the door of the train. Amit looked on dispassionately as Madhavi stretched out her other hand, the green balloon wrestling tirelessly against the twine that she was holding. Madhavi let go of the twine, and gleefully watched as the balloon got caught up in a gust of wind, flitting away into the blue expanse above her until it was just a green speck in the expansive aquamarine.
She turned around, and spied the balloon seller with his pole standing at the opposite door. She saw the balloons rebelling to be let go in the wind that consumed their airy frames.
She quickly made her way to the other side where the boy stood, his back to the stick holding his balloons.
Before Amit realised what she was doing, Madhavi spotted the parent thread wrapped around the stick, which the rest of the balloons were attached to. It was looped several times around the pole, and tied in a tight strong knot.
Amit was still looking at her, unable to comprehend. He often wished, in later years, that he had been quicker to see what Madhavi intended to do.
She pulled out a nail-cutter from her bag, and positioned it near the knot of the looped twine. The boy was still staring out of the train, the wind flaring into his face.
Amit suddenly understood, and he cried out, “Madhavi, no!” Madhavi tossed her head back, smirked wickedly at Amit and snipped the twine. The twine unrolled itself, and one by one, the balloons freed themselves into the wind. Madhavi cheered and let out a whoop of delight.
Startled by the sound, the boy turned around, and his face fell as he saw his wares flying away.
For an instant his and Madhavi’s eyes met. For the rest of her life, she often thought about that one instant in time.
The boy looked at his balloons spiralling out towards the sky, and his face quivered as he muttered in a hoarse whisper, “No… That’s my money…”
Madhavi was still staring at the boy when he flung himself out to grab the few remaining balloons before they got away. Amit rushed forward, throwing out his arms in a futile attempt to grab the boy. Madhavi watched as the boy flailed his bony arms at the balloons; gravity then grabbing hold of him as he fell onto the rusty tracks of the parallel train track. His head hit the sharp edge of the track; there was a popping sound as his limbs hit the gritty stones and boards that lined the tracks. Blood spewed out of his head and a gruesome crimson pool quickly accumulated around his head.
Amit grabbed a shuddering Madhavi in a tight bear hug, even as her eyes followed the last purple balloon that swirled up in the air, right above the motionless body of the boy.
Aby Sam Thomas is a writer and journalist currently based out of Dubai. Talk to him on Twitter @thisisaby.