When Mr. Lal bought this apartment in a decent neighborhood in the heart of Mumbai, he compromised on space. If you are not a millionaire, you live on the outskirts of the city, and scramble every morning to get to work on time, just like those several thousand scrambling and jostling folks who cram already teeming public transport vehicles; or drive in your own car, whose overwhelmed air-conditioning reels and splutters in the severe heat as you lug the car for hours through congested traffic. Otherwise, you rent a place, constantly living in fear of being evacuated by your swaggering landlord who rarely works up a sweat over leaky roofs and doddering windows. Or do what Mr. Lal did, forgo square-footage and live in your own place, inside the city.
Their apartment was on the top floor of a three-storied building. Divided unequally among four apartment blocks, each floor had a long one-window hallway at the head of a flight of stairs. The steps, with untidily tiled treads, were covered in stagnating layers of dust. The Lals lived at the far end of the hallway. Another staircase going upstairs led to a landing that curved to the right and segued into a smaller five-step, railing-less stairway that ran into an old wooden door. It opened into a yawning, heavily tarred terrace. This door was hardly used and remained locked throughout the year, except on August 15 during Independence day celebrations when it was unlocked to let an eager stream of candy-seeking children into the terrace. It was therefore uncomplicated to convert the last five steps and part of the landing into Sheel’s stair house. He spent a lot of time in his haunt, which was quiet, hidden, and more than roomy for an eleven-year old boy.
Neatly parked at the angle between the wooden door and topmost step were miniature toy cars that Bala uncle had brought from America; yellow, green and orange with shiny black wheels. A rectangular piece of cardboard, its corners disfigured, with ‘Don’t Take’ written on it in fading black ink, balanced near the wall. More jolts of color came from a few stacks of paper lying scrambled as if disturbed by a gentle wisp of wind. They had sloshes of paint on them. Lobster Red seemed like Sheel’s favorite color; his mother was painted Lobster Red, his father’s briefcase, and his dog; even his orange sun rose from behind Lobster Red mountains. The side of the landing towards the steps was a little messy; next to a plastic box containing tiny bottles of paint were scattered pieces of pink crayons and white chalk, and a couple of old tennis balls. Here, Sheel spoke in dramatic soliloquies with a fake accent, mimicking some of the Australian cricket commentators; he played catch by bouncing the balls off the walls or the wooden door, and made cheering crowd noises with his mouth. Sometimes, Tanvi would walk up the stairs and violate his privacy when she didn’t get an answer to her urgent calls to come inside the house, only to find him asleep on the landing. Mr. Lal would often have to carry him to his bed.
It was early June; summer holidays were drawing to an end. In one hand, Sheel was carrying an oil painting kit that someone had gifted him on his birthday, and a fresh supply of paper in another, as he walked up to his stair house. Lying strewn around were some of his old paintings, and spatters of powder from his chalk pieces crushed under someone’s feet. He saw an elderly, gray-haired lady sitting on the highest step with her eyes closed and her back resting against the door. Two jute shopping bags lay next to her bare feet. The skin on her toes was dry and hardened, her toenails black and wasted. Sheel noticed that his toy cars were out of place and the cardboard sign moved. Her breaths were long and hard, and her fingers twitched irregularly. The painting kit slipped from Sheel’s hand and wheeled loudly down the stairs. The woman jerked her eyes open and ejected from her seat in one motion. Startled into leaving his kit behind, Sheel bolted towards the hallway and into his house, closing the door behind him.