Kartik watched the hanging lamp swing ominously to and fro, dragging the light languorously across the floor of the room. The walls were bare, but when the lamp obliged and swung the right way he could see dust-framed outlines of posters that had once been displayed. Night time had seeped in through the drawn blinds of the solitary window, and was now breathing heavily down Kartik’s neck. Suddenly he felt more imprisoned than ever.

Beads of sweat began to form on his forehead as his mind began to trudge its dreary feet backwards in time. No, he didn’t need to remember. He sat up on the bed they had provided; it was the only furniture in the room. He stared at the light bulb fixed within the ceiling lamp, letting the light bore holes into his brain. He didn’t need to remind himself of the events that had led to his present situation. He felt older than his twenty years. His armpits were damp with tepid nostalgia.

Kartik blinked, not giving his eyeballs time to adjust to the darkness. He gingerly got up and stretched his arms, prodding the dark as if to test its limits. He didn’t want to be fooled by its familiarity. His mouth was dry, and he licked his lips with a sudden purpose. He had tasted freedom, and inexplicably, he knew what to do. He needed to get out of this room.

His footsteps creaked on the aching floorboards. The room seemed much older than the house itself, perhaps because of the many feelings it had held hostage. He remembered the last time he was in the room: the air had smelled of the jasmine in his mother’s hair mixed in with the smell of the puddhina chutney. The freshness of the mint had cut through the tangible resistance the room was buoyant with. The irony made him smile to himself in the ill-lit room: he hadn’t been able to leave then, and now he couldn’t wait to escape. He missed the smell of puddhina.

The door led into a black hallway. He cautiously stepped forward, unsure of his own memory. He had not seen this hallway for three years. Muscle memory seemed to remember for him, however, and his arm reached out to touch familiar brick walls. He traced the bricks as he walked towards what he knew would be his release, trailing his fingers along years of suppressed emotions. His eyes had now refocused completely, and in his mind’s eye he watched as he melted away prison bars and stepped past them into what had once been his happiest place in the aging house, wrinkled with regrets. His mouth was already watering in anticipation.

He heard the familiar buzz of his favourite life-force. His hips bumped into an unfamiliar wooden block. Quickly identifying it as a table, he automatically turned to the right and stumbled further into the room. A warm glow was emanating from a propitious corner. Finally. He lurched towards the metal box, and opened its door greedily. The cold air hit him in a wave of relief, and the sudden light shone into the darkness. The room was illuminated with the chanting cries of liberation.

Kartik’s eyes feasted on the contents of the refrigerator. He saw his favourite puddhina chutney tucked away obediently in a Tupperware box. He saw an abandoned cake sitting sadly next to a plastic packet full of mangoes. Tomatoes spilled out of one tray, while slices of cheese and spreads occupied the other tray. He sniffed curiously at a bowl, and immediately identified it as leftover butter chicken. He saw a chocolate wrapper hiding behind a jar of curds, and a bottle of pickle stood disdainfully beside it. The fridge looked exactly like how he remembered it. Home had not changed: he had.

He stepped back and placed a hand on his belly, closing his eyes to paradise. He swallowed to keep the bile from rising to his throat, pushing it further back than the eating disorder he had stuffed into his intestines. He would not sink back into binging. He closed the fridge door, and turned away. He would dictate his own terms, prisoner or not.

  • Vandana Menon
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