[ultimate_heading main_heading=”The Lighted Cigarette by Bhanumati Mishra – Issue.XX : September 2016 ” main_heading_color=”#1e73be” sub_heading_color=”#8224e3″ spacer=”line_with_icon” spacer_position=”bottom” line_style=”dotted” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#1e73be” icon_type=”custom” icon_img=”id^48|url^http://ashvamegh.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Ashvamegh-ICO.jpg|caption^null|alt^Ashvamegh Journal Icon|title^Ashvamegh ICO|description^null” img_width=”48″ main_heading_style=”font-weight:bold;” main_heading_font_size=”desktop:34px;” line_width=”3″ margin_design_tab_text=””]wonderfully woven short story for enjoyable reading…[/ultimate_heading]

The Lighted Cigarette

The lighted cigarette

Introduction to the Author:

BhBhanumati Mishra BHUanumati Mishra teaches English Literature at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. She is a writer, translator, poet, critic and a graphic artist. Her articles, research papers and book reviews have been published in TBR, Cha and Muse India etc. She is also the author of Amitav Ghosh and His Oeuvre. She regularly writes for The Hindu and The Hindustan Times. Her interest lies in Gender Studies, Translation, Dalit Literature, Performance Studies and Human Values.


The August of 1974 held nothing special for Manu to have retained it in her memory. As usual, the Doon valley was lush green after a pounding monsoon. The migratory birds had made their presence felt in the garden. The jacarandas and the bougainvilleas were in full bloom. Papa enjoyed his evening cup of tea in the large lawn of this British-style colonial bungalow in the Cantonment. Ma brought her tea-tray and laid it on the table. Arranging the Marie biscuits in a semi-circle on the porcelain plate she called out to Manu who was playing hop-scotch on the verandah. Manu’s entry into the garden coincided with that of Colonel Narendra Rajput. Naren Uncle as he was called was Papa’s junior by a term in NDA, Khadakvasla and was recently posted to Garhi Cantt. Papa shared a great camaraderie with him. As a confirmed bachelor and a chain smoker his evenings mostly started with tea in Manu’s garden followed by a couple of drinks in the Officers’ Mess where he lived and a quiet dinner in his room. Manu loved the way his fingers deftly held the slender tobacco roll. The ash-trays in the house were mere curios till Naren Uncle gave them the pride of place on the center table. Ma, who was uncomfortable with his constant presence, complained of smoke filling up her lungs and rarely sat beyond the ritual of tea. Naren Uncle however never seemed to mind this. As a great story-teller, he regaled Manu with tales from his postings in the North-east and the Siachen glacier. Manu finished her glass of Horlicks and wiping the cream from her lips, sat all ready to plunge into another adventure story from Naren Uncle. Except that Naren Uncle seemed in no mood to spell his magic that day. There was a strange silence at the tea-table. All Manu remembered of that evening was a sky-blue inland letter fluttering for freedom from under the tea-pot and a thin film in the three untouched tea-cups. The letter addressed to Papa was written in a feminine hand. He tried to explain but Ma wasn’t convinced. Manu remembered Ma’s delicate pink chiffon sari, as if it had taken all it’s color from her cheeks.

It was in the taxi that Manu noticed Ma’s usual coiffeur was not in place. What an odd time to leave for grandpa’s house she thought. From the sides of the huge sunglasses Ma wore, Manu could see her staring straight at the long unwinding road without a blink. Manu’s mind raced to Papa. Where was he? Why did Bahadur come to pick her up at school instead of Papa? It was the geography class and Ms George had drawn a huge earth in the centre of the blackboard. That’s when the ayah came to call Manu to the Principal’s office. The whole class looked at the visibly embarrassed Manu. There was a somber silence at home. All Ma said while changing Manu’s clothes was that there was an emergency. Was Grandpa dead? That’s what most of her friends said when they didn’t come to school for many days? Ma’s absent minded mono-syllables made Manu want to weep. She woke up in the train with her head cushioned in Ma’s lap. The fierce rattling of the train distracted and frightened Manu. Many stations whizzed past but she remembered Manmad. She was thrilled to be able to read it in English – joining Man and Mad – easy unlike other tongue-twisting stations.

Grandpa’s silver Ambassador matched his hair and the cool Bombay sea-breeze refreshed Manu as they drove to Lonavla. With her face against the wind, she squinted to size up the vast expanse of the sea. Huge waves spiraled and slackened against the rocks. Usually when they came here every summer, Ma, Papa and she would stay in Grandpa’s flat in Worli for a week from where Manu could walk up to the edge of the sea and spend hours building her sand castles. Driving all the way to chowpati for bhel-puri or eating boiled peanuts as they watched the sunset at the Gateway of India was how they spent their carefree days. That was what Manu treasured most as she bragged about in school to her friends after every vacation. It was only after spending a week in Bombay that they would leave for grandpa’s quiet farmhouse in Lonavla.

This time, it was different. Grandpa came all the way to Victoria Terminal to receive them. Manu sprang into Grandpa’s arms and held him tightly, burying her face in his bony shoulder till he settled her in the front seat. The whoosh of the wind did not bring any clarity to the conversation that took place between Ma and Grandpa in the backseat. All Manu heard were soft sobs that drowned amidst the car-horns of passing vehicles. She knew, this time, they would stop only in Lonavla and so she stopped asking any questions.

Grandpa had a two storied house with a protruding balcony that was embellished with ornate black glistening wrought-iron grills. The quaint looking house was surrounded by papaya, custard apple and pomegranate trees on three sides. The terrace had a lovely view of the Sahyadri hills and the pleasant morning rays filled the whole house with a golden glow. The front garden was now mostly left unattended like Grandpa’s growing years. Besides Kancha, the cook and Namdeo the driver, the house was owned by two Labradors shakaal and zumba. Ma and Manu occupied the huge bedroom and hall on the first floor. The French doors of the bedroom opened into the fairly wide balcony and lent an elegant touch to the tastefully done room. From the spacious balcony spanning the hall and the bedroom, ran a flight of stairs to the terrace –Manu’s favorite hide-out. Grandpa never came up to the first-floor or the terrace due to arthritis. He was mostly confined to his study where a huge burnt-wood almirah stood adjacent to the built-in book- shelf. On days when Manu got bored watching the rain or playing alone on the terrace, she would quietly slip into grandpa’s study to give company to the comatose Shakal and Zumba sprawled on thick Persian rugs.

Days passed, it was over a month now and Manu started missing Papa and school. She stopped asking about her father. Ma was either busy in the kitchen trying to bake sponge cakes or would sit and knit till it was dark. Dinner was mostly served downstairs and conversations were getting sparse by the day. Occasionally when Manu heard the words ‘letter’ or ‘boarding school’ mentioned, she knew she would be asked to leave the dining table. Climbing the stairs with deliberate reluctance, she could hear Ma getting agitated and Grandpa reasoning with her till both of them left for their respective rooms. Schools in this hill-station took students in the winter and Manu had narrowly missed it. Manu knew a blue-colored inland letter and its contents had brought her school- life in Doon to a halt and on the other hand there was a boarding school somewhere waiting to kick-start her life again. Well into her adult life Manu could never write on blue inland letters or stay in dormitories. Manu longed for many things from her past but amongst them it was only Naren Uncle who made an appearance out of the blue. He was now posted in Ahmednagar and often came to meet them on weekends. Ma wept on seeing him but Manu was thrilled as he narrated story after story. Grandpa enjoyed talking to him over sips of whisky.

Ramdeo sprinkled water on the terrace in the evening and straightened two folding cots. A floral bed sheet was tucked under the spare mattress. On stuffy nights Manu and Ma preferred to sleep on the terrace under a blanket of sparkling stars. Ma looked and sounded better on such days. She told Manu many stories from her own childhood spent in magical Panchgani, her boarding school antics, picnics with friends to the Ajanta Ellora caves and many more till Manu slowly slipped into sleep. It was probably beyond midnight when Manu woke up with heavy droplets of rain on her face. She tried to cover her face with one end of the bed sheet but it had begun to drizzle. She usually snuggled up to Ma who carried her downstairs; while Kancha hurriedly folded the mattress before it got drenched. But today there was no Ma, only the mattress soaking up the rain. The moonless night and the swaying coconut trees of the neighbor’s compound frightened Manu. They looked like the scary ghost from the stories her friends fed her with. She called for Ma a couple of times but when no one came she decided to go down. Stepping carefully on the wet cemented steps, she somehow reached the balcony holding the rails. By now the rain poured in heavy gusts with rumbling thunder and its deafening after-effects. Manu’s hair and frock were wet by the time she reached the French door. It was pitch dark with no bed lamps inside –the electricity was cut off as a precaution. Manu started thumping the glass panes and calling out to Ma. She had no idea how long she stood there crying and frightened. Finally, she put her palms to the sides of her eyes to peer into the glass door. She tried hard to adjust her eyes to the darkness in the room. She searched for Ma’s familiar face but in the flash of a lightening, all she could see was the tip of a lighted cigarette deftly held between two fingers and maybe the smoke choked Ma’s soft voice.