Masks and Baloons

Photograph – Aritra Sanyal

Back then, Baba sold balloons; Ma worked as a cook in two houses. And one roadside rice stall where she peeled loads of onions and cried a lot.
I used to go with Baba, making rounds in the neighborhoods. If business was slow, we wandered from street to street, schools, parks, carrying our fares. He let me pump the balloons. Hold the strings tight.
Little boys and girls came to buy balloons with their fathers, mothers and maids. I loved looking at their beaming faces, shiny shoes. My slippers with holes stayed hidden under a wad of unblown balloons.
Ma never took me to the houses she worked where the televisions blared nonstop, the electric heaters clicked and buzzed, and sitting in a cage in the veranda, two parakeets chirped every now and then.
At night, Ma talked about her dreams, her eyes sparkled with hope. She wanted me to go to a school, college and one day become a banker or a lawyer like the sahibs in those houses. I’d buy a house then; Ma would hire a maid.
Chewing paan[i], Ma would supervise the maid’s work. Scold her for using too much oil or onions: Do you spend the same amount in your house? Are you going to use one kg in one curry?
Ma’s stories made Baba burst into laughter. I chuckled while counting coins and putting them in a piggy bank, made of clay. I had yet to decide what to buy—books or balloons.
Sometimes it feels as if he is still here, selling balloons and laughing at Ma’s stories. Ma no longer tells stories though. She works three houses now. She left the rice-stall after the manager told her something. That night, she broke down into tears. I wondered how many onions she must have peeled!
I sell masks and balloons nowadays. The masks look scary, and I don’t like them, but they bring good money. The balloons make me sad. I feel like loosening my grip. Letting the green, red and yellow balloons soar high into the gray, overcast sky.

[i] Betel Leaf