This story was published in print and online on the *82 Review 5.4. And this earned me my first Pushcart nomination for 2017:
My ten-year-old brother Abhi, and I, his elder by four years, are seated at our creaky four-seat dining table outside our dank, windowless kitchen. We are just back from school, ready to eat lunch that Mummy cooked in the morning, before leaving for work.
The revolving ceiling fan above our heads makes a lot of noise but helps little in the May afternoon heat of Saharanpur, India.
We stare unblinkingly at Rahul, our distant cousin, who is standing beside us and scarfing down rotis, one by one, pulled from our chipped, time-worn Milton casserole. Rahul is twelve years old, and a lunch marathoner, I soon discover.
Rahul picks up one roti, smears a spoonful of ghee on it, and sprinkles it with salt and it’s gone.
Next roti. Spreads some mango pickle on it from the jar on the table and it disappears almost magically before our eyes can follow its journey from Rahul’s fingers to his mouth.
The third one, he loads with the stir-fry okra, which is one of my favorite vegetables. Rolls and shoves.
Rahul’s broomstick thin body houses the appetite of a whale. His jaw or his tongue doesn’t seem to move at all. The bulge of the rotis glides smoothly from his mouth, down through his esophagus. He is also uncouth. He doesn’t even bother to fetch a plate, just eats straight off of the pot.
He picks a fourth….
Abhi’s eyes are now visibly glowering. I fix my gaze on him, narrowing it in a tacit warning just keep shut.
Finally, Rahul burps, gulps down a glass of water and walks to the bathroom to wash his hands. He leaves his gleaming Timex watch on the table, which Abhi and I eye, wistfully.
The level of rotis in the casserole is now below my line of vision. I don’t know how many Mummy cooked today and how many are left.
Abhi pounces to my ear, runs his finger over the stack of rotis and whispers audibly, “Didi, he ate six. I counted. Now there are only four left.”
I quietly serve two rotis and okra for Abhi in a plate and the same for myself. He holds his stomach, crinkles his eyes and makes a begging face. So, I give him his usual three.
“Rahul will come home with you after school. Help him with his math homework. Let him eat first. Remember your manners.” Mummy said in a multi-fold instruction that morning.
I sulked and gulped. I wanted to say, firstly, “Why does Rahul need help with seventh-grade homework? I am two grades ahead of him. I have two times more homework, and I don’t need help.”
Secondly, “Why can’t Aunty, Rahul’s mother, arrange a tutor for him instead of throwing money at priests for special prayers for his good exam results?”
I repressed my urge to speak because that would mean Abhi and I being late for school and writing 100 times, “I will not be late again,” under the nose of our stern principal.
I help Rahul with simple math problems between doing my own homework and stymieing my belly growls. Probably, Rahul can’t think straight on an overstuffed belly. He isn’t a bad kid but his dim wit and bright appetite are definitely annoying.
Abhi is bent on the floor, trying to fix his broken toy car, making loud “Vroom” noises, like that would whirr the crippled car into action. That boy won’t touch his homework until Mummy asks him to.
Suddenly, Abhi springs up and says, “Rahul bhaiyya! Math problem—there are ten rotis in a box. A gobbler comes and eats six. How many are left for others?”
“Umm, four?” Rahul counts on his fingers, nonchalantly, and continues sharpening his pencil.
I giggle but pretend to cough.
Tonight I will tell Mummy that Abhi and I will go to Rahul’s house the next time he needs help.