Excerpt from Once Upon a Curfew
21 May 2019
Excerpted from Once Upon a Curfew by Srishti Chaudhary, published by Penguin Random House’
A couple of days later, the clouds were beginning to clear up and the sun was already high in the sky. The usual heat descended on the city. At home, Indu wandered around the house, lounging on the sofa her mother loved so much, which she had had made especially after seeing something similar at Shashi uncle’s house. Indu had a view of the kitchen from her seat and looked on as vegetables were chopped for the dinner tonight with Amita didi and Govind bhai.
That night, the topic of Number 7 came up when they were all seated at the table.
“Your father and I have come to a conclusion about it,” Govind bhai said to Amita and Indu, clearing his throat, as everyone turned to look at him. In his usual formal manner, he put his spoon on the table and took a swig of water before speaking.
“You know, this is an opportune time in the industry. We have to strike the iron now, and as your father says, a good decision at the right time can make a huge difference,” he said, smiling around the table.
Indu’s father shook his head, laughing. “Govind, you can make such a show of things.”
Indu stared at her father without blinking. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, we’ve decided that Govind will set up an office there.” Govind bhai nodded in agreement, turning to Amita. Crunching on a piece of carrot, he said, “There has never been more demand for nails and now we really need a sales office. Number 7 is in the centre of the city, it’s big and it will be perfect.”
Remembering her mother’s advice, Amita said, “But it’s a private flat, in a private building.”
“These things can always be sorted out,” her father said, waving a hand in dismissal.
Indu looked quickly at her parents. Her mother was staring at her husband with raised eyebrows. So, he hadn’t discussed it with her mother either, otherwise he would have known how she felt about the matter.
“No,” Indu said, and everyone turned towards her. Govind bhai looked surprised that she had uttered such a loud and clear no. Indu’s heart began thumping as she was on the verge of saying what had been going on in her head for the past few days. Ever since her mother had taken her and her sister to Number 7, she could not get the image of that flat out of her head. She couldn’t stop imagining what it could be. When she had walked around college the other day, it had started making even more sense.
“What do you mean, Indu?” her father asked.
Indu stared at him and then at Amita, who blinked back at her.
“I need that flat,” Indu said.
Her mother stared at her quizzically. “What in the world for?”
Indu made her face more resolute.
“I’ve been thinking of doing something,” she said, ignoring the ire on Govind bhai’s face. “I mean, Rajat will be away for two years. I want to make something of my time till then.”
“How about a finishing school?” Govind bhai suggested, and Indu threw him a look so dirty that her mother had to clear her throat loudly so she could divert her attention. “What are you talking about, Indu?”
Indu told her father, “I want to set up a library there.”
Govind bhai put his glass down noisily. Amita turned to her sister. “A library?”
“Like, with books?” Govind asked Indu.
“Yes, Govind bhai, that is the main feature of a library,” Indu said, trying to hide her testiness in her laugh.
“But why?” her father asked her.
“It’s something that I really want to do,” she said. “It will be a private library. I’ve been thinking about it, but I didn’t know how to do it until today. Number 7 is perfect. It’s empty, spacious, has the perfect energy, and all those books! I can put them to good use.”
“Indu, but, we have already decided,” Govind bhai said, looking at her father. “We need it for an office. I am sure we can find another place for your, uh, library.”
Indu gave him a cold stare, avoiding looking at her sister. “Daddy, is it set in stone? It’s something that I want to do, and all those books are there already. I have an equal right to be given the chance.”
Her father pushed his plate away, scratching his head. “I mean, of course, we didn’t know that you wanted to do something with it, but Indu, it’s too valuable a place. I don’t know what you mean by a library...”
“What, is a library not a valuable place?” Indu asked. “Come on, daddy, it’ll be my own project. I want to make it a library for girls.”
Govind bhai sputtered as he drank water.
“Girls?” he asked her, trying not to laugh. “What kind of girls? Like, poor, I mean, underprivileged girls? Like a charity project, you mean?”
Indu looked thunderously at her sister, who murmured to her husband not to be so crude, and he held up his hands.
“We will talk about this later,” Indu’s mother said forcefully. “Who wants ice cream, now? I found a very good brand. They import it directly from Switzerland.”
Indu gave her mother a sullen look as Amita nodded eagerly.
“Indu madame, hold dum laga ke – yes, like this!”
She stood surrounded by professional lights and reflectors, being ordered around by a photographer whom she obeyed only reluctantly. The cheap material of the salwar-kameez made her sweat more than usual, but more than anything else, the ribbons in her hair increased her irritation by the minute. She had hated tying her hair with ribbons all throughout school, and this ad campaign was making her revisit that feeling.
To be fair, it had come at an opportune time: Shashi uncle had suggested her name for the spokesperson of the “Beti hee jaan hai, Beti hee shaan hai” campaign, and when Lata had heard that it was about education for girls, she had encouraged Indu to go for it.
“It will give you greater credibility if you are already speaking for the education of girls, for the library.”
It was the perfect arrangement. The daughter of one of the Chief Advocates of the Cabinet, whose name was incidentally also Indira, setting up a library for girls, a champion for the cause of education for girls under the Prime Minister’s special campaign, who understood the injustices felt by women...except for the hideous, red hair ribbons.
“Smile, please, Indu madame, but not too much! You have to look happy, but also not too happy. You have the burden of making your family proud!”
The photographer took pictures from various angles of Indu holding a set of books in her arms, and when he was finally done, she asked him what processing he would do on the pictures.
“I’m an expert, don’t you worry, madame,” he replied smugly, packing his camera into the bag with care.
“I hope you are,” Indu said to him with a dangerous smile. “If I don’t come out looking good, you, sadly, won’t have many chances to make your family proud.”
He had nodded with a nervous gulp as Indu packed up and left for home.
(Read interview: Rewinding to the '70s).