The Familiar Stranger

The smell of the cooking curry or the aroma of the flipping rotis did not affect Shubham’s attention. The constant buzzing of the exhaust fan was disturbing his ears, but the sound did not seem to register in his brain. As he entered the kitchen, his eyes quickly focused on the window in front of the stove through which the less dense air rising up from a pan was seeping out.

“Go get me some potatoes from the store,” his mother announced as she felt his feet walking towards her. She had to turn around to grab his attention.

“It is three days in a row now! This is too much!” Shubham almost screamed out loud. “Why do you need them again?”

“Just go get them from the store. There’s money on top of the fridge.”

Shubham walked back towards the refrigerator with his lips pressing against each other. It was only in the past month that his hand had started reaching the top of the fridge. Though he would usually jump to the top excitedly, today he just stretched his right arm to get the money. He took a grocery bag sitting on a table beside the fridge and started walking towards the front door of the house.

The store around the corner was the perfect place for getting household items.There was no need to go on a weekly visit to the grocery store to stock up fresh vegetables and fruits for the week. Whenever his mother needed anything, she would send Shubham to this store and get whatever was needed at any time of the day. So was the case of several other households in the vicinity.

As the shopkeeper handed over a bag of potatoes, he produced a candy in front of Shubham. Shubham usually got a candy or two with whatever he was buying, but today was different. He rejected the offer at once with a sideways nod, put a twenty rupees note on the counter and started walking back towards home. Today was different.

His friend, his beloved friend had not visited home today. Shubham was so fond of this friend that he would come running after school to be on time in the kitchen. His mother used to flip rotis on the pan around 1.00 pm, exactly when Shubham entered home. One roti and one slice of any fruit depending on the season was all that was needed by this friend.

The routine was set when a year ago, on a warm day a crow came cawing at the kitchen window of the new house that Shubham had moved into. Seeing the heat outside and the torment it would be throwing poor birds into, his mother put a flat bowl of water outside the kitchen window. As she started doing this habitually, within a few days, this place turned into an assured source of water for the crow.

One day, as she was flipping rotis, she saw the crow still cawing despite having finished the water in the small bowl. On realizing it might be hungry, she kept half a roti for the crow on the window’s edge. Shubham was viewing the whole interaction with curious eyes, looking at the crow to decipher if there were any emotions. Even though his mother had a strict no-pet policy at home, she was extremely gentle and caring while feeding this crow.

Shubham was present every day in the kitchen to view the activity with amazement and awe. Soon, the crow too started acknowledging his presence in the kitchen. The crow had now started accepting the odd roti from Shubham’s hands, increasing his circle of friends from Shubham’s mother to one more person.

It was just three weeks ago when Shubham had to stay a bit late in school as his school bus broke down. As a result, he got delayed in reaching home by more than an hour. The disappointment was so intense that he refused to get off the bus when it reached home. It took the bus driver more than five minutes to convince Shubham to step down. As he came out, knowing that the bird must have flown away by now, he gently picked up the gate knob and entered the house in silence. As opposed to the usual days when he would hastily chuck shoes out of his legs in random directions, he quietly sat on the only seat in the verandah and carefully untied the shoelaces. He took sufficient time to take his socks off while staring at the kitchen door from where emerged the faint aroma of Rajmah-Chawal

As he pushed his shoes properly in the shoe rack, he heard a familiar cawing. It was easily distinguishable from others due to its short length and high pitch. The crow activated its vocal chords in short bursts as opposed to the long ones that crows near every garbage can in the city. This crow was a rather terse one. Shubham’s feet didn’t need any other calling as they raced towards the kitchen, slipping on occasion but somehow making sure he did not fall when he reached the kitchen.

The happiness that day on his face confirmed that this crow was a true friend. Not that they had any common interests or things to talk about, but a relationship of trust for each other and a longing to see each other every day at the same time had emerged.

Shubham’s mother served him lunch once the crow flew away. The smile on his face had already bought one on hers as well. She decided to treat the young boy with leftover sweets from last night to celebrate. None of them talked with the mute bird. The mother was happy that they were helping it survive. Especially in this scorching sun, there was not much the birds could do on their own.

“Mumma, can we make a nest for the crow?”

“Haven’t you heard?”

“About what?”

“That crows build nests that only get stolen by cuckoos.”

“What?”

“Yeah, crows do all the hard work and cuckoos use those nests. So, if we are building one, our little friend will be using it rarely.”

“Oh, okay. But if no cuckoo sees the nest, there is no question of it using the nest, right?”

The mother nodded, seeing Shubham had already convinced himself about the work. Might as well let the boy learn about nests and how birds build them, she thought and let him.

“But promise me you won’t make the house dirty. Otherwise, I will shred the nest to pieces. Okay?”

Shubham started working diligently. Every day, once he came from school and was done seeing his friend, he would start on gathering twigs. In a village or a town where towns were plentiful, finding twigs was not a problem, but in the concrete jungle that he found himself in, it was extremely difficult. He had to roam around for three days before he had a sizeable number of twigs.

One-by-one, as he started assembling the twigs and making a structure out of them, he kept telling his friend about the new house tailor-made for the crow’s comfort. This house would never be washed out by rains, no audacious cuckoo would dare to come close it, no sun would be able to destroy it as it would be under the ceiling of the verandah. The spot was perfect for making a nest.

It was three weeks since he started when he peeped out of the kitchen window as usual but did not find his friend. He waited for almost an hour, but the crow did not come. He walked out of the house to view if the crow was nearby, but seeing no activity, he was back with a tear slipping out of his right eye. His mother was worried for the crow as well, but age had reduced the display of emotions that came with such feelings.

The nest was ready to live in, but the resident was nowhere to be found. Shubham came back from the grocery story with a bag of potatoes and had a disheartened lunch, so much so that he didn’t realize there was no salt in the Potato Curry today. Perhaps his mother was also affected.

Something needed to be done. If the crow was not able to come here, it was time for Shubham to step out of his home and find it. Maybe the crow was waiting for him. The summer sun was at its peak when Shubham left his house and refused to subside even after an hour since he started walking.

Thirst started making him gulp his saliva while his face was dripping with sweat as he kept walking with his slippers dragging on the road. His calf muscles had started to pain as a result of the intense walking and the lack of water in his body. “Maybe it is sick and couldn’t come today, it’ll definitely come tomorrow,” he uttered and started walking back.

But when he was walking back towards home, he saw a large flock of crows gathered on the left side of the road near an electricity pole. His first reaction was to not heed them, thinking they must be after the odd rat they had hunted. But on getting closer, he found out that they had gathered to mourn the death of one of them. Their cacophonous cawing warranted his thought. Shubham’s heart skipped a beat.

He neared the area where the crows were, all of them looking exactly similar to each other. He couldn’t recognize any of their cawing – all of them different from the familiar short bursts he had heard over the past year. His eyes had already widened and his breathing intensified. His friend had most likely decided to leave him to go on a journey alone. Shubham stood shocked for some time but then started on his journey back home, convincing himself of the reality and to prepared to announce it to his worried mother.

His feet were almost dragging themselves when he reached home with tears already slipping down his cheek. He told his mother of the crow’s death to which she asked the logical question – “How did it die?”

Though it was unclear to Shubham, his mother realized the answer when she heard where the crows had gathered. Among the many other difficulties created for birds around the city, electrical wiring was one of the most common causes of bird deaths. Normally, when one walked by the road, several birds would have perched on these wires without realizing that all it took was completing the connection with the ground for them to be dead.

“I think…” Shubham uttered.

“It is one of the cables that go overhead, most probably. But are you sure it was our friend?”

“Yeah, none of the others had the same cawing as our friend.”

Shubham’s mother sat down at the dining table for a long time. Her expressionless face made it tough to comprehend the feelings going through her mind. Her eyes scanned each and every wall and intermittently went back to the kitchen window, but they didn’t get any feedback from anywhere. Her face had turned unusually pale. Though she had seen several people die in her lifetime, the grief this time was different. This friend expected only the bits of roti and fruits from her without complaining about anything.

She didn’t bother to go towards the kitchen though there were a lot of utensils lying in the washbasin, neither did she bother to heed the phone which was ringing in the bedroom. Shubham finally realized that she had similar feelings as his. He placed his left hand on her shoulder as she put her hand over his. Though the two tried to console each other, they were sure that an irreparable dent had been made to their hearts. Would anyone else be able to reduce the pain caused by this dent? No one could, they knew.

Shubham sat in front of the nest proudly hanging in the verandah, waiting for its first resident. While Shubham and his mother had helped the bird survive for this long, their efforts were not enough.

A few days later, he saw a cuckoo occupy the nest. Although he thought the nest was placed to not be discoverable to other birds, the cuckoo had discovered it nevertheless.

5 thoughts on “The Familiar Stranger

  1. Fantastic story!
    You’ve captured the emotions nicely. It is amazing how we tend to bond with fellow beings. Most of it is drawn from real life experience I presume 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very nice story . Whenever I read your story, all characters and complete picture runs like movie . I agree with Milind , even this time I feel, Shubham resembles with you. Keep writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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