Manav - Un-Freeze ‘Freeze!’ My cousin Uma would say. I always obliged and stood like a statue in whatever position I was in at that moment. She would then try to torture my motionless, defenseless body. She tickled me, messed up my hair, drew mustache on my face, and on many occasions even pulled my pajamas down. As I endured her torment, she giggled and laughed. ‘Un-freeze!’ She shouted, signaling that I was no longer her prisoner. She ran outside anticipating revenge. I chased her in the front lawn, around the mango tree where we had curved our names, and in the backyard. I caught her and tickled her until she begged me to stop. And then we lay on the grass holding hands, breathless, looking at the pristine blue sky. It was a game she picked up at school, and she played this game only with me, like every other game and toys we shared and played together. My toy cars and trucks and I, as the chauffeur, were always at the service of her Barbie Doll, Sicilia. As a mark of appreciation my G.I.Joes were always cordially invited to Sicilia’s weddings, which took place quite often. We spend numerous afternoons drinking imaginary tea from her miniature china, with Sicilia and J.I.Joes for company. On one such occasion Dev saw us. Dev, my neighbour and classmate, quickly spread words of my fling with dolls in school, and I soon earned the nickname “Barbie-boy” in my fifth grade class. They followed me everywhere chanting my nickname. I fought them to prove that I was not a sissy, and came home with bruises and cuts, angry. Uma would come running into my room, flashed a smile and say, “Come, Sicilia is having a party.” I always obliged. I had never said no to her since the day I met her, the day Dad brought her home a year before. ‘Uma will be staying with us for a few days,’ Dad had solemnly announced on a cold November night. She stood on the doorway with big frightened eyes. Among her curly hair I could see a Band-Aid just above her forehead, and a few more on her arms and legs. I remember wanting to remove the Band-Aids, as I always do when Mom applied them on my injuries. Dad didn’t tell me or her that there had been a terrible accident a day ago involving all of Uma’s family members in a car crash, and that she was the lone survivor. I didn’t protest when they let her sleep on my bed forcing me out of my room that night, or the next day when Dad asked me to let her play with Mr. Teddy Bear. I had never said no to her. She seemed so fragile, one ‘no’ and I was sure she would break into pieces. ‘Where is my mommy?’ She asked, and those were the only words she spoke for several days. Her stay at our house extended from days to weeks, then months, and slowly the questions of her mommy’s whereabouts become lesser and faint. And when she did ask it was no longer a question, but just a half-wish. She stopped asking a few months later, but whenever Mom raised her voice to us kids, I could see her asking the question silently in her deep black eyes. ### High School came and my G.I.Joes and her Barbie Dolls were packed in cartoon boxes and forgotten. I bought a guitar and she told me I played well. We sang every evening in the balcony until Mom called us in for dinner. I gave up football practice to sing tuneless imitations of famous songs with her. She laughed and it made me happy. She cradled the guitar on her lap, my hands on her soft hands, pressing the strings, moving up and down in sync, playing a tune. I still remember her jasmine scented hair and the sparkle in her eyes. Our rendezvous on the balcony was an everyday affair until she started going out afterschool. One day she had to visit the library, some days later her girlfriend needed her, and then there were the visits to malls to buy something. Those were all excuses I knew. We never sung together again; other boys became her playmates, her games, her songs. She flirted inside the school bus, at the canteen, and inside the class. She no longer sat with me in the bus or in the class. Most of my friends had a story to tell about their conquests of her. Many times I saw senior boys dropping her off at some distance away from my parents’ view. Our duets soon became solos sung in her wait. That we lived under the same roof became the only assurance that she could be mine. That she came knocking at my room to get her homework done became my only hope. That she still needs me. Uma always asked me to ask Mom for permission to go out at night. ‘So, you two are going together?’ ‘Yes .’ ‘Okay. Be sure to be back by ten.’ We would go out together from the house and a little further down the block Uma would start changing into another outfit inside the car. She painted her lips, got rid of her ponytail, and wore her hair down. She looked like a college girl and she was beautiful. ‘I have this girl thing at Lisa’s. You can drop me there.’ She applied mascara on her eyes. ‘And I’m gonna be late tonight.’ She just assumed that I would hang out with some of my friends, but I preferred to sit in the park, thinking what Uma would be doing, with other boys. I would sit for hours alone and go back home. ‘Are you back?’ Mom would shout from her room. ‘Yes.’ ‘Uma too?’ ‘Yes, Uma too,’ I would lie. I would then go to Uma’s room and make sure that the window was open. I lay on my bed sleepless until I heard her climb up the latch and through the window in the next room. It was always the same routine. One night she climbed up to my window instead and knocked. She gestured at me to come out. We sat leaning our backs on the garage door, her head resting on my shoulder. She smelt of alcohol and perfume, a bitter-sweet concoction of a lost little girl. She told me about the wild night she had had, and the boys she met at the party. Anger built inside me and I tried to get up freeing my arms from her hands. ‘Freeze!’ she said and kissed me. Mom got a call from the school. I was also there in the principal’s office. Mom and Uma sat opposite a visibly furious Mr. D’Souza. ‘Uma, do you have anything to say?’ ‘No.’ ‘So, do you admit these illegal drugs are yours?’ Uma nodded matter-of-factly. ‘Yes or No?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘In that case we have to expel you from the school.’ ‘Please Mr. D’Souza, please reconsider. She will never do this again.’ Mom was in tears. ‘I am sorry, but we can’t go against the rule. We can’t tolerate such a blatant indiscipline in my school. You have to understand.’ We drove home silently. Mom’s face was red with shame, rage and frustration. Uma looked out of the window unconcern. I resisted the urge to hold her hands as we sat at the opposite ends of the backseat. It took forever to reach home. Inside the house Mom poured herself a glass of water and made Uma sit on the couch. ‘What have I done to deserve this, huh? Why?’ Mom asked in exasperation. Uma glued her eyes at the centerpiece on the table. Her silence made Mom calm down a little. ‘Okay. What happened happened. We will find a new school. But you have to promise—‘ ‘Don’t try to be my mom. You are not my mom!’ Uma ran into her room and slammed the door. We could hear her weeping for the first time. She hadn’t cried when she found out what had happened to her family and she hadn’t cried when my dad died. ### On her eighteenth birthday, I bought a bottle of wine and cooked dinner. I set up a table in the balcony and placed an extra chair to sit the guitar. I hummed songs that we had sung together as I cooked her favourite chicken curry. There was hope in the air to revive our songs and write our own verse. But she didn’t come home that night, or the next. I lay at night expecting her to burst in through the door. Sometimes I heard footsteps in her room, but when I checked the room was dark and empty. I rarely went out of my room for several days. Mom came in with a tray of food. She told me to eat something and told me that it was best for Uma and us to let her go. I screamed at her for not caring enough for Uma even though I knew it wasn’t true. Uma never came back again. I was adjusting the guitar strings when Uma finally called, a few weeks after her disappearance. She told me she was alright. Now that she was of legal age she could use the bank account my dad had opened in her name with her parents’ money. She assured me she had some friends who were helping her. She asked if we had contacted the police. We decided to wait a few weeks more before we go to the police. She sounded distant and paused frequently as if she had nothing else to say. ‘How are you?’ She asked eventually. ‘Mom is really worried. You should come and meet her once,’ I told her. ‘Don’t worry about me.’ ‘Can you give me a number where I-we can reach you?’ I mustered up the courage to ask. I could hear her taking deep breaths. She didn’t speak for a long time. ‘I can’t give you my number,’ she said, and the line went dead. I couldn’t bear it anymore. I tore up the strings and broke the guitar into pieces. I swore to myself to forget her, but the phone rang again and I ran in desperate hope that it was Uma. I was sure she was calling me back to give her number. It was just Mom telling me she would be late. Today, two months after her phone call, another call came from the coroner’s office to inform us about Ms. Uma Dasgupta, who was found death in an alley in South Delhi. She was raped and stabbed multiple times. They also found a small pouch of crack in her handbag along with a package addressed to me. Inside the package was a book of guitar chords of popular songs. I sit beside her and memories flood my thoughts, memories of her life, our lives, which now lay frozen in the coroner’s table. I hold her hand and it is cold. She is now the motionless, defenseless statue, tired of torturing me, waiting to bear any punishment. All I manage to whisper in her ears is—“un-freeze”.