Rangan never understood the fascination of his younger son with rubber bands. He was sitting on a bench in the railway station. It doesn’t matter which railway station or waiting for which train, he was just in a railway station looking at the empty rails and the cleaners sweeping the railway station before the next train and eager passengers arrive at the station. The afternoon sun was blazing, leaving the iron benches too hot to sit. But it didn’t matter to him. Something inside him was boiling more than the cement platform and the steel bench. “How could they do this to me?” He kept asking himself. His train is late in the evening. He didn’t have any money to walk around or catch a movie. He resigned to the fact that he was about to watch the trains coming and going. He saw the passenger train on the platform. There were very few passengers on the train. It was waiting for a connecting train to come and pick up. There was discrimination between the big express and smaller trains like that. He couldn’t expect much for himself he thought.
“I knew I would find you here” he turned to see his nephew Varadhu standing. He was dripping in sweat. “Everybody is searching for you,” he said as he sat next to him. “Why, Have you guys ran out of people to insult,” Rangan asked. “You know how it is in the wedding halls. Everybody is busy with something. Of course, I am not justifying what they did. But don’t you think you overreacted a bit?” Varadhu asked.
“Why are you here now?” Rangan asked.
“Of course I wanted to see how you are doing. You are my favorite uncle. How much ever you refuse, I am your favorite nephew. Nothing will change that.”
“There will be a lot of work in the hall. You go. I will get on the train and leave when it is time.”
“Your train is at 7.45 in the evening. It is hardly just one in the afternoon now. Are you planning to sit here till that?”
“What else could I do?”
“Come with me. Most of the people will leave after lunch. We will have some privacy there.”
“My brother will be there. All my sisters, including your mother, will sit around him and have fun. I am a nobody now. Why would anyone want to talk to me? I am okay to be here.”
“Then I will stay with you for a while.”
“Why are you so stubborn?”
“I told you. You are my favorite uncle. I got this from you”
Rangan smiled. He knew what Varadhu said was true. He was Rangan’s favorite. That is why he is the only one who knew where to find him. Thirty years back when he was a very little kid, his mother, Rangan’s sister lived with them. Her husband has gone to Dubai on a contract job. He was able to send money sometimes and sometimes he couldn’t. Rangan made sure the kids do not feel the brunt of poverty. Not only Varadhu’s mom. Almost all his three sisters were dependant on him in one way or other and the nephews knew Rangan as the fun uncle. He had an elder brother, Sundaresan. While Rangan stayed in the native to be with his sisters and parents, Sundaresan moved to Mumbai on the job. His outlook towards life changed as soon as he reached the metropolis. He knew what he had to do to take his family further. Work hard, save money, buy a plot of land and build a house. There was nothing allocated for any other things in their home budget. Once Rangan went to Mumbai with his parents, wife, and kids to visit Sundaresan.
“How is the coffee?” Sundaresan asked as Rangan sat at the dining table smelling the fresh aroma of morning coffee. “It is awesome,” Rangan said. “Do you know the same cup of coffee is more than 12 Rs outside,” Sundaresan said and started to swallow his cup of coffee in hurry. “I have to catch the train. It is crazy around here. You will not understand.” He said as he bid goodbye to his wife. Sundaresan didn’t volunteer to take them anywhere fun or outside. He hadn’t even invested in extra pillows or bedspreads for guests. It was simply not in the budget. Sundaresan thought Rangan would understand. But it was an insult. Rangan moved his family to a hotel and they did all the sightseeing from there. Since then whenever Sundaresan came to the native he stayed in a hotel.
A similar thing happened to his nieces and nephews when they grew up, finished their studies, and went in search of a job in Mumbai. Sundaresan would outright say there is no space in the house or his wife would make the kids do all the housework before they could get their hand on a single morsel of rice. Rangan would feel so bad.
The kids grew up and they had started to figure out their lives. Rangan had two boys but he was past his prime. He had spent most of his prime and salaries on his nephews and nieces. The hard reality caught up that he was not as good as before. The family fell into bad times. His sisters had moved on with their lives as their kids got settled in various countries. Rangan couldn’t accept it. He wasn’t called for opinions like before. Sundaresan had almost retired and reached out to his sisters. Their lifestyle was the same now and slowly the sisters stopped visiting Rangan.
“Your mother and you aunts forgot how they got treated when they went to Mumbai. Now they make calls at least twice a week to Mumbai. Me, I should feel happier if I get a card on my birthday” he said to Varadhu. Varadhu nodded thoughtfully.
“What are the kids doing?” He asked.
“The elder one is pretty normal. He is not a top scorer in school but he understands the concept. He has his own set of friends, ambitions, and playtime. The younger one is the weird one.”
“He mostly keeps to himself. He wouldn’t come and disturb me as soon as I enter the house. He won’t answer unless the question is directed to him. Sometimes I feel like he lives in an imaginary world.”
“Have you taken him to a doctor yet?” Varadhu sounded concerned.
“That thought crossed my mind. But sometimes kids are like that. They like their own company. If he is happy in his world, should I disturb that and make him miserable.”
“What about studies?”
“Oh, he is good. He has a schedule and follows it religiously. I think he will not be as foolish as me when he grows up.”
“You did what needs to be done. There is nothing to be foolish there.” Varadhu said. His voice trailed as he finished the sentence. “I was not able to get leave for this wedding even. I just came down to see you all. I have to log in to work after eight. I have booked a hotel with good internet. I will be working through the night. Things have changed. Sometimes I do feel guilty about not visiting you or talking to you. But life has become so hectic. I work on weekends, I work on festival days. When there is a two-day break, I usually sleep it off. I can’t speak for the other cousins. But I thought you would understand.”
“I tried. But I couldn’t come to terms with it. I am sorry for being like this. I am not expecting you or your other cousins to be a part of my life. But don’t ignore my kids. They need to have a support system. I think they will develop one as they grow up. But you guys are accomplished in life. I would be happy if you guys are their role models.”
“Let us go shopping.” He said as he got up. “I remember you showering us with gifts every month on your salary day. I will buy something for the kids.”
“No need.” Rangan was steadfast.
“You didn’t bring them today. I would have had a lot of fun with them. What I buy for them is between me and my nephews. You just have to carry. That is all.”
“They wanted to come. I couldn’t…” Rangan said. “We couldn’t afford four train tickets as of now” he finished the sentence after a hesitation. Varadhu didn’t know what to say. They both walked out of the station. It was in the middle of the afternoon and they walked to the bazaar in silence. “Can I buy a chess set for them?” Varadhu asked.
“No. They have it. The elder one is interested in Badminton. Maybe he will be happy with a racquet.”
“Done,” Varadhu said. They walked into a sports shop and Varadhu picked up the costliest one available with them.
“What about the younger one?” He asked Rangan.
“I don’t know what to buy for him. I asked him when I came here. He wants a bag of rubber bands.” Rangan said.
“Yeah, it is available in fancy stores and stuff. He buys them in kilos. He saves his snack money and buys it every weekend.”
“That is weird,” Varadhu said.
“It started quite innocently” Rangan continued. “Whenever I went out to buy anything, after unpacking he would come and collect all the rubber bands. He has a stash on his cupboard. Doesn’t matter if it came from grocery bags or food parcels. I once asked to see his collection. He had thousands of them. It was like looking into a kaleidoscope. Colorful and worm-like. He would sit patiently and tie them like chains with one another to make a ball out of it.”
“How many such balls does he have? Maybe he is using it to play cricket.”
“I thought as much. But he is making it as one giant ball. He is obsessed with it. If we don’t see him working on his rubber bands, we would doubt if he is ill. The smell of the rubber, you know, is repulsive. As days go by, the rubber becomes sticky. That is one of the reasons he doesn’t have friends anymore. Looks like he is not too bothered about it. He just wants more and more and more.”
“I have seen some psychological videos. Sometimes distracting him and making him work on other things like legos might find helpful.”
“Do you think I had not thought about it? But he refuses to let go of that big ball he carries all the time. He has this special eyesight in which he could spot a rubber band in any place. It is like that is the only reason he is living. He is obsessed with it. The boy with the rubber band ball, that is his identity in the street and he refuses to let go of it.”
“He will outgrow it. Are you sure we don’t have to buy anything else for him?” Varadhu asked. Rangan shook his head. They had reached a temple pond, which was open. Varadhu’s phone rang. He spoke in whispers and turned to Rangan. “It is my mom. She wants to talk to you.” Rangan took the phone from Varadhu.
“No Akka. That is not the problem. I think I am unwanted.”
“Don’t speak huge words and all. You love me and I know that. You just love our brother more than me. You have to accept it.”
“What? I carry around the negativity wherever I go and I throw it on people who come in my way. Is that what you think? Well, who gave me this bucket of negativity then?”
“I am sorry that you feel that way Akka. But someday the tides will turn and you will come to visit me. Until then bye” Rangan returned the phone to Varadhu. Varadhu cut the call and looked at Rangan.
“I can’t believe what my sister thinks of me. She couldn’t remember all the things I have done for her. She is just tired of all the whining it seems. Remember I was there when she whined.”
“Uncle. It is okay. You relax.”
Varadhu tried to distract Rangan as much as possible, reminiscing his childhood and everything Rangan had done for him. That had a positive effect on Rangan, who felt good about the sacrifices he made. Varadhu bought tiffin for Rangan to eat on the train.
“I am hungry. I will eat it now.” Rangan said as he opened the food parcel. He pocketed the rubber bands in his shirt pocket. Varadhan raised his eyebrows.
“I wish my young one outgrows his rubber band obsession,” Rangan said to Varadhu.
Varadhu nodded thoughtfully. In the distant darkness, a dot of light appeared announcing the arrival of the train.