Mr. Sarod lived in the apartment above ours. It would be more accurate to say he haunted it; however, as he was still alive at the time, that would also be a little rude.
When he was home, Mr. Sarod would lounge around in a thin white vest that looked too tired to cover him properly. His bear hair stuck out in tufts from frayed armholes, and his thick beard often shone with a few stray drops of beer when he greeted me at the front door. I never dared look at him directly in case he growled.
Despite this, Mr. Sarod fascinated me, for I had never heard him speak. I lived in a third-floor apartment with Mama, who had the ears of a bat, Maasi, who had the quiet velvet feet of a cat, and Nani, whose paper skin scratched the air when she smiled. Every evening, they would make tea and tell stories as we sat on the balcony and watched the crows, but one floor up, Mr. Sarod’s strange silence wove the wildest tales.
My best friend Patru lived with him, mainly because she was his daughter, but I always got the feeling that she lived there only because her mother and sister did too. If she could have, she would have spent her life outside, chasing squirrels and eating questionable berries, living off the everywhere that was her home.
Despite the thin-walled beehive packing of our tenement, the Sarod women were active people, and their household was often noisy: Patru struggled with the mandolin in the afternoons, and in the evening, her sister Fyra serenaded twilight with the violin. Mrs. Sarod shouted at the neighbors and unwitting insurance salesmen.
Amongst the noise, Quiet Mr. Sarod was the incidental roommate in Apartment 402. When I visited, the most I heard from him was a grunt as he acknowledged Patru’s voice from the front door, telling him we were headed to the park.
I loved Patru to bits. She was the firework in my life, always cracking jokes and laughing at herself. She could run faster than most of the boys in the park and take the swings so high I was always scared she would fly off into the clouds. The Sarod women all had frizzy hair that refused to stay in any kind of form, so Patru would keep hers short enough to maintain, but long enough to get tangled and dirt-caked. My mum would say, “Roo, take care of her,” and I always nodded my head in quiet assent. If it was dark on the way back home, I would reach for her hand and feel safe.
For both of us, 7 o’clock was the absolute deadline to be home. A minute later, and I knew to walk into the house sheepishly, head bowed, hoping that Mama was nowhere in sight of the beeline from the front door to my room. Patru told me she would crawl past her parents’ abode, but the two times I tried that I was caught, trapped under the bell jar of Mama’s gaze and whacked on the bum with a ladle.
Sometimes, we would sit on the swings, count down the seconds, and only start running home at the stroke of the hour. I loved the way she counted on three fingers and a thumb, how five was the peace sign in place of an open palm.
One year the Sarods trooped down to our home for Diwali. It was a beautiful night; we were hosting a lively party, and everyone was dressed in their finest saris and kurtas. Fireworks opened up the sky every few minutes, old Bollywood music played over small stereo speakers. Patru and Fyra had reluctantly let their mother fit them into sequined ankle-length skirts, and their arms were occupied with a glittering of bangles. Patru’s hair was a stubborn disaster. Mrs. Sarod, a woman I had never seen out of her nightgown, wore a simple blue sari. She looked like a Morpho butterfly, subdued and quite out of place. I didn’t bother asking where Mr. Sarod was.
The world buzzed, hours passed. Food was brought out, finished, brought out again. The fireworks, music, voices, and laughter fused into homeostatic babble. Lying on a couch with my head resting on Maasi’s lap, I felt drowsy. Our neighbors from 303 were talking to the neighbors from 305, and 104 was complaining about something to 501. The lights sparkled softly. Mama came over and stroked my hair, telling me I could go to bed. The bell rang.
The sound splashed me awake, and I ran to open the door. As the lock clicked and I pulled at the handle, I got a glimpse of a large dark animal outside. I slammed the door shut, reasoned with myself. Taking a deep breath, I opened it again. It was Mr. Sarod. He seemed to have lost his vest.
After years of knowing the character in exactly one tantalizing roll of film, I was shocked by the man. The only hair I could see on the Hairy Mr. Sarod was on his head and face. His thick arms were covered by the long sleeves of his black kurta, and his beard was dry and combed.
“Arnaav,” he nodded gravely. He really did sound like a bear. His paw proffered a beautiful red box of sweets.
“H-Hi,” I stammered sheepishly; Clean Mr. Sarod cut an imposing figure. Without thinking, I stood aside to let him in, head bowed. As he walked past me, he handed me the box. My head pounded in embarrassment as I looked up.
My eyes widened and rooted to the spot where he had been, right foot holding the door open. I did not dare turn to look again, but I was sure of what I had seen. Mr. Sarod had three fingers. Three fingers and a thumb.
They weren’t the kind you see on a person who once had that finger; no, no sudden absence. They were fully formed hairy, veined hands. Patru and I watched our fair share of the Cartoon Network, and they looked like they could grab onto something with suckers. A large claw unfurled out of the sleeve of his kurta to shake hands with Nani. Why had I not noticed it before? The front door slammed shut behind me as I made a beeline for my room.
Patru was sitting on the floor, playing cards with the twins from 104. She didn’t notice me; I stood there with words stuck to the tip of my tongue. Should I say something? Would it be rude?
“Patruyourdadhasfourfingers,” I blurted out. I could hear my mother at the back of my mind, saying, “Roo, take care of her.” I imagined Patru running toward the swings, arms reaching for chains, for berries and clouds.
“Yeah, I know,” she giggled. “Did you just notice?” I smiled and laughed; one of the twins was staring distrustfully at her hair. I was about to reply when Mrs. Sarod walked into the room.
“Patru, Papa is here. Come.”
“Can I come in fiiive minutes, mama?” She scrunched up her eyes as she said five, holding up two fingers.
Note: The image is Norman Rockwell’s Boy and Girl Gazing at Moon (Puppy Love).