I was self-consciously wiping the corners of my mouth when I saw the balloon man.
The Masala Puri had been disappointing, with chickpeas instead of green peas. Perhaps I had been lured into the shop by the throng of corpulent newlyweds with piles of red bangles and honeymoon-sweet smiles. Or maybe it was the kitsch misspelling of Calcutta. I had gone in looking for chaat (not flat-a chat), but had received a slap in my South Indian face.
The balloon man was a shrewd businessman, skulking along the road, instead of on the footpath; keeping his wares in people’s lines of sight. Heart-shaped Helium balloons in belated Valentine red, platonic yellow, and It’s Complicated white. Children threw tantrums around the balloon man, and mothers threatened them in different languages. Girlfriends threw longing glances over their shoulders, while boyfriends looked at cricket reruns on large LCDs in the electronics store.
I squealed and got a white one for ten rupees.
Winding the string round my finger, I held the balloon to my face to smell the distended rubber. The balloon didn’t urgently resist being held below its station; it just bobbed with an obvious sense of entitlement. Like a patiently restless bird.
I imagined what a bored balloon it could be – tethered by an improvised umbilical cord, seeing only hair partings and areas inaccessible to hair-dye. And yet, wherever I walked, the balloon hopped happily, perfectly pleased to be the heart I strung along. I watched its shadow like that of a stranger who becomes familiar with every footstep taken in the same direction. A heart-shaped thought cloud that drifted around my overworking head, pausing and hovering before I jumped over potholes and gaping gutters.
People either took notice of me, a fully grown person skipping along, tugging a heart; or of the balloon, one that they too wanted.
What are balloons, but bursts of optimism twisted into our favourite shapes? That even in this world that binds us to the ground and locks our feet, a simple balloon has the ability to escape the most possessive clutch in the known universe.
I strung the balloon to the scooter’s hook beneath my seat. The air churned over my legs and pushed the balloon down. Barred by my legs, the balloon rattled like a caged spirit, buffeted on all sides by a turncoat ally. On other scooters, sleepy boys perched under their fathers’ chins stared at how the balloon behaved so differently. So aggressively. The hardest they had ever seen a balloon fight for its flight.
At a signal, I put a foot down, and opened the balloon’s enclosure. As if on cue, the balloon unhooked itself, and floated up.
I was unsure if the breeze carried it, or if the balloon just knew where it was going.
It ascended unhurriedly. The naked Jacarandas waited to pierce its flight, but the balloon absently slipped itself between their gnarled fingers and glided into the black sky where nothing awaited.
Although my heart had lifted, I felt my heart grow heavy.