Sheela woke up to the sound of a ticking clock. She checked the walls of her room which had stickers, pictures, quotes on colored papers, but no clock. She checked her phone – devoid of notifications. She pulled the drawer beside her bed and shook the tiny little clock from Grade 10 – dead for ages.
The sound got louder and louder.
Has someone deployed a time bomb nearby? Am I going to die? Who should I call?
The feeling started at her knees and radiated upward, traveling through the capillaries and veins that usually carried blood. Today, there was something else mixed in it whose exact chemical composition Sheela could not tell.
She paced around checking under the curtains, behind the almirah, beneath the bed. The sound did not subside. She peeked out of the window: the world seemed to go around fine. Vegetable dai was pushing his full cart. The tomatoes were red, too red.
Is that all the color that’s going to be left after the bomb explodes? Red. Juicy red. Ketchup red. Tomato red. Vermillion red. Red-like-love red. Rose red.
On the other side of the road, below the large pole with wires that formed its messy hair, was the neighbor’s son in his crisp blue uniform, waiting for his bus. A few pedestrians were walking. A lady in a red and green striped kurta, whose pattern had gone out of fashion last year, was walking with a large bag filled with veggies. Vegetable dai eyed that very bag as she passed. There was precisely nothing she could have purchased from him that would have fit in it.
Maybe they can’t hear the bomb? Maybe I’m the only one who can. And if I can’t find it, we are all going to die. WE. ARE. ALL. GOING. TO. DIE.
Sheela let the curtain fall and crept in a corner with her hands over her head. A hand traveled downward. Her heart was beating. She then placed her hand over her stomach.
The clock was beating right there.
Did I swallow something? A clock? A watch?
She now looked at the only functioning time-telling device in the room – her phone. Almost eight, says the iPhone 8 with a SpongeBob cover. Sheela remembered the last time someone had commented on her kid-like-stuff buying behavior as she placed her phone on the table. ‘We don’t wear that here,’ said her friend accompanying for shopping on an overseas trip. Sheela had picked up an earmuff that had a bit-too-large teddy over it. When she wore it, two bears were ready to jump off her ears.
She just wanted to grow up fast. And be an adult, and do adult things. Boring.
Sheela felt the need to comment on something that had happened five years ago.
The tick-tick-tick continued.
‘You’ll be late, Baba. It’s already eight-twelve!’ Sheela’s mother yelled from the room above.
For her mother, Sheela would always be a boy. Baba. She wanted a boy and would take no other argument. Changing the name by which she called her became the most convenient way.
Sheela placed her hand over her stomach and got up. She pushed the ticking sound out of her mind and picked a matching pair of trousers and shirt from a pile of clothes in front of the bed. Magenta, that was the color of her trousers, and her shirt had white stripes. There was no mirror in her room.
By the time Sheela was pushing her blue and white Dio scooter from the inside of the house to the road, Vegetable dai was still there; the red tomatoes were not. Green leafy veggies were still on his cart.
Who buys that anyway? Yuck.
Getting the scooter out on the road consumed all the energy Sheela had got from her breakfast. But it was her beloved scooter – her license to freedom. How else would she be able to return home at seven in the evening, in the dead silence of her neighborhood where not a single street light worked, and where nobody with a house bothered turning on one light from their balcony or compound.
Screaming neighbors late in the evening was not an unusual scene. But no one came out unless they had to. Last week it was the young couple, who had moved in last month, who fought over where they were going to spend their savings – a thirty-two inch LCD TV or a holiday in Thailand. ‘My parents gave it as dowry!’ the wife had screamed. Her voice could be heard four houses away. Sheela’s home was but the third. Before getting married, the wife had never been allowed on vacations. If Sheela could, she would go on a world tour on her scooter. So long as she had the scooter, she was invincible.
Two minutes on her blue-white scooter and the sound of the roaring Kalanki road made the tick-tick-tick inside feel like a puppy in front of a lion. Trucks loaded with imported products caught Sheela off guard and whizzed past her.
Am I still alive or what?
Their sheer size would be enough to shock-surprise anyone. Battling five more of these, Sheela reached her workplace in Sanepa. She kicked her left leg; the stand fell out of her scooter. It was the most sacred act of the day. The act of landing. The act of surviving. The act of reaching.
The office building was a rented bungalow with a garden. Its location was one of the prime reasons Sheela had taken the job. ‘I’ll be living at the office more than at home,’ she had told her mother when she broke the news of her placement. Walking towards the door, Sheela noticed that her shoelace had loosened. Her black Vans were a striking contrast to the magenta pants. She bent over to tie her lace. She now felt the clock drop to her feet.
Damn. Can’t it just go away?
Sheela took a step. She felt a tremor, as though the inside of a clock were shifting. She walked as slowly as she could to avoid agitating the clock inside.
‘Did you feel like wearing pastry instead of eating it?’ said Sheela’s colleague, who had just arrived on his black Bajaj motorbike.
His name was Vishal – with a vee. An ID card dangled off his neck. He loved having his ID card on a visible spot. It didn’t matter that five years had passed since he first joined this private company that sold some devices that always seemed to be in high demand. It also did not matter that everyone already knew his name.
‘Yeah. Funny,’ said Sheela, almost rolling her eyes.
Why doesn’t he ever fall sick? Like diarrhea or fever? I would love to not see his face, at least once.
‘Ha-ha-ha,’ he said with a staccato that felt clownish yet evil – the kind where innocent-looking things turn out to be devilish. Yeah, that kind of clownish evil.
To always make things worse, Vishal with a vee had his table right next to Sheela’s. While his table was neatly wiped with Colin every 6 hours, her was a remote mountain – missing only the grazing goats. Three notebooks were open from the day before; sticky notes trailed from one edge of the table to the other. The to-do list would put Rapunzel’s hair to shame.
Sheela sat down with the tick-tick-tick on her feet.
Can he hear it? Am I acting weird? What if he finds out? Am I getting kicked out of the office? Is he staring at me? Why do I feel like I am hiding drugs?
At 11 am, Sheela sat down for the team meeting in the biggest hall in the office. Standing on the big podium with a big screen behind him, her boss began respectfully blabbering about the next term sales. With the dimmed lights, she could barely recognize faces. The person next to Sheela dropped her pen, and Sheela bent down to pick it up. As she bent below the table, her hand touched her knee. The feeling had traveled right there.
Is this a damn traveling band that goes from here to there with tour dates?
‘All good?’ said the lady as Sheela hadn’t moved back up for a whole minute.
Sheela jerked, hit her head under the table, and was back up. ‘Okay,’ she said in the lowest possible voice and returned the pen to its owner.
Unable to do much about the clock ticking in her, Sheela shifted her focus to the clocks outside – right above her boss’s head. There were five – one for each city the company had major clients in. Tokyo, Delhi, Moscow, Milan, New York. The minute hand was not moving – it was dancing a wild dance, hopping in all directions. On that wall, time was not unidirectional: it moved wherever it wanted to – past, present, and future. Sheela needed to pick a clock to follow.
Let me choose Milan. 8 am. People might be still sleeping.
She then picked up her pencil and turned to a fresh page on her notebook. She wrote a series of numbers starting from the top of the page.
Meeting will be over at 8.15.
With every passing minute, she would strike off the time remaining for the meeting to be adjourned.
Sheela used this method in school for all the classes she almost fell asleep in – chemistry, biology, social studies. Once the teacher caught her staring at her wristwatch, her eyes fixated as though gold were pouring out from her wrist. The teacher kicked her out of the class with only 5 minutes for the bell to ring. But of course, her boss would not kick her out of the hall. He could barely even see her with the dimmed lights and the big flashy presentation behind his back. Even if he did see her, he would not kick her out unless he wanted to upset HR; he would call her to his office, and they would have a long and difficult talk about office culture.
By three in the afternoon, Sheela had felt the clock inside her ticking on her thighs, her elbows, her palms. The traveling band was too eager, demanding full dominance over her body.
I might be a time bomb myself. Is there an off switch?
Sheela paced from room to room. She continuously excused herself into the washroom and sat there for long minutes to let the ticking fade into the background. It helped that the office had a fancy bathroom with big mirrors that would normally be at hotels – the kind that enchants the watcher into a selfie and the photograph lands itself on the scrolling screens of half-strangers three time zones away.
Bathrooms better than workrooms.
She found herself in a corner with a seat opposite a full-sized mirror. This was the fourth time she had visited this place in an hour.
Maybe everyone thinks I have diarrhea. How embarrassing. I hope no one comes in.
There was more than one clock ticking inside Sheela. Maybe three, maybe five. She could not tell. The ticking of many clocks formed a rhythm that Taylor Swift could likely turn into her next hit song.
One was ticking on her right palm. Other in her left hamstrings. Another in her right elbow. The surrounding turned hot; lights radiated from all directions. Lines and lines of sweat dripped off Sheela’s spine. Her shirt was wet, damp, and sticking to her skin. She stopped being conscious of the people coming in and going out. She could not hear their voices. All that remained was the tick-tick-tick.
The image on the mirror blurred out. The clocks – now eight, eleven, sixteen of them – ticked at once in her ears, and then stopped.
Is it over?
There was one last remaining. Sheela placed her hand on her heart. It was ticking loudly. Unlike her heart that had a beat, this one ticked and ticked and ticked. Exactly seven seconds later, she could no longer feel the ticking.
Sheela woke up – a pungent smell tickling her nose, a smell so nauseous that if the nose had a will of its own it would detach itself. The hospital smell. Sheela had blacked out and had been rushed to the nearest hospital. There were six other people in the long room with white curtains. The color white was everywhere; on the walls, on the floor, on the ceiling, on the bed, on her body.
Zz-zzz. Her phone vibrated – a text message.
Thank you, BR Bank for reminding me, 19 hours late.
A birthday text from her bank. Sheela’s 30th birthday. Tick-Tick-Tick. Her birthday clock.
The next day would be the same, minus the ticking clock, but plus her growing age.