First Prize, Nathan Carr Milivoy Webber writing competition 2020

Hero Naidu by Chitra Iyengar

Original print by Raph Seymour specially commissioned to illustrate Hero Naidu and forming part of Chitra's prize
Original print by Raf specially commissioned to illustrate Hero Naidu and forming part of Chitra's prize (print shown on shed door prior to framing)

Mr Naidu or Hero Naidu as we called him, lived next door. His nickname alluded to his pride and joy, his Hero bicycle. Painted in navy blue, with shiny bells on the handlebars on both sides, the saddle cushioned by a blue seat he specially got from Guntur. No one was allowed to touch it, let alone ride it.

He hardly spoke. He wasn't unfriendly – just not a talker, that was all. He lived with his brother’s family in a single room and kept to himself. His life revolved around his job as a supervisor at the vegetable wholesale market, his bicycle and his newspapers. Mr Naidu never took part in street gatherings to discuss politics, never came to anyone’s weddings or baby naming ceremonies. But he was there if anyone needed help with their plumbing or if there was a rat in someone’s water-tank.

On the morning of Ayutha Puja, the prayer day after Dussera, tools and vehicles were cleaned and blessed by gods. It was the day Mr Naidu took his bicycle apart fully on the front yard and cleaned every component. He touched up scratches with exact brand and colour of paint. He oiled every screw and every joint and put them back slowly. When we were kids, he’d let us watch. We couldn’t touch, not even the red bucket filled with water.

“Our Hero will make a fine husband,” Grandmother remarked. “Look how gentle he is.”

Mother snapped her chin to her left shoulder in anger and went back inside. Husbands were not her favourite subject.

The next day, we celebrated Saraswati Pooja, a celebration of books and knowledge, for folks like my father who had bookshelves everywhere. Both in our house and at his mistress'. He got to celebrate the festival twice.

That evening, in a rare relaxing of rules, we were allowed to go to the new cinema into town. Maybe to avoid us watching Grandmother and Father fight about his relationships. Sometimes I wondered if I would be allowed to live like Mr Naidu, in a room in my sister’s house without a husband and would I be called a Hero? Perhaps not.

At the cinema, as we stood outside to go in, holding a Fanta bottle and a bag of popcorn, I saw him. Them.

Mr Naidu and a younger man in a white shirt. Mr Naidu had his arm around the other man. Like they were buddies. It was more familiar, almost intimate. Mr Naidu seemed happy with a beautiful smile, one that crinkled around his eyes with dimples on both cheeks. Something in their demeanour told me they didn’t want to be seen. I moved away with my sister before Mr Naidu spotted us. I didn’t want to be a voyeur, even if I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.

When we returned home that night, the family fight was nearing its finale. We stood outside listening, waiting for a gap in their arguments.

“You can't help loving whoever you fall in love with. Who’s to say it’s right or wrong?” Father shouted.

“But you’re punishing her,” shouted Grandmother. “It’s not her fault, is it?”

Mother stayed silent as always as her mother-in-law fought on her behalf.

Why must it be someone’s fault, I wondered. Shit happens. Maybe Mother should move on.

My sister rang the doorbell announcing our arrival, pausing their fight for another month.

A week later, as I walked back from college, I spotted him again. The man from the cinema. I looked again. Maybe I had conjured him up from the dust that rose from the diesel buses.

It was him. He stood outside a shop holding a bicycle. Mr Naidu’s Hero. I gasped audibly. Had he stolen it?

Then Mr Naidu came out of the shop and tapped the man on the shoulder. The mystery man got on to the riding saddle. The precious saddle from Guntur.

Mr Naidu perched sideways on the steel carrier at the back like Mother sat behind Father on the scooter when they used to go out, when they were still pretending they had a marriage. It was like someone clicked a bicycle chain on the cogs. Everything seemed to fall into place.

I watched them ride away hoping one day Mr Naidu will ride all the way side-saddle with his friend to our neighbourhood and he’d still be Hero Naidu.