I should have never let my hair grow as much as it has. It feels like dead branches brushing off against my skin. It has been hour longer than the time mum promised this would be over by. I could have gotten a pretty decent haircut and be sitting in my room by now. Where is she? I should go look for her. But this corner sofa is angled just right. I can see the TV and hide from all the relatives behind the huge pillar in the room.  If I stand up now, they might see me. I can almost hear the never ending comments on my hair, on my acne, on my social skills and what not, begin. So, I stay put.

Charlie Chaplin is playing in the screen. The classic comedian has landed himself in a situation where he needs to balance his bicycle on a tightrope. He seems agitated by this but is doing a great job all in all. A bleak laughter leaves my mouth when he almost loses it. And that’s when she spots me, a distant relative from so-and-so side. She is dressed in a pink sari so bright that it can blind people. I can’t stop staring. Maybe it’s her. Maybe there’s an earthquake that only I can feel. But the ground below me shakes with every step she takes toward me. She has the widest smile, I’ve ever seen in a person, plastered on her face. She seems a little too happy to see me. I have no idea why. Each of her arms adorns at least 2 dozen pink bangles. They cover her entire forearms but barely make any sound as they move.

The punch that landed on my unprotected gut is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t hear that coming. I didn’t even see that coming.

The breath that I don’t remember taking escapes involuntarily. The exchange of oxygen with carbon-dioxide is interrupted.  So I just inhale and exhale the physical pain.

‘Michhal! My darling boy what are you doing there hiding in that corner?’ she asks with the same wide smile. The continuation of the smile after the punch was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like she doesn’t even know she punched me. But she is being nice, so I gotta be nice, right?

‘Watching T.V.’ I smile the words but my voice comes out squeaky and shaky.

Her thick eyebrows scrunch up and I shit you not, her eyes start to glow a red so bright that the pink sari seems dull in comparison. Everything after that happens in a slow motion. So, I can actually see the turn of her head, the locking of the target, the focused laser rays for what seem like minutes. The two bright red lines slowly reach the side of my face. They’re burning a giant hole on my right cheek. The smell of burnt beef overpowers almost all of my senses. The hole in my face doesn’t hurt as bad as I imagine it should. But I have never been this aware of my teeth, of the insides of my cheek, or lack thereof, before.

‘Come join us kiddo!’ another voice chimes in.

This time it is an old neighbor who is a son of some relative I cannot remember the name of. Give me a break, okay? I have a hole in my face right now. Although I can’t be sure of that, the uncle sure doesn’t seem to notice this. Maybe the cooks did actually burn the beef. The uncle stands beside me and waits for my response.

‘I don’t play cards’ I reply as polite as I could be given the circumstances.

Besides I really don’t play cards. I lose. I always lose!

‘I’ll teach you!’ he laughs and grabs my left arm. He doesn’t pull me but he’s waiting for me to stand up. I can still hear him laughing but his grip on my arm is bone crushing. It is all I can do to not yelp in pain. The pressure of his hold clogs the blood circulation in my arm. The tips of my fingers start to tingle. Not in a good way.

‘You will not find a better teacher, Michhal. Trust me!’ the aunty laughs. Her wide smile morphs into a laughter that does something to my bowel. That sound is triggering a knot in my stomach and she knows this because it just gets louder and louder. As the pitch of her laughter gets higher, the knot on my bowel starts to move. She laughs for such a long time, the knot actually manages to settle into the back of my throat. Add that to already increasing shortness of breath, and I am hyperventilating. I can see red dots in my vision. That cannot be good.

Others have joined in on the conversation but I barely keep up. Their words register in my brain but I don’t have an appropriate response. I never do. Besides, no one seems to notice those two supposed relatives leading me to an early grave.

‘So Michhal, do you have a girlfriend? You must be a real ladies man in the college…’ someone whose face I can’t put a name to asks as he musses up my hair with his fist. He is kind of right into my private space, but there are bigger problems at the moment. His fist is full of hot melting lava. I can feel my spine giving up as he delicately pours the liquid fire down the back of my head. Nobody sees this for some fucking reason and the sofa is obviously burning down. The base of the once comfortable furniture is losing its structure. Even though I am seated, I am falling down. While I feel the burning in my ass, the small group of uncles and aunts has continued on with their little japes. I haven’t stopped my nodding or the disfigured smile. No, scratch that. I cannot stop my nodding and the disfigured smile. They’ve taken these gestures for my unrequited attention and contribution to the conversation.

So this is how I die… Excruciatingly slow as the center of attention with people who pay me no attention at all.

‘Michhal dai?’ the softest voice I have ever heard calls out to me.

It’s my little sister. I can’t see her face but I turn in the general direction of her voice. I am still nodding and smiling. What is she going to do to me? How is she going to hurt me?

‘Mum’s waiting for you. It’s time for us to go home.’ she says and everything happens all at once.

Home…The knot in my throat loosens. New skin grows and fills the hole in my face. My teeth start to feel normal. The smell of beef vanishes. The lava descending down my back turns into sweat. The tingling sensation in my left arm settles as soon as I stand up. I am still nodding and smiling. I can’t stop. This time the uncles and aunties turn their attention to my sister. They don’t seem to be attacking her or maybe she just has some special shield I do not own. She seems so comfortable. Their conversation ends quick. She finishes my losing battle.

My shaky legs and the high palpitation is the only sign of the violence I just experienced. My sister doesn’t seem to notice anything odd. She wriggles away from me when we see mum by the cab.

‘Let’s go home…’ she chimes happily and gets in.

Home… The word comforts me so much. I have never loved my home as much as this. I have never known relief as sweet as this.

Illustration by Nipun Bajracharya