Dance of Exemption

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My paternal grandfather hailed from a small village called Navipur in U.P., about a 100 kms southeast of Delhi. That whole geographical belt comprising of Kosi-Mathura-Vridavan-Nandgaon, somewhere in the middle of which Navipur sits demurely nested, is famous for its Holi celebrations. Although I was almost twenty years old when this incident took place, and by then I had visited that village quite a few times; this was going to be the first time I would get to experience those festivities. Needless to say I was excited beyond words.

The high point of the entire celebration was the event which took place on the eve of Holi. To witness that event, we were taken to a spot on the balcony of our ancestral house which oversaw a large arena to its left. A huge nagada sat in the middle of that large arena, and all the village folk had gathered around it. The women came dressed in colorful ghagra-cholis most of which looked quite similar. But what stood out among their costumes, was their vibrantly hued chunaris, embellished with shiny gold and silver laces and decorations all over. I loved those chunaris so much that even though I didn’t own a ghagra-choli, or didn’t evn intend to I made a mental note to pick up of those chunaris up for myself from, as a souvenir.
The younger men and women from the village positioned themselves at the two opposite ends of that arena; obedient and coy, but betraying a shade of impatience for someone’s cue to start the mirth. The elders settled down on the cemented pavements encircling the trees in one corner of the arena, which also served as a vantage point. And then with the roll of that nagada, (which I must admit made far more foot-tapping music than I had assumed an instrument as huge as that would be able to make) like a sudden thunderous downpour, the crowd just burst into a spirited dance. The men danced confined to the left of the arena and the women on the right, with about a 30 odd feet of mutually respected ‘no-man’s land’ dividing them; something I couldn’t quite get the rationale behind. We, the outsiders, were ordered strictly by the elders of our family, to just stay up at the balcony and be silent spectators. Although my feet were involuntarily rebelling against that diktat with every beat of the nagada. I found the restriction on us a tad odd, but it wasn’t the time or the place to argue, so we ‘outsiders’ just begrudgingly complied.

But after a while, looking at all those people dance I did begin to wonder that even if we were allowed to take part, did anyone of us have it in us to match steps with those people? I have seen quite a few amazing dancers in my life, but none like the ones I saw there. Dance is after all a game of energy, right? But the verve with which those people were dancing; honestly, I didn’t know the scale even went that high! I doubted if we would have lasted more than 5 minutes with those people. Especially and amazingly, the women of that group!

There was an odd quality of pep in their dance; which I felt deeply contrasted with their heavy ghagra-cholis and chunari-veiled faces. Their faces interestingly, I must share, remained completely veiled at all times. The chunari didn’t budge an inch, even with all that animated dancing. It made me wonder how they even managed to see where to step. To me, it seemed like an unnecessary irritant. But not to those women, who in fact seemed to be making sure that the chunari kept their faces fully covered at all times. I realized that, even with what I can only assume must have been a seriously restricted view, I had never seen a more happily and freely dancing lot. So I just surmised that it must be because they were after all, used to wearing chunaris and keeping their face covered all the time.

After a while, the dancing style changed. The loosely earmarked ‘no-man’s land’ had now become a battleground. One of the men from the group capered onto that area and gestured towards the women as if inviting a challenger. The women shared veiled glances and fixed on a member of their group to be sent in response; all this while, their feet never stopping for even a second. The chosen one, then danced her way over to her challenger. The music suddenly picked up tempo and the dance became even more exhilarant. The whole thing was now a one-on-one competition about who outlasts whom, with both the contenders’ respective gangs cheering them on. After a few minutes of extremely energetic dancing, one person from that pair of challengers would resignedly walk back to the group and tag someone else to come forward and take his/her place. This went on for at least fifteen such pairs. And amazingly those frail looking, chunari laden, presumably visually restricted women gave those men one hell of a fight and won most of those rounds. It was an incredible sight. The way those women moved, and the embellishments on their chunaris glistened catching the rays of the setting sun, irradiating the whole place, was spectacular. I remember telling my aunt every ten minutes that I must get one of those chunaris for myself. I knew I would never end up wearing it; but I wanted it purely as a memento of that beautiful evening. I don’t think I had ever before or ever again enjoyed so thoroughly, seeing someone else dance their hearts out, when I am forced to merely stand by.

But something about what I saw that evening stuck out to me as an oddity. It piqued my interest enough to make me inquire about that event later that night, over dinner. The restrained and mostly coerced answers I got from the elders in our family, took away every shred of the feeling of gaiety, witnessing that event had left me with.

That night, that somber sleepless night, using what I had seen and the answers I had received, I managed to construct the whole story. A story which did not leave me with the same aftertaste, that evening’s fête had.

The footloose spirit, with which these women danced, in fact, was a by-product of the hackneyed lives they otherwise led. Lives stifled by parochial social customs and fettered by prejudiced dos and don’ts imposed on them in the name of tradition. Every waking moment of their days they follow never ending restrictions dictated by their families and society. Where to go, when to go, whom to go with, whom to talk to, how loud to talk, when to eat, how much to eat. Everything! These yearly celebrations were the only times when the barricades that restrained their every movement were lifted. Only for a short while, only for that day, only for that event, were they exempted from the usual timorous demeanor that they must wear, whenever in public view.

So when the opportunity presented itself, these women made the most of it. That dance wasn’t just a festive ritual for these women; it was the only source of releasing all that pent up vitality and animation inside them. It was a declaration of their freedom, however transient, it might be. Their delirious dance moves announce boldly, that unlike their lives, their spirits weren’t manacled.

Their heavily ornate chunaris, ironically, the very symbol of their perennial subordination, were on that particular evening, most instrumental towards their flitting independence. The fact, as I had learned that evening, was that most of those women would exchange their chunaris with each other before the dance starts. And so no one, not even the men from their own families would be sure of which one amongst the whole assemblage were the women from their families. This whole element of anonymity was the key to the overall blitheness of their performance that evening. They knew that these chunaris would enshroud them; away from the judging, restraining, admonishing eyes of everyone. Their shackles, for that one evening became their safety nets. I now understood why they were so enthusiastically compliant in keeping that chunari in place at all times. It was ironical, but in a rather sweet and redemptive way, that the chunaris which were otherwise a means of making these women inconspicuous to the society they live and breathe in proved to be the cloak on invisibility they very much needed to live those magical moments.

The irony made me smile, albeit with a sadness in my heart. Sleep was scanty that night.

The next morning after breakfast, my aunt called me into the living room where she had summoned a woman who sold those chunaris. When I walked in, on the carpet I saw laid out, chunaris of all possible colors one can imagine. A lot of them, far more stunning and bedecked than the ones I had seen the previous evening. The woman selling them, was squatting on one corner of the carpet, her eyes glittering with the hopes of making a killing this morning. So, I could sense before I even walked in, that my aunt must have been telling her how enchanted I was with the beauty of those chunaris and hence instructed her to lay out the absolute best of her stockpile for me to choose from. No doubt, what was now spread out in front of me, accosting me for a huge purchase, was truly exquisite stuff.

But the truth was, after what I had heard and deduced about those women; it seemed to me that it would be nothing short of a sacrilege, for me to just buy that chunari and wear it. It wasn’t just something one can, rather should, buy with money and wear. Clearly, there were rites of passage to go through before one gets to adorn them. And it occurred to me that I had enjoyed too much liberty, too many privileges all my life to ever even be eligible for that rite of passage, let alone clear it. Everything about those chunaris, their vibrancy, their artistry; was out of my league. I had been much too free, all my life, to merit the fleeting freedom which those chunaris signified. When one is used to breathing as freely as I was, they can never truly know the catharsis found in the act of exhaling after holding it all in, for so long. Those chunaris belonged to the women of that village, only those women; who suffered throughout the year to be entitled to that one evening.

With my eyes and fingers appreciating the sorrowful magnificence of those badges of distinction, which I would never get to wear, my heart just sent a silent prayer to god, asking him to grant these women, many more such ‘dances of exemption’.  

The Butterfly Effect

I observed him carefully, as he walked to the door. I knew time was running out, but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…” It didn’t help calm down my frazzled nerves. The footsteps faded and the door slammed shut. The room fell deathly quiet. My confounded brain, for the lack of a better alternative, went back to this morning; and to the dream that started this whole nightmare.

Everything about that man, that I had seen in my dream was unforgettable; his tattered clothes, grime layered body, repugnant stink. Yet the only thing that haunted me, even more than the caustic words he spoke, were his eyes. Calm. And resolute. Scaringly resolute. As if he meant every word of his threat. As if, despite his destitute appearance, he had the power to make good on that threat.

“Atone!… or you will die.” His words filled my room.

And then, when I had gotten up from the bed, inexplicably, I couldn’t move my left arm. I tried massaging it, cold compress, hot compress; everything that I could think of. Nothing worked. It just hung there, loosely hinged to my shoulder. There was no pain or tingling. No sensation at all. It was like… like… it was dead! That’s when the cold sweats started. That old man’s voice started swirling in the air.

“Atone… ATONE…”

It felt like the walls were closing in, suffocating me. I just had to get out of there. The only thing I could think of was to rush to Ashish; my partner in crime, quite literally. Alright, make that ‘crimes’. So many of them, that we had lost count. We had been conning and scheming our way through this world, since we ran away from our foster home when we were 16.

I ran to my car. Ignition. No response. Ignition again. No response. Fuel was OK. Engine trouble blinker on the dashboard wasn’t flickering either. I checked under the hood. All wires were going where they were supposed to. Nothing explained my car’s refusal to start. That’s when my neighbor Gupta, who stood nearby watching me struggle, walked over.

“What man? Car ‘dead’?

His friendly slap on my back and his words, both hit me at the same time. The latter stung more. I recoiled, and without saying a word, ran out of the parking lot.

The rest of it had been all a blur; running out to the street, hailing a cab, clambering all the way up to Ashish’s fifth floor apartment because I couldn’t wait for the elevator. The clearest thing I remember next, was Ashish’s hysterical laugh; amidst which, broken and barely audible came out his words “What nonsense! How much did you drink last night?”

“I didn’t Ashish. This is serious! I can feel it. I can feel… him. His eyes. Following me…” I had been pacing across his living room. Trying to breathe. Trying to convince him. Trying to convince myself that all this was indeed happening.

“Varun, stop being ridiculous. You had a nightmare. It scared the shit out of you and you rushed to me… I get it. Now pull yourself together, man!”

“Really? A nightmare?… Then how do you explain this?” I grabbed a pen from the table and jabbed my arm with it. My arm didn’t even flinch. The pen left a small gash, but no blood gushed out; just like no blood squirts out if you stab a dead body. On its end slung the Rolex I loved, the one I never took off; like a wreath on a corpse.

“Well… er… I am not a doctor, am I?” Varun struggled to understand it too. “But that is whom you need to see… for your arm… and for your head.”

“Damn you Ashish! Why don’t you believe me? We are losing time. He said if we don’t help three people in the next twelve hours… to atone for all our crimes… we will… we will…”

“Umm… Die?” His tone and one raised eyebrow, mocked me. I simply exhaled in resignation.

“You know what, Varun… at first it was amusing… but now it is just plain annoying. Clearly, last night you drank something… or snorted something, which you couldn’t handle… There is a reason that I allow myself to indulge in all kinds of vices… except drugs and alcohol. But you never listen to me, do you?” He walked up to the console next to the door and grabbed his car keys from it.

“Whatever it is that you took… just wait for it to wash out of your system. I‘m going to get us some breakfast and coffee. You need coffee. Lots of it.” With that, he walked out.

I sat there wondering if he could be right? Was this just a game played by my brain, fried with years of drugs and alcohol abuse? But then, what explained my arm? And that ghastly feeling crawling through my veins?

The door slammed open and Ashish back walked in, white as the walls behind him. “We need to go to the doctor. Now!”

He wasn’t the same man who walked out five minutes ago. With his ashen face, petrified eyes and trembling body, he was now a mirror image of me!

“My cccar… won’t ssstart…” He stuttered. I had not seen him stutter since we ran away from the orphanage. I could sense there was something more. Something which he was finding hard to say to me, and even harder to believe himself.

“What is it?”

His eyes glazed over as he pulled out his handkerchief from his pocket. On that crisp white, neatly squared piece of cloth was a big red splotch.

“What the hell is…” I bent forward to look closer, but stepped back in horror, as soon as I realized what it was. Blood!

His arm, holding the handkerchief, was quivering; as was his voice. “I had… a bout of cough and… this!”

**********

None of us spoke a word, all the way to the hospital. This whole thing was way too surreal for words. My eyes, in defiance of my mind, dashed to the watch. 11 a.m. I woke up at 8. Three hours, out of the twelve, gone already! Suddenly, wasting time at the hospital didn’t seem like such a terrific idea to me. But was there any other?

Ashish was the one to speak, first. We had been sitting in the waiting lounge or over 45 minutes. Wasting time, which we did not have; to see a doctor, who I was sure, wouldn’t be able to help us anyway.

“I don’t understand… I know that what we do isn’t strictly speaking… legal… and that makes it wrong. But we only swindle the filthy rich. The ones who could afford to lose that money… it’s like, a drop from their ocean… and it’s not like they have earned it all legally, themselves…” He turned to me, his face creased with honest puzzlement. “How could doing that, get us a punishment… like… like…” He couldn’t bring himself to say the word, death.

“The old man said…” Just thinking of him again, made a chill run down my spine. “… He said we never know how far the ripples of our actions go. Of the lives we destroy… as a consequence of what we do.”

“Bullshit!” He bellowed, but the very next moment, realizing where he was, leaned closer to me and spoke in a hushed tone. “People do worse things than that… It’s not like we killed anybody?”

“What can I say? I am just telling you what he told me…”

“Dammit! Varun! I think you are overreacting… to a silly nightmare… and now your stupidity has rubbed off on me, too…” His rising voice had that unmistakable scent of fear. He had rushed to the hospital with me, in a fit of panic, on coughing up blood. But now, after a moment to consider it all, he couldn’t bring himself to accept what was happening. In dire situations, with even more dire possible outcomes, like in this case, a man’s choice ultimately comes down to ‘fight or flight’. From Ashish’s panicked denial of our circumstances and his sudden dash towards the exit door, it was clear which option he chose.

I ran right behind him. He needed to do this with me, because according to the old man, Ashish’s life was on the line too.

Just then, the scene playing out at the reception, caught our attention. An old woman was crying and pleading with the staff manning the cash-counter. In their usual professionally unsympathetic tone, they were giving her the standard ‘our hands are tied’ excuse. We could gather that the lady’s husband was being treated at this hospital. The bill had outrun her available finances, and the hospital was threatening to evict the patient unless, the due amount was settled. She was pleading for some more time.

“Atone… ATONE…” The old man’s voice resounded like an epiphany and triggered me into action. Before I knew it, I found myself walking up to reception and slapping my credit card on the counter.

“Here!… Put her charges on this.” The staff looked at me flabbergasted, for a moment; but then quickly snapped into action, not wanting to lose the opportunity to recover their lost revenue.

The old lady walked up to me, too shocked to utter the customary ‘who’ or ‘why’. Her eyes, however, were brimming with gratitude. I just put a hand on her shoulder and smiled.

“Varun!” Ashish’s voice pierced in, from near the exit. His raised and trembling finger was pointing at me. It took me a few seconds to realize that he was signalling at my left arm, which was now on the old woman’s shoulder. The arm, which had been dead, since this morning!

*********

“So all this is really happening…” Ashish was still shaking like a leaf, trying to grasp everything.

“Yes… and it is almost 2 p.m. We have to find two more people to help… Think! Think!”

“I don’t know… Maybe some poor people?… There is a bunch of homeless beggars, near my building… We can…” He stopped mid-sentence, struck by a damning thought. “Varun… tell me again… what did that old man, look like?”

I rattled off his description once again. The more Ashish heard, the wider his eyes got.

“Oh my god, Varun. I think I have seen him!… He is one of the beggars who live across the road. I am quite certain. We need to go find him.”

On the way back, I was overwhelmed with the idea that perhaps Ashish had been right all along. I, too, must have seen that man there, sometime. And all this might just be that memory, superimposed on a drug induced hallucination.

When we reached that group of vagrants, that man was nowhere to be found.

“Ramsharan, Babuji? I think that is the one you are looking for.” One of them stepped up for our help. “Poor chap. Died last night.”

“Died?!” We both cried out, in unison.

“Yes… good man… very sad story, Babuji.”

“What story?” Ashish managed to utter.

“Had a son and a wife. A happy life. But the son was charged with stealing money from the man he used to work for as a driver… the son pleaded that he was innocent. But no one believed him… after all, that briefcase, full of money, was taken from his car while the driver was in it. The son was sent to jail. Wife died of a heart attack… landlord evicted him for not paying rent. Poor man spent his last few months with us.” He continued, pointing at Ashish’s building. “He just sat here… watched that building all day. Never even begged. Ate whatever little we gave him.”

Fear, does not even begin to describe, what gripped us at the moment. Our minds zapped back to that one incident, seven months ago. That evening, we made a real big hit. We had been tailing that businessman for a few weeks, when the opportunity presented itself. Ashish had distracted his driver by asking him for directions and I had swiped the bag from the back seat of the car.

Just like that, the whole enigma of the old man and his threat, came unraveled. And now, it was more believable than ever.

“… He said we never know how far the ripples of our actions go. Of the lives we destroy… as a consequence of what we do.”

*******

The next few minutes happened too quickly to register anything. We were standing on the footpath, numbed by this new understanding of our guilt; of the lives we destroyed without even realizing. A loud smash caught our attention. A car driver, eager to skip the red light had rammed into a bike coming to halt, at the signal. The bike rider, was thrown high up in the air before crashing near the footpath. We rushed to the victim. Luckily he was still breathing, but wouldn’t be for long, if he wasn’t rushed to the hospital. I looked at Ashish. Could this be really happening? The second person, whom we could help and pay our debts, literally landed at our feet? Could fate really be cutting us some slack, after all?

Within the next hour, we found ourselves back at the hospital with the bike rider. After paying for his expenses we decided to wait in the lounge till his family arrived.

“This… feels unreal.” Ashish muttered to himself. “Varun… If we somehow make through this day… I want you to know… my conman days are over.”

I sighed. “Mine too.”

Between our parents who abandoned us, and the sadistic foster care warden who we ran away from, and the cruel world which couldn’t care less about two orphan boys; no one ever taught us ‘right or wrong’ as clearly as that old man did. I looked at my watch. 5:45 p.m. The last few hours flew fast. We were barely three hours away from the deadline. We had ruined three lives; and with just a few hours remaining, we had helped only two people. The odds weren’t in our favor.

Ashish spoke again; surprisingly, sans the fear in his voice. “How much time do you think it will take… to find a lawyer, confess to our crimes and get than poor man’s son out of jail?”

I exhaled with relief. “Let’s find out!”

Whether we would be able to do it in the remaining time was immaterial. What mattered most, was that for the first time since morning, we saw some hope for absolution.

As we stepped out of the hospital, a strikingly colorful butterfly glided past. I couldn’t help but wonder, that the wings that poor innocent creature flapped so nonchalantly, could cause a hurricane in a world it doesn’t even know of.

 

 

PS – This story was written as a part of the TOI Write India Contest, based on Ashwin Sanghi’s prompt. Incidentally also, my first attempt at writing a thriller.

The Yarn of Grit

Close to the city of Paithan, in a small village called Sauviragram, which lay along the banks of the great river Godavari, lived a woman named Ilaa. Being cotton farmers, her family was well to do, but not among the richest in their area. It was the harvest season, and cotton had to be picked from the plants. The wholesalers and traders from Paithan would be arriving in just a few weeks, carrying gold and goods for barter. They would exchange what they carried for the cotton that the farmers grew. The bales of cotton had to be ready in time! Work was at its peak!

But Ilaa was not to be found in the fields. She wasn’t working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the great river Godavari.

“I am sick of this!” she grunted loudly.

Her friends sat with their heads lowered. They, too, had shared Ilaa’s dream; but not her heartbreak and rage now that it had been crushed. As women born and raised in a patriarchal society, they had learned to expect just that. They were just sad to have disappointed their friend.

Ilaa looked at them and read their submission to defeat. She didn’t resent them for their lack of perseverance. She just knew she couldn’t give up like them. She directed her angry eyes towards the river. The tranquil sheet of water that spread in front of her belied the depths, which it hid underneath. Just like her resolve on this subject, she thought.

******

“Ah! There you are.” Lakshmi’s voice echoed from the back door of the house. She climbed down the stairs that led to the river. Ilaa sat there, on the last rung, her feet immersed in the water.

She looked perturbed and Lakshmi could guess just why. “Paarvati’s husband said ‘No’ too… I guess?”

Ilaa confirmed with a nod. After Neela’s and Vandana’s husbands, this was the third and final rejection. It was also a grave blow to Ilaa’s hopes to convince her own father for the project.

Frequent droughts in their region, made the crops suffer ever so often. Even in the years which saw adequate rains, the losses from the previous years cancelled out all the profits. Most of the families in this whole cotton producing belt, were, at best ‘hand to mouth’.

After months of deliberation and research, Ilaa had come up with a plan, to improve the village’s financial situation. It was common knowledge, that ever since Aurangzeb had taken over as the Viceroy of Deccan and established Aurangabad as his capital, Paithan’s local craft of weaving Paithani sarees had got a shot in the arm. He was a great patron of this 2000 year old art. Therein lay the golden opportunity which Ilaa wanted to seize; of capitalizing on an expertise all women in Paithan held. Ilaa had been consumed with the idea of starting a karyashaala (workshop) for Paithani sarees. So far, within their district, this craft had mostly only been confined to mothers weaving sarees for their daughter’s trousseau. It was now time to take it to newer heights. Finding labor in Sauviragram would not be a problem. There was no dearth of space for the workshop either. Weaving machines and charkhas were in abundant supply too. Everything seemed providential, except for the first step; getting the men in their families to consent.

“I told you… it will not be easy.” Lakshmi’s warm eyes tried to soothe her.

“I don’t understand, Aai! This will give us all additional incomes to count on during droughts. How many families must be ruined before people open up their eyes? How many farmers should die? Paarvati’s husband almost had to mortgage his house last year, after the crops failed. Neela’s husband is knee deep in debt too. The fools still won’t agree?!” Ilaa beseeched. Their dissent made no sense to her. Their families weren’t as affluent and Ilaa’s; and therefore, unlike her, desperately needed this initiative.

Lakshmi had no answers. She supported her daughter, unreservedly. But she also knew her support carried no currency, in a society, where men dictated all the rules. Before doing anything, Ilaa would need their sanction. And they still carried their antiquated taboos like a badge worn with pride. To them, this was the same Pratishthanapura of thousands of years ago. They did not acknowledge the fact that with time, the definition of pratishtha had changed. That, what their wives and daughters were setting out to do would not tarnish their honor, rather embellish it.

“So… what’s next?”

“Ohhh!… I haven’t got the faintest idea.” Ilaa resignedly reclined on the stairs and looked up at the sky. It was nothing but a stretch of pale blue with a few white blotches of clouds. After a few moments, her languid eyes met a flock of red crested pochards, migrating south-west to the Nath Sagar Lake. Her mother had told her that they came from lands, far beyond the Himalayas. It sparked a thought.

“It’s beautiful… isn’t it Aai?”

“What is?” Lakshmi’s eyes followed hers upwards and found the birds. “Hmmm…”

Ilaa’s eyes kept chasing the birds, as they got smaller and smaller, till they just fused indistinguishably into the blue. “I wasn’t really talking about the flock of birds.”

Lakshmi’s eyebrows furrowed into a question mark and darted back to her daughter.

“What’s beautiful… is their willingness to travel thousands of miles from home… in search of what they need.” The sparkle in her smile hinted of an ingenious plan.

******

“Are you sure about this?” Janaardan asked.

“Yes, Aajobaa.” She beamed at her grandfather.

He looked at Lakshmi. The calmness on his daughter’s face made it clear that she was on board with his granddaughter’s plan.

Janaardan was a member of Wasudewa Sanstha, an institution created by Sant Eknath, a sixteenth century saint from Paithan. Just like other Wasudewas, Janaardan would travel to various towns, go door to door, and sing bharuds (prayer songs) in an effort to spread social and religious messages. Ilaa had requested him to take her along, to Aurangabad, under the ruse of going to Paithan to spend a few days at the Eknath Maharaj Temple. That part was relatively, easy because Ilaa’s father, a deeply religious man, would never say no to such an expedition. It was the part about what Ilaa intended to do, once in Aurangabad, which frazzled Janaardan.

“But why would the Governor agree to help you?” He inquired.

“Because my darling Aajobaa… He has nothing to lose if it doesn’t work… and a lot to gain if it does.” Ilaa had a way of being confident, with an effulgence, which soon rubbed on to the people around her.

Janaardan had always been a doting grandfather, especially after she was widowed at the young age of twelve. Besides, she intended to use this project for the economic upliftment of poor families and especially of the widows of the farmers who committed suicide. He figured he owed it to his grandchild and this noble mission to aid her efforts.

He smiled, conceding. “You are a real tough one, aren’t you?”

The two women exhaled in relief and smiled at each other. They had a whole lot of preparations and weaving ahead of them.

******

Sarfaraz Khan, the Governor of Aurangabad, had made a gaffe a year ago; when Chattrapati Shivaji passed through the city and the Governor failed to pay him due homage. That dereliction of duty, did not sit well with Aurangzeb, who considered Shivaji as a powerful ally at the moment. Since then, Sarfaraz Khan had been pining for an opportunity, to do something worthy of getting him back in the Viceroy’s good books. So, one fine day, when he heard that a woman from a tiny village near Paithan, wants to see him regarding an art form, which Aurangzeb had come to be fascinated with lately; an imposing sense of serendipity made him agree to see her, at once.

He heard what Ilaa had to offer, patiently. Though he didn’t display it, but he was deeply impressed by her clarity of thought and the amount of astute planning she had put into this project. She asked for his support to set up her karyashaala. But he still wasn’t sure what was in it for him. He was almost about to dismiss her when she pulled out a saree from her bag, and started to unfold it. He looked away distractedly, because he had seen many of these before. But just then, Ilaa unfurled the trump card. The moment she spread the pallav of the saree on the table, his eyes widened. This one was quite different from any he had ever seen before. This vibrant pallav had a unique floral motif, which resembled the amalgamation of Islamic and Persian designs often found in Mughal paintings and architecture.

“Behold, O! Noble Governor… the Aurangzebi Paithani.” Ilaa presented her masterpiece.

A glint of excitement floated in the Governor’s eyes. It was the very promise of hope, which Ilaa had pursued, from Sauviragram to Aurangabad.

******

The crowd squatting in front of the village Panchaayat didn’t mean to be disrespectful by chattering. But they couldn’t reign in their emotions anymore; surprise and a bit of anger amongst the males, curiosity and enthusiasm amongst the women.

Ilaa stood facing the Sarpanch, calmly making her plea.

“Respected Sarpanch ji, last year alone eleven farmers in Sauviragram committed suicide because their crops failed and the loans mounted. They left behind widows, orphans… Many others lost their homes and assets to the losses. What I offer, is a solution to that problem, forever.” Ilaa’s voice was soft, yet persuasive.

The Sarpanch was livid. How could he consent to what she was proposing? People of Pratishthanapura would never compromise their honor, even in the face of poverty and death. “Our women do not work or run a business. Period.” He employed the clichéd argument to stonewall Ilaa’s enterprise.

“They do. They always have.”

“Excuse me?!” He bellowed.

“Just because they don’t get paid for it, doesn’t mean they don’t work Sarpanch Ji. Look around you…” She said pointing at the huddle of women. “They all work in the fields with their husbands. It’s just that they never get paid a single aana for it. I am giving them an opportunity to turn their hard work and talent into money.”

“Oh! That is different. They work with their husbands. Not for someone… outside their family.”

“They still won’t.”

“Please! We are not that naïve, Ilaa. They would work for you, won’t they?” His arched eyebrow and condescending tone, were aimed at deriding Ilaa for disguising her plan to make a windfall from this project, as noble intentions.

“No. They will work for themselves. What I am offering is a new form of enterprise where all of them will be the owners and hence get a share in profits, based on the quantum of their labor. It will be called a ‘Co-operative’.”

The Sarpanch was baffled. He had never heard of a set-up like this.

“The ‘Co-operative’ will offer membership to all widows and women from the poor families, who are interested. They desperately need new livelihood… They need this opportunity.”

“But… how will you manage to sell it? Our women cannot approach tradesmen in the cities to sell…”

“We won’t have to. The Governor has promised to pick up all our production, as long as we only make Aurangzebi Paithani.”

The murmur swelled. Now it had the notes of optimism to it. Lakshmi stepped forward and stood next to her daughter.

“Times have been tough, Sarpanch Ji. But we finally have a solution. This not only gives us women something worthwhile to do with our time, and make money in the process… It also puts Sauviragram on the map, as far as Viceroy Aurangzeb is concerned. Rumors have it that he is next in line to Shah Jahan’s throne. Imagine the merits of Sauviragram being one of his favorite villages; the one that helped him build a legacy? Tax rebates for our farmers, infrastructure development… perhaps a post for you in the district administration? You will after all, be the face of this village.” This demeanor was a little sycophantic for Lakshmi’s taste, but she had known the Sarpanch long enough to know it would work.

It did. Sarpanch’s face softened. “Do you think Aurangzeb would like that?”

“He already does.” Ilaa’s outstretched hand held out a letter, from Aurangzeb which she had carried back from her meeting with the Governor. Therein, signed by the Viceroy himself, was an order for a hundred sarees.

Aurangzeb was smitten, by the splendor of Ilaa’s perfect weave, which Sarfaraz showed him. Never before had the historical craft of Paithani been associated with any particular dynasty, although it had been patronized by many. Not until, Ilaa had designed the first ever Aurangzebi motif. Aurangzeb couldn’t miss this golden opportunity.

Ilaa closed her argument, in her trademark poised tone, which always dispelled all further doubts. “No one can pass over a chance to create a legacy, Sarpanch Ji, not even future emperors… And neither should you.”

The Sarpanch caught her hint. Women in the crowd burst into a volcanic applause. That is the thing about a change that has been a long time coming. The day it finally decides to erupt, the so called gate keepers of the society have no option but to conform. That is what the Sarpanch and the rest of the Panchaayat also did, that evening.

******

Ilaa sat hunched over the accounts of Naari Shakti Udyog. She didn’t yet know, that what she had created, would go down in the annals of history as the first ever Women’s only Co-operative Organization of India. She didn’t do all this for the laurels anyway. She did it for the gay singing and laughters, mixed with the humdrum of the charkhas, which echoed from the workshop floor outside. Fifty women worked there, against the clock to finish the latest order; this one for Aurangzeb’s sister Jahanara and her courtiers. Jahanara had always been more supportive of her their elder brother Dara Shikoh’s candidature for the throne. This gift was the latest one in Aurangzeb’s attempts to woo her.

Lakshmi brought in Ilaa’s lunch. Ilaa smiled gratefully, rolled a chapati, and took a bite, never once taking her eyes off the books.

Lakshmi just stood there beaming with pride. She had never really liked the name Ilaa. A fable dictated that King Ila, the founder of Pratishthanapura, was cursed by Lord Shiva once. The curse made him turn into a woman every alternate month. For a long time, he had to live this maddening life of duality.

Looking at her daughter now, for the first time, Lakshmi concluded that the name suited her daughter perfectly. Because Ilaa most certainly was, a summation of the best qualities of the masculine and the feminine: industrious, enterprising, free-spirited and strong-willed.

 

 

PS – This story was written for the TOI Write India Contest, based on Amish Tripathi’s  prompt.

Jaanaki Kaaki

The intercom rings just as I get out of the shower.

“Hi Nandini. How are you dear?” Mrs. Bhaskar, the caller, gets the politeness out of the way, with a sense of urgency.

“I’m good Auntie, how…?” She doesn’t even let me finish mine.

“Have you seen Jaanaki since this morning?”

“Um…. No, I haven’t. But she should be coming in, any moment now.” The clock says 8:30 a.m.

“Yes. I guessed as much. Would you please be a doll and send her over to my place right away?” It didn’t sound like a request, though it was worded like one. “I have guests coming over for lunch and so much is left to do.”

“Sure. No problem.” She always has a reason to summon Jaanaki Kaaki, with a non-negotiable urgency. A knack, which, Mrs. Das from 202 and Mrs. Gupta from 401, are dying to learn from her.

Jaanaki Kaaki is an odd-job woman, who services almost all of the 10 flats in my building. Mrs. Bhaskar believes she owns the biggest share of her time, because she is the oldest resident here.

Kaaki first came to this building, as a ten month old baby, with her mother who worked as a maid here. When she was sixteen, her mother died, leaving these jobs as the only bequest to her. She got married, had two boys, got them educated and settled, all while she worked here. If you ask her how old she is, she would offer an estimate of 60. If you gauge from the wrinkles on her face, and the overall fatigued demeanor of her frail body, you will add at least ten years to that number.

The truth is she has long been relieved, from her duties as a maid by all the families here. With her old age came infirmity. Every other day, her unsteady hands would drop and break an expensive crystal ware or a fancy showpiece. Then there was also the problem of her unintentional tardiness. Her husband, who spent his entire life chewing tobacco and drinking cheap liquor, has been now bed ridden since the last few years with oral cancer and a hoard of other illnesses. Tending to him would often make her late in the mornings. She often missed work too, on account of taking him to the hospital. Soon, enough reasons had stacked up against her. She was too old, to try to get work anywhere else. Besides, she had spent her whole life, with these families. She couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing them every day. So, even after losing her employment, she would still show up every morning, knock on every single apartment door and ask them if they needed her help with something. Cooking? Dusting? Laundry? Babysitting? She never asked for any money in return, only for the leftover food, or discarded clothes. Which made her the ideal additional help. Besides, soon after firing her, most of her employers realized that her replacements, who worked with one eye permanently on the clock and came with a inviolable understanding of what their job ‘does not’ entail; would never provide the kind of dedicated and extensive service like Jaanaki Kaaki. Hence, all the residents jumped at the opportunity to have her back in their lives, especially now when she came for free.

******

The doorbell rings. I know it would be her.

“Kaaki, You may want to straight away head to…”

Arre bitiya, I know. She has already called 401 and 302 ten times. But I couldn’t let you leave without breakfast.” Before I can say anything else, she is already at the fridge, grabbing eggs and bread. For the frail old woman that she is, she can be quite determined. So I just smile, and go inside to get dressed.

When I come out, I see only one plate set on the kitchen counter. “Kaaki, how many times must I tell you to make some for yourself too?”

She just smiles in response. The pressure cooker whistles. I hadn’t even noticed it was placed on the stove.

“What’s that?”

“I made some daal. Now just need to boil some rice when you get back.” Her unapproving gaze is fixed on the box of last night’s pizza sticking out from my dustbin. “You can’t eat this stuff every day. You will fall ill.”

“You are too good to me!” I hug her, gratefully, and start collecting my things.

“And you, to me.” She gives her standard reply, while trying to quickly finish up in the kitchen, because she knows I need to leave soon. That’s the thing about her. You don’t need to tell her much, yet she manages to understand everything anyway.

******

I moved into this building eight years ago. Kaaki dropped in with an offer to help, before I could even get all the cartons off the elevator. I liked her instantly. But in keeping with my resolve to do everything on my own, I neither engaged her except for an occasional weekend, nor employed any other help. She would, however, every morning, ring my doorbell and ask me if she could be of any assistance. Two years later, when my parents moved to U.K. to live with my brother, my mother sent me a lot of their old clothes. I offered them to Kaaki. She said she would accept all that, only if I let her make my breakfast and clean up my home every weekend. By then, I had been living independently long enough, to come to despise its aftereffects; my always messy home and always hungry for good food stomach. So I readily agreed.

On Sundays, she makes it a point to spend at least a few hours with me. She uses this time, to do whatever chores she could fit in, despite my protests. I can tell she likes to spend time at my apartment, instead of at others’. We chat about a lot of things. I tell her about the problems at work, and she listens with rapt attention, while massaging oil in my hair. Sometimes, she even gives me an advice, one would never expect from someone like her. She is surprisingly wise and well informed, for an uneducated old woman. I have to say, in the absence of my parents, having her around is a real blessing.

I often wondered why she had never questioned me or moralized me about my spinsterhood. The fact that I am well over thirty and still single, seems to bother everyone, from my parents to all the aunties in this building. But not her. One day, I was tempted to ask.

“Kaaki, how come you have never asked me why I am not married yet?”

Bitiya, you are an educated and responsible girl. I am sure you must have your reasons.” She answered while scrubbing the kitchen counter.

She was the only person to have ever said that to me. To almost everyone else, I was a woman too spoilt by her financial independence, to want to settle down, willingly. I informed her of that distinction. She smiled for a moment, but the very next her lips contracted into a tight grimness.

Bitiya, despite of what the world would have us women believe… Marriage isn’t the solution to our problems. You are an independent woman. You can give yourself a good life without a husband. Don’t get me wrong… I do pray that one day, you find a handsome Raajkumar, get married and have cute chubby children. But you must do it, only when you find the right man…” Years of pain floated in her lost eyes. “… There can be nothing worse than getting married to the wrong one.”

In the few years that I had been here, some grapevine about her life had reached me. But I never encouraged gossip about Kaaki’s life; someone I had come to like and care for a lot.

“Kaaki, your family… I mean your sons. Where are they?”

“They are married now, have children… busy with their lives.”

“You should ask them to help you out.”

“I tried… it didn’t work. I could never bring myself to beg them for help.” She sighed. “Not that it would have worked either. They do not have the time or the money to spare for their father… who, to tell you the fact, throughout their life, hit them more than he hugged them.” It was hard to guess from her tone, whom she meant it for, with more repugnance; her sons or her husband.

 

Someone else would have probably, just shamed her sons into accepting their responsibilities. But not Kaaki. That is exactly the kind of person she is. She slogs for 12-14 hours a day in this building, and rarely ever leaves here, with anything more than just enough food for her and her husband. He, incidentally, had never been anything but a burden to her. She was married off to him by a distant relative, who didn’t want to shoulder the responsibilities of a young orphan girl, barely months after her mother’s death. Her husband, who was at least ten years older than her, did nothing but drink alcohol, eat tobacco and play cards all day. He would beat her up, if she refused to sponsor his addictions. The thrashing had only stopped in the recent years, because his illness confined him to the bed. Even now he lashes her with his tongue. I asked her why she put up with it all; especially now, when everyone else has deserted him, except her.

“That is the thing about us women, bitiya. We tolerate injustice or so long that it becomes our way of life… His abuses do not even hurt me anymore, that is how he’s always been.” I saw in her face, the look of sympathy, which I did not think one could possibly have, for one’s tormentor. “Also… I can see that he is in in a lot of pain… he can barely get up … or eat … the medicines don’t help much anymore. He just waits for his end… which seems to be coming painfully slowly.”

******

It is 8:56 a.m. and Kaaki is still not here. She might just have forgotten that I am back. I have been away, for almost six months, on a project. On the way out, as I hurry towards my car, I just shoot an instruction to our guard Ram Singh, to remind Kaaki that I am back. He looks at me flabbergasted and mumbles something, which I do not catch. I am running too late to bother.

Kaaki doesn’t come in the next day, as well. I’m quite sure Ram Singh didn’t deliver my message; so I decide to stop over at the Bhaskars’ apartment to drop by a message for her.

“Hello Auntie… how are you?”

“Oh! Hello Nandini! When did you get back? How was Australia?”

“Day before yesterday, Auntie… It was good. I’m in a terrible rush. Could you please remind Kaaki, that I’m back?” I turn around to run back to elevator because I know if she decides to interrogate me about my trip, I could be stuck with her for the next thirty minutes. Just as I the elevator door rings open, her words, grab my feet.

“Oh God! You don’t know about Jaanaki, do you?”

“Know what?” I turn around, my heart almost in my mouth. At the age Kaaki’s is at, one is quite prompt to jump to the most dreadful thoughts about her. There is a foreboding look on her face which tells me this isn’t some everyday gossip, she is famous for peddling.

I squeal demanding relief. “Know what, Auntie?!”

She lowers her voice and her tone reeks of abhorrence. “Jaanaki was arrested for killing her husband.”

I stand there, unable to move or speak for the next several minutes. She knows I have always been quite fond of Kaaki and quickly changes her manner to display fake empathy. “Oh honey, I know you liked her very much. We all did…” Her chubby arms are almost hugging me. “We can barely believe it ourselves… 40 years that woman has worked for us. She looked so normal … makes me sick, to think that someone who had such free access to our homes… our families… has done something like that! What is the world coming to?”

I try to swallow a knot, swelling in my throat. “But… it could… all… be a mistake.”

“No. No. No. She herself walked into the police station and surrendered.”

******

I am sitting in my balcony, hoping that the cold February winds slapping my face, would help me break out of my stupor. They don’t. My mind feels as numb as it did walking out of the Women’s Cell in the Vikas Nagar Jail, a few hours ago, where Kaaki is serving a life sentence.

I had to pretend to be a journalist desperate for a scoop, and grease three people, to be allowed to see her, outside of the visiting hours. The windowless visiting room, with the paint peeling off the walls, broken furniture and just one lamp hanging from the ceiling, reluctantly throwing some illumination, had an air of doom about it. It didn’t look like this visiting room had seen many visitors. I broke down hysterically on seeing her, as she walked in; I guess from the confusion of the whole thing, more than anything else. She just sat there, her head hung low. She was obviously sorry to see me this sad, but her face had a kind of serenity which seemed completely out of place here; in this forsaken visiting room, with my wails, and under her current circumstances.

“What… is… everybody saying?” My sobs drowned my words.

“The truth.”

“But… why…?”

Bitiya, forget all that… How was your trip? When did you get back?… You look so weak. Did you not eat…”

“Answer me, Kaaki! Why did you do it?!” I had never taken that tone with her; or for that matter anyone.

She took a moment to recover from it. The agony of this question was beyond my capacity to handle and she could see that. “Bitiya, he was sick… very sick. I ran out of his medicines. Even if I hadn’t, I doubt they would have helped him anymore. He would cry out with pain, day and night… he was a terrible husband and a bad father… there were times when I hated him and cursed him. But even I never wanted him to suffer like that.” Her voice started to shake under the weight of her confession. Although she had surrendered to the law, on her own accord, it was obvious that she had never told anyone, what she was about to tell me now. Not because no one asked; but perhaps, because she didn’t think anyone would understand.

“I was behind on the rent, for the last six months. The landlord was going to throw us out… You know how cold it gets here in the winters. How long do you think a man in his condition wouldn’t have lasted, out in the open? Wasn’t he already suffering enough…” She paused, swallowed hard, and wiped her eyes with the pallu. “One day… he couldn’t take the pain any more. He begged me to relieve him. I cried for a week, wondering what I was going to do. Any day now, I expected the landlord to come and throw us out on the streets. His cries got louder as the pain increased…He begged and begged… and begged.” Her puny frame trembled as though his pain pulsated through her veins, as she recounted the horrible tribulation of that fateful night.

“…when I couldn’t take his screams for help, anymore, I put a pillow on his face and silenced him, forever. He did not protest…just quietly slipped away.” The relief of finally voicing that confession broke her.

I didn’t know what I should or could say to what I had just heard. I just sat there, looking at her trying to reconcile with her remorse. But then, it occurred to me that her husband’s condition, could have served as a valid reason for a sudden death. No one would have suspected a thing had she not confessed to the murder.

“But… why did you have to tell anyone? It was after all, according to his wishes. And he was sick anyway…”

“That doesn’t make it any less of a crime… Does it, Bitiya?” Her eyes were firm with the determination to atone. If only, I could convince her, what she did was far removed from a crime.

“After he died, I sat there in the darkness of my jhopdi… the whole night. I wanted to hate myself for what I did… I wanted to cry… A part of me also wanted to be scared, wondering what would happen to me next. But I felt none of that… No grief, no fear. Instead, for the first time in years… I felt free…”

I was too confounded to listen to or grasp what Kaaki was trying to tell me. I burst out. “And your sons? Why didn’t you tell them the truth? They could have ensured you get a lenient sentence.”

“They want nothing to do with me. Not that I can blame them… and… you don’t understand. I do not want a lesser punishment. I want this.” Her voice trailed off. She looked at my furrowed brows and creased forehead and continued to explain. “Bitiya, where would I go when they set me free? My landlord wouldn’t let a murderer stay there anymore. Nor would anyone let me work for them… And if I were to stay with my sons… That is, if their wives ever allow it… I would have to pay back for their generosity by working harder than the memsahibs in the building ever made me, and listening to harsher words than my husband ever said to me.”

She walked up to me and wiped my tears with her rough bony fingers, and sat down next to me. She took my hand in hers and started stroking the back of it, lovingly, as if I were the one who needed to be comforted. Her eyes were fixed on nothingness that surrounded us. After a long pause, she spoke, not to me, but to that nothingness.

“The last time I remember feeling this free… of responsibilities, of worries, of pain… of anger…” The last one, was something she had never even admitted to holding inside her. “…was when my mother was alive… But since, she died and I got married… I always felt trapped. Responsibilities had me tied down. I didn’t have the time to stop, or slow down…or even complain. I had to keep working through my sickness and fatigue to support my drunkard husband, educate my sons and get them married. I kept telling myself, I just need to brave up to it all, till my sons are old enough to shoulder my burdens. Just when I thought my ordeal was over, my husband fell ill. My sons deserted us, and I was back where I started…”

I placed my other hand over hers and gently squeezed it. It reminded her of my presence in the room. She turned to me.

“There were times… especially in the last ten years, when I couldn’t even get up from the bed in the mornings. But then I would have to, because otherwise I wouldn’t have any food and my ailing husband wouldn’t have any medicines. My body would revolt, but my brain would quickly remind it, that I was too poor to allow myself to feel tired”

She could tell from face that even I, who prided herself in being more sensitive towards her than others, had never quite understood how overworked and tired she was. Her ever so jolly demeanor always had me fooled too. She read my guilt, just like everything else I had never had to verbalize to her. She cupped my face in both her hands. Her shaking, gaunt fingers had more strength in them than my whole body, at that moment.

Bitiya, don’t worry about me. I am fine here. I no more have to worry, about the roof over my head or the food on my plate… Can you believe I have been eating three times a day since I got here?” While she beamed with genuine happiness, ironically, the agonizing truth of that sentence was slowly dawned on me by the second, like a poison that spreads slowly.

“And I feel so relaxed… I have nothing much to do. I just laze around all day… Chat up with a few other women … Teach the younger ones how to stitch, or cook. They assigned me some duties, when I first came in. But a month later Superintendent Madam, relaxed them. She says she likes me. Even if I volunteer to help, the younger girls don’t let me. They all call me Jaanaki Amma.” She said it with more pride and endearment in than I had ever seen her using for her sons or her husband. Her words were sprinkled with the excitement of a six year old, finally at a vacation she had always dreamed of. “The other day I fell sick… fever…must have been 103-104. They did not let me get off the bed for three whole days! One person was messaging my feet, and another one was keeping strips of cloth soaked in cold water on my head. I felt like… like… one of the memsahibs from our building.” She smiled. It was one that radiated straight from her heart.

******

Sitting here now, thinking about my visit to Kaaki earlier today, an odd sense of comfort mixed with shame inundates me. There’s comfort, because she seems relieved. She is free of worries and hard labor. She is surrounded by people who care for her. She is home. And, thankfully, she will have all this, for the rest of her life. But there’s an inescapable sense of shame too. Because she found all this in a building full of convicts and so called ‘social rejects’ instead of us – a society which wrung her dry, till the last ounce of her strength had been squeezed out and used; but failed to stand by her when she needed it. I was sure; the idea of asking any of us for help, never even crossed her mind. I try to tell myself that if I was around, she would have come to me and I could have helped her. But that illusion vaporizes quickly, too. Because I know, that is the kind of person Jaanaki Kaaki is, always interested in over-delivering and content in being under-compensated.

I don’t know if I should grieve for my respect for our society, which got irreparably dented today, a society which comprises of people like Mrs. Bhaskar who washed their hands off Kaaki in a heartbeat; or celebrate for the restoration of my faith in humanity, represented by people like Kaaki. People with exemplary strength of spirit, compassion without any expectation of being compensated, wisdom which no amount of education can ever bring and integrity to surrender for a crime which no one even suspects them of committing. Someone, who is as poor as they come and yet manages to give everyone what they want, often, without them even having to ask for it; her sons, her husband, Mrs. Bhaskar, Mrs. Das, Mrs. Gupta. Me.

I wipe my face with my hands. I don’t even remember how long I have been crying and for what. I look at my palms. The tears on them glisten as they catch the faint moonlight. Quite like the way the contentment on Kaaki’s face, sparkled under the pale light of that bulb, in the visiting room, as she spoke the words. “Bitiya, I feel free…”

 

 

 

PS – This short story, on the theme of ‘freedom’, was selected to be published in FWBA’s first edition of their eMagazine – UnBound.

 

 

 

 

 

The Door

The only thought in my fuddled mind right now, is that I would never forget this moment. None of it. All this would stay with me for the rest of my living days. These pristine white walls that keep closing in on me. This intense smell of disinfectants and medicines; that reeks of death and disease. These labyrinthine long corridors, in which I have lost my future today, irretrievably. And most importantly, these people who surround me right now. People whom I do not know, but would now have an eternal connection with. Because of how we all sit here, braving this moment; this surreal and yet an agonizingly extant moment, together.

I would never forget how this old lady sitting next to me with sun-battered skin and fate-battered face, keeps wiping her eyes every few minutes, with her gaunt fingers; while she awaits a final word from the doctors, on her husband of over fifty years. How her eyes look so tired. Too tired to even nurse a sliver of hope.

How the young lady on the bench across from me, keeps absent-mindedly twirling the pink handkerchief ensconced in her clammy hands. How dry and desolate, her eyes are. Like they have done all the crying that they were capable of, and still haven’t found the catharsis they sought. How they also carry a tinge of horror. Like she still cannot believe all this could be happening. How her husband, broken and withdrawn, stands leaning on the pillar next to the bench. No one has told me he is her husband. But the way both of their eyes betray the exact same emotion, leaves no doubt. Their four year old son, I hear, is slowly being snatched away, by the merciless clutches of dengue.

I won’t forget any of this.

For hours now, we have been sitting here; the interstices between our bodies filled with a farrago of emotions– grief, shock, despair, fatigue, faith, and occasional glimpse of solidarity. And I cannot help but wonder – If I know their stories by now, do they also know mine?

Do they know that I was too busy at work, to be with my wife when she went into labor? The wife who had requested me to take the day off, because she could feel that today was going to be the big day. A request which I had laughed off, because she had already had two false alarms in the last week and the due date was still four days away. And because there was this meeting with the top management, which I just couldn’t miss. Hence, I decided to go in, for just two hours. Those two hours, which had stretched into ten. Ten life-changing hours; during which her water broke, and complications arose, and delays happened because the ambulance got caught in traffic.

Do they know, that I now sit staring at that door in front of me; because I cannot bring myself to face what lies on the other side? A wife who still doesn’t know that we have lost our baby; and who will probably blame me for it. An accusation, which my guilt will never let me refute; and one that will slowly gnaw away at my soul, every single day of my life. A life which will now never, ever, be as happy as we once were; or as we once could have been.

That door, is what this suffocating and horrendous moment culminates at. Only to lead me into an even more stifling and guilt ridden existence. The door, which I now must summon the last dregs of my courage, to open and walk through. Only to start my atonement for a mistake for which I really don’t want to be forgiven.

Ever.

 

 

PS – This piece was written for a writing exercise as a part of a workshop, on the theme “The Door”.

Tiny Drops of Grace

We are not equals. They are rich. I am poor. They have that pretty beach. I have this ramshackle tea stall, next to it. Every morning, they come here, to walk off their last night’s five course meals. I cannot even remember the last time, when our family of four ate to our hearts’ content. Their shoes are better cushioned than our beds. Even the dogs, they bring with them, live a life more comfortable, than my children do.

I know that my presence is an eyesore to them. Their loathing side glances make it quite clear, every time they pass by my shack. They cover their noses, so the stink of my poverty won’t infect them. I, on the other hand, gape unabashedly, at the mirage that is their ritzy affluence; inhaling the intoxicating fragrances of their perfumes deeply, before the wind takes even that away from me. I smile at them, if and when our eyes meet transiently. We are, in a way neighbors, after all; regardless of how much they abhor that fact. They grimace in return.

“Baba… why do these rich people hate us?” My son asks me, as he washes the battered kettle.

What do I tell him? He is right. They do hate us. They hate our poverty. Our grubbiness. Every tear in our tattered clothes. And that would never change. But, he is too young to have his illusions about this world shattered. He thinks that if he studies hard enough, and earns an honest living, then, one day he can be like them. How do I break the news to him, that, that is exactly what they fear. That is, why they hate us. They cannot let that happen. The way the concept of wealth works, you need some people around you to always stay poorer, in order for you to feel richer.

Unable to answer him, I start humming an old folk song, we used to often sing back in our village.

We have the same sun

We have the same moon

When the darkness falls

The same stars adorn our skies

The rain doesn’t drench your skin,

Any more than it soaks into mine

In that, my friend, we both are the same

You are not richer, I am not poorer

We are equal, my friend,

We both are the same

 

Petrichor starts to waft in. Followed quickly, by the kind of rain which you hear before you get to see it; because it falls with such ferocity, thick as sheets. Before I know it, all those rich folks are making a run for my shack. Their expensive phones, shoes and dogs need to be saved from the pouring rain. Desperate times call for desperate measures; even something as lowly as taking a shelter in a despicable poor man’s tea stall. Now, they smile at me. I know they don’t mean it, though. They merely force it upon themselves, to hide the embarrassing fact that ‘they’ have to deign enough, to seek my help. But, like them, I don’t grimace back. I smile. As I said, I have always believed we are neighbors.

I start passing tea around. Some of them are soaking wet. They could use the warmth of my hospitality and my tea. Under any other circumstances, they wouldn’t have touched that tea glass with a barge pole. At this moment, however, they feel too obligated to decline. I pick up one too. We stand there, shoulder to shoulder, sipping our tea and watching the rain. I smile, in gratitude, at the thick drops. There is a sense of poetic justice to this moment. God has sent down a great equalizer, in the form of these rains.

Wait a minute!

We are still not equals, are we? This is my shack. This time, I am richer. My smile widens.

Some of them offer me money for the tea. I turn it down, politely. This moment calls for a celebration; the tea is on the house.

Another folk song knocks on my memory:

We are the spokes of the wheel of time

Sometimes you’re up and sometimes I am

We are, but, the spokes of the wheel of time…

 

 

PS – This piece was adjudged a winner in the My Glass of Wine Contest organized by Literature Studio and Hawakaal Publishers and published in their chapbook “Sankaarak – A Literary Fusion”.