A Short Story
The rumble comes suddenly. First I hear it, then I feel it beneath my feet. The Earth's snores. I wouldn't blame her; the toxic fumes of industrialisation have probably worsened her sleep apnoea.
I look up at the sky – or whatever is visible of it from a sidewalk of the urban shopping area. Renovated Victorian buildings jostle for space alongside billboards and lamp-posts; the sky seems far away, left out of the hallowed circle. Monsoon clouds as out-of-season as last year’s platform shoes are slowly rolling in; a heavy breeze, like a gigantic invisible mouth, blows on the dying embers of red autumn leaves. Yet, the leaves do not blaze emerald with renewed strength; instead, they scatter with the gusts, eventually out of sight, leaving bare branches in their wake. Here and there pointillist patches of green cling valiantly as if in knowledge that their perseverance will be rewarded by showers.
I clutch my shopping bag safely to my chest. These are the new-fangled "environment-friendly" paper bags, they said, which pleased me. Nestled within was a treasure; a gorgeous coral satin negligee for my new sister-in-law, a black bomber jacket for my brother, earrings of pearl set in sterling silver for a cousin, and a snazzy pair of Nikes in time for a nephew’s inter-collegiate basketball tournament. I feel like Santa Claus, except I drive a sports car instead of reindeer and my toys are in a fancy paper bag instead of a sack. Unfortunately, it will be a while before someone makes environment-friendly bags that are strong enough to withstand Nature's windy tantrums.
I regret wearing my new shoes - faux leather camping boots that cost a bomb and look smashing, but I doubt if they'll be the same after wading through ankle-deep puddles of acid rain. I regret wearing my new maroon rain parka because a passing car will splash muddy water all over me and ruin the French velvet trim. I regret buying that new shade of lipstick I didn't really want because it’s a deep violet – too Goth for my taste. Why did I buy it? To impress someone. Who? Anyone. I don't know. And in all likelihood, probably never will.
The bill peeks out of the paper bag, ready to fly away and take with it all proof that I bought all this; with my own money, which I earned from my respectable job as a ad copywriter, which I secured through my own meritorious college education, which I got on a scholarship. All proof that I have even lived. I tuck it in deeper inside the paper bag, then on second thought, decide that it is a better idea to put it into my grey purse in full view of everybody. It would be stronger proof of the power I wield through my financial independence. Brandish thy ruby-studded sword in the enemy’s face, I say.
I stop at the traffic junction of the two lanes, one going north-west and the other going south-west, that meet the one-way road opposite; along that road, in the midst of banks and restaurants, is the car parking. That’s the trouble with space in the cities nowadays – they’re filled to the brim with too many buildings that have too many people, who have too many cars, mine included. The parking is a good hundred metres away from the mall, and every time I go shopping I have to wade through a blanket of traffic-generated dust and smoke – dust and smoke that defeats the purpose of bathing, let alone makeup. (Yes, that lipstick really bothers me.) But I can’t go return it; it wouldn’t be proper, because a few hundred rupees shouldn’t mean much to someone like me, right?
Opposite, near the car parking, I notice an elderly woman. I see her every time I visit the mall; she’s blind, and makes a living hawking roasted gram. Her husband, who’s also blind and elderly, sits a little distance away, wrapped in a tattered purple shawl patterned with fluorescent, almost iridescent yellow flowers. I haven’t seen him that often; he doesn’t seem particularly disabled, and I’ve often wondered why he doesn’t work like she does, though I seem to remember him sometimes directing the owners of the cars whenever they’re reversing out of the parking lot. He probably used to have extraordinary hearing in his youth, as do most blind people; but now he’d be a little deaf. One can’t possibly be aurally keen after years of staying all day in the vicinity of blaring traffic horns.
Probably lives off her earnings, I think. Just like other husbands. There’s no parasite like old parasite.
Together, the sight of their tiny ramshackle cart of pulses against row upon row of shiny sleek cars makes for that typical tradition/modernity composition, dutifully executed by all those kids in the arts college downtown, who end up putting the same kind of paintings at every exhibition; of street urchins watching city schoolboys playing cricket, of the teenage girl with a baby sibling on her hip selling balloons at traffic junctions. Of elderly hawkers selling roasted gram in front of a gargantuan shopping mall.
The light turns red, and I start to cross. Of course, just because the pedestrian sign is green doesn’t mean we have the right of way. A couple of bicycles zip past in violation, and one pockmarked fellow leers at me and shouts out something I don’t hear and don’t care to hear; but nevertheless, I pull my parka down over the back pockets of my jeans.
As I approach the old woman, I impulsively reach into my purse and pull out a five-rupee note, as I always do. I can never eat anything off a street while I’m dressed like this, but I can also never walk by her and not contribute to her daily bread while I’m dressed like this. But I’m protected from the stares of the public by the one-way traffic that hurtles past the parked cars, away from me. Also the sunglasses, which I like to think of as a cover for this - my occasional two-minute private rebellion against the trappings of my upper-class comfort. When I’ve been in this area at night-time, I’ve even driven all the way home with one hand on the steering wheel and the other popping gram into my mouth, with the local radio station playing Bollywood songs of yesteryear. No chance of being spotted; in the dark busy lanes of Mumbai, when every car is just another set of blinding headlights and honking horn, I’m invisible and safe from the embarrassment of being spotted slouching below my income.
I walk towards her, when there is a loud cracking sound. Suddenly the atmosphere is awash with grey wetness. The honks in the passing traffic behind me grow more pronounced and punctuate the atmosphere with increasing frequency; splattering sounds of running feet pick up tempo. In between, my ear catches a few shouts of delight.
I turn back to the old woman, intending to give her the note and slip away. I can’t buy the gram now; it’d be too soggy, obviously, but the rupee note can be tucked in somewhere in the folds of her sari and used when it’s dry, and I’d be done with my Benefaction For The Week. But she’s ignoring me; instead, she’s hurriedly covering all her precious gram with cheap plastic lids. Her husband is helping her out, which surprises me; I never thought that man does anything other than sit in a place all day and chatter with other vendors.
He puts a lid on the last black-iron vessel of gram, and just as I step forward, takes the tattered purple shawl off his shoulders and wraps it around his wife, so it’s covering both of them. His arm around her shoulder, they walk away quickly, pushing the cart, huddled together, the warmth of their bodies impervious to the rain.
Blurred figures run past, their movements and voices painting mixed emotions: squeals of delight. Two boys run with chickens tucked in their arms. A lone businessman in a long khaki raincoat, his head unprotected, hails taxis. All this when there was hardly any lightning! Two men carrying their shoes in their hands, united under a broken black umbrella, navigating the slush. Hurry, the electricity might get cut. A group of college girls on their way back from a soppy movie. Muffled sounds of togetherness.
And in the midst of it all is me, standing right outside my parked car in the downpour, drenched faux leather and velvet and paper bag of treasures, far poorer than anyone else in that junction.