Amita Basu | July 2022
The sky was midnight blue. The leaves rustled, mourning night’s passing. Savouring dawn’s cool I strolled in running gear towards the gate.
When I heard the noise beyond the wall, the sun hadn’t surfaced.
I hastened to the gate and looked up the road. Already, another car had stopped, and they’d carried the boy gingerly into the back seat. The manual rickshaw still stood strewn across the road. The rickshaw driver sat on his seat. Headcloth pushed up askew, still gripping his rickshaw handles.
By a big yellow suitcase standing upright, the boy’s father lay across the road. Head turned away blood-soaked.
I dialed Emergency on my mobile phone. Across the road, a man also on his phone waved at me: No. I crossed the road.
“What happened?” I asked them.
“A mini-truck, delivering bread to the groceries ran into the rickshaw. The rickshaw driver was gripping his handles: so he was fine. The boy was holding on to the rickshaw’s sides. For they were going fast: they were late. The boy fell, too, but softly. The father was sitting clutching the suitcase with both hands. When they were hit, he fell hard. The breadtruck kept going. The police are on their way. We’re taking the boy to the hospital.”
“Why were they going fast?” I asked them.
“They were going home. They were late for their train.” He pointed to the train station around the corner.
I waited with them for the police. I helped them decide which hospital to take the boy to: the nearest. They looked unsure: the nearest hospital was a private hospital. “Here,” I said. I gave them money.
They, the people of dawn, had been going about their business — the old man washing marijuana leaves and flowers at the public hand-pumped well for his hole-in-the-wall cigarettes-and-paan-and-bhang shop, the vegetable-vendors spreading their wares on blue tarpaulins on the pavement, and the beggars setting off towards the wedding-halls to scavenge last night’s cornucopia of leftovers.
The people of dawn had witnessed many road accidents. Before your day or mine has begun, other people are up and rushing. Speeding, down empty roads, to deliver bread. Almost empty.
It was Sunday. I had nothing to do but walk on to the park, weak-kneed, afraid. The people of dawn chatted for a bit about the road-accident – briskly, together, unafraid. Then the day’s business claimed their minds.
Mornings are long for aspirants.
He wakes up at 5 am. Makes himself tea. Watches the birds stirring and the trees shivering. Settles down to study by the tablelamp, hunched on the floor, while his three roommates enjoy morning’s deep, delicious sleep. After radiating heat all night, morning is when the roof and walls have, at last, cooled a little. In the land of the perennial summer, morning’s the best time to sleep.
He sits on the floor, knees drawn up, textbook leaning against his thighs. His arms hug his shoulders and he rocks back and forth, chanting, memorising facts from his pile of cheap-edition exam-prep books. “Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and Montenegro, the United Nations has 189 member countries.” The facts are of dubious vintage and value. The paper is bleached blue-white, the ink shows through the thin page, and the binding glue smells nasty. For him, books are things to be endured.
She wakes up at 3am. To wash and dry her hip-long hair, then make their breakfast and their lunch – and then do everything he does. She doesn’t rock herself as she studies. She sits still, frowning skeptically. But she memorises, too.
She leaves hostel at 6:30am. A brisk walk.
He leaves at 6:15am. A brisk walk, 1km longer than hers.
They meet at 6:45am, waiting for the coaching institute to open. Standing a little apart from the gaggle of mostly male aspirants, he and she share the dreams they dreamt last night.
At 9am, out on the road again. A standing breakfast, out of her tiffin-boxes. Standing across the street from the secondary school where they met. Now the road is empty: the school children sit rocking themselves, and frowning skeptically, through their day’s first lesson.
Breakfast is done. He and she rinse their mouths, and adjust the straps of their sagging backpacks. He thinks, she needs a new backpack. Her birthday is next month.
Then, a brisk walk to classes at university.
How many years more will they rush around the city? From morning coaching to university to evening coaching, and home again to study drowsy after dinner. Rush around the city teeming with aspirants studying. Hoping. Waiting for their lives to begin.
They’re in no hurry. For, meanwhile, they have one another to tell their dreams to.
It’s midmorning before the students emerge. In the first break between classes. The boy has claimed the spot closest to the university gate. Fifteen feet away: any closer, and the black-uniformed security guards will shoo him in loud voices. He doesn’t take it personally: their voices are loud from shouting “Yes, sir!” in the army. He’d like to be a security guard someday. But he figures you must retire from the army to earn the privilege of standing inside the gate. Twelve hours a day. Meanwhile he doesn’t mind doing this.
He was at the bridge an hour before dawn: to meet the trucks this side of the tollbooths. To haggle wholesale prices for potatoes, tomatoes, onions, chilies. He doesn’t buy enough to buy wholesale: on a good day he goes through 30kg of potatoes. They sell him wholesale nevertheless, for he’ll take off their hands green potatoes and soft tomatoes.
“I can make anything taste good,” he says. That is his USP: the fifteen-year-old who dropped out of school to support his mother and sisters. His father has no time to support anyone. His father has a prior engagement. Sleeping on the pavement around the corner. Drunk.
Over the wide-armed lily of the blue-burning gas, the boy heats up his thick iron griddle. He cooks off diced potatoes into patties.
At midmorning, when he’s been up eight hours, the students saunter out of lectures sleepy-eyed. They stand at his chaat cart. Perplexed. What snack do they want to eat today?
His menu has only three items. From Monday to Saturday, the same people come to his cart. Every day perplexed. He’s amused.
“Thank god I left school,” he reassures his mother. “Sitting in class, my brain would’ve become as dull as theirs. They can’t even decide what they want to eat!”
Noon is the longest hour. She’s packed off her children to school. She’s packed off her husband to work. Their clothes pressed, their breakfasts served, their lunches packed. She’s let in the maid and supervised her through dish-washing and sweeping and mopping. She’s nipped down to the greengrocer and planned dinner. She’s boiled the daal and rice for her own lunch. She’ll eat them as is: with a dash of salt and a sprinkling of mustard oil. She likes plain food. Secretly, at her solitary meal, that’s what she’ll sit down to.
But it’s not yet lunchtime. She’s not yet bathed. It’s the longest hour.
When she became pregnant she told herself: “it’s only a temporary break; I’ll return to work when my son’s two.” But her husband wanted another child. So, when their son was two, they began to try again. It took them another two years. She didn’t resume work. Might as well get the child-rearing over with, at one go. It’ll be a hassle to rejoin work, then take off again for my next child. They’ll think I’m not serious. I’ve never let anyone think that.
This is the hour she has to herself to stay in touch – with her books, with what’s happening in the industry, with her friends, who have put off childbirth or those who have been trying to have children for five years.
She wanders around the flat, rearranging things. She dusts again, though the maid’s already dusted: you can’t expect an outsider to do a perfect job. She glances side-eyed at the pile of books, well-dusted, waiting for her. Every day she eyes them, terrified with guilt.
Her daughter was born two years ago. Her daughter is now old enough to leave with her parents. No reason now to put off rejoining her life. The life that was once hers. The life she wants again. She wants it with a wanting terrifyingly big. Then why does it terrify her to sit down and get back in touch?
She runs out of things to dust and put in their places. Blindly now, still stumbling through the spick-and-span flat, she can’t stop seeing in the corner of her eye, the pile of well-dusted books.
After lunch, she promises herself. Heart already sinking.
Noon is the longest hour.
An hour after lunch, pleasantly drowsy, they congregate in his cabin for tea. It’s a cabin he shares with half of them. So he can’t object to these mid-afternoon tea parties.
He has work to do. Back broadly turned to the partiers, he concentrates on the glare of his monitor. He has better things to do than have a tea party every two hours.
He keeps thinking he’ll complain. To the faculty: “My fellow students’ tea parties are distracting me. Do we come here to work or to drink tea?”
He doesn’t complain.
Perhaps, vaguely, he realises. That the silvery clink of spoon on china, the rustle of voices, the occasional raucous guffaw when they forget to keep it down, the necessity for him to look hard at work before these slackers – keeps him, too, awake through mid-afternoon drowsy hour.
By late afternoon the delicates have begun to wilt. The bundles of mint are wrinkling and browning at leaf’s-edge. The spinach is shrivelling, developing dark soft spots where he’s been sprinkling them with water, to keep them fresh. The spring-onions are yellowing: just the tips of their shoots, sticking out over the cart’s edge from under the protection of the well-moistened gunny-sacks.
He shifts the sacks. Within each neat pile, he moves his produce around. The bottom items, which have got squished half the day, come on top for a breather. The tomatoes have developed soft spots. White fungus had begun to infect the green beans. Painstakingly he adjusts each tomato, each bundle of beans. Best side upwards.
Soon the students and the housewives will come to buy vegetables for dinner. They’ll blame him for sneaking rotten tomatoes into the scales. With a dexterous flourish, he’ll toss the guilty tomato off the scales, and toss on another only slightly sounder. And empty the whole into a bag before another round of inspection can commence. Slowly grows the pile of iffy tomatoes that he’ll try to palm off on every successive customer.
He does much business in the late afternoon. It’s time to see to dinner: his customers haven’t time to haggle. They complain. But they accept the produce that has weathered the day.
Every evening she prepares for her daily pilgrimage. She hides her assets behind the peepul tree: an assortment of two-litre disposable water bottles. Some were once green; others once colourless. Green and colourless have grown to resemble each other. As family members do. They’ve become scratched and cloudy, battered and soft. She ties them together by their necks, and commits them to the care of Krishna, whose portrait reclines in the crook of the peepul’s shoulder. Below, on the tree’s flat chest, passers-by have deposited tribute. Incense-sticks burning in the wind too fast. Sindoor. A tiny looking-glass.
Then she embarks.
Clinging to the pavement, dodging other beggars, dodging cows and traffic, she walks from her square metre of pavement in Allengunj to Old Katra. She walks past the bookstore, and through the rubbish-dump where bullocks lounge flicking their tales at weaving motorbikes.
The teenage boys have learned to tell time by her shock of white hair sneaking down the road. In summer she comes before dinner-time. In winter she comes just as the afternoon sun is growing chill.
She has arrived.
On both sides of the street leading to the Kali temple, teenagers hawk furniture. Armless chairs. One-man dinner-tables. Rough-skinned, nails showing, slightly lopsided. The workshops are around the corner. Made-to-order customising happens here, under the customer’s eyes. In the evening light, the air is elven-yellow with sawdust. The gutters are littered with scraps of wood.
Why does she sneak? The carpenters don’t want the scraps. Other beggars are on their way, from across the city, to collect their evening’s loot. But why does she sneak?
Perhaps she’s just grown used to sneaking. To live on the streets and not get in people’s way: that’s the artlife has let her master: sneaking.
Dodging past the carpenter-boys, the rows of tables, the columns of stools high-stacked, she squats at the gutter she expertly chooses the best scraps of wood. Big enough to hold in her arms. Small enough to burn evenly. Wide-eyed in the neem tree, the raven watches her gnarled hands, swollen-jointed, snatch at her treasure in the gutter.
Clutching in her arms evening’s loot, back through the crowd she weaves. Back to her square metre of pavement, Krishna-guarded. At the foot of the peepul she makes her fire. To cook her dinner and toast her hands.
She checks her property. The bottles are there. Someone has stolen Krishna’s looking-glass.
Sitting down to make her fire, the old beggar-woman feels sure it was the girl in the grocer’s across the street. That chit’s always fixing her hair in her reflection in the plastic-wrapped boxes of sweets piled on the counter.
At dusk, the old man jogs slowly to a halt. He’s been jogging an hour. Three laps around the park. He’s slow. Many young walkers overtake him. But those young ’uns tire after one lap. Then they climb on their motor-bikes to ride 500m home. Other young people have come, not to walk. At dusk, when he jogs to a halt, all he wants is an empty bench to stretch his legs a bit. He’s been jogging three laps a day, every day, for forty years. Now, after a run, his knees throb, slightly sore. Sometimes he walks around the whole park again, a fourth unplanned lap, without finding an empty bench.
At dusk, the lovers claim the park benches. They all bring books. The books sit between them on the bench.
The shier lovers sit on the grass, a little way in from the jogging path. The shier lovers are time-pressed. Their books lie before them. Their sweet nothings are exchanged between turning the pages.
He doesn’t grudge them the benches. He enjoys their music. The woodwinds section of the evening’s orchestra. In the soprano section, the cuckoo’s still calling for a mate. Down in the brasses, the warblers are still quarreling for territory. At the head of the rhythm section, the watcher-crow is sounding evening azaan. Punctually, his friends gather. Each alighting on the electric wire with a single caw. Present, sir.
What he minds is the lovers walking along at snail’s pace. Forbidden to hold hands, afraid for a friend to see them walking too close together – the lovers walk sprawled across the jogging track. He weaves past them, sometimes missing them by an inch.
What he minds is the lack of room for lovers to do their lovering. He cannot imagine lacking room to do his jogging. How can they stand it?
At night he comes home, after a long day’s work. Dissatisfied. His wife always asks him, “what did you do today?”
“You wouldn’t understand. Is dinner ready?”
He doesn’t tell her, because he doesn’t understand what he did today.
Something. Whatever they told him. Whatever was slapped down on his desk before him. Whatever he’s been doing these last twenty years.
Tossing in bed, he wonders why, after a long day’s work, he still can’t sleep. He knows his wife lies awake beside him, awakened by his tossing. She won’t complain. That irritates him. He wishes she would, then he could shout at her. At her he could shout. That might make him feel better. Why does she never give him the chance?
Tossing in bed, he tries to remember what he wanted to be when he was a child.
At midnight he takes his motor-scooter for a ride around town. The streets are empty. The temples are locked, but lit. The dogs are on edge.
The men’s hostel has no curfew. First he rides to the women’s hostel, where the girl who keeps saying No has been locked for hours.
He stops at the Shiva temple to ask the god’s blessing for his mission tomorrow. He asks for a sign to tell him: Stop! He waits. Around him, the night throbs quietly. Satisfied with the Gods’ tacit approval, he makes a final obeisance. He rides on.
The dogs wake up and howl, and chase him. He gives them a little exercise. Today, he watches his ankles. Already, he’s imagining attackers in every corner. Attacking him.
He passes his friend, coming down the other way on his motorbike. His friend is taking his visiting cousins down to the ghat for a midnight smoke. He smiles at his friend. His friend is in the Chemistry department. It’s his friend who set him up.
The women’s hostel opens its gates at 5 am. At 8:55 am she will hurry out to get to class. He’ll be there. Waiting to throw acid on her face.
Amita Basu’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in many magazines and anthologies including The Penn Review, Fairlight Shorts, Rollick, Bandit Fiction, and Gasher. She lives in Bangalore, likes Captain Planet, and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/
Photo via Unsplash
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“Noon” was earlier published in Flash Fiction Magazine.
“Midnight” was rewritten into a 6,000-word story and has been accepted for publication by Chamber Magazine.