A Timorous Six

Punjab, India 1982

Dussehra arrives, the shortest day of the year and we burst firecrackers all day and into the early night without any preliminaries, without any attributing of spiritual significance to the sun’s elevation.

“Sardar-ji,” Naresh, the farmhand presents himself to my grandfather. “They’ll be performing the Ram-Leela at the Chandigarh bus-stand this evening…I was thinking, shall I take the little master to see it?” he inquires a touch tentatively, to show respect.

“Yes!” Grandfather agrees enthusiastically – perhaps he would like some peace and quiet. “It’ll be good for the children, take Faroosh (meaning me) as well – and Meena can go with you. Let Meena get a taste of the city!”

Meena, is a nubile young woman, and the newest member of our household staff. She comes with such a reputation for enamoring men that ‘little master’ Tejbeer, my elder brother, had already professed his love and announced his intention to marry Meena without once having seen her.

Grandmother repeats this tale of Tejbeer’s premature love to all the company we receive – she’s grateful for the funny little things Tejbeer says and does. She uses them as fodder to liven up otherwise dull visits.

I feel shy around Meena; it’s hard to tell whether she’s a grown-up or a girl. I look curiously at her, searching for the woman the men fall in love with. She’s uncomfortable around me too, like she doesn’t know what to say to me either.

With Tejbeer’s hand in Naresh’s and mine in Meena’s we head out towards the main road. The sun has fallen already, and I’m hesitant – a little perturbed to be going out so late without my grandparents. Out on the main road, the dark night is lit up by small groups of people roasting peanuts on small open fires, there’s the sound of firecrackers everywhere and lights from passing traffic and a heady mix of smoke to fill our nostrils.

We catch a direct bus from the Punjab-Chandigarh border; it comes packed and barely stops long enough for Naresh to scoop Tejbeer in his arms, board the bus’s open doorway, and then with one hand to pull Meena – carrying me – on board as well. There is barely standing room on the bus. We are encased by bodies and the dark night. The bus shifts gears, speeds up, swerves through the traffic round-abouts, turns right, goes straight, turns left, goes straight and drops us off at the Chandigarh Inter-State Bus Station.

I have never in my short life seen so many people. We have no choice where to go; we go where the crowd takes us, to an opening, at the grounds that lie between the bus station and Sector 17 market. Naresh lifts Tejbeer on his shoulders, Meena picks me up as well. Barely over the heads of others I see a giant effigy, as tall as a building, teeter-tottering over the crowd. It is Ravana, the multi-headed mustachioed demon-god from Hindu mythology. Then I see a blaze, Ravana is on fire – punished for kidnapping Sita, beautiful consort to Rama, seventh avatar of Vishnu, Hindu God of Preservation.

There is hooting and hollering from the crowd, then it heaves back, away from Ravana, away from the fire. I’m back on the ground, my hand tightly clutched in Meena’s, my eyes on the backs and buttocks of the multitude. We scurry, bouncing off the crowd till it spits us out at the far corner of the bus station.

“Can you see Naresh?” Meena asks. Now the crowd thins and only a few stragglers remain, the bus-station is closing for the night.

My heart sinks. I can’t see Naresh anywhere. If we had to get separated, why couldn’t I have been with Naresh? My heart sinks further. I’m scared but I don’t make a peep. Tejbeer and Naresh are nowhere to be seen.

‘How will we ever get home? What will become of us?’ I wonder. ‘Will we become beggars?’ But I keep my fears to myself.

“Look! I see a bus – there’s a driver still in it,” says Meena. We go running to a bus parked on the side. “Where are you going to?” Meena asks out of breath. “We need to reach Zirakpur – you know, the Artificial Limbs Centre close to the Punjab border?”

“Sorry miss, I’m done for the day – and at any rate this bus only goes so far as the Industrial Area.”

“Be a dear and take us home,” Meena’s voice turns dulcet, “we’ve lost our company, and this little one’s folks must be worried ill by now,” she adds nodding her head towards me.

“Where you from?” asks the bus-driver, noticing her hill accent.

“I’ve come from the hills,” she says boldly. “Been here two days. ‘Go have a taste of city life’ Sardar-ji says, and this is where it’s got me! Lost at a mela!” The bus-driver laughs, he’s charmed by Meena and invites us to board.

I sit behind the driver, in the single seat up front, and Meena sits on the big metal hump that covers the engine, right up close to him. He likes chatting with her – he drives slowly, taking some long-winded route through deserted streets – and she flirts freely back, not appearing concerned over our safety in the least.

I, on the other hand, am stiff with worry, ‘Is she in love with him? Is he going to ask her to marry him? Will they run off together? Will I have to live with them as their child?’ They throw me benign glances, but I remain ill-at-ease, awake into the strange night, intoxicated by the lingering smell of wood fires and gunpowder.

When the bus slows to a halt, and Meena and the driver exchange pleasant good-byes, we alight from the bus and there we are at our front gate – I’m surprised, relieved and feeling a little silly.

They’re waiting for us solemnly in the lawn. No one exclaims or cries out. Grandmother looks ashen but doesn’t say a word. Grandfather stands up the moment he sees us, looking nervous and relieved.

“So, here you are back home already!” starts Meena the second she lays eyes on Naresh. She berates him, “Some man you are leaving this child and a hill-dwelling young woman such as myself alone at night – anything could have happened to us!”

“I thought you would have jumped a bus yourself! I looked and looked for you – you know no one ever finds one another at a mela,” Naresh explains looking sheepish.

The next morning, Tapusya, the cleaning woman laments the loss of her father-in-law as she mops the floor in Grandmother’s bedroom – the smell of phenol pervading the air. “You know my Chandu lost his father at a mela? We never knew what became of him.” She’s squatting on the floor, passing the mop over it in large semi-circles using her hands, shuffling and shifting her bucket along.

“Where did you lose him? In Shahabad?” I’m dusting the dressing-table, neatly returning Grandmother’s lipsticks to their rows.

“No ji! My Chandu is from Delhi!” Tapusya sounds surprised, and even a little offended that I should be ignorant of this factoid concerning her life. “We used to live in Delhi after we were married. Yes, yes, many years I breathed the big city air. (Tapusya loves to show-off). We went to the Kumb Mela that year – oh, so many people, so many people you wouldn’t believe! Oh, never had I seen so many people! And yet, I can see him like it was yesterday – standing what two feet away from me? Must have been kudrut (fate) – there was a shift in the crowd and Chandu’s father was lost to us forever…”

Dunking the mop into the bucket beside her, she wrings it out, “If I were to tell the truth, he was losing his memory, he would become confused at times – he must have wandered off but oh, how we searched for him! Everywhere – over and over! Year after year we went back to the same spot.” She clucks her tongue ruefully, “Poor Chandu, to this day he thinks about his father. What must have become of his ill-fated father? What sort of end did he meet with?” She shakes her head. “Once I had a dream, that I woke up and there he was in the doorway, come back to us.”

Tapusya expects me to say ‘something’, a word in commiseration. Her expectation is so strong that I’m aware of nothing else, not even sympathy. I’m only six.

All The Gathering Light