Spring is coming to an end.
On the Peepul tree, the male cuckoo is chasing the female cuckoo, hopping from branch to branch. His sleek black coat gleams in the evening light. He is aggressive. The female cuckoo, salt-and-pepper to his jet black, moves away. You can almost see her shrug her shoulders in exasperation. The male cuckoo rests on a branch close by. He hasn’t given up.
A pair of Indian grey hornbills sit atop the Jackfruit tree, talking in raucous tones, like an old couple arguing.
“I had told you the jackfruit was unripe and that branch was rotten but you had to perch on it. It’s been this way always. You have to try every foolish stunt.”
“The branch was fine. It was the squirrel. It startled me. But just look, the mango tree is flowering! Do you remember the time I got you that spray of mango flowers? You had said then…”
“That was ten years ago. Besides, the flowers were sour.”
Groups of hazel-and-brown mynahs and green, slender parrots chatter and screech.
O Fair one, the gourd vine is in fruit.
There is a gourd hanging just out of my reach, it is greener than spring and slender like a winter day. I want to pluck the young gourd, O Fair one.
The gourd is unripe, My Beloved, it is raw and bland. Let it fill with juices and ripen. In season it will fall in your lap. Do not touch the gourd, My Beloved, its bloom is like dew, your touch like the rays of afternoon sun.
“How could you forget? One day in the whole year, just one day…”
“Yaar, I have said I am sorry. I forgot. What do you want me to do now? Jump from the roof? You are too much.”
“But I had reminded you. And anyway, this couldn’t mean much to you if you can’t remember something important to me…I feel you don’t care at all. I do everything in this relationship and there’s nothing from your side…”
“This is not hisaab, yaar – I did this, so you do this. You just want to change me and that ain’t happening, honey. That’s the barista calling our order. I’ll get it.”
“I can’t go on like this. This is so unfulfilling. I mean it, I really can’t do this anymore…”
“Arre yaar, you do what you like. If you want to go, go but take your coffee with you, I can’t drink two coffees, especially the milky sweet stuff you’ve ordered!”
Drops of light gathered in the corners of her eyes fell unseen.
The car stopped at the traffic light. The young mother was looking at her phone and slowly twirling a strand of her hair around a pretty finger.
The child, a girl with curls and a mischievous look, sat in the helper’s lap. The helper, a woman of thirty or forty or fifty, was untangling the child’s hair and fixing them with large, flower-adorned plastic pins. The girl laid a small hand on a hair-clip. With her free hand she rolled down the window. The helper frowned. “Baba, don’t open window. Car will hot.”
“Aaru, I will throw the clip out!”
“No Baba, you look beautiful.”
“I will throw it!”
“Baba, mummy will angry…”
“I am taking it off!”
“I have got cheese, Baba. See, cheese. Yummy, yummy, cheese.”
The girl let go of the pin. “Give me chocolate, Aaru!”
The light changed and cars moved. The young mother was still looking at her phone, playing with her hair.
The man in brown trousers walked a few steps ahead of the woman in orange saree. Both the sari and the sea at Marine Drive shimmered under the early April sun.
“You want seengdana? This is not your village seengdana – roast in any old broken bit of pot, phoo-phoo, blow away the skin and eat the bland seed. This is real bambai seengdana – roasted in a proper wok with masala.”
The woman neatened the end of the sari covering her head.
“Ae, give two seengdana. And don’t try to be too smart and give a packet with four small kernels in it, and two out of those four bad. I have a stall at chawpatty, I know all the tricks. And don’t think that you’d ask for ten rupees and I will give like an ignorant villager. I know how much seengdana costs. Come with me to Dadar, I will get you a kilo for ten rupees. Put some more masala, I like it spicy. Here, taste this. You will forget the burnt seengdana of your village.”
The woman picked a kernel with fingertips orange with fresh mehndi and neatened the end of the saree covering her head.
There’s a meagre household on the pavement – a rolled up mattress, a plastic tumbler, two aluminium platters beat out of shape, a small shaving mirror hung by a nail on the wall next to stencilled graffiti in blue: “Missing Girls. Call 474747.”
“You live here?”
“Where have you come from?”
“From Tamil Nadu…”
“All the way from there, so far away? How did you come so far?”
“This is your child?”
The child, a tiny, skinny girl smiles brightly and reaches for the packet of biscuit. Her unwashed face is streaked with dirt and her hair has dried leaves of Gulmohur caught in its tangles. There are big spots of kohl painted on each cheek, forehead and chin to protect her from the ill-effects of an envious eye, an eye envious of a malnourished child crawling about on the pavement.
“How old is she?”
“Two? And she can’t walk yet? I will bring some baby-food for her tomorrow. You will be here tomorrow?”
“Yes…Where will we go?”
The pavement is bare. There is a mark on the wall where the mirror was hung. Policemen sit in plastic chairs, shoulders slack, legs spread, eyes on their smartphones, across the narrow street under a dirty cloth awning.
“There was a woman here. And a child…”
“Madam, all riff-raff removed. Vidhan Sabha is in session from today. God knows where these beggars come from, strew the place with their dirty stuff and plop down where they have no business.”
“They came from Tamil Nadu. They only had a bedding. And a mirror. And a two-year old girl. Do you have children at home? I have this box of baby-food…”
The brown and white dappled dog sprawled nearby moves his ears and stretches his legs. The sun shines on the shimmering, trembling curtain of Peepul leaves.
And that is why I write.
Anukrti Upadhyay is a bilingual writer with two short novels in English, Daura and Bhaunri, and a short story collection in Hindi, Japani Sarai. In her other life, she is a law and finance professional and conservation enthusiast.
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