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NOBODY LIGHTS A CANDLE - 1

NOBODY LIGHTS A CANDLE

Anjali Deshpande

1

It was morning again. The loud trumpeting of the bus hurtling past his house broadcast the news and the noisy clanking of iron poles dropping one on another onto the back of a tempo confirmed it. He guessed that the tent supplier’s family across the narrow lane was about to bring home another thick wad of currency notes. Just how much money people have begun to make, he thought, still lying abed, to splurge on parties, engagements, weddings, naming a newborn, birthdays and anniversaries. It no longer mattered whether the gods slept or were up and about; tents kept springing up on roads and in parks.

A few tatters of sunlight sneaked in from the dusty pane of the window that never opened to lie down beside him. The sun always finds a way to announce the morning, in the darkest lane, even in this age when streetlamps and inverter laden houses had swallowed the stars. He knew it was night only because the noise levels went down a bit otherwise there was hardly any difference between days and nights. Come to think of it, in his life that crucial difference that marked the passing of time had been obliterated for quite some time. Yet, somehow the sun made him aware that another day had arrived. Yes, it was morning again. It was time to get up and face the world for a few hours, the world that had kept shrinking for him in the last few months.

He got up, slowly pushing the khes towards his ankles, imagining himself in a slow motion film and stood up. Stretched his arms. Nothing more to do. He dragged himself out of the room to the staircase to go downstairs. His mother stood outside the little stoop in front of the doorway, arguing with the vegetable seller.

“You know, in this season, peas are so cheap they have to be distributed free and you....”

“Ammaji, peas are on the way out, will they not extract a little goodbye price? Fifty rupees for five kgs, that is what the price is in the mandi...”

Another iron pole clanged into place beside its peers in the back of the tempo. A motorcycle roared past upbraiding people for being in its way. He opened the screen door to the house and banged it shut after him.

Inside he walked through the doorway cut into the partition that divided the long room in two unequal portions. The portion behind the partition was longer and accommodated the fridge, a box bed and several metal trunks. A small toilet occupied the rest of the far end of the elongated room. His wife of eight years stood in a sort of alcove defined by the washroom wall, at the kitchen counter rolling out chapattis with gusto, and as he turned on the tap in the wash basin next to the little loo behind her back in the corner he noticed that the stiff back of hers did not loosen even a millimetre with the awareness of his presence behind her. He had woken up late today. She did not have the time to put on a saucepan of water to boil for his tea. He spread a blob of toothpaste on the brush, ran it inside his mouth, and gargled, unnecessarily loudly, spat with gusto in the basin glancing sideways at her straight back. The back stiffened a little more, at least that is what he felt. The hot tawa banged, a round roti nearly got burnt on the flame and was dumped rudely on the hot pile of its predecessors in the box. Steam billowed out of its stomach. There was no escape from the scold surrounding him. He did not dare sigh. No, nothing would mellow that back confronting him. He may as well walk the son to school.

He took the hand of Varun, pulling him off the box bed gently and picked up his school bag.

“Mummy, bye,” said the child.

“I am going,” he said unnecessarily.

“Bye, beta, bye,” floated a voice from behind the waist. The rolling pin kept moving.

For nearly a year now he had been bathing and dressing his son. Earlier he used to find a spot among twenty children in the Maruti van that picked him up right at here, at his doorstep. For two months now he had been walking his son to the school.

“We can save money on the van,” Pushpa had said. “The school is just here.”

The van had been asked to discontinue its services. Six year old Varun did not like this new ritual. He went to and returned from school with his cheeks swollen in resentment. It was a fifteen minute walk to Little Saints National Convent school. The child’s sullen palm complained everyday to his father’s firm grip about his lost treasure of the fifteen precious minutes of early morning sleep deep and peaceful, restful, laying in bed with open eyes soaking up the warmth trapped inside the quilt. He felt he had stolen the joy of that lingering from his little son, to enjoy it himself for a year now and yet why did he not feel rested today?

He returned on feet that seemed weighted down and stood at the door looking around. More two wheelers and cars sped past, a car drove past the driver with his hand firmly on the hooter. He hurled a string of abuses at the car and its driver. Then he went in and slumped on the sofa. In the floor to ceiling high showcase that acted as the partition in the house, brownish pink plastic animals marched above the TV studded in its centre.

“Not a single gujhiya, nothing,” his mother said to him as she handed him his cup of tea. “Not for us but at least for the grandson they could have sent half a kilo. How much does it cost? Not much. He is their grandson too. It is the same story every festival. We have never asked for anything but... “

“I have to leave,” Pushpa said crossing the doorway into this room and pushing open the main door sharply she banged it behind her to run upstairs.

She had finished her morning chores. The chapatis for breakfast were in the hot case. The pressure cooker sat on the stove hissing the remnants of steam. The counter was wiped clean. Pans, plates, grater, cups, ladles and other assorted dishes had been pushed to one side of the counter. Let others do the washing, how much could she do? He heard the rage in her steps and sighed. She was going to bathe. To dress. To paint her lips, pick up her purse and stuff her mobile phone in it. To leave for office. Away from this house full of crabby people. She would do it as fast as she could, not spending a minute more than necessary in this place.

He stared at the camels, goats and tigers of plastic chasing each other behind the glass panes. They had picked them up in Agra nearly two years ago, definitely more than a year back. How infernally crowded the town had been and how they had cursed everybody for nobody had any clue where the Taj was. The glass case of the small replica of Tajmahal was cracking now. It sat above the animals. How long had it been since they had gone out like this? He now used the motorcycle only occasionally. The car rarely moved from the side of the road where it had been parked. Pushpa had asked him to sell it. Can’t afford the EMI. They were definitely not going out on a vacation in the car soon. He would sit here watching the TV or the plastic animals above it listening to his father crib at cold rotis, watching his mother heat the vegetable and wife getting ready to go out to earn.

He called Nitesh, his batch mate, now posted in the Chattarpur Village police station. Yes, he had to get out, go as far as he could from the stiffening spine of his wife, his sobbing son and his crabby father.

“Is this a roti? Nowadays women simply don’t know how to knead flour,” his father was saying. “I have seen my mother do it. Gathering up the flour from the paraat, adding the water gently, kneading it, punching it, spreading it out, folding it back in, giving it a punch here and a tuck there. They imagined the soft chapattis they would roll out and hummed a tune while they kneaded it. They did all this with love. They worked hard, for they thought that they were cooking for their child, for their husbands, for people they love. Now they think it a chore, they have no time to knead flour or roast the rotis properly. There are families who are now making do with baread bought from the market. Yes, baread. These women, they don’t want to work...if only they spent half the time they spend on making up their faces on kneading flour, they would have no pains and aches in the joints. They think they are doing the world a favour by preening in front of the mirror...just look, look at this roti, it is so thick, like it is cardboard, uncooked in one part, and it is burnt in another. Why, where are you, Adhir’s mother, come here, you can’t even make a few fresh rotis for your husband for breakfast?”

“Father, I have to be away today. You get Varun from school,” he cut into the routine complaint of his father, “get there by two, okay?”.

He ran upstairs. Pushpa had already painted her lips. She picked up the damp towel from the back of the chair, spread it on the string outside, picked up her purse and walked out.

All the time, his mother talked of expenses and his father cribbed about his wife’s reluctant performance of chores. His wife turned her back on him and told him she was too tired to give him company in anything. Did half a salary make him half a man? Always making him aware of his truncated income, acutely conscious of how the price of everything was going up. He shut the door behind her to bathe out the filth of their contempt off his mind.

email: anjalides@gmail.com

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