He was sitting with an uncharacteristic candor swatting flies and murmuring all kinds of swear words that felt like a slap to anyone who approached him. Perhaps this was the reason that not many people surrounded him while the others around him were doing brisk business. I was sitting in the car watching him while he sat precariously perched on a wooden stool that would creek with his every movement. It was difficult to find out why he was not making any effort to sell his wares, which shone the brightest and the little round suns were attracting the attention of many girls and women who would have loved to buy his entire stock. Who did not love to adorn their wrist with colorful knick-knacks and show them off?
The bangle seller sat alone, aloof, mumbling something to himself, something to the women who came to have a look at the bangles hanging on the horizontal lines on a vertical pole. They would stand for a while laughing, chattering only to be repelled by the continuous incoherent language of his which they presumed to be vitriolic and damaging. He sat without being disturbed by their continuous murmuring.
One of them remarked that he might be drunk. The other one laughed that it would be good to do business with him at this opportune time where he was less likely to oppose anything and would be more agreeable to their quote. A daring one moved his shoulder while the others giggled and surrounded her in a ring to shield her actions away from the prying eyes.
“Come on, get up. We want to buy these. How much for the golden ones?” She asked him stealthily while eyeing the others who were looking at the menfolk and the matriarchs in the fair. But despite this gentle hold on his shoulder of slender fingers, the bangle seller chose not to elicit any reply. He kept on looking at them mumbling something like a chant.
“He must be heaping obscenities. We should make a move lest anyone sees us around him.” A frail hearted young nubile lass asked the other daredevils who seemed to be eyeing the bangles with a leer. One of them extracted a few of the red ones and slid them on her wrist but the bangle seller kept on sitting half noticing that his wares were being burgled in broad daylight.
“Hey, you cannot have them without paying him something! This is not fair. He is a poor man.” The frail hearted commented making the others conscious of their actions. Many hands that went up in the air to make a grab stopped in their tracks and felt guilty of the thoughts that made them so brave that monetarily they lost the fear of the law of the land. The one who had taken the charge by taking things without asking pretended that she was not listening. With her stare she challenged others but no one was ready to take the bait. They looked at the bangle seller a little perplexed and out of consideration, the frail hearted retrieved a bottle of mineral water from a bag and poured some over his face.
“This is for drinking. Why are you wasting it on him?” a girl wearing pink ghaghra choli took the bottle from the hands of the frail hearted girl who seemed to have a kind heart. Her kindness though did not seem to shift the fulcrum of the thoughts of the entire group. She did manage to evince fear in them so that no one dared to touch the bangles but the semi-comatose condition of the bangle seller did not make their heart melt enough.
“I gave twenty rupees for that water bottle and you are sprinkling it on his face as he is a saint. It is so hot and if we do not take care of the water we would lose our money buying it.” She looked with a grim stare at the children who were having bhelpuris at the nearby stall. Her stomach rumbled as she looked at others but no one seemed to be in a mood for food right now. They were all intrigued by the man who possessed some of the beautiful wares in his hand but was unable to make that call to stand up and attend to his customers who looked at them with greed lingering in their eyes.
They all wanted to adorn their bare wrists with colorful bangles but the frail hearted one was rubbing at their conscience again and again by letting them know that it would be wrong on their part to take something from someone without asking.
“But she also took some. Perhaps he would not mind us partaking some of the goodies. He seemed to have so many.”
The frail hearted one challenged the one sporting the red bangles with an elan and they had locked their eyes now. Both of them looked at each other with an air of indignation and none of them blinked for a while making the impasse continue. The others looked dejectedly at each other because this was the last thing they wanted in the group, a rift. They had travelled for twenty kilometers on foot to be part of this fair and now when everyone around them was enjoying, their group seemed to be in a kind of fix.
“Let’s leave him and move. He is drunk and he is not even registering our presence.”
“He will die. Let us leave food for him.”
“And water. He will be dehydrated without that.”
“And some money as well. She took the bangles without paying him anything.”
The collective conscious of the group seemed to have aroused and now suggestions and kindness seemed to be emanating from everywhere. The frail hearted girl who was wary of her position in the group felt emboldened and finally smiled. The others were backing her making her feel superior.
“You can also take them because they are free.” The girl who had prided herself in being outrageous now looked threatened. The red bangles on her wrist made her uncomfortable as she tried to hide them beneath her back. The others glared at her while positioning themselves like a wall of comfort around the frail hearted one who smiled at her changed fortunes wondering if she would throw her credentials for leading the group right now. They were women of indetermination who could not think beyond their lofty gains, they would have cheated on a poor bangle seller but she would show them the way. After all, she was the one who was more educated than anyone else. She was a matriculate and all of them had not gone beyond the fifth class.
The bangle seller was oblivious to the uprising surging around him. He was staring at them with open eyes, making little out of their conversation, his mumbles died down long ago. He seemed to be slipping into some kind of unrecognizable trance as he closed his eyes and lay supine now.
One of the girls who was keeping an unofficial watch on him looked peeved by this sudden change in his falling stand.
“He is dead.” She shouted and the others stopped chatting and looked at her to confirm her suspicion. They shook his shoulders firmly, poked their fingers in his ribs which could be counted with ease owing to his emaciated frame. They looked at him dejected as if a part of them had withered away. Some of them sat down with ease around him as if preparing a sound funeral for him. The one who had the audacity to bangle herself up with the reds now fumbled with the adornments and placed them next to his seemingly mortal frame.
The fair around them was presenting such a lovely picture. They looked at the little kids who were sticking candy floss on each other’s noses running around, chasing, playing, catching, hiding with and from their peers. The bhelpuri and the jalebi stalls witnessed the maximum rush. The waft of yellow-orange jalebis being deep-fried lead them to stare with a longing. Amidst all this ruckus they sat there with a dead man not knowing what to make of their day.
One of them removed her dupatta and placed on the man lying peacefully on the ground. Her shirt a little too tight for her frame stretched taut over her small breasts that attracted the attention of some men who passed by them. They leered at her and whistled. The girls acted incongruent. The frail hearted one took one of her sandals and threw at them but instead of hitting them the sandal had been flung in some other direction. They laughed at her failed attempt and moved away. The girl who had taken out the red bangles jumped up to chase them and ended up retrieving the sandal which she had extracted from the powerful and vicious jaws of the village dog who was trying to run away his booty. The other girls acknowledged this gesture and clapped.
Some of them pooled the money and brought some hot crisp jalebis from the nearby stall and the others brought bhelpuri and some bottles of mineral water. They ate contentedly without any whispers and murmurs. The dupatta which was supposed to act as a shroud had been taken back and the girl with her modesty covered was more than happy to have the support of the group who had stood with her in testing times.
After devouring it all, the paper plates thrown carelessly, they leaned on each other and against the stems of the sturdy trees. All of them must have dozed off because when they woke up the bangle seller was gone and so was his stick which was supporting the weight of hundreds of bangles. But on one side there were placed few pairs of bangles of all colors. They looked at each other, a hopeful smile played on their lips, but afraid to touch them for they did not want to offend the frail hearted girl who could not be called frail hearted now. She was the brave one and they nicknamed her the brave one, the right one. They all looked at her for approval.
She looked at the bangles a little perplexed wondering if they had been left indeed for them. She stood up and saw the people leave the fair. She asked the time from a passerby and confirmed that it was getting late. She instructed them to all gear up for the twenty kilometers walk back home or they could hitch up a ride with the left-over money. They bobbed their heads up and down with their eyes on the bangles left in the corner.
“I think he left them for us.” She finally nodded giving them her approval. They rushed towards the pairs and amicably divided them into sets of six each and a set of twelve for the brave one who did not let them dither in times of craving and decrepitude.
As they walked back home, they flaunted their prized possessions, the colorful bangles, a gift from the bangle seller.
Rana Preet Gill is a Veterinary Officer with the government of Punjab, India. Her articles and short stories have been published in The Tribune, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The New Indian Express, Deccan Herald, The Hitavada, Daily Post, Women’s Era and Setu Bilingual. She has compiled her published pieces in a book titled Finding Julia. She has also written two novels – Those College Years and The Misadventures of a Vet.