She had been sitting in the sun, along with others, for many hours now, waiting to be ferried in buses. The minister was supposed to come to the city and they had been herded like cattle at one spot. Their movement was restricted lest they changed their mind.
Some of them were standing and cursing the agent, for the long wait, who had promised them an air-conditioned bus as well as the venue along with a hearty meal and an important sum of five hundred rupees. She must be in her seventies but her mind was more agile than the others for she had questioned that how could they ensure that the venue which accommodated so many people could be air conditioned. The agent who was writing down their names against the bus number, for they were expected to come back in the same buses, ignored her question. She was insistent and the agent lifted his head from the paper on which he was scribbling furiously and looked at her wrinkled and papery skin. She was aware of his eyes on her skin. If she had been young she might have twitched a little by this attention and by the span of time his eyes lingered on her body. But now she was more confident of herself and nothing irked her. Not even the young hands which sometimes probed her weathered breasts and flaccid buttocks. She had lost the audacity to retaliate.
“He is the minister, he can do anything.” The man finally said in a placatory tone not trying to pick the fight with what seemed to be an old and feisty woman to him. She had laughed at him as she said, we will see. The man looked momentarily at her and was back to the task at hand of jotting down names on his register. He tried to request her to keep calm, albeit through his eyes only, and she laughed a little and slunk back down waving her hand perfunctorily to make him understand that she would not start a campaign of dissent here.
A young lad sat near her and seemed quite enthusiastic about the whole affair. “I am not doing it for money” he told her. She nodded though she could see that if not given money he would not dither twice to pounce at the agent and pummel him with his fists. She had seen the world around her changing and she was the keeper of secrets as well. So, she knew that no matter what he said, he would not let go of some free money that would be coming his way.
“The minister is a very charismatic leader”, he said again. She adjusted her dupatta on her head and blinked without looking at him. Though he could not see her face she had assumed that he would understand that in this part of the world and especially this village any unwanted contact between a man and woman was disgraceful. She looked at him from the corner of her eye while he paced around in determined steps. Not more than twenty, she sighed. Her own son whom she had not seen for the past many years must be as tall and stout as him. She wondered if he would have accompanied her to the rally if he was around. But then she sighed and thanked her good fortune. Her son was gainfully employed somewhere far away in the gulf. He sent her a little sum every month for her comfort and expenditure which substituted for her meagre needs. She was saved from the humility of working in other people’s houses which the ladies in her locality have been doing quite more often these days. She found it disgraceful. She was happy to have a son, whom, though she could not meet at her own will but who was settled in peace. At least he was not as needy as them.
She was sitting a little aloof from other women of her village. Perhaps this was the reason that he slumped next to her. This young man who must be unemployed and must have come because of the promised five hundred bucks was finding it difficult to accept the act himself. As a result, he felt it was mandatory to make the other know and superimpose an altered truth making himself believe that he was only doing this as a great service to the nation. She sighed, these young men! They lack the direction in their lives. That is the reason they are so disillusioned. She looked at his strong arms as he was pulling blades of grass and playing with them by bifurcating them along their long axis. She observed and wondered what it would be like to hold them. She closed her eyes imagining the intimate moments she shared with her husband which were few and cherished in her lifetime. His firm arms and taut shoulders always aroused her and in a household peopled by many their moments of togetherness were guarded and could not be prolonged for lack of propriety. Her eyes watered at the memories long held back by the terrains of her mind but she could not let them flow unchecked. She carefully wiped her eyes with her long garment and sat back in the silence of her mind letting the memories frolic in her mind.
The young man was chewing the grass now imitating the nearby goat, having its breakfast in the open ground, while they were waiting for the signal to board. Few children sitting opposite to him laughed and he laughed with them as well. She smiled seeing his antics being facilitated to catch their attention.
I am hungry as well, he shouted to them as they hid their packets of sweetmeats given to them by their mothers. They had no intention to share their goodies and they would probably live with lack of entertainment but not food. She took out a few pieces of bread, draped in a cloth, from her rucksack and placed it before him. He pretended not to see them but when the goat made a move towards the fold of cloth he grabbed it in one quick swoop and devoured them. The goat moved on, chewing the grass, towards better pastures. He burped after having his fill and graciously returned the cloth to her.
“Thanks, but I was not hungry. I was about to have food when this agent knocked at the door. I left my food and came with this silly fellow and look we are just sitting and doing nothing. Such a waste of time”, he said. “I was having chicken biryani at home”, he tried to smile but it did not materialize. She fished out a small bottle of Bisleri and rolled it towards him. He gulped it all and rolled the empty bottle towards her. Thanks, he said gently and she would feel the heaviness in her heart stir.
More people kept on pouring in and they kept the agent busy. He kept on jotting down names and kept on indicating them places to sit. Their space had been claimed as well. Many people who probably belonged to nearby villages squatted near them. They moved towards each other and now their limbs touched and the odd sensation of being in proximity of a young man was giving her goosebumps. She had not felt the same for the past many years, not since her husband died. She watched him to know if something was going inside him but was relieved and a little distressed to find that he was unaffected. She wondered if her age and the wrinkles would make her unappealing to him. She brought her head covering a little lower now hiding the good half of her face but she debated that he might have seen her while she was talking to the agent. Her face was uncovered at that time.
She was having some sweets in her rucksack which she wanted to share with him without appearing too eager to please him. She moved her bag towards him. He looked at her perplexed but soon realized the intent. His long fingers probed the bag and found the box of sweetmeats. He devoured them with an eagerness while some of the people seating next to him looked at him with hungry eyes. He ate it all in no time and found another bottle of Bisleri and gulped it as well taking her generosity for granted. Now there was nothing left in the rucksack, not even water. It had become devoid of its contents. She handed him everything on a platter. A crease of worry fluttered in her heart but she eased it with a loving thought for him.
He was now spread on the ground. His torso within touching distance as she felt like stroking his head and placing it on her lap. She looked at his eyes shut away from the outside clutter which a while earlier were burgeoning with need. With them satiated he reeked of contentment now. She felt a little dizzy and desired to have a sip of water but she kept on looking at him, having her fill. She started fanning him for she wanted him to have a decent sleep before the long drive. A matron who sat near her tried to strike a conversation, “Is he your son? He is very good looking. Tell him if you want a girl for him.” She cringed and fumbled for words.
He got up after his brief siesta and stretched himself. Few girls who had materialized from nowhere giggled to her annoyance. One of them stood up, smiled and started walking towards the other side, away from the rush of people. He followed her and now they were lost in front of her eyes. She got up and tried to look for them but the world seemed to have swallowed them. She sat mournful devoid of food and water amidst strangers.
The agent who finally materialized with a loudspeaker was telling the people to leave. The empty buses were leaving without them and there was a commotion. The only words she could hear were..rally cancelled….go back home. People were cursing their bad fortunes trying to find their way amidst the sea of humanity. The buses trundled away to unknown paths as she kept on looking.
She walked away with weary steps for it was going to be a long walk back home. With no food and water, it would be an arduous task. And finally, she spotted him. Sitting behind a motorcycle borne youth with the girl wedged between them he was holding to her slender waist as if she was delicate porcelain who might fall if not protected. He waved at her, the vehicle coughed and spluttered and was gone. She checked her wallet and was grateful to find some money. She spotted a tuck shop and grabbed some water. She drank it to her fill and washed her face with it.
She uncovered her head and started walking back home with a spring in her steps. A smile on her lips and a lightness in her chest. The wind was breezing through the folds of her skin and there was nothing much to hide now.
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.