A Box of Sweets…
Written during a fiction writing workshop with writer Jerry Pinto at the British Library, Bangalore, this is my first work to be critiqued, reviewed and rewritten dozens of times. Originally meant to be a 500 word short story, it stumbled on to 700, and is part of my attempt to capture something of Madras and its people. Read.
4 pm is a strange time, she thought. It’s not the evening, and its not afternoon either. It’s a slow, strange time. She adjusted the basket on her hip, and resumed.
“Meenu Meenu, Sangarameenu”, her loud voice echoed unnaturally, reflected back from the jutting iron beams, the mounds of sand and the un-plastered bricks of the new houses.
There were only a few fish left today, an amount she would usually take home to cook, but the lady at the end of this street often bought some at this time. She ambled on, her path now familiarized with routine, past the Bihari laborers shouting incoherently at each other, past the one-eyed dog wagging its tail with interest, past the overflowing drain where a big dead rat was being fought over by a few crows, to the large metal gate, painted a deep, morose brown.
It was only when she peeked in, ready to announce her arrival, did she actually see the bikes and scooters outside the house, the rising homam smoke, and all the people. “A pooja”, she thought as she turned around instinctively, already thinking about what she could make with the fish for the children’s dinner.
“Irunga ma”, a voice called. Wait. She turned around to see a boy come bounding across the portico, dodging the swing and dozens of chappals. She recognized him, it was the lady’s school-going son.
He arrived before her in a second, and handed her a box of sweets. Before the gift could be acknowledged and thanked for, he had already jumped back into the smoke and the commotion in a flash of teenage feet.
Ah, something for the kids, she thought, as her legs picked up pace unconsciously and cut through the market. She could not wait to get home now. David and Nancy would already be back from school, and they would eat sweets tonight.
She had reached the main road, and now had to take a share auto home. Five rupees was a lot of money, and she usually walked the whole distance, but today was special. She put down the basket, smoothed her saree, tied her hair up again and squatted by the bus stop. It had been a good day, there was money in the cloth purse at her waist and it hadn’t been that hot.
The Madras evening descended around her, the breeze trying to assert the ocean’s proximity, as she threw her basket in the back of the share auto.
And amidst the young man immersed in his phone, the old man with the jute bag and a frowning girl, she saw Nirmala.
“Akka”, she called out happily. “Adiyei, vaa vaa”, said Nirmala, and the two friends jostled for space in the cramped vehicle.“Hospital la enna sonnaanga?”, she asked eagerly. What did they say at the hospital? Nirmala just smiled. “Please ka, sollunga ka”, she implored.
Nirmala turned and smiled, “Solren, shhh”.
It seemed like a long time to her, the 5 minute ride that usually was over in a jiffy, before the auto driver cried out “SRP Tools!” Both of them got off and picked up their baskets.
“Naa amma aaga poren di”, said Nirmala quietly, as the roar of the auto died away into the cacophony of the Old Mahabalipuram Road.
I’m going to be a mother.
She did not add ‘at last’, because her friend knew. David was 10, Nancy 8, & Nirmala, two years older than her. Though she often tried to understand what her friend must feel, she knew she never would. She would never understand what Nirmala had gone through.
“Sweet kudunga Akka”, she asked Nirmala, and immediately regretted it. Nirmala never had any money. Her friend’s husband, unlike her own, was a drunk.
She put her basket down, pulled away the sack under which she had hidden the sweet box, and thrust it into Nirmala’s hands.
Nirmala looked at the box and turned away, managing to get the two words out before her voice broke, “Apa pasangalukku?”
For the children?
“Meenu Meenu Sangarameenu”, she cried out loudly and smiled, raising the basket to her hips as the street lights came on above them.