Arjuna wiped off a speck of dirt from her brow. She was sitting in a public bus, on a rusted metal seat with no cushioning, as horns blared all around her. Behind her, a poorly dressed old man wearing a skullcap was staring down at his withered hands. She looked out of the window.
There was much to cause her displeasure currently: Arjuna had recently quit her job as a journalist with Samachar Today, a regional news agency in Maharashtra. Her parents were insisting for her to get a ‘proper’ job. She had pursued her ‘passion’ for on-ground reporting long enough now. Although she had graduated with a degree in Mass Communications from one of the top universities in India, she had decided to take up a job with a meagre pay so that she could live by her ideal of ‘showing the truth to the world’. All the quotation marks were added by her parents, who felt that there were no buyers for truth.
Arjuna spent two years, working on stories in the smaller towns of Maharashtra – the Dalit who was forced to do manual scavenging and who died in the process, the farmer suicides that were never registered as deaths in the first place, the small women’s collective which was struggling to get certification to sell kolhapuri chappals. Eventually, she realized that she was too full of grief, and her purse was too light. She figured that if she really did want to pursue a Masters degree abroad, she’d have to start saving up, which meant that she had to start looking for a job that paid better.
Two weeks ago, she had reluctantly joined a small advertising company in Gurgaon. Although she could afford to travel in a cab once in a while, she had decided to continue her use of public transport, a choice she had made as a field reporter. The stench of public buses and the jostling of crowds didn’t unnerve like most people working corporate jobs in India. In fact, she had a certain affinity towards it. It was a life-link that constantly reminded her of the possibility of going back and retrieving the Arjuna that she had had to temporarily abandon.
“Sector 45! Sector 45!” the conductor shouted, raising his chin so that his voice reached the end of the crowded bus.
Arjuna and the old man wearing the skullcap got off. As she walked towards her society, she felt with a tinge of suspicion, that the old man was following her. He would keep sufficient distance but make all the same turns. When she entered the gate of her society, he entered too.
“Arre, Abdul, how is your grandson?” The watchman asked the old man. The two stopped and chatted for a few minutes. Arjuna slowed down to listen in, and realized that Abdul worked in the same society and was returning from Delhi. He wasn’t following her, after all. Yet, Arjuna found that this strange encounter piqued her curiosity about Abdul. Later that evening, she casually asked the watchman about Abdul on her way to the supermarket, who happily regaled her with Abdul’s story.
Abdul was born in Old Delhi when India was still a British colony. He had a small business that sold shimmery borders to be stitched onto wedding lehengas. In the courtyard of his family house that stood opposite a mosque at the intersection of two obscure Chandni Chowk lanes, he had a small rose plant. He knew that if he didn’t sell beautiful borders, he’d be raising beautiful flowering plants. So at the age of forty when his business went under, and he was forced to sell his home to fund his son’s education, he got a job as a gardener. After having moved nearly fifteen times in the last thirty-five years, Abdul had come to be employed as a gardener in Arjuna’s society in Gurgaon.
Winter was slowly melting into spring, and it was Arjuna’s favorite time of the year. As she entered the park for her morning walk the next day, she almost bumped into Abdul, who was exiting with a shovel in one hand and a rake in the other. He seemed to be holding them with a certain comfort, despite his frail figure.
“Sorry madam, sorry. Sorry.” Abdul said meekly.
“No no, don’t worry about it. I saw you in the same bus yesterday.” Arjuna said, trying to make him feel comfortable.
“Yes. I’m sorry if it seemed that I was following you. But I had to come to the same place. I saw you looking behind your shoulder. I hope you didn’t get worried.”
“Not at all.” Arjuna lied.
“I didn’t even give you a salaam, madam,” he said while staring at the ground with a furrowed brow, looking visibly worried.
“No, don’t worry about it. Is everything okay, though?”
Abdul looked up with a slightly startled face.
“Abdul, is everything okay?” Arjuna repeated.
Abdul hesitated before he said “My grandson will start going to school soon, and my son needs money. I don’t know what we will do…” and his voice trailed off.
“Oh. I’m so sorry. I’m sure something will work out.”
Arjuna felt embarrassed that she had urged Abdul to share his worries, and all she had done was offer a few vague words of consolation. As she walked in the garden, she couldn’t help but admire the beautiful roses and the love they had clearly been receiving. Abdul seemed like a kind fellow, and he was clearly doing his job very well. She decided to try and raise some funds for his family.
Arjuna’s phone rang. It was Amit, her elder brother who had moved to California, six years ago for work. He had a slight accent, a marker of his changing identity.
“Hey, Arjuna. Call sometimes, no? How are you? How is the new job?”
“Yeah yeah. It’s alright. I miss reporting, so let’s see how long I can survive here.”
“What? You just joined and you’re thinking of leaving already? Listen, you need a well-paying job, in the private sector, which you finally have. Indian private sector is doing so well, thanks to our current government. You should see the kind of confidence Americans have in this government!”
Arjuna sighed. “Of course, rich NRIs and white people in America love this government. The rising discrimination and communal violence in India since the current government came to power doesn’t affect them. Why trouble ourselves over laws designed to drive the minority out, or statements by leaders of the ruling part about putting Muslims in their place.”
“Oh God, don’t start now!” Amit said, sounding fed-up already. “Anyway, call mom okay? Stop being such a loner, Arjuna.” And he hung up.
Arjuna paid no heed. She loved her family, but she was tired of hearing the same things again and again. The job wasn’t so bad, but most people seemed to work like mechanized toys. They’d come in looking tired, smile only at lunch and start sneaking peeks at the boss’s door 6 pm onwards. As soon as the boss left, they’d trickle out hurriedly. At lunch the next day, when she knew her colleagues were more likely to be in a good mood, she announced to them that she was raising funds for her society’s aged and dedicated gardener, who wanted to send his grandson to school. She made a donation box with the sticker ‘For the gardener’s grandson’ and went from desk to desk, urging everyone to contribute some money. It was a clever strategy – no one could really say no, since she was asking for charity with the entire office watching and it was important to keep up appearances.
When Arjuna came home and opened the box, she was ecstatic to see that she had collected almost four thousand rupees in an office of about eighty people. She decided to do this in her society as well. She went from house to house, giving a short narration of the gardener’s story, praising his work and then asking for a donation. By the time the sun set, she had collected over eight thousand rupees. She put in two thousand more as her contribution. Surely, ten thousand would be of help?
She had spoken of the gardener so many times and with so much vigor that she felt personally invested in his cause, not unlike her field reporting days. The next morning, she went for her walk with the cash in her pocket. She saw Abdul sitting on his haunches and tending to a blooming rose plant. A coiled watering pipe lay at his side.
“Arre! Salaam Madam!” he greeted Arjuna, getting up on his feet.
He was wearing grey pants, a shabby yellow shirt and torn socks with black slippers. Gesturing to his plant, Abdul said, “They grow up so fast, haina?”
“Yes,” replied Arjuna, smiling warmly at his love for his plants. “I’ve got something for your grandson.” She took out the cash from her pocket and held it out for him.
Abdul’s eyes widened and then his lower lip quivered, as he adjusted his skullcap. “What? No madam, no.”
“This is not from me,” said Arjuna. “The people in this society and in my office wanted to help you out. This is from all of us.” She held the cash further out and shook it, urging Abdul to take it from her. He remained quiet for a few seconds, then stretched out both his hands.
“Madamji, you are too kind. When he goes to school, I will ask his abba to take his picture and I will show that to you.” Abdul was finally smiling widely with his hands folded into a namaste around the cash.
“That will be lovely,” beamed Arjuna.
“I’m going to go to Delhi and give him the money this weekend itself.” It looked like Abdul’s face was no longer in the shadow of a huge dark cloud.
“Oh, I’m going to Delhi for work this weekend too! I will be getting a company cab. You can come along. Where does your son live?”
“He has a repair shop in Faisalnagar, he lives there. But, no madam, no. Please, you have done enough.”
Arjuna tried her hardest to persuade him, but Abdul wouldn’t budge. Over the course of the week, they crossed paths in the garden every morning, and Abdul would flash his wide smile at Arjuna.
When the weekend arrived, Arjuna pictured Abdul sitting in a bus, then in the Delhi metro, and then in a bus again, going home with peace in his heart. As her cab crossed the Haryana-Delhi border and inched closer to the capital city’s beating heart, she felt both familiarity and discomfort. It seemed to her that she knew the city as a tier-two friend: they had never become close enough for her to fully understand what upset her and what soothed her heart. She would often find herself lost trying to decipher Delhi’s personality, with her newly constructed flyovers lined with rickshawalahs and thelawalahs next to shiny BMWs, and posh malls that pushed the erstwhile small shops into forgotten corners. Power lay littered all across Delhi, snaking its way through the run-down monuments of the old Sultanates and the refurbished MPs’ bungalows until it emerged in its most resplendent form at the Parliament perched next to Rashtrapati Bhavan across from India Gate.
The city had seen its fair share of contention; not just through political elections but also through assassinations, attacks, and riots. Arjuna had heard of what had happened in 1984 in the city, and her generation inherited its memories as an event that wouldn’t repeat itself. Her generation was to be wrong about many things, including this. Earlier that week, a senior leader from the party in power had peddled a blood-boiling slogan that several members of the far right Hindu faction received as a war cry. It had been Sikhs once, and it was to be Muslims in today’s Delhi. At first, there wasn’t even a murmur, and suddenly, that weekend, news broke out about attacks on mosques, merciless beatings on the streets and shootings. Twitter was flooded with carefully scripted lies and screaming truths from both the oppressors and the victims, and most people didn’t know who and what to believe. Perhaps that is the first element of a riot: to leave such confusion in its wake that it becomes impossible to trace its origin, such that even the inciters are able to argue with confidence that they were targeted first.
Although Arjuna was geographically far from the hotspot of the violence, she could still feel the tension and heat as it radiated outwards into all the indifferent nooks of Delhi. The pictures she saw online were gut-wrenching. There was rising discomfort in her heart, and as she scrolled through Twitter, she realised that she was subconsciously trying to figure out the exact areas of Delhi in which the violence was unfolding. She kept scrolling when she suddenly found words that made her stop. Her throat went dry as she read, ‘Rampant and unchecked violence breaks out in Muslim dominated areas of Chand Bagh and Faisalnagar’.
Arjuna had never asked for Abdul’s number. She called her society’s maintenance office and asked them if they had the old gardener’s number. When she rang the number, no one picked up. She started pacing nervously in her hotel room. Did she have any journalist friends she could call and get updates from? Arjuna rang up an ex-colleague who was now working in one of the big media houses here. He picked up after just one ring, as if he was eagerly awaiting a call.
“Ravi? Arjuna here. We used to be colleagues…”
“Oh! Arjuna. I thought the call was from one of our field reporters. I’m sorry I’ll have to cut short at the moment. The situation is very tense, and I have to remain available to receive the updates. There’s no police at the site, and it’s a rampage… I can’t believe it is happening in our capital city!” Ravi cut the call immediately.
Arjuna was unable to fall asleep that night. What if she had given him the money next week and he hadn’t come home right now? But then, what about his family—his son, his grandson? Did he have a wife? Did she accompany him to Delhi too? She had never asked him any more than what he volunteered himself.
She kept looking up the news continuously, hoping for some kind of affirmation. When she returned to her society two days later, she went to the watchman first, who had seemed to be Abdul’s friend. He told her that he too was wondering why Abdul wasn’t back yet, and promised to let her know if he found out anything. She continued to call his phone number and entered the park with nervous anticipation every morning, only to find the shovel, the rake and the watering pipe lying neglected in one corner.
Abdul returned a week later, looking like he had aged a decade in a few days. Arjuna spotted him in the garden from her balcony and ran downstairs. His back was bent, his hands shook involuntarily and he walked like his knees would give way any moment. He wasn’t wearing his skullcap today.
“Abdul! Abdul you’re fine! Your family?” Arjuna asked.
“They are good, they are alive. I hid under a blanket with my grandson, and my daughter-in-law locked the door. But my son was already outside when they came. They beat him until they thought he was probably dead. He has broken bones, but he is alive. He is breathing…”
Arjuna didn’t know what to say. She knew from experience that silence was often enough, because no words could offer any respite from such trauma.
“I had to come back to work. My son’s shop is completely destroyed, my house is destroyed, our neighbourhood is destroyed. My son has started receiving treatment with the money you gave me. I guess there will be no school for my grandson this year. I’m sorry madam.”
Arjuna shook her head, trying to convey that he owed no apologies to her. She was numb with all this information, but she could feel the onset of a wave of grief building somewhere inside her. It was in the news that the death toll was ‘not significant’.
“But we are alive, that is what matters, no madam? I have no hatred towards anyone. If there are people like them, there are also people like you, no madam?” Abdul said, crouching down with some effort on his haunches, and gently stroking his rose plant. “No one can stop these roses from blooming, if only we decide to give them our love.”
- Abba – Father
- Arre – An exclamation
- Haan – Yes/an exclamation
- Haina – Yes/an exclamation
- Ji – Signifying respect
- Lehengas – Traditional wear consisting of a blouse, a skirt and a long drape
- Namaste – Greeting/salutation
- Salaam – Greeting/salutation
- Rickshawalahs – The pullers of three-wheeled passenger carts
- Thelawalahs – Very small and temporary open shacks selling fruits/vegetables or other food items
Ayushi Aruna, known officially as ‘Ayushi Agarwal’ is a lawyer and human rights law academic, who studied at the University of Oxford and National Law School, Bangalore. She currently teaches at Jindal Global Law School. In her legal writings, she focuses on women’s issues and has published articles and blogs in The Hindu, The Wire, Oxford Human Rights Hub, among others. Now in her mid-twenties, she has finally embraced her love for writing, although she has been dabbling in poetry from a young age. She has adopted the middle name ‘Aruna’ after her late maternal grandmother, who she never got the chance to meet, but who had her own creative ways. This is her first attempt at a short story, and it weaves her reflections on the social issues of the day with her understanding of human fragility. Ayushi tweets at @ayushi_aruna; and puts up her poetry drafts on her instagram blog (@ayushiaruna_).
A The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop story.