She looked into the mirror, there was sweat dripping down her forehead. The kumkum mixed with the sweat and ran down her temple, smudging her nose and face. She tied up her saree, thinking of home again, a room with a tin roof.
She saw Monu running behind their younger brother, Sonu, with a branch from the guava tree in his hand in the narrow street that was once her world. Sonu disappeared suddenly when he reached the end of the street, while Monu dropped the branch; then picked up a pebble and threw it towards him. Phulwa raised her hand in the air shouting, ‘Aae Monua rukk…’
The next second, Sonu, the brick, the narrow road and the blue hut with a room and a tin roof all disappeared together. Phulwa looked at her hand, still in the air. That was no longer her home.
She could see darkness being disturbed by the blue light that entered through the fissures on the tin door and the little window. The door took her back to the blue hut with no windows yet again. On the occasions when Sonu-Monu were away helping her father and Mangri went to the Bada Makaan for work, Phulwa would go to the kirana shop at the end of the street. This was the tip of her world that stretched across the narrow lane.
As a child she had gone there more frequently, the visits had become less frequent ever since she started bleeding. Visiting the kirana shop was almost like a ritual for her. She would go there, stop a little before the threshold (she was told they were not pure enough to enter these sacred places), call for the Bhandari and tell him what she wanted. The Bhandari then asked the boy (she had seen three of them by now and all of them were called Chotu) to pack the things in a plastic bag. The kirana shop was so much like the temple on the hill that Sonu had told her about, they were not allowed to enter it either, the calls to the Bhandari so much like the prayer to the goddess. There was a difference though, the goddess did not take money from them but neither did she answer their calls. She saw the other customers who visited while waiting.
A few boys who were around her age would come in groups for addabaazi after school. Phulwa would shift to the corner and try to shrink her presence, even her existence in an attempt to dissolve in the wind and disappear. She had been warned. They were not good guys but they had to be respected; to be respected but also to be feared, and never to be approached. She would watch silently as they were busy bantering. With cigarettes in their hands they would talk licentiously of Sushilla ma’am’s curvaceous body, of tightly holding some girl and feeling her breasts, of how they stooped in class, pretending to pick up a pencil they deliberately dropped and get a peek at her pink underwear. Phulwa would be embarrassed to hear them talk, but she could not help notice the heat that ran through her body and the eagerness with which she wanted to hear every word.
Have my cheeks turned pink as they show in films? What if these guys notice? Am I a bad girl? I better leave. Run!
But she never left. Even after she had picked up the things Chottu had left on the threshold, she would linger, pretending to see if he had missed anything. She knew well the inanity of this act, there were hardly more than two or three things she bought. She felt guilty that often in her dreams she would replace Sushila ma’am, and the girl with big pulpy breasts and pink underwear, spreading her legs wide apart, knowing the intent of the guy fidgeting by her foot for almost five minutes now, pretending to find a pencil.
Has the Dayen really taken my soul? Hey Devi Ma, protect me!
But what made the visit to the kirana dear to her were not these boys or their arousing sexual talks or those dreams. The Kirana shop was beautiful because of its windows; two of them, big with white glistening panes and brightly painted panel and sill. They were a part of Bhandari’s house which was attached to the kirana shop. The windows were always open, revealing the curtains, blue as the breeze and a room so brightly lit and iridescent as if it was the halo of the goddess herself.
I wish someday, when I am married, I have a house with such lovely windows. I will always keep them open and let the breeze and the sunlight in. So beautiful!
Those windows were a portal to another world, and moving away from them always made her sad. Her house and the kirana shop were in the same lane, but were so different. Having lived her life in a dimly-lit hut, with no windows; the windows of Bhandari’s house gave her a glimpse into the world of hope and light, but it also reminded her of her gloomy existence.
At last, a house with a window .
It had been two weeks since her marriage.
“Remember that is your home now. It’s your duty now to keep everyone happy there. Your husband is your lord, never think of crossing him. If he gets angry, try to calm him, please him. The happiness of your grihasti depends on you.” These were the words of her mother. The wisdom passed down from one generation to another. Her great grandmother told this to her grandmother, her grandmother told it to her mother, and her mother, hugging her tightly, told it to her as she cried.
That was a kind of last conversation a mother has with her daughter. Once married, her daughter becomes a daughter-in-law, a wife, a sister-in-law, someday a mother too, but never would she be her daughter, Phulwa again. So, she held her as tight as she could and told her what she believed to be the most important lesson. A lesson to forget, to forget the blue hut, to forget Monu-Sonu, Mangi and Chottan, to forget the Bhandari’s house, to forget the conversations she had heard and the dreams she had dreamt.
A wise man remembers his roots but a wise woman forgets. She is like a fruit that is dropped from the trees and is blown miles away by the wind to decay in a distant land where its buried seed would give way to a new life.
Yes, I should forget, she thought.
And yet she remembered. She remembered the blue hut with no windows and was surprised that she longed to return to that dimly lit room where gloom lingered indefinitely. Suddenly, that one room was too big to contain just one image, and she could see flashes of each speck, each mark on the walls, expanding outwards to an eternity. She could see the markings on the wall that Sonu had drawn with a pencil he found when they went rag picking together. Drawing them, Sonu had dreamt of donning a uniform, and going to school holding a notebook in his hand someday.
She had dreamt of a house with a window standing outside the Kirana shop. Sonu could not go to school. She was in a room with a window, and though it was not as large and white or brightly painted but it was still a window. She should be happy. She should forget. But she was not a seed, after all, which the wind could just take away. She was a person, who had lived for 18 years in the blue hut, calling it home.
Her parents were elated when Raju’s mother come to ask for her hand. Their house had two rooms, much better than their one-room hut. Raju was the only son and lived with his mother after the death of his father in a manhole. For someone like Phulwa who had lived eighteen years of her life in a room with five other people, this was a dream. Phulwa remembered how happy she felt then.
She was cooking when her mother-in-law entered.
“Phulwa, from tomorrow I will make the sabji for breakfast.”
“Why Mai?” Phulwa was taken aback by her mother-in-law’s suggestion. “Let me do the household chores. You are old now, and yet you walk to the city every day to sweep the streets, that too in the scorching heat. Now you want to cook breakfast too. What will people say? They will say that I am a memsahib who makes her mother-in-law toil while all I do is sit and eat.”
Phulwa blurted out these words anxiously, trying to think r hard of what she had done to earn Mai’s disapproval.
“Was the sabji too spicy? Was the salt too much? Just tell me Mai.”
Rekha looked at her bahu and smiled.
“Phulwa, listen, I will no longer have to go to the city. They don’t need me anymore and said I am getting old and should take rest. Rest…really, or just die starving. Raju does not earn much and there is no way that I allow him to enter a manhole. What took away my husband, won’t take him. Not my son, not my son,” her voice trembled, she tried to stop her tears, wiping them away with the corner of her pallu.
“Mai,” Phulwa brought her mother-in-law a glass of water. “Mai, I will go and sweep instead of you.”
“That’s not possible. I asked the Contractor sahib. He has already hired some young girl.”
“Do not worry Mai. I will find work.”
“Phulwa I have found work for us.”
“That is great! What is it? Then why are you crying? We will work together.”
Rekha hugged Phulwa and she felt as if her mother was hugging her once again.
“Phulwa,” Rekha sighed. “I would have never told you to do this but you know how things are. Of the little that Raju earns, he spends half of it drinking. I have tried hard to keep you away from the dust, the mulch, the refuse that our life is. I apologise. The only work I could get for us is cleaning dry latrines here in the village.” She held Phulwa’s hand, “I promise I will find something else as soon as possible.”
Phulwa felt many things at once. She had many questions. Many memories from the dark, harrowing past haunted her all at once. But she put up a courageous front and said, “I will come with you Mai.”
That night she could not sleep. Raju lay drunk on the bed beside her. She opened the window of their room and looked outside. She stared at the lone incandescent bulb dangling on a wire and imagined it to be the moon. She felt like she was drowning in a pungent, and foul smell that would smother the life out of her. Nausea took over. She saw a pair of hands, with black sewage water dripping from them. She popped her head outside the window to take a breath but she puked instead. She puked just as Monua had puked the first time he went to work. He had puked not once or twice but four times that day.
Next day when she had made the rotis, Rekha called her outside. She handed her a piece of cloth to cover her head while she picked the faeces on her head. Phulwa’s heart was pounding, it seemed like her brain would burst from the immense pain she could feel, and then she could no longer act strong. She broke into tears. Rekha tried to console her but she was inconsolable.
Satya, who was passing through the house, heard her crying. He stopped and inquired, “Rekha Mai, why is she crying?”
Satya was not one of them and though he had lived with them in their colony, had had food with them, was trying to understand their way of life, he was still an outsider. A Master’s student in social work, he wanted to read these people as some project. He could pity them, could live with them, and perhaps try to live like them. But the truth was that he could never be one of them. He had never descended down a manhole to be smothered by its nauseating smell of faeces and sewage. Walking down the road he was not met with pitying eyes that reduced him to a puny, helpless nobody, and stripping him off of the last vestige of dignity that covered his now naked body. A sense of humiliation and shame would not grip him every time he left for work. Satya was an outsider. Some of these people loved him and saw hope in him. The others saw him with suspicion and detested his presence. But everyone knew that he was a stranger to their world.
“Why is she crying?” Satya repeated.
“Nothing, she is just afraid.”
“Arre, she has never cleaned up a dry latrine and is just nervous. Will get used to it. Do not worry. Just leave us please.”
“Then do not send her. You could find her some other job,” Satya said in a tone.
Mai was seething with anger. She had tried hard to conceal the desperation and helplessness. “You think I did not try to find other work? I begged and begged them to allow me to sweep the street. Did they listen? No. I asked them to take my daughter-in-law in my place but the contractor wanted some young girl he knew. Use us when you want, throw us when you wish. Do you want to send my son to die in a manhole like his father? Find a job, uh? What job? Sell vegetables? Who will buy them? You? Or better, shall we cook for people? Our sight pollutes them . Why don’t we just die of hunger.”
Mai paused, it wasn’t his fault of course. Satya didn’t mean anything by that, he was inquisitive.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Satya strained wordlessly; it was not his place to argue here. He wouldn’t understand. Head lowered, remembering how his grandmother made him drink cow’s urine when he went into the colony with impure people, he left them.
Phulwa stopped crying and wiped her tears. Dry heaving, she picked up her things and got ready for the day’s work.
My family shall survive. I shall survive.
Payal is from Ranchi, Jharkhand. She has completed her graduation and post-graduation in English Literature from St. Xavier, Ranchi. Currently, she is a research scholar at the Centre of English Studies at J.N.U. She is trained in Fine Arts and has been a part of several street plays and skits.