The woman poured out tea. The hot steam fanned her cheeks as she bent low over it. There was a remote expression on her face. She was a tall, wide-shouldered woman. Her face was long and pulpy, like a healthy cow’s. But then there was something bovine about her whole being. She always carried herself in a lazy, slouching way. Having placed the lid over the teapot, she stood irresolute, staring around in a bewildered manner. Then she grew alert, her ears tensing. She had heard the sounds of moving feet upstairs.
A man descended the stairs and entered the kitchen with slow, careful steps. He came in and stood looking at her inquiringly. He always hesitated to look at her boldly, so he gave his glance an inquiring expression.
‘The children are getting ready,’ she said in answer to his questioning gaze. The man stood blinking his eyes at the hot little flames leaping from the stove. Suddenly, as if overcome by some inner impulse, he walked to the woman and put his arms around her waist. The woman stiffened with the warm touch on her waist, and then relaxed. A strange coldness had come over her heart for a moment.
The man sensed the woman’s withdrawal and, feeling foolish, let her go and came around to the table. There was a vase on the table in which she had arranged a bunch of red roses. The man bent his head towards them and sniffed. Then, drawing up a chair, he sat down. He was a medium-sized man, fair-complexioned, with short cropped hair. A thin moustache on his upper lip gave his face a stupid look. He seemed awkward of his attempts at intimacy.
Two children, a boy and a girl—aged approximately six and seven—came in, chattering and clattering in the silence of the warm, cosy kitchen. They dissipated the tension somewhat. They had school satchels with them which they pushed to one side of the table. Both were typical children born to a middle-class family in a rustic town in northern India. Nothing glamorous about them. They were their father’s children, wolfing their food down untidily, babbling constantly.
The man looked at them with an admonitory indulgence, interrupting them now and then with questions about their studies. The woman sat quietly, sipping her tea. The little girl spilt her tea. The hot tea burned her small dirty fingers, and she gave a yelp of pain. The woman was startled.
‘He elbowed me,’ the girl glared at her brother in hot fury.
‘I did not,’ the boy said haughtily, but cowered before the anger in the little girl’s eyes.
‘Don’t make scenes. Finish your tea. You will be late for school,’ the woman said feebly.
‘Hush, hush,’ the man said mechanically, absorbed in his food. The woman looked on contemptuously as he and the children drank their tea noisily.
The man stood up at last, ready to leave. The woman looked up at him briefly—a big obedient creature.
‘Hurry up, children. I will drop you to school,’ he said, going upstairs to fetch his office bag. The children rose and went to fetch things they had forgotten. The woman was left alone once more. She looked around and a sigh of relief escaped her. Her glance fell on the roses. They were crimson—blood red—and gave out a pungent, acrid smell. She was distracted for some moments, staring at them, an iciness spreading inside her.
Then she quietly began stacking dishes in the sink. Presently they all passed down the hall. She went out to see them off at the gate. Her husband was trying to start his motorcycle.
‘Rashida, you better hurry. Else you will miss your bus,’ the man spoke to her, astride his motorcycle. The children scrambled on to the back.
‘Do I have to fetch something from the bazaar?’
Rashida looked at her husband, and something bit her heart. Such a domestic creature, so proud and indulgent with his children. He was pathetic and she almost pitied him.
‘No,’ she said with an effort. She wanted to say something nice to the man looking so hopefully at her. But the revulsion she felt for him was too great. She turned away.
She went along the hall, her lips pursed. The kitchen door was ajar and she peeped in. The unwashed dishes in the sink, crumbs of bread, spilt tea on the table; the whole scene of uncleanness was oppressive. Her red roses seemed strangely out of place. She hurriedly shut the door.
Rashida was a teacher at a primary school. She knew she had to hurry if she was to catch the bus. She went upstairs to change her clothes. The room was not unclean, but there was an air of intimacy about it that Rashida found irritating. She changed into a blue, warm dress, and in a preoccupied way walked to the mirror at the dressing table. For a moment she stared at her own reflection impassively. Then she smiled suddenly as one would smile at a familiar face. Happily and ruefully.
She had married early, at 22. She had wanted to escape her home, where her mother quarrelled all the time with her daughters-in-law, and her father and brothers would come home drunk in the evening. She had graduated, and when the young and eager-eyed Akhtar came courting her, she had leapt at the proposal, getting married within two months. Her mother had tried to stop her, to make her wait at least another two years. But to no avail. Rashida was fed up with her home.
She had taken a job in a government school, some four miles off in a village. It was all right in the beginning, then the children had come, one after the other within three years. She had busied herself bringing them up and working. Now the children had grown into two naughty brats who went to school. But something had happened and Rashida grew disillusioned with everything: marriage, children, her job. Now every morning she had to force herself out of bed to begin the day. She could not face her husband—nor look at her own healthy domestic countenance without bile rising in her mouth.
She braided her hair, looking at the mirror, and a curious pride came into her eyes. Her face softened, a warm glow spreading over it.
There was an urgency about her as she descended the stairs. She wanted to escape, to get away from the house. She thought—in a few hours I shall be back again, doing the dishes, washing clothes, cleaning dirty rooms, cooking, pretending to be interested in my children, suffering my husband’s hot, wet embraces. But now she was going out.
Having locked the gate, she stepped out. The cold air hit her as she emerged onto the street. She wrapped her shawl around her. A dense fog was building. The street was narrow, and lined with box-like houses on either side. Turning left, she emerged onto another street. This one was dirty and squalid. Not many people were about yet. A peasant was on his way to the mill, his cart laden with sugarcane. His buffalo stood in the middle of the road and dropped dung. The milkman came around the corner, trilling his cycle bell. Two women were standing out on their doorsteps, chatting. They stopped talking to look at her.
Rashida walked slowly, as if in a dream. Through the dim fogginess she could scarcely see a few feet ahead. It seemed to her very strange that she lived here, so far from anywhere. She turned right and the bus stop was visible. She could see the bus. She glanced at her watch. It was 8:40. She did not have to get to school till 10. She slowed down. She felt suffocated at the thought of school.
She was startled by a sound near the gutter. This was the usual beggar, in tattered blankets, sleeping under a shop awning. He was awake now. His skeletal frame was discernible under the thin blanket, bony and emaciated. His sunken eyes stared through the holes in the blanket. She felt something move inside her. Like the wind rustling through dead autumn leaves. A hope of aroused interest touched her to the quick
‘Are you awake? Do you want some tea?’ she asked, eagerly.
‘Yes,’ the beggar said apathetically, but his eyes had betrayed his interest, and his teeth had begun chattering. Rashida saw the bus move out of the bus stop. Now she hurried, feeling safe for the moment.
Trees stood shaking in the wind, dripping moisture onto a clearing by the roadside. She touched the bark of one. The cold wind blew the dew on to her, bringing a faint smile to her lips. She touched the drops on her cheeks. God! I am alive, she thought with a sudden surprise.
She came out on the highway and a sudden blast of cold air went through her to the core. She shivered. The sun was hidden in the dense fog. The street lamps were still lighted and she could make out shops, stalls, rediwallas. People were up and about. Children were going to school. Two stray dogs and a ruminating cow were pawing the dust-heap across the road. The town was now fully roused. She felt herself in the thick of life. And for a moment she was almost happy.
By the road, across the bus stop, the tea shop was open. And in front of the tea shop was Sonu, selling eggs as usual. Sonu was a fourteen-year-old boy. He was poor and his father was very ill. Now he had to work, to support his family. He sold eggs in winter and soft drinks in summer.
Rashida always waited for the bus on his bench. He had been there for two years now.
A special bond had developed between him and Rashida.
‘Madam,’ his eyes brightened. ‘You missed your bus just now!’
‘Did I?’ she replied cheerfully.
There were two other passengers waiting for a bus, an old man and a middle-aged rustic woman. Rashida sat beside them on the bench, feeling a little constrained. Down the road a groundnut vendor was calling loudly to wayfarers. Rashida glanced inside the tea shop where a thin crowd was eating tiffin. Sonu was free at the moment, and arranging his egg trays methodically.
‘Sonu, you see that beggar by the gutter? Fetch him some eggs and tea, will you?’ Rashida took out some notes, self-consciously. Without replying, Sonu reached out for the money. As she handed him the money his fingers brushed hers. They were warm and soft from the fire he always had ablaze for himself by the roadside. Many people stopped there to warm themselves. Suddenly Rashida felt very cold, and leaned towards the fire.
She looked around. Down the road the groundnut vendor was doing brisk business. More and more people were emerging onto the road. Women, men and children. She watched, fascinated. She fed the fire splinters of wood and it crackled fresh and new, its flames warming her. The old man and the rustic woman were talking about buses being late. She did not hear them. She did not care.
Fruit vendors were coming out, pushing carts laden with beautifully arranged fruits—apples, bananas, pomegranates, papayas and oranges. They looked fresh and inviting, juicy and colourful, glistening with the water sprinkled on them. Looking at them, Rashida felt quick thrilling pinpricks run through her. The tension around her chest was loosening. There was a liberating feeling inside.
This was the only time of day when Rashida felt the tension and boredom inside her melting. Something expanding in her bosom. She held her hands over the fire. She felt she could sit there for hours, with the icy cold wind touching her cheeks and the fire giving her warmth.
But she knew that in a while the bus would come and she would have to scramble on to it. She would ride to her job—school. She hated her job, teaching unruly, uncouth children. She had considered quitting many times, but she knew that if she did the house would get on her nerves. As if it did not already, she thought.
She loathed the school, the children, her colleagues. Her colleagues! Three fat males with big paunches, hanging about cracking filthy jokes, and two wet, lazy females gossiping and chattering and eyeing their counterparts. Rashida felt choked and cooped up amongst them. But here,
waiting for the bus, staring at distant people, she could forget herself for some moments.
Sonu had meanwhile returned and was handing out eggs to two women. She looked at his hands as his thin, long fingers expertly denuded the eggs and sliced them with a large, glimmering knife. His fingers moved quickly, charged with life. She was distracted by a beggar stretching his hand out in front of her. She saw that he was old and sick. She took her purse out.
A bus pulled up before her, and her heart lurched. So soon! She had wanted to sit here a little while longer. But it was not her bus, and she drew a sigh of relief. The rustic woman got up with an exclamation. The old man grumbled that his bus had not arrived yet. People went in and out of the tea shop. The traffic had thickened and there was a bustle.
The fog was lifting and the sun was coming out, pale and dim. The cold wind still blew. The fire was dying down. Across the road, on an electric wire a flock of sparrows alighted. Rashida watched them, fascinated by their sudden intimate gestures towards each other. Then her glance instinctively moved to Sonu. He had finished dealing with his customers and was watching her with a sidelong glance. She suddenly felt afraid.
‘Your fire is dying,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he held out his hands to feel the warmth of the dying fire. His hands were thin and bony; his fingers slender and straight. They accidentally brushed hers. They were warm and close and moved with life.
She sat still, considering something. She had felt for some time that she held an attraction for the boy. And in a certain way she had felt flattered.
Waiting for the bus that she hoped would not come, warming her hands over the fire lighted by Sonu, sensitive to the cold, dew-laden wind and the rays of the pale, watery sun, day by day, she had become attuned to the stirring of life within the boy. The boy is growing up, she would think to herself, a pleasant little smile on her lips.
Yes. He is blooming, shy and proud, she thought now, looking at him wonderingly. He was thin and bony with long black lashes over his brown eyes.
She had not really noticed till now. The powerful force that gushed forth from the boy. Desires that were rising inevitably within him. She had been blind to it all till now.
For the last two years she had sat next to him and had not been aware of him as an alive person. And now as she saw life claiming itself with suddenness and boldness in the boy, a knot of fear developed inside her.
But she felt adventurous; the hard, stifling tension within her softened. And she looked at the boy with direct, warm eyes. His eyes were pools of light, and there were sharp lines of youthful eagerness on his face. Lately his voice had become hoarse and adenoidal. Husky with hormones.
The gulmohar tree across the road shook under a gust of wind and shed leaves, which, swirled onto people walking beneath. Two old grey men walked to the bench opposite her and sat down. Sonu peeled eggs for them. They were his regulars. Rashida eyed them. One was thin, rheumy-eyed, with quick jerky movements. He looked at her furtively. The other was short and sprawling and he gazed at her openly. Rashida felt awkward and constrained. Then she looked at the boy. He was beautiful and lively.
The wind increased. There was a distant rumble in the sky, she looked up. The sun was hidden in the mist and clouds were gathering overhead. Everyone seemed surprised at the approaching rain. The bus still did not arrive. Rashida hoped that it would soon.
There was a restlessness around her heart. She saw two men reaching for eggs. The yolks a rich yellow against the whites. The eggs felt strangely like life.
But there was a mellowness about her face as she sat there, looking around, surrounded by a cold, invisible wind. Something responsive in her inert, tense body. The bus had still not arrived and a tiny dot of uneasiness sparked in her. The two men watched her constantly. But they could not affect her. The rain started falling. Little drops of water here and there. She tightened her shawl. She felt trapped, aware of the boy’s eager brown eyes on her. There was an urgency in the traffic and the people. People wanted to find shelter before it began pouring.
She held her hands out over the dead ashes. The groundnut-seller was erecting a tent over his wares. Sonu’s were under the awning of the tea shop. A thin, shrivelling woman came and sat down beside her. Rashida could feel the throb of the woman’s body against herself and it made her uneasy. The two men had gone.
With a sudden, firm resolution, Rashida turned her head and stared at the boy. He was polishing his knife with a cloth. He looked up briefly and, finding her looking, stared. A faint, knowing smile appeared on both their lips as they exchanged glances.
Something fluttered inside Rashida. A warm flame licked up within her and touched her throat. Then she started, as she saw the look change on the boy’s face. A strange shyness had spread over the boy’s eyes, and hypocritical lines uncoiled around his mouth.
Rashida was rooted to the spot. She saw, horrified, the timid look that crossed over the boy’s face. She thought, nausea churning inside, that the boy resembled her husband at that moment. Something died inside her at the greedy, grasping expression on his face.
The bus pulled up at that moment. She rose hurriedly. And as she went towards it, she muttered to herself, ‘Life!’
And there was a bitter taste in her mouth.
This story was published in the April-June 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was ‘Heat’.