By Nirmala Nagarajan
“Rina didi, Rina didi, don’t leave. Please don’t go. Please.” Her two younger brothers sobbed, as their bony hands tightened their grasp around eleven-year-old Rina. She had to wrench herself free and clamber into the waiting bus. She rushed in, clutching her red cloth bag, nimbly weaved her way through the crowd and found a window seat while other passengers shoved, pushed and tried to force themselves on-board.
Once she’d squeezed herself into the seat, her eyes searched for her brothers, who now stood clinging to their mother’s sari and yelling, tears running down their faces, “Didi, do not leave us and go. Maa, stop didi. Don’t let her leave.” Her mother just stood there, frozen, silent, as her hands tightened around her little boys. Rina stifled her sobs and waved to them. The bus roared to life and departed. She turned and craned her neck to wave at her mother and brothers until they disappeared from sight as the bus turned around a bend and rattled ahead towards Mumbai.
As the bus, once red and yellow, now soiled and browned, wobbled through the uneven dirt roads, Rina stared at the brown and dried fields on either side. Even the trees were almost bare. A few yellow leaves clung obstinately on the branches as the scorching sun blazed on the bare fields. A lone emaciated cow stood alongside the road while its owner lay asleep, curled under a tree, mouth open, as the flies buzzed around his face.
Everything had gone wrong. The fields should now be green and the wheat plump and about to ripen in their husks. The trees should be lush with leaves, blowing in the cool breeze. She and her friends should be rehearsing for the annual dance show usually staged during the Holi festival. Right after the harvest, the entire village would gather to celebrate Holi in the village square. Men, women, boys and girls would form their own groups, splash colours, throw gulal, the traditional red powder, on each other. The men with their white lungis turned crimson with splashed dyes, would be high, loud and boisterous, or silly and giggly, after many mugs of bhang, made of freshly ground cannabis flowers, boiled with milk, sugar and cardamom. There would be food stalls, serving hot puffed purees, loads and loads of chickpea curries, sweet vermicelli pudding, crunchy sweet jalebis, huge pots of flavoured rice, and lentil curries. There would be a funfair with a merry-go-round, an ice candy stall, pink fluffy candyfloss and stalls selling brightly coloured papier-mâché dolls. And the festivities would end with a dance performance, where children of the village would be able to show off their dancing skills. Rina would barely eat on Holi day, waiting eagerly to occupy the centre stage in the dance show. She loved to dance like Madhuri Dixit, the Bollywood star. She would spend all her spare time rehearsing her dance steps. The whole village loved to watch her dance. After all, they had nicknamed her “Little Madhuri”.
That was then. But now everything had changed. There was only drought and dryness. Her mother simply clanged the empty wheat flour tins. There was no whole-wheat flour in the kitchen that Rina could turn into little dough balls, then roll out into flat round rotis that her mother would grill on red-hot coals. And they would devour these rotis with spicy lentil curry. On Sundays, Maa would fry fish or chicken as well.
Now all they ate was a thin gruel of rice.
Rina hugged her red cloth bag. Next to her sat Uncle Shyam, the man who would take her to Mumbai and enrol her in a dancing school. Or that is what Dada told her last night. Uncle Shyam was dressed in black trousers and a white half-sleeved shirt. A thick gold watch shone on his stout brown arm, which was covered with hair like tiny coiled springs. And gold rings glimmered on his thick stubby fingers. Rina mustered the courage to look up at the face of this man who was taking her to Mumbai. Their eyes met. He grinned, showing pearly white teeth through a thick black moustache, and patted her on the back. Rina cringed under his touch, and quickly averted her eyes and looked out of the window. All she could see was dry brown bleakness as the bus snaked through the winding roads of adjacent villages.
She twisted her long pigtails. Her mother had oiled, combed and plaited her lustrous raven-black hair and tied the ends with red ribbons. When she applied kohl to Rina’s eyes, her hands shook and the black paste smudged Rina’s face. As she wiped away the smudge with the end of her sari, her mother’s eyes were moistened with tears and she hastily blinked them away.
“Why are you sending me away?”
“I am not. It is your dada.”
“You will at least get a good meal every day. And there will be one less mouth to feed here, that is what Dada says.”
“But Maa, I will sweep and clean the house. I will bathe and feed my little brothers. I always do that.”
“Yes, my dear. You always help.”
“Dada says when I am in Mumbai, they will teach me to dance. Who are they, Maa? Who is Uncle Shyam?”
“I don’t know, dear.” Maa squeezed Rina in a tight hug.
Dada had not come to the bus stop to see her off. Instead, Uncle Shyam had come to their hut to take her to Mumbai.
With quivering fingers, Rina opened her cloth bag to examine its contents. She pulled out her new green-and-yellow salwar kameez with tiny sequins. This was the dress her mother bought for Diwali last year. This was the dress she wore when she danced during a school function. Everyone praised her saying she danced like Madhuri Dixit. She carefully refolded the dress and put it back in the bag. Rina then took out the photo she had covered in a plastic sheet. Her brothers, in shiny new clothes, smiled at her. Rina’s eyes filled with tears again. Already she was missing them. She closed the bag, not wanting to think about them, or worry about her future. For a long time, she stared out of the window as the bus jolted along the busy pot-holed streets. Eventually she dozed off and the breeze blowing on her face dried her tears.
She woke up with a jolt hearing the loud honking of car horns. When she looked out of the bus window, she saw vegetable vendors, pavement shoe shops, candy shops, hawkers selling colourful saris and children playing on the streets. The cars hooted and jostled to get ahead of each other. People crossed the streets, not letting the cars move ahead. There was a lot of noise and commotion. Her village was so much more peaceful. And then she looked up and smiled. She saw her favourite Bollywood star, Shah Rukh Khan, smiling down at her from a huge billboard. Just then, the bus stopped. Uncle Shyam stood up and towered over her.
“We are in Mumbai now.”
Gopal slammed the glass down on the rickety table in the village arrack shop. He had just downed his third glass of the country liquor. His eyes were burning red. He removed a note from a fresh stack of rupee notes bundled and secured firmly in the folds of his dhoti at his waist. The arrack shop owner’s eyes widened. He refilled Gopal’s glass.
“Drink up, Gopal. Liquor is our only friend. Drink till you forget your pains.”
“Forget? How can I forget? Even if I poured all the liquor in your shop down my throat, I cannot forget my dear friend Ramu. I can still see him hanging from that peepul tree with the noose around his neck. His tongue sticking out. He haunts me every night. I can barely sleep.”
The arrack shop owner clicked his tongue in sympathy.
“That son of a bitch Chaudhary. That moneylender sucked my friend Ramu’s blood. Interest upon interest on the loan. Poor Ramu. He could not take it anymore. Look around you. No rain for two years. Our lands are crackling dry. In my hut, there is not an ear of wheat,” Gopal lamented.
The arrack shop owner nodded.
“I am off to Chaudhary’s house. I will throw this money in his face. I will be out of that bastard’s clutches.” Gopal patted the bulging wad of rupees in the folds of his dhoti. He stumbled out of the shop.
Chaudhary reclined on the large wooden swing in the verandah of his house and belched. Lunch had been a grand affair. His wife had smiled more than usual and kept piling food on his plate. Mmm… perhaps she was hatching a plan to extort money for a new piece of jewellery, thought Chaudhary shrewdly. His servant sat on the floor at his feet.
“Sahib. Should I massage your legs?” the man said hesitatingly.
“Do you have to ask? Just do it.”
As Chaudhary reclined luxuriously on the large upholstered swing, the servant sat uncomfortably on its edge as his emaciated hands laboured hard on his master’s stout legs. The large neem tree stood in the courtyard, green and supple, well tended and watered, despite the barrenness surrounding it. Its leaves fluttered in the breeze. The master closed his eyes, mouth open, ready for a siesta.
Just then Gopal stumbled into the courtyard, and yelled his arrival.
“Chaudhary, I have come to throw the money in your face. Here, take this and return my land papers.”
Chaudhary stirred from his nap and yelled back in anger.
“How dare you come in to my house unannounced, shameless fellow? With your empty talk of money? Get out of here.
“What are you staring at, you stupid fellow? Throw this drunkard out of the house,” Chaudhary shouted, now directing his anger at the servant.
The servant swiftly rose up and tried to steer Gopal towards the door. In one swift motion, Gopal shoved the man aside. He walked up to Chaudhary.
“You think I will hang myself like Ramu and gift away my land to you? Never. I have the money. Give me my papers.”
“Show me the money.”
Gopal patted the bulge at his waist.
Chaudhary’s eyes widened. He ordered the servant to fetch the papers.
Gopal stumbled back towards his hut. The bulge in the folds of his dhoti had gone. So had his daughter, Rina. But he had his land now. Dry and crackling. Waiting for rain.