There were six months and 12 days left for our wedding, when my scooter toppled into a pothole and a speeding truck dragged my fiancé, riding pillion, under its tyres. Today, three months after my life was upended, I’m on a bus hurtling towards uncertainty.
The sliding window-shutter with its amoeba-shaped dirt smudges is jammed open. Warm, sand-laced wind stings the scars on my left cheek. Tree branches and thorny bushes whip the bus periodically, as if they want to pluck me out. Over the repeat blare of the Bollywood songs the driver is partial to, I try to remember and forget.
Helmets of driver and pillion rider had ISI mark? Yes.
Speed was within 40 kilometres per hour? Yes.
Vehicle was insured? Yes.
Brakes were functional? Yes.
Do you have a valid driving license? Yes.
Were you drunk? No! Of course not, sir!
Yesterday, I waited hours on the pavement along the bypass road, the measuring tape from my sewing kit growing warm and sticky in my clasp. Traffic poured forth towards the city in a noisy torrent of metal and exhaust. There it was, like a scab on a giant wound, a three-month-old sloppy mix of cement and gravel hardened inside the teardrop-shaped pothole. “Twenty-two inches long, 13.5 inches wide and five inches deep,” a newspaper had reported the day after the accident. When the traffic eased a little, I walked onto the road and verified the dimensions of death. I then sat down on the warm cement and hugged my knees. The maps of Keshav’s blood had disappeared – washed away by rain or stolen by the grains of asphalt. Horns blared, brakes screeched and rough hands deposited me back on the pavement with labels: crazy, irresponsible and sick.
The juddering bus devours the road between Keshav’s parents and me, like a long-tongued monster drawing in its prey. When I’d met them in the mortuary three months ago, I’d been an interloper in their silence. In a wheel chair, with the guilt of the blameless, I’d read their eyes: You have a few broken bones and bruises. That’s all?
They’re not expecting me today. Last week when I called Keshav’s home in the village, his father broke the sighing silence strung between our handsets to ask, “What bag?” Hugging tight the dusty bag with its cracked computer, I chanted, “Keshavslaptopbag, Keshavslaptopbag.” After a silence that resounded like a slap, he ordered, “Keep it. Return our son, if you can.” Yet here I am, gravitating towards them like a wayward spacecraft on the fringes of a black hole.
Being mindful is the best way to cope, the psychotherapist had advised. I try. The sari-clad girl in the seat next to mine looks no older than a high schooler. She dotes on the little boy in her lap, showering him with kisses. He just woke up from a long nap and can’t stop lisping questions. She opens a green polythene bag and unleashes a heady odour of overripe guavas. At the previous halt, I’d seen her prefer them over sliced cucumbers and roasted peanuts. Like a cricket bowler, she wipes a guava on her sari a couple of times and squeezes it open. “Chee, yappaa!” she shouts. Small white worms wriggle in the fruit’s pink flesh. Her child bends forward for a closer look and pulls back when she tells him the worms bite. She squeezes another guava, and hastily thrusts it back into the bag. I’m glad her personal law of averages doesn’t encourage further investigation. She re-ties a knot on the bag and, before I can protest, reaches across me and flings it out of the window. I watch it thump amidst grazing cattle.
The conscientious mother draws out a sweet lime from another bag. She painstakingly scores it at the poles and along the longitudes with a small knife. She rips the peel in strips, and the boy sings, “Mosambi, mosambi,” keeping time with the bursts of citrusy fragrance. She has hardly begun to separate the segments when he grabs one, tugs the seeds out with his teeth and spits them in her lap. He winks as the juice dribbles down his puckered lips. He shakes his head and squishes the segment back into her hand. With a resigned sigh, she rustles open a bag of potato crisps. The steady nibble-nibble-crunch-crunch reminds me I’ve skipped breakfast again.
I gulp the last tepid mouthful of water from my bottle and squint at the racing landscape outside. When had it changed from green to sepia? Jeeps, tractors and pickup vans loaded with people whizz ahead at regular intervals. Our bus lurches to a halt at a dhaba. Eight hours of immobility, and my joints feel eighty. After all, it’s only a week since my left leg and hand emerged, amnesiac after weeks in plaster casts.
Between brewing hot chai and frying pakoras, the dhaba owner holds forth to a crowd of intent listeners. He talks of ‘it’ being the second day. I buy a packet of cream biscuits and a bottle of water from him, and hover long enough to learn that a girl fell into an abandoned bore well yesterday evening. A small portable TV mounted on the wall beams the rescue operations live. The high-pitched voice of a reporter from a regional news channel and the ticker at the bottom of the screen do their relentless recap: Chikkalli, North Karnataka; 300ft deep bore well, child stuck at 30ft; Army and DRF called in. I try to imagine the child’s plight and grow breathless.
A familiar nightmare hovers threateningly close: it’s always dark and deep in there. Far above me is a tiny circle of sky, as unattainable as the moon. Slimy wet walls close in on me as I struggle for room to move.
I force myself to reach the lacy chiaroscuro of a peepal tree behind the dabha. I press my forehead against the sturdy trunk and squeeze my eyes shut.
That evening, I’d lain on the road willing Keshav’s chest to rise and fall. Traffic flowed around our bloody island, fenced in by excited onlookers who’d filmed us on their phones. Broken into pixels, we rode the waves to distant homes faster than the ambulance did on those choked lanes. I was here exactly thirty-five minutes after the phone call, argued the irate ambulance driver, over the wail of the siren.
My bus driver jabs the horn, raising decibel levels sufficient to frighten a herd of elephants had they blocked his path. Alarmed passengers scramble inside for another bumpy four-hour ride. The young mother wrestles her fractious son into the bus. I pull the cap of my black hoodie over my head and turn away. The bus trundles off. It’s unlikely my co-passenger will raise an alarm if she notices my absence. She’ll get to enjoy that cheap whodunit in her bag while her son falls asleep on my seat.
A motley crowd of villagers in a pickup van stop for directions to the girl-in-the-well village. I’m surprised to hear myself asking to join them. I walk to the van. Two young men reach down to help me up and announce respectfully, “Newspaper lady.” I don’t correct them. I’m an assistant editor with The Winning Mother, a magazine fighting for readership despite its launch five years ago. The other two editors of TWM are married to each other and have solid corporate jobs and cute kids. Unmarried and childless at 33, it falls upon me to man the tiny office and type out parenting advice.
I set out this morning from my apartment determined to go back to work. I reached the main entrance and stopped. Waves of panic washed over me as I held the handrail. When an auto rickshaw looking for a fare slowed near me, I climbed in and asked to be taken to the bus stand.
Two years ago, Keshav struggled to negotiate the three steps to the landing. He would let me help him only when I insisted. His thick-heeled left shoe was cumbersome on steps, but he hated crutches, he’d explained before the elevator whisked him away. A week later, the law firm he’d joined on the fourth floor funded a ramp with handrails at the entrance.
The pickup van veers onto the dirt road, and I’m surprised at how effortlessly I’ve joined the group of voyeurs. Is it curiosity or empathy that draws people to accidents? How easily they’ve put aside their chores to witness a young life walking the tight rope. What was I doing here anyway?
An old woman on a sack of potatoes moves to make space for me. Her white hair fans about her face in the hot wind, like a strange flame. Her black sunglasses, the kind people wear when they’re recovering from a cataract operation, and her paan-stained smile, give her a don-like appearance. We sit on our knobbly throne, lording over a kingdom of jobless subjects. There’s even a young breastfeeding mother in the jostle of men, women and children.
We alight at the edge of a huge dried crop field – a fairground sans rides and stalls. Tired looking policemen twirl lathis at people near the drilling site. Somewhere, a loudspeaker warns people not to crowd the site. Silhouetted against the sunset sky is the truck with the drilling rig. In my upside-down world, it looks like a rocket nosediving to earth.
Over the din of the drilling machine, people weave around like a colony of disturbed bees. After the initial confusion, the sounds become hypnotic. A Disaster Response Force official is on the phone next to me. “A parallel shaft is being drilled beside the bore well, sir. We’ll drill to 30 feet and reach Nandini by means of a tunnel. Slow? We’re doing our best, sir. The bed is rocky; we can’t use explosives. I’ll call you back, sir,” he says, his voice cracking.
Nandini. I know her name, and she’s no longer just a ‘rising statistic in bore well deaths.’ The official stuffs the phone into his pocket and shouts to no one in particular, “It’s a bloody unused well, Mr Minister. Why don’t you punish the buggers who didn’t cover it up?”
I follow him when he joins officials crowded around a computer on a makeshift table. The air of excitement is contagious. A video camera lowered into the well has just recorded a slight movement in Nandini’s hand. The oxygen pipes have helped. Hooks inserted to ease the mud over her have returned with a purple scrap of her frock. A workman brings the scrap over to a haggard-looking man sitting dazed beside the officials. “Tell your wife to eat or drink something now. God be praised: your child is alive.”
Nandini’s father cups his palms around the scrap like it is a butterfly. I follow him into a modest hut, inside which wails alternate with hushed murmurs. The women pull the pallus of their saris over their heads when he enters. A woman says brightly, “Look, Nandini’s father is here.” She uses the distraction to pour a little water into a woman’s mouth, which the woman spits out promptly and shrieks, “You think I can eat and drink when my child is starving?” She strikes her breast with hands clumsily bandaged with strips of cloth.
Her husband squats down beside her and opens his palms. “I saw her hand move in the camera,” he says, his voice quavering as he places the scrap before her. He tucks a damp ringlet behind her ear and she leans against him.
Their intimacy brings to mind vehicle exhaust, voices, traffic, Keshav’s cries and a coarse hand stroking my face and neck. Crazed with pain on the left side of my body, I had looked into the eyes of a middle-aged man. He’d then hastily lowered my head to the road and stood up. I saw my handbag slung from his shoulder as he vanished into the crowds. Much later, I discovered my gold earrings and chain missing, too.
I sit beside a thin girl in the corner of the hut. The smiling parents pass a tin of jaggery around. Deals are struck with gods. The mother drinks half a glass of water. With her teeth she tugs away the strips of cloth bound over her hands and begins to straighten the hut. Outside, a lively drumbeat increases in tempo and skinny lads dance at the entrance. The bonhomie frightens me. For god’s sake, be cautious with happiness, I warn them silently. There’s always somebody who marks the too-happy people. Don’t I know?
A gust of wind blows the purple scrap towards me. The girl beside me snatches it.
“Nandini is your friend?” I ask.
“My sister.” She bends down to smooth the fabric, tugging little threads at the edges. “This used to be my frock.” Her spine and ribs show through a run in her faded red frock, which a safety pin tries valiantly to close. Two braids, folded and tied up with red ribbons, loop below her ears. There’s sand in the parting on her head.
The father swoops down, wild-eyed, and smacks the girl on her back. We’re showered in spittle when he shouts, “See what you’ve done to your sister, you evil girl.” I grab the girl towards me. There’s a resounding slap on my left arm. I cry out. He mumbles an apology and stomps out of the hut.
With a banana in each hand, a small boy runs to the mother. She clasps him to her chest and rocks him. “Ravi, Ravi,” she whispers. She stares long at his face before releasing him. An old woman runs her hands on either sides of the little boy’s face and cracks her knuckles against her temples – the evil eye is taken care of. The child squirms and tries to hold his mother. He’s led away by a woman with a promise of toffees.
“Write this in your newspaper if you want. But have you seen the work outside? If a rich man’s child had fallen inside a bore well, they’d have rescued her by now,” the mother cries, her dark eyes challenging me to respond. She thrusts her bruised hands at me. “I can scoop mud faster than them, but they won’t let me.”
She sees my arm around the girl and her face hardens. “Just wait. If something happens to your sister, I’ll… I’ll…”
I tighten my hold on the girl, but she doesn’t stop trembling. “Alcohol will only break my good leg,” Keshav said once, laughing, refusing a drink in the initial days of our courtship. “My polio gait is crazy as it is.” I gave up drink that day.
I don’t know whether it was my skinny jeans and crop top, or the tattoos on my arms which did it. But the traffic cop who arrived with the ambulance concluded without a breathalyser that I was a “partying-waste-body.” All that Keshav and I had drunk that evening was a teaspoon each of water infused with basil and camphor, at the temple where we’d gone after work to give the first wedding invitation card. But the newspapers, too, reported our accident as ‘another death in the rising statistics of drunken driving’.
I lift the girl’s chin gently. “What’s your name?” I whisper.
“Shall we go out, Sumitra?”
Her head reaches my chest when she stands. She leads me out with the light step of a gazelle. Once behind the hut, I ask to use the toilet. I relieve myself in the darkness of some bushes. I’m grateful for the cold water she offers in a dented aluminium cup. I wash my face and hands. I lead her further away from the huts to sit on a boulder. “What happened?” I ask.
Her huge eyes on the far fields, she pinches her throat solemnly. “I didn’t push her, I swear.” Then the words tumble out in a rush. “Ravi, my younger brother, wanted guavas, so I’d taken him and Nandini to the neighbouring field. When I began climbing the tree, Ravi threw sand at me, asking me to hurry. I think he threw sand on Nandini, too, because she began screaming. Maybe the sand got in her eyes. I heard them running and climbed down. I searched for them and then went home. Ravi was already asleep on my mother’s lap.”
Sumitra’s stomach rumbles loudly, and she hugs herself. I offer her the packet of cream biscuits. She takes it shyly. She separates the two halves of a biscuit, scrapes the circles of cream with her lower teeth, and nibbles each half slowly. She sniffs the packet once, as if surprised by the taste of cardamom in the cream.
In the darkness fragrant with cardamom, the clouds of blame and remorse have lifted. Behind us, the footfall of the spectators has thrown up a dusty haze. It’s easy to delude myself that all tragedies lie behind those sheer curtains.
“How old are you?”
Sumitra swings her legs to keep the mosquitoes away. “I’m seven. Nandini is six, and Ravi is five.” She looks alarmed, and holds out the packet of biscuits. “I’ve eaten three already.”
“Go ahead. Eat them all.”
She smiles. “Solle,” she says, and points over my head. There’s a swarm of mosquitoes in a crazy formation over my head. I wave my hands. They disperse, only to reassemble. We laugh.
She works her way through the packet. I brush the sand from her head and a knot comes undone inside my gut.
An old woman walks by with a bundle of twigs on her head. She throws it on the roof of a hut and invites me in. When I hesitate, she pleads. I pull Sumitra towards the hut, but her hand escapes mine like a loose feather. I see her run into the darkness.
In a hut more sparsely furnished than Sumitra’s, there’s a small wood fire going in the corner of the room. Without any preamble, the old woman slaps two jowar rotis onto a dented plate and ladles steaming stew made from greens. I’ve no will to protest. She sits easily on her haunches and watches me eat. The darkness outside is complete. But for a cicada’s ventriloquism, the hut is quiet.
“She cried so much when that child was born,” the old woman says suddenly. Her knee joints creak when she leans forward to raise the wick in the oil lamp. Our giant shadows leap to the wall. “When Nandini was born, I mean. Ask anyone. A second daughter is a bigger curse. But now, she and her husband have to pretend for the newspaper and TV people, no?”
The spicy stew and her spite churn my stomach. As if sensing my desire for flight, she pours me a glass of buttermilk. It’s deliciously salty, sour and spiced. My vocabulary for arguments is doused.
Her bright eyes impale me to the wall. “Please write this in your newspaper: no rains for three years in a row. Where is the river? We can’t afford a bore well. Anyway, most of the wells dry up sooner or later. My sons work in construction sites in the city. They’ve taken their wives and children with them. They’re comfortable, so they’ll never return.” Tiny rivulets from her eyes tremble between the wrinkles to her chin. I shake my head. She hasn’t seen the homes on quicksand, the ones her sons probably live in. Life under blue tarpaulins; babies asleep in slings fashioned from saris, older children as substitute parents; relentless toil from the crack of dawn; pack up time when the house warming is done.
But she is right. Where is the river? Keshav had proposed to me in an email: “My village is in trouble. The river is dry. Somewhere under us a scared river is skittering away at this moment, chasing depths of the rocky bed to evade arrest by dams. Those rivers that dare make an appearance are sacred goddesses. After propitiating them in temples, those in power drag them by their tresses to wherever the votes are. I’ll be the river goddesses’ attorney very soon. Marry me (a proper proposal after I return from the village).”
The old woman’s grief is black treacle. I’m afraid if I sit any longer, I would never be able to leave. I thank her and stumble out in a hurry. Unhappy thoughts vie with the indebtedness of having eaten her salt. Sumitra is nowhere in sight.
As I retrace my steps to the rescue site, a shout goes out followed by cheering. A dog curled asleep on the sand lifts his head to listen, his ears a pair of perfect candle flames. The army jawans have reached Nandini through the tunnel. The incorrigible drummer sends beats to the feet of boys now too tired to know what limb they’re shaking. A tea seller hands out tea in plastic cups, free of cost. People are standing up, seeking friends and family, dusting the sand from their clothes. A man next to me slaps his friend on the back and says, “I hope Nandini’s father will keep his promise to sacrifice three goats at the temple and feed the village.”
The ambulance driver positions his vehicle, the engine revving. Two cones of light from the headlamps light up the dirt road. The crowd parts respectfully. Two orderlies bring down a stretcher and follow the nurse and doctor. Nandini’s father runs to the jawan and takes the limp child in his arms. The doctor and nurse bend over the child. The orderlies rush her into the ambulance where the contraptions to infuse life are waiting. Behind them, amidst loud applause, an excavator thunders to life, ready to shovel earth into the holes after the rescue equipment is removed.
There’s a hush before susurration gives way to wails. The drumbeats fall silent. I stow Keshav’s laptop bag under a bush and begin walking down the road. And somewhere under the pin-cushioned night sky, Sumitra, like me, will continue to run.