Shortlisted in the Himal Short Story Competition 2019.
Prerana was grateful for the biting cold air that numbed her entire face. It felt like a tight slap. Surely she deserved that? Surely she wasn’t meant to cry away the entire night, only to drag herself to work every morning – so early that the sun hadn’t woken up yet? No, she decided. This was a ridiculous way to live. Someone – or something – had to slap some sense into her.
She stood on her usual spot, waiting for her usual train. Despite the early morning, there was the usual crowd of women waiting for the same train; in this city that never slept, people started working when it was dark as night and only stopped when it was time for the last train to leave. She hoped that her Ponds cream was sufficiently covering up her swollen eyes. If not, she had a Ray Bon for later – when the sun rose and she had that excuse.
Prerana glanced over at the much thinner crowd of women standing a few feet away. The contrast between the two crowds could not be starker. Even at 6 am, those women had it all together. Their hair was smooth and styled, their nails sharp and coloured with pastel and muted shades. No chipped off neon colours for them. Their bags were tiny and trendy. Prerana wondered idly where they kept their tiffins – her own jute jhola was always full to the brim with her various dabbas. They wore their Ray Bans even in the darkness, with no compunction.
Sharp at the scheduled time, the train glided over and stopped right at her feet, like her own personal limo. This early in the morning, India could very well beat Germany at punctuality. She got on with practised ease and rushed for her favourite window seat on the left of the compartment. She wondered why she felt the need to rush when she was the first one in the compartment – but that was just the way you became when travelling in this city. The seat was cold and hard; not for them, the soft blue cushions that the ‘other women’ enjoyed. Well, it figures, she thought. Hard seats for hard women.
Prerana groaned as she sat down. Her back ached from the constant bending down to take care of other people’s children. She was young and healthy – and also spoke some smattering of English. She could say ‘Come, Riya’ and ‘No, Aryan’. She could ask whether the kids wanted ‘noodles’ instead of ‘Megi’ or if they wanted ‘cookies’ instead of ‘Parle biscuit’. She could even Whatsapp the parents – updates about lunch and dinner, pictures and videos of their kids reaching milestone after milestone, while they worked in their glass offices. In short, she commanded high prices for her ‘babysitting’ services, much more than the ayas and kakis.
Which was why she felt that she deserved to pay the 600 rupees more and rest her back on the soft cushions that the other women enjoyed, for an hour, before a day of bending, squatting and lifting. Six hundred rupees: the difference between being her and being a lady of the ‘First Class’.
She had thought it would be a simple matter. She earned 18,000 rupees a month, much more than him – who only earned 12,000 rupees as an office boy in a nearby industrial estate. Earlier, when she didn’t know better, she used to suggest – or nag, as he saw it – that he find a job in a more well-off part of the city. That was a guaranteed way of adding a few thousands to your monthly income, without really doing anything extra. But he had found another way, which was even simpler than her method. He added an entire 18,000 rupees to his monthly income, just by marrying her. She went from being self-sufficient, and even helping her younger cousins at times with mobile recharges and college fees, to just barely making ends meet and having to account for every paisa spent.
But surely, 600 rupees was still a sum that they could spare? They didn’t have kids, they lived a frugal life. But she had made a cardinal mistake – an amateur one, she realised, when she thought about it now. She had requested – not demanded, like she would earlier, before she learned her lesson. But she had made the request for a ‘First Class’ pass, and not for ‘travelling in another compartment’ so that she could rest and be good at her work and maybe even earn more. Not everybody could see the difference between the two approaches, but she could, now. The first meant that she aspired to be a ‘First Class’ lady, that she was getting too good for her life with him. It was cushions today; who knew, tomorrow she could be asking for a pair of sunglasses from the store and not the street! Whereas the second would have been her wanting to serve more, bring more money in for him to – God alone knew what he did with the money. Rookie mistake.
An older woman, whom she saw almost every day, bumped into Prerana as she sat at the window seat opposite her. Amba was annoyed that she had not gotten the ‘front-facing’ window seat, the seat that faced the direction in which the train was going, the numero-uno priority of all train travellers. Instead, she had to make do with the ‘ulta’ window seat, the rear-facing one. It could lead to nausea in some sensitive people, travelling with your back towards the road. Of course, you would not come across many such ‘sensitive’ people in second class. Certainly, Amba was not one of them. But it hurt her ego that she had been pipped by Prerana to the coveted seat.
Amba placed her jumbo blue carry bag, carrying a whole assortment of snacks, in the middle of the narrow aisle. The bag was full to the brim with wafers, chaklis, khakras and all other sorts of deep-fried salted snacks. She would get off at one of the better stations, and set up her tiny one-woman stall right outside the station, where people would curse her for blocking the flow of their hurried footsteps. But she knew that many people would also bless her for providing them with cheap little shots of energy. By the end of the day, or on good days when her stock would sell out before the end of the day, she would be blessed enough to withstand the horrors of her nights. Today would be one of the early days; her bag was not even half full of what she could pull off on her best days. Well, at least she could go home and rest before he came home. Every cloud had a silver lining.
She had been so happy yesterday evening. She had sold out all her stock, and had even had three people take her number to place orders. Although only one in ten ever called back – she had learnt that in her six years of being a saleswoman – it always tickled her that somebody preferred her rough homemade snacks to the factory-produced perfections. These three people, along with the few others who had also taken her number in the past couple of weeks, added up to a grand total of seven. Only three more, and she could expect a call back. Every time there was a call back, she would reset her counter. It was a small game that she played with herself, a tiny thrill in her monotonous life.
After reaching home, tired but happy, she had got down to the task of getting dinner out of the way, before she could begin preparing her snacks for the next day. She was running low on potatoes, and made a mental note to buy more than usual on her weekly grocery trips. Something about the monsoon made people very fond of potato chips. She hoped to get dinner served and all her snacks prepared for frying, before he came home.
She had just about finished with her usual elaborate spread for dinner – he liked it that way; since she was never home to serve lunch, the least she could do was feed him a proper dinner! – when the bell had rung. She had sighed in resignation and opened the door with a wide smile. She needed him to be in a good mood, only then would she be able to get her snacks ready.
‘What are you so happy about? Met your lover again today?’ She had decided not to argue with him on this, like the countless other times when she said nothing. Somehow, he had got it in his head that she went to a particular station to sell, because she was secretly seeing somebody there. All her explanations, of it being the best station in terms of hungry people and of friendly police who turned a blind eye to her if only she provided them with a few chips here and there, went unheard. What was the point of repeating herself, when he had decided to believe his own story? In hindsight, she realised it may not have been the best way to handle it; now he thought that her silence was because his story was true. Well, it was too late to start protesting now.
She had set him up for his dinner, and gone into the kitchen to continue her preparation. Potatoes were boiling, flour was being kneaded, and her little plastic baggies were all laid down on the floor, ready to be filled. Her stapler was refilled with pins, the first refill of the night. She would go through at least half a dozen refills before she was done.
Amba hadn’t noticed when he walked into the kitchen and put his arms around her. She had stiffened involuntarily, but had the sense to turn off the gas for the oil being heated for frying. It was not a mistake she ever wanted to repeat. He had turned her around and pulled her towards the centre of the kitchen. She began calculating in her head how many potatoes she would need to get through the week, before her Sunday morning grocery trip. Maybe she should buy a few kilos from the station. Although that was much more expensive than the wholesale market she usually shopped at, she didn’t want to be out of chips when she had paying customers. A lower profit, after all, was better than none.
All of a sudden, her thoughts had been interrupted by a guttural cry. He had stepped on her poor stapler, the only one she had. But now that had to be the least of her concerns. He was angry, cursing. She hoped for a millisecond that might mean he was no longer in the ‘mood’. Of course, that was as silly as any of her countless idle fancies. His nights with her were not driven by ‘mood,’ his or hers; they came from a place of entitlement, a place of rage against her and her achievements, a place of wanting to pull her down to where he thought she should be. His anger at the stapler had only whetted his perpetual fury against her.
She had survived the night, like she had many before, escaping with only a few marks from her beloved stapler.
But that meant that she had barely been able to put together a few bags of snacks, somehow fastening them with the stapler pins, by hand, when he had finally gone off to sleep. She nudged the still-heavy bag towards Prerana’s feet. Surely, after paying her dues as a wife every night, she deserved to feel the fresh air on her face in the morning? Why was this girl with her too-white face stealing even that from her?
Prerana looked at Amba with exasperation. She knew the type. The women who weren’t quick enough to get the window seat, but who would harass and bully anyone who did. This must only happen in this compartment, she thought. After all, they were labelled ‘second class’ for a reason.
Suddenly, Prerana’s glance fell on Amba’s arms. She could see the cold blue marks, impersonal, as if they didn’t mark the most personal shame of a woman. She averted her swollen eyes. Thank God, she thought. At least he doesn’t hit me! I would certainly leave the day he raised his hand at me!
Amba followed Prerana’s glance. She was not ashamed of her marks; to her, they were punishments for her mistakes. After all, she should not have kept the stapler on the floor. Of course he would be angry. But, apart from his anger, he kept her so happy. Not like this girl with her swollen haunted eyes, full of unhappiness. At least I don’t spend my nights crying!
To taunt Prerana, and let her know that she had seen her staring, she asked her, “Do you want to buy something madam? I have chaklis and khakras, and some potato chips too. They can bring you a lot of happiness.”
Only one word penetrated Prerana’s foggy mind. Amba had called her ‘madam’. Maybe he was right all along; maybe it wasn’t the cushion she wanted, maybe it was the respect. She wasn’t a ‘second class’ lady – no one was. Why should they be treated that way?
“How much for the entire bag?” she asked. Amba, thinking that she was taunting her back, said 600 rupees, knowing very well that she had barely 200 rupees worth of snacks. It wasn’t as if this girl sitting in second class at 6 am in the morning could afford it.
“Done. On one condition.”
It was Amba’s turn to be shocked. Six hundred was a huge sum, something she only earned on her very best days! And here, within ten minutes of the start of the day, she had a willing customer. She would have said yes to anything.
“My memsaab is looking for someone to stay the nights with the kids. They are two beautiful children, called Aryan and Riya. And they love chaklis and chips. I am sure memsaab will let you cook your snacks there while the children sleep, as long as you get your groceries yourself.”
Amba looked torn between facing his wrath, and finally having a way out of her drudgery. Prerana understood. After all, she herself had taken a step towards something from which there was no turning back.
“We have to upgrade ourselves from this second class,” said Prerana. And Amba understood that it wasn’t only about the compartment.