Ram dipped the marinated fish fillet in the whisked egg and put crumbs over it. There were ten more pieces to go and he had to get them ready before Bhawani Mohan got up from his afternoon nap. The kitchen walls had become dark with layers of soot and the calendar showed a date from three years ago. The food, however, was untouched by the ambience, ensuring a steady flow of customers into the eatery. They never got to see the kitchen anyway. They were served food from across the counter in steel plates or had it packed in paper bags, as they wished. Ram seldom got to taste the food he had become an expert in preparing, not that the flowing aroma never threatened to erode the barriers of self control, but the walls of resistance were made of stronger needs – the need to keep this job till he found something better and save enough money to build a small home.
Once done, he put a cover on the ready-to-make fish fries and washed his hands at the tap. The deserted look of the streets indicated it was still afternoon and there was some time left before the customers would come pouring in for tea and snacks. Ram sat down on the empty bench and turned the pages of the newspaper his employer had left lying about. Because he could barely make out the alphabets, the only thing in it that drew his interest was pictures of skimpily clad actresses
The sleep that Ram fought off every dawn, when he had to wake up to make tea and get the dough ready for puris and parathas came back to him more determined in the afternoons than a vendor who had been partially paid. He had to struggle with the overpowering feeling of drowsiness. This was the time Rani bicycled passed the eatery. Ram realised he would soon have to surrender in the battle against sleep if he sat upon the bench any longer. He started pacing the street, his mind far away.
Half a mile ahead, the street turned along the side of a fishing pond, which was divided into smaller tanks by thin strips of grassy earth. Rani, the fisherman’s daughter, came riding over the green, to arrive at the street and on which she rode past the eatery in the afternoon. Each morning and evening, Ram yearned to be present only at that time of the day, shoving aside the intervening hours, wondering whether his presence could ever be more than an unnoticed dot in her daily schedule.
That day, she came at the same time, her hair tied into a long ponytail and her dupatta knotted at the back to prevent it from getting tangled in the spokes of the bicycle wheels. The orange dupatta formed a curve between her shoulders. Her face and her figure, as revealed through the tightly fitted salwar kurta, had been carved with the same precision which presides over the last drop of moisture the cloud can imbibe before it splits into rain.
Ram, who was a few months short of reaching adulthood, could not take his eyes off her. But she just swept past him. Her unchanging cycle track replicating his life, which had been the same ever since he was sent to work in that eatery at the age of five by his father.
While Rani remained within the periphery of her own world like paint in its palette, Ram, in his mind took her out from there, mixing her with the free flowing colours of his imagination. He visualised being with her, telling her everything he knew and everything he had ever heard. He fantasised taking her away to a place where no else could interrupt them.
Young couples came in the evenings, school bags or satchels clinging to their shoulders. They chatted over plates of fish fries, mutton chops or chicken pakodas, made tastier by a little mustard sauce and salad that came with it. Ram could guess why they preferred to eat the cucumber and carrot slices from the salad, while throwing away the onion rings. He had seen them exchanging chocolates and other gifts and Ram would imagine sharing a tasty meal with Rani and gifting her colourful hair clips bought from the hawker who often passed the eatery on his way to the girl’s school.
Though Ram had never spoken to Rani, he knew that she was the daughter of the old man, who supplied fish to their eatery. He had heard snatches of conversations between him and Bhawani Mohan and particularly remembered the one where the father had mentioned that he wished to get Rani married soon.
“I wanted to find a groom for Rani but she is adamant she won’t marry before completing her school. She even wants to go to a college. I ask her how this poor man will afford so much.”
“You must let her finish her studies,” Bhawani Mohan had told him. And for the first time Ram felt somewhat grateful to his employer. Ram knew he would stand no chance if Rani were to be married off that year. Cleaning, chopping, cooking, serving, and then repeating the same sequence of tasks for the next meal, had made Ram’s life circumscribe the circle of a gas knob. How Ram yearned to play football and cricket in the nearby field with the other boys of the locality or watch movies with them at the ramshackle cinema hall. Having to suppress all the natural inclinations of childhood, he had grown up with a kind of resentment towards his master. He guessed there was some motive behind Bhawani Mohan’s apparent broadmindedness. Could he be eyeing Rani for his own son?
Ram knew his time was limited since he would have to buy a home and get a better paying job before he could present himself in front of Rani’s father as a suitable groom. Many people frequented the eatery and Ram was acquainted with the ways of the world through their discussions and gossip. He knew that of all things, his lack of education would not prevent him from being considered as a prospective groom, at least by Rani’s father. Many girls in the town and adjoining villages had settled down with nearly illiterates like Ram after the educated had demanded a substantial dowry. However, he was wary of being rejected by Rani and did not know how to impress her. He was afraid she would ride away from his life just the way she sped past him on her cycle every day. Since he had never spoken to her, it was impossible for him to guess what her response would be to his feelings. Even if her reactions were not favourable, it would be better than the regret he would have to live with if she did not learn about his affections at all. There was plenty of work each day but he would have to find a way to strike up a conversation with her, befriend her and finally propose to her. He could not let his love suffer the same fate as of the ice cream he gifted himself once a year. It would melt before he could savour it, trickling down his fingers as he held the cup in one hand, and was interrupted each time by a large group of boisterous customers as he tried to lift a spoonful with the other, moments before the shutters were to be pulled down.
On a day the week before the New Year, once the customers had left after finishing their lunch, Ram found that the kitchen’s tap was not working. He went to the pond to collect two buckets of water to clean the plates.
Since the nearest pond was littered with plastic packets and soda cans, Ram chose to go to a smaller and cleaner pond a little further away on the highway. He wanted to take a bath for some respite from the sweltering heat. Surrounded by fields on three sides, the shallow pond looked like a division in a thali plate; a pile of which Ram would soon have to wash.
As a little boy, he used to guess his height by checking whether his feet touched the bed of that pond and was overjoyed when he felt the muddy bottom for the first time. He let the water touch his itchy and sweaty skin and immersed himself neck deep in it.
Ram stopped his wading when something touched his toes. He held his breath, bent down to pick it and brought it in front of his eyes. It was a small crimson coloured waterproof pouch with the name A B Jewellers inscribed on it in gold letters. Ram could make out only the first two letters but he guessed the rest as the jewellery shop was not unfamiliar to him. Located on Shadhab Hussein lane, where he had once accompanied Shankar a year ago, riding pillion on his motorcycle, to buy new plates for the ever-growing number of customer at the eatery. Putting the pouch within his trouser pocket, Ram returned to the empty eatery. Closing the doors and windows, he unzipped the pouch, a diamond ring dazzled at him.
The first thought entering Ram’s mind was the wildest one. He wanted to kneel down, offer the ring to Rani and propose to her like he had once seen in a serial Bhawani Mohan was watching on his small TV placed on the shelf. He trashed the thought immediately. He did not expect an educated school-going girl like Rani to believe that he could afford an expensive ring.
He fiddled with the ring and wondered whether he should sell it as it was sure to add a good amount to the money he had painfully saved in a box. The eatery was frequented by all kinds of people: some, protected by political parties like eggs are by a mother crow, did not make much effort to hide their criminality. Ram was unsure about which of them he should approach with a stolen good. That gem could well be the first stone in his ad hoc bridge to a better life. Ram knew he had to decide fast and do something before Bhawani Mohan returned after his afternoon nap.
Ram took pride in being an excellent cook. He was hardworking and an unreciprocated but nevertheless dedicated lover. This Ram – the cook, hardworker and lover – could not accommodate the new Ram – the thief. The two could not fit together in the narrow bed, made by placing two benches facing each other. What if the ring had been bought by a boy like him with his hard earned money for a girl he loved? As a child, Ram had expected a little more empathy from those around him and he felt this was his opportunity to show it to someone else.
To reach A B Jewellers, Ram had to take an auto and then walk for a couple of minutes along the main road. He could not believe his eyes when he saw Rani getting down from her bicycle in front of the jewellery shop. Tucked between a shop selling leather goods and one displaying gift items, the jeweller was on the ground floor of a four-storied apartment building. But the sense of joyousness she usually exuded was replaced by gloom; she seemed listless, and several fresh bruises marking her arms were visible under the half sleeves of her kameez. She looked at Ram. Her expression indicated that his face seemed familiar but she was unable to locate where she had seen it. This much was his reward for trying to attract her attention by adjusting his hair, shirt collars, postures and so on while she pedalled by the eatery.
“Rani, what happened?” Ram spoke, breaking the silence.
“You know me?” asked Rani, surprised that the stranger, who nonetheless seemed familiar, knew her name.
Ram smiled at the irony of the question for he knew little else but her.
“I am Ram. I work in Bhawani Mohan’s eatery. The one that you pass every day,” Ram replied briefly as he was anxious to know how Rani got hurt. She looked straight into his eyes, taking a moment to decide whether to share her woes with this unknown boy.
“I have been working in Anand Bhusan Jewellers after my school hours, for the last four months. Since I ride a bicycle, I have been given the task of home-delivering the jewellery to customers.”
“Today while I was riding towards a lady’s residence in Pampipur, a truck came up behind me. It was being driven very badly; it swerved and almost hit me when I lost balance. I fell down beside a pond along with my bicycle. A man came forward to help and I didn’t refuse since I was in pain. Holding on to him I stood up. He asked whether I felt well enough to ride to my destination, and offered to drop me off on his bike. I declined the favour. I could not put so much of trust in a complete stranger. He had already walked away a few steps when I found my bag unzipped and the pouch I was supposed to deliver missing. I shouted after him. He seemed to be taken by surprise and pulled out his pockets which were empty. He was also not carrying anything in his hands. I felt embarrassed, suspecting the man who had come forward to help. He got up on his bike and rode away.”
Rani continued, “Now I have to give the bad news to my employers. I still don’t know how the ring was stolen. The only person to come near me was found to be innocent. My employer, the owner of this shop would have to get a fresh one made. And he will make up for the loss by forcing me to work without payment for years.”
“No, that won’t happen,” Ram said quickly while searching in the deep pocket of his pants. Rani fidgeted. He could guess what had actually occurred since he knew where the ring was found. On the pretext of helping Rani, the man had taken out the pouch from her bag. It would not have been a difficult thing to do if he was a professional pick pocket. The stranger expected Rani to look for it as soon as she got up and threw it in the pond behind her back before she could notice that it was missing. The man must have been a local, who was aware of how shallow the pond was and hence knew it would be feasible to retrieve the pouch from its bed. Something might have delayed him before he could come back to claim his loot.
“You mean they will not blame me?” Rani exclaimed in despair. “You think they will realise it was an accident and rely on the police to find it? Don’t you know the unwritten rules of this land? The ring must have been sold off.” She stopped mid sentence.
Ram, who had finally managed to bring out the pouch from his trouser pocket, held it before Rani’s widening eyes. Her face regained its colour and she sighed with relief. Her smile was like the first clue in the trail of a treasure and he would always remember it as the first reward of his unflinching love.
Thus, Ram was introduced to Rani as a saviour, as a hero. The ring stayed on in their memory not as a piece of jewellery but as an enlarged halo around Ram’s head and in its brightness, Rani could not miss his qualities. Rani started setting out for her workplace a little earlier, so that she could stop for a while at Bhawani Mohan’s eatery to talk with Ram. As both the jewellery shop and her school remained closed on Sundays, she would spend a considerable time in the afternoon with him. Within a few days, Ram took the opportunity to propose to her. He was successful. He wondered how strange it was that a diamond ring that neither of them possessed led this proposal. He could not have been happier.
~ Lahari Mahalanabish is a Kolkata-bsaed software engineer. Her poems and short stories have appeared in the Statesman and the Asian Age, Saw, Ashvamegh: The Literary Flight, among others.
~Read more short stories published by us.