At home, Mamta had finished the morning’s chores and was preparing to go out to get the necessaries for the dinner. As she passed the little table in the corner of the room where they all slept and the girls did their study she picked up one of the books belonging to Amali and opened it. It was full of diagrams and numbers and words she didn’t understand and although she tried hard as she turned the pages squinting at it, there was nothing in there that seemed to make any sense to her. Then, like a curtain lifting in a dark store room, she saw not rubbish and boxes but something else in a corner of the room that piqued her interest. She put the book down, squared it up with the others and left the house.
Out on the street since it was mid-morning the office workers had long gone to work, the students to school or university, the construction workers were already grinding banging and digging but the streets were not the usual heaving queues that often constituted street traffic in India. Although pretty much at any time of day but particularly at festivals the markets and areas around Laxmi Rd were a crush of people like the focus of the eye of India had turned in on itself. Laxmi Rd was the place to buy any manner of trinkets clothing jewellery cloth, in fact it was said that if you couldn’t find something in Laxmi Rd you wouldn’t find it anywhere.
Down a few hundred metres from where they lived in their two roomed house was a little group of shops where Mamta had been coming for the small needs of her family. Here she could buy the little green fingers of okra, French beans thin as straws, paneer, milk, bananas both yellow and occasionally in season the large red ones, small sweet pineapples and for a short season strawberries from Mahabaleshwar or Panchagani. These cost a lot though up to 150 rupees for a kilo at the peak of the season which was beyond their means. The rest of the shopping was generally at Phule Market, which everyone called Mandai, where there was an enormous bustling open market and here you could truly buy anything edible or otherwise. At the back of the market almost opposite the church was where the carcasses and scraps of off cuts were thrown onto a tray truck and the smell was horrific even by normal standards. Rats, cats, dogs and crows vied for a meal as some of the refuse spilled over the top and slid to the ground in long stinking cables of sinew attached to bone skin and fat.
A couple of days before when she had been passing on her way into the market trying to avoid a huge crowd that had gathered around three men fighting a rickshaw driver she had one of those moments of perfect clarity and focus which she had had a few times in th past and these had always seemed portentous so she was always scared when the feeling came on her. A huge crow swept down from the wall where it had been eyeing off the truck of goat carcasses and assorted body parts, and sat on the skull of a goat and begun dipping its beak into the eye socket of the animal. A peculiar feeling passed through her, a coldness that made her shudder and she suddenly flapped her dupatta at the crow and called out, “Go away! Go! Shoo!” It hopped on the skull hovering up and down as if it was on a little puppet string then cocking its head sideways scrutinised her before rising up in the air and launching itself at her. As its wingtips passed the side of her head she recoiled and almost fell, if it were not for the steadying hands of a young man indeed, she would have fallen onto that filthy street.
“Thank you! Thank you!” She nodded to him re-balancing herself.
He smiled so happily and broadly that it seemed like the gates of heaven had opened up their brilliance just for her and she found herself doing the same in response, how could she not? He was handsome indeed with light skin and lambent eyes of jet black that twinkled brightly.
“It’s fine aunty. Glad to help. Horrible crow!”
“Yes he nearly got me…oh I just couldn’t stand watching him take the eye out!”
“Yes I know how you feel. It isn’t like the poor goat could use it anymore but just the same, it was nasty.”
She smiled and adjusted her dupatta picked up her basket and thanking the young man, was about to go on with the business of the day, when the young man suddenly called to her, “Aunty, I see you here a lot, what is your name?”
“Mamta Dalvi What is yours young man?”
“Ah, isn’t your father Amit Joshi? He sells leather on Baner Rd near the park?”
“He knows my husband actually. Ravi Dalvi.”
“Well well that is good… I will tell my father I ran into you today. Nice to be of help, bye!”
They smiled again, he raised his hand in a little wave and they turned away to their day.
On this Thursday though, the day Ravi had gone off happy with his life, a contented look warm on his leathered face, their daughters had gone to their respective classes and she had the whole day stretched ahead of her albeit dotted with the usual signs of domestic chores, she found herself at the same place as the other day where she had had the altercation with the crow and the help of the young man. She dove between bodies at the gate and went in.
There was no denying it was a fascinating place with high and good energy even if the smells were powerful enough to knock your head off sometimes, she loved coming here. Also there was great care needed when walking down the rows as apart from the large numbers of people, there were lots of slops and vegetable pieces or smashed fruits that lay underfoot. She went inside the covered part to get some respite from the heat and rest a moment on one of the sacks of onions just around the corner of the stall with the pomegranates oranges and imported apples in bright pyramids towering over papaya and green mangoes nestled at their feet. She sat watching as people came and went picking up this or that smelling squeezing and very occasionally secreting the odd piece in their pocket or bag. She had seen this very often and had decided since the first time she spoke up, never to do it again.
It had been an old woman, very gaunt with a dirty pink and silver sari which could have wrapped two people her size, who caught her indignation and ire. Her hands were extraordinarily gnarled with arthritis and the skin covering them seemed like thin sheets of crumpled paper made more topographic by the veins which travelled the surface like a Bombay road. Mamta had seen her standing unsteadily by a stall of fruit and veg and felt sorry for her until she saw her pass a small custard apple to the edge of the pile then while the stall keeper wasn’t looking, tip it off the edge into her basket pushed mostly under the trestle. From there she followed her to other stalls where she did the same trick. Finally, outraged by this, Mamta jumped forward and snatched the basket from underneath during the last theft and produced it triumphantly to the stall keeper with a flourish.
“Thief! She’s a thief…look at what she has in here!” The basket was half full of single pieces of fruit and vegetables, a few samosas and a couple of packets of bhuja. The old woman instantly sank to the floor in a pitiful heap wailing and plucking at Mamta’s salwar kameez.
“Ai ai ai!” She wailed in a thin whine which made Mamta angrier.
“Stop it! Stop it! Don’t touch me!” She pushed the dry claw away disgusted by the black nails and grimy fingers. The old woman bent over with her forehead to Mamta’s feet still wailing, people started to gather curious about the noise and activity. She poked her away with her foot and the old woman shuffled forward reaching out to clasp Mamta around the ankles. Mamta leant down and tapped her on the top of the head to get her attention but she didn’t respond and with seemingly incredible strength like some pink and silver boa constrictor Mamta found the old woman wrapping her legs now in her grasp. She felt frightened and began to struggle pushing the old woman away from her by the shoulders. Finally she slapped her on top of the head very hard and as she loosened her grip Mamta gave her a hard push and got free, upset and panting hard yet never for a moment did the old lady let up wailing and pleading. The crowd that gathered around weren’t made up of shopkeepers of stall owners at all, just nosy shoppers and hangers on who like many appreciated a bit of drama. Someone called out.
“What’s she done sau?”
Feeling very angry and rattled, Mamta pointed to the bag of goods now spilled on the ground.
“She stole all that!”
The old woman was a mess of wailing crying and pulling at her hair, striking herself on the head. A small boy stepped from the shadows and leaning down took the old hands in his hands and said. “Come on granny. Don’t cry. I’ll help you.”
The old one pricked up a bright eye to the child and with exaggerated difficulty and the child’s help, got up shakily, without once looking at Mamta now suddenly confronted by a sympathetic group led by the little boy, got up gathered her goods and melted away, watched by twenty or thirty pensive faces who had a granny just like that somewhere in their own families.
Sitting there jiggling her little feet in their chaplis, she saw the young man Isaac at the end of the row and he waved wildly to her and came quickly towards her. She saw his smile disappear as he approached noticing that he was nervous and agitated.
“Mrs Dalvi! I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
“Why Isaac? What is it that has you bursting like a poppadum?”
He looked at her with full dark eyes and with a little roll of his head said a little breathlessly. “I have something to tell you about your husband! You have to come with me.”
Ravi watched the light above the bed with his ‘good’ eye, even though it seemed at first to water in sympathy with its injured twin. He stared and stared at the circular fluorescent ring in the hospital ceiling as though it might be some portal to a world of knowing or a place where he might have heeded the injunctions of his youth. “Don’t look up Ravi!” How brutal life could be, how things could change forever with one gesture, one movement, one decision. How was it that it was so? Was there something he had done wrong to deserve this? Had he grown greedy? Was there so much ambition in him that now he had to be cut down like this? Was there a god he had offended in the daily process of his life tending his goats and family with a lax lathi?
He closed his eye and saw the afterimage burning inside his mind. He focused on the corona of light that was entirely incandescent then strangely an image seemed to come forward that was a kind of dark green and red. It seemed generally, a kind of abstract face melting into the shadow of a lumpy shoulder or neck with the eyes deeply set in shadowed pools of a penumbrous gaze. He scrutinized the face which popped out from the light like a piece of photo paper sitting in the chemical bath of developer. He looked and looked until the image faded and the dark red of his closed eyelids with their strange abstract shapes came and went. He watched the little wriggly lines that rose and fell in his vision and he breathed in rhythm with their movement, deeply inhaling and exhaling.
A feeling bubbled up inside him that was surprising exciting and entirely unfamiliar so that he felt elevated from his pain even elevated from his body. It was like having a sadhu practice his best and most exotic mysteries inside him with a crowd of watchers enthralled and gasping in wonder. It was like having Ganesh embrace him and lift him in the elephant trunk of safety and certainty and put him onto its back from where he could see perfectly how well his life was marked with a line of Before and After. Thus it would ever be, the continuous line of events, the imaginary binary laws of yes and no, good and bad, helpful harmful, miracle catastrophe, friend enemy, riches or poverty that formed the wheeling changing conga line of the dance of life. He was one of the starlings in its murmuration wheeling and darkly coruscating over the land in some beautiful wild chaos that was exactly and rightly part of the order of the way of it all; being and time.
He opened his good eye to dimly see his wife enter the cubicle through the curtain, her face appalled by what she saw. “Oh my. Oh my…” She repeated again and again and came to sit beside him pulling up a metal and vinyl chair with part of the stuffing in the seat busting through edge in protest at all the force that had plopped down and squeezed it over the long years in the hospital. “What have you done to yourself? Ravi oh my!” Tears fell freely from her dark eyes with the kohl on the lids contrasting with the slightly reddened rims making them seem larger in her small face. She tipped her head down towards him and wept over the hand she held within her own.
As he looked at her, trying hard to focus he realized that in all these years of coming and going eating drinking, walking to the markets, helping with the goats, stashing away every possible rupee to put their girls through school with neat uniforms, making small pujas with her simple heart or sweeping with her brush broom, getting up early to cook for them every day of her life that the small woman bent over the bed weeping, seemed to him to be the strongest rock on which the lives of their children and himself were secured.
He put his hand out and brushed her dark skein of hair.
“Shhh Mamta dearest. I am alright. Don’t cry.”
Her tears were a salve to his sore hand and she looked up with her eyes brimming.
“What has happened to you?”
He almost laughed as he looked back now on the simple chain of events that now seemed ludicrous yet so devastating but his voice was husky and tight.
“Well, I did something I shouldn’t have done.”
She looked taken aback.
“What did you do that you shouldn’t have done, my Ravi?”
“I looked up into the Laburnum tree as a pod was falling. It dropped and hit me in the eye and then I fell over, two or three times.”
She looked at him as if he had merely bleated like one of his goats as this hardly seemed the cause of the ruin she saw before her.
“Two or three times?”
“Yes. The pod was heavy and full of seeds. I couldn’t see, then I fell.”
She resumed stroking his hand.
“Well. What do the doctors say?”
“I don’t know. I am waiting.”
“Well we will wait and see then. It will be alright, don’t worry.”
Her kindness didn’t put his spine straight at all and he felt a huge welling of his heart as he peered at her with his good eye, his chest heaved as he tried to control himself then he broke.
“We’re ruined! The goats ran off, they’ll be in someone’s pot by now. Now I’m a blind man and everything we struggled for everything for the girls is now gone, everything is gone.”
He sobbed and gasped and each heave hurt his eye and head with an intolerable anguish but nothing hurt more than his heart with twenty five years of working and scrimping to get ahead now gone to nought. Mamta put her head down so he couldn’t see her tears falling. She knew he was right.
The curtain was pushed aside and in came the doctor who looked on this scene with heartfelt dismay, although the tableaux was nothing new at all but the small pretty woman weeping while she rubbed her husband’s hand with her own work worn ones and the man with the dark flowering bruise around the ruined eye leaning over her dark head with everything battered and torn in his life struck him with a sudden quiver of sympathy.
He cleared his throat and they sat back and looked at him with respect and deference Ravi wiping his nose on his arm and Mamta her beautiful eyes with her small fingers.
“Good morning. I’m Dr Chaudhary. So now, what’s the problem?”
He knew it was an obvious question but it was the routine, it made people focus on their primary problem but they never said the real problem, the truth, it was only usually the effect of the primary cause. A woman came in with a dislocated jaw and a black eye didn’t say. “It was poverty and desperation doctor that made my husband drink hootch like a bloody fish and lose control of himself and hit me. She said. “I fell over outside the factory where I work, I slipped on the road and hit the wall.”
The mother with the shitting child didn’t say. “We had to drink the river water doctor full of parasites and other peoples shit because we had no money to buy gas for the burner to boil the water because my husband died after he fell off the train to Bombay delivering an office manager his tiffin.”
The old woman brought in semiconscious with a broken hip would merely murmur that she’d fallen. She couldn’t say that her children had grown up and left her behind alone in her little hut while they rented a flat in Hinjewadi near where they worked as I.T. technicians. Or that she had climbed up on a chair to retrieve the tin of money she kept hidden at the back of the top cupboard because she had to pay for the gasman to deliver the gas bottle and he had refused to come back tomorrow when her son would be visiting and could get the money down easily, so she had fallen off and broken her hip. The gasman had poked his nose in the door and seen her on the floor and called a taxi to take her in to the hospital, ambulances were for rich people. When her neighbours tried to move her she screamed blue murder and so they left her on the floor until her son came six hours later in a huge panic. It was isolation broke her hip, not the fall.
Ravi moved his head to the side to better view the speaker and saw before him a corporeal man of about thirty five or perhaps forty with a beautiful handlebar moustache and very large black eyes which were bright with intelligence and good humour. Ravi nearly wept again with relief for he had scored the famous Dr Chaudhary whose reputation went all over the city for his acuity and kindness. Ravi took hold of Mamta’s hand as he spoke so that when he gestured they did it as one which made the good doctor smile.
“All my life Dr Chaudhary I have observed the golden rules of my family. I have been a good and faithful husband, I never touched alcohol or tobacco, I never so much as looked at the ankle bracelet of another woman, I worked to provide everything it was possible for my daughters and my wife, I contributed to the community feast at Ganpati- my best fat goat, I honoured my parents passing with puja and fasting, I have never stolen in my life, I swear to Krishna, and above all else I took care even to listen to what my father told me when he said, ‘ When walking under the trees always wear your turban and never look up.’ Today, I took off my turban because it was so hot and I had a headache, besides I was in the shade with my goats. I looked up and tschak! Right then doctor, a huge seed pod fell from the tree and struck me like six to the boundary by Tendulkar.”
Dr Chaudary had approached the bedside and was quietly observing Ravi’s face.
“That’s for the eye but then?”
“Well, I was in agony doctor, agony…actually you cannot imagine the pain. If I had been speared through with a sword it would have been the same. I fell to the ground screaming and frightened the goats who ran off. Then I heard a motorbike and the next thing I knew there was a horn blasting, the noise of the motorbike, the goats bleating and running then when I could sit up, no goats, no motorbike. I tell you doctor, I sat there stunned, then a young fellow came along, a nice young man called Isaac, I know his father and he helped me up, we went for help but on the way I lost my balance fell and cut my foot open on a star picket which made me fall backwards onto one of those stalls they are pulling down then I hurt my hip.”
Dr Chaudhary gently turned Ravi’s face towards him and began to gingerly touch the area around the eye socket looking into the globe of the eye to see the extent of the injury. He held his finger up and asked Ravi to follow it as he moved it up and down back and forth. He produced a penlight from his coat pocket and warned Ravi it would be uncomfortable to see the light but to do his best to keep looking. There followed a short interval of time while Dr Chaudhary went outside to order the tests from the ophthalmologist and an x-ray to check the left hip which he suspected was fractured. A nurse came in with a tray of dressings and immediately began to wash and dress his right foot. She looked at it for a moment after tentatively washing the wound and then said crisply that it needed stitches.
This was one of the worst things, the local anaesthetic injections into the foot. The tear started at the top of the cuboid bone and extended all the way around to the junction of the Achilles tendon with the heel and needed careful repair as the scarring could jam up the flexion of the foot especially if the Achilles had been damaged. This was the easiest part of the treatment and worse was to come as he was shifted onto a trolley and taken to the x-ray department to check for the fractured hip and then to x-ray the eye socket and finally up to ophthalmology to check the eye perhaps an MRI if they could afford it.
By the afternoon he was spent and lay back on the bed with a small plastic cap taped over his eye and Dr Chaudhary standing flicking through the results on his clipboard.
“OK. Mr Dalvi the good news is that your Achilles tendon is only nicked slightly on the outside edge and will not have any permanent effects. Also your hip has a fracture like a little hair on the head of the femur here.” He pointed to Ravi’s hip. “That will also mend on its own and doesn’t need any further intervention. However you will need to rest a bit to let the inflammation come down and because it will be sore for a while.”
Ravi murmured.” How long?”
“A few weeks but you don’t need to be in bed. You can get up and move around, this is good for healing, gets the blood going.”
Mamta anxiously looked at her husband and gripped his forearm with both her hands saying anxiously.
“Excuse me doctor…the eye?”
Dr Chaudhary sighed and shifted on his tired feet putting the clipboard down on the tray at the end of the bed.
“Not so easy I am afraid. We will try to save the eye. I need to make some calls.” Ravi was calm with this news and being a man used to waiting, decided on that simple path, he would wait but Mamta cried.