by Vijeta Kumar
(Bangalore, Karnataka, India)
Today again I saw Sumitra squatting in front of her house. She looked less hassled than the last time but from the way she was chewing paan, I figured that she hadn’t been sitting like this for very long. She was chewing patiently like everything that could have bothered her already had and now she had resolved to wait for the day to be over and that she would only do it on her heels. I hid deeper below my activa and quickly pulled out a dirty cloth to look busy.
I wiped the ignition twice and dusted the mat. There were faraway sounds of a car struggling to start and the faint moan of a cow. I craned my neck to see if anybody came out of the house to take her back. No one did. She was wearing a bright orange saree with black dots. The otherwise dull model house street at 3:00 pm lit up just for those few moments. Narayan anna passed by on his bike and glanced at her only once before looking straight ahead, as if apologising for having looked.
I tried to look again as a passerby would. The sight was menacing. The paan had stained her mouth and there were bright red spots on her white blouse which stayed stubbornly away from the pallu. I walked to the edge of my compound to wet the cloth and turned the tap on. She didn’t look. Maybe she already knew that I’d been watching her. When I went back to my bike, I was compelled to whistle just so I could do something to avoid the silence between us which had now become very tense after I’d stared at her promising cleavage.
When I saw her sitting like this last month, I was too scared to even take the bike out. I had gone back in and waited for her to go. She’d sat there all evening and I’d fallen asleep until amma woke me up for dinner.
Last week amma told me that Sumitra was a gleeful woman. I had always been afraid of Sumitra because she was the only woman in the colony who read a newspaper publicly. And also because she was famous for being very rude to anybody who disturbed her while she sat on the steps outside her house- still wearing her maxi, legs stretched out widely to fit the newspaper between them and reading quietly, her lips moving with her eyes.
Once amma and I’d heard her scream at the Gurkha who came once in a month to ask for money. Everybody in the colony usually paid him 15 Rs because he was very old and very quarrelsome.“Yekkda togond hoditini”
(I’ll beat you with my chappals) she screamed after the Gurkha had started to bang on the gate. He never asked her again.
Now she was looking dreamily at an army of ants that was crossing over the little stone porch and towards the gutter. She bent to spit out the paan at the ants. I could
see her heels clearly. They were caked with dirt and still the black cracks were visible.
A man I had never seen before walked in hurriedly and finding her like this, must have stopped.
-Why are you sitting here like this?
That dirty man has come to my house.
-Where is Ishwar? Why doesn’t Ishwar tell him not to come home?
She had still not looked up to see him. Her gaze was fixed on the ants who were now in tumult, running everywhere because of her spit.
I don’t know.
-Are you going to sit here like this till he leaves?
Ishwar appeared suddenly from the terrace and pulled the man inside. Sumitra didn’t seem disturbed by either of the men. Suddenly she looked at me and I wasn’t quick enough to look away. I smiled sheepishly but her expression didn’t change. She looked at me searchingly, as if there wasn’t enough face on my face. I leapt up and walked again towards the tap to wet my soaking wet cloth.
Her gaze was mercilessly following me. I was too conscious of my movement and stood awkwardly by the tap. How much I’d have liked to melt into the water and flow with it. I was wondering if there was anything I could do to salvage the situation when suddenly the door to her house opened and a big man with thick white hair walked out. Sumitra stood up and turned to him.
I dove behind my bike again, this time determined not to look up. The air was suddenly thick with a numbing quiet, like someone died. I looked up unknowingly. The man was dressed in all white - white lungi and a half-sleeved white shirt. Sumitra’s face took on a terribly bizarre expression. There was glee, anger and an almost hungry look on her face. Like in old movies, when an annoyingly loud woman who has been wronged gets her revenge.
I expected her to hit him, I expected him to hit her. The air was growing dense with an impending violence. I wanted to run back home and close my door when suddenly Sumitra started leaping. My body that had half turned towards my home froze and I wanted to immediately forget what I was seeing.
Sumitra continued leaping and leaping she slapped her thighs loudly, letting out roars of laughter. She laughed and kept laughing until he couldn’t watch her anymore and turned to walk.
What he saw before him was vulgar, I felt. Her red lips, that orange saree, her bra strap slipping all the way down to her elbow, her hair with that pungent unwashed thickness. For a minute, he stopped and pursed his lips together, thinking hard for something to say or do that was just as vile as her outburst. But she continued thumping her thighs and laughing so he left.
Watching him leave lifted her spirits so she was now beating her chest violently. Still saying nothing, she beat herself until the last bit of his lungi vanished at the crossing. ***