This is the seventh in a series of ten microstories. These stories — vignettes, to be accurate — are set from dawn to midnight in an Indian metro. They follow different people in different settings over the course of a single ordinary day. Two of these stories have been published / accepted for publication in literary magazines. I’ll be publishing one piece per day over the next ten days.
At evening she prepares for her daily pilgrimage. She hides behind the peepul tree her assets: an assortment of two-litre disposable water-bottles. Some were once green; others once colourless. Green and colourless have grown to resemble each other. As family members do. They’ve become scratched and cloudy, battered and soft. She ties them together by their necks, and commits them to the care of Krishna: whose portrait reclines in the crook of the peepul’s shoulder. Below, on the tree’s flat chest, passers-by have deposited tribute. Incense-sticks burning, in the wind, too fast. Sindoor. A tiny looking-glass.
Then she embarks.
Clinging to the pavement, dodging other beggars, dodging cows and traffic, she walks from her square metre of pavement in Allengunj to Old Katra. She walks past the bookstore, and through the rubbish-dump where bullocks lounge flicking their tales at weaving motorbikes.
The teenage boys have learned to tell time by her shock of white hair sneaking down the road. In summer she comes before dinner-time. In winter she comes just as the afternoon sun is growing chill.
She has arrived.
On both sides of the street leading to the Kali temple, teenagers hawk furniture. Armless chairs. One-man dinner-tables. Rough-skinned, nails showing, slightly lopsided. The workshops are around the corner. Made-to-order customising happens here, under the customer’s eye. In the evening light, the air is elven-yellow with sawdust. The gutters are littered with scraps of wood.
Why does she sneak? The carpenters don’t want the scraps. Other beggars are on their way, from across the city, to collect their evening’s loot. But why does she sneak?
Perhaps she’s just grown used to sneaking. To live on the streets and not get in people’s way: that’s the art her life has let her master. Sneaking.
Dodging past the carpenter-boys, the rows of tables, the columns of stools high-stacked, she squats at the gutter. Expertly she chooses the best scraps of wood. Big enough to hold in her arms. Small enough to burn evenly. Wide-eyed in the neem-tree, the raven watches her gnarled hands, swollen-jointed, snatch at her treasure in the gutter.
Clutching in her arms evening’s loot, back through the crowd she weaves. Back to her square metre of pavement, Krishna-guarded. At the foot of the peepul she makes her fire. To cook her dinner and toast her hands.
She checks her property. The bottles are there. Someone has stolen Krishan’s looking-glass.
Sitting down to make her fire, the old beggar-woman feels sure it was the girl in the grocer’s across the street. That chit’s always fixing her hair in her reflection in the plastic-wrapped boxes of sweets piled on the counter.