It is four in the evening. Padmaja closed the book and turned toward the window. Snowflakes are flowing around forming into a thin veil. The city crew has not shown up yet to clear the snow from last night. These small streets are not exactly their favorite; do they consider these small streets their stepchildren? Last night it snowed quite big, darn it. All the city plow trucks started working on the major streets.
Padmaja went to the window and looked out again. She has been seeing her every day at the same time walking westward. She walks every day, rain or shine, sleet or snow; she never missed a day for over a year now. For a month or so, she starts wondering who she could be. Could not tell whether it is curiosity or just want to know.
She lives on a small street. Not many cars go on that road but for the eight families living on the street. Seeing a person on the street is almost finding a heavenly lotus. If the devil comes this way he might wonder why there is no smell of humans around; that is how the street is. On the south side, there seem to be two children, 5 or 6 year-old. Usually, their mother or father put them in the car and drive them away. That’s it. On very hot afternoons, once in a blue moon, she sees them riding their bikes, which again is rare. That’s all there is to signs of humans on this street. Sometimes it feels like it would not be any different from living in a heavily wooded forest. There were times, after she first moved to this place, when she wondered if she would see a bear or a lion one of these days! It is a far cry from the endless hustle and bustle back home. In the olden days, people used to go to the woods for penance because they needed a quiet place to meditate. Here this home could serve the same purpose. Unless one turns the TV on, one hears nothing. For her son, home means food and bed. And, the wife is extra benefit. One look at the Priya is enough to think that she might be considering all these amenities consequence of her past actions, her karma! She goes around performing her duties in a robot-like fashion. Think of it, the woman is two generations ahead, and educated as well, has a job. Wherever she could have gotten this kind of detachment? They don’t even look like they have any relationship.
Now she’s gotten used to this utter soundlessness. That brought a vague smile on her lips.
Padmaja looked up with a jerk. She has not noticed the time, lost in her own thoughts. Has she missed the lady on the street? She stood, walked to the window and peeked as far as she could see. There is she is. Padmaja watched as the woman walked ten past the window, turned around and stopped as she saw a dog in front of her. Padmaja is annoyed. She never understands these people’s love of dogs. For most of them, dogs mean more than human beings; that’s how she feels.
She could not hear the words but it seems the dog-owner picks up the dog, holds to her chest and is saying, Padmaja guesses “don’t worry. He is a friendly dog.” The woman stepped farther to the side and probably is saying, “He may be friendly dog but I am not dog-friendly.” True, the dog owner may love her dog but where is the rule that everybody must love dogs. There are forty-seven million human beings in the country don’t have a decent meal on a given day. And some of the dogs are receiving royal treatment. Shouldn’t the fellow humans be their priority? What kind of moral values are these? Pch.
The woman in blue went around the dog and the dog-owner and moved on.
Padmaja returned to her chair and picked up the book she had been reading. She looked at the watch on the wall; five minutes past 4:00 p.m.
It is getting hard to focus on the book. After forty-five minutes, the woman will be on her way back. Why? Can’t say but to wait for her has become a habit; developed rather unknowingly. Forty more minutes! … maybe I can start cutting vegetables for dinner, to kill time. She can start and her Priya will finish after she returned from work. Her Priya told her several times not to cook but Padmaja decided to cook since she has been feeling bored. Usually she cuts vegetables, and starts cooker with dal in it. That is about it. Priya will finish rest of the cooking later. Sometimes she does not like the vegetable Padmaja has picked; then she puts it away and start with another. But for that, there isn’t much of a rift in that home; that is about it.
Padmaja picked up the book again. She has her eye on the window and she is also annoyed with herself a bit. She does not even know who that woman is, where she has come from, where she would go to; where will end up … nothing is known. Yet she is looking forward to seeing her as if she is a close relative; meaningless, irrational.
She looked at the watch again; ten minutes to go. Priya has come. “You’re early today, are you okay?” Padmaja asked. Usually, she comes after 5:00. Now it is only 4:45.
“No reason, just done with work,” she replied.
That’s it, the conversation is over. Padmaja turned to the window. The other woman might show up any minute now … but that did not happen. Suddenly, something else occurred to her. Why not get up and go out. Why didn’t she think of that earlier? She got up, put on winter coat, and sneakers.
“Whereto?” asked daughter-in-law.
“Just … walk a bit, be back in a few minutes.”
“Now? It is getting cold, falling snow. I am afraid you might slip and fall.”
“It’s okay. I’ll be careful.”
“Why don’t you wait. I’ll take you to the mall. You can walk around there.”
“We go in the car always. Let me walk on the street for fresh air.”
“Okay, don’t go too far. Don’t go west. People in the area are not our type.”
Padmaja shook her head and started out. Priya gave her the cane for support. Padmaja does not need a cane however she does not mind take it when she is walking in snow. She took the cane and went out. She couldn’t stop wondering about what Priya said, “People like us.” Who are we and who are the “people like us?” Let’s be frank; we are not white either, come to think of it. No, we are not yet we are those who has all the virtues of the white folks; that’s the difference. Yes, we are those who have earned entitlement to education, money and culture successfully. Probably those living on west side do not have education and money. And culture even if they had does not count without education and money. “Our people” cannot accept whatever the other people possess may still be culture.
As she keeps walking, she was two boys coming toward her. One of them appears to be 18 or 19 years-old, could be older brother or father. The other boy is walking, holding the hand of the first boy, and dragging his boots in the snow. He might be just under four. He looked at Padmaja, squinting and smiled. The older boy looked at both of them and smiled too.
Padmaja shook her head acknowledging his greeting. The boys are not “our people.” It is strikingly obvious as if it is writ large in invisible on their foreheads. Yet, their smiles spread serenity in the air. Soon the boys went past her and disappeared behind her. She starts walking, arrives at a 4-way stop walked a couple of hundred yards further and stops, unsure which way to go. She could not identify anything on any side. She turns around and starts retracing her steps back to home.
She sees the boys again; apparently they also went somewhere and returning home probably. As they walk past her, the little kid hides behind the older boy’s legs and extends his tiny hand shyly, and touches her coat. The older boy looked at both of them and smiles. Padmaja laughs loud this time, says hello to younger boy and moves forward.
That day is over for Padmaja without seeing the woman she has been accustomed to see. That is a bit discouraging; yet, she is very much pleased for being shown the charm of friendship by those two boys on the west street. Her heart is floating in the air.
At home, she tells Priya the story of those two boys, “those people from the west side.”
“Oh,” says Priya, indifferent as usual.
Padmaja does not see the woman in blue the following day also. She is reminded of the two boys. For a second she thought may be that woman in blue also has been going toward west to see only those two boys. She sat down with a pen and paper. She jotted down:
For some people,
Friendship flows parallel
Like the river Saraswati
Invisible and inscrutable
Harmony is “Aura” Express*
Even as the railway tracks
Neither converge nor separate!
That is her first and last poetry in her life.
To read Telugu version, avyakta madhuram, click here
Translated by author and published on thulika.net, June 2012.
(Note: *Aura in Telugu is an expression of surprise. The term here is used as a play upon the name Howrah Express, a popular train in South India.)