The world was asleep and she was watching the flames that had consumed her mother's lifeless form reduce to mere ashes. Aayee...her aayee…gone. She sat there and watched, void and alien to every emotion, dead to the bone. The tears refused to flow, the eyes refused to see, the mind refused to think. Her mother, whom she had thought to be eternal and timeless like the North Star had been ravaged by the inevitability of extinction.
Born, Ms. Sujata Valnolkar, daughter of Kartik Vanolkar, a man who had single handedly led the freedom struggle in rural Maharastra. Sujata Vanolkar who, as Sujata Raut, had very complacently and steadfastly committed herself to twenty-seven years of agony and utter gloom in the cocoon of a concept we call- marriage. Now, all that remained was a gray mass of nothing that bore testimony to her insignificance in the unfathomable depths of life. Ten thousand rupees spent. Ten thousand rupees for cremating her dead body, for treating her with respect, albeit after her death and for preventing her bloody carcass from littering the municipality roads. He had taken away her Aayee. He - mankind's creator, mankind's destroyer, all rolled into one. A sadist and a cynic - yes He was. She picked up a stone and threw it high - very high, mocking Him, cursing Him, hating Him. She spat heavenward and turned back.
There was nothing in life now. Nothing except long due bills, a blank future, insults from debtors and a life bereft of even the contemplation of comfort. Why was she continuing? For whom was she surviving? Naked realization, when it touched her was cold, ice cold. She couldn’t breathe. Within a fraction of a second or several eternities put together, she didn’t know, the indifference, which had earlier enveloped her, had now become her shroud. She would kill herself. She would end her life - she would. She thought of the bridge over the river with its dark blue torrents and started walking towards it.
The waterway looked eerily silent that night, as if welcoming her into its arms. Faint ripples caressed its surface. She looked down and felt a strange sense of imperturbable calm. This was the end. She was there.
She walked the entire length of the bridge. She approached the public toilet that was designed to be a welcome refuge for the urgent natural calls of men and women. She looked at the walls rotten and tattering with years of apathy and neglect. In the light of the moon she could faintly make out the marks of a tennis ball on the wall. She saw a hazy picture - of boys and girls playing cricket in the common. Of the tall and lissom girl, with wild and unruly hair, who had made the winning catch for her team that day. Munna, Champa, Karan, Usha, Khote, where were they? Alive? Happy? Sad? Disillusioned?
Beside the marks was an advertisement, 'Dr Naresh Barulla - gynecologist. Visiting hours: 9.00 AM - 8.30 PM'. A faint smile played upon her lips. She remembered the solitary week his clinic had lasted before he had eloped with the Superintendent's wife.
Diagonally opposite, pasted with intricate detail were two other notices. One declared a phenomenal visit by the great magician - A.N. Banerjee- she remembered that…. garish make up, a skinny assistant, two voluptuous women who were paid every night for showing their willingness to be cut in to two, three or four parts, kitsch accessories and music and yet, an enthralled audience. The other was a notice, inviting applications from women willing and aspiring to teach English in the school- “Holy Girls Mission Higher Secondary”, near the basti. Three hours in the evening and a salary of Rs. 1500 every month. Strange, why didn't she see this before?
Her gaze ran over the red stains of betel juice on the walls. Paan, Baba, Saritabai. Baba…her Baba - dark, dirty, bulky, ugly with his cursing and beatings and other accompaniments from hell. She wanted to meet him, once, just once, so she could ask him-what had he gained by throttling each and every one of her mother's wishes, desires, pleas and by satisfying the whims and fancies of his mistress? Why had she let her mother die a silent death every time he sauntered in with that voluptuous beauty? Why Baba? Why? Why? Why?
She thought of the man - crippled, deformed, deaf and alone sitting at the entrance charging a fee of 1 rupee for the use of the lavatory. The skies burst asunder, fire rain down; you would always find his perpetual presence there, on a folding chair brandishing his deadly weapon - the collection box.
Two dark and large eyes directed their vision to an inscription in black charcoal. 'Raju love Guddi'. The writer seized by a poetic afflatus had declared his undying love in a couplet.
“River May Dry
Earth May Fry
If I forget you
I will die”
She reached out and touched the insignia of their naiveté. Clandestine meetings, furtive whispered endearments, stolen kisses, dormant passion soon to be ignited - she saw it so clearly.
The vision came back to her. She saw it often. A tall and lissome woman with long curly hair, in a modest one-roomed flat. She was making tea and waiting for him. A man with magical hands; hands that caressed, hands that supported, hands that held her with tenderness, hands that held pleasure. She had a dream, a fantasy - that one day she could give and receive pleasure, that one day, she could give and receive love, that one day her embittered soul would finally find solace and salvation.
She looked down at the azure hue of the river and then up at the sun, waking up, ready to dazzle the world with its brilliance. She closed her eyes and rejoiced at the touch of the warm sunshine. She saw the trees- green, fresh, still hopeful, still welcoming. But, she was alone.
In a trance like state, she was suddenly jolted by the tenderness of the early morning breeze, the voice of a woman humming along with the radio….
Kuch paakar khona hai, Kuch khokar paana hai…
Jeevan ka matlab toh aana aur jaana hai….
Ek pal ke jeevan mein, ek umra churana hai….
Zindagi aur…. Kuch bhi nahi….
Teri meri kahani Hai…..
But, she was alone.
A pup came to her. He showed her his two minute gig- whine, wag tail, stretch on front paws, yawn, gaze over territory for stray cats, flies and other dogs, regard female standing beside with curiosity, mini bark, wag tail….. venture closer. It stood by her for some time and then went its own way. Oh! She was so alone. She was so hungry.
She turned and walked away. She was still alone but not yet lonely. She was still empowered by the overwhelming desire to survive.....