‘Dilemma’ by Lahari Chatterji

soft cartel may 2018

Padma could feel the warmth of the noodles in her hands as she wrapped the square, pink Tiffin box with a checked napkin, knotted it and tucked in a blue plastic fork. She picked up the red water-bottle with the green strap and shook it to check whether she had filled it up already. As the clock chimed from the dining room shelf she rushed to her bedroom mirror to mask the shadows of her fatigue with a few strokes of the blusher. She punched a kalka shaped bindi on her forehead and drew out her leather purse from the unlocked wardrobe. Only a few ten rupees notes were left in it. Those were enough for the day. She would ask her husband for some money when he returned at night.

Anshu pricked her omelette to pull out a piece of green chilli and held it aloft before Aryan’s eager eyes. Aryan, elder to her by three years, snatched it from her fork. Slipping a finger underneath the top bread of his sandwich, he added it to the tiny rings of chilli sprinkled on the white fibres of boiled chicken and chewed his breakfast with relish. He hated eggs and Anshu could not stand the taste of chicken.

“Hurry up,” Padma called out while unzipping her children’s school bags to check whether they had packed all the books and exercise copies as per their respective timetables. She did not want them to suffer the humiliation of standing outside the classroom as punishment for an entire period.

Piles of soiled utensils crammed the kitchen sink. She had no time for them now: she would tackle them only after dropping her children to school. Her in-laws lacked faith in school buses. At least, she did not have to spread old newspapers near the school gates and sit there for hours like many other Moms, who chaperoned their children back home. Her younger brother-in-law, who was still enslaved by sleep, would be ready by then. He would mount his bike and whizz to the school to pick them up.

As usual, before leaving Padma faced the corner of the room where a small, burnished, cuboid projected out from the wall like a balcony. It was from this wooden block that the Gods and Goddesses surveyed her family. The smell of incense still hung in the air. She joined her hands to seek their blessings. Then clutching Anshu’s hand, she hurried towards the bus-stop, often on the verge of tripping while trying to keep pace with Aryan, who almost galloped along the bustling street.

They did not have to wait long for bus number 22. Loping to the door of the vehicle, she paused to watch her children climb safely into it. Then a sudden excitement gripped her as she hitched up her sari a wee bit to raise her leg and land on the steps of the bus. Will he be there today?

The seats always got filled up at the bus terminus itself. Padma and her children squeezed themselves between the front seat and the partition behind the driver’s seat. Extricating Anshu from the bulky schoolbag, her mother looked expectantly at the seated passengers near them. A bespectacled lady caught her gaze and nodded with a half smile. She placed the bag on her lap, encircled it with both arms, closed her eyes and dozed off. Padma stole a glance at the passengers jostling at the back of the vehicle and spotted him through the many human figurines pillaring between.

He was tall, with his luxurious crop of hair almost caressing the bus ceiling. Strong too. During the nasty brakes, he would stand steadily, his fingers lightly resting on the back of a seat, while the other passengers lurched forward.

Padma recalled the previous bus rides. They were standing close by. He had bent down to squeeze Anshu’s cheeks. On another day, he offered her children toffees –  chocolate coated ones wrapped in polka-dotted cellophanes. They thanked him, eyes widening in surprise. Padma, who never allowed her gaze to linger on unknown men, smiled courteously, with her eyes lowered. Anshu twisted the edges of the wrapper to slip out the toffee and sucked it with relish while crumpling the cellophane. The little one fiddled with the wrapper throughout the journey before disposing it off in a military green dustbin near her school. The day after, Padma beamed at him out of politeness: this time looking him in the eye, and he flashed a good-natured grin. Padma never understood what was in his smile that spellbound her and shrouded her in a confusing cloud of bliss and painful longing. With his chiselled face, height and lean physique, he was attractive, no doubt. But with so many handsome men Padma passed by every day – even her husband was not bad looking despite the bald patch – she had no clue why she was reacting to him.

Some passengers straggled towards the door as the bus approached another stoppage. With the human curtain between them thinned, he noticed Padma and her children at last. As she had expected he greeted her with a radiant smile. Her lips parted at once and for a few priceless moments she remained connected to him through their smiles – the two curves like two valleys in time – while same-route buses adamantly competed, tucked away mobile phones rang out raucously, crowds swelled in muddy, open markets and queues snaked across paved bus terminuses. The sting in her heart stretched on, reaching a sharp point till she found herself ripped off by an unrelenting onslaught of desire.

Padma imagined herself with him in Fiona Cafe, a stone’s throw away from Care Home Hospital. Once in six months, she would treat herself to the crunchy cutlets and piping hot cardamom tea on her way home from the healthcare centre where she worked as an admin staff: a job she had quit years ago to accommodate the ever increasing demands of homely duties. She could almost feel the softness of the round, velvet cushions against her overstrained back as she spoke to him in hushed tones between sips of flavoured tea. Then an image of a curtained room sailed into her mind but it instantly quivered like a boat in a storm as she succumbed to her shyness. But it left her with a bright smile which she promptly hid under the folds of her pursed lips lest she was mistaken for a crazy woman smiling to herself.

What if she were marooned with him for an entire day? Or even an hour? A transient but overwhelming gift from fate for all the dishes she had rustled up at an unnerving speed, the towering piles of utensils she had rinsed and the mounds of dumped clothes she had washed. Couldn’t she enjoy a reward for all the sleepless nights she had nursed her ailing in-laws, even though she knew they would abuse her after regaining enough strength to unfurl their viciousness? What about a brief escape from all the tantrums thrown by her children every day? Compelled to fit in more chores in the limited span of time, each day twisted up like a wrung cloth. What about a balm for all those insufferable weekend afternoons when her husband tried out the tricks he learned from porn sites? He would not accept she did not enjoy them as his friends claimed their wives did.

The bus screeched to a halt behind a car with an L pasted on its back window. Missiles of abuses from her co-passengers flew past her ears as the lady in the driver’s seat took time to start her brand new car. But weren’t her children her greatest rewards? A raspy voice gave the final spin to the questions churning since long. Withdrawing her hand from the rod, she pulled out a plain, white, unembroidered kerchief from her bag and wiped off the sweat from her face. The raspy voice picked up pitch – wasn’t she stepping beyond the line that distinguished between need and greed? The voice gained and gained in volume till it was as loud as bomb explosions, scattering away even the most resilient thoughts. As the gleaming car finally glided ahead, the bus once again geared up with a growl for the race.

The ‘reward’ would also have a mind of his own. More streams of sweat trailed her throat as she wondered how the man would react if he guessed her feelings. Though Padma had ceased to be the babe she was in college, sometimes light and shade would creep up in an unique patchwork to haul her out of the rubble of the overspent years. Before any hope could spurt that he might fancy her too another thought burst into her mind. For whom was he carrying those lozenges? Just like her, he might be someone’s spouse and someone’s parent too.

Noticing a lady, with henna-dyed hair, stir up in her seat, Padma grabbed her daughter’s hand and collected her school bag from the dozing woman’s lap. She surreptitiously inched towards the place being vacated, unwilling to alert the other passengers to it. As the middle-aged lady, burdened with two heavy bags, stood up and wriggled past a man, her face creasing with the effort, Anshu promptly slid into her place. Now Padma was so close to him she was even scared to look in his direction lest he suspected something. Instead, she turned to the nearest window: her eyes fell on a white temple with a sharp pointed spire, and pillars that widened at the middle and were etched all over with intricate carvings of lions and clawed birds. Although, there were no bus-stops or traffic signals nearby, the bus braked suddenly. The passengers sitting at the front followed the driver’s gaze to spot the black cat languidly ambling down the road. Though Padma passed the temple every day and always caught a fleeting glimpse of the stone idols inside, for the first time her gaze arched along the curve of the bloodied scimitar and knocked against the severed heads garlanding Goddess Kali. What if she brought upon punishment to herself with her unbridled thoughts? What if the chastisement came in the form of something horrible happening to her children?

As the bus raced to another stoppage, Padma felt many brushes – most of them unintentional – against her pronounced derriere. Men, women and children shoved their way towards the door. She knew one of the moving bodies belonged to her fancy man: out of the corner of her eyes, she had seen him shift from his position to take a step towards where she was standing. In his case, she was doubly sure that the scraping of their clothes was purely accidental: the figure blazing in her ardour could not be a molester.

Two stoppages later, she would alight, one hand clutching her daughter, the other clasping the slightly frayed handbag, her eyes fixed on her son, her buttocks still tingling with the guilty thrill of an accidental brush, and her mind curdled by fear, perforated by searing questions, swamped with unchallenged beliefs, yet fuzzy with an inexplicable desire.

Lahari Mahalanabish is a software engineer by profession. Her book of poems entitled One Hundred Poems had been published by Writers Workshop, India. Her short stories have appeared/forthcoming in The Bombay Review, The Bangalore Review, Muse India, Himal Southasian, Indian Review, The Criterion, Ashvamegh..The Literary Flight, The Statesman and The Asian Age. Some of her poems have found place in Yellow Chair Review, Poets Online, Saw, The Statesman and The Hans India. She lives in Kolkata, India with her three year old daughter, husband and parents. She blogs at http://theserpentacursedrhyme.blogspot.in/.

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