The Lady in the White Car
by Shirish Thorat
WHERE HAD THE years gone? The years are the currency time deals in and they are adept at hiding themselves. They camouflage themselves under time, for time has the ability to ambush you. It can lay in wait while you meander about doing your everyday business, while you did what it took to do what had to be done and every once in a while, time pops up from behind an unseen corner and smirks at you. Sometimes if you were fortunate it smiles at you but mostly it smirks because surprises are rarely welcome, they tend to jar you.
Yesterday Heera had sent photographs of her firstborn; Pranav was almost a young man now and ready for the bigger school, college they called it and he wanted to become an engineer. Heera had also sent pictures of Purvi, her daughter, a smiling beautiful child who had clearly inherited her mother’s good looks and Indu and Appa had spent hours looking at the postcard size pictures. They had visited Heera again last year and their son-in-law had tried to persuade Appa into managing an agricultural property of a family friend but they had demurred, one has to avoid being under an obligation if they have to retain the respect of relatives, even if it were their daughter’s husband.
They had moved to a village outside Baramati last year and Indu tended to the garden and landscaping of the local school while Appa worked as a watchman for a nearby factory. They both had cell phones now, not the fancy expensive ones but the cheap no-frills models available on the grey market. Indu was aware that there were phones that took photographs and even recorded video clips but these were complicated devices that were beyond their understanding. All she needed was to be able to call Appa and a few other people and be able to receive their calls, the rest were unnecessary luxuries and besides who had the money for all those frivolous extras?
Their home was a single room affair with a small open clearing that afforded space to keep a charpoy and where the children could play without danger of being hit by the vehicular traffic. The road was half a kilometer further down if you followed the trail that was part cobbled stones and part dirt track. They lived in a small cluster of eight houses behind which there was a row of three toilets that were commonly used and the whole place was sprinkled with slender acacia trees that dappled the ground with shade. The house had a small veranda that they shared with the next room and that was where Hema lived with her husband and two children.
Hema had moved next to them for the simple reason – it gave a modicum of stability to her life to have her parents as neighbours. It sometimes also ensured that she and her children didn’t go hungry. The elder boy Shankar was now an energetic ten-year-old who like most other boys of his age was given to playing outdoors the whole day, the games usually involving climbing trees or playing cricket with the other kids. It was the other child, the seven-year-old Parul who was the problem.
Parul was prone to epileptic fits and didn’t seem to have the ability to learn anything with her short attention span. The municipal doctor had checked her out and had proclaimed her as slightly retarded with epilepsy as an added affliction and as a result the child needed constant supervision. Hema’s husband was mostly absent, preferring to shuttle to and fro from his parents’ house as per his whim and fancy mostly depending on where the next bottle of liquor was available. He wasn’t able to hold down any job for any appreciable period of time and always had a long list of perceived injustices perpetrated against him by his employers.
The only upside of the whole situation was that he had stopped beating Hema after drinking fully aware that Appa wouldn’t hesitate taking the stick to him if he did so. Indu and Appa had accepted and adjusted to the entire condition with same fatality and fortitude with which they had met every challenge in life. When Hema had called up last year and asked if it would be alright if she and her husband could move in with them, Indu had broached the subject with Appa.
“Maalak, our Hema had called, she wanted to move to be with us with her husband, what should I say?”
Appa had been cleaning his bicycle, he stopped and looked at her, his green eyes narrowed as he considered her question for a few moments, then he had shrugged, smiled lopsidedly and said,
“Mandali, she is our daughter and knows she will be safe and happier here so tell her I will come to help them shift. Tomorrow I will speak to the landlord regarding the room next door.”
There had been no talk or discussion about the possibility that they would have to bear the additional rent or the other possible expenses involved, just the calm acceptance of a responsibility that they felt was a duty of care as parents. Hema had got a job at the local supermarket as a packer and that combined with the sporadic income of her husband meant that they just about got by. Indu worried of course as any mother worries about a weak or unlucky child but there was a definite comfort when you have physical proximity and means, no matter how limited, to assist.
It was a cool winter evening typical to Baramati and its hinterlands when Indu had to accompany a school bus of children as an assistant for a picnic to the museum. It was an interminable day spent mostly darting here and there trying to keep the children together. She knew most of them by name but there were moments when she felt more like a shepherd dog nipping and yapping at errant runaways and chasing them back into the herd. It was a relief when everybody was hustled into the bus for the trip back home and Indu sat right in front on the extra seat in the driver’s compartment, behind her the shouting and nonstop chattering of the kids had reached a crescendo.
Another ten minutes saw them in the middle of a busy intersection waiting for the green light, the evening traffic had slowed everything down to a snail’s pace and the small three-wheeler rickshaws scampered like mice navigating through every opening that presented itself. The bus driver muttered curses as he found himself having to repeatedly slam on the brakes to avoid crushing the impudent rickshaw drivers who seemed bent on committing vehicular suicide. Indu’s gaze ran over the divider where the traffic coming from the opposite side was similarly log-jammed and suddenly, she froze.
There, barely thirty feet away sitting in a shiny white car was someone whose profile seemed so familiar. It was an elegant woman in expensive clothes and jewellery and she had a hauntingly familiar way of tilting her head. Indu craned her neck to get a better view, at that moment the woman turned her head and it was her friend Shaila, her first real friend whom she had never seen again after her marriage and subsequent move to Buldhana where her husband had opened up a dairy farming business.
Indu remained frozen in disbelief for long seconds and then she leaned forward and squinted to get a closer look, it was difficult to associate this obviously rich and stylish woman like the ones they show in the movies with her teenage friend in the village of Kakanwada so many decades ago. The woman in the car tilted her head once more and now Indu was sure it was Shaila and she opened her mouth to call out to her friend when the bus lurched forward once more. Indu turned and stepped into the aisle of the bus and walked hastily towards the rear, bending and looking out of the windows but the traffic picked up speed and her last view was of her friend’s beautiful profile, then that too disappeared and she realized that she had not called out to her.
Slowly she walked back to her seat and sat down. For the remainder of the journey Indu replayed the images of her friend again and again in her head and debated if she had been correct or mistaken, her mind and heart experiencing a maelstrom of different conflicting emotions indeed. Part of her was happy that she had seen her friend and part of her was relieved that they had not come face to face and that was the part that troubled her. Was it shame or was it the fact that fate and time had conspired to show her twin mirrors where she hesitated to place her face next to her friend’s?
There was also the possibility that Shaila would not have recognized her or the more painful possibility that she would have pretended not to and so in the end Indu decided that she had likely been mistaken and the lady in the shiny white car had not been her friend after all.
This is an excerpt from the newly published novel ‘Clay Horses’ by Shirish Thorat.
Curious to know more about Indu, Appa and how they dealt with the currency of time? Buy the book here: https://www.amazon.in/Clay-Horses-Shirish-Thorat/dp/939086917X