Guwahati,

Fiction

The Reprieve

 Scene I

 
She is standing under the speckled dome of the umbrella, caught in its inner dark circle, peripheral, small. A lassitude comes over her, she does not wish to post this New Year card, it can wait, and she feels no desperate need to do it. It is a pale, delinquent moment, tendrils of her thoughts lead her nowhere. She flexes her long gentle fingers to let the muscles embrace her inside, nothing happens, the black umbrellas of others on the street soon turn into black whorls of doubts, she must swipe them off with one quick turn of her left hand. She does not. She does not wish to move fast to leave this year behind. It does not seem to matter to her that everyone is jostling to reach the front of the long tedious looking queue to buy tickets for the rock show to herald the New Year. She looks at the faces of some thirty odd men, scorns them secretly, one by one, somehow she knows that these men hate slim beautiful women like her since they have paunches gallantly visible across their midriffs. Her sympathies lie with those men who cannot shed their paunches even with a New Year resolution. They will but think twice before eating three hard boiled eggs in one single meal and the spoon will dangle limply from the end of their two fingers before lifting the next piece of morsel from the plate, though in truth their thoughts will still not be unattached from those three hard boiled eggs lying uneaten, round and opulent on the plate at the New Year bash. The fingertips will by now flicker with the flame of insatiate desire to embrace a new dawn. The hunger may try to go away and yet, disobediently come back soon enough with a hyphenated open mouth. The rumblings inside the walls of the stomachs will be just muffled screams, a prelude to the internal shockwave like when someone shuts the doors on an empty room with a loud thump.
Meanwhile, there is a loud symposium of different sounds whining together, mad and crazy. She then remembers Iqbal, he owed her Rs. 2000 or was it more? He had borrowed that sum from her last week. She must manage an indulgent leer when she meets Iqbal at the New Year party tonight.
 
Scene II
 
A pair of eyes lift and move past the eaves of the street lamps and fall on a pair of trousers - they seem in perfect profile languidly hugging the two slim limbs. And the sleeves of the dress are like two black wings of a white raven. And somewhere beyond are perhaps the two breasts. He does not look beyond them. The high heels step out on the pavement, he distinctly hears the click- clack click coming towards him. And then, there is another clicking noise while someone begins to take her picture in silhouette. She looks at her fingernails, biting at their ends, spits them out and looks around for someone to take her away. Or is it that this is her off duty day and she has the whole evening to spare, may be, he thinks absentmindedly. He has not seen her carry a purse or anything resembling a purse that may carry some cash in it. The thought disappoints him. 
He looks for other pedestrians, the pavement is empty. He looks at her again. She is looking around and begins to scratch her armpits; he is the only person in this corner of the street who sees her do this. Let her. There are puddles of dirty water, rags of plastic bags, half eaten fruits and some sewage. She does not seem to see these. Her eyes are fixed at a distance trying to read the faces of people who are on the street. Is she waiting for someone? He should then rather stay out of her way. Nothing should touch this beautiful woman, not even a stray passing thought or a lewd glance. But sitting in this street corner, he sees everything, especially her long slender shadow nearing him as time ticks on unaware. She should not see his face now because she may read a strange awesome message that is beginning to appear in the pupils of his eyes. He is indeed truly a lousy thing, and he realizes it at this particular beautiful moment when he sees this lovely woman and expects something to happen. Suddenly this thought come to devastate him and he does nothing to stop himself from despairing.
Meanwhile, the queue before the food stall is becoming longer and extra frantic, people tumbling over each other wanting to grab the same thing, and more of it, may be. The food van arrives; the vendor will soon hand out the packets to these people.  He too must join the queue very quickly. But if he leaves this spot now, how will he keep his eye on this woman? Because a new dream is beginning to queue up inside him; he does not want anyone to usurp his right to this dream. He wants to look a little more closely at the way her hair is pressing against her back, the creases on her clothes appeal to him to look more intensely at them. Somehow he wants to touch her. And if he moves himself from this vantage position then he will blame himself for being jilted for the first time by his lust for food. He cannot allow it. He sees others returning with packets of rice and meat curry, some already have their mouths full of the savoury dish. He returns his eyes from the food packets to the woman. 
A voice in him is urging him - 'There will be other women like her to look at, may be some other day, now, go get your food packet.' This is a poor consolation. For the disaster of going hungry for one whole night he will rather look at this woman for other ten or more minutes. The two things are happening at the same time. If he goes away from her, she may be lost forever, he has seen every day how people and faces come and disappear on the street day and night. He has seen so many people come and go. His stomach growl in protest; it hurts badly as the empty bowel weigh heavily on him, he may break into the inevitable nausea any minute now. The strong smell of fish frying in a hot sizzling pan boomerangs towards him. Some other men on the street look at her too, may be a little lustily, some dip their heads with applause, someone let out a low whistle. Suddenly it seems to him as if hundreds of eyes are pouncing upon her shredding her to pieces at her vulnerability. A boy from a passing car yells - 'Happy New Year, darling.' The words mean however nothing to him. His vocabulary does not understand the importance of these words. But she has unknowingly become important to him on her own account.
By now the food stall has closed its shutters and the sun is high up, the concrete on the pavement begin to blister with the heat. If she should decide to move away into the shadows of the tree on the other side of the street then his dream will be slaughtered irrevocably. Suddenly his day become controversially small, meaningless and truly decrepit like the dirty rag clothes that are on his body. It is a fateful synergy where the woman dressed in her best finery looking grand and glorious while he, a mere beggar is sitting with festering wounds between his toes that does not let him stand up tall and walk without the hint of a limp.
Meanwhile, the sun is slowly getting lower in the western sky. It will soon be time for her to leave and the ache in his right ankle will not let him move closer to her while the traffic of cars, men and women hurrying past him are like lustful triumphs that smirk at his incapacity. If everyone can arrive at their destinations, then why can't he get near to this woman who is standing only a few yards away from him? Everybody can move from one place to another and so will he. And once he achieves it none but only he will be witness to this moment of glory, only he will applaud himself in this whole pursuit. He sees how some drunken boys are hurling abuses at other women on the street, some nudge and shove them shamelessly to carry them away in hooded cars. There can probably be no intimacy between these captors and the captive in this whole charade, there is only a quiet noiseless grating of flesh with unyielding flesh.
Today he will change this. This will be the final purgatory out of the inferno of his very first desire for the gentler sex. And here is this woman now. There will be no venom inside his freckled fists as he will take her hand in his and this will be no cat and mouse game between them. And yet he must be careful to hide his sore points under his feet very well. Her arms are akimbo making it possible for him to admire her in her profile. In the next moment, his efforts to see her more is fulfilled and it is sweetly solved. He notices another thing; that her shadow on the dry asphalt is lengthening at a rapid pace and it is almost trying to touch him. It makes him writhe and twist, is this a new kind of pain or joy? He does not know it yet. He has not felt this way ever before, is it ever going to stop? He does not want it to stop. 
Rhythmically, she is flicking the nails of her fingers, perhaps to dry the new coat of varnish on them and as she does so, she rocks on the ends of her high heels while listening to the music flowing into her ears from across the street. A song floats joining him with her in this new melody - A new day, a new year, happy to be here.Suddenly his faith in her shadow become absolute and entire, he forgets everything else. Slowly the shadow comes to fall all over him as he is lying prostrate on the ground. He now feels the shape of her head, neck shoulders, thighs and her heart breaking belly. This new hunger and its penetration are final, finally. There is a muffled rustle, like leaves parting and falling with a soft moan. It is a delicious cry that escapes from his lips for the first time since it gives no hint of an approaching catastrophe. The shadow climbs up and down on him filling him up with rapturous glory, it makes him squirm with a strange vivid appetite. The shadow become the whole shape of the woman, it makes him feel godlike and somewhat archaic, he will be able to rise quickly on his two feet, the soreness between the toe nails will be gone too and he will no more be a pale warrior fighting a lost battle. 
Slowly, as it has arrived, the shadow moves out of him; it soon drifts into the soft cushioned upholstery of a car seat where she settles her body and then a few minutes later perhaps it will be on the floor of her apartment or on the smooth tiles of her kitchenette while she will be busy cooking her evening meal while he remains on the pavement surrounded by foul city smells and pipes that are rat borne with flues festering everywhere. But tonight he must rise, stumble to rise again because that shadow has just stirred him into a different kind of desperation, this is a feeling of a different kind. He has done something indeed free style, in his own way, for the first time in his life. He has found a way out of the frequencies of these street lamps, the chromosome of their harsh glares, the excruciating city noises. He has learnt to sidle up, forget the fangs that grip his right ankle though there may be slight delays in getting out of some of his old habits. Her arms had distended beautifully to embrace all his wounds. 
So, now he will surge with the devil in the wind, he will raise his hands with a request for a silence to prolong this odd sensation though it may seem inappropriate or lacking to others, but sensuous and alive that has caught him in the most off handed manner and it has the strength to make him inch back to life and wish again to live and not shrink back to nothingness. He will rise again flexing the muscles on his two feet and the toes, they will not let him crumble or fall now with their old habit of awkward shuffling. The shadow, it seems is like a predetermined episode to be etched for a specific purpose and though it does not last too long and yet it has turned him finally into one complete somebody.
 
Postscript
A new year surely has dawned upon him.