The bus screeched ominously as the driver jammed on the breaks and switched off the asthmatic engine at the Delhi Bus Terminal. Luggage was slinged in the smoky air and many lunchboxes and their lids jingled off the bags and laps as the bus lurched and died. With an uproar the exhausted passengers gushed out of the bus spitting red streaks of betel on the sideways, scurrying to catch their luggage thrown off from the top of the bus, mothers gathering their bags and howling kids running to stinking restrooms of the Bus terminal.
Amidst the upheaval and the turmoil, a nervous face with two terrified kohl lined eyes clung onto the savior finger of her aunt. Chasing her sari, Roxie stepped on her aunts slipper, trying hard to hide inside the folds of her sari and disappear or maybe get lost in the unwieldy cloth bag that her aunt somehow managed to carry on her shoulder as it pulled down the arm of her blouse. She looked around with terrified eyes and racing heart. Roxie could feel the tarred road under her new sandals as she was pulled towards another bus unlike the one she was used to, where either sharp stones poked her feet or soiled them with mud. The only road in their remote village was the highway where trucks whizzed by or few motorcycles with a heavy load of wife and children hurtled down. She had seen it few times when they had traveled to another village for some wedding or when they all went to receive their relatives from the city during summer. But that was not too often nowadays, since they all preferred to cool themselves under electric fan or water cooler than the Neem trees in their house. They complained that it was too hot in the village these days.
They got in a different blue lined bus and walked for sometime to reach their home but she was in a trance, dazed at the sprawling roads and sprouting building taller than the huge banyan tree in the village temple, sleek colorful cars where women sat wearing goggles, delicious food sold at road side, buses and cars honking at each angrily ,streams of shops decorated like brides, flaunting their products.
She was bewildered and embarrassed to see women wearing jeans and sleeveless shirts, their full red lips, hair held high and they boarded buses or walked by. Girls wearing knee exposing skirts mingling with boys, laughing and eating with them.
World swirled and engulfed her, extended and expanded in front of her like blurry horizon, camouflaged like a chameleon and made her feel insignificant and small. It was no more a world of a quiet house with smoke swirling out into the blue-dyed sky, cows and buffaloes grinding the hay in their frothy mouth ,the gurgle of her grandfather hookah, tinkling of the bells as a pair of oxen went to the fields at the break of the dawn, reverberation of the earthen pot as her grandmother churned the buttermilk.
It was a roller-coaster ride for her which rocked her ,buzzed , yelled and screamed around her, drenched her in ecstasy and raced her heart beats.
She remembered how she could not sleep last night with excitement of coming to Delhi where her aunt and her cousins stayed. In the night she dreamt herself adorned in new red dress and new sandals that were bought for this great occasion. She had arrogantly broken the news to her friends as it was a usual affair for her and very predictably she was elevated to the leader of the pack for that day. Delhi, for those naïve minds, was not a city three hours away from their own village but a heaven within clouds where people had Television set in their house and they talked on telephone and everybody owns a refrigerator. No poverty lurks there and nobody is poor. They have trendy and colorful frocks, stylish shoes and dignified accent. And now , one of their friends was going to be a witness to all their fantasy. Eyes green with envy and sheer admiration they gazed at her as she disseminated her misrepresented knowledge to them about Delhi.
When Roxie’s cousins returned from school that day, they found her dumb folded , nervously sitting on the edge of the chair. Too terrified to step out of the plastic chair as if serpentine would entangle her legs and scorpion will poison if she took another step. She nibbled her food and sipped her water with utmost care like a nervous cat. The youngest of her cousin, Chetna, who was just few years elder to her, beckoned her. And by the time it was evening, she recovered some of her guts and some voice as she was given a tour of all the crayons and painting colors and the drawing books. She was given few crayons to color which revealed the artistic nuance of her personality as she colored everything with fervor jolts. She admired the refrigerator which exhaled cold air, was mesmerized by the phenomenon of telephonic communication and ran as fast as her stout legs could when the phone rang, to just stand and gawk at it. And that night she was enlightened to the joy of water cooler which hummed all night but which plunged her in nectarous slumber . She slept with a slight smile on her face , there was no parched and dusty night , no half-broken sleep due to heat anymore.
Next day she woke with the hubbub of her cousins stuffing breakfast in their mouth and rushing to catch their bus for school ,wearing short blue checkered skirts . It was their last day at school before their summer vacation. Her aunt made soft aloo ka paratha with a cup of tea and she relished each bite that touched her taste buds. She was habitual of biting into plain roti with cold fresh buttermilk and a piece of jaggery. But not today.
She was chewing her food slowly to relish what she thought was heaven. There was no smoke that filled her eyes while eating , there was no screams from her younger brother that had to be taken care of , no coaxing from her mother to help her out with cows and buffaloes tied in their backyard.
There was nobody to chide her as she roamed around without work , nobody to remind her of chores that needed to be finished. She sat and conversed with her aunt in the afternoon watching pigeons and told details of her house. She basked in the sun the way she could never do at her village. She waited but there was nobody who called her from within to take care of her kicking and yelling brother . And she knew then that she was out of the clutches of her village and was a innocent and playing child again. And when her cousins came home , red with heat and excitement of vacations, they saw a transformed , playful and exultant her.
While taking evening walks she would squeal with joy seeing a car , clap when cars or buses would honk at them, she would stand in the dairy line to put token to get milk, amused at the idea of a robotic cow. She would be stupefied while watching television at dinnertime and called dinner as ‘dinner’ in English. She quickly learnt to say ‘please’ and would say “didi please” to her cousins on very occasion without fail. Her excitement would know no levels when it will be the time for the postman to arrive. Hanging from the stairs railing she would keep straining out her neck to see if there is any letter in the mailbox. And religiously she would visit the mailbox after every ten minutes to investigate why no letter has been dropped in.
She would stand in the kitchen waiting for her aunt to ask for some vegetable from the refrigerator or freshly made yogurt and she would shoot out to bring it with an air of achievement and pride. Reluctant and apprehensive, one day she emerged out from behind the walls wearing the skirt she was forced to wear by Chetna. She felt denuded and exposed to the whole world that day. But it was not long before she frolicked around wearing different flowery skirt of Chetna. She felt free from the noose of the salwar-suit and the duppata always on her head. She would tag along with Chetna as she collected different leaves to paste it on her scrap-book or assumed the role of an assistant fetching glue and paper when Chetna would make model for science class. She befriended Chetna’s friends who came to play with her in the evening. Sitting behind their bikes she would wave merrily at her aunt standing in the balcony.
Life could not have been better than this. It all seemed a dream to her, a bliss that filled her cheeks and made her beautiful. She renounced her village life as she was never there, she never felt homesick or missed her friends. She would sleep each day praying to get up in the same bed.
She was a part of that city within two weeks, part of the jostling crowd. Her heart beat was added to the pulsating life of the city and her dreams flew along with millions of dream that crowded Delhi’s sky. She was a part of the tide of people now and she loved it that way. Colorful books and beautiful penned words in the notebooks held new fascination for her. The repulse that she felt at the name of school in her village turned into a new admiration. The anger at homework and old books turned into a thrilling excitement watching her cousin sisters finish their summer assignments. She dreamt of wearing the check blue skirt and carry the bag full of colorful books to school with them , carry delicious lunch and hang blue plastic water bottle on her shoulder and board the school bus as they did. Converse in English and give hi-five as Chetna’s friend did. And she lived in her dreams, imagining it to be already true.
But her happiness came to an abrupt end one evening when she came home after playing with Chetna and her friends, and saw her father squatted on the sofa from village. His hollow cheeks and eyes stared at her and bony famished hands held her but she withdrew and hid behind the wall. She was pained to see him there carrying his filthy bag and dreamless eyes. Her laughter spilling all over her was swiped off in a jerk realizing that he was there to take her home. She plopped down on the chair bogged down by her draining hopes. She did not imagine that her parents will come for her so fast, did they miss her so much ? Or maybe they were missing the helping hand at home and at fields, she thought morosely. The pearly gates closed sharply on her and she realized that it was all over. The lights dimmed on her and she sat down at a distance watching her father chatting with her aunt. She felt that she was a part of this house now, these walls , the balcony, that mailbox. She wanted to eat dinner each day watching TV but her hopes left her now . She knew she had one more night and then she would gather all her clothes in that unwieldy bag again and dissolve in those narrow dark alleys of her village.
She knew his fathers gaze and abandoning her skirt she wore her old self back. It was time for reaping the harvest and they needed a helping hand taking care of her younger brother or maybe make chapati at the mud stove, puffing out air and instigating the spark.
She folded and stuffed in all her clothes and the drawing book that Chetna gave her with some broken crayons into her bag , she folded her dreams and desires too, her impish self and her whims inside the bag and zipped it tight. It was the last night in that house. That night , she let out some soft sobs and her small body shook with pain.
Morning came murky with clouds as much outside as in her small heart, her aunt made special aloo ka paratha and tea and packed some for their journey. Tears welled in her eyes as she waved good bye and walked out of that house following her father. She touched the mailbox for one last time and she felt the familiar and refreshing cool of the iron mailbox. Tracing her life back she folded the whole city in her eyes and in her mind, she reached the start of her whole journey.
Sitting in that same crowded bus again, she watched the surge of humanity diminishing to a handful as the bus coughed from cemented houses to mud coated huts. Running people were left behind, the din was abandoned behind and slowly as the bus moved , she looked back and she knew that she had left behind herself in that house.