When Darkness Falls

From my window I could see up to the outskirts of our town. I could hear the morning birds sitting out on the mango tree outside our building and the distant hum of traffic along the main roads. The smell of roti and vegetables listlessly wafted in the air, the sunrays came sharp and deep into the room and I could but taste the beginning of a new day. 

It is not often that I have the time or the freedom, such as this morning, to look out and absorb the view of my neighborhood. At this hour I am most likely to be asleep because of the fatigue from the night before. Yet this morning I felt a stirring from within me to awake. To see, the morning sun rise. To feel, the ever light breeze. To hear the first sounds. To smell the first fresh breath of air and to taste the mornings dew. 

A slight noise from below aroused my drifting mind and as I peered down toward the alleyway on the right, I observed a little boy rummaging through the garbage. He was quick about his errand but did not fail to scan most everything in order to find whatever it was he was looking for. With a gaunt and weary face he soon left the area and headed further up the alley to where I could now clearly see him. Again he rummaged and picked his way through another pile of trash. The young boy's face brightened for a moment as he held a few bare scraps of roti in his hand. There was no doubt that the food was dirty but the boy ate it ravenously without a second thought. 

Scared by the thought of what other extremes the child may go through to obtain food, I called him over to my window. He looked up curiously to see who was calling and seeing me, he looked around the street to see whom I may be calling to. With no one else around, he turned his gaze back up at me and asked, 

"Whom are you talking to?" 
"You", I called back. 
"What is it that you want of me?" 
"Come here and I shall tell you," I replied. 

With no further questions he came and stood beneath my window. 

"Take this and buy yourself something decent and fulfilling to eat." 

He caught the 50 paisa coin I sent into his hands and looked up at me puzzled. But a smile soon came to his face as he rushed away towards a grocery store around the corner. 
My keeper, having heard the noise, pulled me away from the window and sent me away to change into my day clothes. Having nothing else further or better to do, I headed outside for a walk. 

The dusty dirt road lifted up gusts of sand as I walked along the side. It was now just after seven o'clock, and many others were also walking the streets. Bicyclists were riding by in flocks and about a half a mile ahead of me I could see cars and trucks on the bigger roads. Peddlers were spreading open their goods, the vegetable mongers rolled their carts and yelled out to all passers by, and those within, the selection of foods each of them had available. Cows wandered royally and aimlessly to wherever they pleased and when tired by heat or became just plain lazy, they plopped themselves down to rest. At the present time, one such sacred animal decided to sit in the middle of the road. A car coming from behind but missed the animal by inches as he swerved away in the nick of time. 

Edging the main road I caught sight of the many run down buildings that stood on either side. They were not high but they were timeworn and their shabbiness only stressed the poverty of the surroundings. Paint had peeled from almost all of them; many of the wood boards had cracked and even broken off, leaving black holes where birds kept their homes. The structures of some establishments were crooked and more than one seemed ready to collapse with the slightest blow. Windows were cracked. Doorknobs, hinges, and keyholes were rusted to a bright red copper. Nothing of the new, modern world was evident here. 
Unwilling to do labor, men, women, and children, young and old, lame and well, stood and sat by the roads in endless lines beyond my sight. All of them had their hands opened up and curved, waiting for a coin to touch the rough center of their palms. A few approached the standing cars, pushing their hands into the open windows and lives of the people who were better off than they. The straining sun had blackened the already weary and hungry faces of the masses. Each line in every face told a story of its own. No more than rags but covered the bodies of the poor, hiding only what was necessary. And even among rags, rips and holes prevailed. Their matted and unkempt hair were more like nests upon a tree and only a handful of these panhandlers had shoes. 

Along the street was one of the best sweet stores around in the area. Very often I could be found here buying something or the other for my household. Upon the counters were displayed heaping piles of many sweets. Jalaibies, Chumchums and Burfi were always among them and would always water my mouth in seconds. While waiting for my package of sweets I noticed a few hungry children gathering together in a huddle. After a few minutes two of them began to approach the stall at which I was at, the other three had gone in another direction. As I reached up for my purchase, a noise came from behind the store and as the owner turned around to see what had happened, the two youngsters who were approaching ran up and stole a plate of chumchums. The big man behind the counter suddenly realized the plot of the matter and let out an awful yell, but his curses were but distant cries to the thieves who were long gone in miles from here. 

I headed back to my living quarters, while the sultry sun pierced every inch of my body. It was now mid-afternoon and the heat was at its peak. I pulled out my handkerchief, hidden at my breast, and wiped the dripping perspiration from my forehead and the flesh above my blouse. It wasn't until I finally began to ascend the staircase to my dwelling that I physically felt the extent to which the heat had exhausted me. Slowly I labored toward my room and lay down to rest as the sun faded before me. 

Evening had fast drawn near. The baby blue sky was now a midnight grey. The ever-white moon of obscuring blackness dethroned the glorious sun of the morning, and only the midnight people roamed the streets. I descended my place and quickly but carefully headed off in the opposite direction of my morning walk. On the other side of the street were two men sitting under a tree with whisky bottles in their hands. I let out a sigh of relief as I escaped their notice and they continued to sing a melodious song from years gone by. Many intoxicated men were up ahead, stumbling and grasping at the air for support. A few noticed my red saree and attempted to approach me but were unable to keep a steady balance and therefore failed to reach my side. These were the men I was afraid of. Although they had the money, they often were violent. Having lived in these surroundings now for many years, I knew better than to walk alone aimlessly in such a neighborhood. I quickened my pace as I headed down the dark road that lay before me, knowing well about the shadows and images lingering behind single-lighted lampposts; the deep, dark secrets that wanted to be heard; and the sorted number of crimes. 

I crossed over to the other side and turned left into an alleyway. It was very dark and difficult to see but after years of walking these streets by night, I knew exactly where I was going. 
At one instance I heard a screeching animal noise. Afraid that it may be a sick dog, I edged up against the wall. But apparently the neighboring house heard the noise as well for they turned on the light of a room. It was then that I saw a skinny brown and rusty colored cat pawing at the scattered garbage in a desperate search for food. 

My heart relaxed to a softer beat and I continued my journey towards my destination. After making two more rights and a left, I found myself at a familiar sight. I had not been standing at the corner for a mere five minutes, when I felt a cold hand slip a rupee note into the side of my petticoat. A shiver ran down my spine as the smiling face beside me caught me by surprise. I barely smiled back; I was more interested in the denomination of the bill within my garments. The man turned, taking my hand in his. I followed.

Not-so-young, Hindu, Sindhi, educated girl looking for .... oops, wrong bio! Zenia considers herself a typical Gemini - dual personality, likes to talk, complex, intelligent, restless, needs variety in life, adaptable . (hey, this still sounds like a matrimonial ad!). Some of her most infamous traits include her sensitivity towards animals, the ease with which she cries at movies, her desperate need to recycle and the passion she displays in being organized (almost to the point of obsession). Although she enjoys eating vegetables, she refuses to eat Karela (Bitter Gourd), Kaddu (Squash), and Baingan ka Bartha (Mashed Eggplant). Zenia Wadhwani is the Coordinator of Youth Outreach at the United Way of Greater Toronto, Canada.     


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