By Shobha Rao
My wife comes into the room, shutting out the sun as she closes the door, and lays the wad of bills on the table in front of me. I canâ€™t look at her. I want to feel shame but I only feel a thin pleasure, like a fine layer of skin, puckered and white and soulless, floating on cooling milk. On another shore, perhaps, the desert has an ashen end; forests grow without fuss. On that shore poverty doesnâ€™t have an animal stink. And when we touch the face of another, we draw onto their skin a moonlit path, and not the metallic rust of our weakness and our fear. But on this shore, on this morning, there is only money.
If someone had told me the story of my life, when I was a child, I wouldnâ€™t have believed them.
She walks to the other end of the hut and lies down on the reed pallet, turned to the wall and silent, not even bothering with the blanket, as if she means to die like a wild animal. But at the sight of her hips desire floods me – not love, not any longer; that is simply a feeling that we walk off and forget at the side of the road, remembering it only hours later, and wondering – because we have come too far – at the lightness of our load.
The first of our money was stolen just after we left Jaisalmer. We were barely two days out but I could already see the row after row of mango trees waiting for us in Mirpur Khas, heavy and sagging with fruit. â€œItâ€™s harvest time,â€ Ram had said, â€œTheyâ€™ll need workers bad, no telling how much theyâ€™ll pay per bushel.â€ But even as heâ€™d said it heâ€™d looked sidelong at Arya, bent low over the cooking fire, and I knew he was no longer thinking of the kind of mangoes that grow on trees. Still he was kind enough: he gave me a monthâ€™s wages for the journey, along with the name of a friend of his who owned an orchard. Iâ€™d tucked the money into a rusted Bournvita tin, forty rupees in all, along with the name of the orchard owner, and then wrapped it tightly in Aryaâ€™s red woolen shawl. The first night I slept with the bundle under my head; the jasmine-scented coconut oil Arya used in her hair was a lullaby, and I dreamt the most beautiful dreams. In one I was standing under a waterfall, laughing, my eyes narrowed, trying to distinguish between the water and the tiny sparrows that fluttered everywhere. It was almost as if the water, as soon as it hit my body, was turning into birds, their wings warm and quivering and soundless.
Then I woke and the money was gone. Weâ€™d gotten off the main road at nightfall and had found a sheltered spot under a grove of sangri trees. Iâ€™d lain awake most of the night listening to the desert sounds – the slither of lizards and snakes and the scurry of a few roaming gazelles – but I mustâ€™ve fallen into a deep sleep in the early morning hours. When I woke at daybreak the entire bundle was gone along with the chapals Iâ€™d placed in the hollow of a nearby tree. We had nothing left except the eighteen rupees Iâ€™d folded into the tail of my dhoti. And we had at least two or three weeksâ€™ journey remaining to get to Mirpur Khas; now weâ€™d have to do it barefoot.
Iâ€™d searched for the bundle: Iâ€™d left Arya crying as I climbed and slipped across the endless sand dunes. I knew the forty rupees would be gone, certainly, but maybe theyâ€™d thrown off the shawl or the chapals, cracked as they were, the soles full of holes. I walked for a kilometer or two in either direction, scanning the dunes. I even looked inside foxholes and in the branches of scrubs. Nothing.
It was when I returned later that morning that Arya had pointed at the ground. â€œLook,â€ sheâ€™d said, indicating a scatter of footprints near the area where weâ€™d slept. â€œWe know theyâ€™re not ours. These people had shoes.â€
I looked at her. It was the first time since weâ€™d been married – barely six months ago – that sheâ€™d spoken to me with such distaste. Weâ€™d not once quarreled in all that time. Nor had she ever looked at me like she looked at me then: her eyes shadowed, disappointed, full of fire and sadness, and something I cannot describe, maybe the ache of being without shoes, in the desert, her husband poor and useless, drawn by the jasmine-scented dream she did not have.
She turned and walked away from me. Towards what, I wondered. Yet I didnâ€™t call out. The wind pushed the lilac fabric of her shalwar tight against her body. The round of her hips, the gentle curve of her back made me shudder. I watched as she scrambled up a particularly steep sand dune, her chunni fluttering behind her like a torn sail, her arms outstretched to keep balance. And it was these arms; I seemed to be seeing them for the first time. Thin, almost twigs, balancing so bravely against the force of wind and sand and steepness. Angling to right themselves, pushing forward. The sleeve of her shalwar reaching just past her elbows and the brown of her forearm emerging as smooth as a new branch. Flowers have sprouted from less.
But then she fell. Arms first. She rolled down a ways, stopped, gathered her chunni around her shoulders, pulled her knees to her chest in the trampled sand and simply sat there, with no expression on her face. I watched her for a moment but she didnâ€™t move, as if she was determined to be as indelible and piercing as the line of ridge above her.
I thought then of our wedding night and how, when sheâ€™d entered the hut, sheâ€™d stood shyly in the shadows until Iâ€™d coaxed her into the candlelight. She hadnâ€™t looked up until I took her chin in my hand and only then had she raised her eyes to me. Sheâ€™d seemed a wisp of a girl, no more than a fledgling bird, and Iâ€™d been overcome with the thought that she was mine – this golden, candlelit face, these firm, ample breasts, and this dizzying fragility, so sweet and untouched.
Sheâ€™s lying on the reed pallet. The hut is dark though the sun mustâ€™ve crept higher, no doubt slithering past the thatched roof. Weâ€™d found it abandoned a few days ago – one of so many huts abandoned during the riots, left for fear of being trapped inside, the smell of burning flesh always in the air, a reminder to keep moving – all the pots and pans and mats and even some clothes were left behind. But we have decided to stay. The location is ideal: the lorries stop just a few yards away. It is a way station for the drivers. They sleep in the cabs of their lorries and eat and wash at the collapsing shack nearby called Arunâ€™s Restaurant and Bar; a clearing of littered and drifting dirt with a few orange plastic tables scattered here and there. When we reached Arunâ€™s we could barely walk. We hadnâ€™t eaten for three days. Hadnâ€™t drunk a drop of water in two. I had none left for sweat, my feet dragged along the dirt. I begged the owner for some water, food. A morsel. Anything. Heâ€™d looked at Arya – his eyes indifferent, his teeth rotting and green near the gum line, the hairs on his ears thick as wiring – and said, â€œAnything?â€