The milling machine peeled the cracked aging asphalt ruthlessly. A new veneer was to be laid on top of the gravel and stone dust base course. The workmen labored through the afternoon to get the work done by sundown. Amidst the heat and the gelatinous puff of smoke from the bitumen boiler the road was finally paved. The workmen relaxed their taut muscles and wiped the sooty sweat off their face and bare chest. They waited. Their eyes gleamed with a puerile anticipation of discovery even though they knew what was to follow. A shriek! A workman pointed his knotty index finger at the road after his exultant shrill of disbelief. The blue, though faint yet triumphantly peeped through the hot and fudgy blackness of the asphalt concrete. This was the fifth time the Rainbow Road was skinned and repaved and the workmen knew well of the magic of the Rainbow Road.
By the next afternoon the roadblock was lifted. The asphalt skin had cured to a crusty scab. In the fuzzy urban twilight the deluge of the rush hour traffic could not stare down the lust of the red that had swallowed whatever meek charcoal darkness that was left on the road.
Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red.
The year they changed the name of Southway (one of the cardinal streets of the City) to Rainbow Road was a good year. The summer was forgiving, the monsoon lavish and the winter particularly clement. The City birdwatchers were especially ecstatic; they claimed to have spotted a blue Siberian passerine for the first time in the City. Ela too had felt airy that year.
Ela preferred the purple bus. The white bus, which took a much shorter route, was persistently overpeopled. There were always vacant window seats in the purple bus and the conductor was uncharacteristically cordial. It all started on a November weekday morning. The usual purple bus, the usual window seat. The conductor handed Ela the ticket (a thin strip of paper); a hurried awkward look hung between them, attesting to the years of acquaintance. Ela tucked the ticket under the frayed leather strap of her wrist watch and looked outside. A translucent winter haze had draped the City. The orange sun oozed out of it like runny poached egg yolk. At the very edge of Ela’s sight were lofty buildings watching over the City like sentinels veiled by heavenly reticence. In the absence of a strong sun they looked flat, a mere ruching at the hem of a wide awning; stripped off of a dimension. Misty days have a smell of nothingness to it.
‘Zero Point, Zero, Point’- the grating cry of the conductor. He cuffed the tin carcass of the bus and shouted ‘halt, halt, halt’. The purple bus stopped. Ela got off. It was a short walk from Zero Point (a four way traffic island at the center of the City) bus stop to the Office. Ela crossed Southway then Eastway and had to walk a few paces up Eastway sidewalk. She carefully kept to the left. She had difficulty keeping up with the crowd current that callously pushed and shoved. ‘Won’t keep up, won’t let pass’ she had heard one say, once, deep into her ear. The rough edges of the cigarette shacks chafed her arms but she kept to the left. Ela noticed something new about the lingerie salesman; he had dyed his hair cherry red. He sold bras, panties, handkerchiefs and socks laid out on a green plastic tarpaulin. His father too was a lingerie salesman and he too had sat at the exact same spot on Eastway sidewalk; by the entrance of the City Bank Headquarter. The lingerie salesman was mindfully stuffing the bra cups with balled up pieces of newspaper. His red hair blinded as much as the puffed up bra cups poked the eyes. It amused Ela; the red hair the pink bras and the green plastic tarpaulin.
As she walked through the stolid entrance of the Office, waft of an earnest ‘Good Morning’ tickled her ears. He must be new. The guard shuffled like a boy in prayer assembly, impatient for a gesture of acknowledgement, his almond skin glowed with a silky newness. Ela smiled at him charitably.
She was waiting for the elevator when the reality steadily descended on her and she felt a growing vacuum in her gut. It was the year of her retirement and her last day at the Office was only a month away. An emptiness in the gut, lethargy in the limbs and a supreme lightness in the head; not of fear really but much like a free falling sensation.
The elevator arrived. The heavy metal doors slid open with an archaic crudeness. Ela stepped inside nudging to make space for herself. The last thirty two years trailing her like a ghost.
The crowd thinned at fifth floor, Expense Dept. Half the office worked at the fifth floor Expense Dept. Only two people were left in the twelve person elevator; a fifty something man from the eighth floor Water Consumption Dept. and Ela from the ninth floor Canteen Operations and Store Dept. For the last two decades Ela had shared the elevator with the Water Dept. man, they had never talked. The man was tall and his nose perpetually pointed at the ceiling. His face was frozen to an obnoxious countenance, his brows wrinkled to an obstinate frown; not very good to look at. Then there was his giant elegant belly, a symbiont suspended midair, barely attached to the man’s body. It was a planet with a world of merriment inside. It must be, that the only explanation. There was a sea in the hollow and there were fishes, shiny silver skinned fishes blowing bubbles in the water, making gurgling sounds. Bud bud…bud bud. There were transparent glowing wormlike creatures that were tossed around in the sloshing sea as the doughy belly jiggled keeping rhythm with the jerky ascent of the elevator. The tiny creatures sure enjoyed being tossed around. The symbiosis left the poor man wretched. He was a sapless chewed out fibrous fraction of himself; the sea creatures feeding off his pulpy delicious mirth, whatever he had left. As he walked out of the elevator, Ela noticed a lime green glow around the man’s paunch. A trickery of the fluorescent lights? Really it was the tiny worms. They glowed when they were happy or well fed.
Eighth floor. Ela’s tiny cabin was not entirely her own, she shared it with Shree, a fresh recruit in the department. She had only been here five years but it felt like she owned the cabin. She had changed the desk arrangement, got indoor plants and posters, all in the first month. Shree was a talker, she grew restless in silence, so she clumsily jumped to strike a conversation even when there was no need for it. She could talk needlessly endlessly until her mouth went dry. She would then pause to drink from her stainless steel water bottle. She didn’t care for the office drinking water so carried two bottles. Tall apathetic stainless steel bottles.
‘Heaven knows how long winter is going to take to come this year. So strange, it’s the end of November already, yet my woolens are not out of the loft’. Shree’s desperate attempt to outrun the floating silence.
May be the woolens came out of the loft when no one was around or in the dead of the night when everyone was asleep. They were out and they stretched their limbs and turtle necks. They patted the dust off their coat or plucked the lint and blew them in the air. Ela smiled at the thought.
‘Yes, but I like this, this mild coolness’
‘Surely, arthritis, it gets worse in the winter isn’t it? How are your knees?’
Shree went on about special oils her mother used to ease the pain. She had a knack of crushing Ela’s innate desires and dislikes into insipid maladies. Whatever Ela said or did were the result of the awry functioning of the bodily system or a faulty mental wiring. Ela was not offended, she too was afraid of senility. The curled toes, the coldness and the lost look in the eyes. ‘Oh you’re her daughter. We used to be playmates. She had chubby cheeks and we played hopscotch in the sun. What was her name again?’ Ela found hope in her conviction that senility was man’s own doing. She could certainly outmaneuver it; she knew just the trick. A tweak in the habits, holidays in the mountains, books, laughter and companionship. But strangely, with Shree’s ramblings hammering her eardrum, she could picture herself sitting in the narrow balcony on a late winter afternoon, a shawl wrapped around her, school children running home, their empty lunchboxes making chaotic noises in their backpacks and she sipping at her sleepy cup of tea and brooding over the had-beens and the could haves. Much like Girish or maybe not. She couldn’t quite tell whether she knew him or not, like fading thirty two years of working at the Office.
Ela and Girish had been together for so long. He was scrawny and gangly when they first met, a faint line of hair barely growing on his upper lip. His cheeks were soft and cool to her warm hands, not like hers shiny and bumpy with yellow pimple heads. They had been out on the streets that day, trying to find a place to sit; the summer sun ballistic and their shadows making dark haloes around their feet. His smell did not bother her when they sat close on the scalding bench overlooking the placid lake. She was nervously biting her lips, vigorously tearing the sheet of dead skin with her incisors. Her lip bleed. He kissed her wound, she felt the wet fleshy tongue on the cut; it tingled a little. Her mouth tasted different long after he took the evening train home.
It had not been long, four years, since Girish started living in a cave. In a deep dark noiseless cave inside a growing mountain of memories. No one was allowed inside the cave; not Ela, his wife; not Ela, the girl whose bleeding lips he had kissed on an old crunchy summer’s day. Ela watched him walk to the bazaar, complain about the price of things; ‘they charge you even for touching’ he would say. He cooked the lamb when friends and family came over. ‘Ela come have a taste, tell me if the salt is right.’ Ela could tell that all of what Girish did was an elaborate act from the pale yellow goop accumulated at the corner of his eyes. He never cleaned it. At times it would almost eclipse his eyes, but he never cleaned it. The goop always seemed to appear after a long lonely cavernous rumination.
Shree put down a cup of tea on Ela’s desk with a thud. Shree disliked Ela strongly for no definite reason and so she made it a point to overcompensate. Routinely she asked after her health and made her a cup of tea in her electric kettle precisely at eleven every day without fail. Ela had never asked for it but had come to expect it. Shree secretly cursed Ela for her graceless ingratitude.
Ela went back to her musings with a warm cup of tea in her hand. She had not had so much to think in years. But her thoughts were not carnivorous, tearing her apart like they usually did. It was like skimping stone. She gave herself up to it entirely. The canteen complaint book needed to be read, some of the files needed her attention. Same old, same old. Ela did nothing. She sat staring into nothing. Skimping and blanking. Blanking and skimping.
‘You’re far too good for the Canteen Dept.’ her supervisors would always say to her. She knew it. She was in fact too good for the Office. It left her with a swollen pride that made her head feel heavy. But what could she have done differently, back in those days? True, she saw things no one else did but what of it? There were others like her better than her. They starved and wrote songs of the insects and tress that glow, some filled pages after pages with words that danced on the paper, some did the impossible; they made liquid dreams and poured them in sleeps. The gooseberry seller outside the Office gate saw things too; his sales cry from mellow mornings to high noon had been ‘Gag the glow worms in your belly before they eat you alive’ and from high noon to deep dusk ‘the worms glow not you, unless you drown them in gooseberry stew’. No one else noticed the glowing belly worms, only Ela and the gooseberry seller, the happiest man alive. But Ela was nothing, not even a dim possibility.
After lunch, Ela decided to get some air. She wanted to have something to drink, something other than water, something tinted. Fresh squeezed sweet lime juice maybe. As soon as she stepped outside the Iron Gate she regretted it. There was not a soul on the street and the City lay stretched in front of her with a photographic stillness. With nothing to distract her from the beeping pain shooting up and down her rheumatic leg, she knew that the walk ahead would tire her out. She kept on walking in spite of it. She was too embarrassed to turn back. She walked east, further east then she took a sharp left into a narrow bylane separating weighty buildings like a dead creek. And there he was, the juice man under the ancient burflower tree, napping with his back to the juice cart, his head drooping to his chest, his legs bent at the knees. Ela knocked on the juice cart, bit hesitant to disturb his sleep. The juice man was roused but not jolted out of sleep. No sound could jolt him out of sleep. He went through an elaborate rite to come to complete wakefulness. He yawned with a primitive howl reminiscent of the wild wordless ancestors. He stretched his limbs so his fingers touched the northern white mountains and his toes dipped in the southern cerulean sea, his navel opened up like a dry crater in between. He wiped his face on the sleeve of his shirt and looked enquiringly at Ela.
‘Sweet lime juice, one glass’ said Ela
‘Ice?’ asked the juice man
There were pyramids of sweet lime, pomegranate and heaps of bananas on the counter of the vending cart. He picked a bright yellow fruit from the pile after testing it for its firmness in his grip. Ela was engrossed in the poetics of the peeling of rind, grinding of pulp, sieving of the juice and breaking off of pieces of ice from the ice block.
‘Black salt or sugar?’ asked the juice man, breaking the spell.
She quaffed half a glass of juice in a single breath. Something distracted her.
She had not heard a bird sing that way before. It was so familiar, that it unsettled her for a moment. Lullaby. The bird’s song sounded exactly like the lullaby her mother sang to her daughter Deepa when she was a toddler. Ta-to-to/tu-ti-to/ta-to-to/taa. Ela remembered the words and her mother’s voice. Strangely the song was about ferocious invasions, a bad year of harvest and garlic. Ela watched Deepa sleeping to the song night after night and her mother singing and stroking Deepa’s dark brown curls. Deepa felt nothing, not the virulence of war not the desperation of hunger. She slept. Then she grew up one day, she felt everything, all at once. Deepa went off to the University of the Grey City in the north and visited once every year in autumn when the grass grew white feathers on the head and the white tropical blossoms filled the empty City with the cloying fragrance of the bygone. She carried gusts of wild wind in her duffle (something she picked up at the University). When she unpacked she would let the wind free. The wind howled and blew away the perennial dust of tedium. The wind upended the furniture in the house and upset the street dogs (they never seem to remember her). Girish would never retreat to his cave when Deepa was home. His eyes would widen and gleam like fireflies. There would be no cud of the past in the corner of his eyes.
‘Do you hear the strange bird sing?’ said Ela almost to herself
The juice man did not respond. He looked at the Ela with an expression so void that his face looked like sea shells. He was deaf, deaf to every kind of sound; may be that was why he fell into sleep so easily.
It was almost sundown. The birders crowded around the lake. They had heard the bird sing too. He had been flying everywhere, singing. The City birders knew he would come to the lake for this was where the birds came when the day was done. They waited patiently, fending off the mosquitoes. They waited like the trees around the periphery of the lake. They waited like the bare dead branches. They waited. Their cameras ready. A photograph would be such a triumph.
The day was done, almost. Ela just waited for the color of the sky to turn deep crimson. Like every other day, it was a tad too long. The files remained unattended on Ela’s desk, Shree was still typing. The officers were leaving. The petty officers had already left. Ela was exhausted; the last thirty two years were condensed to single long day at work. All she thought about was catching the purple bus home. She felt a school girl’s glee when she packed her things.
She was waiting at the bus stop. She smiled. There it was, the blue bird, singing the lullaby; floating low and slow. The wind was kind and it hardly flapped its wings. Ela looked at him and she could smell the first rain, she could hear the spring flower blossom and the crumble of the autumn leaves under her feet. The blue bird flew as if there had been no heartbreak ever. Ela felt it too. The joy. The blue bird floated with the pink cotton candy clouds. The moon in the eastern sky was translucent like the delicate flesh of green coconut. It swayed, it dropped low and it rose high. So much happiness. The day was finally done.
The engines were killed and the honking stopped. The mob had fallen into a stupor. There was nothing on Southway except for a lumpy silence. The driver and the conductor of the purple bus had fled. Then the siren of the ambulance was heard and the quiet turned to murmurs. The woman was distracted, she had stepped off the sidewalk just when the traffic lights turned green. She was looking up, searching something in the sky. But the sky was just the regular everyday sky. The crowd looked up to confirm once more.
The body convulsed once, twice, thrice before it stopped moving. Through the crack in the skull blood gushed out, thick and variegated. The road soaked up every bit of the viscous fluid and transformed to a marbled pathway. Her mouth was open and the eyes too. The vermilion sky drooped to kiss the forehead. The blue bird flew away never to return. Ela was gone too and the purple bus took her.
For the next four weeks there was a tremendous effort to scrub off the motley, every color blood stain off Southway road. Street sweepers and jet sprays. Nothing worked. The road was repaved but the indelible strains peeped through. By the end of the year all efforts were dropped and for the City’s love for the literal Southway was named Rainbow Road ceremoniously. The news made the front page and the belated piece on the chance arrival of the Siberian passerine was printed on the sixth (there was no photograph available of the bird). The purple bus changed its route. The street kids sold a pieces of the asphalt as cheap crayons, and some they kept for themselves to color greasy paper bags. The school children shouted yaa-yoo whenever the yellow school buses crossed Rainbow Road.
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