Taru’s Guests

Taru was the last to leave the bus. She waited and waited even more, till the last of the passengers had scampered out and the only thing that remained in the bus were the empty seats and the discarded plastic bottles, lying about under the seats. She stretched her hand upward, arched her back, and tightened the neck muscles to give her body some relief from the stiffness that the bus-ride assaulted her body with.

On stretching out the hand knocked the upper ledge lightly, creating a dull thud. Instinctively, she drew her hands back and checked on her knuckles for any damage. She didn’t want any scars at this time when the whole bunch of relatives and close friends will there to celebrate the marriage. The knock on the upper edge also reminded her of the plastic box she had stashed up there.

A reminder, she didn’t want. It came like a stab on the old wound that was yet to heal. The box had a gold ring, one the bride would slip in through the groom’s fingers.

‘Hope it fits in nicely, or at least slips past his pudgy fingers.’ She mumbled as she carefully brought the box down. It was a perfect square, the shape a geometry teacher would have been proud to keep. Inside it were small compartments to stack things neatly in their places. ‘To each his own,’ the box seemed to shout out to things inside. Beneath the upper deck, there was a secret compartment, a lame effort to give that space a special stature, covered by a plank of velvet draped lid. One needed sharp nails to prise the lid open. Tanu had kept the ring there, a fine specimen by her description. Not very ornamental, classy with minute body-work that made itself apparent only when one looked deeply into it. Tanu instantly like the art of subtlety. The shopkeeper was mildly surprised when she had pick this one for the groom. He found it a little too bland for an occasion as grand as a wedding, and insisted on ones that shouted out a bit more with their designs. Tanu knew how the groom was averse to anything that bordered on gaudy. At one point though, she was tempted to pick up a garish design that had a green emerald as its star attraction. Could have made for a sweet revenge. Her creation of disaster in the marriage, like a small dent in a big ship, which otherwise she was too minuscule and powerless to stop.

He had failed to read her mind, their decade-long acquaintance notwithstanding. Or was it a case of turning the eye of indifference towards her feelings, she couldn’t tell for sure. Hadn’t she thrown hints from time to time and how he had failed to read any. The burden of long-friend has blunted any attempt on her part to forge a new edge to it. Their relationship had settled into a happy-complacency, from which she wanted him to get out. The day, when he broke the news of his wedding, her eyes flushed with panic, and her heart beat so hard that she could hear its thumping against her chest. She wondered how he didn’t. She remembers smiling gaily, and wept only after retiring to her room.

Now the ring in the box stood mockingly, reminding her of her loss. A hand slipped in from the window.

“In the name of God. In the name of God, have mercy.”

The hand, soiled black, scraggly, had deep lines of hardships and penury. The bones that stuck out of the skin, was only a meal away from piercing through the skin.

“God didn’t have mercy on me, old man.”

Taru angrily thrust a loaf of bread in his scraggy hands. As soon, more hands forced their way in through the window. She leaned back in defence and thought of quickly picking up her stuff and making the exit. The driver was still in his seat, fiddling with the gear box. It had cranked and whined the whole journey, probably mourning its own loss. She dug into her bag, and found a biscuit packet, and a pack of lemon-flavoured cake. She liked lemon everywhere. The smell took her back to childhood, when she would run around the tree to look for an opening between the thorns to pluck the green-yellow fruit. She would press the fruit against the nose and the aroma would stay with her even after the fruit was long gone. It would be there for days and she could increase or reduce its intensity at her will simply by thinking about it. With time, the smell was fading, and she wanted to hold on to it, as long as she could, wherever she could.

“It won’t be enough, but that’s all I got. She enjoyed the act of ripping open the packet, where the smell would be waiting to dowse her nose.

She distributed the cake-slices and the biscuits evenly between all the hands. It hopelessly ran short of filling the hands, leave alone fill a single stomach.

“That’s all I have, I am sorry.” She shouted out, to make it clear to the people not to harbour any hopes here.

“Please, in the name if God.” Came a voice of an old man.

“If I have to give in the name of God, I’ll give it to God and not to you.”

She retorted, somewhat irritatingly, for their clinging on to the belief of God, even under such dire circumstances, which she found laughable. She had stopped genuflecting, if not altogether believing in the mercies of the one above the day her father passed away after months of illness, despite her having prayed to the almighty to rectify things.

“May you find a life-partner of your choice.”

Came another voice of a young girl from outside. She very cleverly changed the bait from God to a partner. And the timing of it all, when she was cursing her love.

She rose up to see the face. It was a girl in her teens, she assumed, with eyes that twinkled with intelligence. The eyes mocked at impossibility of the blessing.

“A life-partner of my choice, huh.” Tanu sighed. “Why don’t you reserve some of your good-blessing for yourself and tell your God to provide you a square meal, at least. Am sure that’s the least he can do you.”

The words failed to make the girl stand back. “His blessing won’t fill our stomach. Your Good deeds will.”

Tanu admired the girl’s ability to counter a point politely, without sacrificing her own interest.

“This is all I had. I don’t have anything on me now. And if you are asking for money, that I won’t give.”

After a short pause, the girl replied “May be, you can buy us all a meal with your money.” Then she pointed towards the food-joint that stood a couple of yards away, shaded by a tree.

Tanu didn’t have a choice. There was no denying the existence of the stall, as opposed to the existence to God. In return for her generosity, she got willing-hands, frail though they were, to carry her luggage out of the bus. The square box, with the ring inside, she carried it herself. She felt its weight heavy on her heart. Getting down, she counted the mouths she needed to feed. There were five of them with two toddlers, who she assumed would need to eat too. Between them, they easily carried her three bag-luggage; two suitcases and one side-bag which had bloated to a size of a well-fed hippo after she had stuffed it to its limit, and she were to slide the chain down, the clothes inside would flow out like innards of an animal that had been slashes in two neat halves. That bag carried her clothes, or she rather carried the bag, as she would like to put it. The rest of the suitcases were dedicated to the marriage — one had the clothes exclusively for the bride-groom, the other one gifts that will have to be given away at the marriage and the third one was filled with what she categorised in her mind as ‘Stuff for the marriage’.

Seeing the strong crowd of starving bellies and hungry eyes, the stall-owner got alarmed at first and relaxed only when his eyes fell on Tanu. Every now and then, a generous traveller would bring along an entourage of beggars and feed them at his stall. He broke into a grin and went about beating the moulding balls out of kneaded dough. Business was thin with the just-arrived crowd, impatient to reach their destination, quickly hired ricks and autos and taxis and went their own way. That’s expected at this hour of day, when buses only arrived at the spot rather than leave for other destination. The fresh wave of customers came as a pleasant surprise to the stall-owner who was anticipating a slump. Tanu caught the grease of greed in his hands as it quickly rolled the dough-balls into round-shaped chappatis. He knew the size of the appetite of the visitors. As they stood around the stall in neat formation waiting eagerly for the food to arrive, their eyes fixed on the chappitis fluffing up in the heat. Tanu wondered if they were any different from the guests who would be there at the wedding, due in a week’s time from now.

Why not invite them to the wedding, she thought. The food was now served on the plates. A simple fare, of hot chappatis, potato-curry, sliced onions, and pickle. Tanu stepped aside so that her entourage could stand close to the stall, which had a long ledge running along it to keep the plates. After the man served one plate per person, he went about rolling more chappitis. The smell of the fresh dough burning on a stove stroked Tanu’s appetite as well. She got a plate for herself and quickly found acceptance amongst the beggars, as they made space for her to stand. She found herself standing next to the teenage girl. Barely seeming to notice Tanu, she went about finishing her food with great focus. After a while, she turned and asked,

“Going to the marriage?”

Tanu was slightly offended by the tactlessness in the voice and in the nature of question but she replied, “To a wedding…of a friend. Yes. A very good friend.” She added after a pause. “But how did you know?”

Without bothering a reply, the girl seemed to go on a monologue, “Wedding! How I love going to weddings.”

“You have been invited to a lot of weddings it seems.” Tanu’s sarcasm was lost on the girl.

“Who needs an invitation. I go to every wedding that happens in this town for the feast.”

Tanu now understood what the girl meant. “Everyone goes to a wedding for a feast.’ She mumbled. She was probably amongst the few who was going to see her love torn away from for ever.

“How do you get inside the wedding?”

She took the last bite of a chappati and asked the stall-owner for another one. The owner cast a glance at Tanu to check if it was all right to add to the bill.

“We wait by the hole.” Reading Tanu’s confusion, she continued. “It’s where the plates are disposed off, usually at the back of the venue. Not difficult at all to find. Where we see men digging earth by a wedding-venue, we know that is our place. It’s that simple.”

Tanu looked at the girl’s face, her jaw moving in a rhythmic fashion from the chewing action. It appeared calm otherwise, a lot serene than her own face.

“But that would be left-overs. Scrap.” Tanu felt silly voicing it and checked herself too late.

“Scrap for you-people but good food for us.” The girl said good-humouredly, drawing an economic -distinction between the Tanu and self.

“Most plates look as if they are barely touched, before someone throws it at the hole. Good for us. We get a big feast, and then we carry the excess food and then continue our feast till the next day.”

The girl smiled at her little joke but Tanu knew that’s what they did. The knowledge of people scavenging at the back while people inside helping themselves to various dishes, taking in more than they could finish made her uncomfortable. Whether or not she told them about the impending wedding, she knew that these flock would be there in that hole, behind the venue, eating out of thrown plates, the scrap of the buffet.

By now, everyone has had their fill, more or less. Their plates were near-empty, empty to the point of being without a morsel of food on it, leaving no trace of the small feast. The plates stood as a contrast to the plates she would see in the weddings; overflowing with food, all mixing together in an obscene orgy.

“Why don’t you come to my wedding?” Taru let out her thoughts abruptly. “I mean this wedding.” She corrected herself.

“We are all going there for sure.” The girl said with her one of her half-smiles.

“I mean, not to the hole. But through the main gate, inside, you know…where the bride and groom would be.”

“Oh that…” She paused for a while then added. “We won’t be allowed inside for sure. People find stay dogs in weddings more tolerable than people like us.”

“Leave that to me. I’ll be at the gate to receive you all. Here..” Tanu stopped short of giving her the date and venue of the wedding. This, she was sure, they would find out of their own. After paying the stall-owner, which was a lot less than what she would have paid to the coolie for his services, she boarded an auto, along with her luggage stacked at the back of the auto-seat, and the square box tucked carefully under her arm.

On the wedding-day, she waited in anticipation for her special guests to arrive. They, by some strange twist of fate, had made Tanu look forward to the wedding with a degree of joy. After a few nervous moments, she saw the group approach the gate with apparent trepidation in their movements. They were led by the same teenage girl, whose confidence seemed to stem from the knowledge that if they were to be shunned out, there was always the hole to go back to, that would always be inviting.

Ignoring the raised eye-brows, Tanu led the group straight into the feast-area which was set up at the one side of the venue, little past the main attractions of the wedding; the place for the bride and groom. She hung around with the group, shielding them from being thrown out, and playing the perfect host by showing them the dish they should attack first. Their eyes, Tanu noticed, were lit as bright as the wedding lights, and it somehow washed away the gloom that had settled in her heart. Like an enthusiastic child, she showed them around and rejoiced at their astonishment from brought on by the fare. Immediately after, they quietly left the venue knowing that lingering would be overstaying the welcome. The stern eyes of some of the uncles of the groom followed them till the gates, outside which the darkness of the night welcomed them to obscurity. Tanu felt a sense of gratitude for them, for choosing the venue instead of the hole. She felt that heavy baggage that were her companion in the journey till here, were finally off her shoulder.

Their departure also left her without a purpose, as if playing host to them was the only thing she need to do at the wedding and now her role at the wedding was reduced to that just another guest. Seeking isolation, she walked out of the gates to meet the lane that ran straight out from it into the city. Realising that sticking to the lane and the lights would run her into new guests, she turned to walk around the venue. Desolate as she knew it would be this time, except probably for a few mongrels. Winding her way around the venue towards the back she walked further, where the lights began to fade till the darkness of the night took over. Even the lights of the wedding refused to go beyond a point, where it found it way too disrespectful to go. She stepped into the darkness, and would have fallen into it, if was not for the noise of scrambling, scraping and biting that warned her of the presence of the pit. Her eyes, when it adjusted to the darkness, met the familiar faces of her invited guests, happily helping themselves from various plates. A thick cloth- fortification separate the lot from those inside the wedding. She had finally arrived at the hole too.

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