Eight legs – six on the ground, two in the air – approach a shop. Accompanying them is a blend of interweaving sounds: a piercing nasal AREEEE rising from a ring of innocent, playful hihihaha against the backdrop of a sweet-sounding aababaaabaa – to which the earhole of our nameless observer is drawn. His eyes swivel in their sockets in an attempt to follow the two lively pairs of boys’ feet that orbit around the draggy, limping ones of their mother, and fail, only to get transfixed by the fisted hand of the taller among the two. It carries something on which the heart of his chasing brother is fixed. ONO wonders what it is.
Before his mind begins its guesswork, a heart-wrenching bawl seizes his attention. He shifts his gaze to rediscover the formerly aababaaabaaing infant, crying and pulling at a strand of her mother’s hair. Softly and gently, the mother tugs at her daughter’s hand, dabbing her baby wrist with cement dust – in which, it seems, the mother has bathed – her lips parted in shhh shhhs. Her smothered, tattered saari exhales puffs of cement-smoke every time an orbiting hand grazes it. Her sun-burnt body drags itself forward – more truly, is being carried forward by her orbiting children.
They reach the shop a moment later. The features of the mother are discernible now: ghosts of once-lustrous eyes surmounted by heavy eyelids, sapped, shrunken cheeks, pursed, uncurving lips that give nothing away and a token-of-childhood scar near her temple; no speck of vermillion on her forehead and a thread-like trail of slightly lighter skin running around her neck.
The baby is still wailing and yanking. The boys seem to have come up with an agreement pertaining to the fisted object. They are standing on tip-toes, their heads barely reaching the counter top.
Our observer’s eyes recall their earlier transfixation and land on the fist which now lay open on the countertop. Clinging to it is a single, solitary one rupee coin – a priced possession: it is going to buy its bearers their dessert for the afternoon. Our observer follows the boys’ wolfish gaze which is fixed on an unknown item. From the treasure-bearer’s mouth emerges a thin squeak of a voice asking for a Chingles(Bubblegum marbles) , his eyes glittering with joy. The crying of the baby has gotten worse, if anything. The mother has finally succeeded in freeing the tormented lock of hair.
Almost instantaneously, after the packet has been placed in his palm, TB rips it open and empties its contents on his palm (six minuscule pieces of gum) which is already on its way towards his watering mouth. His brother watches him open-mouthed, wide-eyed, frozen, but ready to pounce.
TB smirks – he enjoys the old leg-pulling, turns to face his almost-drooling brother, looks up at the baby, then at his mother – she shakes her head no, and down at his palm, picks up three pieces out of the six and gives them to his brother – who doesn’t need offering, picks up another two and makes them dance in front of his sister.
They are pink in color. His sister is fascinated by them. Her sobs die out. The corners of her lips are getting farther by the millisecond. The mother is relieved. Her sons have started to devour their lovely dessert. They jump and leap and sing and dance around a tired, run-down mother who smiles for the first time that day. These are the moments she labours beneath the scorching sun for.