The aqua green sedan came to a halt at the corner of the road. A yellow ‘TAXI’ sign glowed dully on its roof. The street lights were still on although the night had fallen off the sky.
The driver recovered a small bag from the dashboard and proceeded to the old woman under the tree on the footpath, surrounded by red and yellow crates of plastic containing packets of milk. Two men were noisily unloading blue coloured crates from a pick-up van and dumping them to her right and she was angrily waving at them, the end of her sari fluttering madly in the weirdly windy morning.
Over the past two years, he had picked his packet containing a half liter of Amul Taza milk from her, missing it only when he was visiting his family in the backwaters of Uttar Pradesh. Tai was a trusted vendor, much appreciated for her honesty. But the fact that she was highly inflammable and cantankerous ensured that both deliverymen and customers cleared off quickly. In another half an hour or so, the queue would be at least twenty customers deep. There would also be the chance of Amul packets being sold out. That would happen often earlier whenever he was booked with passengers in the wee hours. It was not easy to break ice with the tight-lipped woman apart from matters of milk and money. But it had changed after he had spilled the beans on the rude man with a grizzled goatee. She would always save a packet for him which he could retrieve from her home in the adjacent building.
“No calls yet?” The old woman asked him as she slipped a packet of milk in the black bag that he held before her.
“It’s going to be a fifty-fifty today,” the taxiwala said. “If the rain gets strong I’ll be soon among bookings. But if the wind sweeps away the clouds, it will be business as usual.” His phone had started ringing even as he said that.
Abha-Tai, the milk-woman, had seen few hard days in her life prior to the stock market meltdown in January 2008. She came from a rich family who were in the business of polishing diamonds in Surat. Money was common as air and water till the city was hit by plague in 1994 and the factory was looted by their own workers. They couldn’t quite recover from that but long before that, Abha was married to Devesh, a chartered accountant in Mumbai. Thus, her acquaintance with adversity was limited to Hindi cinemas and the stories she had come across in her childhood. She had once read Anna Karenina, goaded by her best friend, but was repulsed by its inescapable sadness.
When Nehal, their only had daughter decided to marry a Punjabi boy she had met in her management school at Pune, she was hit by the first waves of grief ever. Off all the people on the earth, why did she have to choose a Punjabi? Her husband had lived in a constant state of rage for months and she was worried he’d have a stroke. She had wept silently even as the marriage was solemnized in a Pune Gurudwara after which Nehal had vanished up north, in that wilderness called Punjab, exactly as she had feared. Eventually, she had returned to stay with them for some more months but her father had never quite forgiven her. It was then that Devesh had started insisting that Abha learn the basic arithmetic, pay the bills and manage the accounts in the bank. His perennially elevated blood pressure had filled him with a sense of foreboding that was only too palpable. ‘Don’t you worry!’ She had blurted out once, exasperated. ‘Were something black to happen to us, I will become a doodh-wali-bai (the milk-woman) and survive!’
She had barely recovered from the loss of her parents in quick succession when the crashing stock market had buried her fate with the suddenness of an avalanche. Not only Devesh’s firm got wiped out, he was harassed by vitriolic clients and later the police, who kept barging in their home at all hours. He kept reassuring her saying he would rise from the ashes like the proverbial bird and show them all the atoms of gold he was made of. The four-bedroom flat was soon sold out to creditors ceaselessly baying for his blood. She never knew what happened to the cars and the expensive furniture. Devesh was smart enough to get hold of a single bedroom apartment in a nearby building, promising her to reclaim each and every pebble he had lost to the wolves. However, before he could grow new roots, he passed away quietly in his sleep one night.
Nehal tried hard to coax her mother into moving to Toronto where she was settled now with her husband. But Abha refused to budge, quite like the stone idol she had worshipped all her life. With her jaws set firmly, she realized the time for penance had come indeed. She had kept cursing her black tongue for the momentary slip that day, but it seemed to have set the juggernaut of her fate rolling irrevocably. She was duty bound now to see it off to its logical end.
Nehal stayed till the details of the new business were worked out and cried out her heart when she had to go. But Abha surprised everyone with her stoic resilience. She chose a spot on the cobbled footpath under the laburnum tree, just outside the society housing her flat, and did become the promised milk-woman. And she quickly proved her mettle not only with the difficult deliverymen but the surprisingly huge number of customers that turned out.
In her early days as the milk-woman, Abha was struck by the sheer variety of expressions worn by the faces of her customers. For hours and hours, these faces of men and women and children would ask for milk. Some had calm, matter-of-factly tones. Some were impatient and even irritable. The housewives looked bored and some were apparently depressed. Some of the children were merry while others were tentative. Then there were those who would inevitably return to pick a fight over curdled milk. They would accuse her as if she were running the milk plant in her backyard. Over time, she came to detest the queue jumpers and the flashers of high denomination notes most. She came to recognize most of these faces, barring the odd stranger that came in quest of the white liquid in its various avatars.
On days when Abha was not agonizing over life that could have been different, she wondered what was happening behind all those faces she met every day. She wondered what was happening in the homes that those faces returned to: some content, some poignant, some glowering and some out-of-breath. Just what happiness or tragedies those customers were up against?
She grew fond of a young woman named Komal who dressed in floral salwar-kurtas and smiled with such sadness that it would wrench her heart. She wore her silken hair loose and it kept falling over her face. She had the shapeliest of lips that Abha had ever seen and a perfect set of teeth. She was often late and desperately looking for full cream milk for her son.
Komal reminded Abha of her own daughter in many ways. It stung her heart to remember how both she and her husband never had enough time for Nehal when she was a kid. Devesh would drown himself in a sea of charts and diagrams even at home, preparing for the ungrateful customers whose pockets went on bulging and who would eventually murder him for a slip he was not responsible for. Abha, in her turn, would attend each and every religious proceeding in the neighbourhood and even beyond, leaving little Nehal behind with maids. And yet, this is what the gods had to pay back in return. Her daughter was snatched away from right under their nose. Devesh was hauled back by the minions of Death before he could say even a ‘goodbye’ to her.
She was stunned the day Komal came with her husband who sported a grizzled goatee. He parked the shiny white Honda Jazz abruptly on the road causing a flutter. Then, instead of joining the queue at the back he marched directly up to her, ordering her to pass on two liters of milk quickly. When Abha pointed out the queue quietly to him, he pointed at Komal who was biting her lips in the car, “My wife there drags in the queue day after day. I am short of time at the moment!” He had kept flashing a thousand rupee note at her face as he barked.
Abha found her voice drying out strangely. More than his audacity, there was something seriously wrong with this man that she couldn’t quite put her finger to. She felt a pain mixed with fury surging from deep within her. Others in the queue were getting restless. Suddenly it hit Abha like a thunderclap. The man owned a financing company and had been the most rabid creditor when Devesh had fallen from grace. He had been the kingpin of many cruel attacks that had pushed Devesh to the point of no-return. How could she ever forget that voice? How come she didn’t recognize the grizzled goatee that put her husband’s head to the guillotine? Does he recognize her now? Was it because of that he was raring to go away?
It was the taxiwala’s turn to pick up his milk from Abha when Komal’s husband had jumped the queue. The driver was on the verge of objecting to the unabashed display of rudeness when the face with the grizzled goatee triggered some memories in his mind too. He could clearly remember having taken him as a passenger twice, along with a tall, short-haired girl dressed in official looking suit. Both the times he had kept brushing his lips at her face and acting shamelessly in the back. And here was the same man now, pointing at a very different woman for his wife, growling at Tai. He held his breath and stood aside for a while after he picked his packet and waited for the queue to recede.
“What are you waiting for?” Tai asked him moodily when she noticed him hanging around for nothing.
“Tai, I need to talk to you,” he said hesitatingly.
“What is it then, quick please?”
“It is about that dishonest man who was shouting at you! Do you know, he is a bastard?” He blurted out.
“Do I need God to tell me that? I have never seen a more deranged baboon!” Abha started throwing away the emptied cartons to her far left loudly.
“No, no, no, Tai! You don’t understand! I tend to hang around in the area which has his office, in the evenings. That man has booked my Taxi twice. Both the times he boarded with an office-type woman and did shameful things in the back!”
Abha’s cheeks turned a deep purple. “Oh, shut up, you fool! It could have been his wife for all you know.”
“Tai, taxi drivers have excellent memories. How else do you think we remember all those roads and buildings, not to talk of the traffic cops? The woman he was with on those days had a longish face and short hair and looked a perfect office-type. The one I saw sitting in the Honda car today had a round face, long hair and housewife type…. Also, I swear by Lord Ganesha, Tai, husband and wife don’t perform in taxis!”
Tai slapped her hand to her forehead, “No wonder the poor soul is down in the dumps! You please go away now!”
Abha couldn’t help watching out for Komal now. It didn’t take her many days to realize that Komal would almost always stand next to an intense looking man in glasses and three-quarter pants whom she knew to be a software engineer. He was a pleasant man to talk to and he had inquired after her health many times. He used to come from a building which was a long way off and he could have easily picked up his supply of milk at the booth which was closer home. Over the next few days, Abha noticed that instead of joining the queue as soon as she’d come, Komal loitered around the place till she saw this man and then both would stand next to each other talking softly. And if the man happened to come first, he would similarly wait for Komal. ‘What could be happening now?’ Abha thought. ‘Are they related somehow? Or, are they just two strangers who have taken a fancy to each other?’ She was sure of one thing though. She could sense that unmistakable yearning in their eyes and the fingers expectant of each other’s touch. Yet, for all she knew, that man was a husband and a father!
Abha was not sure whether Komal and that man were getting increasingly listless or it was merely the effect of her increased interest in them. Abha started to strain for every wisp of whisper her ears could collect. It seemed that the man was about to move out of the city soon. There was something wrong here for sure. There was no reason why people shouldn’t be getting enough love on this earth.
“If I may ask you,” Abha sought from him soon, “Are you moving out of Mumbai?”
The man kept thinking as he counted the rupees and passed on to her. “I have been transferred to Bangalore on a new project,” He said in a small voice.
The rain had picked up volumes but so had the wind and the water was swerving in the mid air before hitting the land. It was useless to carry an umbrella and those without raincoats were flitting past quickly. The turnover of customers at the milk stall had been low the whole morning. Abha was getting restless under her coveralls trying to stop the water from entering the pouch of currency notes. It was already quarter past eight and only half of the packets had been collected. The pickup van was driving with raw hands that were not regular delivery boys and she had long arguments with them over payments. Once they drove away she found herself looking up at Komal. There was no one else around except her friend who was approaching them fast. Abha asked her if she knew when he was likely to leave the city.
“Probably tomorrow.” Komal said, colouring up despite the rain.
“Why don’t you have a quiet cup of tea together?” Abha asked her quizzically.
Komal’s lips trembled as she looked at her.
The queue-mate was already standing by her side.
“This is the key to my flat number A301 in the Paradise Apartments at my back.” Abha pushed a key in Komal’s palm. “There will never be another day like this!”