by Nidhi Singh
Paro could hear the spanking new bike purr softly into life as Radhe tentatively pressed the ignition switch. She could see the sheer blue and red of the Suzuki swathed in the comforting glow of the morning sun outside. She smiled and drew the heavy cotton quilt closer. Her two children, the boy, and the girl, snuggled tightly up to her in that January morning when the cold in rural Punjab could creep right to the bone and vex it.
As her husband clicked into gear and drove away, she drifted off as well, into dreams that came to her rather often now, even during the day.
“When will you become manager sahib,” she would pester Radhe when he got home from work, as she served him hot chapattis made of pearl millet. Her little brood would gather on the silk bamboo mat spread on the floor around the wood-fired stove, and she would scoop out ladles of piping hot red lentils tempered with roasted spices, onions, and homemade butter.
“Soon,” he would mumble, “soon,” taking large gulps of cool water from the copper tumbler to put down the fire in his throat and wiping the tears in his eyes with the other hand. “As soon as that damn scooter can start and I can make it to office in time. The more clients I see, the more commission I can make,” he would explain.
“Can’t we sell it,” she would ask with wide-eyed wonderment, her chin tucked on her wrist, as she watched him eat.
“Who would buy it? It’s a piece of junk. Father drove it all his life, then left it to me—there’s no life left to be flogged in that horse.”
“So, if you were to get a new bike, you would become a manager?”
“Yes…my boss wouldn’t ride on my back all the time, and I would get more business for the office—yes, it could land me a promotion.”
“And then you could become a member of the District Club?”
“Yes, it’s for officers only.”
“And I could wear a silk sari and go there on Sundays…and play tombola like the other memsahibs?”
“And Shankar and Swati could join the English-medium school,” she would persist, ruffling the shaggy mop of hair on her children.
“Yes, yes…yes, baba.”
Her knees would wiggle a little, swaying her small, boyish buttocks on the cold, hard floor, and her pretty face would break into a big smile. And that would silence him.
“My father always said you were different from the village urchins. ‘Uncouth,’ he called them. He knew you would become a big man someday—yes, he saw it,—he would tell mama as he gurgled from his hookah pipe. ‘I see a bright future for Paro,’ he would slap his thighs and claim —‘she won’t have to gather cow dung in a pail all her life.’”
Her younger one, the naughty Shankar, would imitate his nana by slapping his scrawny thighs as well and laugh. It was a story she loved to repeat each evening.
As the sunrays stole into the clay courtyard, Radhe would begin his morning ritual of struggle with the ancient Lambretta. It would take several tiltings, pumpings, cursings, and kickings to coax the machine to sputter, cough, choke and die. Little Shankar would stand on the kick and shake down his skinny frame, but the machine won’t budge. He would then dash to the hay barn on the side of the house and fetch a small file. Radhe would smile through the sweat, squat by the scooter and clean the carburetor with the said device, while Paro prayed and Swati sat on the worn leather seat of the scooter and played with her wooly rag doll.
The combined will of so many people would finally prevail and the machine would pull itself by the bootstraps and bring Radhe to work.
The Insurance office was in a crowded bylane near the town clock tower where cows, rickshaws, pushcarts, beggars; and mongrels and scavengers nosing through open garbage jostled for real estate.
“Late again—scooter troubles?” The clerk on the next desk winked as Radhe walked in and removed his home-knit scarf. “You’re lucky—the Rakshasa is off to a target meeting.”
“What difference would it make, even if I came early. There’s hardly any business—what little insurance people take—they’re taking it online these days.”
“True—had it not been for the fair price shop my father won in an auction—I would be hand-to-mouth myself,” the clerk replied, eating crispy, crunchy savory made from deep-fried refined flour and carom seeds from his tiffin. “Why don’t you also start a side business?”
“No side business—only business. As soon as I save up for the down payment on that tractor—I’ll chuck, and work the land. In fact, I’ve mailed my resignation to the Head Office already. Father-in-law had a lot of land—and an only child—my Srimati Ji. I’ll grow cotton and sugarcane.”
“You’ll leave this job to become a farmer—everyone else is moving to the city?”
“Why not? There’s no future in wrangling commission from these village idiots—they don’t believe in insurance anyway. Indians are resigned to their fate—leave everything to God—to His will.”
“Does your wife know?”
“I’ll tell her by the month-end—she’ll be happy, I think—the land is begging to be availed.”
“Good luck to you, brother,” the clerk said, slurping tea loudly from a saucer.
Paro twirled the end of her sari as the moneylender peered at her land papers through his bifocals.
“The titles are clear,” he said, straightening up when he was satisfied with his study.
“But what do you need the money for—Radhe has a fine government job?”
“Brother, he’s running his father’s old scooter—to get a promotion he needs a new bike so he can meet more clients.”
“Aah,” the greedy bloodsucker exclaimed. “It’s a good decision—it’s such a shame to let all that land lie waste. You’ve put it into good hands, dear daughter—here, sign these papers.” He motioned his munshi to fetch the stamp pad so that Paro could put her thumb impression on the mortgage papers. He opened his till and counted out some money, which he handed over to Paro.
“But the bike—I want the new bike delivered this day itself—before Radhe comes from office.”
“Surely, my child—as we agreed. I hope Radhe won’t create a problem with you over the land?”
“Land doesn’t mean anything to him—he is a babu by birth,” she giggled. “His hands are so soft,” she said, holding up her glass-bangle-covered wrists. “I’ll tell him I got the money from the sale of cows that my father had left with his sister to take care of.”
“That’s good, that’s good,” the moneylender laughed, running his sweaty hands over his huge belly.
It had been a night of fierce lovemaking as a grateful Radhe sought to please his wife in ways she’d not imagined before. Paro smiled as he drove off to work in the brand new bike the moneylender had delivered as promised.
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Nidhi attended American International School, Kabul, before moving to Delhi University for BA English Honors. Currently, she lives with her husband near McLeodganj (abode of the Holy Dalai Lama) in the Dhauladhar mountain ranges. Her short work has appeared internationally in Indie Authors Press, Flyleaf Journal, Liquid Imagination, Digital Fiction Publishing Co, LA Review of LA, Flame Tree Publishing, Four Ties Lit Review, The Insignia Series, Inwood Indiana Press, Bards and Sages Publishing, Scarlet Leaf Review, Bewildering Stories, Down in the Dirt, Mulberry Fork Review, tNY.Press, Fabula Argentea, Aerogram, Fiction Magazines, Flash Fiction Press, The Dirty Pool, Asvamegha, etc. Her translations of Sikh Holy Scriptures, essays on Bollywood and several novels are available in print and online.