Postmarked Calcutta, 2012

A short story depicting the plight of a young woman taking a walk down an empty street during a storm.  By Dipshikha Thakur.

From the terrace of a neighboring house you would only see the erect head and long strides. She is wearing a white shirt over a pair of jeans. The long curls billow out in the breeze. You can almost make out the sharp nose.
She turns her head every ten seconds or so. She is scoping out the neighborhood, the empty street. She is resolute against the patter of rain – her arms are firmly on her sides. Does she have an umbrella in her bag? May be it is one of those folding umbrellas. The television is always jangling with ads about those.

The wind has picked up. The grey craters on the street will soon begin to fill up with grey rain. It will pour over the woman, the houses –the dog is running towards a construction site, its tail between its legs – the rain has changed from a drizzle to a roaring shower.

She starts walking faster.

She folds her arms across the chest. The blouse is sopping and sticks to her body. You can make out the white lines of her bra under the fabric, her breasts pressed flat by her arms.

The main road is about an hour away. Once she makes it to the auto-stand, she will be fine. Yes, there will be faces, there will be glances and leers and glazed looks through the head. There will be men and women, coming back from work. There will be mothers picking up children from school. She will be fine.

She may never reach the main road.

She walks past an upscale housing complex. She casts a quick, yearning glance at the appendages of the air conditioners hanging out of the windows. Nearly every window has one. The paint is fresh. She can even smell it. They must have repainted recently.

Her head turns. A security guard dozes in the booth next to the gate. She watches him for a moment and then looks ahead. Her head snaps back to ramrod straight against the wind.

Another dog lies in an origami of limbs on the sidewalk. It scratches its ear, the pink-grey balls and speckled belly turned to the world.

On the side of the street, there is a vat, overflowing with vegetable peels, butcher’s garbage and a bloody sanitary napkin. There must be a market somewhere near. The smell is disgusting but it has a certain thrill. It is so familiar. She can almost pick out the slight edge of dried blood within the whorls of the sweet-sour stink. May be she is imagining. Can you really smell a discarded pad from five feet away?

There are vats everywhere. Sometimes they are covered but even then, the stink makes it way out.

Her shoes make a funny noise – a kind of squelch – against the wet concrete of the sidewalk. Her feet sound almost reluctant to detach from the ground.

She realizes she has stepped on feces.

She feels an overwhelming desire to laugh. The tide of nauseous mirth rolls upwards from her belly. It comes in waves. Before she can stop herself, she has doubled over, cackling into the muddy concrete.

There is a brief flash and a then low rumble across the world. The storm has begun.

When she left her home this morning, she really did not know where she would go. Every single application had been rejected. They had not even bothered to reply. She had waited for weeks, for at least one of those hundreds of emails to yield up something. The landlady is too polite to ask for the rent but she feels the shame creep into her cheeks every morning when they make tea in the kitchen.

The voluminous bakul tree whips back and forth in a sage rhythm. A plastic bag soars up towards the lamp post, before it is tossed back to the ground. A little white ghost, it is barely visible against the white shards of rain.
She keeps walking.

She seldom feels chilly. This is not a cold city except for may be a few weeks in December. But now, suddenly, on an afternoon in May, her teeth chatter and she shrinks a little. The bones of her shoulders rise and tighten. Her arms twist against each other. She can feel her nipples harden against the soaking bra.

She always feels a bit mortified when that happens. Sometimes, when her landlady turns on the air-conditioner on full blast, she throws a scarf over herself.

The only women who have hard nipples are in the newspaper-wrapped paperbacks; they are either going to be murdered or have illicit desires for American spies. They are not nice women. They are certainly not women struggling with unexpected temperatures. They all seem to psych their nipples into hardening.

Hers, on the other hand, only embarrass her at the awkward times.

But then again, nearly all her knowledge about nipples and ‘down there’ and sex comes from the paperbacks sold at fifty rupees at the Gol Park hawkers’ stalls. She knows it is all a little silly, although sometimes when she cannot sleep she imagines herself as one of those women. She can never keep it up for long enough.

The wind begins to feel like a slap against the face. She idly wonders if she should go back home.

There is no home though, not without a job.

There is home, for now. No, there is also a tin of biscuits but they will not last more than a week if she keeps eating them like that.

She shakes her head. She cannot go back to the room just yet.

A dingy room at the back of an old house, built in the thirties, it has been partitioned over and over until the tiniest floor-space, enough for a small girl, could be scrounged. A single bulb hangs in a flat, yellow light against its blue walls.

She shakes her head again.

She hates the blue. The chipped distemper reveals gashes of the previous beige across the wall. Why could they not stick to the beige? The sickly, hopeless blue eats her up every time she walks into the windowless dump.

An old, fat CRT monitor is precariously balanced on the desk cum dining table. The wires snake up all the way under the bed to the ancient, gaping plug point.

The computer was assembled by him when things were still going well. He had used several discarded computer parts to make her a makeshift one. What had he said?

Once you start working, you will have a laptop and all. Will you even remember me then?

Laughter wracks her frame again. It looks like laughter anyway. She looks really funny, rocking back and forth, hugging herself.

She recovers soon enough.

The rain shifted to a diagonal a few minutes back. The crotch of her jeans is soaked. Soon her underwear – she hates the word panties – will be wet. She frowns at the houses. She does not like to be wet during her periods. The sudden gushes make her waddle, trying to confine the flow to the same napkin for as long as possible.

Napkins are expensive. The ones that were lying around on the road had blue wraps – they were the fancy brand. Must be some girl living in a swank apartment, like all her friends at college. They were nice, really. They listened to her, took her out to cafes, bought her ice-cream and kebabs and occasionally lent their eyeliners. But they were so surprised to be called rich.

No, no, I barely have enough to last a week, she hears one say in her head.

They are window-shopping in a mall – the mall is quite close to the college so they have skipped a lecture and gone into the free, air-conditioned. They walk around, drying their sweaty armpits and hair.

She feels a little pathetic, in her old shirt and jeans. There is only one pair, and she wears them all the time.

She looks down at her feet. Somewhere in between the mist of the rain, her red, wracked eyes and the asphalt, her feet begin to blur into a steady rhythm of stilts.

She keeps walking.

It begins with a muted screech, like a radio static choked with cottonwool.

Then the screech grates into the noise of the rain hitting the earth, until all she could hear is the triumphant roar of the motorcycle.

A chill needles her spine, colder than the rain, colder than the earlier silence, colder than her thoughts.

The motorcycle fills her ears like a bag of lead. She shrinks away a little from the street.

It soon passes. Three helmeted, fetal heads stare at her, funnily big upon their bodies. She hears the relish in one of the tongues as it spits out chutiya. She hears laughter. The pillion riders keep staring back as the motorcycle disappears around the bend.

Her mouth clamps into a line.

Her arms press her breasts back until her she crumples into hunched androgyny.

She keeps walking.

The open mouth of the manhole swallows the rain like a baby bird.

No one knows why it has been left open. They must have done some roadwork. Or perhaps, a god had finally climbed out of the underworld.

It is not the dark of old rooms or power cuts. Inside the manhole, it is the dark of a remote universe, strangled into the earth.

The gaping black earth and the grey firmament are caught in a staring contest, disrupted only by the burst of crows returning to their nests now that the No’rwester has stopped tearing up the city.

The manhole lies open like a rabbit hole into the end of the earth, swallowing the gentle after-drizzle of the storm and the bird-droppings hurtling down.

She circles it gingerly, darting sidelong glances into the innards.

She cannot bear to look into it.

She watches the trail of mud from the drain disappear into it. She watches the leaves, the discarded plastic bags, the stub of a cigarette disappear into it.

The crows fill the sky with the cacophony of homecoming.

A bright pink-gold will soon light up the sunset.

She cannot bear it.

Her foot makes a cautious step towards the edge. She looks right and left. There is no one. The familiar stink of the sewer hovers over it.

She could drop down the chute and never have existed. She would unwrite this afternoon. She could unwrite the blue walls and the fat yellow bulb. She could unwrite the scarceness, the rancid living death. She would stop bleeding. The soggy rag between her legs would perish with her.

The hole gapes at her, welcoming.

She keeps walking.

Dipsikha Thakur is an undergraduate minion studying in Cambridge. She currently lives on burnt toast and coffee, and the hopes of becoming a journalist.

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