Under the Amaltas, He Waited | Vasundhara Singh
She had been sitting on the balcony—sometimes reading, sometimes dreaming psychedelic dreams, sometimes talking to herself—every night for a month; the dust glazed city, its brittle weather, frolicking children and their gnawing mothers—was new to Gayatri or Gayatri ma’am as her students at the elementary school called her. The days darted ahead, and she had to make do with the soft haze of nights. A summer ago, she was a girl under the protection of her parents in the city of her birth; eleven months later, as a married woman, surrounded by an unfamiliar city, she shared her life with a man she was slowly coming to know, her husband. He slept early leaving Gayatri to charm away the remaining hours, alone on the balcony, lulling and humming to the chaos of nighttime traffic, besieged by the cashew-white streams of light from lamp posts and the scent of sugar and oil from the market across the road. The summer, despite its newness, had been a cheerless scrunched-up creature but she could feel it straightening, widening, trying and one night, she had felt hopeful at the discovery of a grey figure leaning against the bark of a lonesome Amaltas—waiting; it seemed.
The gold of the drooping blossoms ignites the black with their buzzing presence. The yellow of its showering flowers announces summer, unapologetic of the burdensome heat and sizzling ache of the coming months. Gayatri continued to look at the man; the man waited, looking at nothing and no one in particular.
An hour went by. The man remained, unmoved. Every so often, he picked up a fallen Amaltas and held it under his chin before letting it drop and bending down to clutch another. At half-past eleven, Gayatri, with no inkling of sleep, willed herself to bed. She wished to wait with the man and to share in his sincere listlessness. But she knew she had to tuck herself in bed, prepare herself for the mundane riot of her day.
Thump-thump-thump of shoes. Tak-tak-tak of lathis. Arey-Kya re-Abey of men.
Gayatri stared at the man under the Amaltas, her hope waned away. The grey figure turned as brilliant as the canopy he stood under for a group of hoarse-voiced, prickly bearded, well-armed men beat him up.
Gayatri stood, unmoved.
The market, greased and humping, was dimming its kerosene intensity; the few customers and shop owners left, hurried away. The lathis charged, the feet thumped, the teeth clacked, the splatter of faraway blood, the squeak and curls of parched humanity—suddenly, summer became something else; suddenly, summer ceased to be summer.
Gayatri had seen everything and yet nothing. She had seen the broad-shouldered backs of rotund men; she had seen their fat spittle ejected towards the man they enveloped—so mercilessly, so completely, she had seen the nimble movement of their hairy arms travelling upwards and shooting down toward the man—the man Gayatri couldn’t see and later, wondered if they had been beating up a ghost or a person of flesh and bones. Even after the men left, she remained, standing. The man now lay under the Amaltas, his neck bent along the last curve of the bark, his outstretched legs donning tattered denim and bare feet.
He was waiting for somebody; but for whom?
Gayatri wanted to head downstairs, run across the road to the Amaltas, to the man. Instead, she dropped her head and trifled to bed. In the morning, she avoided the balcony. Her husband was the first to leave. On her way to fetch a rickshaw, she took a detour, perspiring in the chill of early morning, and walked to the Amaltas; the man was gone and so was every trace of the night’s violent festivities, Gayatri thought till she examined the golden spray of the tree’s litter on the ground and saw drops of blood, abstract and forlorn, over the wrinkled petals. Gayatri picked up a stained blossom, held it under her chin and sighed.
Summer, somehow, persisted.
Written by Vasundhara Singh