By Ranjan Nautiyal
Of all possible excuses that she could have made for coming late to work, she chose the truth. That it didn’t make any sense to Mrs Sujala, her employer, came as a surprise to her. But in the last three years that she had spent here in the city, she had come to realise that people here were moved by the same things, but in different ways. The rains, for instance, were not received with joy, but with a shake of the head, and instead of running out when the clouds opened up, people as a rule ran in. And hours after the rains had come and gone, the water that stayed on the roads and around the houses was never used to float paper-boats in. Back home, where they had far fewer means of crossing the muddy paths and the fields after it had rained, people greeted every downpour with dances of joy and by lighting up kitchen fires to fry the batter-dipped small fish she hadn’t eaten for as long as she had been here. Whenever she got caught in the rain as she returned from school, she would break into a run. Not because she feared her notebooks getting wet, but because even from that far she could smell the mustard oil heating up over the fire and hear the sizzle as the dumplings were dropped into the pan. She could still catch that aroma and that sound. All it took was for the skies to turn grey, and the first drops to hit the ground. Only now she would rush out to take the clothes from the line outside before Mrs Sujala had to remind her.
Another thing that people here reacted to differently was the trees. Most houses that she worked in – and over the three years she had been here she had worked in quite a few – were large houses with a few potted plants and at least a few trees lining up the iron-gates on both sides. But these trees were never those that bore fruit. In her first few months she had assumed that she had arrived here in the wrong season, and that soon the trees would sprout flowers and then the season would change to turn them into fruits. But a year went by and not one tree bore any fruit. Over casual conversations with other maids who had been in the city longer, she realised that people never planted fruit-bearing trees, because they felt that trees would attract passers-by, especially children and adults who couldn’t afford fruits otherwise. She thought this strange. For no matter how many fruits got picked or stolen whether ripe or not, whatever fell in the hands of the house-owners would still be more than what these trees were giving them now.
Which brought her back to the litchis. The sugary-sweet juicy fruits wrapped around a thick seed and packed inside a thin, hard red-and-black peel. The fruit that she had handed out to Mrs Sujala for having come late to work.