Short Story: Upon his Return by Kiran Manral
She patted the baby to sleep. The baby was restless and so was she. It was the patter of the incessant rain on the tin roof of their shanty that kept breaking into the little one’s half formed dreams, bringing him wailing back into the discomfort of the world outside the womb. It was almost past midnight now, her husband wasn’t home yet. It worried her, the odd hours he kept. This morning he’d walked off towards the main road where his taxi was parked, saying he’d be back home early. “Make lauki ke koftey,” he’d yelled, without turning his head back. She’d left the baby with a neighbour that morning, and run out to buy the lauki he’d demanded. Dudhi it was called here, in Mumbai. It took some getting used to, the different terms that were used for common vegetables. Alu pyaaz was kaanda batata. She’d begun to make do by pointing out to things with her finger, and then negotiating the rate.
It was a regular day, he would drive to Pune and come back. He was normally back by nine in the night most days, and would want his dinner immediately—piping hot rotis rolled out as he ate, sitting on the squat wooden plank on the floor of the little shanty. He’d finally managed to put together the funds for the rent deposit. This was his castle, she knew, and she was his queen.
“Bhaisaab, kitni gori chitti dulhan laye ho!” the toothless crone from the adjoining shanty had said the day she’d come with him to Mumbai after two years of being married, and the baby, barely twenty days old in her arms, still mewling every hour or so to be fed.
“Hush, go to sleep, beta,” she whispered into the baby’s ears, as the child whimpered in his sleep, grappling with some dream demons she would never know. Her mother in law’s words came to mind. “Keep something made of iron below the child’s pillow, if he has disturbed sleep,” the old lady had told her. The only iron she had in this one roomed shanty was an iron pan, which was well-nigh impossible to keep under a baby’s head. She pried out a nail that had been hammered awkwardly into the door, working up a little sweat in the process.
She wrapped it in an old handkerchief and placed it under the mattress, at exactly the spot under the child’s head. He whimpered some more at being moved, but soon stopped fussing and drifted off into a peaceful sleep. She missed her mother in law, strange though it was, given they fought tooth and nail when she lived with her back in the village.
She’d given her husband an ultimatum to take her with him, or risk her returning to her parent’s place with their child. He had managed to put together the funds to rent a small room in what was called a chawl in Mumbai. He was doing well, her husband, she thought. It was a big thing to live in Mumbai. People back in the village spoke with awe about how he’d managed to rent a room in the city of dreams, the city which sucked in all the young men from their villages and towns and returned them, broken men, with shattered illusions housed in brittle cynical carapaces at the end of their lives.
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