Ruminations: One Step Further by Priya M

In this personal essay, Priya M transverses through a plethora of human emotions and captures life, in its most fragile form.

The dust had hardly settled on the ground, before another car sped across the road. The siren was now clearly audible. I braced myself for the inevitable wave of nausea. Even with the ambulance so near, the vehicles on the road jostled for space, struggling to get away before it became absolutely necessary to wait for the emergency van to cross. I tightened my grip on the handle of my Scooty and made a sharp swivel to the right side of the road. 

Ignoring the volley of honks and insults, I abandoned my vehicle and crouched next to the footpath. As the ambulance turned the corner onto this road, that telltale flash of red at the corner of my eye was too much for my fluttering heart. I heaved and my guts spilled along the side of the footpath. 

The footpath was crowded with the usual Saturday afternoon market-goers. A fruit vendor was squeezed in between two cobblers who chatted away, oblivious to the ballooning crowd of customers elbowing each other into the tiny space between, grabbing at the hillock of oranges on the fruit seller’s cart. A wandering chai-wallah stood a little ways away from them puffing on a thin cigarette – a small child perched on his old cycle; his large aluminum chai kettle already emptied during the early hours of the morning. 

A stout woman in a chiffon saree dragged two girls in pigtails behind her, paused only a moment to look up as the ambulance passed by. As if by a force of habit, she closed her eyes for the briefest of seconds and muttered a prayer, of good health for her own family. A gesture so untouched, so disconnected from the sharp reality of that van. Then, business-like, she marched off, little pigtailed girls in tow. So many people, wrestling for space, on this page, in that moment… And yet, no one noticed the young woman crouched next to the footpath. I clutched my chest, crying silent tears. 

Was the emergency van still on the street? Or had it already sped by? How long ago was it that I had been on the other side of the nightmare? Inside that cramped little box of a vehicle, holding on for dear life as it sputtered and dashed through these very streets; holding on… to Life. Its blinking noise, the throbbing blue and red of its siren, still thudded in my chest. That beat was as if carved into my consciousness, that one morning splattered across the length of my memory. Who had watched us race past? Who had paused to mutter a prayer? Whom had the prayer saved?

A familiar thought dropped in my mind… Time is such a strange thing. It can be fleeting and all flattened out too. Every moment lasts forever, only to be blinked out of existence by the next endless moment.

I might have been there for hours, or days, or moments that stretched on for a lifetime. Then I got up, smoothened my kurta over my pair of jeans and pulled my Scooty back on its wheels. Pushing my hair out of my eyes, I climbed onto my trusty two-wheeler and drove off. 

Slowly, the colour returned to my cheeks, and my tender heart found its way back to its usual steel resolve. By the time I reached the small roadside temple, all traces of weakness had left me. I squeezed the brakes, and at the same time, balancing the balls of my feet on the tar road, I came to a halt in front of the temple. 

A gentle breeze welcomed me. Before I could announce my presence, an old man, bent with age, ventured out of the temple, calling my name. A stream of blessings flowed from his lips as he walked to the Scooty, and touched my forehead lightly with the tips of his frail fingers. The dust of kumkum powder pattered down the length of my nose.

“No time to get down, Kaka,” I told him in Marathi, my voice a coo, contrary to the demands of the rough language. The old man offered no protests, merely shook his head, showing his disapproval, but obliged. I opened my sling bag and fetched out a small bundle of newspaper wrapped in thread. Tugging at the thread, the package fell open in my hands. Jasmine, my mother’s favorites. 

The old pandit took the dainty white garland in one hand and raised the other to my head. “May God protect you, may he bless your mind with strength and skill, to face this challenge, and the next, every challenge that comes your way…” He paused, mid-way into his prayer. Then he took a deep breath. A tear appeared at the corner of his eye, and he exhaled, slowly, in a sigh. 

My throat was constricted, that wave of nausea resurfaced behind my clenched teeth. I knew what he was about to say, an echo of all the Saturdays leading up to this one, so many Saturdays. I did not want to hear it, but I waited, for his sake. 

“I don’t know how you do it… how you keep coming back… for me or for her? Do you know the first time she visited this old temple? But of course, you do, I’ve told you this…” He trailed off.   

I knew, yet I waited, let the old man chew on the comforting familiarity of his words. I closed my eyes, one hand balancing the handle of the Scooty while I raised the other to my neck and fondled the dainty white pendant that rested on my throat.

“Every Saturday she would come. Why Saturday? You tell me. You are home, your Papa has a day off. She doesn’t have Saturday time just lying around, to waste with an old man such as myself, yet… Ah, but that first Saturday morning… the scent of the flowers announced her arrival. She was in tears. No, more than that, she was shouting, she was cursing, saying things that shouldn’t be said in this place. That is what brought me out. Who was this woman? I came out to tell her off, to shush her.” 

He chuckled. 

“Not enough time, she had said. She kept repeating those three words. She had just been to see the doctor. She hadn’t wanted your Papa to be there to hear that verdict. Wanted to brave it on her own. That courage had left her as soon as the verdict was pronounced. How will I tell him? She kept repeating. How can I just leave him? Not enough time…”

“But she was wrong, wasn’t she? There had been so much time after that. She kept coming, every Saturday, the woman who was running out of time… returning with the same prayer on her lips… I can’t just leave him; how can I just leave him?

“I got so used to seeing her, I forgot why she was there. Time is such a strange thing. It can be fleeting and flattened out too. Every moment lasts a lifetime as it happens, only to wink out of existence as the next moment pushes in… Time is…, oh but, she wasn’t wrong, after all. It’s never enough.”

With a more matter-of-factly tone the old man added, “Tell your Papa to stop by too. It’s been months.” 

The spell broke. I opened my eyes, my gaze sharper than I intended, and responded, “He’ll come when he comes. Don’t push him.” A rushed goodbye and I was on my way. The old man sighed audibly and ventured back into the temple. The waft of jasmine still lingered on the breeze.

Contributor’s Bio

Priya juggles her time between writing, teaching and blogging about books. Her fiction has been previously published in New Myths, The Flash Fiction Press, Brilliant Flash Fiction Magazine, and The Bangalore Review.

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