A pink bar of soap

by Awrup Sanyal

lit04IT WAS a high decibel afternoon: a detuned, remixed Dhallywood number belted out  from a tong shop in rank bad amplification; a Coca Cola truck rattled further up the street; somewhere in a side alley a flock of motorcycles revved in alternating staccato rhythm; a lone hammer-on-metal rang out from a garage in a persistent metronome; vehicular horns reverberated in the hot afternoon air in a smooth legato; unintelligible human prattle hummed low in a thick layer; a concrete mixer, or a couple, from a nearby construction site sputtered and rumbled without break; cawing crows and barking dogs competed for leftovers at an overflowing dumpster abutting on the main intersection; a compressor purred intermittently from a refrigerator servicing shop across the street; from the surrounding warren of labyrinthine streets a distinct singsong sales pitch rose and fell; a covey of portable gensets thrummed concertedly from the row of shops alongside the main road; other unidentifiable strains bended and blended into a thick disparate soundtrack.
The young executive, in beige shirt, brown trousers, purple necktie, and patent black shoes stood reclining against a lamppost, hands stuck into his pockets, legs crossed at the ankle. A signage dangled from a stanchion, askew. BUS STOP, it read in a heavenward slant. The executive’s calm repose amidst the furore of the midday activities was odd and striking. To his left a woman hissed into the ears of a little boy for the urinal come. The boy stood on the edge of the curb; his little member stuck out stiff from the opening in the shorts. He looked down at it with measured curiosity. His hands remained inside the pockets of the blue shorts of his school uniform, as he swayed his hips describing a random pattern. The woman stroked the child’s back in sync with the hiss.
The man altered his pose and straightened up. He withdrew his hands from his trouser pockets and busied them in facilitating from his breast pocket, and then lighting up, a cigarette. All the while his vision remained fixed at a particular spot across the road. A water hydrant bled like an unstoppable wound to where his vision was cast. The broken cement pavement had given way to the soil beneath from overuse. The cavity was inlaid with an assortment of brick fragments, pebbles, and jagged concrete slabs; a pool of water stood like in a clogged up sink. It seemed to be the watering hole of the shantytown that lay beyond the pavement, and it was inordinately busy. Amongst the washing and cleaning, a young girl, of about twelve or thirteen, bathed unperturbed by the tumult that enveloped her. The undershirt billowed opaque and deflated translucent, clinging to her dark brown skin, every time she poured water on her head from a blue plastic mug that she dipped into a red plastic bucket with practised motions. The swell of her tender breasts was on the verge of that weight, balance and flesh that heralded an oncoming womanhood.
The woman still pursued with her sibilant hiss. It was louder and broke, every now and then, into a whistle at the higher registers. Two tiny squirts of urine spewed forth, few drops each. The boy shuddered hip to toe to head in an involuntary wake. The woman’s hiss was now harsher, and the strokes turned to strikes. She scolded the child for not trying enough. The man glanced at his watch on the wrist, piqued at the woman-boy pantomime. The onrushing traffic that had now come to a standstill denied him his view. He strutted around to regain a line of vision through the fissures between the stalled vehicles’ new formation. He found his niche and positioned himself. The traffic clog released after a brief interval. When the flow stopped again, at the behest of the traffic police, the altered configuration rendered his vantage view redundant. The muscles on his face regrouped to an irritable disposition. He dragged at the fag end of the cigarette, sucking the burn onto the yellow filter paper, and scalded his lips. Reflexively he pulled it out and threw it down indignantly. The burning butt bounced off the pavement and rolled over into the gutter along the curb in to the dark treacly sludge.
The stranded batch of vehicles emptied out, after which the thick flow seemed to have ebbed. Vision reinstated the executive’s eyes sought the girl at the hydrant; instead they found an old woman unkempt, and demented washing her arse under the hitched up sari, warbling inanities. The young girl was gone. The executive looked for her with frantic eyes. The woman was hauling the defiant boy by his arm. A tussle ensued between them. During the tugging about, the schoolbag slid off the boy’s shoulders and landed on the executive’s toes. He winced in pain, and did a one-legged hop-around. The woman admonished the boy. Pick up the bag. Say, ‘sorry uncle’. Come home and then we will see how long you can stay locked up in the bathroom.
The executive squatted on his haunches and pressed down on his toes. Polishing off the finger smudge on the patent leather with his cuff he untied the shoelaces, and retied them assertively. Standing up he started running along the road, away from the woman-boy duo, towards the intersection, past the dumpster. The crows took off in a startled flight. The dogs backed up a few spaces, as they snarled at the interloper. The young girl came back to collect a pink bar of soap that she had left behind. It lay by the hydrant in a clear plastic wrap, which the old woman was asking for. The traffic police put up a NO ENTRY signpost in the middle of the road and went inside a hole-in-the-wall eatery. The old woman hawked noisily and expelled a healthy blob of phlegm into the water cavity by the hydrant.

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