I met her on a sweltering afternoon in Bombay, on the kind of day your feet boil within your shoes. I asked her if the bus had already gone by, and she told me the story of her life. As I watched her speak, I wondered what kind of person actually spills out her soul to another within the first fifteen minutes of being acquainted. But she talked on and on, because it was, according to her, ‘God’s will’ that she should confide in me.
She was a beautician by profession. Slim, her hair streaked with brown and white, she had hands that were orange and a deep brown, the strongest testimony to her occupation, coming from years of working with henna. She had a couple of hairs on her chin, which I wondered why she didn’t trim, considering her familiarity with the beautification process. She came to Carter road to drop her daughter at a parlour nearby, insisting that she snap out of her adolescent lethargy to get a job and make something of her life.
She told me she’d had to hurry and pack her lunch, eggs and bread, and to make countless sacrifices of clients in order to get her here, for the little fool didn’t know her way around Bombay. I had a vision of a typical Christian Bombay family life, sadly recreated through broken memories and stereotypes: fluttering white curtains at a barred window, pictures of Jesus and Mary on the walls, the aura of a lifestyle that hasn’t changed much for the past few generations. By the time I had tuned in, she was halfway through a detailed introduction to the business of cutting hair. ‘It’s a science’. There are projects to be done (‘consisting of four haircuts, two pedicures…’) and then finally one is turned loose to a client and left to find one’s own feet.
Just around now the bus came, and we thankfully scrambled in. Two other buses of the same number came around, causing great confusion. One was 45 minutes late, the other was on time and the third was early. We boarded one of this medley of the past, present and future, whereupon Juliet began to discuss bus routes with me and instructed me as to which would be most convenient for me on my way to Kalina. I listened with half my attention, as I always did when people launched into detailed directions.
My poor sense of geographical orientation is legendary, and by force of habit, I tune out because I know I will get lost nevertheless. I usually nod as though I understand, because people have the annoying habit of not moving on to the next point until I recognize the damn landmark that they have picked out from some remote corner of the world. Like ‘You know what Aliah’s boyfriend did? Arrey, the one who stays near that bridge in Matunga? You don’t know the bridge? It connects Mahim to south Bombay…accha, you know the tea shop near there? Its famous for its filter coffees…” and I spend all that time vaguely echoing the speaker’s expressions (brilliant trick, works every time),wondering what this description has to do with what Aliah’s boyfriend did in the first place.
Having completed her expansive explanation of bus routes, she started on ticket prices. “If you go by the 384, you’ll save, say 50 paise either way, so coming and going…that amounts to four rupees saved a day! You have to look at these things, no…”
When the conductor came around, the same woman who talked of saving 50 paise on each bus trip, and who had known me for less than a quarter of an hour, paid for my ticket and looked mighty offended when I tried to pay her back.
“You are younger; I cannot allow this,’” was all I could get out of her.
Returning my change into my wallet, I wondered what life must be like being a beautician and supporting two young daughters all by yourself. Her husband, named Romeo in some warped game of fate, left her and set up a house in Goa. Since then she had been caring for her girls, one of whom grew up to work in a call centre and refused to support her now.
“They eat my food, but don’t give me anything…If only she had set me up in some parlour today…”
She gave me a crooked smile, which looked suspiciously like a smirk. I smiled back. Like most people who talk a lot (and most people do), she wasn’t paying much attention to what I was doing, so I could relax, provoking a torrent of conversation with a single statement.
As I watched her speak, I wondered how she had managed all these years. Single handedly, with no help to support her daughters. She seemed to see it in my eyes and smiled.
“’I managed. You always do when you have no choice. Going insane is like drowning. I thought I would drown someday. But I kept treading water. I had occasional glimpses of what it was like to be insane, but I kept afloat. I swear I don’t know how.”
Soon it was time for me to go. After sincerely admitting that it was nice to meet her, I got off the bus. Crossing the road, I looked back and found her waving happily at me. An interesting person. I left her behind, thinking that was all I would see of her, and wondering if I was late for college, already putting her out of my mind.
The next day, walking to the bus stop, I saw a familiar figure in a red salwar kameez.
I stopped next to her, saying “Hi aunty,” lapsing into conversation with her again like we’d known each other for years. When the bus came, I tried to con her into buying her ticket. But the moment she saw what I was up to, she took the ticket when I offered her one and smoothly slid a 10 rupee note into my hand before I even knew what she was doing. I sighed and put it into my bag. Some people tend to get very ferocious in these money wars. Best not to mention it further.
Today it seemed she wanted to expound on her theological beliefs. She confessed that she had wanted to take my number the first time she had met me, but I had slipped away.
She said, “God told me that I should do this. The moment you got off the bus yesterday, God told me you were a good girl but the signal had already started.”
God had also told her to talk to me and tell me about her lord. A firm believer, Juliet had the firm conviction that she was in a world of non believers and had resigned herself to it. Taking out a book out of her bag, she handed it to me. A small booklet of 50 pages, it was some kind of brightly coloured religious pamphlet.
“Return it to me if your parents shout at you.’”
I assured her they wouldn’t and she went on.
“The first time my client handed me one, I ignored it. Then sitting in my parlour, I read this and ran to her, telling her to give me all the copies she had. Since then I have been giving these to people. Read this and you will feel blessed. I know I am. They say ‘there is that blessed woman,’ even when they see me walking on the road. My husband deserted me, but I did not give up. You see this, it will do you good. Read this prayer first, and then this one. You will feel the difference.”
She was warming up to the topic. “It explains things in a very clear way. I’ll give you one example. Suppose your mother asks you to make her some tea. The Devil and the Lord are standing outside the door. And you say, ‘Mama, why’re you’re asking me to…’ and grumble about it, then the Devil steps in and your entire day is sure to go badly. On the other hand, if you say to her ” Yes, mother, I will certainly make you some tea,” your day will surely go well.”
I listened. My religious beliefs were nowhere near hers, but it was like a refreshing breeze to have someone talk enthusiastically about their faith. For me God was something personal, a private faith without the interference of religion. There was a direct connection, which could be opened up at will. God was at once a very specific and a very vague concept. For her, I can’t even begin to imagine. Her faith was her whole life. I wondered if one word from me criticizing it would make her give up. But I wasn’t about to try.
I got off the bus again, thinking I would meet her many more times, and that this was just the start of an interesting relationship. Looking forward to meeting her the next day, I reached the bus stop. But she was gone. That night, I sent her the phone number of an art class for her daughter that she had asked for.
I still haven’t heard back from her.
-Tanushree Vachharajani completed her undergraduate studies in English Literature from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, India, and is currently pursuing her Master’s in English Literature from Mumbai University. She won second place in an all India short fiction contest, published papers in school and college magazines, participated in Ithaka, the St. Xavier’s theatre festival, and worked as a script writer for Tinkle, a popular Indian children’s magazine. Her most recent work, a short story titled The Sun Bronzed Room, has been in published in Ascent Aspirations, a Canadian based magazine.