Determined not to starve, a woman labourer bleaches emotion out of both her marriage and work.
See this crooked palm tree? Khushali Rama’s hut is just a little distance away from this spot, within hailing distance as it were. Khushali the Happy. That’s how everyone knows him.
This coconut palm—it’s not as though Khushali Rama is related to it! The coconut palm is very tall but its trunk is bowed in a rainbow-like arc. Time has played its part in bowing Rama’s back, so his wiry frame resembles a crooked bean pod. And just as you can count the shafts and ridges of a palm frond, you can count the ribs in his side and the bony protrusions to which they are attached.
Like the palm tree, Rama, too, sways with the breeze. The core might be withered and dry but both pretend that everything is fresh and green, so no one suspects the truth. His deepest desires crumple and fall away like the tiny coconuts that drop off the palm before they are fully formed. As for his eyeballs —they’re like the pair of dry nuts that hang amidst the palm’s fronds. This, then, is what Rama has in common with the crooked palm.
Let us set Khushali Rama aside for a while and turn to the many things that the palm has seen through the years.
In those days the riverbank by the rumada grove in Usgao bustled with activity because of the high-grade iron ore that was transported from this jetty. There was great demand for it and rows of trucks trundled down from the mines at Sancordem–Govanem to dump the mineral at this stop. The heap of iron ore glistened in the afternoon sun like an expanse of heated water, twinkling like the ornamental dots on the foreheads of young, unmarried girls.
The heap of mud and ore grew bigger and bigger and one day it slithered right up to the palm tree on the riverbank—an impressive heap. See those marks almost halfway up the trunk? That’s how high the heap of ore was. But the palm tree didn’t seem to mind. Its leafy crest touched the sky and it felt that the ore provided support as it stood erect. The fronds didn’t flutter in apprehension as they gazed down at the clumps of expensive mineral. The fresh shoot that shot out of the top of the palm remained unbowed.
One day a large stalk laden with tiny coconuts emerged from the thick sheath at the base of the leaves. Within a couple of days, however, it withered and died and the tiny nuts fell off the stalk.
It was then that the palm realised that the waist-high heap of ore had robbed it of its strength and all its procreative faculties had been destroyed. Its roots and leaves had turned dry. It was unable to bear new fruit.
The palm fronds soon began to wilt and the strips of leaves attached to the main stalk turned dry. The thick shade beneath the palm was now broken by patches of sunlight like curdled milk separated into curd and whey.
But one thing is true. When Sallu first came to the rumada grove settlement as a bride, the palm tree was not in such a sorry state. She often rested in its shade. It was the heap of iron ore that destroyed the palm, and now all that remained were those dry nuts—looking like a pair of helpless eyes.
Sallu was a good-looking woman and she was lured by the two rupees fifty paise or three rupees that were paid as daily wages to those who worked at the site. Barges carrying three hundred and fifty tonnes of iron ore set sail from the jetty through the day. In those days there were no mechanised conveyor belts on to which trucks could empty their loads. Women, bearing shallow basins of mud and ore on their heads, filled the barges. The wooden jetty resounded with the workers’ footsteps, and sometimes some feet slipped and went off course. But no one noticed in the midst of all this commotion; everything was muted by the roar of falling mud and stone.
The sun beat down on the overloaded basins on their heads, so the workers scampered off to rest during midday. Sallu sought refuge under the palm and drew comfort and joy in its thick shade even at the height of noon. There was an element of modesty and decorum in her behaviour in those days.
One day, the palm felt that its abilities had diminished, that there was something missing within itself. It tried valiantly to provide as much shade as it could, but this was not enough. On another afternoon, when Sallu was desperately in need of shade and refuge, she glanced up at the fronds and saw how inadequate they had become. She didn’t say a word. The palm, too, was reduced to silence. Sallu cast an eye over the thick vegetation on the riverbank. The verdant menkumbi, with its hairy blossoms peeping out like moustaches from amongst the leaves, had been eyeing her for a long time now. The cool shade beneath its boughs seemed so thick and heavy as though it could be scooped up in one’s palms.
It was there that Sallu chose to rest, as the palm tree inclined its neck and watched. It was there that she mopped the first drops of sweat from her body. And how did the towel absorb those drops? Why, like the thirsty earth soaks up the first showers of rain. It was there that she set aside the chumbal, the cloth cushion on which the load rested on her head and let the wind toss her hair about as it pleased. When she unfastened the hooks on her blouse the boughs of the menkumbi swayed down towards her even though there was no sign of a breeze. But she didn’t stop at this. She loosened the end of her sari that was tightly tucked in at her waist. The wind pounced on her legs and her body and rushed into her clothes so she had to struggle to rearrange the folds as before. The palm should have bowed its head at that moment, but it was afraid that its crest might snap off. So it held its head erect.
Now, Sallu’s hut can be seen easily from this point where the palm tree stands, it’s just a cry away. The hut is supported by four stout poles and has a crossbar fashioned out of a palm trunk. The walls are mats of woven palm leaf and the hut is thatched with palm fronds. One can see the activity about the palm tree from Sallu’s hut. It’s not a clear view, but since one knows the normal routine, one gets a general idea.
Sallu still works at the rumada grove site. Conveyor belts carry the ore to the barges these days, so the number of women workers has dwindled. Their tasks are much easier too, as they sift through the mud and sort the ore and set the carts and wheelbarrows in line. Sometimes the Supervisor makes demands of them. Both the sexes work together at this site and the men’s tongues are loosened as soon as they catch sight of a woman. Everyone pursues the young unmarried girls working at the site, but the oldest married ones are easy prey.
And Sallu is an attractive woman, with a well-developed body. She’s a bit lazy but the Supervisor doesn’t yell at her. Sallu doesn’t tolerate any nonsense, mind you. She flares up, clutching the mangalsutra around her neck, reminding everyone that she is respectably married. If they keep getting in her way she lets loose a stream of curses. Her sari doesn’t slip as she stoops to pick up a load. Her calves are hidden beneath the towel wrapped about her hips. Her undergarments don’t peek out from beneath her blouse. She doesn’t yearn for male company, nor does she go out of her way to keep the Supervisor happy. She doesn’t interfere in the workers’ affairs nor does she respond to the truck drivers’ witticisms. She makes no promises and does not put up with any insolence.
The other workers try to placate her, ‘They’re just joking, why do you take this seriously?’
‘What sort of jokes are these? We are respectable people!’ she fumes.
Sallu wraps the end of her sari tightly about herself and lashes out at the culprits. Everyone keeps quiet after that, but she continues to splutter indignantly all day. In the evening, she tells the Supervisor she has urgent work and slips away half an hour before the six o’clock siren signals the end of the shift. So she is back home long before it is dark.
He slouches on the mud seat outside the hut with his legs drawn up close to his belly, coughing furiously as he sees her approach. He springs to his feet and stands erect as she shouts at him and hastily swallows the phlegm instead of spitting it on to the woven palm front wall. He begins to tremble as he blurts out all that has happened while she’s been away. Someone has sent fish; the man will stay for dinner. He tells here what time the man will arrive. He has cleaned the fish and done much of the work he says, as another bout of coughing tickles the back of his throat.
Sallu gets ready to bathe. He has heated the water already but she is irritated because it is too hot. As he bustles about lighting a fire in the hearth she drops her sari and wraps a length of cloth about herself. He peers at her from the corner of his eye as he blows into the fire but his breath rebounds off the top of the hearth. She holds an arm across her chest and dips the tumbler into the bucket of lukewarm water when she notices him crouching there and yells at him to leave her alone.
At the appointed hour a truck rumbles up to the site and his bout of coughing intensifies. She curses him loudly as she begins to slip into her clothes.
“Coughs so much. Just doesn’t die!” She exclaims, but she doesn’t really want him to die.
The Tata Mercedes truck with the 1210 D number plate grinds to a halt at the appointed spot. The driver is a regular at the site and Sallu has seen him many times, though neither has exchanged a word. He emerges from the cabin sweating with the heat generated by the machine. He looks around and his feet automatically take the well-trodden path that leads up to the hut.
As the driver emerges from the surrounding darkness, Sallu’s man gets up, coughing furiously, and rushes inside. She is drying herself with a towel.
“He’s come. Give me eight annas. I’ll go and buy a drink!” he exclaims.
Sallu places an eight-anna coin on his palm. The towel slips off her chest but he is so delighted with the money that he doesn’t even notice. He doesn’t glance at the driver who slips into the hut either.
Nor does he notice when the man pounces on Sallu’s still damp body. Like a big ant on a lump of jaggery.
This happens every time. Whenever a truck grinds to a halt and a driver climbs out from the cabin.
The man, still coughing madly, clutching the coin tightly, would have reached the tavern on the bridge by now. That’s Sallu’s husband.
Story selected by Mini Krishnan
Reproduced courtesy of Aleph Book Company
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta.