By Maskwaith Ahsan;
It’s a tiny flower shop. Set along the footpath it offers the cheapest deals for the vagabond Romeos who are cash strapped but full of courage to shower flowers on their Juliets. This floating shop doesn’t expect affluent customers who only wander into plush caged boutiques for the same kind of flowers. There is no neon sign to announce the destiny of this floating shop, nevertheless let’s give it a name: Julekha’s Megalomania. The name might seem heavyweight to those who are not acquainted with Julekha, but she is perhaps the only street hawker who opens shop every morning on the dot, all dolled up with lipstick and the works. The other vendors can feel her presence even before they set eyes on her. The first glance of the day is enough to allure their whorish minds. Hoping for more than just a glimpse of her voluptuous body they try to stash away as much as they can to buy a flower or two from her every day. That is all they ever get; leaving the place heartbroken after every little purchase.
As the afternoon heat bears down, Julekha takes out her shabby harmonium from its case and sings filmy songs. It definitely evokes images and passions of a cheap mujra but for Julekha it’s also
an attempt to further her flower career. Her small business centre has quite an interesting location. Right opposite her street shop rests the parliament house built by world famous architect Louis Kahn, who believed that even a brick has soul, and behind her shop lie spacious apartment blocks constructed by some party or the other in power for its parliament members. For Julekha they are not just apartments but lavish urban palaces for those who prefer the plush flower boutiques to her floating shop.
As the evening sets foot Julekha starts wrapping up her goods. Both her sons rejoin her from their sojourn into the nearby streets where they try to window-sell the same flowers throughout the day. Red traffic lights are the most favorite signal for these kids: they get to hit windscreens with red roses and pester flower-haters into buying their roses. If the mood and the weather strike well, even the traffic policeman sides with these kids to facilitate Julekha’s business; keeping the signal red for a wee bit longer time so that car-owners are forced to buy flowers, if only to get rid of these children.
No dinner is ever free. So why does he do this for a flower-women? Throughout the day Julekha glances at him through half-closed eyes; this man in uniform who holds a stick and whistles away mayhem into order is mesmerized by her indecent proposal, voluptuous looks and carelessly worn sari giving better details of all her hypnotic angles. He knows that all he has to do to win over her affections is to act chivalrously at his post, praying constantly that his boss doesn’t find out and transfer him from his favorite Julekha signal point.
Seeing her wrap up her shop, the traffic-lover with rope-shaped mustaches hastily calls out to her:
“Hey whore, where are you going without paying me.”
“You know how much, my night queen.”
“Don’t you see that my sons are around!”
“Send those bastards home.”
“Don’t you ever badmouth my kids. I’ll kill you.”
“That’s what I want, to be killed by my snake-charmer.”
He holds two threats over her: first that he will inform the police and have her illegal shop removed from the footpath, and second that he will no longer delay the red signal by even a second. Julekha gives some money to her sons and packs them off to home. She then collects her shop and glares at this mustached man with hatred.
“You bastard, can’t you see how tired and exhausted I am.”
“Whole day long you stare at me that at times I forget to clear the traffic jam. You smile at me, blink your eyes, pout and bite the tip of your lips for me but when I approach you, you take a U-turn. Well, a traffic policeman can never let you off with a U-turn. ”
Streets glowing with dim yellow lights, naked palm trees devoid to shadows, the parliament house with its bright, silver hues and shades sleeps sessionless. He crosses over the fence of national leaders’ graveyard, roughly grabs Julekha’s hand and pulls her up like an uncouth dog. Julekha is raped by him almost every night only to make sure that every morning she is allowed to spread her tiny shop along the tiny footpath. By the time she walks back home, her cute little children are all done with the cooking. It’s a slum hut but the smell of hot rice, bits of smashed potatoes and barely-drinkable water overpowers all but happiness. Nothing seems more delicious than dinner and their shared moments. Her sons go off to sleep in her arms with their heavenly smells, their little hands tucked into their mother’s back, mosquitoes singing lullabies to these small princes and the queen holding them with the megalomaniac arrogance of a mother.
Dream or Reality
She was the only daughter of a modest peasant family. Her father used to pamper her like a doll, but her mother would always try to be realistic:
“Don’t pamper her so much. You’ll do nothing but spoil her.”
“She is my princess, my land, crops, dreams, all belong to her. She was born with a fortune-feeding silver spoon.”
She can still recall her father taking her to a Baisakhi Fest on every Bengali New Year. Riding on a toy horse she used to cry out in fear, wanting to identify his hazy face amongst the crowd. Sitting on a Nagar Dola marry-go-round she would strongly hold on to his hand. He would scold:
“Don’t be nervous. Be courageous. You are my only daughter, and you’ll have to protect my land and my glory.”
She used to buy colorful bangles, dolls made of clay, animal shaped sugar cookies and mouth watering, coiled Jilapis. Once she had peeped through the blinds of a puppet show where the puppet master was narrating a tragic story of a pretty gypsy daughter who was raised like a queen by her wandering father but had to go through immense misery later in her life. She had cried at this tragedy and her father had hugged her warmly, sheltering all her worries in a big bearly hug.
“It’s only a puppet; this is merely a fabricated story.”
None of them knew any better.
That night they came home quite late after the fest; her mother scolded the fun-loving father and daughter. After all it was a stormy night; the river had madly tried to swallow their small boat. She was thrilled and not scared a bit, because her father had told her not to worry, that he knew how to beat those waves. Stubborn as they are, the waves got aggressive, splashing and hitting the boat like snakes. Clouds thundered around them. She covered her ears to block away the sounds:
“Close your eyes. I’ll turn this boat into a flying peacock that will soon take you home safely.”
And that’s what happened. They entered their home smiling, her mother worriedly awaiting their arrival with hot rice, fish curry, pulse smoking off the fragrance of onions, brinjals sliced in the shape of full moons and fried with sharp mustard oil. “I’ll stop cooking food for you people and today, too, you will get nothing to eat.”
Father smiled with utmost romanticism in his eyes and cracked a curved joke. “Storm and waves we could survive but not hunger. I can smell the delicious dinner you have made for us.” And that was all it took mother to smile in the cover of her green sari.
Allegory of a fairytale
There had been no rain for months together. Father would discuss with his friends that perhaps a newly built barrage somewhere far was responsible for the drought. There was no water in the canals to quench the thirst of dried, cracked lands. Day after day the much known soft soil turned stone hard. Her stubborn father broke the iron wedge of his plough, their buffaloes refused to walk against the thirsty land. Struggling till death their land, trees, buffaloes and her strong father gradually began to surrender to fate. Life changed within a year, night after sleepless night her father finally passed away, his last few months used up in fighting off the micro-credit lenders.
“Your father took loan from us. Either you pay it back or we’ll have no choice but to take over all your land and house.”
Mother was so helpless that she went into stone shock, lost the ability to shed tears and would sit at her husband’s grave all day long. Every evening she would carry her mother back home. Nothing left to live on, she started begging from door to door for food. As time slipped every door turned into a beggar’s door. A procession of these beggars left for the highway, not knowing where to go and whom to ask for food. Micro-credit lenders had grabbed their lands. She begged them for a year to save the house which had been a witness to their fairytale happiness. She promised her mother: “Wait for me. I’ll come back in a year.”
Running towards the highway, she joined the beggars’ procession, ran even faster when it turned into a joyous Monga Carnival. Every eye started glittering with the hope of food. Maybe somewhere there is a land of rice, potatoes and a little water. Sitting on a bus roof she dreamt of a plate full of flower-white rice. Can anyone smell anything in dreams? She could, at that time: the scent of boiled rice hit her nostrils; she could see her mother pouring hot smoky rice into a red clay shanki and her father praising her cooking. “No one can make such corn-white rice. None but your mother has magical hands.”
From then onwards that was the only dream Julekha pursued, of rice. But no longer does rice look like white flowers. It’s become a plate full of little monsters. This monga daughter keeps on fighting against them. Every morning she throws around some rice and cracks out a winning laughter: “Go monster go. Black crows will finish you up.”