The day Sunaina’s husband died, the village came as one and demanded that she go away.
“You’re evil,” old Harbans said, his toothless jaws working. “He would never have died but for you.”
Sunaina didn’t say anything. There was no point saying anything, because they weren’t here to listen.
“You wouldn’t bear him children,” Harbans’ son, Balbeer, said, pointing at her with a thick forefinger. The nail on it was stained yellow and lined with black, as though it were cracked. “And now you don’t even have the decency to scream and cry and faint that he’s gone.”
“Hussy,” the men agreed. “Vile hussy.”
Sunaina still didn’t say anything. She didn’t even acknowledge that she’d heard them.
“You must go away,” Mala, who had once been so friendly, told her, after the men had withdrawn a little and were talking angrily amongst themselves. Sunaina’s husband’s body lay on a makeshift stretcher on the ground, covered by a dingy white sheet and flowers which were already wilting in the heat. “There’s no place for you in this village now.”
Sunaina turned to her. “You know it wasn’t my fault in any way,” she said. “It’s true that I’m not crying for him, but if you knew what he’d put me through, you’d understand why. But I didn’t have anything to do with harming him.”
“They all say you did,” Bimla, Mala’s sister, as dried up as Mala was plump, put in.
“You know it was a heart attack,” Sunaina said. “The doctors said so.”
“What does that matter?” Mala said. “What happened, what you did or what you want – all that matters is you go away before you make things worse.”
“And Harbans and Balbeer will get the property,” Sunaina said.
“Yes, they’ll get the property. That’s their right, as the next of kin. What’s it to you? You wouldn’t have got it anyway.”
“All right,” Sunaina said. “I’ll go.”
“Where will you go?” Bimla asked, her eyes glittering with triumph and curiosity.
“That’s my business,” Sunaina said. “Perhaps you should attend to yours.”
Bimla went red, but didn’t reply.
So Sunaina went into the inner room and began to pack her things. There wasn’t much she had, and not much she wanted to take.
What little she really needed was mostly in her head anyway.
That evening she left the village, and though a hundred eyes watched her go, not once did she look back.
The City was big and bustling and full of smoke and noise and people who didn’t look at her a second time, either with pleasure or vexation or even the slightest interest.
Sunaina found work at a mall. They gave her a blue uniform with a peaked cap and closed shoes that hurt her toes. She spent all the day pushing mops and cleaning up tables at the food court. Little children ran around and sometimes bumped into her.
She never said anything. She wasn't important enough to say anything. Hardly anyone even ever noticed she was there anyway.
Sometimes famous people came to the mall, people who she heard were movie actors and the like. Everyone rushed to see them, but as far as Sunaina could make out they were like anyone else, and they made quite as much mess too. Sometimes more.
Then one evening, as she was leaning against the safety wall of the second floor balcony, looking down at the expanse of the ground floor far below, she saw some people in the gathering crowd. They stood out because they were dressed in village clothing, among all the city fashions, and because they were looking around helplessly, as though they’d never been in any such place before and felt overwhelmed. And also she recognised something about them, the way they moved and talked. When they were hesitating at the foot of the escalators, she went across a little of the way for a better look. Yes, it was, as she’d thought, Harbans, Balbeer, Balbeer’s wife Kamla – and Mala.
Sunaina looked at them for a while and went back to her work, swabbing tables. There was no expression on her face.
About half an hour later, a fire broke out in a shop across the way from Sunaina on the other side of the second floor. At first it was a rather small fire, and most people weren’t even aware of it, except those on the floor itself. Then suddenly it began spreading, running up the floors towards the domed roof high above, and also racing round the central well of the mall like embracing arms. People were beginning to stampede, rushing to the escalators and the lifts, though both had been shut down. Sunaina could have rushed out along with the others, but she saw that children were in danger of being trampled, so she went along the corridors, physically pulling family groups together and guiding them to the stairs. Some of the people didn’t want to be guided, and pushed her and abused her. But their fear of the fire was greater than their anger at her, so they finally did as she ordered.
By the time the fire engines arrived, the mall was thick with smoke and most of the lights were off. There were still people trapped here and there, though, their ways of escape closed off by the fire. When the firemen entered, Sunaina, a wet handkerchief pressed over her nose, went to meet them.
“I can take you by the back service passages to the place where the people are,” she said. “The maintenance staff know them well.”
The firemen looked at her and at the fire. “All right, then.”
So Sunaina led them via the back passages to the fire, and they followed, dragging their hoses and fire axes after them. The passages were dark and filled with smoke, and Sunaina led the people whom the firemen got out of the fire back by the hand, by touch, to the stairs and down to the ground floor. Then she went back for another lot, and got them out as well.
Sunaina had just brought down the last batch when the fire was finally under control. Her lungs were burning, her head swimming, and she realised she couldn’t function any longer without some fresh air. Still leading the last batch by the hand, she went out into the night air.
There were masses of lights, people gathered in huge numbers watching the fire and, of course, media photographing everything. A couple of them pushed up to her, carrying a microphone and a camera.
“You’re the one who’s been helping the people come out, aren’t you? And you helped guide the firemen inside as well?” They were statements, not questions. Other media people began gathering around.
“You’re a heroine now,” they said. “You’re famous. How does that feel?”
Then there was shouting and Sunaina saw Harbans, Balbeer and the others waving from the crowd and yelling something. She heard her own name mentioned. Some of the media people went over to talk to them and led them back towards her.
“They say they’re your relatives,” one of them said, indicating Harbans, who was grinning toothlessly. “Is that so?”
“Of course,” Mala said. “We all love her very much.”
Sunaina looked them up and down and turned back to the cameras and microphones.
“They must be mistaken,” she said in clear carrying tones, ignoring the burning in her throat and chest. “I’ve never seen them before in my life.”
And, as she spoke, she suddenly realised that it wasn’t even a lie.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015