Each Friday he came down the road from the direction of the mosque.
He was anywhere between fifty and seventy years old – it was hard to tell – and, except for his silver hair and beard, the colour of dark dried leather. He was always dressed the same – a grey-blue kurta that hung almost to his knees, a yellow and blue tartan lungi, cracked black shoes without laces, and, around his head, a cloth tied like a turban. Hanging from one shoulder he had the old shopping bag in which he collected his alms. His name, he said, was Rehman.
Every Friday Reshma would wait for him, watching from the balcony of her first floor flat, a large bowl of rice grains by her side. When she saw him, she would go down the stairs, the concrete cool under her bare feet, and be waiting for him at the gate when he arrived. He would always have a smile ready when he saw her.
“Khuda Hafiz, Rehman Uncle,” she would say, and pour the rice into his bag. It was something that old Auntie Kausar across the street had taught her to say. Khuda Hafiz.
“Allah will keep you well, daughter,” he would reply, touch his hand to his forehead, and go on his way. She would stare after him for a few moments and then go back upstairs.
One Friday, he did not come. This was the first time in the eight months she had lived in this flat, since she had come to this city. She waited for an hour and a half, until the summer sun had turned the balcony to an oven, and the air to fire in her nostrils, but still he did not come.
From the balcony she could see the minaret of the mosque, a pencil writing on the sky, and see the green-and-white bulge of its dome. Perhaps he was still in there, for some reason held back after the Friday namaz. Perhaps he had changed his route and was now begging for alms elsewhere, where people would give him more. She was stung by the thought. All she had to give him was a bowl of rice, and she had never seen anyone else give him anything. Not even rich old Auntie Kausar, though she was a Muslim like he was.
Nor did he come the next day, though she waited with her rice bowl, just in case, even though it was not Friday. And he did not come the next Friday, either, or the two Fridays after that.
What could she do? Go to the mosque and ask? That was a laugh. When she passed it, she averted her gaze, as she had been told to do since she was a little girl, because Muslim men looked on Hindu women with lecherous eyes. And could she ask Auntie Kausar? That was an even bigger laugh. Auntie Kausar had the loosest tongue in the entire locality.
But then he was there, suddenly, the same little figure trudging down the street from the direction of the mosque. Tears of gratitude sprang to her eyes unbidden as she came down the stairs, and he saw them at once.
“What is wrong with you, my daughter?” he asked.
“It’s nothing.” Reshma tried to wipe her eyes with her dupatta, awkwardly one handed because the other hand still held the bowl of rice. “I was so worried when you did not come.”
“I had gone to my village. There was some problem, my son called me home.”
“Yes, he has the tailor’s shop in the village. I gave it to him when he married. A man needs something to make a living for his family from. And the shop was too small for both of us.”
“I did not know you had a son, Uncle.” She raised the bowl of rice to pour it into his bag, and then suddenly had a thought. “No, not this today, Uncle. Today you come up to the house, and I will feed you a proper lunch, as I should.”
“No but. I have not been waiting worrying for a month to listen to any but. Today you come to my house and have a proper lunch.”
She preceded him upstairs, suddenly excited, as she hadn’t been for a long time. There was nobody in the ground floor flat anyway –they all went away during the day, so who was there to see? And suddenly she didn’t care if anyone did see. It didn’t matter.
She sat him down at the small dining table and brought a bowl of water and a mug to let him wash his hands. He looked uneasy, as though intimidated by the tiny flat and the spinning fan overhead. There were books on a shelf on the wall, and she saw his eyes linger on the English titles, and wondered if he knew how to read any of them.
“Would you like some sherbet, Uncle?” She’d already made a glass, for herself, and it was sitting in the little fridge. She fetched it out and handed it to him. “Here, have some.”
Then she brought him the food – khichdi and cabbage with potato – and sat down opposite him, to watch as he ate. He still looked uneasy, his mouth moving uneasily around the bright yellow food.
“I always see you here. Your husband works in an office?”
“Yes.” She didn’t want to talk about him. Deepak was a junior officer at an insurance company, and always frustrated at how his seniors treated him. He didn’t get the appreciation he deserved, he didn’t get the salary he deserved, and he hadn’t, for sure, got the wife he deserved. She talked too much, she didn’t talk enough, she spent too much on food, she was starving him; she was no good in bed, she was too good in bed (where had she learnt to do that?) – she was a slut who wanted to whore around behind his back, and, worst of all, she couldn’t even get pregnant. When, once or twice, she had suggested that they go and get checked at a fertility clinic, he’d lost his temper.
“Get what checked?” he’d demanded. “It’s obviously your fault. You’re barren. I work my fingers to the bone and then you can’t even do your duty.” And he’d got up and stormed out of the flat.
No, she would not talk about him.
“What about your lunch, daughter?” Uncle Rehman asked now, tasting the khichdi.
“I’ve already eaten, Uncle. This was left over.” This was not true. This was her lunch she was feeding him, like the sherbet, but she didn’t care. To hell with it, she could boil an egg or something later for herself, one missed meal wouldn’t kill her. “What happened to your son? You gave him the shop and came to the city?”
“Yes. I find work sometimes, in tailor shops, here and there. Sometimes they give me work, especially when they’re rushed, in the festival seasons. With that and the alms I get, I manage to get by, but then there’s only one of me. My son has his wife and children to fend for.”
“Your wife?” the words spilled out before she could stop them.
“My wife died a long time ago. When my son was born, actually.” Uncle Rehman smiled, noticing her confusion and distress. “It was a long time ago, daughter. It doesn’t matter.”
“And what was the problem with your son?” she asked. “Anything serious?”
Uncle Rehman looked down at his plate of khichdi for a long time. “Someone accused him of stealing something.” He cleared his throat. “My son had been in trouble before, you understand, when he was growing up. It wasn’t his fault. I could not bring him up properly, not all by myself. He’s a good man now. He cleaned himself up, and never puts a foot wrong anymore. But the kind of reputation never really goes away.”
“And someone accused him of stealing? What?”
“A gold chain. They said that they had dropped the chain in the shop and when they had gone he had picked it up. They demanded that he pay back the value of the chain, and they said it was fifty thousand rupees.”
She gasped. “What did you do?”
Uncle Rehman ate another mouthful of khichdi before he replied. “What could I do? We are poor people. We can’t afford lawyers. If the police had been called, my son would have been arrested, and then his wife and children would have starved.”
There was a brief silence before Uncle Rehman spoke again.
“My wife left only one thing, a gift from her mother when we married. I had kept it all these years. It was my memento of her.”
The gasp of horror that came to Reshma’s mouth was uncontrollable. “Another gold chain.” It was not a question.
Uncle Rehman nodded. “A better one than the one they said was stolen.” He finished the last of the food. “You are an excellent cook, daughter. When you have babies they will think they were born in paradise.”
She didn’t want to hear about babies. “But the chain...it was all you had of your wife.”
“I still have the son she gave me. And I still have the memories.” Uncle Rehman smiled again. “When it comes to it, daughter, what’s a gold chain? I still have the really important things, don’t I?”
She accompanied him down to the gate, her bare feet silent behind the clopping of his hard shoes on the stairs. “Uncle,” she said. “From now on you will come every Friday to my house and have lunch there.”
Uncle Rehman looked at her for a long moment, and smiled gently.
“No, daughter. I would not want to get you in trouble with your husband. I will come this way, and if you want you can give me rice, but I will not go upstairs again.”
“Nobody will know,” she could not help saying.
“Allah will know, and when Allah knows, the world will know.”
“Khuda Hafiz, Uncle,” she said then.
“Allah will bless you, my daughter,” he said, and walked away, the bag of alms swinging by his side.
She watched until she could not see him any longer, the tiny trudging figure lost to view around the far corner. Not one person gave him a thing.
Then, wiping the tears angrily away from her eyes, wishing she could set herself free, she stumbled up the stairs to her prison, her home.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017