Vishakha was walking fast. She knew if she was late, he will be angry and would beat her up again. She had to get home before 7 PM. That will give her at least five minutes to freshen up and change. Diwakar usually came home between 7 and quarter after 7 PM. He did not like Vishakha to look weary and smelly. She considered taking a taxi, but then decided against it. Her financial situation had deteriorated drastically since she lost her weekend job at the massage parlor. The massage parlor was closed by the authorities when some neighbors filed complaints of solicitation and other nefarious activities on its premises. Vishakha was fortunate enough to not get arrested. It was getting dark and she was waiting for her turn to cross the busy SV road. The bus stop was on the other side of the road. A teenage girl was standing next to her. The girl smelled of sweat and cheap perfume. Vishakha wondered if she emitted a similar pungent smell. She thought about the amount of perfume and deodorant the entire city consumed to mask the smell of sweat, and body odor and yet how at the end of the day, the mix of the two smelled even more horrific.
The girl started crossing the street and Vishakha came out of her reverie. She saw the bus approaching the stop and started running. It took her twice the effort to run in her platform heels. Diwakar’s fits of fury kept flashing in front of her eyes and she ran harder. She was barely able to make it inside the bus. Fortunately there were a couple of empty seats. She was glad to sit after the long walk and a hard day’s work. She had to recuperate and be ready for the night. Diwakar might end up keeping her awake all night again. It was three nights in a row that Diwakar had been very demanding. He was relentless.
Vishakha opened her purse and pulled out an orange. The texture of the skin of the orange on her sweaty palms felt nice. She liked oranges; she had always wanted to own an orange orchard when she grew up. All her friends in school had made fun of her when her teacher had asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She had said “I want be the owner of an orange orchard”. She had a faint smile on her face as she held that juicy orange in her hand. She peeled off the skin of the orange with utmost dexterity and let the smell of the orange peel settle in her nostrils. She separated a slice of orange from the core and slowly placed it in her mouth. The sharp tanginess and the sweetness gradually engulfed her mouth as she closed her eyes and bit into the slice. She tried to savor the feeling. She loved this feeling of that surge of the orange juice from the first slice slide past her throat and settle in her stomach. It transported her to a vast orange orchard with the sun shining through the glistening green leaves and reflecting on the bright plum oranges hanging lazily from the branches. The breeze carried the fresh smell of oranges with it.
The ticket conductor brought her back into the bus by asking for her pass. She showed the pass to the ticket collector and cursed him inside for ruining her only moment of true happiness in the entire day. She finished the rest of the orange. She was holding the peels in her left hand. Diwakar disliked fruits and vegetables. He did not like the texture and the colors of fruits and vegetables. She remembered the last time she was eating a banana, one night. Diwakar had woken up and had thrown the entire bunch of bananas out of the window. Diwakar had asked her never to leave the bed when he was asleep.
It was dark and the street lights were reflecting their yellow light from the shiny tar roads. Vishakha got ready to get down from the bus, her stop was next. She got down, it was 6:50 PM. She still had a fifteen minutes walk from the bus stop to her home. She hoped Diwakar was late today. She was almost running now and weaving through the crowd. She realized she was still holding the orange peels in her left hand. She had no time to look for a trash can and threw the peels on the side of the road. She saw Ketaki with her mother-in-law walking towards the temple. She smiled at her. Ketaki did not smile back. Ketaki lived in the flat adjacent to Vishakha’s, they shared a wall. Vishakha knew that Ketaki and her family were disapproving of Diwakar’s antics and his late night screaming. Ketaki had even complained about it at the Society meeting last month. Vishakha could not defend herself. She knew that she was not welcome in the society. The Society members comprising of a largely senior citizen population, had issued warnings to her about Diwakar. Vishakha wished that if she had more money she could move out into a place where she and Diwakar would be accepted.
Mistry’s paan shop at the entrance of her Society building was blaring “Maula mere maula mere”. It was five minutes after seven; Vishakha was now at the staircase of her building. She was sweating profusely and was hoping Diwakar was not waiting at the door-step. She climbed the stairs as fast as she could. She was almost knocked down by Mr. Pathak from the 5th floor who was coming down the stairs. She apologized. She thought of how she was the one who was always apologetic to the entire world. She continued to climb; she was on the 4th floor. She got to the door of her flat, and there was no Diwakar. She let out a sigh of relief, just then her mobile buzzed in her purse. She fumbled with the keys in her hand and the zipper of the purse. It was Gajanan’s home number. She answered. She heard Gajanan’s wife, Sudha’s voice “Hello”. Vishakha liked Gajanan’s wife, she did not judge Vishakha. Vishakha said “Hello, Sudha”.
Sudha started sobbing. “Vishakha, Gajanan, Gajanan, his auto….accident near Khar station, Vishakha..Vishakha”, she was now crying uncontrollably. Vishakha did not realize she was trembling, she was shaking, she gathered all the strength in her, took a deep breath. “Sudha, I am coming….keep talking, what happened?”
“All dead Vishakha….each one of them”
Vishakha, felt her legs weaken, she was at the entrance of the building now. She could hear Vishakha’s loud sobs and “Maula mere Maula mere…” from Mistry’s paan shop.
She was now running towards Sudha’s house. Her mind was a flood of questions and possibilties:
“Diwakar, what must have happened? Did Gajanan pick him up today from his school or was he on the way to Diwakar’s school? Its Thursday, he picks up Diwakar first and then goes to Khar to pick up Mohit and Paresh? No, Diwakar must be waiting at the door step, I should turn back….those rotten oranges…”
Her head was ringing with ‘Maula mere maula mere’ She was at Sudha’s doorstep. There were a dozen other people in the house. Two middle-aged women were holding Sudha. She was a wreck. Sudha hugged Vishakha and she let out a devastating cry. Vishakha did not realize she was crying too, she had wet Sudha’s shoulders with her tears and drool. The elderly women peeled Sudha from Vishakha’s embrace. Vishakha saw through the liquid hazy sight a police constable amongst the crowd. She walked towards him. The police constable said without making eye contact “The auto was hit by a speeding truck. Gajanan and three children died on the spot. The dead bodies are at the Jain Hospital in Khar.” Sudha’s legs gave up. She felt the room spin around her, the back of her throat felt acidic, her stomach was burning from inside, her mouth became dry and she felt she smelled a familiar perfume mixed with diesel exhaust and dust somewhere. Her eyes closed. She collapsed to the floor.
Vishakha was peeling an orange in the bus. The bus conductor asked her for her pass. She reluctantly opened her purse and took out the dusty, oily laminated plastic card and showed it to the conductor. On the back of the card was the photo of Diwakar, her fourteen year old dead son. Diwakar was pointing at a big sting ray. He looked happy. The photo was taken during Diwakar’s school trip to the Taraporewala Aquarium, three months ago. She felt a lump in her throat. Diwakar loved fishes and aquariums. She had promised him a goldfish for his next birthday. She wondered if fishes hated oranges too.