by Annie Zaidi
Setting: An imagined field
Character: MALTI, a woman worker
A long row of shapes/shadows, like women bent over, swamped in dirty fabric. MALTI, a wrinkled, sun-cooked woman with iron-coloured hair, and no blouse with her saree, is in the middle of that row. She raises her head.
One man (or scarecrow), in cleaner clothes, carries an umbrella and watches the women.
MALTI pauses, raises herself a couple of inches, looks at the man/scarecrow, goes back to work. Then she stops again. She balances her weight on a long-handled khurpi (spade).
As she speaks, she raises herself slowly, a fraction of an inch at a time.
I wonder what the time is. At noon, there will be a lunch break. Half an hour is enough. More than enough. It doesn’t take half an hour to eat. But I eat slowly. Even then, it takes only five minutes. Maybe ten. I eat two rotis. That is twenty four morsels. One roti is that big.
(She makes a circle in the mud with her khurpi.)
One morsel that big. Twenty four. I chew slowly. It fills you up in a beautiful way if you chew slowly. After four morsels, you feel juice dribbling in into your stomach. Suddenly, it comes rushing in from all the corners of your body…. These days, strange thoughts come into my head. It didn’t happen earlier. When I was twenty, even thirty years old, I only thought of how to make money. How to make lunch hour last long. That’s why I began to chew slowly. Because if you finish quickly, they will give you even less time to rest. We all learnt to eat slowly, wash slowly. Bhondu was the only one who ate fast. He ate and ran off to lie under a tree. But that was because he didn’t have children and if Valli threw him out, he didn’t care. But Valli doesn’t throw him out. All of us would be happier if Valli threw us out, when we still had a chance of going to work somewhere else. But we had children. And if we don’t come to work, Valli will bring our children to work here… I made a mistake. We should have moved when we could. There was time when my biggest girl was that little. We should have gone to a fat city, a city that looks like a goat on the hills after the rains.
(The man with the umbrella looks at her. MALTI bends again.)
My biggest girl has a girl now. Maybe I am growing senile. Only the senile start to think, Valli says… Just now I was thinking that the body is like a country. People come rushing to the place where the morsel is. To the mouth, rushing like blood comes rushing to the head. To the gut. People want to swell with the juice of food. There is something in my body which wants to be big. Big and full of sunshine. Like a fat, juicy head of corn. Like a wisp of cotton. Fat and light and floating above. Sometimes, my veins want to rise, as if a flood was coming… I have heard that there are countries where women are fat, like dams about to burst. Spilling over. The sun burns the skin off their backs. My girl took me to see these women, on Bhondu’s TV. From far I saw them… Those must be wonderful places. I wonder, what must the men in such countries be like? Maybe like large bubbles. As large and hot and steady as the sun. I think things like this sometimes… I wonder if it is noon yet. They will give us half an hour. I can eat in ten minutes. But I will not. You take what you can. What else can you take? Slowly, we fill up half an hour. Five minutes to drop our tools. Five minutes to go to the canal and dip our hands. Then we look at the picture of the sky struggling to see itself in the canal. Then Valli shouts at us. He says, half an hour, okay? He says don’t be so lazy!
He thinks we waste time because we get paid by the hour. We used to be paid in sacks of rice. That was when I was… fifteen? Maybe twelve. Until I was ten, I used to bring worms. Three rupees for one kilo of red rice worm. It is this big. As big as half a child’s finger. The worm eats up the crop, so the landlord paid us, the children, to pick up the worm from the ground, from the plants’ leaves. We used to criss-cross the fields.
(She bends at a 45-degree angle, one foot before the other, eyes squinting with the effort to peer at something on the ground, and without stopping, swooping down and grabbing something. She leans on her khurpi again)
We collected one whole bucket, me, Rami, Kabbu. Rami was fast. But I had the best eyes. Now, my littlest girl gets the worms. Ten rupees for a kilo. But some things never change. The worm is still there. The worm doesn’t go away…. Valli also says it. Some things don’t change. If he doesn’t watch us, we will behave like cattle. “Malti”, he says, “you are like an old cow. Graze and graze but not one drop of milk to be squeezed out of you…” Valli has been saying this for thirty years. He also doesn’t change. Whenever I stop planting and start thinking, he throws a stone at my ankles.
I wonder what time it is. It is good to do things slowly. Slowly, you get up, slowly, you look at the sun after you have eaten. Watch it burn on the sky. Half an hour burns that much of a hole in the sky… I think these thoughts. My littlest one listens, but the biggest one has started laughing at me. She says, Amma, what things you say! She thinks old Malti is like her baby, babbling, trying to make noises without knowing the meaning of anything. The other day, she was speaking slowly to me, as if I didn’t speak her language. She said, amma, the sun doesn’t burn the sky. The sky is the sun’s home. The sun is life! And I thought, who knows? Who has asked the sky? Perhaps, if some day, the sun didn’t rise, the sky would be happy. It could just sit there, or lie down, and nobody would say, it is time for this, or that… I am growing old. Half an hour doesn’t seem enough… Maybe it is not time to stand up straight yet. Valli will shout if I straighten up too soon… It takes time to become bent, and even longer to stand like a man, again. Once you bend, it is easier to stay bent. It hurts less. Once you stand straight you don’t want to bend any more. It hurts more. And Valli doesn’t like me to take my time… I wonder if it is time yet.
copyright © 2010 Annie Zaidi. All rights reserved. ___________________________________________
Annie Zaidi is the author of Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales (Non-fiction/Tranquebar 2010) and a collection of poems, ‘Crush‘. Some poems have appeared in The Little Magazine, Desilit, Pratilipi, Indian Literature and Mint; some fiction was published in ‘21 Under 40′ (Zubaan), Verve, and The Raleigh Review. Her first play ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing’ was short-listed for The Hindu MetroPlus Playwright Award, 2009. She has been a journalist for a decade and has written for several newspapers and magazines including Frontline, Tehelka, Mid-Day and Deccan Herald. She currently lives in Mumbai, India.