Friday Afternoons on Bus Number 51
Alok is a salesman at Lakshmi Silks, a sari shop located in one of the busiest shopping districts of Bangalore City. The old, stone-paved roads here are narrow; the granite slabs underfoot are slippery—they have been worn down by the volume of people who walk on them every day. Alok trudges from the bus stop to the shop every morning and back from the shop to the bus stop every night, watching his feet on the smooth stones. Most of the gray slabs look similar, but some have patterns on them: an arc of white, a swirl of black, white specks on a dark background like a reflection of the night sky. He has walked this route so many times that he can recall the order of these patterned stones.
All day long, Alok unfolds saris to show them to loud, demanding women. Their voices sound alike to him, and he thinks of them as being just one woman: the Customer.
“Show me the red sari,” the Customer says. “No, not the blood red, the magenta one with the brocade edge. Now show me the purple-- actually, the blue …”
Neatly folded saris are stacked on shelves of the rectangular shop; Alok slides them out and unfurls them onto the white, laminated tables with practiced flicks of his wrist so the Customer can see how lusciously the fabric and embroidery complement each other. On most days, she is hard to please and walks out of the shop empty-handed, but Alok is never impatient. As he refolds these six-meter long saris, his fingers expertly follow the directives of the vertical and horizontal creases to ensure that the fabric stays unwrinkled.
Alok has been working here since he was twelve years old, and although he is now thirty-one, Kumar Sahib, the owner of Lakshmi Silks, calls him “Boy,” just like he did on Alok’s first day at work. Sahib always addresses the other salesman by his first name, often accompanied by an irritated exclamation—“Oi Vivek!” or “Vivek, you donkey!”—but Alok has always been “Boy” to him. Vivek ogles the women shoppers, winks and wiggles his eyebrows at them, and sings Bollywood love songs under his breath while showing them the saris. But Alok has remained timid and deferential. He shies away from making eye contact with the women who come in to shop and rarely lifts his eyes from off the saris.
So when the three new mannequins for the shop window were delivered to the store a few months ago, Sahib asked Alok to assemble them.
“You were an obedient and polite child,” Sahib said as Alok struggled to fit the voluptuous plastic torsos onto the shapely legs, “but I was afraid that once you got older, I’d have the same problems with you as I’ve had with other young salesmen—the ones whom I fired because their behavior was even worse than that fool Vivek’s. Luckily, this didn’t happen; you are the best worker I’ve had, Boy.”
Alok mumbled his gratitude and fitted a mannequin’s arms into the sockets; her palms came together in a namaste.
“This is why I choose you to dress the mannequins,” Sahib said. “The window display must be so appealing that no woman who passes by the shop should be able to resist entering.”
Alok likes this idea; he finds it challenging. He imagines that, one day, the girl from the bus will come to that part of the city on a shopping trip, her sandals slipping a little on the worn-out stones; and as she nears the sari shop, the mannequins Alok has dressed will draw her inside, and there she will be, smiling at him in that beautiful, familiar way.
Once a week, Alok takes the three mannequins down from the shop window and into a small room at the back of the shop. Here, he first undresses them, and then wraps them in the new saris that Kumar Sahib has picked out. Vivek always follows him into the tiny room so he can laugh at him as he does this, and this routine makes Alok furiously embarrassed. When his fingers brush against the mannequins’ breasts, and he tucks in the saris low on their hips, his head throbs and his hands shake. Vivek rolls with laughter as he watches him fumble nervously with the saris.
“This is the closest you’ll get to a real woman,” he tells Alok, “so enjoy it, Little Girl.”
Once, Alok had modeled a sari for an elderly lady who came into Lakshmi Silks to shop for her daughter in England; since then, Vivek has taken to calling him “Little Girl.” The elderly lady had been unlike the Customer that Alok knew and was used to—her unusual friendliness disconcerted him. She told him that her daughter was in London, getting a Ph.D. in English Literature, and was marrying her British boyfriend the following month.
“I haven’t met him, but I’ve spoken to him on the phone,” the old lady said. “He seems like a nice boy.”
Alok was nervous and didn’t reply. He wished she would stop talking and tell him which kind of sari she wanted.
“Next month is an auspicious month for weddings,” she continued. “My girl might be modern, but she is traditional in the important ways.” She nodded as she said this, and he nodded back. Finally, she said, “Show me your best saris.”
Alok brought out the most expensive saris in the shop—rich, smooth silks embroidered with gold and silver threads and embedded with semi-precious stones. The old lady examined them slowly and picked out a pink sari with golden paisley embroidery.
“My daughter’s complexion is very similar to yours,” she said. “Could you wrap this sari around yourself so that I can be absolutely sure it will look good on her?”
Alok felt muddled and panicky, and couldn’t think of how to refuse her. He wound the sari around his clothes, his eyes darting to Vivek who was busy with customers on the other side of the shop; he hoped he wouldn’t look over and see him.
“I’ll take it,” the old lady said finally.
But while Alok rapidly unwrapped the sari from around himself, Vivek glanced across the room at him and grinned.
“Little Girl looks pretty in pink,” Vivek said later when he passed him on his way out for a cigarette break.
And now when Kumar Sahib asks, “Where’s the Boy?,” Vivek yells out to Alok, “Little Girl! Sahib wants you!”
Often, Vivek shuts the door of the small backroom when Alok is dressing the mannequins, and locks it from the outside.
“I’ll give you some privacy while you play with your dolls, Little Girl,” he says.
As Alok fiddles with the pleats of a sari, he can hear Vivek laughing on the other side of the door. The mannequins stare at him, smooth-faced and calm, their full, red lips curved in coquettish smiles.
On every weekday except Friday, Alok has a regular routine. He catches the 7:30 bus each morning from his house to the shop. On his way from the bus stop to Lakshmi Silks, he buys a small garland of jasmine from the flower sellers who sit by the Ganesh temple. By 8:00, he has unlocked the shop and opened the windows to let in the cool morning air; he sweeps the floor and wipes the white tables clean. He lights a sandalwood-scented incense stick and sets it before the portrait of Goddess Lakshmi that hangs on the wall, and replaces the day-old jasmine garland on the portrait with the fresh one he has just bought. Kumar Sahib comes in at exactly 8:30, immediately opens his ledger, and begins balancing accounts. Vivek strolls in casually after 9:00, despite Sahib’s regular reprimands. Alok is busy with customers all day, except for two fifteen-minute tea breaks at 11:00 in the morning and 5:00 in the evening, and a half-hour lunch break at 1:00. At 8:00 each night, he locks up the shop.
He takes the bus back home, where his mother keeps his dinner warm and sits with him while he eats. Alok can predict what she will talk about. First, she will ask him if he had a good day, to which he will always say that he did. Then she will tell him about her day: She washed the clothes, her arthritis is becoming worse, she went to the market to buy vegetables, she comforted the neighbor’s colicky baby. Finally, she will try to talk him into getting married. On some days, she is insidious about this:
“Swarna’s niece is so beautiful. I have a photograph of her with me, Son. See? Isn’t she lovely? Such fair skin! She made cashew candy the other day. What a wonderful cook!”
On other days, when her arthritis is especially bad, or when another woman in the neighborhood has asked her why Alok is still a bachelor, her impatience makes her more direct:
“Kumar Sahib pays you well now, Son. You can afford a wife and a child—maybe even two children! Don’t you want to make me a grandmother?”
Alok won’t respond to her, and she continues her harangue until she wears herself out and lies down on her mat to sleep. After he eats, Alok goes to bed. The multicolored spots he sees when he shuts his eyes remind him of the saris in their various designs and brilliant hues.
Fridays are special, and at one o’clock on Friday afternoons, Alok has lunch at restaurant that is a ten-minute walk away from Lakshmi Silks. The lunch special here is channa masala served with rotis, and this is what he has. Being a special day, he reasons, it merits a special lunch. After he eats, he washes his hands over and over with the lemon-scented soap in the restaurant restroom. When he is satisfied that they smell clean, he uses his big checked handkerchief to wipe them dry with great thoroughness.
He then walks to the bus stop, watching his feet on the stones, and because he is eagerly looking forward to the rest of the afternoon, he smiles at the stones he recognizes. Bus Number 51 is usually a little late, and this makes Alok impatient. He jumps up when he sees it approaching, and boards it quickly. The bus is never filled up at this time and he almost always gets a window seat. He settles down and listens to the hum of the engine, and watches the soft, white clouds. They take on cheerful shapes: a small dog with a curly tail, a fat man bending over, a cluster of balloons.
One stop before Tagore Circle, Alok sits up straighter and pats his hair down. In the five minutes it takes to reach Tagore Circle, he becomes increasingly anxious. He worries that she might not be there, and that she has decided never to come again. He looks out the window apprehensively, searching for her among the people waiting at the bus stop. But she is always there. She gets on the bus and her eyes dart around as she looks for him; then, she walks right over to his seat. She sits beside him and they immediately hold hands, secretly and tightly.
Alok doesn’t know her name, her age, or anything about her. He rode this bus for the first time when he ran an errand for Kumar Sahib on a Friday afternoon several months ago. The girl sat down next to him that day and took his hand in hers. She held onto him firmly, and though he was uneasy, he was also moved and amazed that a beautiful woman wanted to hold his hand.
When Alok returned to Lakshmi Silks later that evening, he hesitantly asked Kumar Sahib whether he could take three-hour lunch breaks on Fridays, from one to four.
“Of course,” Kumar Sahib said, smiling. It was the first time Alok had asked him for anything.
And every Friday after that, Alok has made sure that he is on the same bus at the same time in the afternoon, and the girl has always gotten on at Tagore Circle.
She looks straight ahead, never at him. He steals glances at her from time to time, trying to memorize the shape of her eyes, the exact shade of her dusky skin, every angle and curve of her face. Once, he’d looked down at their tightly-clasped hands and noticed that she was darker than him; he knew his mother wouldn’t approve of a dark-skinned daughter-in-law, and realizing that made him smile. The girl’s saris are always plain but in good taste, and Alok likes to think about which sari from Lakshmi Silks he would buy for her if he could afford to. He also makes note of the way she wears her sari every Friday—whether she pleats the end and pins it to her blouse modestly, or if she leaves the fabric flowing over her arm, or if she wraps it around her back like a shawl —and when he dresses the mannequins, he does so in an imitation of her style.
On some days, the girl’s eyes sparkle, and Alok thinks she is young, too young, maybe not even twenty. On other days, the firm way she sets her mouth makes her look older. Alok wonders if she is married, and whether her husband is responsible for the unhappy way she purses her lips. At this thought, he is racked with jealousy and outrage. He imagines her husband—a cruel and ungrateful man; Alok feels that he could fight for her.
The girl always gets off at the Majestic Market stop; there is a flicker of a smile on her lips as she walks down the aisle of the bus and descends the steps. Alok continues sitting in the bus for two more stops, till Vasanth Road. He goes to the confectioner’s there to buy a box of cashew candy for his mother. He greets the confectioner loudly, and smiles at him brightly. He asks after his family—he knows the confectioner has two children in middle school and a wife who gets frequent asthma attacks. Alok discusses politics and cricket with him in a clear, confident voice, and makes witty comments and tells jokes. He imagines what the confectioner might be saying about him to his friends and customers: “There is this smart young fellow who comes to my shop every Friday afternoon to buy a box of cashew candy. What a friendly and intelligent young man!”
Alok tucks the box of sweets into the pocket of his tunic and takes the next bus back to the sari shop.
Vivek is usually at the street corner, smoking cigarettes, waiting to tease him.
“Hello, Little Girl! How was your date with Miss India? Or is it Mister India?”
Alok walks by, head bowed; he hides his loud, confident voice, but a secret smile inside him keeps him warm. Whenever one of the women who come into the shop to buy saris has a slender wrist with dark, silky skin, Alok wonders if it is her. In that deliciously slow moment, before he dares to raise his eyes up to her face and discover that it is only a Customer, he feels the air surge into his nostrils and hears his heartbeat in his ears, and he is happy.
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