Alta

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

The bus is just a bit crowded. It’s one of those scenarios regular commuters are familiar with – no seats available, but it’s not so stuffy that it’s difficult to stand. Not an ideal situation, but it could be worse. No sweaty armpits touch my elbow, people on either side are at a comfortable distance from me. I am standing with my back to the front gate. I look out from the window in front of me. Because of my height, I can only see the opposite side of the road. Vehicles swish by, blocking my view of the road divider. Only once, when passing by Dhaka-Kalibari do I see another road winding down onto the other side. When in a contemplative mood that borders on a bout of depression, it helps to be on the move. I prefer to switch between looking at things moving by and concentrating on a fixed object. The broken line dividing the road combines both. It moves and yet doesn’t.

People get up, people get down. Enough to make no difference.

Two men occupy the seat in front of me. Above, in line with my eyes, written in red ink: Sr. Cityzen. The colour reminds me of alta. As a child, I’d sit in a room full of well-dressed women putting alta on their feet. Once the bottles opened, a faintly tangy smell would float dubiously in the air. You would smell it one moment, and the next it was gone, only to come back again.

I fancied no one noticed its eccentricity except me. It was a game we played, just the two of us – I gave a vocation to its existence, it accompanied me in a room full of busybodies. It was as if it came back only to prove that it could, that if you thought you knew what it was up to, you were wrong. One needed to always be on the alert and not give it a chance to catch you off guard. But after all, perhaps it wasn’t its fault entirely. It had to compete with the freshly plucked flowers and crumpling cotton sarees and the everpresent wastewater flowing relentlessly in the open drains outside. I would sit there among the chatter, nose on the alert. No one chatted to me, they seemed so busy I was almost ashamed to ask if I too could apply some alta on my feet. I would have to wait patiently for the hubbub to die down, for the table fan to be put on maximum speed, and for the edge of the bed to be filled with feet jingling to the rhythm of their payals. Payal and alta, best friends forever. I knew the sentiment before I learnt the term. Yes, it was after everybody was done that someone (usually the neighbour’s eldest daughter) would ask me if I’d like to be painted on. She would have a sly grin on her face. I had graduated from pastel colours to water colours, and I had gone around telling anyone I could find. Yes, I would say earnestly, yes I’d like some alta on my feet, too. The women on the bed would giggle and tease me as Bulti didi painted my tiny ticklish feet.

“Hold up, there. Come on, come on, get up!” The conductor’s voice breaks into the room as Bulti didi vanishes with the bottle of alta in her hand. The bus is grunting, like an animal stopped in its tracks. There is a bit of jostling behind me and a wrinkled hand emerges from nowhere. It dangles there for a moment before one of the sitting men hold on to it tightly. The bus moves on with a jerk. The man, still holding onto the arm, gets up. I move aside a little to make space for him to stand. As he turns, an old woman takes his seat. He lets go of her palm and steadies himself. The woman plops down, repeatedly muttering something good-naturedly.

“Allah bless you, children, Allah bless you” – I catch it at the fourth or fifth repeat. She has a smile on her face. The bus lurches forward suddenly. Startled, she holds on to the thigh of the man sitting next to her. I look at him and realize he’s quite young, perhaps a couple of years younger than me. He looks at her nervously at first, and then something flashes in his eyes. He leans in and mutters something close to her ear.

“Yes, yes, my child. Yes…yes”, she says to him, running her hand across his cheek, the ends of his never-shaved beard rustling as a result.
The nervousness returns to his face, a hint of indecisiveness too, but he sets his jaw and looks out of the window. The conductor shouts, “Anwar Shah…”

I feel the moment pass, something un-said, something else not quite understood. As the bus takes a turn at the crossing, I find myself transported to a memory from recent history. There is the bottle of alta, but no room with happy women. I am inside a bathroom, getting rid of my pants hastily. It’s a winter morning and the wet tiles feel like pinpricks. I place my towel on the ground, spreading it like a mat. I sit down and open the bottle. The air reeks of fear, but as the smell of alta spreads a sense of euphoria is added to it. The fear of thrill, the thrill of fear. Secrecy is my new companion, but it doesn’t help my amateur fingers as I paint myself. My feet don’t feel ticklish to my own touch, and despite myself I sense something incomplete. I love seeing the curves of my reddened heels, the liquid trickling down an inch or so into the soles of my feet. I am no expert at this. No one teases me anymore. I am not sure I prefer it this way,  but this is the only way. Bulti didi is married now, her mother dead, and anyway, we’re in a different neighbourhood. After I am done, I shut the bottle and keep it aside. There’s still some alta on my fingers. I rub it into my chest, two long lines fainting into the navel. I must make sure no one sees the bottle when I leave. My feet should be fine. I have got my clothes into the bathroom, and I congratulate myself for remembering the socks. I should be comforted by the fact that I have done this before. Yet, as I sit there waiting for it to dry, I fancy that the smell of alta overpowers the smell of fear and anxiety. Only for a moment, but it is worth it.

Slowly, meditatively, the image loses focus and swims out of view. It is like waking from a semi-conscious dream.

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

The bus is stuck in a jam. Not a major one, just one of those two-minute things. The boy has been looking out of the window, and the woman is stealing a glance at him. She seems to be struggling to say something. Eventually, she touches his elbow and says, “Where will you get down?”
“Same place as you”, he says, turning. I do not catch the name of the place. An awkward smile steals into his expression.
“Oh? Umm…” she hesitates, looking at him intently. I fancy her eyes are narrowed.
The bus starts moving again.
“I am Rabnawaz”, he says
“Rab…nawaz…” she repeats, still in a daze, “Your father is…”
He grins sheepishly, keeping the information from her, enjoying to see her struggle.
“Ah, ah, you’re Maslu’s son,” she almost shouts. For a moment, everybody stops what they are doing and looks their way. Then, seeing nothing extraordinary, they continue where they had left off. “Arre, beta,” she says, leaning on him and running her hands through his hair, “you recognized me but I didn’t recognize you…”
The boy lets out a short laugh, then adjusts his hair. “It’s been so long na?” he says playfully.
She leans back and regards him carefully. “What’s wrong with your hair?”
“What’s wrong with it?”, he shoots back automatically, defensively.
“Oh, you young ones!” She leans in again and puts her arm through his. “Have paan? Just bought them.” She unties the end of her saree and takes out a bundle.
“No…no, I don’t…” The boy hesitates, but can’t help smiling all the same.
She doesn’t even look up. “Eat, eat, baba.” Then, elbowing him, “Now, if I had been one of your young friends, would you have dared to say no?”
The boy takes it and puts it into his mouth. He seems a little embarrassed by her frankness. But he is laughing. His body shakes with the effort of suppressing it.

“You still live there? Brother all right?” she asks through a rounded, reddening mouth.

“Mmm…hmm”, the boy manages, biting in.

“In … the name … of lost neighbours!” she says, chewing with a satisfied smile.

 

Author: Ankit Prasad

Ankit Prasad has completed his MA in English from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He takes an avid interest in Indian English sf and has a soft spot for literature in translation.

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