Choices

Faiza’s steps were short and quick, but measured. She carefully balanced a thin naan, soggy with the watery chutney that the vendor had so generously poured on it, on her palm. An emaciated-looking shami kebab sat in the middle.

There was no time to waste. She had to get back to her sister, Saba, as quickly as possible. She had settled her in a swing in the little playground near the bus stop. She had not wanted to leave her alone but it would also have been hard to keep an eye on Saba in the crowd.

Oh, how she hated crowds! Too many people, too close to her. Jostling and pushing and shoving.

She winced at the sound of someone spewing mucus ahead. Beads of sweat trickled down the back of the neck of the man in front of her. A wet patch, darker than the rest of his clothes, extended clearly from one pit to another and covered his whole back. Its dank odor made her gag, but there was no space to move away or to change pace. Unless she wanted to step down on to the mud-spattered road, she was stuck.

***

 Adil sat on the pavement, near to where all the food rairhis were snuggled together at the busy road intersection. He picked at a thread on the cuff of his frayed shorts as he watched the commotion of people and traffic all around him.

 The deep red of the cold aloo-bukhara juice. The samosas protected from flies by the flimsiest of cloths. The smell of the pakoras being scooped up fresh out of a deep fry pan. The naan-shamis nestled cozily next to the jugs of runny chutney. All of this tantalized his appetite. He had to swallow more than once and his stomach gave several deep, hungry growls that actually seemed to hurt his already-shriveled insides.

 Then, he saw her.

 His beady eyes settled on her as she purchased a naan-shami. He observed the girl’s harried movements as she handed over the money and quickly joined the throng of people that was moving away down the pavement from the intersection.

 Two seconds later, he joined the crowd and followed her.

 ***

 A couple of burly burka-clad women rubbed shoulders with Faiza. One of them stepped on her toes. Faiza barely managed to keep her balance. The ‘haey’ that escaped her, as two of the toes of her right foot throbbed with pain, went unnoticed. The woman carried on as before, unfazed. Faiza glared at her from the corner of her eye, muttering under her breathe. Some people! Uff!

 Shaking her head, she ploughed on. She must not keep Saba waiting, or alone, longer than was necessary. By now, Faiza was certain Saba’s wide forehead would be creased with a frown, wondering what was keeping her sister.

***

Though only ten, Adil had plenty of experience. He knew how to blend in with the crowd, how to go unnoticed. He kept his eyes fixed on the back of the girl he had seen at the naan-shami vendor, and followed her at what he deemed to be a safe enough distance for now.

 She seemed to be in a hurry but Adil was not worried. There was no danger of losing her. The crowd controlled her pace. It was harried – and she certainly seemed a bit impatient – but not so much that he couldn’t keep up with it.

 The same crowd hid him as well. He did not mind being in the midst of so many people. The close quarters, the rustling of cloth as people jostled each other, the smell of sweat, the loud chatter – he liked it all. And operating in such a huge crowd was second nature; it made his task that much easier.

 He bypassed an old, straggly man, who was bent at the waist and taking slow steps, and moved closer to her. Much closer, waiting for the right moment.

 Any second now, he thought. Any second.

 ***

 As the bus stop got nearer, the crowd around Faiza seemed to expand and pulsate with a new energy. The jostling grew and she struggled to hold her ground and keep her food balanced.

 A push and a little stumble, a pirouetting tumble – and her world turned sideways.

 She fell off the pavement, right onto the uneven road. Her heart pounded in her chest and she seemed unable to draw a proper breathe. For a second, she felt numb and then pain exploded in her left shoulder.

 Ignoring these pin-pricks, however, she sat up as quickly as she could, using the pavement as support against her back.

 No one seemed to notice that a person had just fallen to the ground. If they had, they had not stopped to help her. Not even to ask her if she was alright. The almighty crowd moved on. She vaguely registered this fact. Or that her elbow hurt as if scratched from the gravel. The whole of her left arm had also become wet, courtesy a puddle of muddy water.

 But she didn’t care. She didn’t even feel any embarrassment. The pain in her shoulder seemed unreal. All that clicked in her mind was her food.

The food. O Khudaya! A cry tried to escape her but never made it far. Her voice caught, her throat tightened up and all that came out was a whimper. The shami had broken into pieces and one side of the naan was soaked in the same puddle of water.

She stared down at the little spectacle in front of her, speechless. The food…lost!

***

Adil stopped dead in his tracks when he saw her fall, staring at her as she sat up against the pavement.

Oy! Get out of my way, you!” huffed a man, his moustache bristling, as he bumped into the standing-still Adil.

Several others shot him looks and grumbled as they veered around him. He would have shot them his special looks under different circumstances. Today, he barely noticed. He just stood there watching her, holding his breath.

***

Lost! Tears sprang up in her eyes suddenly, and she was unable to blink them back. Their saltiness stung as a couple of them rolled down her cheek and dissolved on her lips. Now what was she going to do?

Her thoughts turned to Saba. Saba was waiting for her back in the play ground. Hungry and impatient and bored of the swing by now. What was she going to do?

Neither of them had eaten anything the whole day. Nor had they had proper meals the previous day. Old, dry chapaati dipped in water did not fill their stomachs. An unusual occurrence; but temporary, their mother had assured them. Their father would soon be home – tomorrow, she said – and then they would have provisions. For now, they had to be patient.

But the hunger had struck. Unbearable pangs that had made it harder for both sisters to concentrate on their work. Or breathe. The rumblings of their empty bellies could not be ignored, especially since it was the first time their rations had dwindled down to such an extreme. They had always managed somehow in the past.

Today, the only motivation to do anything was the imminent return of their father. Now, even that seemed to have run out with no work as distraction. There was only the rumbling of their stomachs that filled their ears and their heads. And all Faiza had in her possession were two measly twenty rupees notes. One of which they needed to catch the bus back home.

Two growling, empty stomachs and just twenty rupees.

Faiza had quickly assessed their options and made a decision. Saving twenty rupees and going home hungry would be stupid. Better to get a small portion of something – anything – to put their mind and stomach at ease.

So, she had settled Saba in the swing and went off to buy the naan-shami from the vendor she had seen where all the food carts were congregated near the intersection. She had known that it would not be enough – or course it wouldn’t be enough! – but it would have to do for now.

And look where her cleverness had got her, she thought bitterly, sitting against the pavement. Now her whole arm throbbed with pain and her heart felt even more heavy. Sweet, little Saba. How would she ever face her sister empty-handed? How would she ever explain to her expecting eyes why and how she had failed them?

Tears stained pathways down her cheeks. She closed her eyes, praying for a miracle.

***

Adil did not know what to do now. He had been seconds away from getting his prize. Snatching it and running like hell. He was fast. He would have disappeared in a matter of seconds. And he wouldn’t have looked back. He wouldn’t have given a second thought to her reaction, to anything. He just wouldn’t have cared. He never did.

And he would have had a nice little meal, all to himself, that would have kept him going for a couple more days. At least today. Fate did not present him with such easy targets often.

His stomach grumbled as he saw how the kebab had disintegrated, while the naan was being seasoned by a puddle. A wave of disappointment washed over him. Rabba! How unfair! Why did she have to fall?

***

A few minutes passed. To Faiza, they felt like an eternity. She realized that that there would be no miracle. No help. No one around her had even stopped for a second, let alone ask her if she was alright. No one cared. They had buses to catch. Important business to attend to. Everyone was in too much of a hurry to bother helping, to even bother looking.

And she realized she could not just continue to sit here. Saba would be getting jumpy. She had to get back. And they had to go back home or their mother would be worried.

The corner of her chaadar absorbed her tears. She looked around her furtively bent towards the dropped, soiled food, her hands trembling. She picked up the naan, and brushed at it, carefully separating and discarding the useless wet part. Then, gulping back a fresh wave of tears, she gathered up the scattered kebab on the naan.

***

Adil saw her collect the food up from the road but did not understand. He felt utterly perplexed. Why would she pick it up from the road? She would eat that?!

He felt repulsed. He had not thought of doing the same. He, who had not eaten for – what was it? Two, three days now? – who did not know when the next meal would be coming, who often fed himself by stealing, who was accustomed to long bouts of famine. He had not wanted to eat the food that had fallen on the ground.

She had picked it up. Dusted it. Was carefully balancing it once more in her palm as if she still planned to eat it. He suppressed a gag.

***

Faiza gazed at the food in her hands for a moment. But she couldn’t think. No. She shouldn’t think. She would not allow herself to think.

So, she slowly stood up, gathered her courage. Brought her sister’s face to her mind as motivation. Her whole body seemed to ache from her fall now. Her arm was still wet. But she ignored it all. She had wasted too much time already; it was time to get back to Saba.

She adjusted her shawl with one hand and started moving on the road, along the pavement. Avoiding the crowd of people. Slowly making her way back. She couldn’t risk losing her food again.

***

He shook his head and turned away.

The pavement would be a good place to start again.

***

Author’s Note:

“Choices” may not be used or reproduced, in part or whole, without proper consent. I am assuming you would want to.

I wrote this back in 2011 for a university fiction-writing class. This piece earned an A-, even though I didn’t fare that well overall.

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