“Jaldi le bhai. Pick it fast. I don’t have time,” the boy was getting impatient. He picked up the small glass of tea and almost thrust it in the hands of Dhampat. The warm glass touched his knuckles and he stirred a bit.
“Nahin chahiye. I don’t want it,” Dhampat gulped down the saliva that had risen in his throat.
“Nahin chahiye? Matlab? Why don’t you want? Are you new here? Arey there are no charges. Free hai!” the boy laughed as Dhampat reluctantly held the glass. He could hear the tinkling sound of the glasses in the crate fading away. He cupped the glass in his two hands, sipping slowly to savour the taste and at the same time fearing it will go cold soon.
Bhagwanti was trying to fire up the stove when she went outside to check if the men had returned from the factory. Instead her eyes caught the crimson sun going down slowly behind the mountains. Like a stubborn child not wanting to wind up his play, the sun seemed to be lying down on the sky with its arms and legs spread out. As Bhagwanti opened her mouth to suck in the cool air, a hope curled up in her heart like an embryo in a womb. Seeing the trees sway she thought of the barren land that stretched back home where nothing moved, except stories in the vacuum of the past. But they were not talked about like the birds chattering vigorously at the end of the day. The stories quietly and slowly grew inside their body, expending their every hope. On days when some of the stories showed up in their face, the fear in their eyes conversed in whispers with each other for days, sometimes even months.
She was pouring water in the aluminium glass when Dhampat pulled her arm and made her sit on the charpoy.
“Can you believe they gave me tea worth Rs.1 and lunch worth Rs. 3, absolutely free!” Dhampat chuckled like a little boy.
“Free?” Bhagwanti’s eyes opened wide.
“Didn’t I tell you things will get better here!” Dhampat removed the chappal and sat folding his legs on the charpoy. Pulling one end of her saree over her face, Bhagwanti’s other hand touched her flat belly.
Haria’s distinctive hoarse voice boomed outside. Soon others joined. Chaotic noise among shrills of children filled the valley. Dhampat and Bhagwanti kept sitting on the charpoy listening to their ranting about the electricity problem and how difficult it was to manage in the dark. Bhagwanti walked a few steps in the small hut to pour the lentil over rice. The two red glass bangles slid down her bony wrist. She missed the sound they used to make whenever her hands moved deftly to do the household chores. She noted to buy six more at month end. Her hands could feel the dent in the aluminium plate and immediately the bangles were replaced by utensils in the buying list in her mind. The tiny bulb lit up and euphoric sounds of kids startled her for a moment. As she nudged Dhampat, she noticed the two the holes in his tattered dhoti were now bigger. The bangles and the utensils will have to wait, she gave a sigh.
It was on the third day at the factory, Dhampat saw something fall from the carton he was unloading in the truck. He picked up the bright yellow packet and played with it for sometime before giving it back to the worker. While coming back from work with Haria, he could make out the bright yellow packets dangling outside the small shop at the corner. He pointed towards the packets.
“Haan haan. These are the nudalj our factory makes,” Haria smiled touching the instant noodle square packets stacked one over another. Dhampat looked at him blankly.
“In Uttrakhand and whole of India this is a very popular nudalj. Do you know what nudalj is? You don’t?” he continued without waiting for an answer, “That is why the factory is doing so well. They need more and more workers. That’s why they employed you.” Haria wasn’t sure if he should have said the last words but he let the thought pass.
The manager counted the currency notes in his hands loudly - Pachaas, sau, dedh sau, do sau, dhai sau, teen sau, sadhe teen sau, chaar sau, chaar sau pachaas. He handed Rs.450 to Dhampat. He pressed his right thumb on the ink pad and then on the ledger. Saadhe chaar sau! 450 rupees! Dhampat’s hands trembled as he pocketed the money in his pale brown kurta and sat in the corner waiting for Haria. The image of Bhagwanti rolling the potter’s wheel to make matkas and he selling them for two rupees in the market of Lalpur flashed again and again in front of his eyes.
“Kyun bhai khush? Aaj pehli tankha mili hai! You must be excited to get your first wage?” Haria patted his back.
“Shukriya tumhara. I am thankful to you for bringing us here. I would be rotting in that city, cursing my luck had it not been for you. So many times I thought of escaping but how could I do it alone. I was even afraid of the rambling of the train. Had it not been for you Haria, I would have never seen this day,” Dhampat spoke softly as the tears mixed with the sweat on the burnt skin of his face.
“Arey behan ke liye to karna hi padta hai! Bhagwanti is my younger sister.”
Haria seemed to be looking far as he talked about the past.
“Bhopal may be big but our Lalpur was too small. When I ran away I was also afraid. I had no clue where will I land up. But I always questioned ye bhi koi zindagi hai. I knew this cannot be all in life. But then see where we are today. I could never visit my family in all these years and when I did my parents were gone and my sister was married to you. I am happy it all got settled in the end!”
Dhampat nodded at the word settled. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but he knew he felt happy after a long time. So when he crossed the small shop on the way, he stopped to buy the yellow packet of instant noodles. Haria had to teach Bhagwanti how to stir and cook them in the pan.
That night, their tiny hut had filled with an aroma they had never known. Dhampat had found it difficult to hold the noodles in his spoon or eat with his fingers. They kept slipping one after another. Bhagwanti had laughed at the sight. She had held a long noodle and placed it on his lips. He had widened his eyes and had nodded his head side to side to show his pleasure. Tired of spooning one noodle after another, they had mashed them with rice and gobbled the balls. They had slept peacefully by each other’ side in their hut, under the canopy of starlit sky, their breath in sync with the rhythm of the sound of the crickets.
Haria’s pace slowed down, his eyes squeezed to see what the fuss was all about. He left the hand of Dhampat and ran ahead. He halted at the large circle of workers, craning his neck to see what was happening. He asked a fellow worker.
“What is the matter?”
“They have closed the factory!”
“Closed the factory? Why?”
“We have no idea.”
Dhampat sat down next to a group of workers squatting on the road side and discussing why the factory was closed today. The voice of the manager boomed.
“The factory from today will remain closed. When it opens we will put the notice outside and also announce in the village. You can now all go back.”
As soon as he stopped, questions came hurling at him. Till when? Why? How about our wages?
But the manager had turned and the gates had been closed. Dhampat sat there listening to the air filled with noise, whispers and silence at the same time. His palms had begun to sweat. The crowd began to disperse, but Dhampat sat still. As the view cleared, he could faintly see the two steel gates locked into each other. His legs felt heavy as he dragged himself towards it. Haria got hold of his arm and pulled him backward.
“Where are you going? The factory is closed. We will come tomorrow and enquire.”
He pushed him away, and continued walking towards the gate. Holding the gate tightly with his hands, it seemed he was gauging its length and breadth with his eyes. He could hear the tea boy talking from behind.
“This has been going on for days. They are saying the nudalj are not safe to eat. The government has banned them. This is not going to solve soon. Ye lamba chalega.”
Dhampat turned towards the boy.
“What do you mean not safe? How can nudalj be harmful?”
Dhampat was almost shaking him and his hands were pinching his thin arms.
“How do I know?” The tea boy jerked him away, looking at Haria.
“They are saying there is lead in these nudaljs. It is like slow poison. I have no idea what it means but now all the packets of nudalj will be removed from the market. So production has been stopped”
The word poison was ringing loudly in Dhampat’s ears. He knelt down near the gate and began to laugh. His head hung back, the shoulders going up and down in convulsions; he pointed towards the tea boy and roared louder with laughter.
“Do you even know what poison is?” he asked the boy controlling his laughter.
Stretching the skin beneath his eyes with his fingers he glared at the boy, “This is what poison does. The poison, once it goes into your veins and blood, never leaves you till it does this to you.” The thin white coat on the left eye glimmered in the sunlight. Scared, the tea boy stepped back. Hearing his retreating footsteps, Dhampat fumbled to get up and shouted.
“Where are you running away? You are afraid to look at me? To listen to my story?” The chappal in his feet came out as Dhampat ran after the boy and stumbled on the dirt road. He was shouting now so that the boy fading away from his eyes could hear what he was saying.
“I was in my mother’s womb when she swallowed poison. Poison from one such factory. But she died only after giving birth to me with these defected eyes. And then I also refused to die and lived in this darkness. But I hoped to escape it every day. I hoped one day my own child will be born free of this poison. But this is poison; it doesn’t leave you. My child was born still. From Bhopal to Uttrakhand, I came all the way here in hope. And now you tell me there is poison here also!” As he said the muscles of his face twitched like a wounded animal and tears came streaming down from his red eyes. His hands clenched in the dirt. Groping for some stones, he turned and began pelting them at the factory gate. Two policemen kicked him away, warning the onlookers. Dhampat had become unconscious, not sure because of the beating or the agony.
Haria whispered to Dhampat lying on the charpoy, his lips chapped and body burning with fever.
“They are saying it is matter of three months. They will make new nudaljs and the factory will reopen. Don’t give up. I have hired a rickshaw. It should give me enough to sustain. You too will find some labour work. You may not fetch a lot but it would be more than what you earned in Lalpur. You must have saved some from the first wage, haina?”
There was no answer. Haria got up to leave and looked at Bhagwanti standing in the corner. She shut the door of the hut but the rhythmic sound of the crickets outside could still be heard. The two red bangles slid down her bony wrist ,without a sound, as her hand stroked his hair. She lifted his hand and gently rested it on her belly. She thought she saw his eyelashes flicker. She had been right. Dhampat had wanted to open his eyes, but the eyelids had felt too heavy.