Title: A Sense of Time and Other Stories
Author: Anuradha Kumar
Publisher: Weavers Press, San Francisco, 2021
Dorothy Cries in the Bus
She spoke for too long on her cell phone. That was the first thing Malati noticed about the foreign lady seated in front of her in the bus. She had brown hair fading at the corners and she spoke English. She sounded American to her ears. All this Malati noticed in degrees, having been too hassled to really look when she’d boarded the bus. There were last minute instructions she had to message her husband, even if she was leaving him and never coming back. Having sent off her last message, she sat disoriented for a while. Her eyes strayed ever so often to the glass fronted dial of her cell phone hoping it would light up. But of course, it didn’t. He really didn’t care. Even now, when he should rightfully have been worried about her, whether she’d boarded the bus all right, what with the heavy rains all along the Konkan till Goa, he was with that harlot. Malati felt certain that they were at the temple in Mahalaxmi, necking on the steps, offering prayers, all in the vain hope that the gods would not consider them shameless. The hair on Malati’s arms stood up in anger and indignation.
Images rushed through her mind, a savage anger that made her long to jump off the bus, hail a rickshaw and rush straight home. But she wouldn’t do that, not yet. Let Ashok miss her. He would know how difficult it was to run things in the house without her. Soon he’d be calling her up, begging her to return. Malati smiled at the thought, the anger disappearing into the sunny silver of her changing thoughts. How many days should she stay away, she wondered. Should she wait for him to fetch her?
She sat up straight, adjusting her sari around herself. It was then she gave herself time to take in her surroundings. Was everything as it should be? Perhaps the air conditioner was on too high. When the conductor came around, she would ask for it to be lowered. She paid 500 rupees extra for an air-conditioned seat and she was determined to get her money’s worth. She looked around at her neighbors. Some students on her left and an old lady on her right, who was perhaps being shunted off to yet another set of relatives. Would that be her fate too? Malati wondered. And just in front, though she could not see her face yet, was that American. Everyone who moved down the aisle, to their seats behind, bottles of mineral water, groundnut or chikki packets, even bananas, in hand, turned to look at her. It made Malati curious too. But she didn’t want to crane her neck or peer over her seat because that might feed the other woman’s vanity, make her think she was special. Women were the same everywhere that way, even Malati knew that. In any case from the back of her head visible over the seat Malati could tell she dyed her hair. A golden brown shade that was, as she’d already seen with some gladness, already fading.
She would wait for her to get up. Passengers usually did that, most of them in the minutes just before the bus started. It was an inevitable and uniform act, that after sitting for so long patiently, in the silence that prevailed after the driver had slammed the door to his cabin shut, before the conductor began his sedate traipse down the aisle, to click away at the tickets extended to him, people always remembered some last chore. Minutes before departure, the stench emanating from the public toilets rose unbearably high forcing people to send prayers of relief up to the heavens once they heard the engine revving up. The woman in front though didn’t get up and in the silence broken only by the steadily advancing click of the conductor’s stapler, Malati heard her voice too. It had to be American, she was sure now. The accent Malati could easily place thanks to the serials she watched.
But then the woman sounded distressed as well. She was on her phone again. Malati tried her best to follow the conversation, but it was short, and she could only make out the bye-bye at the end. Malati did not miss the last sob in her voice. Languages could be diverse, but nothing could hide expression. The American was crying to this person on the other end. Possibly her husband. These Americans were free in their feelings that way. The serials showed them kissing and hugging each other, openly, and always for too long. It really embarrassed Malati, even when she was by herself.
From the gap between the two chairs, she saw the woman move her hands over her face. She wiped her tears away. Poor thing, Malati thought. Such a long way from home, she was. Malati wondered whether she should ask to exchange seats with the woman who sat next to the American woman. But next to her sat someone who looked to be one of those students from the engineering college. They always traveled in groups over the weekend and did not deign to speak to anyone. Just because they were more educated, so fluent in English and rich. Malati sniffed.
About the book:
The stories in A Sense of Time and Other Stories offer a range of themes and emotions. They speak of the challenges of being human, the unpredictability of the mundane, the strange attractiveness of the unfamiliar, and the constant quest to make connections and find love, even with an alien from another world. In ‘An Entomologist at the Trial,’ a small town lawyer’s ambition turns on his attempt to resolve a thorny case that falls amusingly flat. ‘Pandemic 2121: A Love Story’ and ‘Missing’ are stories, varied in theme, that yet speak of the loneliness of keeping love. How does one save a love when everything is conspiring against it, these stories ask. ‘All The Way to the Twelfth Floor,’ ‘The Bus and the Minister,’ ‘Big Fish, and the title story, ‘A Sense of Time,’ speak of the alienation and helplessness of the common person when confronted with a faceless, stony-eyed system. A world with rules set in time, where conventions matter more, leaves little room for those at the very bottom who have little choice but to wait endlessly for succour. ‘Rekha Crosses the Line’ on the other hand, is a more subversive account of a woman who gives in to her desire for some fleeting moments, only to wonder if it was really worth it. ‘Alterations’ casts a satirical eye on a wannabe scientist’s experiments as he craves world recognition. And finally, ‘Comfort Food’ and ‘The Man Who Played Gandhi’ speak of our quest to make sense of those long gone, those whom we have lost. Written in the span of a decade and more, these stories will hopefully stay on, linger in the mind, long after being read. These stories might make you see yourself and even others in a different way. It takes only a little empathy to allow the hidden to surface.
About the Author:
Anuradha Kumar is a prolific and established writer. A Sense of Time and Other Stories is collection of short stories after The Girl Who Ran Away in a Washing Machine and Other Stories (Kitaab 2016). She has written several novels, including three works of historical fiction as Adity Kay. Anu also writes pieces on history for Scroll.in. Her stories have received awards from the Commonwealth Foundation, and The Little Magazine India. She was born in Odisha, lived in various parts of India, Singapore, before moving to the US more than a decade ago. She now lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter.
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