The festival meant little for her. The streets of the old city bordered with cracker shops advertising Cock brand rockets and fuljharis and chakkarghinnis, little shanties done up to their best, laced with chains of little bulbs that would find the light of day when the day would lose his, large commercial complexes with large neon signs that promised to blaze the night red, blue, magenta and turquoise blue. Between these exuberant borders ran a river of people, with bright clean clothes, new or borrowed, with golden buckles and shiny shoes and polished shoes, the surface brimming with freshly oiled hair partings and the anarchic quantum foam of chunnis and ghunghats draped over heads, the air about thick with the smell of coconut oil, imitation Charlie and rosewater. A few stood out. The dervish in his tatters, conversing with invisible djinns by the oldest tree in the vicinity. The beggars, running against the common flow, trying to monetize the common flow for lunch, dinner and the cut the dons asked for, selling toys, candy floss or plain sympathy. And her.
In a stained kurta (water without detergent can only handle so much), her hair matted (it was a choice between the shampoo pouch and the bread – both of which cost Rs. 5), bent under a weight of a heavy bundle of cloth (she had deliveries to make).
While they looked away from her (the disgust), she looked away from them (the shame), she considered briefly that this might be some perverse commerce at work. Ignorance for apathy? But that wasn’t the only trade she was conducting here.
The bundle on her back, if they had brought themselves to look closer, wasn’t just pieces of dirty white cotton. This cloud of dirty white, to the humane onlooker, would reveal intricate patterns of embroidery like he had never seen before, little mughal windows complete with their delicate carvings, ripe mangoes in magical forests, fishes jumping onto the boats of ailing nobles, offering them a fleeting chance at hope and redemption, sonnets by kings and poets demanding justice from Allah and love from courtesans, the wonders of the dying craft of the chikankar, of which she was amongst the last few. The humane onlooker would rush to her, burst out in loud praises of the art she had created, demand that others give her her due. A bubble would be formed in the flow. Encircled by the praising millions, her lowly craft acknowledged as high art, she the heroine of a forgotten age raised on loving shoulders. But no one was humane. And no one looked.
She walked through the space between a shop selling flowers and another selling clothes (import rejects). Finding her way through the renowned phool waali gali, she knocked a knocker on an intricately carved door. A child opened the door, demanded kya hai of her. He wore a new WWE t-shirt, bright pink shorts, and new keds. He smelt of Lifebuoy Gold.
‘Sethji honge?’ she enquired.
‘Ruko’, the child said, and disappeared inside.
The Seth appeared, looking rather flummoxed at her sight.
‘Aaj tum yahaan?’ he asked, peeking about to notice if this disgraceful guest had been noticed by the neighbors.
‘Paise ki zaroorat thi’, she submitted, ‘ghar mein khaane ka nahin hai…Aur kaam bhi ho gaya tha…’
‘Theek hai, andar aao’, the Seth said angrily.
‘Samaan nikaalo’, he demanded.
She opened up her bundle and removed another bundle from it. The Seth took it and handed her a hundred.
‘Ek sau pachis nahin tha?’ She asked.
‘Abhi chutta nahin hai’, the Seth said, ‘agli baar le lena.’
Her work would be sold for close to ten times of what she was getting, perhaps even more. But she didn’t know that and received what she was given with grace.
She gathered her bundle and turned to leave.
‘Ruko’, the Seth said, ‘Rukhmani!’ He called for his wife and asked her to be directed through the backdoor.
On the road again, she passed the sweetshops to the old Nawab’s. His Excellency was given to the selling of horrendously overpriced antiques. His wife, meanwhile, maintained a boutique, which was fair in its equal fleecing of the NGOs that supported it and the chikankars she leeched off their craft.
Led directly into the servants area (there were guests over), she was served chai and mithai in a steel plate and saucer. Peeking past the zenana into the living room, she saw guests served in bone china plates. One day… she humored herself, her face, wry with a smile.
She made her last delivery to the modern home - a new entrepreneur who had recently gotten in touch with her. He was stocking up for his new shop. Sadly, he still operated at the old rates. The sky had started lighting up with fireworks. There were diyas at his door.
They let her in. The child was instructed to bring her sweets. Busy at his Playstation, he asked her to get it from the kitchen herself.
She had just walked in when the grandmother screamed.
‘Malaich’, she screamed. A clear reference to her dirty clothes, ‘kisne ghusne diya is malaich ko rasoi mein?’
She had defiled the kitchen, even more auspicious on festive occasion than its usual self.
Hanging her head low as the matriarch screamed insults at her, she wished she had the money to shampoo her hair and bathe and the courage to steal one of the clothes she had embroidered for herself.
The entrepreneur intervened, taking her to a corner and asking why she was such a nuisance. This was Diwali Day after all, couldn’t she have picked a better day to come and that he was out of cash after all the shopping.
‘Cheque likh raha hoon tumhaare liye, ki tumhaari manhoos surat hafte, do haft eke liye na dekhna pare.’
‘Naam kya daalon?’, he asked as he made her a cheque for a hundred and seventy.
Odd, she thought as she answered, no one had asked that question for some time, ‘Lakshmi’