Narrow Alleys And Wide Roads
Watching television at Geeta Madam’s home makes me happy, especially since Ma and I don’t have this lively box. We live in the slums behind these grand homes of the Safdarjung colony of New Delhi in India. I sit on the floor waiting for film characters to do their magic. Ma will be busy for a couple of hours cleaning Madam’s home.
The scene is that of a girl riding her bike, revealing greenery all around and the clean wide road.
I say to Ms. Geeta, “I want to ride a bike— on a wide road—like her.”
“Have you ever ridden one?”
“Only once, when Pa tried to teach me. I was seven. But I’ll know how to.”
After Ma finishes cleaning Ms. Geeta’s home, we walk back to our place. On the way, I notice an old bike repair shop. Several bikes stand in a line, smelling lemony fresh. Their soapy water pitter-patters onto the muddy floor, forming tiny calderas. One red bike leans against others, and a sign on its handle reads, “Please take me home.”
I hear my heart beat to the beat of drums. I squeeze Ma’s hand into mine and plead as I look into her eyes. Ma smiles in agreement, and she encourages me to be the spokesperson. We approach the store owner.
“May I have this one?”
“If no one claims it by the week’s end, you may. For free.”
A week goes by, and no one claims the bike. Then, on my way to school on the eighth morning, I receive my prize and envision going places. I would run errands for Ma and fly down a clean, wide road. Aah! The ultimate.
I sit on the leather seat. My feet dangle. I extend my long legs to touch the ground, but only toe tips reach. The pedals rise and kiss my dark chapped feet. I settle my left foot on the left pedal, and the right pedal springs up. My maxi gets stuck in it. I try to untangle, but the bike rumbles and thud, and I fall to the ground.
I lift my dress and see a scrape on my left knee. Blood oozes and trickles down my leg. This redness reminds me of blood that had filled my underwear, for the first time in my life, last month. Ma had stitched some cotton pads, taught me how to wear and replace each. I study the trickling stream, wipe it with one end of the dress and turn that end into a padded knot.
“You will keep getting hurt! Shouts the store owner.”
“I will be fine. Thank you for the bike.”
Without another thought, I sit on the seat again. I stretch my hands to the handles, press one end, and the bike stops. “Aah! This is how I can bring the bike to a halt. The maker of this bike is intelligent. This will keep me from yelling at people and cows in my way.”
Hands on the handles, left foot on the left pedal, right foot on the right pedal, and the pedal rotates. Then somehow, the bike wobbles and falls on top of me.
I stand and brush the dust off my dress. A lady, wide enough to take up most of the space on the sidewalk, spits a stream of orange liquid at me. Her raspy voice sounds sarcastic. “If it was that easy to ride a bike on these narrow roads, I could have done it,” she says. I have never seen her before but feel compelled to put on a good show.
I sit on the seat again, resolve to stay on it, and let my feet rotate the wheel. Feet on pedals, hands on brakes, I give it my all. One—two—three—four—five wobbly, but strong rotations later, I find a way to balance myself on the bike. I ride past the lady and continue heading towards school.
On the way, I bump against a rock, can’t brake in time, and fall again. Using different parts of my dress to clean the wound, I am up to the printed part. Unfortunately, my ride has not been as smooth as I would like.
Falls hurt. But seem necessary.
I reach my school for the rich kids and park the priciest possession of my life. Chitter-chatter sounds, as if a thousand busy bees abandoned their hive, fill the hallways. Rich kids have big voices. Even a single voice amongst them is loud enough to fill any space. But, unfortunately, the voices of my slum friends are of a kind you have to strain your ears to hear.
I zip past the row of students who check me from top to bottom. One yells, “Look! She’s bleeding.” Then they all laugh as if she cracked the best joke of the year.
My slum friends think I am lucky to attend a good school with rich kids. But, because the Indian Government made education free for all six to fourteen-year-olds and redistricted certain areas, some slum kids attend such schools.
“Where have you been? Why so late?” asks Samara.
“I have a new bug in my head.”
“Which one, this time?”
“I’m teaching biking to myself.”
“How is it going?”
“It’s going great.”
“Do you know of a wide road? I want to ride there.”
“My street behind the gates is wide. But you can’t go there. Only residents can.”
“You live behind a gate?”
“Yes, of course!”
“You’re so lucky.”
On my way home, I can’t stop thinking of the wide road behind the gates. The wide road is on planet Earth—my planet, yet I am forbidden from visiting parts. I am not lucky enough.
Next morning In My Narrow Alley
Biking at dawn, I see men in dhotis, brushing their teeth with a neem tree twig, spitting and making loud noises while clearing their throats. I hear roosters’ crowing, pigeons cooing and temple bells ringing. Tuning into the local radio Mirchi station, hawkers start singing along Bollywood music. Amidst all these sounds, Ma’s shrill voice is the most overpowering.
“Take this bag to Sunita Madam’s house and tell her the fabric was only enough to make her daughter’s dress.”
I have a queasy feeling in my stomach. Delivering the news of insufficient fabric makes me sound inadequate. Couldn’t Ma make a blouse for Sunita Madam too? Would it be possible for her to create something out of nothing? I am worried for Ma but excited to get a glimpse of the wide road.
I put Sunita Madam’s daughter’s dress in a bag, covered it with many newspapers, knotted the contents, and placed the bag in the bike basket.
When I arrive at an alley, a cow is mooing, ringing the bell around her neck, and looking straight at me. She looks perturbed. Does she need to occupy the whole alley? I go around her, to her right, and then curve back around her back. Bam! She wags her tail on my face as I curve, and I cannot see a thing. It is pitch dark. My nose ring is stuck in her hair, and it seems to have shifted from its place. I lay flat on the street, saying sorry to myself for losing balance. At least—I am not in my maxi dress.
Handing me jeans, Ma had said she would alter the maxi and make it look brand new, like the ones sold in stores.
I reach the gate and deliver the bag to the guard, explaining why there was only a dress in the bag. The guard snatches the bag. His eyes focused on making sure he doesn’t touch my skin. He instructs me to wait until he delivers the package to Sunita Madam. While I wait at the gate, I look far into the wide road and say to myself, “O Clean Wide Road—You are beautiful. One day, I wish to ride on you.” I picture the conversation between the guard and Sunita Madam. My fingers stay crossed in hopes that he is delivering the truth. Unfortunately, time doesn’t seem to be moving forward. I am left staring at the spiders forming their webs on the iron gates.
Some long minutes later, I see the guard flounce past the gate towards me.
“Sunita Madam says her material is missing. She gave two meters. Where is the rest of the material if your mother didn’t stitch the blouse?”
“My ma told me to tell Sunita Madam that there was not enough material to make a blouse. It was only enough to make the dress.”
“Sunita Madam will deal with your mother. You go. Go now.”
“Strange people. All that’s left of Sunita Madam’s material are these shapeless remnants. I collected them while cutting for the dress. Does she want these? What use will they be for her? Should I join the remnants together? No. Not even then. It is not possible to get a blouse out of these tiny pieces. Sunita Madam has wide shoulders and thick arms. How does she expect me to create something out of nothing? It’s not possible.”
“Ruff. Ruff. Ruff.”
“Why is Roonee barking so hyper, Ma?”
“Look through the space below the door. Is there someone coming towards us?”
“It’s the police, Ma.”
“Open the door and let them in. I will explain everything to them.”
“Lakshmi? Is that you?”
“Yes, Sir. That’s me, Lakshmi.”
“We have a search warrant for your place.”
“Yes, Sir. You can check. I don’t have any material that belongs to Sunita Madam. You see this thread and this thin piece of a remnant. This, and this, and this. That’s all that’s left. I gave her the dress and have nothing else. You can have these remnants, Sir. I don’t need to keep them.”
“These materials belong to other people like Ms. Geeta, Mr. Bali, Ms. Farhana. But, no, Sir. There is nothing here. No material that you can say is Sunita Madam’s.”
“Good. We do accept your explanation, Lakshmi. You have a great reputation. We believe you,” says one of the police officers.
While lying on my bed at night, I ask myself–Does every wide road lead to narrow-minded people?