“Bhaiya jaldi, I’m getting late.” Babu jostled to get closer to the vada pav hawker. The everyman’s breakfast was selling out fast. The heavenly smell of the fried potato patty mixed with the smell of sweat and grime from the crowd around him. Babu rubbed the edge of the 10 rupees note between his thumb and finger to make sure it was one note, not two, before handing it to the hawker. Clutching the warm vada pav in his hand, he slipped his bony frame out of the chaotic clutter and walked fast, weaving through the morning rush of people and traffic, towards the towering new apartment complex a few minutes away. His breakfast was over before he knew it.
It was the eighth day of the job. The other painter had fallen ill on the third. Malaria. By now, Babu had given up hope of another pair of hands joining him. He rang the doorbell and a seething Yadav opened the door. “How will you finish in time if you walk in late like a Maharaja?”
“Don’t worry, it’ll get done.” Babu briskly changed into his painting clothes. The shirt was probably older than he was, bought from a woman selling second-hand clothes on the pavement near his slum. At one time it had been white, now it had dirt, sweat and fading paint stains of various colours that didn’t wash off. The collar was soft at the edge where it was starting to fray. But it was a good, comfortable shirt. Babu didn’t mind how it looked.
Babu arranged his painting tools and brushes, tied his gamcha around his waist, much like his father used to before ploughing his field, poured some paint into a plastic tray and positioned the bamboo ladder near a wall. The vada pav had not been enough. His stomach growled as he dipped a roller brush in the pan and started painting in long, even strokes. He hoped Yadav would get the message and leave. Babu’s mobile phone rang. It was his brother. He pressed the talk button. “Kya hua?”
As usual, his brother wanted money. Babu reminded him of the 300 rupees he had given him just last week. “Baad mein,” he said and disconnected the call, glancing over at burly, moustached and sweating Yadav, who was frowning as expected.
Yadav stood with his feet spread wide, his fists resting on the sides of his waist as he looked up at Babu on the ladder. “Are you sure you can finish in two days? The owner is creating a lot of fuss.”
“The weather is not helping. It won’t dry soon, but I’m almost done with this room. There’s one smaller room left.”
After a while, Babu almost forgot Yadav was there, till he spoke again in a surly tone. “You’re too slow. I shouldn’t have hired you in the first place.”
Babu climbed down the ladder, put the roller brush in the tray and went to Yadav, his lean, wiry frame facing the hefty contractor. “You know you should’ve replaced Bansi. It’s not a one-person job. But don’t worry, it will be done by Tuesday. I’ll work late if needed.”
“Monday evening, not Tuesday. You’re not getting paid till you finish the job.” Yadav glanced at his watch. “All maharajas I have to deal with,” he muttered.
Babu went back to work, trying to ignore the clamouring thoughts in his mind. Finish by Monday evening. Money on Tuesday. After paying his brother’s college fees, he would finally be able to afford replacing the shack’s caked earth floor with tiles. He didn’t want another monsoon with his slippers squelching in the wet mud. Babu got into the rhythm of his brushstrokes, taking care in painting the wall near the edge of the ceiling.
Babu was moving his ladder forward along the wall when Yadav’s mobile phone rang. “Yes sir, I’m here.” Yadav’s voice took on a different tone, sliding like a warmed knife through butter. “Oh, is it? No problem at all. I’ll see you in the evening.” Yadav disconnected the call and muttered, “These people only know how to waste someone’s time.” Yadav wiped his brow with a small blue hand towel. “I’ll be back in the evening,” he said to Babu, his voice once more like gravel in a bowl of cheap dal.
Babu nodded and went on painting, finally rid of Yadav, at least till evening. There was a calm that came over him when he painted. A feeling of peace as the smooth, wet coats of paint gradually covered the primed walls. All could be well with the world, the freshly painted, smooth and shiny walls told him. Pearl Gray was the paint for this room. The paints always had such fancy names. Moss Green, Velvet Rose, Dove White, even Butterscotch Cream! His stomach growled again.
The apartment was stiflingly hot and humid. Babu’s shirt stuck to his back, damp with sweat. He climbed down the ladder, stretching his arms overhead to release the ache in his muscles as he walked out to the balcony. He lit a beedi and inhaled deeply. From the 20th floor balcony, Mumbai stretched in front of him, a haphazard mishmash of tall and squat buildings, slums, and looming yellow cranes alongside the many under-construction and new buildings, like the one he was in. It was a city in a hurry. To keep growing, to keep running, to keep earning money. Folks like him struggled at it, while others, like the owners of this apartment, raked it in. How else could they afford this house, which could fit at least 30 of his slum’s shacks inside it? Bansi, the other painter, had told him this house probably cost over 10 crore rupees. Crore. He didn’t even know how many zeroes it had, but the word itself had weight, like the roar of a lion. He threw the beedi stub over the balcony railing and went inside, mopping the sweat with his gamcha before tying it around his waist again.
A gentle breeze picked up in the evening, relieving the sticky humidity that had been pressing on Babu all day. He was tempted to break for beedi again, but he heard Yadav enter and continued painting, ignoring the ache in his shoulders and arms.
“You still haven’t finished this room?”
Babu felt like saying, why don’t you do it yourself? He took a deep breath and dipped his brush in the paint, not looking at Yadav. “It will be done tonight.”
The sun was setting over the Arabian Sea, casting an orange glow on one of the freshly painted walls. Babu switched on the overhead lights and continued painting till a shrill sound pierced the empty air of the house like a loud bugle. Yadav went running towards the main door, but the door opened before he could reach it.
“Mala had the key.” A tall man dressed in a black western suit entered, with a woman by his side. “Yadav, how’s the work coming along?” The man had an imperious air, walking around as if he owned the whole building, not just this house.
Babu’s breath paused for a brief moment when he saw the woman. She looked—he just had one word for it—rich. He noticed her colours: the streaks of gold in her hair, the shimmering turquoise of her dress, the silver of her sandals with heels at least three inches high, the glowing white of the diamonds on her earlobes and throat. Babu wondered how she could manage to walk on those sharp and pointed-like-knives heels. He quickly looked away, bending to dip his brush in the paint.
“I thought you said it will be finished by tomorrow?” The man in the black suit stood with his hands on his waist, his prosperous stomach straining under the crisp white shirt.
“Sir, Tuesday tak jayega. Just two more days.” Babu stole a glance at the contractor between the strokes of his brush. Yadav’s shoulders were hunched forward, his hands folded in front of him obsequiously. The phone voice was back, trying to sound—Babu searched for the word in his head—Cultured? Educated? Sensible? No. All he managed was to sound like a flattering servant.
“Come on Yadav. Get someone else if this guy is slow.”
“He’s the best painter I have. He’ll finish this large hall tonight. After this, only one room is left.”
Babu felt three pairs of eyes on him. He dipped his brush in the can hanging by the side of his ladder and continued painting, though his nose twitched with the scent of the woman’s perfume as she walked past him to the balcony.
“Oh Pramod, come look at this view. I’ve never been here at night. Isn’t it stunning?” She turned around to beckon her husband.
The man continued to grill Yadav. “I need it finished by Tuesday. No excuses. The invites for the housewarming party have gone out.”
The scent tickled Babu’s nose again as the woman wafted towards her husband, her heels making a click-click-click sound. “You never listen to me. I’d said you were too aggressive with the dates. There’s so much left—the curtains, the furniture, the paintings, the kitchen. Deep cleaning alone will take two days. Just look at this mess. The balcony doors have smudges, there’s dust in the channels, paint spots on the floor.” She looked closely at the glass balcony door. “Oh God, look at these ugly handprints.” She stepped back, as if the workers who had made the handprints were reaching out to touch her.
Babu glanced around. The place was scrubbed clean, so clean that the overhead lights reflected off the marble floors, the glass balcony doors, and the newly polished walls. It was empty and huge like his village maidaan the day before Dussehra—when a bazaar would spring up, with a grinning monster-like Raavan effigy looking down at the gaily dressed villagers walking amidst the food stalls, rides, and hawkers. He sighed. It was over a year since he had gone back. What he missed most was his maai’s daal, bhindi sabzi and mango pickle. She always added a spoonful of ghee in his daal. Thinking of it made his mouth water.
Babu looked at the floor under his ladder. He was careful with his work, there were just a few splatters of paint on the floor—he didn’t know what the woman was talking about. He wondered if he should say anything. He coughed a little and said, “Don’t worry madam.” His voice was barely audible.
She turned around and looked at him perched on the ladder, her eyebrows raised as if surprised he had spoken to her.
“The painting will definitely be done by Tuesday," he said, still self-conscious but speaking louder now. "I do a neat job. There won’t be any paint spots on the floor.” Babu could feel Yadav and the husband’s eyes boring into him.
“That’s great. Thank you.” She turned back to her husband. “Pramod, I’m sure he’ll get it done. But just look at it.” The sheer, flowing sleeve of her blue-green dress floated as she moved an outstretched arm around. “Doesn’t it look amazing? The gray is not depressing at all. In fact, it’s even better than I thought. These walls are the perfect backdrop for our artwork.”
Her husband grunted, and busied himself on his mobile phone.
“This colour has a brooding gravitas, a pensive air, though it's soothing at the same time.” She pointed her outstretched arm towards each wall as she walked around the wide, empty room. “The Raza can go here. The Gujral will look fabulous here. Hmm, I wonder where we should hang the Hussain. Ah, there. That spot is perfect.”
Babu glanced at her again. She looked like a graceful dancing peacock, balanced on her toes, moving her arms around, her hair shimmering like golden waves in the overhead lights. He realized he knew exactly what she meant, for the gray walls were a perfect background for her colours—the honey-brown hair, the turquoise of her dress, the silver of her sandals. Babu turned back to face the wall he was painting, but the colourful image of her against the wall stayed in his mind.
“You’re not even looking,” she sounded miffed.
“We can decide all this next week, when the paintings are here.” The man started walking towards the door. “Let’s go. We’re late for the party.” He walked off without waiting for her response.
Babu heard her heels click-clicking towards the door. He climbed down after they left and walked towards the balcony, massaging the back of his neck with one hand. He stood with his back to the balcony, hoping for even a slight gust of wind to dry the sweat on his shirt.
“Who asked you to talk to her, you idiot?” Yadav glared at him.
Babu opened and closed his painting hand, flexing the aching fingers. “Why, what’s wrong with what I said?”
“Have you ever spoken to a person like her before? If you say something wrong, you’ll be out on the street before you know it.”
“I wanted to assure her that I’ll finish quickly and without a mess. Also, did you see how her husband was ignoring her?”
Yadav laughed. It was a false, high-pitched laughter. “And you are some big guru?” He picked up his bag from the floor, and took out a bunch of keys.
“Here, lock up after you go. I’m out of town over the next two days for a wedding. Make sure you finish on Monday. I’ll meet you here on Tuesday morning to inspect and pay your wages. Make sure it’s all tip-top.”
“At least give me something before you go. I’m down to my last 50.”
“That’s always the story,” Yadav grumbled and reluctantly fished out a 500 rupee note from his tattered fake leather wallet. “Rest later. After I’ve made sure you’ve done a good job.”
Babu wiped his sweat with the gamcha and checked the time on his mobile phone. Almost midnight. Hunger pangs gnawed at him like clamorous infants crying for food. The plate of rice and daal he went down to eat at a street-side stall was a long time ago. He took a beedi and matchbox from his pocket and stepped out onto the balcony. A glittering Mumbai lay spread in front of him like an intricate carpet of twinkling stars. Babu stood with the unlit beedi in his hand awestruck, even after eight days, by the magic of the sight. The sound of the odd honking horn floated up in the midnight air. Beyond the city lights, the sea lay dark and shrouded, reminding him of the mysterious dark forest just outside his village in Bihar. But the lights! He had never thought crowded, blood-sucking, uncaring Mumbai could look like this.
He sniffed his beedi, touching it to his nostrils before lighting it. The coarse smoke filled his lungs and the nicotine shot through his body, giving him an instant high, killing the hunger pangs. He could imagine the owner, Pramod, sitting here on his fancy balcony, with Mumbai lain out like a Bollywood heroine in a shiny black sequined dress.
The beedi was over before he knew it. There were only two left in the brown cone-shaped pack. He threw the burnt-out stub over the glass railing, his stomach rumbling again. The crumpled plastic lunch packet he had brought from home was lying in the corner where he had thrown it that afternoon. He sat down on the floor and peered inside it as if it had a small treasure. There was one roti left over. The smell of mango pickle made him salivate. He smeared a piece of the hardened roti with the pickle and popped it in his mouth. Babu smiled as the taste of his maai’s pickle filled his mouth. He had tasted many mango pickles in his life, the ones you bought in a jar at the kiraana store, the ones you got at the roadside dhaba with puri bhaji, and the ones his painter friends carried with their lunch. But his maai’s was the best. Which is why he always brought back some from the village. Babu ate the roti slowly, wanting to make it last. He heard the click of the front door and swung his neck to see it open slowly. It was the woman who owned the house. What was her name? Yes, Mala.
She stood with her hand on the door knob, in her flowy blue and green dress and knife-like heels, swaying a little. “Oh shit,” she said, when she saw Babu. She hesitated at the door, but then walked inside.
Babu sat still as a statue. Without realizing it, he had stopped chewing, too. The piece of roti and pickle in his mouth mixed with his saliva and formed a pasty lump that he eventually swallowed.
She walked towards him in measured steps, as if walking on a tight rope. “Why are you still here?”
He was conscious of the greasy yellow pickle oil staining his fingers. He kept sitting cross-legged on the balcony floor, looking up at her. There was something different about her from earlier that evening. She was subdued—not chirpy like before—and he could smell alcohol. Babu noticed dark smudges below her eyes. He squinted to focus better, as she stood with the lights of the room behind her. It looked like she had dipped her fingers in the black gutter water of his slum and then run them in uneven lines under her eyes.
She was staring at him, waiting for his reply.
“I had to finish painting this room tonight.”
“Oh yes. Sorry, I didn’t realize.” She waved a hand in front of her, as if swatting a fly. “Don’t worry about me. I just came for some fresh air.” She stepped towards the balcony railing, turning her back to him.
He watched as she took out a white cigarette pack from her small silver colored box-like purse.
“Shit.” She fumbled again in the bag. “Do you have matches?”
He held out his matchbox in his left hand, still conscious of his oil-stained right.
She lit her cigarette and turned to look beyond the balcony railing, blowing out a long streak of smoke. “Just go back to whatever you need to do. I thought this place would be empty.” She blew out another plume of smoke. “Maybe it’s better that it’s not.” She seemed to be talking to herself. “I shouldn’t be alone on a 20th floor balcony in this state.” She tittered but it somehow ended in a sniffle. She stubbed the cigarette out against the railing and threw it down just as Babu had done a few minutes back, watching it disappear into the darkness.
Babu sat still, watching her from behind, not knowing if he should finish his meagre meal and get back to the painting, or get the hell out of there. Making as little sound as possible, he broke a piece of the remaining roti, smeared it with the pickle and chewed silently. He wondered why she was here, this Mala.
Mala sniffed the air and turned around. “Is that mango pickle?”
He nodded, still chewing.
“I haven’t eaten mango pickle in ages. I used to love it when I was younger.”
Babu lowered his eyes and kept chewing. There were still a couple of bites left. He started to crumple the plastic packet with the remaining roti and pickle.
“Can I taste some?” she said in a rush.
He almost choked on his bite but kept his eyes averted, pretending he hadn’t heard her.
“Please,” she added.
Babu stood up and held the crumpled parcel in front of her. He felt ashamed about what she would think of his food as Mala gingerly used her thumbs and forefingers to break a piece of the brittle roti, her other fingers fanned out like in a dance mudra. Babu stared at her delicately boned, white-as-milk hands, with a big diamond ring on her finger and her lacquered nails smooth as a water buffalo’s back. He stared as the fingers dabbed the piece of roti in some pickle masala and tore a piece of the mango flesh. She swayed on her heels a bit, steadied herself and ate the bite. Babu blinked his eyes and cursed himself. Why was he offering her food? What if her stomach wasn’t able to handle it? The odd mix of smells unnerved him—her perfume, the stink of alcohol and cigarettes, the mango pickle, the drying paint. She wasn’t supposed to be here, or maybe he wasn’t supposed to be here when she was. He crumpled the plastic packet and hid it behind his back.
Mala feebly protested. “Oh, come on, one more bite. The pickle is so good.”
“There’s no more roti left.” He crushed the packet into a fist behind his back.
Mala opened her purse and took out a white handkerchief. As she daintily wiped her fingers on it, Babu stared at the turmeric stains she left on the pristine piece of cloth. He knew the stains would lighten with each wash but would never go away.
She turned back to lean over the railing. He wiped his hands on his gamcha and went inside to finish painting. But his hands moved slower than before, his concentration gone.
A while later, Mala came inside. “What’s your name?”
His hand swerved and smudged the paint. He turned around, brush in hand.
“Thank you Babu.” The sound of an ambulance siren floated up in the Mumbai air. “If you hadn’t been here, that might have been for me,” she said looking at him, but he felt as if she was looking through him. She walked out, a little steadier than before.
The cooling night air gave Babu goosebumps. He wondered what was so wrong in Mala’s life that she thought of killing herself. He wondered if she would reach home safely, if he should follow her. But he didn’t want to get involved in something way over his head.
It was almost one a.m. and he needed to sleep. There was another long day of painting ahead. Babu cleaned his brushes with oil and wiped them on a spare rag, wondering if the bus would be running at this time. As he switched off the lights and headed to the door, he had an idea. What if he stayed here for the night? He had to come back in a few hours anyway.
A pleasant breeze picked up again, caressing Babu’s hair and shirt as if coaxing him to stay. No one would know. What harm could it be? He spread out some newspaper sheets on the balcony floor and lay down, with his gamcha rolled up under his head. He didn’t bother to change out of his painting clothes, immune to the smell of paint and chemicals that hung about him. It was uncomfortable sleeping without a mattress and pillow but in some ways, it was far better than sleeping in his shack. The air here was open and fresh, unlike the almost constant smell of garbage and burning plastic in his slum. His brother would probably be asleep, but Babu sent him a text message saying that he wouldn’t be returning tonight.
The traffic noise had receded. Babu looked up at the white puffs of clouds on the ink-black sky and felt as if he was sleeping in a swing hanging in the sky. He turned on his side and kept looking at the city lights, twinkling, shining, beckoning. After a while, he closed his eyes and immediately fell into a deep slumber, the kind that only hard physical labour brings.
Babu blinked at the sweat entering his eyes and wiped it on his sleeve. He was kneeling in front of the bottom part of a wall, crouching forward with his brush in hand. His heartbeat quickened—it was the last section of wall left to be painted. By now, the pain in his wrist, forearm and fingers felt like a sweet poison, something he was holding steady like Shiva held the blue poison in his throat. And just like that, the last stroke of the paintbrush was done, the last patch of wall covered in the neat glossy gray.
Babu sat back, arms resting on raised knees and let out a shout in the empty house. He inhaled the smell of fresh paint and looked at the smooth glistening walls, a slight smile on his lips as he wiped the paint off his hands with a rag dipped in turpentine. He had done it. Almost all on his own. No one would compliment him on the sharp edges where the white of the ceiling met the pearl gray of the walls, or how neatly he had worked, or how he had finished the job singlehandedly on time. No one would ever say anything, but he felt a quiet pride.
He imagined Mala and her indifferent husband throwing their grand party with glittering jewels, silk clothes, shining lights, and waiters in smart uniforms carrying fragrant silver platters, just like in the movies. Where would he be? Probably wading through sewer water that pooled in the slum lanes in the monsoons, or scolding his brother yet again to make something of his life. He felt a twinge of guilt thinking about Mala. He had thought about her often since the night she came drunk to the apartment. He had almost called Yadav the next morning to check if she was safe. But he was being ridiculous. Over time, Babu had convinced himself that she was fine, that she was joking when she said the ambulance could have been for her. Of course, she was safe. Such things happened only to people in slums.
The last job remaining was cleaning the few splatters of paint on the floor. He got down on all fours and scrubbed at the stains with a rag dipped in cleaner solvent. By the time he finished cleaning up and stuffing all rags, newspapers and waste in a garbage bag, gray clouds had crept across the evening sky and he could hear the rain begin to splatter on the windows. His heart sank. Were the monsoons already here? He didn’t want to spend another monsoon season in the muddy pit that his shack’s floor became. Hopefully this was a passing shower. He vowed to begin laying the tiles the very next day, right after Yadav paid him.
Babu changed out of his painting clothes and began packing his brushes and other equipment in his plastic satchel when there was a loud roar of thunder, as if the sky was growling awake, ready to empty a load of rain on the tired city. He decided to leave his satchel in the apartment. There was no point in getting his brushes and rollers soaked in the rain. He was coming back the next morning to meet Yadav.
Babu turned back at the door, the key in hand. It gave him a warm feeling, this house, the kind you get when you are comfortable somewhere—almost like being home in his village. Was it because he had slept here, or maybe because he was the only painter to finish the job? He smirked. Whatever the reason, this kind of house could never be his. He would have to work a few lifetimes before he could even dream of it. He whistled an out-of-tune song on his way down in the lift.
At the entrance to his slum, Babu stopped at a street-side food stall and sat under a plastic sheet rigged up like a canopy in the rain, close to the man frying puris. He devoured a plate of hot puri-chhole, shivering a little in his rain-soaked clothes.
As expected, his brother was not home. And as expected, the floor of their one-room shack had become muddy from the rainwater seeping in. Somehow, Babu wasn’t bothered by mess in other things—the open sewers, the common toilets of his slum, the garbage piled up in corners of roads. But this, the wet and muddy floor of his shack in the monsoons, irked him to no end. He hated the sludge caked on the soles of his rubber slippers and insidiously coating his toes and heels with every step he took. He swore to buy the cement, bricks and tiles as soon as he got the money from Yadav. His brother had been pestering him for new clothes, but that would have to wait. Babu sat on his damp cot, stripped out of his wet clothes and wiped himself dry, taking special care to remove the splatters of black mud from his feet. He changed into a dry t-shirt and shorts and settled on the cot, an arm slung over his face. This was how he always slept, the added darkness from his shielding forearm shutting out the strife and grind all around him. But tonight, on the dark screen of his eyelids, he could still see the millions of twinkling lights of the city’s skyline.
The next morning, Babu woke up to find his brother curled up in a corner of the cot, wearing only a pair of shorts. Like him, his brother was thin as the sugarcane reeds growing in the fields of his village. Babu could count the vertebrae on his curled back. He felt like shaking him awake, shaking some sense into him, convincing him to focus on his college studies and learn some English. But he knew it was no use. “I’ll become a painter, too. What’s wrong with that? You’ll teach me, na?” Babu had told him that it was hard, backbreaking work, that it required skill and patience, but his brother’s mind was as restless as the frisky frogs in their village pond.
Babu got up from the cot, careful not to wake his brother. He slipped his feet into the rubber sandals, and walked out of the still dark, still muddy shanty. He dipped a mug into the blue plastic water drum outside the shack and washed his face, gargled and spit the water in the sewer. There was no time to brush his teeth or bathe. He dipped the mug again into the drum and poured water on his muddy slippers and feet. He smiled thinking of the tiled floor. Soon. A feeble sun was out in the sky, and the rain clouds from yesterday had thinned out. Babu slicked back his hair with wet fingers and headed towards the bus stop, pulling out a 10 rupee note from his pocket for the bus fare.
Yadav was late. Babu had been waiting for over an hour by the gate of the residential complex. He was hungry but the vada pav on his mind would have to wait till after he got paid. Babu moved into the shade of the tall building. He shuffled from one aching foot to another and tried calling Yadav for the fifth time, but his phone was still switched off.
The sun slowly climbed higher in the sky, beating down mercilessly on the city, all traces of yesterday’s rain forgotten. Tired from standing, Babu squatted down on the pavement next to the gate and threw a few stones on the road, as if throwing pebbles into his village pond. His morning cheer was fast evaporating. He cursed under his breath. Why had he trusted Yadav? This was his first painting job with him. He should have insisted on a larger payment earlier. He had acted like a trusting fool, like someone who had just arrived from the village.
Babu walked over to the uniformed guard at the gate, who stood saluting the cars that drove in. “Brother, do you know Yadav, the contractor? Big bulky man, dark skinned, short moustache.”
The guard all but shirked him away. “Arrey, many contractors are working here. I don’t keep track of all of them.”
Babu moved a couple of steps away, his eyes fixed on the road, hoping for a sign of the contractor’s motorcycle entering the gate. He slipped his hands into his pockets. One pocket had the apartment keys that he had to return to Yadav. The other pocket contained his mobile phone and a single 10 rupees note. “Saala,” he cursed his brother. There were almost 400 rupees in his trouser pocket last night from what Yadav had given him. His brother must have stolen it when he was asleep. The 10 rupees was not even enough to buy him a vada pav and his bus ticket back home. He cursed his brother again and tried calling Yadav one more time but his phone was still switched off.
The sun was overhead now. Babu had been waiting for over three hours. He felt a little crazed from the heat and hunger, but didn’t dare move away from the gate. Maybe Yadav had confused the date. But why was his phone switched off? He thought of asking the guard again. As Babu turned to approach the guard, he saw a long dark blue car slowly exiting the gate. He peered inside and felt a jolt. It looked like Mala and her husband. He raised his hand at the car gliding out of the gate towards where he stood. The car came to a stop next to him. He wondered if they had stopped for him, but realized that the driver was waiting to find a gap in the moving traffic on the road. He knew he had to make the most of it. Mala madam would surely help. Mustering confidence, Babu knocked on the car’s rear window, first softly, then with urgency. “Sir, madam, it’s me, the painter. Babu.”
The husband lowered the car window a couple of inches. Next to him, away from Babu, sat Mala. She wore large dark glasses, a white shirt and jeans. She looked very different from that day but Babu knew it was her.
“What is it? Why are you banging on the car like a thug?” The man looked irritated.
“I painted your house, sir. Finished the work yesterday.”
“Yes, we just saw it. What do you want now?”
“I came for my payment. Yadav said he’d meet me here but he hasn’t come.”
“I’ve already paid him. Talk to him.” The man started rolling up the car window and turned to his driver. “Let’s go.”
Babu banged on the car frantically, not wanting them to leave.
The window rolled down a fraction again. “Are you crazy?”
Babu looked across at Mala, his eyes pleading through the small open gap in the window. “Madam, please tell sir. I really need the money. Yadav’s phone is also switched off. What if I can’t reach him at all?”
Mala’s head was bent over her mobile phone, waves of her golden-brown hair partially hiding her face as she typed on the phone, the nails of her thumbs sounding tak-tak-tak on the hard surface. She acted as if she hadn’t heard Babu at all.
Babu felt his ears turning hot, the heat rising in his face.
“Look here Babu, that’s your name, right?” the man said in a coaxing tone. “I’m sure Yadav will get in touch. I’ve already given him the money. Let’s go driver.”
Babu couldn’t think straight. It was as if his brain had short-circuited. Flashes of images buzzed around in his head: the 10 rupees in his pocket, his brother’s naked reed-like back, the muddy floor of their shack, Mala’s delicate fingers breaking a piece of his maai’s mango pickle. “Mala madam, you’ve forgotten me so soon? You came again to the flat that night, remember?”
Mala’s husband’s head swivelled towards her. “What the hell is he talking about?”
“Nothing. Just ignore him. I’ll tell you later.” Mala tapped the driver on his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
“Mala madam. Please.” Babu could hear the desperate pleading in his voice. He could barely get the words out of his throat.
“What the hell, Mala?” the husband’s tone was quiet but aggressive.
“Just roll up the window.” She turned to the driver and screamed, “Why don’t you drive? Are you deaf?”
Babu watched the window roll shut and the car join the endless stream of traffic on the road. He slipped his hand in his pocket, pressing hard on the cold key with his thumb, so hard that the key might have bent if it was made of a cheaper metal.
The security guard looked at him curiously, “What happened? What did they say?”
“Nothing. I have to collect my brushes,” Babu said in a flat tone. As he waited for the lift, he thought of his equipment and supplies, in particular a small can of black paint and the sharp-edged scrapers. He thought of long gash marks on the not-yet-dried walls, black paint splattered across them, and spilled on the smooth marble floor. He thought of Mala’s reaction when she would enter the house again, probably with the paintings she planned to hang against the backdrop of Pearl Gray. He thought of the party that her husband had sent invitations for. The lift reached the 20th floor. Babu stepped out and entered the apartment. In his mind, Mala’s screams and her husband’s angry shouts filled the empty space of the apartment when they would see the damaged walls and floor.
The house felt heartless and empty. There was no warm feeling he had felt the previous night. He walked in a daze towards the balcony. The searing hot sun burned down on him. He put his hands on the metal railing and cried out in pained surprise, pulling his hands away. But he put his hands on the hot metal again, wanting to feel the searing heat, wanting to feel something to take his mind off the crazy images jumping around in his brain.
A smell of pollution filled the city air and the sound of an ambulance tore through the traffic noise. Babu looked down to see the ambulance snaking its way through the choked traffic. He wondered if the patient was critical, if the ambulance would reach the hospital in time. The view was different in the hot daylight. He could see his slum in the distance, a mishmash of ugly patched roofs, some covered with blue tarp in preparation for the monsoons, some with aluminium sheets shining in the sun, and others covered in desperate black plastic. It was an ugly, crowded city where many like him struggled like ants to earn a living. He wondered how he had found this view beautiful that night. The dark of the night had shrouded the ugliness. That is all it was.
The insistent ringing of his mobile phone woke Babu. He picked up the phone from the corner of the cot. It was Yadav. Babu instantly sat up.
“Haan Babu, I got delayed. And there was no electricity here for two days so I couldn’t charge my phone. There’s another job.”
“What about my money?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll get it. Same building. Two floors above the one you worked in. Bolo? Will you do it?”
“First my money.”
“Yes, yes, soon. So, tell me, will you do it?”
Babu looked down at the glistening mud floor of his shack. He wondered when Yadav would really pay up and whether he would get his tiled floor in time for the monsoons. He sighed. “I’ll see you there tomorrow.”