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With a platter full of crystal bangles on her head, a bangle seller passed, as was her custom, before a big beige bungalow whose front wall was overgrown with a bulky tangle of red bougainvillea. The gatehouse of the bungalow was manned by a staunch traditional watchman. His gaze, as usual, amorously followed the bangle seller till she turned the corner. Then he perched on his rickety stool and twirled his handlebar moustache. He was thirty-five years old. He wanted to talk to her but he could not invent a pretext.
The bangle seller usually came back the other way in the afternoon, worn-out now, her oval face beaded with sweat. One day she asked the watchman for a glass of water. He was overjoyed to oblige.
After that day, on her return trip, she would always make a stopover at the gate. She would place her bangle platter and her stick on the ground, and she would plop down under the massive green pipal tree that stood inside the walls but threw its shade outside. When her sweat had dried, she would drink water from the large water cooler that had been planted there for passersby at the behest of the master of the bungalow. The bangle seller and the watchman chit-chatted while in the background they heard the chirping of the exotic songbirds that flitted in their aviary on the other side of the wall. One day he bought bangles from her. And then every week he would buy bangles from her.
Some days she dug into her clothes, brought out stale crumbly bread and ate it with the pokaras or pickle she carried in her straw platter. She would ask the watchman to join her but he would say that he had already eaten. Sometimes he would keep something from his own lunch for her.
One afternoon she was gulping water from the aluminum tumbler that was tethered to the cooler with a thin iron chain when a young man pulled up his ice cream cart to take a drink of water. The bangle seller asked the ice cream boy the prices of all the ice creams that he sold. Then she told him to never mind, move along.
“If you did not have the money, then why did you ask the price of each and every item?” he protested.
“Well, I sell bangles. My customers ask the price of each type of bangle, and they order me to show them all the bangles. But in the end they say, ‘OK, we were just checking.’”
The watchman bought her a vanilla ice cream.
Two months passed by.
One day when the bangle seller had eaten her lunch under the cool pipal the watchman asked her to sell him some more bangles.
“Who do you give the bangles to?” she asked.
“Then who are you buying the bangles for?”
“You buy bangles from me, for me? This is ridiculous!”
“I can show you, they are here in my cabin.” He ducked into his cabin and brought out a big shopping bag bulging with bangles. She looked them over, and with a thoughtful smile she twiddled her beaded necklace that was wrapped around her shapely ebony neck. She stood up and dusted her faded frock.
“You are leaving...Won’t you sell me some bangles?’ the man asked softly.
“I don’t know. Why do you buy bangles for me?”
“Because I love you.”
“But I am married.”
The ground shook under his feet. But he managed to put a wide grin on his parched lips. “Married...OK...Well, but you look so young, you look maybe only fifteen or sixteen.”
“Yes, I was married to my cousin two years ago.”
“OK, does not matter, you are still the queen of my heart.”
She did not change her routine. As usual the bangle seller would come for a cool drink of water, rest in the leafy shade and chat with her admirer, then she would move along.
And then she was not seen for four months. The watchman was worried sick. He had no way of locating her. He thought she and her husband must have moved to another city to sell their bangles.
One grey afternoon, finally, she turned up. She was in rags and her face was haggard and lined. She plonked herself down on the ground littered with stale bougainvillea bracts. He offered her water.
“What is wrong with you?” he asked.
“Nothing...I have a headache. Just a touch.”
She stared emptily at the ground. Then, with her stick, she started sweeping the papery, bougainvillea petals into a small heap.
He proffered her a jaleebis snack which the mistress of the house had given him earlier. She pecked listlessly at the syrup-filled rings. He tried to engage her in light conversation but she looked lost. A thick sullen silence hung between them. Then, averting her dark heavy-lidded eyes, she blurted out, “Would you give me my bangles now?...The bangles you bought from me and for me?”
“I don’t have them.”
“What happened to them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will...will you marry me? My husband died from drinking bootleg booze.”
“Well, I would have loved to, but I got hitched. Just a week ago. She’s the widow of my brother, so I had to say yes...He left a string of kids...”
She lashed the ground with her stick for several minutes. Then she stood up and with a groan and placed her bangle platter back upon her head. “OK then,” she said, “goodbye.”
Forlornly she wandered off and the watchman’s gaze followed her till she had turned the corner.