The vibrance of the impending festivities enveloped the entire village with renewed vigour and liveliness as people shopped, replaced the old with the new and looked forward to the beginning of a new season and welcoming the long-gone relatives back in the house. The excitement of seeing the worn-out faces of the owns who left to earn a living for themselves and also support the ones staying back, was palpable on everyone, as a morose town slowly sprang to life.
The number of vehicles entering the newly laid out asphalt road continued to swell as visitors slowly moved out of the bus or the vans, looked around, before taking a deep breath of the place they spent their childhood in, and which now seemed all strange but uncannily familiar, the fragrance of the air brought back memories of the time spent long ago; how everything changed but still maintained its hold on our mind even after so much time was still a mystery; a large sigh and everyone now began looking for familiar faces in the crowd, hoping to see someone they could follow and be led to where they could now begin fibbing about made-up stories of success, to entertain and be entertained.
An old exhausted, wrinkled face with squinted little eyes also searched for someone known, examining every visitor closely, hoping to discover, what the weary eyes have been searching for so long, continuing to move her sight from one face to the other, the gloom though broadened further, as everyone she looked at, turned out be strange and unknown.
‘What happened Mai,’ Shobhan, the sweet shop owner, asked.
‘He is not coming,’ he murmured to himself, but loud enough to let Mai hear it, possibly dampening the last little hope left in her.
She, however, remained defiantly composed; the eyes continued to look around even as the crowd thinned out by now; the sharp sunlight of the afternoon, too slowly paved way for the soft warmth of the evening sun to take over.
‘He will come,’ she mumbled, hoping to see her only son, who left her 10 years back alone in this village, in search of a job to a place far beyond where only multiple buses and train rides could take.
‘It’s going to get dark now, go back home, you need to walk at for least an hour even if you begin now,’ Shobhan exhorted, his tone filled with both concern and kindness for the old soul, who still stood boldly on an almost empty road, hoping to see the face of her son, who left her all alone in a world, a world, where money has become far more loquacious than emotions or even humanity.
After defying every trouble, she finally relented and stared at the sweet shop, her eyes, though still skipped looking at Shobhan, who was now busy serving a customer, eager to carry some sweets back home.
‘Where are you going,’ asked Shobhan, to the man, who he had seen getting down from a brand new motorcycle?
‘Nauti Gaon,’ he replied, his gleaming eyes still staring at the buffet of sweets spread in front of him on the see-through glass counter.
Shobhan’s face lit up as he heard him say ‘Nauti’.
‘Can you also take the old lady,’ he requested, gesturing towards ‘Lati Mai’, who was still staring at the road ahead after a quick glance at the sweet shop.
The customer too followed Shobhan’s eyes and hands to discover the old woman; his heart suddenly cringed for a moment seeing her stand all alone on a road, which only a few minutes ago was teeming with people.
Nodding his head, he agreed to Shobhan’s request.
‘He will take you home,’ shouted Shobhan, turning his head towards Lati Mai, hoping to end her misery of fruitless labour and happy she won’t need to trouble her old tired legs to reach back home.
Mai, however, ignored Shobhan’s cries and continued staring at the road ahead. The warmth of the sunlight had turned colder, but her eyes and body were still unwilling to give up.
‘She is still waiting for her son,’ informed Shobhan to the customer who was still staring at her and added as an afterthought;
‘He left 10 years ago and hasn’t turned up till now.’
‘Come with me,’ the customer now walked towards Lati Mai and requested her to accompany him, his hands cradling her arms as he requested.
Lati Mai stared at the stranger for a while, her deeply sunk eyes and cheeks unable to recall the last time someone had been so kind to her.
She stared at the road once again before looking at the sky, which was turning darker now.
Realizing the wisdom in Shobhan’s urging and the request of the stranger, she reluctantly followed the stranger.
‘Are you comfortable,’ asked the customer, as he kicked his bike to begin the ride with Lati Mai, now sitting behind clutching the back seat handle with one hand and placing the other one on his shoulder?
Mai nodded her head but preferred to remain silent, unaware, the stranger couldn’t see her nod when she is facing her back. He, however, felt the tilt of her head on his back as her hand pressed into his shoulder and rightly assumed, she was fine.
Assured she was safely seated, the stranger began the ride as Lati Mai’s eyes still stared at the road behind her, even as the sun now finally disappeared on the horizon, leaving a roseate sky; Mai’s hope too slowly vanishing with the fading sun.
Shobhan heaved a large sigh, seeing Mai finally leave.
He too waited for an hour before deciding to close his shop with darkness now enveloping the entire place when he heard a tracker (SUV), come to a halt and someone shouted for him.
Surprised with the vehicle at this time, Shobhan picked up his solar torch to figure out and who could this be.
‘Chacha, kaise ho (how are you uncle),’ the voice sounded both exhausted and excited.
‘Who are you,’ asked Shobhan?
‘Shobhan Chacha, Anoop,’ he replied with a smile on his tired face, as Shobhan pulled the torch closer to his face and observed the light reflecting from his cheeks as he finally found out who he was speaking with.
‘Lati Mai,’ mumbled Shobhan.
‘Anoop,’ Shobhan replied in a surprised tone, still unable to believe he was speaking to Mai’s son.
‘When did you return,’ asked Shobhan, still staring at his face in the flickering light of his old solar torch?
‘Today only,’ he replied quickly.
‘Found Santu, who agreed to drop me here,’ confirmed Anoop, gesturing towards Santosh who gave him a quick bow to express his respects for the man Anoop referred to as Chacha.
‘Thank god, your shop is still open, I want some sweets,’ requested Anoop.
All these years and days suddenly ran through Shobhan’s eyes as he stood still, staring at Anoop, unable to believe what he saw.
‘No one in the village believed you will ever return,’ murmured Shobhan.
Anoop glanced at Santosh before looking down, stacks of sweets partly visible in the dim light of the solitary lamp stared back at him as his mind tried comprehending what he heard.
‘And what about Mai, does she also think the same,’ asked Anoop, his voice barely leaving his choked throat as he spoke?
Shobhan suddenly placed the lamp aside and sat on the small wooden stool, staring blankly in the dark ahead, he replied with a nod of his head to show ‘No’.
‘She is the only one who always believed in you,’ the words barely left his mouth when Anoop felt he can’t stop any longer and need to run.
Requesting Shobhan to make it quick, he picked up the box and, without waiting for the change, leapt back in the car as Santu too jumped in to rush towards his house.
‘Your change,’ whispered Shobhan, but even before he could stretch his hands, the loud whirring of the engine and the sound of gravel fluttering away told him of where Anoop was.
‘Ma,’ shouted Anoop, but didn’t hear a reply even after waiting outside for a minute.
‘Mai,’ shouted Santu this time, hoping to see her after a decade and a half.
Busy trying to smoulder the last few pieces of wood, she still couldn’t hear the commotion outside.
‘Mai,’ shouted Santu, even more loudly this time.
Suddenly, feeling someone may ask for her, she turned attentive, hoping to hear the call, at least one more time if she was being called; after all, it was already7:30, and no one turns up at her house at this hour.
‘Ma,’ now Anoop shouted louder than even Santu.
‘Tholu,’ muttered Mai, ‘Tholu’ was Anoop’s childhood name.
Putting aside the small log she was trying to burn; she now sprang to her feet to run outside.
‘Tholu is here,’ she mumbled loudly now as she ran to reach the small piazza.
Anoop and Santu stood together a few feet away from her. The weary, tired eyes suddenly turned moist as she finally saw her ‘Tholu’ again. It was Holi tomorrow, but she knew what she would celebrate tonight – Diwali.