A Day in the Life, or, What the Tiffin Saw
"Hurry it up, get out already, boy!" Gan's fingers slipped as he jumped. The teetering stack of tins wallowed threateningly to one side, then steadied of its own accord. Quickly he attached the cleat to the metal eye on the back seat of his chak and tugged hard to establish the tiffin tower was secure. Only then did he turn to glance up at the speaker.
Paji, as he was known to everybody, and the least fatherly person Gan knew, heaved high above Gan's head, sweat dripping into his greasy frown. His gaze snaked across the courtyard, where a tornado of back tyres and rusty frames could be seen to whirl out the gate to the accompaniment of shouted jokes and tinging bells. Gan was the last one left.
"What is it with you? Always dilly-dallying. Always slow."
That stung. Gan was short for his age, but he was the fastest chakrado courier in the city and well known for it by those who took his deliveries.
They often gave him extra jobs, which he did on the side without telling Paji. Paji was spiteful. He rotated every day, heaping some imagined spleen onto one of his couriers. Yesterday he had backhanded Amrita across the face as she was adjusting the netting around her tiffin stack, claiming the rope was weak and she would lose her tins on the way.
Amrita was a fisherman's daughter from Orissa. She had practically been born knotting rope and was fiercely proud of her skills, so the accusation was more than a little ridiculous. After they had set off on their rounds, it had taken her some time to stop listing the many other uses for her rope skills on Paji.
All Paji's regular labourers took their abuse, accepted their rupees at the end of the day and had a good old rant amongst themselves. Pay was pay.
Amrita, Gan and two other couriers were part of a council charity program for older orphaned children; it boiled down to several business in town acquiring free resident labour whilst appearing to be philanthropic. Still, it was one step up from the workhouses the British had established in every major town after adding India to their Empire, workhouses which were peopled through annual razzia's. Truly nightmarish tales circulated about what went on behind those gates and the children who were never seen again. At least the charity cases had some freedom of movement.
Paji continually threatened to turn them out and bullied them mercilessly, aided by his son, while they made him money. For the sake of a roof over their heads and their meagre scrap of freedom, they mostly put up with it.
But this morning, Gan lost his temper.
He was at eye height with Paji's stained chest and wrinkled his nose at the unidentifiable map of splotches on the once-white apron.
"I always deliver on time. No one complains about me." Gripping the handlebars Gan twisted the chak towards the gate and muttered: "The food is another story."
He was about to push off when a big hand jerked his head back by the hair. Suddenly a pair of yellowed eyes and wet, betel stained lips were too close to his face. The lips parted, hot breath poured over his cheeks and he waited for the inevitable tirade.
Instead, Paji glanced over his shoulder at someone behind him and snapped: "Anjal!"
A slab of a boy slightly older than Gan hove into view and docked by Paji's side, his beady rhino eyes glittering with the joy of a kerfuffle. "Yes, Baap?"
Paji thrust Gan away from him; boy, chak and tiffins swaying from side to side before they balanced out with a mild rattle.
"Accompany this monkey turd on his last day in my employ. See he delivers every last tiffin. Take his tips. Take his chak after pickups. Beat him for all I care, but he is not coming back."
Gan glowered at Paji, at Anjal's smug round face. Then he snapped: "Fine."
Paji blinked in surprise, unaccustomed to defiance. "I am late now. If blubber boy wants to keep up, he better start running."
With this, he firmly settled in the saddle, pushed off with all his might and pedalled away as fast as he could.
As he had expected, Paji shouted enraged encouragement at his vast offspring and a furious puffing told him Anjal had indeed set off on his version of a sprint.
"Come on, you lump!", he taunted. Risking a glance over his shoulder, he saw Anjal's bulk thunder towards him faster than he'd given him credit for and pumped his legs more vigorously. Another point in his own favour, besides speed, was an intricate knowledge of Hastinapur's alleyways and side streets, including which were most likely to be moderately quiet at this hour.
Still, it took some sly manoeuvring skills to avoid the bullock jinkers, sacred cows and a few disgruntled vendors in order to get away from Paji's apoplectic son.
Eventually, however, Gan had the satisfaction of hearing the gasping curses and insults to his dead mother recede behind his back until they were lost in the thumping hubbub of the city.
Hastinapur's main temple was a red bricked cake against the already shimmering sky, its single column of pure white pouring straight upwards into the windless void, mirrored perfectly in the smooth surface of the pond. There was a ritual in progress.
Gan cursed quietly. The morning's altercation had made him really late. Gnawing at his mind was also the not insubstantial hoard of tip money, buried under a peepal tree in the courtyard of a deserted residential building not far from Paji's restaurant. He could go back but it would take a while and some thought. Meanwhile he hadn't a rupee to his name. He spat.
This was not a good day.
Slowly he pedalled round to the back gate, the only hand-operated entrance that would now be open to him. All other portals were silenced during puja, as the power rerouted through the temple's pipes to the great ceremonial hall.
Gan leant his chak against the wall of the kitchen courtyard and frowned. Even the cooks and lowest scullions would be attending puja.
His hope had been to make his deliveries and collect at least some rupees in tip money so the day would not be a complete loss. The temple cooks were kind and there was usually a leftover bhaji or two.
The lack of people in the kitchen brought home to him how pointless it was to lug a stack of tiffins around all day. Why should he?
He stared at his cargo and decided to bury the tiffins at the nearest waste heap. For a moment he considered selling them, but every restaurant in town had very distinctive tiffins and they would be too easy to recognise.
He lingered in the kitchen, absent-mindedly pilfering a warm saag samosa from a heaped tray.
At the opening to the dark corridor he halted, munching appreciatively, the flaky pastry crumbling deliciously between his teeth.
The sounds of puja were louder here and a vague waft of incense tickled his nostrils. Now Gan could discern the rhythmic drums mingling with the deeper grinding thrum of the engines that would animate Mata Devi. Or so he was told once by Meera, one of the temple Dasi's, on the same day he'd received his very first kiss.
The swelling crescendo of the ritual chants made his inner ear vibrate and before he was aware of it, he had snuck down the corridor towards the temple. The hums and drones made him feel strangely at one remove from himself.
The walls of the corridor fell away on his left and revealed an inner courtyard. Herbs and flowers grew in neat sections inside swastika-shaped mosaics, their clockwork sprinklers keeping the earth damp and adding a gentle dry purr to the moist atmosphere. At the far end tinkled a well, above which stood a small goddess figure in a shrine.
His breath caught at the simple elegance of the statue. It must be Parvati, he decided, considering her youthful face and look of cheeky, yet demure merriment. Gan approached the well and ran his hand over the statue's smooth, pink marble.
Bending closer he could see the artist had made a more than supreme effort and given the goddess sapphire eyes and ruby lips. Real diamond earrings, bangles, anklets and a diamond girdle adorned the otherwise nude, sinuous body. A jade jewel adorned her navel. Somehow, incomprehensibly, the hands and bare feet were inlaid with filigree thin jasper patterns emulating henna.
Marigold wreaths floated on the water of the well and copper censers whirred and clacked as they belched smoke at regular intervals and enveloped the shrine with a heady shawl of patchouli.
He would never be able to put his finger on what possessed him in that moment, but as his hand ran down the statue, it tilted ever so slightly. He'd expected such a marvel to be bolted to its shrine.
Before Gan's mind caught up with his body, he was racing out of the courtyard and through the corridor, back the way he came.
Parvati lay clutched to his chest so hard his fingertips were white.
His reeling mind registered that the statue was remarkably light for something so dense. He sped through the kitchen and snatched up an empty hemp sack in passing.
Still moving he wrapped the fetish in the prickly material and came to a halt by the outer wall of the courtyard. Breathing in gasps he wasn't aware of, Gan undid some of the cleats that held the tiffins secure to his chak.
He looped the rope round his parcel, slung it across his chest and attached the rope crosswise over his shoulders. His chak's rubber wheels squealed in protest as he tore through the gate and disappeared down the road into Hastinapur's central market hub in a cloud of terracotta dust and an almighty rattling of loosened tiffins.
He needed to get rid of the bloody tiffins.
His mind was still in a fog of incredulity at what he'd just done as he screeched through several alleys into a poorer district. He stopped beside a huge open sewage drain long enough to unload his tins in an avalanche of clattering metal.
Before he'd even got back on his chak and his trembling hands had turned it around, the drain was swarming with half-naked children.
They chittered like agitated beetles and tore the discarded treasure from each other's hands. Several tins burst open and soon the drain was strewn with tiny pilau gems and larger carbuncles of naan, bhuna and spicy goat tandoori. A snarling pack of gaunt stray dogs and several tattered crows added to the din.
Gan pedalled as he had never pedalled before, his excitement mounting with every revolution of the wheels. He knew exactly where to go and what to do: he was going to be rich.
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