From The City of Devi
Four days before the bomb that is supposed to obliterate Bombay and kill us all, I stand in the ruins of Crawford Market, haggling with the lone remaining fruit seller over the price of the pomegranate in my hand.
“Is five hundred rupees not an outrageous price already? Why won’t you sell it to me for five hundred?”
“Look at what’s happening around you, memsahib. Do you think the orchards are overflowing with pomegranates? Do you think the lorries are driving into Mumbai every day and filling the markets with fruit? I’m only asking for a thousand because it’s you, memsahib, but even three times that wouldn’t be too much for this last piece. Which really was the best one in the pile to begin with.”
I look at the sign for Crawford Market behind me, still smoldering from last night’s air raid (or has it simply been another terrorist bomb?). All around are shops gutted in the fire. Remains of baskets like scattered on the ground, pieces of fruit too charred for the scavengers to steal rest at my feet. I notice a tangerine that still has its characteristic knob at the top – it has been roasted to a black, perfectly whole crisp. Down the corridor, only one other stall stands intact – a spice merchant who has also somehow escaped the attack. He is using a stick to try and rouse the carcass of a dog that has died in front of his store.
The fruitwalla has a point. Supply and demand, he has me where he wants. This much I know: I must have the pomegranate before I begin my quest – some instinct deep inside insists it’s my best shot. But what’s tied into the folds of the silk dupatta around my neck is a few hundred less than the fruitwalla wants.
“Bhaiyya, listen,” I try once more. “They’re dropping the atom bomb this week. Atom bomb, you understand, not some firecracker that’s demolished the market around you. On Bombay. Mumbai. Whatever you call it, the city’s going to be finished. What would you do even if you did manage to squeeze out the extra money from someone? Take it to heaven with you? And what if nobody else came to your store? – most of the city has fled, you know. Is this what you want to happen to your fruit?” I nudge the tangerine with my foot, and it crumbles to ash.
But the fruitwalla is adamant, he won’t sell for less. “It’s all up to Devi ma’s grace,” he says. “She’s the city’s patron goddess, after all. Now that she’s appeared in our midst, perhaps she’ll save us, who knows? But even if she doesn’t, even if she only lets me hold the money for ten minutes, at least I’ll have it for that much time. At least I’ll die with an offering for her in my hand.”
Suddenly the futility of what I am trying to do overwhelms me – how ridiculous to put such hopes on a pomegranate! I look at the smoke billowing out of the buildings in the distance and smell the soot that hangs everywhere. The garbage collecting for days, the stench of bodies rotting in the air. Ever since I started my vigil for Karun eighteen days ago, I’ve kept close to my building complex, sheltered from the mayhem. Trying not to obsess over where he might be now, why he left. With the internet dying out, together with phones, radio and television, even electricity, my only news about the outside has been through tidbits from our lone remaining watchman. Seeing the devastation all around today fills me with disbelief – the city, as I knew and loved it, is gone. Somewhere towards Metro, a gun fires three times – looters, probably, executed by the police. Or perhaps by vigilantes, the police force, according to our watchman, having also fled. I wonder what would happen if I bolted – wrapped the pomegranate in my dupatta and leapt over the rubble that used to be the entrance. Would the fruitwalla run after me? Would the vigilantes fire at me as well? Surely their code of conduct must frown upon the gunning down of women?
Perhaps the fruitwalla sees the calculation on my face, because he takes the pomegranate from my hand. He eyes me carefully, and I see him appraising the mangalsutra I wear. Has it been two years already since our marriage when Karun tied it around my neck?
I run the black beads of the necklace through my fingers, I feel the gold pendant. What difference does it make if I die with or without it? – at least this way I will feel I have a chance. I take off the mangalsutra and hand it to the fruitwalla. He drops the red and heavy orb, that is to give me Karun, back into my palm.
“Five hundred more, memsahib,” he cries after me, remembering that I must have at least that much money. I do not turn around.