The sun was blazing overhead when Saroja and Kumaresan stepped off the bus. Beyond the tamarind trees that lined the road, all they could see were vast expanses of arid land. There were no houses anywhere in sight.
With each searing gust of wind, the white summer heat spread over everything as if white saris had been flung across the sky. There was not a soul on the road. Even the birds were silent.
Just an ashen dryness, singed by the heat, hung in the air. Saroja hesitated to venture into that inhospitable space. "Step down with your right foot first," Kumaresan had said to her.
She was now unsure whether he had said this in jest or if he had meant it. By habit, anyway, she had descended from the bus with her right foot first, but she was not sure he noticed that. The courage she had gathered until then suddenly vanished, leaving her feeling uneasy. When her feet touched the ground, she had prayed within her heart, "Everything should go well."
She could not think of a specific god. She only knew the name of Kumaresan's family deity, Goddess Kali, but she would not have been able to confidently recognise Kali's idol in the temple. The only image of Kali that came to her mind was that of a goddess with widened eyes, terrifying teeth and her tongue sticking out. She could not pray to that Kali who only inspired fear.
Kumaresan had already walked quite some distance. Saroja quickly found her bearings and trotted ahead to join him. Shifting the heavy bag to his other hand, he looked at her.
Nothing here appeared new to him. He was used to navigating this place even in the dark. He always walked with a spring in his step when he was here, and he felt the same way now. But she was new. She seemed like a fertile crop of corn - perhaps a little withered and dull right now, but easily refreshed with just a drop of rain.
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He noticed her struggling to keep pace with him and slowed down, conscious of how briskly he'd been marching ahead. The very sight of her took away his anxiety and brought him some calm. He could sense that, as a girl from a crowded city, Saroja was probably terrified by the emptiness of this place.
He looked at her face. A lock of hair had escaped her plait and swayed against her cheek. He longed to gently tuck it behind her ear. He tried to control himself, but his heart's desirous reach could not be checked. His gaze still on her, he smiled and said, "During midday, not even a crow or a sparrow ventures out in this heat. This is not a big city like yours, just a little village. But wait and see. You will be amazed at how many different people live here. Don't worry about a thing. I am here."
Kumaresan had rehearsed his strategy several times in his head. He believed that everything would go according to plan; it had to. He had thought long and hard about possible changes and modified the plan accordingly. And though he was well aware that no matter how foolproof a scheme, something always happened to make it unravel, a blind courage propelled him on.
Saroja clutched his shoulder and continued to shuffle ahead, making sure her legs didn't get in the way of his. Smiling faintly, she wondered if he would have taken her smile to mean, "I have no one besides you. I have come placing all my trust in you."
Perhaps he did. He somehow already understood all her movements, like someone who had known her intimately for a long time. Her grip on his shoulder slowed him down and held him back, but he savoured the pleasure of her warm grasp, and kept walking. They were on the main road that led from Senkundroor to Odaiyur.
To get to Kattuppatti, they would have to walk another mile. He kept explaining the different routes and places to her. The chatter helped him keep his anxiety in check. Though she sensed that he was describing the village's layout and other things, her attention began to drift. She had exhausted herself thinking about what might have transpired in her town, and now her mind was muddled with questions about what could happen here.
All night, her imagination had terrorised her with the thought that policemen would intercept them any minute and take her away from Kumaresan. Even now, she was seized by that fear, and she kept looking about warily.
When nothing of that sort happened during their journey, she wondered if her kin had considered it good riddance and poured water over their heads as a mark of disowning her forever. Perhaps they were relieved and happy that she had not taken anything with her, that she had walked out in just the sari she was wearing.
Was that all there was to it? Was that all there was to everything? Had all these years of familial bonding meant nothing? Why hadn't they come looking for her? Despite her fears of being separated from Kumaresan, she would have been somewhat comforted if someone had come after them, even if it was the police.
Now all she had was the emptiness of knowing no one was looking for her. After all this, could she ever go back there? And would anyone embrace her and welcome her back if she did? They would just say, "You left. You should have stayed away."
(Reprinted with the publisher's permission. Courtesy of Mail Today.)