She dashed around the corner of the building to where I stood and came to a halt beside me. I was busy on my cellphone. She glanced stealthily behind her and with a sigh of relief she dropped the basket from her waist to the sidewalk and sat down beside it.
I stopped fiddling with my cellphone and perused her closely. Her dark skin was glowing, having broken into a sweat. Beads of sweat glistened on her upper lip and her small breasts still heaved from the running. Even as she removed the cloth that covered her basket, her eyes kept darting to the road. The fear of her pursuers did not seem to leave her. If someone did appear, she was alertly poised on her haunches, ready to hoist her basket and flee down the streets of Margao’s bustling cloth market.
She was dressed in a short black dress. Its faded texture told me that she must have been bereaved many years back. Christian women in Goa usually wear mourning black for a year. Out of habit or perhaps to make good use of the dresses that they have, some women continue wearing black beyond a year. Perhaps she can’t afford too many clothes, I thought with a twinge of compassion. As she riffled through the fruits in her basket soothing their disarray, her flitting gaze fell on me. Perhaps he will buy something from me, she must have thought, as she opened her mouth to speak. But she saw that my cellphone had returned to my ear and she kept quiet.
That basket on the footpath, the fruits in that basket, and that fruitseller...all at my feet...under my protection...as though I was a great tree!
‘I don’t like the Fair Ones,’ pouted the young woman. ‘Why do we have to work for them?’ Her mate stopped cutting wood and reproached her. ‘Kunda, you know they are wiser and they know how to grow more rice and build great houses. They are making things better here. When Chanda fell sick, they made her all right with their powders. Great Mharu has sent them to help us.’
‘Yes, but they have taken our land and we have moved back to the forests. They make us work like animals! And that Madhu, the Son of the Master, he touches me and I don’t like it.’
Varak frowned, but kept quiet. These women were always mischievous. If he fought with the Fair Ones, there would be trouble, their warriors would drive them farther into the jungles and life would be hard again. It was better this way.
The Fair Ones had come to their land in the time of his fathers and they had built great temples and houses. They had dug up the land and grown rice and new vegetables. They spoke and sang in a tongue that was strange. Their wise priest spoke of an ancient homeland where a great river had gone dry. They had travelled a long way and finally come to this fertile land on the coast, which only Varak’s people had inhabited till then.
And now their builders had created something new. They saw the salty marshes near the rivers and wanted to turn them into land. More rice could be grown, they said. So Varak’s people were made to work on building bunds, low walls of mud, stones and twigs that would hold back the river water. The magic had worked and where stagnant backwaters once stood, there rose vast stretches of land that was rich and damp and smelt like it could bear three crops in a year. The Fair Ones called the land Kha-zan.
Kunda and Varak toiled among their people in the hot sun as the Fair Ones oversaw this great work of reclaiming the land from the sea. On the hillock overlooking this scene of toil, stood the temple of Parshurama, the God of the Fair Ones. It was built in black stone that had been cracked from the ground by Varak’s fathers. But now Varak’s people were not allowed to step near it. They were not worthy enough, said the priest.
The girl seemed to be relaxed now. She had taken out a fine-toothed comb and was running it through her long tresses of black hair. After a while she began cajoling the passing pedestrians with sing-song pleas to buy her fruits. As I pulled out my cellphone again, I felt a tinge of compassion for her.
The Gauddi womenfolk collected fruits and seeds in the villages and sold them in the city. Some of them sold fish as well. But they had no fixed place in the market, the stalls were all allotted by the municipality. The stall tax, sopo, was collected from the licensed vendors and anyone else hawking goods in the open or on pavements was committing a crime. The Gauddi woman who came to the city with just a single basket did not have a stall and anyway the competition in the market was too much. They were content to sell their fruits and seeds amidst the hustle and bustle of Margao’s busy pavements, dodging the inspectors as well as they could.
‘You there,’ barked the Master’s Son to the bent figure of Kunda ramming mud against a wall. ‘Pick up your tools and work on the other end of the wall, quick!’
The bund-walls of the new field were coming up slowly as hundreds of Varak’s fellow workers dug up the clayey earth and piled it up, pushing back the river waters. The Master’s Son was a rough and ruthless overseer and was feared by the working men and women alike. The Master was a good man, powerful among the priests and warriors and kind to Varak’s folk. But he was old now and his descendants were not as gentle as him.
Kunda made her way to the far end of the khazan field. The coconut palms swayed in the evening breeze that gently ruffled the light cloth draped around her sunburnt body. The Fair Ones had brought good things, she admitted to herself, cloth of lovely colours and of such smoothness, unlike the skins that her people had worn for so long. Where was Varak, she wondered, wish he was at this end of the field too, there was no one else here. Varak had taken her as his mate just a few moons back and she blushed thinking of him as she picked up her stick and began ramming the loose mud wall.
Presently she sensed someone else around her and turned to see the Master’s Son leaning against a coconut palm, watching her. She continued working, unaware that the sight of her buxom body moving rhythmically against the mud wall was intoxicating the mind of her watcher. He crept up to her and casually fondled her hip. Kunda flinched and then froze. The eyes of her molester glazed with lust as his hands travelled greedily, parting the flimsy cotton cloth that had become soaked with sweat.
I suddenly heard the trotting of feet and two khaki-clad officials walked briskly around our corner. One of them was potbellied and squirted a stream of red paan onto the shop wall. He spotted the girl squatting near me and they lunged towards her. She was up in a flash, with her nimble frame springing towards the street. I nonchalantly stepped into the path of the inspectors and nearly collided into one of them, throwing him off balance. The potbellied one gave the girl chase and grabbed her basket. She struggled to wrench it loose and pleaded with him, but he plunged his hands into her basket and pulled out three of her choicest mangoes before she broke free and fled down the lane. The inspector squeezed the mangoes and grinned, turning to offer one to his companion. They laughed at the fleeing figure of the girl and bit into the succulent flesh of the fruit, the juice squirting onto their uniforms and the pavement as they left.
Kunda’s body contorted in revulsion and she felt nauseous. She suddenly jerked her head back, smashing into her attacker’s face. He fell back and she lifted her ramming stick, as though in a dream, and hit him across his head. There was a cracking sound as when a twig snaps and he dropped lifeless to the ground. She stood there with the stick, half naked, for what seemed like hours, before she became aware of Varak in front of her. He looked in horror at the bloodied head of the fallen man and at his wife’s torn garments and he knew. Grabbing her hand, he ran, half dragging and half carrying her through the dense coconut grove, up over the hilly slope and past the temple of Parshurama as the dying sun cast long shadows across the land. They would go to the jungle and hide there. They could live there for a long time as his fathers had done. It would be a hard life, but Varak knew he loved Kunda deeply and that was all that mattered.
The flustered fruit seller finally settled down near a kiosk at the end of the lane, where I heard her cooing and warbling again to the people who hurried home down the busy streets.