Lolita heard the high pitched whine of an aircraft flying above her, and her coffee-brown eyes instinctively darted to the sky to trace its path. It reminded her of her earlier years, when she used to travel with her parents – the service in the aircraft, the cozy, warm seats, the view, and most importantly, the cleanliness. With her eyes closed, Lolita was haggardly soaking in those memories when she was rudely interrupted by the shrill voice of her neighbor, Jaya.
“Could you lend me some tomatoes, Loli? I’ll give them back tomorrow.”
Lolita turned her oval face determinedly towards Jaya’s hut and shoved her hair away from her face. “Do you remember what you said the last time you borrowed something from me?”
Jaya dropped her eyes to her feet to avoid Lolita’s stern gaze. She slowly rubbed the nape of her neck with one hand and said, “We know each other so well. We are friends, right? I will return your things soon. Don’t you trust -”
“You have been using this as an excuse forever. Don’t you have any integrity?” shouted Lolita. Jaya couldn’t look up now; she was embarrassed. Just when Lolita was about to let out another diatribe about the last time Jaya borrowed tomatoes, Ramesh called to her from inside their hut.
“Come inside, Lolita. We will have to go today.”
Dry leaves crunched beneath her bare feet as she hurriedly walked into the hut, the weight of the buckets trying to force her off-balance.
Her husband, Ramesh, and her two kids had already started stuffing their clothes into the plastic bags they had painstakingly collected from the heap of trash near their slum.
Through the ruffling noise of the bags, Ramesh called out to Lolita in a flat tone, without even looking at her, “Could you store the food on the roof?”
Lolita’s eyes lingered on Ramesh for a few seconds, her hands still balancing the buckets on her lissome body. Fifteen years ago, when they had first met, Ramesh had been a different person. He would always stop what he was doing to talk to her, as if nothing was more important than her. He used to listen. He used to smile. But over the years, that special love had deteriorated to a regular household relationship, where minimal communication was enough to keep it functional. Life had moved on, and Lolita had learned to accept it.
Realizing that Ramesh wasn’t going to help put the buckets down, she managed to do it herself. Then she silently walked to the soot-covered mud kitchen and over to her soot-covered vessels. While searching for a few plastic covers, she let her eyes wander over the vessels in the kitchen. They did not own very many, and Lolita could carry all the food they had in one trip.
The wind had picked up speed and was making a howling sound around the hut.
She quickly covered the vessels and walked outside with it. Their roof was made of asbestos and tin sheets and was only as high as her shoulders when she stood up straight. She placed the food on the roof and walked back in to find Ramesh with the next instruction ready.
Lolita did not find herself the least bit affected by it. At least he did not hit her or shout at her after getting back from a hectic day at work, like her neighbors did to their wives.
Lolita and Ramesh worked at the gas station nearby, putting in their time to keep the children clothed and fed. They did not complain, as the money was steady. But time had done some damage to their relationship. Lolita had left her home for Ramesh. She had had a comfortable life until that point. But love, love felt more important than money at that time. Her family had opposed this relationship, and Lolita had left her parents for Ramesh.
“This is not the time to daydream; we need to get there as soon as possible. It will start in a couple of hours.”
Lolita looked around to see the kids standing in the corner, playing with their crudely cut ceramic toys. Ramesh was washing up outside the hut. Lolita walked to the fancy black bag in the south corner of the hut, took some elegant clothes out of it, and laid them out on the cot.
She then walked out to collect more water for the kids and herself to take a bath. While pumping the water into her green bucket, she raised her head to stare at the airport next to the slum. And just like that, she was pulled into her daydream again. If she had stayed with her parents and married the guy they had asked her to, she could have been one of the people in the flights that were taking off, flying to some exotic country to share a luxurious evening at one of the grand hotels.
The green bucket was overflowing. She slapped her forehead, a disgruntled look on her face, and pulled it out, spilling more water in the process. She then placed the cracked red bucket in and started pumping again.
When the red one was full, the kids took the buckets and went on to take a bath.
“Don’t use too much water,” Lolita shouted, and then saw Ramesh getting ready inside the hut. Lolita rushed in to get ready too. Finally, they were alone. The two of them having time alone in the small hut didn’t happen often, with the kids around all the time.
But Ramesh didn’t seem affected by the moment of privacy, carelessly walking out of the hut without saying a word.
Lolita’s eyes followed him.
He looked good in the sharp black suit, with his hair combed and his square face cleanly shaven. Standing outside, he looked up at the sky, one hand inside the side pocket of his pants and the fingers of the other one raking through his hair.
Lolita’s sari was fancy yet conservative, black with a golden border. The clothes had been bought with the spare money she’d had with her when she had defiantly left home fifteen years ago. It was a miracle that the clothes still fit them so well after so many years. They could never have afforded something like this in their present financial condition.
After getting dressed, Lolita walked out to stand next to her husband. She wanted to hold his hand, but she wasn’t sure if he would notice or welcome it. Before she had come into his life, being single was easy for him in the slum. Back then, he had time for people. That’s the kind of man he had been when she met him.
Lolita and her friends had driven to the airport to drop another friend off. While returning, she noticed that they were low on gas and had stopped at the gas station near the airport. While she was filling gas in the brand new Honda Accord that her dad had gifted her, she took out her cell phone to make a call.
A lanky guy with a loose-fitting uniform and weather-beaten skin had walked up to tell her that she was not supposed to talk on the phone when she was in the gas station.
“Ma’am, hi, you can’t talk on a phone when you are refueling. It’s not safe.”
He was a head taller than her and was standing so close that she had to look up. His smile and the way he talked grabbed Lolita’s attention right away. To top it off, he used the greasy towel draped over his shoulder to wipe his face, smearing the grease all over his cheek.
She stared into those pitch-black eyes and said with a playful tone, “I am sorry, sir. I will not do this again.”
He found this amusing. Raking his fingers through his hair with one hand, he said, “I appreciate your cooperation, pretty lady.”
Her face flushed, she had turned away to hide her smile from him. Cars were forming a line and honking behind her; she had to get in and drive away before she got another glance at him.
But all the charm and excitement felt in that first meeting had vanished over the years. Caring for a family had taken a toll on him. The first time Ramesh had lost his patience was when Lolita had forgotten to remind him of doing something for the third time in a row. Before moving to the slum, Lolita owned a cell phone, and she had gotten in the habit of calling and letting people know when she forgot something. It took a while for her to get used to not owning one. The first time, it was about getting some bread. Ramesh had found it amusing and had waved it away. He had run out in the rain and had come back after a couple of hours, bread in hand. When Lolita apologized, Ramesh had just laughed it away. And then it happened again. And Again. On the third occasion, Lolita had instinctively taken the money from inside one of her books and handed it over to Ramesh, thinking that he would want to go out to buy some food again.
“Do you know how long it takes to go out and get back again? You are not living in a rich household anymore,” he had chastised sharply. Then he recklessly crumpled the money and threw it on the floor before going to sleep with an empty stomach.
Lolita wept for a while before finding fresh resolve. She took the money and smoothed it with shaking hands. Then she dragged herself out into the night to buy some food for Ramesh. Her vision was blurred, and she was breathing heavily. She crossed the road without looking, and vehicles had to screech to a halt. She continued on, shielding her eyes from the cars’ headlights. When she returned after a few hours, Ramesh was still sleeping. Lolita didn’t know if she should wake him up or not. She sat near him with the resolve to not eat any food till Ramesh woke up and could eat too. But her hunger was disarming. She gave up and started eating. Salty tears flowed from her eyes, dripping onto the bread that she was biting into.
Over time, Ramesh’s impatience grew with every small mistake Lolita made. Finally, it reached a point where he shut Lolita out completely and stopped relying on her.
Dark clouds were drifting in. Heavy winds started to blow, knocking unfilled buckets around. Trash and dust started twirling around on the ground in an endless dance.
Lolita could feel the tension in Ramesh’s shoulders, but his face remained calm. His palm tightened around her hand.
Crickets were chirping and cicadas were droning. The insect noises pulled Ramesh back to reality. He realized what he was doing and pulled his hand out of Lolita’s. Then he started walking back into the hut. “I’ll get the kids.”
Once the kids were ready, they tied the hut entrance shut with cardboard pieces they used as doors. They covered their polished footwear with the remaining covers so that the excrements and dirt on the ground would not sully them. Ramesh led the way, and the family followed.
They reached the airport entrance after an hour of silent walking, just when it was about to drizzle.
Ramesh walked to the taxi stand near the airport and talked to a cab driver for a few minutes, and then ushered everyone to get in. The cab driver drove towards the entrance of the terminal. While in the car, they removed the covers from their footwear and Ramesh produced a cell phone from his suit pocket. They felt clammy and cold, but safe.
Upon reaching the terminal, Ramesh tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Thank you. We will always be grateful.” The driver made an accepting nod and drove away after they got out. Ramesh took out his phone and handed it over to Lolita. She took it from him and started talking with a graceful accent.
Seeing new travelers arrive, the security guard at the airport rushed to them and picked up their luggage. “Which terminal, sir?”
Ramesh asked for a minute by showing his index finger. After a few seconds, Ramesh took the phone back from Lolita, pressed a button on it, and looked at the security guard. “Our flight is not for another five hours. We just arrived early to avoid being stuck in the bad weather. Please leave the baggage near a seat outside.”
The guard nodded and walked towards a dry bench close to the building entrance.
It started to drizzle; the smell of wet earth evident in the air.
The children were excited. The airport felt like a big park to them – glass windows, big concrete pillars to run around, and a dirt-free floor that looked clean enough to eat out of.
Ramesh and Lolita sat facing their slum, which was at a distance. Rain had started to pour down heavily.
Lolita could hear Ramesh’s breathing becoming more rapid. Minutes turned into hours. The airport lights turned on one by one. Iridescent soap bubbles floated in front of them as the window cleaner deliberately wiped the glass walls of the airport.
The slum was lit up too, with torches. People were climbing up on their roofs as the water level rose. Lolita could see possessions floating out of huts and into the streets. Some huts had collapsed, the mud walls dissolved by the water and the cardboard pieces breaking apart once they became waterlogged.
Lolita slowly twisted the ring on her finger. She had faced a lot after marrying Ramesh, and she had adapted to most of the aspects of the slum life. But this unpredictable change, preventing her from even having a good night’s sleep, this she could not adapt to. Her skin crawled with disgust.
An hour had passed. The silence was unrelenting.
Lolita woke up with a jolt. She felt wetness on her cheek and quickly wiped it off with the back of her hand. She then smelled the back of her hand and realized that saliva had leaked out of her open mouth and smeared her cheek when she had drifted off. Ramesh was mumbling something to her irritably.
“Jaya – need to turn – They’ll see -” Ramesh was holding the kids together and panting hard.
“Some of the slum people are here. Trying to get inside the airport. If they see us, they’ll give us away.”
Lolita sat up straight and heard a commotion behind Ramesh. She could see the slum people arriving one by one at the airport and there was a commotion already in progress at the gate. Screams. Drama. Screams Again. More Drama.
Finally, the guards won the argument, and her neighbors were walking away, back to the slum.
The security guard walked back and spoke to Ramesh: “Sorry about the noise, sir. The slum people were trying to get in here because the slum is flooded. Do you need me to carry the luggage in now? It looks like it’s about time for your flight.”
Ramesh said, “Our flight got delayed till tomorrow morning because of the weather.”
“I am sorry to hear that, sir. My shift is ending now. Have a good night.”
Ramesh bid him a good night in return.
Life as they knew it had stopped. They had their jobs and they had each other, but everything else would have to be rebuilt. It felt like a clean slate.
Lolita turned to Ramesh and studied his stoic profile. He looked calm. But Lolita knew not to trust this. It was the little things that one learns to notice after being with someone else for more than a decade. Lolita knew that Ramesh had crumbled inside. As she was thinking about what she could say to make it better for him, Ramesh turned in Lolita’s direction.
He said, “Don’t worry, we will get through this together.” Then he placed his hand on hers and squeezed it gently.
Chills ran through Lolita’s body; her eyes widened and tears shimmered. She tried to make eye contact, but he avoided it. It was an extremely bad time for them, but Lolita was filled with hope. Ramesh had acknowledged her after so many years of silence. She rested her head gently on Ramesh’s shoulder.
The kids were fast asleep, their snoring only interrupted by the constant pitter-patter of the rain.
The sun slowly ascended on the horizon, casting a reddish glow over the slum.
Ramesh started to wobble his shoulder to wake Lolita up.
But she was already awake. Ramesh’s words were replaying in her head continuously, her mind racing with jumbled thoughts. Will this happen more often now? Will he talk to me? Will it all go away once life gets back to normal? Lolita didn’t want to go back to the slum – to life as usual for them – nor did she want the day to end. She wanted time to stop so that she could savor the moment of connection forever.
Ramesh picked up the bags and started tenderly shaking the kids awake.
“Five more minutes, Dad -”
“No, we have to leave now. You have school today.”
“We’ll go tomorrow. Let us sleep today -”
Ramesh dropped the bags and picked up the kids in both hands when he decided that they were not going to listen to him.
“Lolita, can you carry the bags?”
Fifteen minutes later, they were back in the slum.
The huts were in shambles. Some were filled completely with litter. Some were missing parts of their sidewalls. Some were completely gone. They wore the plastic covers on their footwear again and started walking back. The water level was high towards the middle of the slum.
Lolita had to hold her sari up while holding the bags in one hand so that she could get across without dirtying her sari. Before she could turn back and tell the kids to do the same for their clothes, she saw them splashing through the water, laughing and pushing each other. Lolita rolled her eyes and continued walking. At least she didn’t have to tell Ramesh.
They walked into their hut quickly, before anyone could notice them in their expensive attire. There would be questions. Questions about why they did not give this idea to the others and help them too. They hurriedly changed back into their regular clothes. They retrieved the food from the roof, which had managed to stay there due to the weight of the bricks they placed around it.
They could hear cries coming from their neighboring hut. Someone had electrocuted himself walking too close to an electric pole in the night. Lolita stepped out and saw that it was from Jaya’s hut. She sneaked a peek into the hut and saw a woman sitting in the middle of the hut, stewing in the dirty water.
Jaya was holding the lifeless body of her son and shrieking. When someone got too close to her, she would shout at them and point a menacing finger. “Don’t touch my son. He’s not gone-” she cried out, and then continued sobbing.
Lolita felt bad for Jaya. She felt guilty over the squabble she’d had with Jaya the previous day as well.
She did not want to be seen and quickly walked back in. The hut smelled of ripe garbage and rotten meat; there would be a lot of cleaning to do before it was ready to sleep in. Ramesh had to go to work so that he could buy food for the night and the next day. The kids would go to school. Lolita was left alone to clean the dirt and slime off the walls and the floor. She gulped down a wave of nausea and got to work.
It was nightfall by the time Lolita finished cleaning. Ramesh arrived right as she finished. Lolita got up and smoothed her sari with her hands, drying her hands in the process. She then walked over to Ramesh, all the while looking at the floor. Everything that had happened at the airport felt like a fantasy now, and she did not know if she should put her trust in the hope she had.
It could not have been that easy for Ramesh to transform like that. Fifteen years. And then this happens. Lolita did not want to open up emotionally and get hurt again.
She took the groceries from Ramesh and started cooking. Ramesh turned on the hack radio hanging from the roof. A popular music started playing. The kids arrived home.
Then a sudden news broadcast started on the radio. The monotonous voice of the newsreader stated that the weather would be the same for the next couple of days.
In front of the stove, a smile tugged at Lolita’s lips.