For the love of spring

RanjN
42 min readApr 14, 2024

Pirum was clear. Anything that he did had to be done out of iron. Iron was the one thing that ran through the many generations that came before him. Everything around it had kept changing but iron had remained at the heart of it all. A century or more back he was told his forefathers had been the smelters and ironsmiths to the local Rajah, who commissioned fancy armours and swords and shields that were seldom used for warfare as the territory was then under the patronage of the British. But the demand for arms and armours kept up the pretence of a kingdom that was ruled by a firm and able king. For Pirum’s forefathers, it kept them busy and paid and the association also helped them secure a small patch of land adjacent to their small shack where the fire that coaxed the metal into a more amenable mood was kept burning by coals and fans and a simple rotatory mechanism that turned the fan. Years later, when the last of the king had been dispensed with after Independence, the return of local power gave rise to local leaders who stood up as representatives of the population in a way that their own interests were somehow packaged as that of everyone around them. Part of that interest was to occupy as much land as they could for themselves and to do that they needed a lot of iron grilles and gates and fences and tin roofs supported over scaffolding that could withstand the push of the winds and weight of the rains while the push and weight of the population was easily dispensed with. Once again, Pirum’s grandfather saw fortune return to their small establishment. Even today, iron and its strength was often called on to guard against a lot more — people buying land all around, people fighting for inches, people deciding their own families were their enemies. But it wasn’t just Pirum’s father they came looking for as easily to assemble and set up kits were available in the market. But the momentum sustained the family for a while till their old and slow workplace lost the race to quicker and more modern units set up in the city a little far away.

When it was time for Pirum to take over, he knew he would have to think of something else, but it had to come out of iron. He had been brought up around this little workshop and the counter outside that stocked things like gardening equipment and kitchen knives and scissors and everything that his father had started making out of strips of iron, having added a skill or two to everything that he had learnt from his father. Pirum hadn’t yet added anything and for years he has struggled to learn what his father knew. But having grown up around the fire pit that helped ease the winters and also on nights when the electricity was cut off, he had seen enough and helped enough to do at least as much as his father did. Which was a little more than what his grandfather did, but then the things that were needed to be fashioned out of iron had changed over the years. Now Pirum’s bigger challenge was to figure out what to make, not how to. If something else was required other than what he knew, he would have to find a way, perhaps learn something. But for now he had to look around for what was needed.

On the third day of March, the entire town was getting dressed up to go to Shambhu Nai’s daughter’s wedding. That the wedding was finally happening was itself a matter of celebration, for she had made it very clear that she would follow her father in his profession and pick up the apron and the razor and the scissors and the comb and cut hair and beard like her father did. That a girl would work as a barber was a thought that excited the young, but was largely questioned and people who came to Shambhu’s for a hair cut or trim or to catch the sun as they read the morning newspaper would discuss this more than the affairs of the world and try to talk Shambhu out of it, who needed no convincing and had been trying to talk his daughter out of it. The daughter had been an able apprentice, and had learnt how to match hair strands and measure them with the fingers and snip away those that dared to tower above that level. She had learnt the way to sharpen the ustra on the leather strap hanging near the door before running it over a lathered face. These she had learnt and had only applied on her father’s head and face, who marvelled at what a great barber she could have been only if she had been his son. He did have a son who only stopped at the shop to ask for money before running away with his friends. But it was in god’s hands and it was in his to take the tools away from his daughter’s hands and get her married. To which she had agreed after many arguments and fights and resistance. She had agreed finally because the groom they found for her was a barber too and ran his business in a town far away from theirs, and Shambhu knew that he was only passing on his worry to the poor young man who would have to deal with a very determined and a very talented young lady. But for now, there was a wedding to organise and the entire town would turn up for there was hardly anyone who hadn’t gone under his razor.

Pirum had gone a few times to the barber’s shop before the wedding and asked if there was anyway he could help, as had others too. While most of the others had been refused politely with only the promise to be there for the wedding in time, Shambhu did have some work for Pirum.

The town was notorious for its sudden change of weather. Surrounded by hills on three sides and a sheer drop all the way down to the valley city on the fourth, the clouds had a habit of sliding up from the valley and breaking up forces to hide behind the hills. And when people were least suspecting it, they would all rise together and gather above, locking hands and moisture to rain down on the clothes that had been hung out to dry, on people out with their shopping bags, on children on their way to or from school, on people out for a smoke and people going back home after one. Everything that it poured on shook it off with a little feeling of irritation for everything had long lived with this possibility. But for Shambhu, his daughter’s long-pending wedding needed every surety it could get. Anything that could possibly thwart it had to be at least guarded against. These rains were on the list, with the dark clouds of doubt floating never leaving his mind, gathering between his neurones and springing on his at strange moments when he was busy doing other things. Now that he had asked Pirum to build a frame that could hold a waterproof canvas big enough and high enough for the ceremonies and at least 20–25 people to gather under should it rain, he felt a lot better. The rest of the guests could run inside the room where the food would be served, and the wedding could then progress without the daughter using the rains as an excuse to push it to another day, another man.

For Pirum, it was something that his father and beyond had not done. It wasn’t as though rains were more predictable then, but weddings before Shambhu’s daughter’s was an easier affair. People came for food and to bless the couple and came anytime the weather permitted. The ceremonies meantime continued without waiting for a gathering in the local temple or at home. Only this time it had become an elaborate affair for the girl getting married had been a cause of concern for everyone and for many reasons, and everyone had a reason to be around to see it really getting over with and the girl in question sent off with enough fanfare to make it a little difficult for her to return home should the groom not allow her to pursue her passion for cutting hair.

The next day, Pirum stood inside his workshop. It was his workshop now and it felt strange thinking of it like that. It had been his father’s for as long as he could remember. It had even been his grandfather’s though that memory came more the memory of his own parents who were used to calling the workshop in his name. He could go that far back at the most, and he was grateful that he did not have to weigh his own present down with the memories stretching even further back. He was weighed down by a history of iron and its many uses and now that he was trying to do something with it, any more history or examples of what could be made out of it wasn’t something that would have helped. Taking a deep breath that drew in all the smells from the ages of burning coal and heating iron and hammering and running cold water over it to cool it down ran down his lungs and gave him the familiarity that gave him the strength to do something with all that was his, and little else was. This was what he had to made something with. For now, something that could at least take one excuse off the table for Shambhu’s daughter to not follow through with the match she had agreed to. Running his eyes around the workshop, he found the tools he would need, figured out the amount of metal he would require, and thought of a rough date by when he would be ready. And with that, he pulled down the shutter and walked out in the evening sun to meet his friends for a glass of dark rum and a game of cards.

He would start tomorrow.

Before the next day came, Pirum spent the night with his friends, at first drinking and then later letting the things he heard sink in. He had heard from Shebhu the confessions of love for the daughter of the barber for the first time. Drunk, and at the last stages of seizing any possibility of seeing the girl of his dreams walking into his life, he had finally confessed to his friends. Why he had stayed quiet for so long was easily understood. The girl was a firebrand and there was no reason for anyone in the small hill town to think she would ever say yes. And the few who wanted her to say yes imagined they had all time in the world. The only worry was they — at least Shebhu — would first get married elsewhere but till that happened, they had no reason to think that she would get married, and therefore go away. But Shebhu had now discovered that there were men out there who would agree to marry her and allow her to pick up the scissors and comb and cut hair in a men’s salon. That such people existed had come as a relief to the girl’s parents and most of the town-folks. But to a few, like Shebhu, it had come as a huge disappointment, and it also signalled that he would have to do something soon if he was serious about her. But that also meant that he would have to be serious about letting her pursue her passion, more importantly in a town where she would either be sharing the shop with her father, or become a competition to him. The amount of rum the friends had guzzled down left no room in their brains to think of a possible solution, so they all made the most of it and downed the last of the bottle and walked back home to meet again and figure the dilemma out.

But the next day came with his own deadline, for Pirum had to get going on the frame for the waterproof covering, about which one of the friends had spoken when they all hoped the rains would pour over the wedding and give Shebhu some more time to make the match possible. And here he was, commissioned to stop that possibility from coming about. He could start slow, he thought, so he could be at least closer to finishing the work on time if the wedding were to go as planned, and not waste too much time or effort or resources if the friends did come up with a plan to stop it from happening.

Soon after breakfast, Pirum started walking slowly towards the bus stop from where he had planned to catch a bus to the city so he could order the steel rods and frames and a bunch of screws and nuts and bolts from which to fashion the frame. He also needed some electrodes for his welding torch that had long been lying unused because there had hardly been any work that would have called the tool to put itself to some use. Till yesterday he had been excited. He had been looking forward to this trip and to starting on a project that will lead to something new coming out of the workshop that had for some time bene churning out the mundane. But now as he walked over to the bus stop, his feet slowed down enough to make him continue on his journey towards the parked bus, and hopefully delay him enough to put off the trip for the next day. And the bus was already pulling out when he saw the face of the girl — Shambhu’s daughter — peering out of the window. Without thinking how that was going to help him, he rushed and caught the bus just as it slowed down to negotiate the turn that would set it on the straight path where it could pick up some speed.

For Bidhuri, this bus ride had a lot riding on it. The city she was going to had somehow given the environment and the upbringing to a certain man to be of such an open mind that he had no qualms about having his wife work next to him in his barber’s shop giving men haircuts and shaves. Or the other possibility that the young man was so long gone and failed at finding a girl to say yes to marrying him that any condition under which any girl said yes was agreeable to him, even before he had heard it. Could she had placed other conditions, equally weird, and get him to agree so that she too could have overcome her own reasons for not getting married? She was good at giving haircuts. She had given her father all his haircuts for the past two years or so, and that was a haircut that prompted many of his customers to ask for the same one. But that wasn’t really the reason why she wanted to stay at the shop all her life and give haircuts. She wouldn’t mind it, for now at least, but who could say what her interest would be in a few years’ time? But she had certainly used this one talent of hers to cut a fine impression of her demands from life that would guarantee that she never got married. Till this young man turned up from a city where he too was a barber and had no problem with a girl who wanted to be one too. She was leaving for a day with a friend on the pretext of selecting her wedding dress when Pirum sat down on the seat behind her and the two exchanged a smile and then she went back to gazing out of the window while her friend who was accompanying her went back to gazing at the bald head of the man a few seats ahead, wondering if this loss of business affected Bidhuri in any way.

The bus driver swung the bus around the bend with much fanfare, jolting people into a state of awareness from the stupor they had been lulled into by the gentle breeze that came through the windows of the parked bus under the early sun. Pirum took out his small pocket notebook and made a few additions to the purchases that he may or may not make. With Bidhuri in the bus with him, he was closer to finding out if she indeed was getting ready to marry a man from a distant place or maybe get some clue if she was open to considering the proposal was someone closer home. He wasn’t close enough to her to ask her directly, but under the pretext of making notes in his diary, he leaned forward to catch the conversation that had just started between Bidhuri and her friend.

The bus seemed extra loud that day, its old diesel engine kicking up a ruckus out of either protesting being pushed into an early morning drive, or too eager to get going. Either way, there was just too much noise for Pirum to spy on their conversation, but he was catching snatches that he decided to jot down and make sense of later when he had a more peaceful place to sit in. Something about it being too late was being said, something about the world being a strange place that such people existed, something about the city being a place not worth something, and something about having lunch at some place that was famous for something. Some of this information was of personal interest to Pirum. Like the place that was good for something to eat. But that, as with other bits and pieces he collected, there was nothing conclusive or certain. But he had hoped to catch something more and closer to completion when the bus rolled off the hilly roads and swept over the plain and wide city road. The engine would certainly have a lot less to complain about. But by the time the bus reached that stretch almost an hour later, he was fast asleep, lulled into sleep by the swaying of the bus and ruffle of the breeze floating in through the open windows that he couldn’t close even he had tried, stuck as it was with many cigarette and bidi buds pushed in by passengers over countless trips.

Pirum woke up with a start to the sound of the bus conductor calling out to him, the last of the passengers and the last of those who hadn’t woken up to even his loudest calls. It took Pirum a while to get his bearings and to realise that part of his recently updated agenda of seeing if he could get more information out of Bidhuri was lost to his sleep. But he still had work left to do, work that he had actually left home for. Taking out his diary after he had stepped out, and running back to the pages before he was started jotting down the stray words that spiked over the bus’ rumble, he went over the list that he had made for the frame for Bidhuri’s wedding at the instruction of her father Shambhu the barber, and took a left to go to the iron market where all hardware was sold and delivered to the many small towns and villages surrounding this place. If Shebhu had known that he was giving priority to the work that he should be stalling, in favour of the one that he should be doing, he would call it a breach of friendship. But fresh out of his sleep, and fresh out of ideas of what to make of the shop and the business that ran in his family and was in imminent danger of stopping with him, he certainly had an idea where his priorities should lie. To that side of the divide on the road, he told himself and set out.

The little-over-an-hour bus ride made a world of change to the climate and feel that Pirum experienced every day at his hometown. Here, the air was drier and though never too warm, it missed the slight nip that kept it just right to snuggle in between friends as they walked over the roads, and the lack of traffic that allowed them to do so over there. Here’s the weather didn’t look for company nor did the traffic allow it. So people walked a little openly, a little alone though company trailed alongside to keep out of the way of the traffic and harm, and everyone walked like they had a place to get to, and it did seem like they didn’t ever step out without a reason. Never for the walk, but always for the walk to get them someplace. He certainly was among them today, and though without company, the way the others walked, no one could say that he was alone or with someone who was trailing behind of was being trailed by him.

The Solid Material Shop, Established 1902 was at the far end of the iron market, and was among the favourite with those who had been in the iron trade as blacksmiths and carpenters for ages. The new ones preferred the new shops with the glazed brochures and the tea and coffee dispensers at the seating area as they waited for their orders to be filled in in a register. For Pirum, these trips brought him in touch with his father’s friend and that was another reason he loved coming here.

Bilki Pathan was a long-living resident of this country and this city. Only the name that he carried put his identity to a certain country, when everything else about him put him far away from there and close to where he had always lived. Brought as a young child during years of conflict in his country, he had soon forgotten the pain and panic of those early years and started working as an apprentice to another one of the refugees, at first finding the odd iron scarp to pick and sell, and later to start a more organised way of sourcing metal and selling it for a profit. The Sold Material Shop was of his own making, including the walls and the ceiling supported by the iron tracks that he had bought very cheap and very early when the local railway tracks were being laid out. That was when this city was merely a dusty down at the foot of the hills and the railway tracks were being laid far from scrutiny, so that a lot of black marketing and exchange of material in the working direction of the tracks had taken place, bringing wealth to many contractors before trains could be brought to the place. But that may have been how Bilki Pathan and his friend started their business, now it was a perfectly legitimate one that sourced at competitive prices and sold at a small profit that kept their main customers loyal and kept him in financial stability. The recent competition wasn’t a source of worry for him, for he had invested his early savings in property when the place was just started to attract buyers and now he was doing well from that expansion, while this continued to be his passion and his way to keeping in touch with his suppliers and buyers who had long turned into friends. As Pirum walked in, the old man looked up and smiled, seeing a lot of his father in the young man’s face and in the way he walked. Pirum smiled at him, folded his hands in a greeting, and took the seat across the old man’s desk, breathing in the thick smell of the metal and the grease that was coated on the stock in thick layers to prevent rusting.

Pirum had often sat on this very chair when he came to the shop with his father. While the two men went around looking for things that had to be bought, and in between talk about their families, struggles, business, and the future of it all if it had any, Pirum would be sipping from a bottle of cola through a straw that made gurgling sounds if he positioned the far end of it just over the surface of the liquid. The cola from his childhood had remained a sweet memory for him all this life, to the point that he could always smell the smells of this shop even if he sipping from a bottle of cola far away. Or as he now discovered only in his youth, that he could taste that cola from the smell that surrounded him every time he came here. He was still thinking about that when the young boy who must have joined this place recently came in and set down a cup of tea and a plate of cookies in front of him, a clear sign that only was he thought of as an adult who would no longer favour a soda, but also a grown up who had come here to do business like his father. Only he knew that he would rather have that soda, and leave this business to his father. With a sigh that helped the hot tea cool down a bit before he took a sip, he once again greeted his father’s old friend and told him about the project work that he had come here to shop for. Telling Bilki Pathan about the end product always helped, if one had come here to shop for something specific. The man would help shave off the excess in the plans, and add what may have been missing. That’s one way you would learn, his father would often say. The older he got, the more often he said it. So it was over tea that the list was refined and a rough cost arrived at, only part of which would be paid now, and with the promise that the material would be loaded onto the truck that ferried vegetables to the town every early morning, Pirum took his leave and walked out, the smell receding from his nose but getting stronger in his memory. He felt like having a cola. Looking back, he saw the old shopkeeper was still keeping an eye out for his friend’s young boy, so Pirum decided to wait till he took a left or a right and found a cola shop in the bazaar. Maybe he would get a bite too. He had planned on taking the late evening bus back and shop a little at the wine shop that stocked brands that they didn’t find back at the town. Whether he went back with some news or not, Shebhu would certainly be waiting for a bottle to open.

When Pirum took a right from the lane that led up to Bilki Pathan’s establishment, he started looking around for the soda shop that he had frequented as a child accompanying his father, and later with his friends when they skipped their college and came to the city to watch a film. Recently, he had been to the city and to this side of it a few times but he hadn’t looked for the soda shop. And now that he was looking for it, he realised that he may have actually not seen it because it was no longer around. Where the hole-in-the-wall soda shop had once stood, there was now a place that sold sunglasses. Pirum found himself feeling a little disappointed, but having convinced himself that it was the same shop and not one that was near it that he had missed, he walked on, suddenly not feeling like having a cola. But he was still hungry, and he remembered that Bidhuri and her friend had spoke of a place that was good for something. With nothing else to guide him, he walked around aimlessly and then found a small shack of a place that served drinks and many versions of eggs. Making up his mind to have a drink though he never drank at this hour or ever alone, he stooped a little to get inside the shop and found an empty table at the far end of the dimly lit interiors. He then ordered a single peg of whiskey and scrambled egg served with crisp toasts and felt a rush of relief wash over him. As if something big and heavy had been lifted off his shoulders. He didn’t know what, but as he sat there enjoying his drink and food, he found himself enjoying the absence of any company or rules that he had observed so strictly all through his life.

There was something about this moment and this place that he seemed to liking. Was it the solitude or perhaps the knowledge that nobody that he knew would walk into these spaces? Maybe it was the long-lost taste of the cola that connected him to all the memories that were so far from the taste of this cheap whiskey, or the realisation that he would always have this place to retreat into whenever he wanted to be with himself. Looking around, he saw a few more like himself, all alone but on a table that was occupied by others as well. In the company of strangers that had to inclination to make friends or strike up a conversation. Even if someone did know someone else, they were keeping this secret to themselves and they all acting like they were unknown to each other. With a drink for company and this hour, there had be a reason for them to be here and to be alone. Pirum found himself lost among others like him, though he didn’t quite know what was it that he was escaping from. He had a few worries, some that came from his professional life, others that came from his friends, and perhaps one or two that had tagged along from his home though people back home were giving him a lot of room to prepare to fill in in his father’s shoes. He decided to not think about it, but focus only on the moment in which he seemed to be relaxed, and in no hurry whatsoever. Till it was time to move out, not because the last bus was due any time soon, but because he thought of walking around a while to see if Bidhuri could be bumped into.

Paying for the third drink that he never thought he was capable of holding so well, and for the extra breads that he had with the egg, he walked out and thought the sun had gotten harsh somehow. Smiling, and acknowledging to himself that he may not be holding the whiskey as well as he had imagined himself to, he started walking towards a stationery shop that he and all students from the town would visit at least twice a year to stock up on their school requirements. It wasn’t far, but the pace at which he was walking, it took him a little while to get there. But soon he was standing outside the shop that faced the road, with rows upon rows of books and notebooks and cover sheets and pens and pencils and more stacked in a way that everything was visible to those standing outside to place their order. He stood to a side, not sure why he was here, but waiting to for the crowd to move on for he suspected that his breath would give away his address from the recent past and more than being looked at with scorn, he feared giving away the place that he just found out was an escape that should be best hidden.

The crowd took some time thinning, and when it did it was mostly because the shopkeeper had hung the LUNCH sign on the counter which did not really matter to the people as far as thinking about the shopkeeper’s lunch went, but it certainly reminded them of theirs and they moved on to the shacks all around the bazaar to get a bite and think of other things that they wanted to buy while they were here at the market. Pirum walked closer to the shop and called out to the shopkeeper just as he was about to leave through a small door that was right behind a few shelves, cleverly hidden and hiding a small room where he and his assistant would have their food, and also stacked all the spare copies of all the books that were in demand. The shopkeeper walked over impatiently and was about to wave this persistent customer away when he took another look and broke into a smile. It indeed was Pirum! His friend from college from the few years that they had spent studying together in the city. Pirum had lived in a room above his shop, and that had become a favourite haunt for all the boys in their group. Especially for Shebhu and these two. That was when they dreamt of the world and escaping from what their fathers did. Now both were doing exactly that, and that had strengthen their bond even more over the years, though they seldom saw each other now. Bibba opened the counter that flew back on its hinges to make space for Pirum to enter, and once inside the two walked into that small room behind, where Pirum refused the food that Bibba offered, and Bibba catching the whiff of alcohol on his firend’s breath, made a face that showed him how impressed he was with his friend for having started so soon. They spoke of the times they had spent in the room above, the rent money that often did not reach Bibba’s father’s hands and instead were spent on movie tickets and late night snacks. That was then. Now this was their lives and that the two could still sit and talk about it softened the blow a bit. Pirum hung around till it was time for the customers to come pouring back, and he himself had an errand or two before he could catch the bus back.

It was on the bus back that he found himself sitting next to Bidhuri. She was by herself now, having lost the friend somewhere over the course of the day, and she smiled a faded smile and slumped next to him, finding at least one person she knew. The two smiled, and as the bus gunned to life, Pirum thought that maybe he would be able to take back some news for Shebhu along with the bottle of rum that he had wrapped in a towel brought especially for the purpose before tucking it inside his bag. The initial few kilometers took the bus through the busy roads of the city, and gradually shook off the lethargy induced by the rush and the warm air and the cramped roads to take on a more energetic stride as it stepped on the open roads of the highway that were flanked by hills to one side and a gently rolling drop on the other. Many would fill in their lungs with the fresh air almost involuntarily and settle deeper into their hard-backed seats and start to doze as the bus wound its way up the hill roads. Pirum was feeling no less drowsier than the others, probably mom because of the whiskey he had had during the day and then stepped out under the sun. But Bidhuri was looking a little agitated, a little too wide awake and her perturbations seem to be creating a small circle of nervous energy around her, one that made it difficult for Pirum to find a comfortable enough position to sleep. Even his favourite position that had his head resting gently on the glass of the window with the warm sun and the gentle breeze taking turns to sway him to sleep wasn’t helping today. And n Bidhuri spoke, and whatever little hope he had of going over the rest of the journey to only wake up when the bus rolled into the bus stand was now taken over by the urgency in Bidhuri’s voice.

At first, Pirum did not realise that the question was addressed to him. He continued to gaze outside the window, and remembering the old days when he sat on similar seats with similar views and counted trees as they rushed past. The tall pine trees hadn’t yet made an appearance and were waiting for the bus to catch up with them a little further up, but before that came the many thick-trunked trees that were easier to count because of the larger distance between them. Somewhere between a 15 and 21 he realised that Bidhuri was addressing him and he reluctantly tore his eyes away from the trees and looked at her, letting her known that she would have to repeat her question the second time, which she did in an irritating tone of someone who was having to repeat it the fourth time. Even then, Pirum did not know what to make of her question. How could he possibly answer this question about why a young man would take a girl for wife whose only condition was that he allow her to stand next to him in a men’s barber shop and cut hair. He shrugged, hoping that it would indicate his complete ignorance on such matters, but it only translated for Bidhuri as a feeling of exasperation that such a person should exist, which was exactly her feeling as well. And that got her opening up to him like she hadn’t yet opened up to anybody other than the friend she had taken with her on this trip and then left behind because of the strange meeting the two had had with the prospective groom. She had travelled to the city to meet the young man and see what was wrong with him and to convince him that she had no plans of giving up on her dreams should they get married, and the two girls had walked away after an hour or so spent in a cafe over lemon soda and limp fries, with the friend quite impressed with the young man’s modern outlook, and with Bidhuri convinced that he was hiding something that made him the most ineligible bachelor. She was determined to find out what that trait was and her friend was determined that he was the best person she could ever find and the two had fought on the way over this and had parted ways, with Bidhuri asking her if she would rather marry the man. And the friend saying that she would have had she too wanted to cut hair. Now Bidhuri was here on this bus sitting next to Pirum who saw a chance to talk her out of a marriage that she wanted to be talked out of, and go back to Shebhu and the other friends in his gang to tell them about this pleasant turn of fortune.

He did love the small town that he lived in. While he only had to say a simple yes to Bidhuri’s question, it did set him off thinking about the reason he never really thought of doing anything other than run the shop of his family though he was not close to being the kind of iron-worker that his father and grandfather were. Now as he thought about it between Bidhuri’s questions, it was only because he liked the simple, slow pace of the life that he lived up on the ridge of the hill that swept up from the city that stood on its foot. There was nothing much to do there, really, he knew. But maybe that was the charm that the place held for him. But if he were really honest with himself, that was because he never really knew anything else other than that. What Bidhuri said next wasn’t a question that he needed to answer. It was framed as a question, not even rhetorical, but probably one that she was asking of herself because she had always known the answer. If she too loved the town that she had been born in and grown up in and had almost every day of her young life walked up and down the slope that went past her father’s shop and saw in it a chance to say no to going elsewhere because sooner or later everyone left. Some for work, some because of their marriage. Those that stayed back were thought of failures. In work or in marriages. She knew her time would come too. She would have to find a job elsewhere or get married to someone from beyond the borders of this town. It was the only way. That was the way it had been for so many people that she had known. Her father had stayed back because he was lucky to have something that not many had. A business, but even more importantly, he was the centre around which the town’s community revolved. At least early mornings when people came for a shave and a tea from the neighbouring kiosk, and for a newspaper shared along with gossips and analysis, and for sunshine that found the bend just across the shop the perfect place to drop its load of photons and only moved away when people dispersed for work or rest or meals or because they knew if they didn’t the house would be too unwelcoming for them. So she loved all that too. And she didn’t want to move away. What other option did she have other than making her father’s business her own? Her brother was not interested in it so she wasn’t taking anyone’s place. Only the place that would be bought by stranger when her father’s fingers and knees could no longer take the load of standing for hours and snipping away with one hand and hold the comb with the other. He was already complaining of arthritis in the right knee and he did come looking tired every day now. For that reason he wanted to marry her off while he could still stand with some dignity and pay for the ceremony, and she wanted to stay back because she knew she could keep the business and the shop in the family, and also herself back in the town.

Only much later would Pirum realise that the ride back home had not really been a conversation, but Bidhuri’s monologue that could have fallen on any ear that happened to find itself next to her in that bus. He had just happened to be there, and though she knew of him as an interested party because of some business that had come his way owing to the marriage, she had not known that his interest went far beyond that. By the time he got off and shook off Bidhuri’s parting words from a trip that hadn’t yielded much, at least not what she had hoped for, he knew that he and Shebhu and the rest of their friends would have something to think about when they met over the bottle that he was carrying with him. Somewhere at the back of his mind he also knew exactly how she felt. Hadn’t he said yes to something that he didn’t have heart on and no to something that he did, only because he too wanted to stay back?

It was from this very bus stop that he had seen two of his friends wave him goodbye all the way down to the bend from where the bus was visible for a short while, and he had stood here thinking if too should have gone too. The acceptance letter from the merchant navy academy had come for all three. He too had been given the chance to take up the training and join a fleet of ships and sail distant lands and experience new things and live the life of adventure that the brochures had promised. He could still remember the stunning blue of the sea below and the sky above and young men and women in absolute white facing the camera as they leaned against the railings of a ship that was on a path to one of those promised adventures, and the wind making its presence known by the hair on the young women that danced under their caps. The men had their hair cut short, but their smiles seemed wind-blown too. It was this image that had made the three work so hard for the entrance exams and then travel that far for the first time to give their entrance exams and if the image from the brochure had worn out is effect, this massive busy city would have coaxed them out of the small sleepy hill town anyway. But the three go through with the required grades and then had lived a few weeks of recognition when everybody in their town spoke of them and how well they had done and other children were given their examples to follow and s would come asking for advice for their soon-to-graduate offsprings. But when time came to pack their bags and pay they fees, Pirum backed out. He knew exactly when he had taken that decision. It was when he had sat in their shop and took a deep breath and with it everything that he had tasted and felt and seen and smelled and experienced and he knew that nothing on that shop from that picture came close or could ever give even a whiff of that. Instead, he started seeing the wind for something that would clear all his memories away, everything that had tied him to this place, to his childhood. And his mother had understood. His father, being more pragmatic and knowing that he may not amount to much in the family trade and tried to talk him out of it, but even he did that a little reluctantly. So he had stayed and the two friends who had gone would visit once or twice a year or two and speak of their adventures but somewhere they would also speak of no longer knowing their home as their home and he would feel a tinge of sadness for both, sometimes for them and sometimes for himself. But at the end of their visit, he would be happy that he was waving them away and was not in the same cab that they were leaving in.

He was now walking back the same path that he took when he saw his two childhood friends leave to live their adult lives differently. At some point Bidhuri had taken the right turn that would take her up the incline towards the old bazaar where her father’s shop stood, and where the sun appeared first. A little beyond the shop to the left of the ridge stood their house with the lower floor dedicated to the goats that they kept, and the top floor to the family. Her mother would be bringing in the goats at this hour, and Pirum who walked straight towards his shop where he had planned to leave the few hardware items he could carry on him before the larger items got delivered by truck, he also decided to leave the bottle there so his friends could pick it up and meet him at the far edge of the town where the old building that had once housed one of their friends and was now abandoned as it awaited attention and he resources to make it liveable again. He would then go home and ask his family to not wait for him at dinner as he had plans to do things that would help him plan for the structure that Shambhu Nai had commissioned him to make for the wedding. They didn’t need to know that he was now fervently hoping that he never complete the structure and that it rained on that day and that somehow the wedding was called off. Either that, or something that in the evening’s conversation with Shebhu and the other friends that may think of a way where he did not risk losing the advance that he had been paid and also did not leave it to the vagaries of the rain gods. But he had to start work on his own plans for the wedding. As a business owner, or as a friend, or as someone who understood exactly how the interested party getting married felt at the moment.

That night, when he stepped out of his home to meet his friends, he stepped into a light drizzle, not strong enough to worry about an umbrella, but not so light that it wouldn’t be felt. They would probably have to give up their plans of meeting at the old building because of the distance and also because the rain was unpredictable and the structure would not guarantee a roof that would keep the water away. He found Shebhu and the two other friends standing under the awning of his workplace, the distant yellow light from the street lamp shimmering over them and making the drops appear thicker and far more dense than he could feel. He rushed over to where they stood and they decided to continue with their meeting in the shop. They had never used that place to drink and eat, but when Pirum himself suggested it, they all agreed. They would finally have a place that was not too far from where they all lived. And the fire for the iron that was tended to by the hand-rotated fan would also help heat up the chicken kebabs and the peanuts. But that Pirum refused, he wasn’t going to allow the fire that he worked over to be used for something that they did away from the glare of the world. He didn’t want the guilt of their actions to creep into his work. The friends nodded, just happy that they had a place to sit and drink in. The kebabs and the peanuts were to be had cold anyway, if they had gone to the abandoned structure.

Pirum opened the shutter, let them all in, and the rolled it down again before he lit up the bulb inside. The room did demand some fire going on, if not to heat up the kebabs or the peanuts then to warm up their hands that feet that the rain had soaked up in and the night had added to the discomfort. By the time the bottle was opened up and the first pegs served, Pirum had softened up a bit to allow the snacks to be brought up closer to the fire and then eventually by the time the third drink had settled in, to be heated up directly over the fire. But that was on the side, for at the centre of it all was the conversation that he was filling them on that he had had with Bidhuri on the bus ride.

The rain had started pounding the tin roofs on the houses that had still not shifted to the cemented flat roofs that were not ideal for the climate but looked more in times, and the four were getting cosy, with the fire and the warm snacks and the drink that was slowly breaking past the blood-brain barrier and making them think that they were now in a place where they could make better decisions when they were actually getting less and less of what the situation demanded. And it was in this state that the four decided to hatch a plan that would make the marriage carry on till the appointed day, and then at the last minute, they would waylay the groom and replace him with Shebhu and get Bidhuri to stay in the town and get him to the get the girl of his dream. The only thing that remained to be seen was if Bidhuri would go along with the plan and for that to happen, she would have to agree to get married to Shebhu first. And to see if that was on her mind, they would have to hatch another plan. But they were too drunk by then to think about it and the four slid down from a sitting position to a laying down position and were soon sleeping happily by the fire as the rains continued to wash past the town and flow down towards the valley city where the bus had driven up from earlier in the day.

The next morning was as crisp as most rainy nights merged into. The four friends woke up, fresh from the night by the fire and the talks vaguely circulating in their collective memories. They decided to go to their respective homes and then gather again for tea and omelette at the roadside kiosk by the sunset point that saw few visitors around sunrise, and formulate their next steps. They all remembered their plans from their conversations, but they all remembered them differently. The only thing each took away other than a slight hangover was that there was hope for Bidhuri and Shebhu. Giving each other an hour to freshen up and explain their night away to their families, they decided to meet at the kiosk at 9am sharp. Which roughly translated to an hour or so above the time agreed on.

When young men have to report back home after spending a night away without prior information and in some cases, permission, it takes time to extricate themselves from what ensues. And since all the four young men were in more or less the same situation and understood each other quite well, they all did converge pretty late but at the same spot but with no appetite for omelettes because none had the strength to refuse the breakfast each had been offered in their respective homes by their respective families. But there was never no excuse or reason to refuse a cup of tea. With a cup in each hand, the four walked across the road and sat themselves down on the soft base from where the pine trees shot up, each finding an indentation that had been created by years of pressure from the base of those who had sat here, with or without the tea, at first a little uncomfortably and without caring for a particular spot, but as the repeated pressure — some of which could be claimed by these four — made a few spots more in sync with human anatomy, these because the sought after spots for people to sit in. The tourists especially loved these spots, and clicked many pictures as they sat there, but for the locals it was just some spot where they could rest with their teas and if they hadn’t been forced to have meals at home, then a bunch of butter or more. The rest and the calmness after the storm also gave them all a more structured mind to formulate a plan.

Over the next four days, the four decided, they would execute it and at the end of that, they would either have fulfilled the wishes of the two locals or allowed the city boy to get away with his.

It started with Pirum going over to Bidhuri’s house and asking her father, Shambhu Nai if he could accompany him to the city the next day when he would be going over to buy some necessary things for the wedding, and also to pick up the wedding invites that must have been printed by now. There was a printer in the town as well, but with the rains, he could never really guarantee when the cards would be dry enough to be put in envelopes and sent across. The printer was good for things that didn’t have a critical date to be ready by, like signboards and school stationery. But wedding cards were best avoided through him unless one wanted to use them as an excuse to have fewer people turn up. Shambhu Nai wanted everyone to turn up. It was a rare stroke of luck and he wanted everyone to witness it. Shambhu Nai thought it would be good to have a young man with him in case he found things that were cheaper there and the only reason he wouldn’t pick them up was for their weight. With a young able man with him, he could do that as well. Pirum did not know of this plan and only knew that at the last minute he would be replaced by Shebhu, another young man who was to try and make that one day trip a chance to show how well he would be suited as a son-in-law. With that part of the plan set in motion, it was time for a sister of one of the friend’s from their drinking group to be roped in. She was a friend of Bidhuri and if she could be convinced to make her friend look at Shebhu and think of him as a suitable replacement, if not for himself then certainly for the fact that it would make her stay back in the town for the rest of her life, which one hopes would be a happily married one. Staying back would help, and that was one thing that the city boy couldn’t offer.

Far from where the boys were planning and roping in accomplices, with their knowledge or without, Bidhuri wasn’t planning on getting into that wedding dress she had purchased with an unmatched reluctance without a fight. From planning extreme things like a sudden fire to running away, she had found a much more palatable idea. The chance discovery of love letters from her almirah that her mother stumble upon when she would go looking for something that Bidhuri would claim she couldn’t find. The letters would take her mother through the many years of courtship and secret meetings and plans to elope, all in a trajectory that would show the closeness with this secret lover getting stronger with each passing day. And the final letter, the most recent one, would be from a day or two earlier, that would suggest running away on the wedding night, or if that would somehow be thwarted by the family of the boy and the girl, then the promise from the boy that the newly wedded groom would not live to see the end of the road from the town to the city, and Bidhuri would end up looking the most beautiful widow that he would agree to marry. She had the pointers all noted down, but she needed someone to write those twenty or close letters, in one handwriting, over the next two days. She even had some old papers, some new, all marked discreetly to later appear as having been written and preserved over time. Who could possibly do this for her? And the only name came to her mind was of the young man she had met over the bus ride and had confided in. He had appeared sympathetic, though a little distracted. At least she wouldn’t have to start the conversation and the back story. He may refuse, but she had others ways of forcing him. There was charm, her smile was generally considered sweet and disarming, and then the threat of telling people he had misbehaved with her on the bus ride. She didn’t want it to come to that. She had a feeling it wouldn’t. The young man looked quite understanding. And if he wasn’t up to it, maybe he could find a friend to do it?

Putting on her floral dress that she looked the most pretty in and showed her curves in the right light, she set out to find the man who would help her break the marriage and stay back. The thought that the mother and the father and the others would force her to reveal the name of the boy so he could be stopped from committing murder, or eloping did hover at the back of her mind. But she would worry about it later. It had to come to that point before she had to find a name. Maybe she could tell them that he was from another city, and had committed suicide. Once the marriage was broken, she was sure she would have enough ideas to deal with the repercussions.

In another part of the town, the friend’s sister who was Bidhuri’s friend was being spoken to. In rushed and hushed tones, she was being made to understand the urgency and gravity of the situation with her part being overplayed to make her feel important and critical to the success of the entire enterprise. Between the trip to the city where Shebhu was to replace Pirum at the last moment, Bidhuri marching towards Pirum in her best floral dress, and the would-be-bride’s friend making her way to tell him about Shebhu’s love and how if her father was impressed with his dedication over the trip would she take him as a husband, if not for him but for her own sake, the matters were rapidly coming to a close. When it suddenly started raining and the clouds stayed overhead for the rest of the day and even the night and the trip next day was cancelled, the floral dress was ruined, and the friend’s sister ducked back home and let it be known that staying dry at the moment was more important for her. Which left Bidhuri with even less time to compose all those letters in. Tomorrow, she decided, she would get it done one way or the other. And when she stepped out, no longer caring about looking good to charm Pirum into doing it for her, she bumped into Shebhu and decided this young man she had walked past so often throughout her growing up years would work just as well. For the first time, she did not walk past him but called out to him to stop, and the young man went beetroot-red in his face but stopped and was on the verge of saying something himself when Bidhuri asked him if he would do her a favour and write a few love letters to her.

Bidhuri had briefed him with all the details, with the sequence, the strength of the feelings, where to use certain words that she could show as proof of her non-complicity, and others that she could pick and show that they were beyond staying apart. She showed the papers that were to be used for the dated letters and the ones to be used for the more recent ones. She gave her different coloured pens with varying strength of the nib to show that the letters were indeed written over time with different pens. And yet, Shebhu met her late evening, having composed the many letters, but had got them all wrong. each letter, and some were just continuing from where the other had left off, were just pages upon pages of heartfelt feelings that had been suppressed over years. The letters described in great detail her smiles and the clothes she had worn on a distant day at the local fair, the way she had dipped into the snacks near the ferris wheel close to a decade back, the time she had hurt her forehead when she had bumped it on a low-hanging branch. There were so many more instances that made Bidhuri angry at his wasted efforts, and of her dimming hope for a reconsideration of her impending wedding. It was in this anger that she walked out to meet Shebhu, when she was stopped by her friend who spoke to her in hushed tones by the streetlight pole that her father had just walked past, tired and angry at Pirum for promising to accompany him to the city but failing to turn up. From what Bidhuri heard her friends tell her, she suddenly realised that the letters were not written wrong, but were true to how Shebhu felt about her, and had felt about her for so many years. And as suddenly as that, the young man did not just start appearing as the alternative to the barber from the city because she could stay back in her hometown, but also the better one because of the things he had said. She sat at the bench close by and read the letters again, in a new light. And that is what made the thing a forgone conclusion. She had found the man right here, the man who only this morning was just a means to an end. She could now say no to the barber, perhaps even to wanting to cut hair in her father’s shop to soften the blow, and finally have the wedding she had never dreamt of.

It was on the same day that the wedding was to happen that it did happen. Only the groom had been replaced by Shebhu, and Shambhu Nai was happy because he wouldn’t have to see her daughter cut hair, not in this town nor in the city. Everything had ended well, even the frame had been put up but the rains had kept away. The sun was out with the rest of the town to celebrate the union of love. Shebhu’s for Bidhuri and Bidhuri’s for the town. And everyone felt confident that the two will learn to love what the other loved.

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