He could see the disdain in people’s eyes. ‘You rube’ was what he saw reflected in their body language as they turned away, blocking him with a broad back. It was true he was from the country but country-bumpkin he was not. His shoes had been stolen whilst he slept, as had his few belongings. Now all he had left were the clothes on his back and the cotton sheet he had been sleeping on. He could earn a few rupees by collecting discarded water bottles for recycling but sooner or later he would have to face reality and return to the village and a mother waiting desperately for some reassuring news.
Channu tried not to think of the comfort of his rope manja in the cool back room of the mud house he had shared with his mother and sister. It had been two weeks, maybe more, since he left home, no longer able to tolerate his mother’s pointed, teary glances. He had put on his best outfit, a hand-me-down from a pitying relative visiting from England, packed some essentials and set off for the city. His mother had pressed upon him a few yellowed rupees from the hole in the wall where she hid a measly bundle for emergencies and four rotis, a whole onion and a few pieces of sweet jaggery. He didn’t think he would find Sukhi and Sukhi had told him not to bother coming looking for her. But he didn’t want to be the one to disillusion his mother about his sister’s ill-judged relationship with the travelling showman and so he had embarked on this farcical quest.
Perhaps he didn’t have to return to his village. He always managed to avoid confrontation, so his mother had told him, repeatedly, ever since his father had died. Perhaps now he could make it work in his favour. He could take the job that promised to pay well, as vague as it was. It could get him back on his feet and then he could get a proper job, maybe even rent a room. The serious man with the pan-stained, ruby-red smile at the recycling centre had told him about it in a whisper. Channu would be able to send some money home to his mother, and hint to her that he had good news about Sukhi. Perhaps in time there would be good news about Sukhi, after all even his family had to have some luck sometime, didn’t they?
These thoughts floated across Channu’s weary mind as he gave in to a dense fatigue. He wafted out his cotton sheet at the edge of the Grand Trunk Road and used a folded newspaper to keep the pressure of his hip bone on the stony pavement. With his bundle of empty water bottles for a pillow, just forty winks, he decided and then he would have a serious think about his future.