The Roadshow -Dola Dutta Roy

posted Aug 20, 2016, 7:39 AM by A Billion Stories
The Roadshow

Word count – 2942

The lights were blazing in his eyes. Nikhil began to blink. But he liked what he heard. It was a piece of comedy being enacted by two men whose acting skills were pathetic and who laughed before the audience did. But nevertheless, it was entertainment and had attracted a sizable crowd that clapped and cheered surrounding the shabbily raised platform with no props to create the backdrop.
It was Saturday night and the right time to put up a show for those who would otherwise roam the streets or take a pint of local booze with a friend at some odd joint to kill time. Basically, nowhere else to go to but home, and that was not always an exciting idea for most young and old. Home was often a hole where wives nagged, children whined and street dogs barked at moving vehicles and shadows on the wall.

When the clown appeared with the heroine in her hot pink outfit studded with sequins, the crowd swooned. There were whistles and sighs and the heroine didn’t wince but did her bit berating and chiding the crooked clown who took a few somersaults and flips, shedding tears to prove he was mortified. There was laughter all around. Nikhil remained unimpressed and thought that the girl was no patch on Kumari Urmila who did such roles with panache.
He looked at the time. It was past nine and the show would continue for an hour longer. He had already seen it once with Manoj, his buddy at work and his neighbor. But he was in no hurry to go home tonight. His wife Preeti left to be with her parents for some time before she could return with the baby. After all it was their first child. She needed proper care by an experienced woman and who could be better than one’s own mom. He rubbed his tired eyes stifling a yawn.

Suddenly he felt at a loss. There was nothing much to do really. Loneliness was gripping him. He took out his cellphone to give a call to Preeti even though she had told him to call her late at night when she was free to talk. But the crowd around him gave him dirty looks as he tried to speak to her. No cellphone during the show, he was told by a viewer. So he decided to saunter out of the makeshift tent that had a platform for a stage and the viewers squatted on mats on the balding grass in the open. Behind the blank backdrop there was stark reality enveloped in darkness with cloth-made partitions for the performers for privacy.
Nikhil quietly came out in to the clear field with city lights all around. He walked a distance and stopped at a nearby chaat shop and asked for a plate of aloo-tikias or light fried potato cakes. Later he ambled along the row of shacks selling toys and a bit of everything -- checking out things for Preeti and the baby. Then he stopped at a Punjabi dhaba, a little diner by the roadside, with a neon sign that glared. He needed to grab some real food for his meal for the night. Looking around he decided that he was done for the day.

It was a windless night. The electric bulb flickered for a while before it decided to stay on as it did every night when he returned home. It was stuffy inside and the fan did not do its job properly either. Not its fault. There was too much moisture in the air to cut through. The air was thick and heavy in the room. He went and splashed some water on his face and body as he changed from his work clothes to a lungi and a vest. He turned the TV on and sat on the bed to watch it with a glass of water in hand. He thought of Preeti, her slim and lithe body now heavy with life growing inside her. A smile played on his lips thinking of her and their future together with another breathing being in this suffocating room.
He slid down reclining on his bed, his head resting on the pile of pillows behind him. He was not aware of what was happening on the small screen of the TV but his eyes remained locked on it while his mind wandered from Preeti’s tearful goodbye and his growing fears of keeping his job at the factory as a welder. Times were bad. Any day things could come crashing down on the factory owners who had been trying to compete with big names in the country. This could tantamount to the workers losing their jobs and livelihood.

It was first a whisper and then a nudge that woke Nikhil up from his stupor. He could barely keep his eyes open and saw the faint figure of a lissome woman in a red and yellow sari in sequins covering half her face to hide the fact that she was laughing at him. His eyes opened wide and he thought he saw Kumari Urmilla, the alluring girl of last year’s roadshow. She was standing there and swaying with laughter in front of him. He rubbed his eyes. Yes, it was her and he saw her uneven front teeth behind those luscious red lips as she partially unveiled her face.

‘How did she manage to find me and come here?’ was the first thought that struck Nikhil. Yes, the year before when the theatre group had come over with their roadshow, Manoj and Nikhil had both broken all rules to visit the tantalizing prima donna surreptitiously in her dressing room behind the tent, courtesy Brijmohan, the local organizer of the roadshow and Nikhil’s acquaintance. On the third night of their visit in a row to the show Manoj had admitted he was completely smitten by her and had to see her again. He had taken flowers and gifts for her that Kumari Urmila accepted but flung over the metal suitcase that lay at her feet. She gave a mechanical smile that was wide but didn’t reach her eyes.
It was evident that Manoj was besotted with this enchanting beauty and did not waste time to tell her that he had good intentions of marrying her. The next few days found Manoj in a state of euphoria. One evening he begged her to elope with him after the show, promising to give her the world. Urmila’s smile was constant but her eyes moved back and forth from Manoj’s face to Nikhil’s. Nikhil stood there tongue-tied while he could also feel the sudden rise of a desire to grab her when she looked at him longer than she should have. But he had his Preeti and he was a happily married man. He did look away.
Manoj was determined to meet with her every evening till she agreed to accept his proposal. She was the woman for him, he told Nikhil. Nikhil had laughed and slapped his back telling him that women like Urmila were not to be taken home but enjoyed. But surprisingly Manoj didn’t falter in his determination to win her over and when he threatened to speak to the theatre-group owner if Urmila didn’t promise to give him an answer, she relented. She reminded him of the contract she was bound by and sighed and finally with eyes that danced with every syllable she uttered and the movement of her glossy lips, she coyly agreed to accept his offer. Manoj got a ‘yes’ for a secret rendezvous soon with Kumari Urmila to discuss further matters on their plan of action. She promised to see him at a secret spot behind the tent while the show would run on that evening -- of course, courtesy Brijmohan. The day and the time to elope was to be fixed just before the theatre group moved out of town and she got her money in hand.
However, there was only one hitch. Manoj had night shift to take care of for a few days and begged Nikhil to pick up the details from her on his behalf as a good friend. That particular night, Nikhil kept his word as Manoj was busy at the factory.
Kumari Urmila was waiting with a hand written note for Manoj. From behind her dark shroud that covered her from head to toe, she gave a luscious smile as Nikhil came closer. Before he knew it she took his hand and told him flatly that she would like to run away from it all with him instead. Nikhil stood there thunderstruck for a while as she begged him to take her away that very moment.
When he found his tongue, Nikhil stuttered saying that she was mistaken. It was Manoj who wanted to be with her and that he himself was a married man. Kumari Urmila broke down crying and pleading with him saying that she only had eyes for him and not Manoj. She begged him to rescue her from the hell she was in where she performed just to entertain others. Nikhil stood still. A few moments seemed like eons. It was when the bell rang loud and clear that Kumari Urmila woke from her trance. She left his hand and tore the note she had written for Manoj and flung the pieces on Nikhil’s face. Her eyes glinted like burning embers. Two days later the troop left town.
Every bit of this flashed through Nikhil’s mind and he wondered what made Urmila return and that too to him. Manoj never spoke of her again since she left with the theatre group to some unknown destination. He drowned his hurt pride in bottles of local booze that made him vulnerable but belligerent.
“What are you doing here?” Nikhil could barely hear his own voice. In the faint light in the room Urmila looked devastatingly alluring. She laughed and moved a step closer. “Nothing,” she said. “Just came to see you.”
“Me?” Nikhil felt fear rise through his spine. He gave her a scornful glance, as if she was a witch. “Do you know what you’ve done to Manoj?”

Urmila stopped midway. Her eyes were pinned on his angry face and were filling slowly with tears. She stood there and shook her head. “I didn’t want him. I wanted you,” she whispered. There was still a subdued recklessness in her tone.
“But I didn’t want you.” Nikhil sounded cruel.

He sat up and looked at Urmila’s soft and sad face. How strange, suddenly he felt pity for her. He got on his feet and tried to move towards her. But Urmila moved away.
“Look, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I mean, Manoj is my friend and I….I am a married man. My wife has gone to have a baby.” She gave a quick look at him with a blank expression that verged on contempt.

His conscience flared up again. “Anyway, how did you find me here?” he asked in a monotone trying to maintain a cordial distance to avoid misunderstandings.

“I can find anybody if I want to,” Urmila flashed an enigmatic smile.
Nikhil said nothing. He knew some wounds are very slow to heal. Has Urmila gone mad to come looking for him from wherever she had been!
He looked at her face in the light and shade of his dimly lit room. His gaze wandered over her. He found the door shut behind her. He was slowly getting consumed by a feeling of inadequacy creeping up inside staring at this intoxicating and colourful blend of fantasy and reality. He was not sure if he could trust himself.

“Has she really come for me?” He thought to himself. “Does she really want me that much?” He took a step forward. Urmila studied his moves with feline watchfulness. She waved a hand daintily at him but her eyes wore a mournful look. Half scared of the predicament he was in, Nikhil stood still. He reverted to his sullen mood and with the wave of his hand, told her to leave.

Suddenly the sari that was covering her face dropped and in the faint glow of the capricious light bulb, charred remains of her facial skin and body, neck down, caught Nikhil’s eye. He gave out a cry and fell to the ground. Urmila was stupefied to silence and staggered backward resting her back on the door. She stood there for a moment like a bodiless, weightless being giving out almost inaudible moaning sounds. For a second Nikhil thought he saw her stretch her arm where bangles dangled and before he saw anything else, he lost consciousness.

Nikhil woke up to a roomful of people. Manoj was slapping him hard and when he opened his eyes, he scowled.
“What happened to you?” Manoj sounded worried. “I was returning home from the night shift and thought of swinging by your place. The door was ajar and you were lying on the floor. You sure had too much to drink last night, didn’t you?” He frowned. An elderly lady took a mug full of water and splashed it all over Nikhil’s face wetting his clothes.

“She was here.” Nikhil gave a blank stare at Manoj as he whispered.
“Who was?” Manoj squinted.
“She….” Nikhil looked at the crowd in his small room where the night light was still on.
Manoj looked at everybody and requested them to leave them alone assuring them that he would take care of the situation. He made Nikhil sit on the bed and faced him sitting on a broken armless chair. “Now will you tell me the truth?” Nikhil seemed still in a daze. Slowly he recounted what had happened the previous night. He broke down to tell Manoj the facts about Kumari Urmila’s passion for him.

“I couldn’t believe that she would find me here and at a time when I was alone and feeling lonely. And that face and body burnt up on one side -- that was terrible.” He covered his eyes to wipe out the memory of it. “Why did she come here?”
“She wasn’t here.” Manoj sounded gruff.
“What do you mean?”
“Just that. She wasn’t here. She couldn’t be here. You just dreamed her up.”
“I saw her, Manoj.” Nikhil sat up.
“Look, she left long time back with the troop.” Manoj stretched himself in the broken chair.
“Perhaps she came back with the roadshow this time too. We just haven’t seen her.”
“She hasn’t and she cannot.” Manoj looked angry now.
“How do you know?”
“Because I do.”
“How, Manoj, how can you be so sure?”
“Because I know she couldn’t return. That bitch died some months ago.”
Nikhil’s eyes were wide open. “What are you saying? Died? How?” Those burnt patches on her face and body, those woeful eyes! Suddenly Nikhil wanted to puke. When he came back from emptying out his stomach, Manoj sat quiet and sad for some time looking at him. Then he looked up and said, “Well then, if you really must know, she died exactly three months ago. She was charred to death.” There was a cruel grin on his face.” Even in death that bitch longed for someone else when I promised her the moon.”
Nikhil gave out a gasp of horror and covered his mouth.
Manoj got up and turned off the light that was burning with shame as the sun streamed in through the window.
“When….. Where and how?” Nikhil took time to spell these words out.
“There was a fire in her tent when they took the show to Ramnagar. It was a hot month and the air was dry by the highway. Something caught fire and that was it.” Manoj gave an indifferent shrug. Nikhil just gave a blank nod of understanding. He couldn’t take his eyes off Manoj’s grim countenance.
“Who told you that?” Nikhil asked after a pause.
“Nobody did, I was there.” He gave a wry smile. “Remember I took leave for three days in the middle of summer? That was when I decided to go looking for her. I kept track of her moves…. wherever they were performing.” Manoj got up and took a glass of water from the pitcher left in a cool corner. He wanted to know if Nikhil wanted a drink of water. Nikhil just shook his head even though his mouth was going dry.
Manoj came back and sat next to him on the bed. Very confidentially and with much conviction he said, “She was sleeping in her cot when the fire broke out and before she could do anything, her side of the tent fell on her and she was consumed by the hungry flames.”
“Then what? The police came and some people were taken to the nearby hospital. She died on the way.” Manoj helped himself to a cigarette from Nikhil’s packet on the bed. “The bitch never came to me. Even in death she wanted to be with you.” He gnashed his teeth as he struck a matchbox.
“Do they know what caused the fire?” Nikhil stuttered.
“Don’t think so. They blamed it on the lamps burning low and the stormy winds.” His big belly jiggled as he laughed mirthlessly.
“How do you know all that?” Manoj gave a scathing look.
“I should….. I caused the fire on her side of the tent.” He blinked. “No more roadshows for her….. no more betrayal. ” He caught his belly and roared with laughter, his body shaking with ripples all over.
******************* THE END ********************


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Submitted by: Dola Dutta Roy
Submitted on: Thu Jul 21 2016 21:16:16 GMT+0530 (IST)
Category: Fiction-An Imaginary Story
Language: English

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