Saturday 6 June 2020

'A Spectacle' by Mandira Pattnaik

The grass hisses impishly as fifty or so feet trample it while we wait to watch the giant Lambretta being carried on an eight-wheel truck from the welding shed to the Town Square where it’d be installed. It is an exact replica, if ever there was one, a copy of the one our town’s Mayor drove around during the days of the Great Scarcity after the pandemic. He and his madam made a thousand trips on the scooter stocking up on groceries as we self-isolated crammed in the laborers’ quarters of the mango plantation. I am one of the kids offered a front row view, and we overhear the adult conversations about our Mayor’s kindness. They fed us scraps when we lined-up at their place, so we didn’t die of either hunger or disease, and think the Lambretta should stand in the middle of the road, obstructing traffic to the best of its ability and holding a torch to our resilience --- we that were not destined to be martyrs of a crafted famine!

We now stand in wait for the spectacle; a motley bunch of rag-tag people who have no idea where our next meal will come from. The sun pins us down and I see a mini-contest taking shape --- who was the smelliest horrendous sweaty chap. Dad, skin-hugging- bones, isn’t a powerful contender; he looks at Mum now and then, hoping for orders to retreat under the shade of the tarpaulin over the Dosa shanty nearby. Mum had been grinding turmeric; yellow stains pockmark her saree. I can hardly stand her smell, of oil and flame, and of great amounts of pickled mangoes that she packed for another world.

She pulls at my ear when I try to forge a distance, brings me nearer to the stink, I hold my breath as long as I can. Thankfully, I’m soon distracted by the sight of the juggernaut at the bend, flying decorations on all its sides, limes conspicuously hung at its engine vent to ward off the evil eye.

The mayor’s men, part of the entourage, hand us food packets. Kids crane their necks in anticipation. There’s a mad scramble to push closer but everyone gets their food packets. The eight-wheel truck follows a little later, swerves like a drunken mammoth, misses the electric pole to its right, and slows down as it rolls past us, amidst jeering and clapping. We wave to the Lambretta; our empty stomachs cry out. One of the kids wonders aloud, ‘Can the Lambretta hear?’ No one laughs.

We wish it did: we are still hungry.

Mum pulls Dad and me, like two human-sized deflated balloons, and leads us through the clumps of trees, to home.

Immediately after, we begin to stuff our mouths with the rice in the packets. The curry was too runny; it escaped out of its foil wrapper.

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