Truth means many things to different people. For Mr Prakash Shah, resident of Flat 7, Edgefield Gardens, the truth was that he had been duped, betrayed, stabbed in the back. He had been destined for the upper echelons of power: a seat on the Harrow Town Council. This truth led to other truths: the new owner of said seat, one Mrs Janet Pembleton, was not only undeserving of her position, but also a cunning woman of Machiavellian proportions. He was yet to find anyone who agreed with his truth, but a truth it remained nonetheless.
For Prakash’s wife, the quiet and timid Mrs Jyotiben Shah, her truth extended beyond the cut-throat machinations of municipal politics. Her truth danced on long-distance phone calls arcing over whole continents. It nestled into late-night messages and whispered conversations. It raged behind plastic smiles and deference. It floated on a distant voice, in a distant land.
Jyoti still remembered when she was a precocious teenager, a whirlwind of furious energy and anger at the dullness of idyllic Indian village life, years before Prakash and her journey to England.She had taken to poetry, submitting bitter limericks and blasphemous bhajans for the local newspaper. It was as she sat under the shade of a tree, wrestling with her verses, that she saw her.
The indigo blue of the sari had long faded, leaving a light greyish hue at the seams. Jet-black hair crowned the clean nape of her neck. Jyoti wiped her brow and stared. The young woman ambled past, basket in hand. A small plum fell out of the basket and rolled towards Jyoti, settling by her bare feet. Pulled from her feverish reverie, she called out, “Hey, you dropped something!” The woman stopped, tilting her head towards the tree. Her eyes slowly swung up to meet Jyoti’s, and her rose-petal lips curled into a small smile. She shook her head and continued walking.
The next day, it was an apricot. Then, a papaya. It took Jyoti a week to realise that the fruit was not just the kind gesture of a beautiful and clumsy stranger. By the fleeting light of a small paraffin lamp, they would sit and eat the fruit, eyes locked in enraptured desire. Only when the flame went out and the moon hid behind the clouds would they part. Her name was Pushpa. She was a fruit-seller, the daughter of a local merchant who spent his days chewing betelnut and playing cards. She had never completed her education; her father lied about her age to get her back on the orchards as soon as possible. Sometimes, on those evenings together, Jyoti would help her read her poems. When Pushpa finally could read on her own, Jyoti penned her first proper ghazal, on the pain of forbidden love. She kissed the tears as they collected, like dew drops, on Pushpa’s soft cheeks.
Three months after that fateful plum grazed her bare feet, Prakash arrived in the village with a new car and an ill-fitting suit. In a blur of opulent celebrations and family arguments, she was wed and taken to Delhi, to be paraded in front of sneering aunties. She never had a chance to say goodbye to Pushpa.
When she received a message from an unknown number, years later, she thought Fate was mocking her once more. “Hello Jyoti, it’s Pushpa. Do you remember me?” Of course, she remembered her! When she spent evenings before a flickering TV screen with Prakash snoring in the corner, she imagined she was bathing in the light of that paraffin lamp. When she slept, she dreamed of sweet plums. When the asphalt-grey sky met her every morning, she thought of that faded blue sari.
Pushpa once asked semi-jokingly if Jyoti would ever visit her. “Only once Prakash dies”, Jyoti replied. Pushpa thought it was a joke and scolded her gently for suggesting such a thing. For Jyoti, it was more than a joke. It was a truth. Her truth.