Silhouettes of Scarlet

It is that time of the night when even the strong winds that sweep the city throughout the day go to sleep under the flower beds; when the mongrel lies wasted under the awnings of the roadside shop; when the minstrel spent after the late-night performance lies disheveled under the influence of the draught and when under no circumstances, a member of the classed gentry would like to be seen loitering on the street notorious for its sleazy occupation. And yet, in the darkest corner of this street, a sliver of light sneaks out of a narrow slit of the first-floor window that forms the only opening of the dilapidated room apart from the door.

A light crooning rides on the wings of the gentle breeze and escapes through the casement to reach anyone who would pay attention to the melody arising out of the plaintive. A discerning ear might also be able to distinguish the muffled sobbing that accompanies the dirge as well as the intermittent mewling of an infant. In a few hours, light would breach the dark veil of the clouds to usher in a new day and soon everything in this seedy street would go back to its normal routine- haggling, badgering, swearing, pulling, pushing, punching, nothing the inhabitants of the street are unaccustomed to.

Let us move closer to the source of light and try to have a peek inside the dimly lit room on the first floor which has a single chair and a singular mattress carelessly thrown about in the middle of the room. On the left side wall, a few worn-out shirts and a nightgown hang on a row of pegs. Towards the right side, a dressing table, adorned with all the toiletries a lady might require, blocks a huge chunk of the wall. The floor beside the dresser is strewn with tissues that have been used to remove make-up. Some bear red lipstick marks, some are black with kohl stains, and the rest carry pink and beige hues.

On the only piece of furniture in the room, the chair, lies a shimmery satin knee-length dress, scarlet in colour. A few stains at random places give it a darker tinge and a few seams near the chest appear to be redone. A pair of black high-heeled, yet frayed at the edges, stilettoes lie beside the chair. A little further, towards the wall with the window, is a shelf that owns a couple of pots and pans that are in dire need of scrubbing. An empty glass milk bottle stands gaping at the roof on the same shelf. The room, in short, reeked of poverty and hunger.

The two dramatis personae of the story lie curled up like snails on the threadbare mattress. One of them is a woman in her thirties and the other is, as mentioned above, an infant- a boy of six months or so. The woman had been out there on the street since morning and through much of the night, scantily clad in the scarlet dress braving the chill, trying to sell her only possession. Her chafed heels, the frostbite on her toes, tears mixed with kohl-rimmed eyes, her dirges interrupted by sobs, the child’s mewling and the empty milk bottle, point an accusing finger towards inability to feed her child.

Selling her body is easier than seeing her child go hungry. Tomorrow she’ll try again.

Sonika Sethi

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