“Excuse me, do you know a woman named Lakshmi? She has three children. Her husband is not here,” asked the man who had travelled far from home. Golden light streamed through the wet clothes hung in the alley. He stood outside a concrete hut’s doorway, speaking to a woman inside. Two toddlers gazed at him from the room. The ground was wet. Flour dust hazed the air. The young woman lying on a khatiya jumped out of bed, and took two steps to reach the doorway. She wore a nightgown. “Why? What happened?” she asked.
Krishna then began the story he told every stranger who asked, and every person who didn’t.
“I’m from Karnatak,” he said in a rough language the woman focused on to understand. “My train journey began at four in the evening yesterday, and I reached Thane in the morning. I went to Khandeshwar to find her. But she is not there. Then I came here” – Karanjade, a village wedged between new buildings – “to find her.”
He had traveled over six hundred kilometres, asking the same question. He asked whichever person seemed permanent – the village totems who saw and heard everything – until a vegetable vendor remembered not only the woman, but where she now was. He took directions and walked to find her. Young mothers gathered around to listen. He brought something unique here; a misfortune that did not affect them all. He told them that he had news for her, but did not say what it was.
The man held a folded bill with prices scrawled outside. Within was the woman’s name, and her new village. The young mothers studied the handwriting. “Karanjade. This is the village, but there’s no Lakshmi nearby. What happened?” He wept, and they brought him a plastic chair and a glass of water.
Finally he told them. The first woman said, “You will find many of them here.” She further added, “women without husbands”.
Nobody thought she could be found without an address, or a number of some kind. They simply said it was difficult, and that he should try other lanes.
Three rakhis dangled on his wrist. Grey hair, front teeth missing, the rest slightly crooked. Large eyes. His shirt was white, with thin stripes and full sleeves, and a brown back that revealed where he had slept. His chest shone where the buttons were open. His slippers were a size small. When he talked to people, he sat on his haunches, his hands empty but for the vegetable bill. Not a thing else on him.
Away from them, walking along Karanjade’s narrow backstreets, his hushed crying caught in his throat. He stopped before each open door, looking for clues. The light bounced off shiny tile roofs and buildings with recent coats of paint, pitching houses with open doors into darkness. He studied the clotheslines, and if a man’s pants hung there, he went on.
Everyone’s answer was the same. Where was Lakshmi, then? Perhaps in the next alley, or the ones after. He looked at the ground for minutes at a time, unwilling to go further. The faces held no answers. Eventually he said he had to travel back to Karnataka by the last train out. “I have to go.” If she called her mother – his sister – they would tell her about her husband.
She would find out eventually.