The Fuse by Swapnil Bhatnagar

Baruni nudged the window open another few inches. Now she could see all the way till where the narrow street curved away just beyond the halwai-shop. There were a few people at the shop, just the way it was every evening. Some of them shouted their orders at the nonchalant halwai. Others, who had managed to catch his eye earlier, leaned against the haphazardly parked mopeds and bikes, samosas or kachauris in one hand, kulhars of sweet tea balanced precariously in the other. The gentle breeze from the window and the fading sepia sunlight lent an aura of calm. Baruni smiled at the scene below, just like every evening.


She leaned over the window sill, craning her neck to see if the green scooter that just turned the corner was Mahesh’s. No, not yet. This scooter was too bright. Come to think of it, Mahesh had been coming late from his office in the Burdwan Municipal Council building for quite some time now.


She remembered the early years of their decade-long marriage when the scooter, bright and new at the time, a wedding gift from her family, would turn into the street much before five in the evening. Mahesh would call it the ‘government-service advantage’ when she playfully chided him for shirking his office work. Every evening, Mahesh would stop at the halwai-shop and pick up some snacks for them to eat with their evening tea. After buying the snacks, he would park the scooter on the grassy footpath below their house and give a long blast on the horn. That was the signal for Baruni to come to the window and wave to him. He would then rush up the eleven steps to their floor, the greasy packet of food safely nestled in his hands, as Baruni rushed to open the door before he could ring the doorbell. The truth was that Baruni didn’t need the horn to know that Mahesh had arrived. From four in the afternoon she would start getting restless. She would wash her face and reapply her sindoor. Sometimes, when the day had been hot, she would change into a fresh sari and apply a splash of chandan talcum powder on her neck. She would then keep stealing glances out the window, willing the green scooter to turn into her street. As soon as she saw him turn in and stop at the halwai-shop, she would step back, put a pan of water on the stove, and wait for the horn to blare before making her appearance at the window. Sometimes, Baruni would linger at the window and try to make out what he was getting packed at the shop. But she would still show surprise when Mahesh revealed the treat. It made him smile that infectious lop-sided grin of his.


As the scooter’s paint faded over a few years, one day, Mahesh brought a dona of sweet malai chom chom from the halwai instead of the spicy snacks that Baruni relished. After that day, he started getting one or the other sweet to accompany their tea every evening. Baruni didn’t say anything for the first few months, but the truth was, she really preferred spicy snacks. Finally, on a rainy evening, she asked him gently why he wasn’t getting her the spicy samosas or the crisp kachauris that she loved anymore. He flared up uncharacteristically and accused her of being fussy and pushing her choices down his throat. As with arguments between kind souls, years of suppressed slights and resentments came to the fore and they did not speak to each other for a week.


Then, one evening, there was a packet of kachauris on the table. The floodgates of affection and trust opened between them again. Mahesh told Baruni that his stomach had started acting up every time he ate spicy food. While Baruni slept, he would be up burping all night. Baruni quickly took charge and they went around the doctors in Burdwan. When no diagnosis could be made locally, she pestered Mahesh till he took a week's medical leave from work and they set out for his Kaku’s house in Calcutta. Kaku had retired from the administration department of the Mission Hospital and managed a consultation with a senior doctor there. But even after many tests, and another week’s extension to Mahesh’s medical leave, the diagnosis could still not be made. Mahesh and Baruni bid farewell to Kaku and Kaki, and resigned themselves to having sweets from the halwai-shop every evening.


As the scooter picked up some bruises in addition to getting faded, Mahesh started coming home much later. He had been promoted to the bill-collection team and had to do the evening book-keeping before he could leave. Their evening tea ritual lost its cadence, but he made sure that he got sandesh or malai chom chom two or three times a week for them to share. Baruni understood that she would have to be more considerate, now that he had much greater responsibilities at work. She treasured the days when he would get the sweets and they would sit together over tea like they used to.


But Baruni was getting restless. It had been over three months since Mahesh had got something from the halwai-shop for her. To be fair, with the impending departmental audit, he had been returning late at night, sometimes even later than when the last stragglers left the halwai-shop and the impassive halwai turned off his massive stove for the day and stretched his back. Mahesh would park his scooter and creep up the stairs. They would have dinner, the flickering light from their Onida tv reflecting off his jaded face, before he crashed into deep sleep, sometimes even on the sofa in front of the tv. It had been three months since she had seen his lop-sided grin.


That’s why she was cooking aloor dum for him today. It was his favourite dish and hopefully he would smile as she revealed it to him at dinner. She liked the dish as well, but it just wasn’t the same as the aloor dum her mother used to make – spicy and sharp. She hadn’t cooked it that way for years now. At the least hint of spice, he would be up all night pacing feverishly on the balcony to avoid waking her. The aloor dum today was just the way he liked it, gentle on chilly and fragrant with mild spices.


At last, the right faded, bruised green scooter turned the corner. Baruni looked out the window as Mahesh, helmet slung over his elbow, gently manoeuvred the scooter into the street. The scooter slowed a little near the halwai-shop, but picked up pace a second later. Mahesh was coming home directly again today.


Baruni counted his footsteps coming up the eleven steps to their floor, heard the scraping as Mahesh wiped his feet on the jute doormat. The doorbell rang before she moved.


She shut the window against the fading light outside, switched on the hallway light and started towards the door. She paused at the kitchen doorway, teetered with indecision, walked in, and put a spoon of chilly powder in the aloor dum.


‘Coming,’ she snapped as she walked towards the front door.



Swapnil Bhatnagar was born in New Delhi and calls Bangalore his home now. He works in the consulting and advisory field. He has earlier written on sports and travel, and currently focusses on writing short stories. His work has appeared in the magazine, Spark.