Wednesday Afternoon

A small hand reaches out; cupped. Held
against the closed window
of the car at the head of the line.

An appeal for help but no one’s interested
in what goes on outside air conditioned spaces.
The light turns green. Engines roar, exhaust

fumes fly into the sky.
Vehicles jump forward like marathon runners
trying to get to the finish line.

The child moves back and waits. People hurry
by, avoiding stray dogs fighting for a piece
of stale bread from the bin at the side

that’s emptied its contents
onto the street.
The cacophony of pavement hawkers

trying to outdo each
other for a few rupees. Clothes tied to hangers
outside shops flutter in

the breeze. Skirts, trousers,
T-shirts with peace signs. Che Guevara’s
face stares out next to Bob Marley.

Both dead.
Both eulogized on fabric.
A riot of colour. Dust everywhere

gets inside mouth, nostrils and pastes onto
skin burned dark by the scorching sun, mingling
with fumes and smells of frying vada

from the shop at the other end.
The stench of the drain. Flies all around.
I’m trying to walk to someplace

over there, potholes on the way like
an obstacle race, left as they are
to slow pedestrians’ progress. A pause in step

to enter a shop to buy or maybe just look,
only look. No charge for gazing, only for purchases
made, but purchases can be made through

much gazing and
slight persuasion. Potholes hold
treasures for children

to play. Old cigarette
butts for boys to smoke and toffee wrappers
for girls who try discerning tastes

they once held from the colours printed
on plastic. The sun
glares down. Faces, faces all around

oily, shiny, sweaty, oozing like fried eggs.
Sweat pasting clothes to skin like
a new skin. Sticky

hair on head, attracting dust, dirt, fumes.
An umbrella jabs his face
and the man screams

out obscenities. The fighting dogs
look up at the intrusion,
then sulk away to the shade at the corner

of the shop, as the child
steps onto the street to the traffic
waiting for the colours to change again.

(Published in Spark, May 5, 2013, India)