My gold bangles chimed as I twisted my wrist to check the time. Twenty minutes remained until the dawat began. Randwick Woolies was crowded. There was no way I could bring the sugar home as quickly as Dada expected, nor did I want to. For a moment, it satisfied me to think that dada’s charcoal syrup could cater as the comedic relief tonight if a new batch wasn’t boiled in time.
Receipts screeched from teething machines and scanned barcodes beeped irregularly like the pulse in my pounding palms. The baking aisle was desolate and dim from the sterile, twitching light. As I reached for a blue packet of White Sugar, the papery surface scrunched and rustled like the stripped sugarcane leaves my great-grandmother chokingly spoke of with a croaky voice before bed. On the sauna-like fields, she and her sly friends would snap, slice, then slip sugarcanes into the petticoats of their sticky saris to secretly chew on after the day’s work. However, they wouldn’t always gloat gratifyingly from the chopped canes hanging like cigarettes from their mouth, for if they got caught, their backs tasted a bitter, larger cane stalk, fed forcefully by their flushed Overseers.
One night, I walked to her tiny, cubed house from the train station down the road after a long day at uni. She was sniffling while watching her soap opera on the couch when I gave her my salaam and removed my boots. She didn’t return the greeting and instead glanced at the clock. Her sniffling stopped and she frowned at me.
“Can’t you see the time, or do you need my glasses?” Her damp cheeks darkened her age spots like burnt roti, and her breath started to shorten. “Did-didn’t I tell you what happe-happened to women on the field when they were alone at night? Tum janta ketna hard life ra? Thank god nothing happened.” She kissed the tips of her fingers with relief, and I embraced her jerking body apologetically-tight until she fell asleep on my aching shoulder. While I raked down the silver strings of her hair tickling my chin, she jolted up, held my hand, and desperately begged me to avoid dark and deserted areas in the future. I couldn’t guarantee it, but for her own serenity, I repeatedly reassured her with little white lies that helped her sleep at night.
The LED light flickered fast. Blink-blink-blink-crack. The packet slipped like soap from my hand onto the terrazzo tiles as the light popped and blackened. A pale, sage-topped worker irritably shook his head at me until my soft apology converted his pursed lips into a smirk.
He slowly studied my emerald kameez as I shoved the packet back on the shelf. The bristly stubble on his neck suddenly magnified, and his aftershave stung my nostrils as he strutted close towards me. Though no one was around, he whispered: ‘What colour is your hair under there?’
Before I had a chance to respond, he raised his hand eagerly towards my dupatta. ‘Can I touch it?’ he said.
I leapt back. ‘What are you doing?!’ I snapped.
He genuinely looked baffled at my response. ‘Relax,’ he said resentfully and walked away.
As I cooled my flushed cheeks against the silver-metal rack, I watched his distancing back merge and morph into the mountainous rows of CSR sugar.