She likes to run in the mornings. She sets the alarm for half-past four, but her eyes open long before that. She lies there, her eyes closed, for a moment -- but only a moment. Her clothes are already laid out on the chair: tee-shirt and track-pants, in breathing fabric; then, socks, wristbands, hairband, towel. In minutes, she is dressed and running down the stairs, out of the building, into the lawn.

Here, under the halogen lamps that spill light into the oval garden, she stops to do her warm-up stretches. First she marches in place, two minutes. Then, rolls her neck slowly, ten times in each direction. Then, rolls her shoulders. Ten times in each direction. Arms. Waist. Back. Hips. Knees. Ankles. Push, pull, feel the stretch. The trees watch silently, their dark shapes outlined like strange characters in a painting.

Now she is ready. Her breath is warm, her hands rolled into fists, hair held tight inside the band. She begins walking at a rapid pace, elbows pushing back and forth with each step. She is almost running: she wants to run, she is waiting to run. And so, she begins. Once round the lawn, then out of the gates and into the road where it is still dark. Streetlights spread their yellow sodium glow onto the tarred road, but they only punctuate the darkness at intervals. The rest of the road is dark. It stretches out before her like a sleeping animal.

She runs on the road in an easy rhythm, almost dancing, from pool to pool of light. The pavement is scattered with sleeping bodies. These are the inhabitants of the streets, the children, men and women who live here. They eat and work and crap and sleep here. Somewhere, in some darkness, they must also make love, she thinks, because they have so many children, all of different sizes, but all looking the same, even during the day: dark, brown-haired, bright-eyed, barefoot, with their hands stretched out for money.

There is only one woman who is always awake even before she comes by pounding the road. This is a flower-seller, seated under a pool of light before a basket of jasmines, with a baby asleep beside her and the rest of what must be her family lying in the darkness beyond. She strings the jasmines into a garland skillfully, without the aid of a needle, tying each white flower into place with a quick twist, hushing the child absently when it moves. She smiles as she hears the running woman approaching, looking up from her task, holding up a garland silently: would you like one?

The running woman knows that this is an automatic smile, an automatic gesture, almost a plea. The flower-seller will repeat it through the day when the long cars stop at traffic signals. All her children will knock persistently at the closed car windows, holding up, in their grubby hands, these strings of jasmines that few will open their windows to buy.

No, she replies silently, shaking her head, with a rueful smile. Her track-pants have no pockets, so she never carries money when running. Besides, what can she do with a string of white jasmines? Their overpowering fragrance gives her a headache.

Every morning this ritual recurs, until, after a week, embarrassed and annoyed, she begins to look the other way; then, after a few more days, begins to cross the road even before she reaches the flower-seller.

And then one morning, as she is getting dressed, she notices her purse on the bedside table. On an impulse, she pulls out a coin. Hoping she won't drop it somewhere, she holds it tight in the palm of her hand as she runs down, as she does her stretches, as she runs into the road. A strange excitement, almost impatience, fills her as she runs. She will surprise the flower-seller today.

But wait a minute -- there's something different about the road this morning. The pavements are empty. No shrouded forms asleep in the darkness. Just a dog scratching himself sleepily.

She runs on. There is a police van parked on the road. Two policemen are asleep on the pavement; a third is seated nearby.

'There used to be a flower seller here,' she says, running in place, pointing to the empty pool of light across the road. 'Has anything happened?'

The policeman yawns, snapping his fingers in front of his open mouth. His eyes are on her chest. 'Who knows? Must have gone, like all the others.'

'What do you mean, gone? Why did they all go?'

Her tone is tough and peremptory. A high-tax paying, service-demanding citizen's tone. He stands up at once: he is trained to respond to such a tone. His voice is subdued as he replies. 'There's a VIP visit tomorrow, madam. All the hawkers have been sent out.'

A small pause. Where could they have gone, overnight, she wonders. 'Will they come back?'

The policeman, baffled, holds out his hands to the sky. 'Madam, how can I say? These people, when they go and when they come, who knows? At least for a few days the road will be clear. After that...'

His voice trails off. She can feel the coin pressing into the palm of her hand. She doesn't want to be standing here, talking to a policeman who knows no more than she does. She begins to run again. At first her steps falter. She drops the coin at a dark corner, hoping it will be found by someone who needs it. And then, divested of her burden, she picks up pace and runs along from pool to pool of light.

About the author:

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta lives and works in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India.