Category Archives: Fiction

SO FAR AWAY FROM ME

Kaushik Barua 

There’s a man on the guitar across the street and he’s out of tune; I want to shut him out but then I would have to stand up, close the window and tear myself away from these photos of you.

You’re standing with him; I can’t bring myself to say his name. You’re both laughing. You’re bent over and he’s thrown his head back but his eyes are still looking at you.

Then you’re both sharing a secret, across the room from the rest of the party. You’re far from the clandestine photographer, but he’s managed to sneak this moment into the camera. Your hands are stretched out and your fingers reach for his. They’re not touching yet, but they will.

I see you on a balcony: a low terrace running along green fields with jasmine trees. You’re holding a smile down, the photographer is in front of you and he’s probably stepping back slowly. You’re walking to your wedding. I’m in a room alone.

You look up, someone is calling out for you. The groom is late; the roast fish you insisted for the menu is burnt. It’s now char-grilled. You want to be concerned, but you’re just too thrilled about the whole damn thing. You’re coy and mischief plays on your lips (if the fish is burnt, let them eat caviar!). You’ve been waiting for this day for… how long? Your whole life? You have a great cameraman and I’m collapsing into clichés.

I’m looking at you. From halfway across the world and on a computer screen, so I’m actually looking at pixels or binary code or whatever is creating this image. But I’m still looking at you. I’m running my eyes down your entire body; I can’t make out much, why’re you wearing that loose sari? You look like a nurse in one of the photos (not the sexy kind, the motherly kind). I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound like this. You know I’m not like that, don’t you? Because I’m not one of those guys.

I want some orange juice. I want to log off and watch some football or work on my report (I’ve shifted companies, did you hear?) or try to sleep because I’ve been staring at this screen for four hours now, retracing your life (why is your whole life on your profile? Were you hoping I would spy?), thinking of where you’ve been, where you’re headed. I don’t wish you ill. I’m just shaking because it’s suddenly getting chilly on a summer midnight and I’m not ready for such changes in temperature. I’m not touching myself. That’s a disgusting thought. I don’t even know why that thought crossed my mind; it’s probably the change in temperature.

When you dance, you twist your hand in the air, snapping your wrist. Remember Goa five years ago? Our college reunion, when I saw you after years. I learnt your move too. I should have told you back then. I never did. Now you’re dancing and your guests are spinning madly around you. Why don’t you have a video in the album? He’s beaming into the camera and his grandmother has swept her frail arms around him. Is that a paunch? I still have a flat stomach. I thought I would let you know.

Sometimes he is in my dreams too. I see him sucking out the bottom of a drink, intent on the task while you look at him from across the table. I see him with one hand caressing the steering wheel while the other hand is driving up your thighs.  I see you both at home, he’s fumbling with the bra-hook and then he just tears it off. You’re stifling your moans because you’re scared the neighbours will hear. I’m at the foot of the bed. I don’t want to see you like this. I see his back thrusting up and down, his ass puckering in delight while he pushes deeper into places I can never imagine. I have something cold and hard and comforting in my hand. Your eyes are shut and his back is to me.

I should stop now.

An invitation would have been nice. I would have added some zing to the party: I could have shown your friends my tennis-serve dance move. Would that have looked goofy? Or cool in an unselfconscious way?

I don’t know what you think of me. Did you ever notice me?

There are people around you. They’re cheering both of you on: he doesn’t know the steps, but he looks cool enough to not care. I don’t want to sit on this table: this chair is too high and my back is already stiff from all the hours in office that I’ve clocked in. I think I want to lie on the floor. I should sleep but I can’t stop clicking. I know some of these faces: Meena is there and Arjun flew in all the way from Bangkok. In orange light, everyone thrusts their arms in the air but they do it so perfectly they don’t even spill their cocktails.

I’m lying on the floor. I’m done with the album. I can put my head in the crook of my arms and keep looking. I’m looking at you sideways now.

The album is done. But I can start all over again.

***

KaushikKaushik Barua’s latest novel No Direction Rome is a dark comedy set in Rome. He won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for his first novel Windhorse, a work of historical fiction set in the Tibetan resistance.

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THE FREE MAN

Aditya Sudarshan

A young man stepped into the room. He was wearing a plain white shirt, with the sleeves rolled up, and blue jeans. He was clean-shaven; his hair, well-combed, was dark and glistening, and when he smiled at Madhav, he showed good teeth. Then he pulled up the chair, sat and crossed his legs in one easy motion.

‘I am very happy you have come here,’ he said. ‘Did you sleep well?’

The voice fit the face. It was jaunty, to the point of arrogance. Madhav said nothing. There had been lit, in a corner of his mind, a tiny spark of recollection.

‘Yes,’ said his captor, ‘We have met before. We have even fought before.’

He shifted his position in his chair, and pulled at the fingers on his left hand, with his right. Then he did it again, and then again and again, tightening his grasp each time, before tugging free. In between he settled on Madhav a look of encouragement. ‘Do you remember’, he seemed to be saying, and with that repetitive movement, to be assisting recollection, ‘Try and remember.’

As he watched the stranger’s hands, locking and unlocking like the seatbelts on an aeroplane, a tremendous outrage took growth inside Madhav. It seemed to him that he was being condescended, and moreover, in respect of an activity that he had no interest in undertaking, which only exacerbated the insult.

‘Who are you?’’ he said with scorn,. ‘I am not going to jog my memory. It is for you to introduce yourself. It is for you to explain yourself.’

The young man looked disappointed. He let his hands rest on his knees. ‘You’re very touchy.’ he sighed.

‘I am an officer in a Ministry of the Central Government,’ answered Madhav. ‘And I have not, as you put it, come here. I have been forcibly dragged here. I am not accustomed to being treated in this manner and I have no desire to play games. Now, will you please–’

‘It is not a game,’ said the other. ‘There is a purpose’

‘Nonsense!’ replied Madhav with an added annoyance at being interrupted, ‘There is no conceivable purpose that warrants the abduction of a free man in a free country!’

He felt now completely unafraid, even though he had put into words the very thing that had clearly happened to him. An unexpected light-heartedness was swelling within him; it bolstered his spirits; dispensed with the need to dwell on the danger. He felt suddenly that if he rose to his feet and merely waved his hand, he could sweep aside this dandy boy and the table and chair to boot, and skip free through the doorway.

But this ebullience, radiating outwards, seemed to strike his captor like a chill wind. The young man straightened his back, and crossed his arms. He fixed dark eyes on Madhav, as though to pin him to the spot where he sat.

‘That is how you spoke the last time we met.’ he said, in a voice now low and grave.

‘I think’, said Madhav, ‘I remember.’ It was indeed coming back to him. ‘We met at Vinay’s party, didn’t we? Last December?’

The young man bent his head in assent.

‘Of course, that’s right! We had a conversation too! About-’

‘About the ennui of our lives.’

‘The ennui of our lives!’ Madhav laughed. He was suddenly buoyant with good humour. ‘What else? What else does one talk about at Vinay’s parties? But I’ve forgotten your name.’

‘And the future of the country.’

‘Yes, that’s the other thing’, Madhav chuckled.

‘You were saying,’ said the young man, ‘that a sense of ennui is inevitable, when one is well-off and privileged, with no great problems of life and death to confront. No great battles to wage for oneself. No great evils to conquer.’

‘Was I?”

‘And that as the privileged few in a nation so poor and backward, we bear the additional burden of leading the way. That this burden can be heavy and wearisome at times, that it adds to our fatigue, but that a sense of its importance- and a sense of humour- will keep us going.’

‘It all sounds very wise’, said Madhav ‘so I must have said it.’

The young man’s chair went crashing to the floor. He had jerked to his feet, toppling it over in his clumsiness, but he seemed not even to flinch, so powerful was the thrust of his emotion.

‘It is a lie!’ he cried, ‘Every part of it!’

‘Ah!’ Madhav grinned delightedly, ‘I remember your name now. Sachin something or the other, right? You’re the new boy at Outlook, am I right?’

The scenes from the party floated back into his mind, in soft and pleasant hues. It had been a lovely evening, cold on the terrace, but warm with liquor, with the urbane city haze obscuring the stars, and settling comfortably over the smoke of cigarettes and the easy chatter of a familiar lot. They knew each other well, they knew who they despised, there were no surprises.

Except for this clean-cut young man, the same young man who now stood before him, shivering with passion. Vinay had introduced him around with an air of charitable amusement; clearly, he had been taken up on a purely casual invitation; perhaps he did not even recall it. But the world was small, notoriously so in the city, and Sachin was soon taken care of; various connections, more distant or less, were quickly established. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, his closest acquaintance had turned out to be the prettiest girl at the party- Monica Sharma, she of the mischievous mouth and the quick-silver intelligence. At some point in the drift of the night, they had both appeared before Madhav, and that was when the young man had showed his immaturity.

‘Never indulge in a philosophical debate if you are going to take it seriously. Now that,’ said Madhav, ‘I remember saying. Do you remember my saying it?’

‘Yes,’ said the young man. He was still on his feet. ‘And that was the biggest lie of them all.’

***

Excerpted from Aditya Sudarshan’s novel, The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi (Harper Collins India, 2015)

***

Aditya Sudarshan Photo Credit: Vidhyalakshmi Vijaykumar

Aditya Sudarshan
Photo Credit: Vidhyalakshmi Vijaykumar

Aditya Sudarshan is the author of A Nice Quiet Holiday (Westland Books, 2009), Show Me A Hero (Rupa and Co., 2011) and The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi (Harper Collins India, 2015). His short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of a number of produced plays, including The Green Room, winner of the Hindu Metroplus Playwright Award for 2011. He writes literary criticism for The Hindu Literary Review and other publications, and political satire for NDTV’s The Great Indian Tamasha.

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ALARM BELLS

Malsawmi Jacob

Fire on the mountain, run run run!

“Parte, Parte,” Thanpari’s mother shouted breathlessly. She had come back literally running from the morning market on hearing the news.

“What is it, ka nu? [i] Is a tiger chasing you?” Pari asked in her habitual joking way. “Let me get the axe to kill it,” and pretended to be going for it.

“Parte, it’s no time to joke,” her mother said, half amused, half annoyed. “Call the children and get them ready. We have to run away from here. There’s going to be war between the MNF and the Assam Rifles. With our house so near the barracks, it’s not safe to stay here.” And she told her daughter the news she had heard.

***

Some MNF men had been on a mission to capture the Quarter Guard of the Assam Rifles in Aizawl and were getting ready for the operation. They were cleaning their guns and fitting the grenades. They talked as they worked. “We must get some of the vai [ii] army heads to decorate our houses as in the olden days,” one said. They all laughed.

“Then when we have sons we can give them names like Vailukhaia,” said another.

“Or Vaikapa, Vaithata, Vaisama ” rejoined another.

“A bad idea! If you give such names to your sons, their friends will address them as ‘Vaia’. Do you really want a son called Vaia?”

“That’s right! You think you’re trying to evict vais from the land but you will be multiplying vais if you give your sons such names.”

“Ha ha ha ha!”

The crucial task ahead did weigh on their minds but the mood was upbeat.

“We are well prepared, we can expect this one to go smoothly,” said Captain Chawnghminga. “We must do it a bu ang thlap, perfectly according to the book.”

“Yes, we are almost independent now.”

More laughter.

“By this time tomorrow we will be a free country.”

A sudden hush fell over the group. The magnitude of the moment seemed to have taken hold of them.

The hand of a boy who was handling a grenade trembled. The grenade slipped out of his hand and rolled on the floor. No one knew how the pin came off. He watched in horror helpless, transfixed.

Chawnghminga acted quickly. He went down on the floor and threw himself on the grenade, covering it with his body. It went off immediately. Those who heard the sound came to see.

The house owner’s daughter, a girl of about twenty, was the first to reach the room. She gave a piercing scream and tottered out. Others ran in. Pieces of flesh were pasted on the walls. Blood was splattered all around.

The news was relayed fast. Two young men were despatched to inform the family of the victim that an accident had taken place. The youth group took charge according to normal practice. All the local people knew what to do in an emergency. They were trained for that from the moment they became teenagers.

“Booommm….” The deep bass of darkhuang sounded out in the night. In the quiet late night air, the sound travelled a long way. After a gap, another boom. And then yet another after an interval. Those who heard understood that the gong was announcing death.

Zorami, then aged eleven, woke up from her sleep. She looked towards her mother’s bed and saw that she was awake and sitting on the bed. “Ka nu, where is it from? Who has died?” she asked.

“I don’t know, it seems to be from Zarkawt side. It’s not loud enough to make out where it is. We’ll get to know in the morning. Go back to sleep.”

The swift footed ones living close by ran to the church, from where the gong sounded,   to find out who had died.

The youth flocked to the dead man’s house to keep the family company, singing hymns to comfort them. The next day, the men made the coffin and dug the grave. The funeral was held a little before noon.

After the burial, the MNF group re-assembled in another house. They were exhausted with the previous night’s ordeal, with shock and sleeplessness. But they were not able to rest. Lieutenant Thanga, the second in command of the group, addressed them.

“Captain Chawnga died to save our lives, as we all know. If he had not taken the brunt of the grenade’s force, more of us would have died. Because of that accident we could not carry out our last night’s mission. I think it is our duty to complete that work. Should we allow our captain’s sacrifice go in vain?”

Some spoke up. “If we do not carry out the task it would be a shame.”

“Yes, his spirit deserves our respect. Let’s go ahead and do what we have to do.”

“But isn’t it better to wait for some days and recover our strength?”

“No, no! Let’s strike at once.”

They stormed the Assam Rifles camp in the night. But the Rifles men were ready for them. A gun battle raged the whole night. It continued the next day too. People living in the houses nearby left their homes for safer places.

***

Thanpari was the eldest child in the family. She had just turned fourteen. Her father, a travelling trader, was out of town. As her mother told her, she herded her two brothers and two sisters. They finished their morning meal and started packing. They grabbed a few clothes and two blankets, some uncooked rice and a few food items – all they could carry, and left their home.

The youngest, Mawiteii, three years old, had to be carried. The boys, Masanga and Mathanga, aged six and eight, were excited. To them, it was fun carrying their luggage and marching out of home.   Only Hmingteii, the sister just younger to Pari and twelve years old, could understand the enormity of the situation. She trembled and wept as they left their home. They set out on foot, as they had no access to any other form of conveyance.

The family reached the outskirts of the town in the afternoon. They spent the night in the house of a distant relative, and set out again the next day after the morning meal. They were heading for the village where Pari’s grandparents and uncles were living. On the way, they met others who were also fleeing Aizawl. These talked about an all-night gun battle between “Vai sipai and Mizo sipai,” and how scared they were of getting shot in the crossfire.

As they went up on a hillside, Aizawl town was clearly visible from the path. They heard the sound of aeroplanes, and saw that they were flying low over Aizawl. Some things dropped down from the planes, loud cracking sounds and fire followed. “It’s burning, houses are burning!” some of the travellers exclaimed.

“They’re dropping bombs!”

They all watched in horror.

“If father comes home now, what will he do?” Mathanga asked in a sudden touch of worry.”

“What will we do if a bomb falls on him?” Masanga echoed the anxiety.

Their mother winced and said, “Don’t think of such terrible things. Just walk on.”

***

The group of MNF soldiers who attacked the Assam Rifles were still engaged in gun battle. Tired and sleep deprived, they fought with double ache in their hearts. They had lost Captain Chawnga but could not mourn for their saviour. Spurred on by guilt and anger, they fought ferociously.

Suddenly, a roaring sound came from above. The men looked up in the midst of their shooting and saw two aeroplanes in the sky. They put down their guns and watched in horrified fascination as some objects dropped from the planes and fell with loud bursts. Soon the houses caught fire.

“Aaahh! Awiii!” Women screamed.

“They are dropping bombs!”

Children cried, calling on their mothers.

“What shall we do?”

“Run! Run to the jungle!”

Karei Alas! It’s awful!”

“All our things are lost!”

“Where is my baby?”

“What will we do with grandpa? He can barely walk.”

“We have to carry him.”

People fled in alarm out of the town, many running with no clear idea of which way to go.

About two decades earlier, during the Second World War, there had been fears that the Japanese might reach Mizoram. But the area had stayed safe. Not one bomb of the enemy had fallen. But now, India had begun an attack on a part of its own territory. Targeting its own citizens. The Mizo people began to experience genuine terror for the first time in their national history.

In one home, Zari, a nineteen year old girl, was about to serve the morning meal when the planes roared above. A loud crash some way off, the house shook.

“Get under the beds!” Pu Luaia, the father, said. He set an example by rushing into the bedroom and crawling under the double bed. Zari and her two younger brothers, also in their teens, followed and quickly slipped in under their own beds. Mother was the slowest. “Quick! Before it hits you!” her husband said and pulled her in beside him. More blasts, but farther away. Finally, the planes roared off and became silent.

They all crawled out, shaken. “They’re likely to return. Get ready, we have to flee. Let’s go to the forest,” Zari’s father commanded. They packed in a hurry, in silence. “Take the food along, we’ll eat when we reach a safer place,” the father said. So they loaded the pots of cooked rice, vegetables and boiled chicken along with its soup in an em and set out. All carried loads, Zari carrying the basket of cooked food. The chicken soup spilled and wetted her clothes. But there was no time to go back and change. They hurried on.

On the way they met a large number of people who were fleeing too, all heading towards the woods. Just as they entered the forest, they heard the sound of aeroplanes again. They crouched under bushes.   Children cried, their mothers tried to calm them. Some of the older children were curious, and wanted to watch the planes. Pu Luaia cautioned them. “Don’t look up, the pilots can see your eyes! Hide your faces!” More crashing sounds.

Then the planes flew away and it was quiet again. The whole party camped for the night among the trees. Many of them set out for nearby villages the next morning. But Pu Luaia’s family and some others stayed on.

It was going to be a long haul.

***

Notes:

[i] ‘My mother’

[ii] Non-Mizo plains people

***

Excerpted from the forthcoming novel Zorami by Malsawmi Jacob

***

Malsawmi Jacob lives in Bangalore. She writes poems, stories and other materials, and also teaches English in a degree college as a guest lecturer.

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LOCKED IN ANOTHER REALM

Daya Bhat

The pendulum clock on the wall struck twelve. Kaveri came in with Shambhu’s meal tray. She kept it on the bedside table and looked at him. The stubborn fly was back on his nose. She fanned it away with her saree pallu. Then she fed the funnel of his feeding tube with porridge, little by little. It trickled, a gaunt tributary into the river of porridge in his stomach. Morning, noon and night he was being fed with them. He didn’t know if they were made of semolina or sago or oats, if they were sweet or salt. But Kaveri knew he liked them sweet, so she made them with jaggery. Forty years of togetherness had made her familiar with everything about him, even with the thoughts in his head. She comforted him.

“Don’t feel miserable. Porridges are all that you can eat now. Few more days, then you will be back on your feet. You have to because next is my turn to fall sick. If you don’t get well, who will look after me? Do you hear?”

And then with a pause she continued. “Your son had called, I told him we were fine. I lied to him again. He knows you avoid talking on the phone. I didn’t have to try hard to make it believable. You better get well soon—the poor boy will be shattered if he sees you like this.” It was amusing how Kaveri always referred to their son as your son. She held a mild disappointment in her heart that her son had mostly inherited Shambhu’s gene.

“He said he is winding up work. How much he’d worried when he had to go on this overseas assignment! It’s not like hopping in from the next door city, he’d said. It was we who promised to look after ourselves and said he should go—” She looked at Shambhu expectantly to see if talking about their son would make him open his eyes. She hoped he might just wake up and talk. But he didn’t. She missed her son and wished life wasn’t so compromise-driven. It was not just them. The whole village was left with aged people, the aged and young alike not seeing any future in agriculture. She wondered who would inhabit the village, in a decade at the most, all the aged who already had one foot in the grave would have perished. Shambhu had stubbornly declined his son’s suggestion to go and live with him.

Their empire had been running smoothly until that day which had pushed Shambhu into a long sleep. It was the second day, Shambhu was supervising the arecanut harvesting in the orchard which was attached to the house. It had coconut, banana and arecanut trees with vulnerable pepper vines hugging the areca trees. Kaveri went about doing her work in the backdrop of bits of conversations floating to her from the grove. Shambhu battered Naagu with endless queries and concerns. Naagu, too economical with his words mostly answered in monosyllables. Nothing unusual. At the stroke of twelve Kaveri came out to pluck curry leaves for the seasoning for the raw jackfruit curry. This tree had been adding flavour to her curries since decades. She balanced herself carefully on the rubble trench and reached for young leaves simultaneously letting out a shrill lunch alert for Shambhu. ‘Kooooo—hui—kooo—hui—koooook—‘ Shambhu answered her call with a matching ‘kooo—hui.

Kaveri knew it would take time. Harvest seasons were like that. Lunches were never had on time. The dishes she’d made sat veiled under banana leaves. The men were still immersed in work. Shambhu tried to keep Naagu’s spirit high by making a surprise announcement laced with an odd joke.

“Naagu this is the last time you will be plucking nuts like this—for the next harvest I am getting you the machine. If something happens to you, your wife will beat me up—hehehe.”

Naagu, not knowing how to react to this unexpected drizzle of humour from an otherwise staid master, grinned consciously, exposing his tobacco stained teeth. Seeing his odeya’s eyes still on him Naagu was coaxed into surprising himself with an uninhibited reply. He said tucking the sickle more firmly into his waist cloth before setting out to finish with the last cluster. “As you say odeya, it’ll make our work easy. Not because we’re scared of my wife, hehehe.”

Shambhu looked on, pinching his eyes against the sun as Naagu climbed. He felt a low murmur in his ears and a sudden thirst for water. He felt pain pierce through his chest and travel down his limbs. He had never experienced such pain in sixty years. His legs buckled and he sank to the ground. Naagu completely unaware continued to pluck golden bunches of the heady nuts from the tree he had climbed and also from nearby trees with a hooked pole. It had taken him quite some time. When he climbed down he was shocked to see his odeya lying on the ground in an unconscious state. Naagu screamed. “AyyayyoooOdteere come soon! Odeya has fallen.”

Shambhu was rushed to the town hospital. He had suffered severe stroke and slipped into coma. The hospital had discharged him after a month. The doctor had said “We have to wait and see, in such cases nothing can be predicted. He may come out of the coma this minute or it may take months—maybe years.”

Initially Kaveri found it hard to presume he was aware of his surroundings. She didn’t know whether he heard what she was saying to him. But gradually she believed he did. In fact she spoke to him more than before. She knew he was listening. She knew he worried most about watering the trees. She called Naagu to make him talk to his odeya but Naagu stood nervously at the door. He could not take in the sight of his odeya lying like a vegetable.

Kaveri spoke on behalf of him. “Naagu has come to tell you that he is looking after your trees well—and he is planting some more banana saplings. He remembers you told him the arecas need more shade.”

Every evening Naagu came and sat by the door of Shambhu’s room. He felt guilty about that day. “Odteere, odeya must’ve called me. This deaf fool did not hear him. These wretched hands were so slow that day. Had I come down earlier odeya would not be lying like this” he cursed his ears and hands.

Kaveri consoled him. “Don’t blame yourself Naagu. You were so high up on the tree doing your work religiously. Moreover how can anyone expect such things? Odeya is listening to you. He won’t like it if you talk like this. What’s over is over, he needs our prayers now.”

*

Shambhu was living in his own realms of black and white. He heard everything around him. He wanted to tell Kaveri that he could smell her presence, the turmeric and asafoetida on her hands, the sandal on her skin. He could hear the clock ticking endlessly. He wanted to tell her that he was screaming inside, he was yearning to wake up. He wanted to tell people who came to see him that he was conscious inside, he was waking up and sleeping like everybody else. He had dreams, the bizarre ones that dying men have.

In his dream Shambhu saw the sun split into a thousand stars and enter through the pores of his body. Inside him they formed a constellation. He did not know what shape that was. He heard the banshee wailing on the arecanut tree. He asked, “How much time do I have?” He pleaded with her. “Don’t wail by the door and scare my Kaveri. You can sing me a song if you wish.” He saw her coming in. She had wings, she circled him twice and stood by his head side and sang. He smiled at her and said she was beautiful, like Kaveri. He told her that she also sounded like Kaveri. She smiled back at him. He told her he was tired of lying down. He waited for her to say something but she didn’t. She slowly lost her form and turned to white smoke and filled the room. After a while the smoke cleared and he woke up from his dream. He did not know what to make of that dream. He worried – Will the banshee come again? Will she look like Kaveri?

Shambhu heard Kaveri come in and sit beside him. She caressed the creases on the back of his palms. “These hands need rest now. Let us sell this land. We’ll go live with our son. That’s what he said to you when he was here. I know you’ve heard him but you’re still testing me, aren’t you? How long do you want to sleep like this?” Kaveri started sobbing, gradually her voice rose to the ceiling. Her lament was gut-wrenching. He wanted to stop hearing. He wanted to say that he had not heard his son talk. But his tongue wouldn’t move. Shambhu was scared – Did I sleep for too long? How did I not hear my son? When had he come? What had he said?

Shambhu panicked at the thought of selling his farm. He wept bitterly. He cried himself to sleep. In his dream Shambhu waited for the banshee. She didn’t come. He came out and looked for her on all the trees in the orchard. She was nowhere. He felt tired, his legs ached. Then he saw her coming to him, a fairy with wings. They wandered hand in hand along the aisles of the orchard. Her hands felt like Kaveri’s, she smelt like Kaveri. She asked him – Do you want to see your son? He nodded. She lifted him off his feet and together they flew. He saw that his son was offering rice balls to the crow. His head was tonsured and he was calling out to the crow to come and eat- kaa—kaa—kaa— The crow wouldn’t come. Then his son folded his hands and whispered a little prayer. “Appa, your green children will not be sold. How can I, when your touch is still warm on them?” The crow then came and pecked at the rice balls. Shambhu was startled to see that the crow’s face resembled his own. The crow had its meal and whooshed away. His son then folded his hands and prayed again looking at the fading crow. “Forgive my deceit Appa. You left me no other way!” Shambhu turned to the banshee, she had vanished. He screamed to his son. “No this will not happen—I won’t let this happen—You are not going to sell my children.” White smoke filled the orchard and his dream vanished into it. He thought what a dreadful dream that was to have! He was soaked in sweat.

Shambhu thought of his dear trees. Once again he wanted the sun to filter in through the trees and warm his skin. He wanted to become the little boy again whom his mother taught how to peal the areca fruit, the young man whom his father taught how to negotiate areca price at the mandi. He yearned to see the endearing sight of Kaveri snipping curry leaves off the corner tree. He then remembered Naagu. ‘Yes, he had been plucking nuts that day! I told him I would buy him a machine. He was doing the last cluster of arecas. What had happened then? I remember the sharp pain in my chest, I wanted to call Naagu but I could not. After that it was only voices, sounds and dreams. Voices of Kaveri and Naagu, sound of the pendulum clock and dreams of banshee who looked like Kaveri.’

Shambhu knew it was now or never. He had to wake up. He struggled hard. He felt like he was lying under a slab of stone. But he had to wriggle out. Shambhu tried hard to open his eyes. His eyeballs stirred and eyes opened letting him take in a slim line of vision. He could see his hands resting on his stomach. He felt the smoothness of the blanket beneath them. Slowly his fingers shook. He called, “Kaveri—Kaveri—” His loud call came out as a feeble moan.

***

DayaBhatA Maiden of 29 is Daya Bhat’s first poetry collection (Writers Workshop- Dec 2013). Her new poems have featured in New Asian Writing and The Criterion: An International Journal in English, and are forthcoming in Poetry PacificNew Asian WritingThe Bangalore Review, eFiction India, Earthen Lamp Journal, Creativica and Indian Short fiction have published her short stories. She has translated a book- Moorane Kivi – originally in Kannada and authored by Ravindra Bhat – to English which is forthcoming shortly by Prism Books. She lives in Bangalore.

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ADVENTURES OF OCTOBAN

Tanmay Singh

Book I: Slicing of Potato Pizzazz

Octoban

Fruitlandia is a land of fresh and healthy fruits. They are peaceful and fun-loving. But they are forever getting attacked by Repelling Food Powers of Junklandia. OctoBan is the superhero who has been entrusted with the task of saving Fruitlandia. He is an ordinary fruit, Banana-O in normal times, turning into a superhero when need arises. He is called OctoBan because eight sides of his banana peel are like tentacles of an octopus. But nobody knows he is a superhero except his family and his friend Apple-I. Apple-I also helps Banana-O in his missions. Together, they keep Fruitlandia safe from dangerous forces.

I

It was an ordinary day in Fruitlandia. Almost every one was awake. Most of the people who were awake were enjoying their breakfast. Some people were leaving for work.
Banana-O and his friend, Apple-I were getting together with their families for a brunch. Only Banana-O and his friend, Apple-I and their families knew that he was OctoBan, the banana superhero. So, they understood if Banana-O had to leave in a hurry. Banana-O did not always like having to leave his family, but he knew that duty calls.
After a long brunch, it was around 4 o clock that Banana-O was relaxing at home. But then his watch communicator went crazy telling him that the evil Potato Pizzazz was attacking Orange Pulp, one of the five towns near the city. Quickly, Banana-O went from being Banana-O to OctoBan and flew right out the nearest window.
OctoBan went straight to the town where Potato Pizzazz was attacking. He activated his leg and arm lasers to distract Potato Pizzazz. He then used his web shooter after he got Potato Pizzazz’s attention to pull him near so he could attack with his super strength. But that did not work.
So OctoBan flew around for two minutes dodging Potato Pizzazz’s attacks while thinking what to do. Then he remembered. He always carried a flame thrower and a rocket launcher on his back to attack. He used his flame thrower to burn PotatoPizzazz’s unhealthy pizzas.
And he succeeded.
But not for long.

II

OctoBan’s flame thrower ran out of fuel to ignite. So he started using his rocket launcher. And he kept using it until he had its special five rockets left. Even though OctoBan had only his special five rockets left, PotatoPizzazz was really hurt by now.
OctoBan used his first special rocket, the flame rocket which sets enemies on fire. Unfortunately, PotatoPizzazz was hovering above a lake. So the rocket only hurt him.
OctoBan’s second rocket was a drill rocket. So he could drill through his pizza shield. And that worked. Now PotatoPizaazz’s shield was gone.
OctoBan’s third rocket was a rock rocket that could be used to destroy PotatoPizzazz’s pizza blasts. He fired it and it did exactly that. It also hurt PotatoPizaazz’s edge.
OctoBan’s fourth rocket was an ice rocket to freeze PotatoPizzazz’s pizzas turning them into frozen pizzas firing them back at him.
The frozen pizzas hurt him a lot and the rocket blew up near him. That made him retreat back to his base.
OctoBan saved the day once again.

***

Tanmay Singh

Tanmay Singh

Tanmay Singh is ten and lives in Atlanta, US. He is passionate about animals, and writes about saving them at https://bootyshakingbrothers.wordpress.com/. He is currently building a LegoCity in his spare room. He wants to be a NASA engineer when he grows up. This story is first in a series he wants to write about the banana superhero, OctoBan.

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THE STEPFATHER

Bijoya Sawian

The day Wanbok was getting a second stepfather he felt so happy and   elated when he woke up that, after awhile, it rattled him. He quickly slid unto the floor, did ten push-ups then got up and opened the window to let the fresh air in. He inhaled slowly and correctly just as the yoga teacher in class  instructed him, not the way he went through the motions every day just to get over the exercise. He felt the difference. He felt better. That little knot deep, deep inside had disappeared.

It had rained all night and the grass and leaves and slightly ragged hedges glistened moist green in the summer sun.  Wan’s mother had wanted to wait till July to get married. Three months was, she thought, a decent period for a romance to be accepted, as a precursor to matrimony, for a woman of her age. She had met her husband-to-be in February. She talked to Wanbok about it and asked what he thought about the date and month, once she had established the fact that he approved and liked Boris Neinnong. That was important for her.

Actually it happened suddenly with the refreshing spontaneity one would associate with a teenage boy. One morning before going off to school, as he was gulping down his cornflakes and milk, he told his mother, “Mei, you are lonely and so am I, why don’t you marry Uncle Boris?” His mother looked at him and then quickly looked away but did not reply. He knew, however, that she felt good. He certainly did after the outburst.  He felt relieved and soothed like when a sudden splash of sunlight lighted up a grey January morning.

So Wanbok’s mother had decided on July but was deterred by the elders. In July, the month of Naitung, people in these eastern hills did not marry mainly because of the inclement weather just as they avoided April, the month of Iaiong. In April it is the winds, in July the rains. So she gave in to the insistence of her parents and maternal uncles. She felt embarrassed to fuss too much about dates and details; she knew it would only invite unnecessary, unwanted comments and smirks. After all how would they understand that for her it was like the first time, the very first.

She was immensely touched when her Ma Deng, her middle mama, suggested that although there would be no rituals, the groom and his party would be given the traditional welcome and prayers would be said and blessings bestowed. A feast would follow with two pigs and a dozen chickens slaughtered and, of course, there would be the endless tea party with the usual cakes and savouries ordered from Guidetti’s. The suggestion was readily accepted by everyone in the room, as tears coursed down her face, much against her will. Wanbok was as happy as his mother because her previous marriage had been just a cut and dried court affair with tea and dinner  afterwards. Uncle Toki and his mother danced the night away along with the other guests but it could have been just any party.

It was different now, ever since Boris Neinnong entered their lives. He could see his mother’s glow slowly returning during the past few months like a hesitant traveller from faraway. He also sensed her quiet joy and revelled in it.

Labiangmon Swer was very attractive at thirsty six with a voice as smooth as silk and a body svelte and graceful as a swan. She was a caring mother sensitive to her young son’s feelings, never once embarrassing or hurting him. She made sure that her child’s life was her top priority; that was an unsaid rule among her clan and all the other clans.

*

Wanbok closed half the window as the breeze suddenly whipped up into a strong wind, which buffeted and tossed the leaves that couldn’t resist its vigour and came tripping into the room. The neighbours and close relatives had already arrived to help. The sound of their cheerful chatter drifted up to Wanbok’s room as they sipped steaming cups of tea and munched butter biscuits.

Wanbok was relieved that Trevor, his best friend who had come to spend the night was fast asleep in the next bed, oblivious. He bolted the window and returned to bed. There was plenty of time; the wedding ceremony was scheduled for 2pm. He quietly switched on the TV, automatically punching 8 for the NDTV morning news. This was a good habit instilled by Brother Rosario who made the boys write ten lines daily on what they saw and heard on the program and what they thought about it. That morning the news focussed on the United States stepping up pressure for Indian troops to be sent to Iraq. Wanlang winced as he watched. He and his friends felt very let down by the US, a country they all looked up to. That the most powerful nation in the world could be so devious just for the sake of oil filled their young minds with new fears and insecurities like having an inept and unreliable head of the family. Fortunately, Wanbok never had to face that. “Stupid Bush,” he muttered and switched off the television.

As he peeled his night suit from his body and readied his bath he thought of his first step father, Tokin Bareh. He was so much like the navy blue and white bathroom he gifted Wan on his tenth birthday, flashy yet elegant, luxurious yet solid, huge yet cozy. Tokin Bareh was a dashing businessman and coal king. He was an absolutely joy to be with and Wan loved him dearly. He came in to Wanbok’s life when he was four. Pa Tokin taught Wan so many delightful things in those eight glorious years while he was married to Labiangmon – football, cricket, carom, Beatle songs and how to learn mathematic tables in the quickest possible way. The trips during the winter holidays were magical- Kolkata, the Andamans, Goa, Mumbai, Rajasthan and one unforgettable skiing trip to Kufri on their way to Manali.

Ever so often he would remember the snow- covered hillsides shimmering white, so white it hurt the eyes, the black slate rooftops loaded with snow and the pine trees dripping snowflakes that showered from heaven like confetti. He could almost hear the shouts of joy as Pa To, his mother and he played in the winter sun, throwing snow balls at each other on those distant slopes. He could still see the many strollers, both locals and tourists who had stopped and stared at them smiling wistfully at the happy threesome. Wanbok had felt so proud of his beautiful mother and handsome stepfather, so well groomed and tastefully attired in colourful winter wear, exuding health and happiness. That, however, was the last holiday they  spent  together.

In April that year, three months after the Kulu-Manali trip, Labiangmon was sent off by her office, to Delhi on a ten weeks’ training programme. Wanlang missed this mother but was secure and well looked after in his grandparents’ home in Nongthymmai where his aunt, his mother‘s younger sister and her husband and two children also resided. Tokin Bareh spent those ten weeks in his native Jaintia Hills setting up a factory in his village close to the main highway that snaked languidly down to Assam. Every week-end he would come to Shillong open up the house and take Wanbok out for the night. They would hit town together, dining out in the best restaurants and bring back a movie to watch later, well into the night. He really enjoyed getting into bed at 1 a.m. He felt grown up and sophisticated.

Yet as the weeks passed by he could not help but notice that Pa To had begun to drink heavily. He would sip peg after peg after dinner even after having already consumed his usual three before the meal. One night the phone rang just as the movie started. Pa To dragged the phone away to the passage and talked for a long time. When he returned to his seat next to Wan, Wan asked if it was his mother, Pa To simply replied ‘No’ and looked straight ahead at the television screen. Wanbok’s heart stopped for a second but Jackie Chan was far too captivating to let him dwell on cloudy thoughts. Wan had this unusual gift of diverting his thoughts by switching channels. In fact within him he had a huge list of diverse programs. That was why Wanbok was always smiling.

Life rolled on, the weekends too and then just as spring was maturing into summer, his mother returned. Tokin loved and respected Labiangmon too much not to tell the truth. He had, he confessed, got involved with his manager’s young daughter, Merika who was pregnant and threatening suicide if he did not marry her. There was very little that Labiangmon could do. She was left with just one alternative.

Wanbok could not fathom how hurt his mother was but he could sense sadness drifting in and out of the house all day. He was not even sure what had happened but both his mother and Pa To came quietly one day and sat down in his room. After a long stretch of what adults call ‘polite conversation’ his mother informed him gently “Pa To is going to go away to Jaintia Hills to work and to live on his own.”  “I will come and see you as often as I can,” Pa To added, his voice just above a whisper. That was when Wan become very close to Trevor because his parents had also just separated and they could share each other’s pain just as they shared their joys and boyhood secrets.

The day Tokin Bareh finally left he held Wanbok close to his heart and wept. They both wept and wept as Labiang sat in the corner of the verandah and continued with her knitting and her younger sister sat next to her, head down, chewing kwai. Tokin presented Wanlang with a mobile, “You ring me up any time son, any time, day or night. Promise. Look after yourself … and your mother, Wan.” “Don’t cry Pa, I know these things happen, that’s what they say… and, ofcourse, I’ll call you,” Wanbok replied with a smile once his tears and his childhood had seeped away, forever.

He was thirteen and heart broken. He knew, however, that in the world he lived in such twists and turns took place. In school they discussed it all the time. It always helped. So many years had passed since that day. Four years to be exact.

*

When Wanbok stepped back in to his room after a most invigorating bath he found his friend, Trevor, awake.

Trevor looked pensive and had propped himself up on his left arm, his chin cupped in his hand.

“Hi Trev! Slept well?”

“Hmn, hmn”

“Hmn, hmn? What does that mean?”

“Why are you looking so serious man? Would you like some tea? Horlick’s?”

“Later.”

“Fine, but cheer up man. Had a bad dream or something?”

“Look, Wan, are you sure you are okay?”

“Of course. We’d discussed it all haven’t we? You were so positive then, what’s the matter now Trev?”

“Look man, I was positive, I said positive things for your sake but it isn’t all that easy…”

“Of course, it isn’t. I know that Trev, I discovered that the day I grew up, the day Pa To left.”

“Yeah…”

“The day Pa To left my Meirad sent for me and I went with Mei and Nahnah. I remember she had laid out quite an elaborate tea, which I drank and ate in a daze. She came straight to the point but her words, her tone I guess. You know grannies they always manage to solve it all just solve it all…”

“What did she say?”

“She said, “Wan, God makes us go through bad times so that we may grow up. Some grow up and sink, others grow up and rise. You, my grandson, will rise.”

Trevor was quiet for a second and then broke down into uncontrollable sobs.

“Trevor, Trev, stop it. What’s up Trev?”

“I wish I had a granny… I wish I had, both mine are dead. If I had I wouldn’t have had to go through all those years of … of…”

“I know but Brother Rosario got you out of that. God sends someone – always. He was as kind as any granny. He didn’t expel you when he caught you stoned, he was so kind…”

“I know, I know but I went through hell before that…”

“Yeah, but now you have risen… above all that crap.”

“Wan, you are so brave. Tell me, man, who is your real father?”

“What?”

“Sorry, sorry Wan, SORRY, SORRY, SORRY.”

“No, no, I am shocked because…. because I’ve never thought about it.”

“Forget it man”

“No Trev, you are right –who is my biological father actually… Pa To was a true father…. Pa To was a true father to me, he was so good that I had begun thinking that he was my father… He came into my life when I was, I think, four, so I’ve never been curious….”

“Yeah, I guess…”

“But, I think, I should find out now, I’ll ask Pa To, he is my best friend, my best grown up friend. He’ll tell me.”

*

Labiangmon sat on her dressing table stool brushing her long, long hair. On two mulas on either side of her sat her cousins Gigi and Odette.

“ Come on Labiang say something…” Gigi entreated her eyes bright with excitement.

“Something.”

“Come on La, don’t be mean, I haven’t taken leave and come all the way from Mumbai to attend this great occasion and not to hear silly jokes. You can’t do this to me. Come on, we have to dance, sing, laugh but first tell me .Tell me how it all happened. This is just too romantic!”

“Odette, I am not sixteen…and…”“It’s… it’s not the first time. Ok fine… but you are glowing, you look sixteen. Oh! La I am so happy for you. Tell me…”

“Odette, please… you tell Gigi…”

“It’s your story, La, you tell…”

*

Some things happen in everyone’s life, which are predestined and unpreventable. Strangely to Labiang it occurred on the very first day of the year like a true beginning.

She was on her way to her friend’s place for a New Year lunch. She was stuck in a traffic jam in Tirot Sing Road when, at the Khyndai Lad crossing, a car purred up next to her. Only people who had no road etiquette would double wait in a jam in a narrow road and Labiang was irritated. Everyone waited, single file except for that one car. Labiang did not even want to check to see who it was. So, as usual, she continued to road dream. She could sense the intense, continuous stare of the driver of the errant car and wondered what kind of bumpkin he must be but she did not give in. She continued to look ahead. After awhile, all at once, the cars moved and automatically she looked in all directions just to check if she was in line. It was then that she saw him. He who had been watching her all that while smiling, a smile that took her back to a distant past .The lips were tired and blackened with age and cigarette smoke and the hair had also thinned and  peppery but Labiang recognized him.

 In February when the elections were held she saw him again and again on television, in newspapers and, one day, she found herself listening to him speak at a rally in the Fire Brigade Ground on the Nongthymnai highway. “I request you all to always give your best to your country, your community, your family and yourself. John F. Kennedy once said, ‘Ask not what the country will do for you but what you will do for the country…’.”The crowd roared with claps and cheers. An elderly man next to Labiang asked his companion, ‘What did he say? Do you know English?’ His companion answered, “No, but this man has something about him, he’s no ordinary man. I will give him my vote definitely.” Labiang felt a lump in her throat as her heart swelled with pride much against her will.  ‘No, no…don’t let this happen,’ she shouted soundlessly, deep inside, as tears coursed down her windswept cheeks.

 In March when the results were announced and he was victorious he threw a big party not in his official residence but at his mother’s house in the same locality where Labiang lived. She had hesitated about going but her cousins kept on and on telling her, ‘ Come on Labiang forget the past, live for the present.’ So she went. He was wearing his favourite attire-casual trousers in beige, a brown checked shirt and a dark tan suede jacket. An old muffler, a little faded with age but well preserved hung casually from his neck. A wave of tenderness filled her whole being and she bit her lip to stem the overflow of long forgotten emotions suddenly overwhelming her. When he rang up that night and proposed she was prepared but she just kept quiet… as she always did. That was why it took so long. 

“That’s what happened,” Labiang whispered stroking the dhara she was going to wear -an appropriate purple with a silver border. She always had a preference for white and had girlhood dreams of getting married in the traditional white and gold with white orchids in her hair. Most dreams don’t come true, however, and this was one of them. White was allowed only for the virgins; even among non-Christians. So she had tucked away the dream in an unfrequented corner of her heart, long ago.

*

Wanbok dialled Tokin Bareh’s mobile.

“Pa?”

“Wan! Wan how are you? I am so glad you called. I wanted to talk to you when I heard the good news.”

“Yes, I am happy for Mei….”

“I am happy for you, too, Wan. Boris Neinnong is a very good man…”

“Like you Pa, I hope like you, I remember all the good times….”

“Wan you are a gem…. Thank you…. Life is full of surprises. I had to move on see?”

“Pa?”

“Yes?”

“Pa, tell me who is my biological father?”

“What?”

“Who is…”

“You mean your mother hasn’t told you?”

“No, she’s never told me because I’d never asked….I’d never thought about it till to-day.”

“Wan, today is the greatest homecoming for your mother and father. Eventually everyone returns to where they truly belong.”

“What are you saying Pa To?”

“Wan, I feel privileged to be the one to tell you that Boris Neinnong is your biological father. Your mother and Boris were in love since they were in school but both families disapproved because an earlier marriage alliance between the two families ended in a tragedy. The resentment was so severe that even when the elders knew you were on your way, they still put their foot down about the marriage. Time heals and…”

“Pa, you mean I’m a …bastard?”

“Wan in our community every child is born legitimate-it is his birthright except in certain forbidden unions. Boris is not your mother’s clansman. He’s not related in any way. This union is completely legal and accepted. Boris is a good man, a great man and he is your father. Congratulations, son, sorry Wan….”

“No, Pa To, son.”

“Congratulations son… I wish you all happiness and God bless you.”

The two boys sat quiet for a long time then Trevor said. “Gosh Wan you are really lucky!”

And Wanbok answered smiling, “I always thought myself as lucky Trev. I guess that’s why am lucky …”

***

 

Bijoya Sawian is a translator and writer who lives in Shillong and Dehradun. She is the author of several books, including Shadow Men.
Bijoya Sawian

Bijoya Sawian  

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DURGA, APU AND THE TRAIN

Rumpa Das

Durga yawned and looked at his father, coiled asleep on their chaarpaai, and thought wistfully about the steaming hot momos he had seen the other day near the Metro station. The wisps of steam, that vague aura of forbidden chicken-meat, the cream-coloured daintily curved dollops of greed – all of these seemed so alluring to Durga Charan Yadav that in his heart he hated being the impoverished son of a rickshaw-puller. His thoughts drifted back to the slender fairness of the momos – smooth like the skin of the film actresses he had seen in the colourful posters. Durga pulled up his shorts clumsily, the elastic had loosened considerably. Lately, he had also become conscious of the fact that he felt oddly excited whenever he thought of luscious, full-bodied women, and found his body growing taut when he saw the clips that the street boys flashed discreetly on their mobiles.

The thought of a mobile phone proved to arouse Durga more than nubile starlets and as he shook himself from his stupor, he eased himself from the crouching position, and his long, bony legs suddenly nudged his sleeping father, Kailash Yadav. Reminding him of his swine- lineage, the patriarch kicked his son and threatened him with dire consequences. Durga, who had been crouching beside his sick father and applying a piece of wet cloth on his forehead to ease the fever, grimaced and stood up, muttering a muted death-wish for his father who couldn’t even afford to buy him a mobile. Durga went out of their small, dingy room beside the Tollygunge railway station and relieved himself just behind their shovel. Birds chirping all around made him conscious that it was already dusk. Badtameez dil blared from a nearby loudspeaker and Durga saw the decorative lights of a puja pandal nearby from behind the cluster of huts that made up their locality. The young lad of fifteen noticed how small children prancing around the railway tracks were wearing crispy new clothes; women who usually keep themselves engaged in quarrelling were jovial and laughing at poor jokes their husbands were cracking, and young girls who often eyed Durga were showing off their young bodies, clad gorgeously in cheap flashy garments.

Durga Puja’s here, the boy smiled to himself, a tad self-conscious at the similarity of his name and that of the ten-handed goddess whose strange, clay-smeared body he had seen a couple of days back, atop a truck. He had giggled at the absence of the backside of the clay image. Back home, their village temple also had a deity, that of Hanuman ji, but it was complete. He had been to the city just about a month back, at the insistence of his mother. ‘Beta’, the anxious woman had implored, ‘ . . . ab bus tum hoi humaar bharosa. Torey baap ki paresaani tum hi kum kar sakat’. Durga did not understand the exact nature of his father’s ‘paresaani’, but nevertheless, he was intent on joining him in Kolkata. It was the City – to him, it was his childhood dreamland, the land of wish-fulfilment, of big houses, cars, buses, Howrah Bridge, Kali maiyya who was the deliverance from all evil. Upon arrival, Durga was initially over-awed – by the sights, by the sounds, by so many people, by such a lot of activity, and now, so much of festivity! He wasn’t sure he could respond correctly and cowered under the glare of The City which forever proclaimed – I AM. Kolkata started possessing him like a spirit possesses a human. Around him in the bustee they lived, Durga had made a few acquaintances, and most of them had displayed their puja bonanza plans – new clothes, visits to pandals, feasts, new possessions and everything screamed to him – Be happy!

Durga, the fifteen-year old, sent from his native village in Chhaapra to Kolkata to alleviate the ‘paresaani’ of his father had realised within a few days his sheer inability to do anything about his Mission Kolkata. His father’s rickshaw had been mortgaged to a moneylender and there was a slim chance of retrieving it, since his father was quite ill and couldn’t work like before. Moreover, his father told him he couldn’t pull a rickshaw anymore because that hand-pulled rickshaws were not supposed to ply anymore on the city roads and would be phased out gradually. Apparently, Kailash had taken a hefty loan for Durga’s elder sister’s marriage, thinking he would be able to pay off his debt. However, with every passing day, he found his business dwindling with people favouring autorickshaws. Meanwhile, Kailash started falling ill quite frequently, and was diagnosed with respiratory problems. The family in Chhaapra had somehow survived for a few months on the meagre income from their portion of profit from agriculture, but it was evident that this wouldn’t work in the long run. Kailash’s wife guessed correctly that ominous clouds were gathering and so had sent their son, her only hope to go to the city where his father lived with the fond hope of finding a solution, or if, it isn’t possible, at least to bring back her man back home. If they had to die, better to perish together! But somehow, she posited a faith on Hanuman ji and her son that they will get over this unnecessary ‘paresaani’. And she had despatched her son along with a local bhaiyya who frequented the City, after disposing her last earring she had held on.

Durga, meanwhile, had no clue that he would have to fight this monster trouble that had prompted his sudden departure from home and . . .childhood, to be catapulted to the adult world of crisis and impossible resolution. Once in the city, his father had treated his son with all the goodies his son had fancied and that his money could buy. Kailash had a little earning from doing errands for some businessman. Durga understood that the pay his father received wasn’t too meagre by their standards but something told him that his father wasn’t happy. It was Durga’s guess that his father was sad at losing his rickshaw. His father would lie all day on the charpaai, and leave their humble abode at the dead of night sometimes, often returning pretty late. Durga sometimes lay hungry, cranky and wished he was with his mother back home. ‘What does bapu do if he doesn’t pull the rickshaw? How does he afford the arrack that he drinks, the food that he buys?’ Durga wondered. But hunger, boredom, and a congealed pain that sometimes smacked of anger and sometimes helplessness, distracted him more than his wild guesses about his father’s employment. Added to this was the mobile phone his father’s present employer had given him – a gadget Durga eyed like a glutton, but his father with singular steadfastness kept out of his reach. Durga wanted to hear his mother’s voice, voices of his playmates in Chhapra – one of their neighbours back home had a mobile, and Durga had the prized number. If only he had the mobile! Yet, Kailash wouldn’t even relent to let him hold it, let alone speak to someone.

His friends in the bustee had asked Durga to accompany them in their tour of the nearby puja pandals. This was going to be fun, he had anticipated. He had asked permission from his father, who was feverish the whole day. Durga was worried about his father, but his childish selfishness also made him a bit angry with his father. Delirious the previous night, his father had been muttering incoherently, while his forehead felt very warm to Durga’s touch. They had no money that day. Not even to buy food. The mobile had rung a few times but his father, even in that semi-conscious state hadn’t allowed Durga to answer it. Somehow, Durga felt there was more to his father’s fever than illness out of natural causes. But, new to this world, Durga didn’t know what to do. He had given his father a medicine that he had seen his father used to take but to no avail. He talked with his immediate neighbour about his father’s fever, but she had only consoled him, ‘Thhik ho jayega, beta’ and hurried along her own chores. Tapu, one of the local boys who was also in the proposed pandal-hoppers’ party had peeped late afternoon, seeking confirmation regarding Durga’s participation. Durga hadn’t been able to respond clearly. He only stated that he would go if his father was better.

Later, as his father lay almost unconscious in fever, the phone had buzzed again. Durga stole a glance at his father, sleeping as if dead. But he refrained from answering it, as he looked at his father’s frail body, languid in feverish sleep. A few minutes later, again the phone rang. Durga didn’t know what to do, and after a moment’s hesitation, carried the phone outside their single room. Leaning on the doorframe, his hands a bit unsteady, Durga answered, ‘Hello!’ A voice thundered from the other side demanding why the hell the sonofabitch wasn’t responding! The aggression in the voice unnerved the young boy. He couldn’t respond immediately. After the tirade of abuses had ebbed a bit, Durga found his voice and replied that his bapu had been unwell. The voice retorted, Marr toh nahin gaya na? Durga was astounded by this sudden snap of uncouth ruthlessness. He asked, ’Aap kaun?’ ‘Sunn, tu Kailas ka beta hai, na? Aadhey ghantey mein rail isstasan ke peechey puraani gudaam mein pahonch! Tere baap paisa letey waqt toh thhik thhak thha, ab kaam ke waqt achanak bimaar par gaya! Tu pahonchh yahaan, warna dono ko hi lurak dengey.’ The line had gone silent. But, Durga felt, the threat remained lurking somewhere . . . not in the brightly-lit alleyways of the city on this puja night but deep within him, his father’s dark, damp hut, and in their destiny that was possibly tied up to the phone call, Durga now felt, he shouldn’t have received.

Durga was speechless. Who was this? Was this the businessman his father worked with? Why was he so rude? Why had his father taken money, and that too even before finishing the work? What was the work? Durga’s young mind could fathom that whatever be the work, this was his father’s chief ‘paresaani’. This was why his father had been unwell, delirious, helpless,in this humungous city where no one bothered if he lived or died. The tear- smeared faces of his mother, his elder sister just married yet anxious about her parents and her little brother, and even the humble home they had – all flashed before Durga’s eyes momentarily. This was why his mother had sent him here. Did she apprehend any of this? Durga made up his mind to go and check out for himself the undone job his father was supposed to perform. He cast a glance at his sleeping father, the gentle snores assuring him that the parent is earning some well-deserved rest! He felt happy inwardly that he has ultimately got the chance to prove his worth, to prove that he can live up to his mother’s expectations.

He asked a number of people, busy in their festive frenzy, the route directions for the old godown, behind the rail station. Uneasy in his eagerness to be on time, Durga almost ran the last leg of the darkness that existed between him and the abandoned godown. Away from the colourful lights, the din and the bustle of a city draped like a bride, the place seemed like a graveyard, cold, unfriendly, inscrutable and eerily awaiting its next inhabitant. The sound of an approaching engine tore apart the stillness, only to return a few moments later. Durga wondered whether anyone had played a prank! The next moment he realised the absurdity of his thoughts – Who would know it would be he who woud pick up the phone? Not his friends, surely. His friends – ah yes! They must have waited for him to join them and then have started pandal-hopping by now! Durga found a truant tear-drop, escaping his composure; he regained his hold, and advanced towards the slight flicker of light he could espy. Momentarily, he found himself wincing as some strong hands overpowered him and gagged him, dragging him across the rough shrubbery. After what seemed like a long period of excruciating pain, Durga awoke to a strong yellowish light that made him aware of his new position – a number of menacing-looking eyes fixed on him in a large dirt-covered musty-smelling hall, littered with an assortment of machines, boxes and a number of other huge packages. The men were obviously waiting for him to regain senses, and when he did it was not without an awareness of pain all over his frail body. He had been badly pulled and dragged over. The sensation of pain, however, subsided when he saw a girl, lying beside him, awake, looking fearfully at the same faces on which Durga too had focussed his attention, His head throbbing with a dull pain, Durga tried linking his present condition to the incidents of the recent past, and realised that one of these dreary faces must be the Voice. Fleetingly, he tried to think about the phone – where did he leave it? His father would be angry if he didn’t find it on awakening. However, this stream of thought was upset by a sobbing sound that emanated from the girl beside him. Durga watched her closely, or well, tried to. She was a bit younger to him, fair, with curly hair, some of the ringlets pasted on her forehead in glistening perspiration, but what struck Durga was her desperation to free herself from the ropes that bound her wrists! She was trying her best, kicking, sobbing, gasping and grunting through the gag on her mouth! And the captors, watching both him and her were obviously enjoying the show! Durga realised the fatuity of her exercise but also applauded her valiant efforts. He felt a bit ashamed at being so laid back. What would they do to her, to us? He wondered! It was then that he heard a man shout at them,’ Bahot hua! Ab chal, jaaney ka time ho gaya!’

The girl paused and renewed her efforts with more gusto. Durga joined, not knowing where they would have to go. Where would they be taken to? Who was the girl? Why did these peoplekidnap him, the son of a penniless rickshaw puller? What would they do to him ? He thanked his God that they are not trying anything with the girl, as he had heard about being done usually to girls. Durga thought about his parents – will they ever know what happened to him? Will his father try to search for him? How may he be right now? Despair engulfed Durga as he struggled to free himself like the valiant girl beside him, but his thoughts were disrupted once again when one of those men ordered him, ‘Tera baap paissey liya hai, ab tu usska kaam kar. Iss ladki ko thikaney pounchha dey’. What was the address he was talking about? Had his father taken money to transport the girl somewhere? Where? What would happen to her? The intensity of the girl’s sobs increased but soon she was taken away, followed by two other sturdy dubious-looking men to a waiting vehicle, only to be shoved together on the floor of the small truck. Another man climbed up beside them, and spoke tersely. Durga and the girl listened in utter disbelief and shock. They would be taken together far. They would be safe if they cooperate with their captors and obey their orders. Durga had just to chaperone the girl to a designated place, and hand over the girl to another group. The girl grew hysteric – a resounding slap forced her silence and may be, submission. Durga saw the girl lay limp at his feet, blood trickling past her lips. Somehow, he was reminded of his father, still in illness. He felt powerless. Soon, he heard the strains of a crowd, blaring microphones, and caught the glitters of festivity whizz past their truck. After sometime, the vehicle screeched to a halt. Two men pulled away the girl again, sprinkled droplets of water on her and made her stand. They also wiped, although roughly, the blood trails near her cheek, and readied her dupatta that had been fastened across her waist.

Mast hai, lekin! Achhi bhaaww bikegi’, one man lisped to another, as Durga froze! So they were planning to sell her, and he was forced to act as the transporter. Soon, the other men joined and in very precise words, explained to Durga what he was expected to do. He was warned that any smart move on their part would mean sure death. He was supposed to escort her and no more. A few hours and he would be free. Durga looked at the girl – almost unconscious, her head reclining on one side as she was supported by a man’s strong arms. Soon, they were led to a station, quite empty, for it was pretty late. New to the city, Durga immediately, however, realised that they have travelled a bit away from the main station of the city. Durga felt the shafts of a chilly breeze; he also saw the girl shiver a bit, but still almost sleeping. The arrival of the train set the station into a mild flurry of activity, but strangely, Durga felt more secure as he and the girl were bundled inside a dark, general compartment, with instructions to stay close, and to get down when, next morning they will be met by other members of their group at a particular station. The train started chugging out, and the men got down hurriedly. Regaining a wee bit of composure, the girl now reclining on his shoulder, still asleep, Durga tried to awaken the girl from her stupor. ‘Ehhh, utthh, utthh!’ After a few efforts, the girl opened her eyes, looked around the near empty but dark compartment, and possibly tried searching for her captors. A faint smile spread when she realised her newly-gained liberty. Durga hastened to explain what he had gathered, the girl again shivering in fright, trying to run, possibly to the nearest door. Durga restrained her,  and explained the train was moving fast.

And then very slowly, the two hapless young ones, devastated by the magnitude of their predicament, bruised, battered, fell into a sleepy conversation, cosy in the newfound warmth of companionship that only crises can generate. ‘Tera naam kya hai re’ Durga had asked, and she had replied, ‘Aparna’ . ‘Ghar kahan hai tera’ Durga quizzed, ‘Kaun hai terey ghar mein?’ ‘Hajaribagh . . .’ Her voice had dwindled to a whisper . . . ‘Ghar mein bas ma hai. Ma mujhey Apu bulaati hai. Aapka naam kya hai, bhaiyya?’ The last word echoed in Durga’s ears. Far away from where they were, in this journey to nowhere, as the train with its sleeping load, whistled along, Durga remembered another fair face, a red bindi on her forehead and reddish-orange vermillion at her hair-parting, his sister – Apsara, Apu to the family. As Durga felt himself very responsibl NO CHANGE he determined to do all he could – to make a frantic effort to escape. Durga looked at Apu, and then outside, where the dark countryside framed by the window, was slowly shedding away its nocturnal gloom. Tired, sleepy eyes looked at white kaash flowers, blossoming beside the railway line, as the purplish haze of dawn brightened gradually to an azure morn. Did they feel the train losing speed? Was the train approaching a station? Durga tugged at Apu’s hand and sped towards the nearest door, inching away from tired travellers, ensconced in sleep. ‘Chal . . .’Durga whispered audibly through his resolute lips, as he decided to jump with Apu, near the clumps of the kaash blossoms. The dawn brightened a bit as the train slowed even more, awaiting a signal, conniving with two young childrenon their way to their freedom.

***

Rumpa Das

Rumpa Das

Rumpa Das (b.1970) did her graduation and post-graduation from Jadavpur University, Kolkata and PhD from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata. Her doctoral dissertation entitled Feminism and Motherhood: Some Major Nineteenth Century Profiles charts the interface of feminism and motherhood in the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, Mary Shelley and Felicia Hemans. She has about thirty articles in various national and international books and journals, in addition to five forthcoming ones. Her areas of interest are Romanticism, Postcolonialism and Media Studies. She is Associate Professor and Head, Dept. of English, Maheshtala College, Kolkata.

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Filed under Fiction, Tin Trunk

THE DISPLACED

© Divya Adusumilli

© Divya Adusumilli

Khem K Aryal

1.

For the first couple of days after landing in Kathmandu, Lokraj seemed to be proud of his displacement. While his mother, his wife, and their two daughters continued to pray—back home in the outskirts of Nepalgunj—that the Maoists would not rough up the womenfolk for God’s sake, Lokraj bragged in front of street-level party activists that he’d been forced to leave his village because of Maoists rebels. As if being displaced were an accomplishment, he boasted, “I’m Lokraj from Nepalgunj, I’m a displaced”; “I have a rice mill in Nepalgunj, I’m a displaced.” It seemed as if he were showing his missing enemies his worth: See, I’m displaced, too. Fuck! When would the Maoists ever force his poor neighbor, the nondescript Tikey Badi, to leave his village? Why would the rebels fight against his other neighbor, Dayaram, who struggled day and night to make ends meet? Yes, his cousin brother Jagannath and a few other extended families could have been forced to leave the village had they not already migrated to Kathmandu. But not those poor villagers. As if his displacement had made him equal to his relatives who’d done better than himself, Lokraj seemed to celebrate it. Nothing gave him as much pleasure as standing outside Gulmeli Teashop on an early January morning, a steaming glass of lemon tea in his hands, and commenting on national politics—“King Gyanendra’s stupidity will cost him big”; “Maoist terrorists ruined the country”— always adding at the end, “I’m a displaced.”

This folly didn’t last long, though. A week after he’d left his village, his wife urged him on the phone to return home without delay. The Maoists were threatening to raise their demand if he continued to evade them. As he hung up the phone and entered his hotel room, Lokraj thought what the rebels could’ve done to him had he really spied on them for the government forces. He sat on his bed in his ten feet by ten feet by ten feet room of the Kantipur Guesthouse and stared at the charred spots on the covers. “M o t h e r f u c k e r s!” he said, his eyes wide open. Why would he pay the sons of whores one million rupees to acquit him of a crime that he never committed? They had intelligence that he’d spied against the rebels? How mean a trick! How dishonest. How ungrateful. Where did their fathers’ katto that he’d given them all those years go?

He stroked his balding scalp and sighed. He could possibly pay the rebels one million rupees, he thought. He could take some loan. He could sell half his land. Or do something instead of risking his own and his family’s safety.

But no. One million rupees! On top of what he’d paid them all those years. How could he be certain that they’d leave him alone after he paid them this time?

His second week in Kathmandu: Lokraj met with Neta-ji, the leader who had represented his constituency until King Gyanendra had scrapped the parliament two years ago. He pleaded for help to avoid paying the rebels, and the leader assured him they’d fight against the Maoists together. Lokraj telephoned Jagannath but ended up just telling him he was on a visit to Kathmandu and he wouldn’t perhaps have the time to visit the cousin’s place. He visited a party office in Balkhu, hoping that he might see some people who could help him. He had, after all, worked for the party until a few years ago. But he was discouraged by the unfamiliar faces and a squad of young men who looked more like street fighters than party workers. He called on a couple of relatives who’d moved to Kathmandu to provide their children with a better education—their version of the story, when in fact they’d moved to the capital to avoid Maoist extortion—and there he ended up just congratulating them for their comfortable lives that they boasted of.

As he wandered the streets of Kathmandu, the rebels increased their demand to two million. In another couple of days, they captured his land and announced that they’d now distribute it to the poor, obviously to the people like Tikey Badi.

*

A gust of wind surged into his room before a windowpane hit hard on the frame and closed. The frosty water on the windowpane with a layer of dust on the outside and stains of sputum and what looked like traces of snot and speckles of chewing tobacco on the inside broke randomly into pathless trickles. Behind the windowpane the sun, blurred by the fog, looked like a reluctant traveler to a hopeless afternoon. You never know life’s intricacies. You don’t know what it’s got in store for you until you get it. You can only do so much. Beyond that you are only a puppet, a puppet in the hands of dark forces.

His index finger scratched a stubborn stain that occupied half of a white square in the checkered bed sheet. It felt cold and dirty. He withdrew his hand and looked around the room with a vague desire to wash the finger. The room was empty except for his travel bag in a corner, his shirt, a pair of trousers and a sweater that needed washing, a pair of slippers that lay beside the door—he didn’t want them there (after using them in the toilet) but he was not allowed to leave them outside; he’d tossed his Nike shoes under the bed—and the bed itself, a twin-size, too short for his height. At night he had a hard time making sure the blanket covered the undersides of his feet.

He kneaded his finger on the bed. And as if suddenly aware of his too self-conscious moves, he briskly positioned the pillow against the wall—the blue paint peeling off at places and showing the white primer—and reclined, his stretched feet covering the ugly stain and the scorched spots, like renouncing their existence. The Maoists were playing a dirty game, he thought. He claimed he didn’t support their politics, but he’d donated to them numerous times. He’d sympathized with the rebels that they were fighting against those who he thought he was fighting until a few years before as a party activist, and against those relatives who regarded his father—disowned by his grandfather because he’d married a lower caste woman—as a disgraced man. But how could an idealist coating justify violence? He saw what exactly was wrong. Violence hurts when it occurs at your doorstep, and the romance of rebellion dies a miserable death when you’re at the receiving end of the sword’s blade. Only when it’s waged in a distant land does war sound valorous, or in a story. Lokraj knew his vulnerability; war had arrived at his doorstep.

That morning Lokraj felt an involuntary affinity with a young woman he’d first seen at Gulmeli Teashop on the first day he visited the teashop. In response to a suggestion made by the teashop owner she’d said, “Who’ll listen to a fucking displaced? You go file a complaint, they’ll rape you, instead!” But he’d neglected her as no business of his. He’d seen her a couple of times since then, but he hadn’t cared. He’d believed that he was different; he could still work his way out. But that morning when he saw her again, he felt like approaching her, listening to her stories, and sharing his own. Also, he felt a strange sensation in his body—he needed human warmth. A fucking displaced! Her aura had stimulated Lokraj in such odd ways that he knew he wouldn’t be able to look at her eyes for many days to come.

That very afternoon Lokraj chanted slogans in a protest rally in Ratnapark—Reinstate the parliament! Down with dictatorship. The rally was protesting King Gyanendra’s takeover of the country’s executive power, and it gave Lokraj a much-needed refuge; it gave him an illusion of a protest against the Maoists. As he flowed with the crowd, he was convinced that he was doing something of worth.

Lokraj was still deep in his indulgence when the protest rally advanced toward the Royal Palace and the riot police started charging with batons. The slogans changed into desperate calls to flee, to attack the dictator’s agents, to smack the sons of whores, to kill the motherfuckers, and lengthy promises of vengeance as the protesters retreated into Kathmandu’s narrow alleys.

Lokraj squeezed himself into a corner of a momo-shop, a local dumplings restaurant, and, by depressing his guts and raising his shoulders so that he could tilt his head in the midst of the crowd, he examined his body. His limbs still shook, and his heartbeat felt like it was pushing its way out of his ears. But he was unscathed. Assured, he glanced at Neta-ji, who’d convinced him that the only way of solving the nation’s problems was forcing the king to surrender to the political parties. The leader stood triumphantly beside him despite a bump on his forehead. A young man at his side looked at him apologetically, as if he himself had hit Neta-ji.

“We’re going to win this battle!” Neta-ji said.

Lokraj’s face displayed hope rather than conviction.

“Only our party can cure the country’s ills!” the leader said as he inspected the faces of other demonstrators who’d swarmed the momo-shop despite the owner’s effort to block them out.

Lokraj was hopeful.

When the streets returned to normal—the police taking to the corners, a few three-wheelers readying themselves for passengers, and pedestrians returning to their natural pace—the protesters walked out of the restaurant and dispersed. The protest was over for the day; they would assemble at the same place tomorrow.

Lokraj followed Neta-ji. He hoped to convince the leader that his problem was really serious and it needed immediate attention. He started by clarifying his conviction that Neta-ji was always ready to help his constituents and that he never doubted the leader’s intention, nor his ability to do something for him. But even before Lokraj could touch upon his point, Neta-ji expressed his confidence that the king would very soon surrender to the political parties, and his party would hold the country’s reign. Then everything would change for good. The Maoists would no longer be a problem.

But the protests were going nowhere, and the Maoists continued to intensify their operations. “Neta-ji,” Lokraj pleaded with the leader at the end of his third week in Kathmandu, “today the rebels ordered my mill closed, forcing my assistant to join them. How long can I wait? When will the government act?”

“I know, I know,” said Neta-ji. “We will succeed one day.”

It was only after this that Lokraj visited his cousin brother. “What the hell is wrong with asking an able relative for help?” his wife had insisted. But he wouldn’t tell Jagannath about his problem yet. Oh, this Jagannath! There’s no way he can help me. He’ll rather laugh at my condition.

At an early age, Lokraj had been made aware of the differences between himself and Jagannath and other kids born into the family. While Jagannath lived in the three-story building of his grandfather, Lokraj lived in his single-story house at the edge of the land that his grandfather had afforded his father. Everybody treated Jagannath as the prince of the family, but Lokraj was often reminded of the “disgrace” of his parents. Lokraj wouldn’t even be allowed to enter the house until one day the old man showed pity on him, saying, “Stop punishing the boy for his father’s recklessness!”

Only then had the kid started becoming somebody. His charming personality quickly won favors for him—some gossiped that the cross between two castes always produced good-looking kids, though it was not something to be desired.

Jagannath, on the other hand, was a boy who even Lokraj doubted would ever become a man. He was short and thin, almost malnourished despite every effort of his mother to fatten him up, and his jawbones seemed to be pushing out even at an early age (now they made his face look like a disfigured triangle). As a student, Lokraj had fun bullying him. Jagannath was a less than mediocre student, and when he’d said in class that he wanted to become a hakim in future, a government officer, everybody had laughed.

It felt like just yesterday. Now, although Jagannath had in fact become an officer, lived in his own house in Kathmandu, and was said to have good connections, too, Lokraj was not sure with what gravity to vouchsafe his worry. Sipping on thin milk tea, he said at last, “The Maoists ordered my mill closed,” and waited.

The detail didn’t seem to bother Jagannath at all. What the hell? Lokraj then told him everything in one breath—from the way he struggled after his father’s death to how the Maoists ended up capturing his land and ordering his mill closed, and his wandering in Kathmandu. By the time he finished his story, his eyes were wet.

“I didn’t know you were such a great fool, brother,” Jagannath said. “Coordinate with Ramesh Silwal instead of rallying behind Neta-ji.”

“What’s there to coordinate with Silwal, a displaced like me?” asked Lokraj. “He’s also wandering the streets begging for help.”

“Yes, but he’s the leader of the displaced,” Jagannath replied. “Coordinate with him; you may receive a few hundred rupees of displacement allowance every week.”

Lokraj’s lips trembled. Then the words came out: “Do you believe I’m here expecting a few hundred rupees from the government? My land has been captured, my business has been closed, and my family is in danger, the rebels want me to pay them millions of rupees, and you tell me I’ll get a few hundred rupees a week? Do you think I’m here asking for alms?”

The cousin smirked. “You expect the government to send troops to save your land?”

Lokraj asked what the hell the government was doing to protect its people from Maoist atrocities. He name-called Prachanda, the rebel leader, Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, and then King Gyanendra. “The head eunuch,” he christened the king.

“Hey, hey, no defaming the King, okay? He’s the one who’ll save the country, okay?” Jagannath blurted. Then he turned to the kitchen and yelled, “Hey, look at our miller cousin. Look at our miller cousin! He wants King Gyanendra to send troops to save his property. Look at him! Look at him!”

Jagannath’s two sons giggled in the kitchen. One of them said, “The miller uncle seems to be interesting. How could the Maoists be so cruel to him?”

More giggles followed. Lokraj started taking off his shirt as if in protest. The white underclothes he wore displayed traces of sweat.

“I’ve asked Silwal to coordinate with the displaced. All the support goes out through him,” Jagannath said.

Lokraj grabbed his shirt and stared at the floor, unsure if he’d heard Jagannath correctly. But he didn’t want to ask him for clarification; he never thought an ass like this cousin would one day be in a position to help him out, and he was correct.

But it turned out, as a government official Jagannath had been charged by the head of a small unit at the Home Ministry with listening to the grievances of the displaced and supporting them to survive the cold winter of Kathmandu and, as Lokraj could understand it even if Jagannath didn’t say it specifically, covertly instigating people against the rebels. Silwal, a self-appointed leader of the people forced to leave their villages and small towns, had become his de facto liaison.

“You know I can’t deal myself with every displaced person,” Jagannath said, as if he were shouldering all the responsibilities of all the victims of the bloody conflict.

Lokraj refused to dine at his cousin’s. He grabbed his bag and said, leaving, “I’ll figure out if I can do something myself. You’ve become too important to help me.”

“I have reports that you supported the Maoists. Why this drama now?” Jagannath said as Lokraj got out.

It felt like a dream to Lokraj that he’d once revolted against his own family and fought against the king’s totalitarian regime. It wasn’t long ago, but things had changed so much. It was humiliating to be asking for Jagannath’s favor.

Lokraj had a plain naan and mixed vegetables at Lumbini Tanduri Restaurant near the prime minister’s office, and when he found a hotel near the Bhimsen Tower in Sundhara—not even trying to get a room at Kantipur guesthouse, where he’d stayed before—it was ten at night. Tired and dejected, he wished for the sky to fall and crash on everything that gave an illusion of justice in the world. He was so ready to be part of that force.

The sky didn’t fall. Instead, a teenage boy had forced his door open. “Dai, you need something?” he asked. “Only one thousand, dai,” he continued, as Lokraj took a few seconds to think if he really needed anything. “Okay, seven hundred. Five for her and two for this poor brother,” the boy bargained. “It’s hard to do this business, dai. The sons of whores are always preying on us.”

Lokraj wished it were the widow, the “fucking displaced.” But she happened to be a teenager—thin, almost malnourished, and poorly clad—and the encounter ended miserably. As soon as Lokraj uttered a few words, she said he spoke like her big brother who—she said—hoped she’d one day become a big, big singer. Had the brother not joined the Maoists and been killed by the army, she lamented, she wouldn’t have to work in a garment factory that paid her so little, forcing her to sell her flesh to survive in the city. She threw herself into Lokraj’s lap and wept, our Lokraj staring in the air like an embattled hero left alone with a dying princess.

After she left with her money, Lokraj looked out the window, as if to shake her off of his thoughts, yet another character in the harrowing story of the Maoist war.

Across the street were a few restaurants with neon lights flashing. At the entrance of each restaurant was a brightly lit signboard that said either “dance restaurant and bar” or dohori sanjh, restaurants for traditional folk songs mixed with alcohol and, as the night matured, occasional sex deals—as he’d heard, and it seemed quite plausible now. In the street there was a consistent commotion—cars, taxis, and motorbikes dropping off or picking up people. At one point, a young man and a girl briefly scuffled, and another man forced her into a taxi. Lokraj continued to observe, puzzled. It was hard to believe that he was in the same country where people were being displaced from their houses and villages and cities each and every night, in the same country where fighting was a ritual and the number of the dead was growing day and night. Untouched by those calamities, Kathmandu was feasting just fine.

The following morning, Lokraj told his wife over the phone that he was meeting with important people in Kathmandu, and he would return home soon. “Just tell them I’ll be home as soon as I manage my money.”

After he hung up, he spent a long time in the small cubicle from which he’d phoned home. He picked up the old phone book and flipped its pages, looking over the names and numbers without a particular person in mind. Some names in the book had become so old that he didn’t even recognize them—where might all those people have gone? He recalled some of his old friends with whom he had fallen out of touch, especially after his marriage. It felt as if they had different routes and different destinations. They had progressed and made names, while he’d been stuck as a miller. It was especially painful that so many of them were his inferiors, including that ass of a cousin.

The more he scanned through the phone book, the ruddier his face turned, and he became restless. How come everybody was fighting and progressing, but he was looking for somebody to have pity on him? It had just been a few years since he’d bullied many of them, but now he seemed to be a real coward. Even the ones who owned nothing were fighting and living with dignity—who were the rebels, after all? They were now dictating to him, a man who had once fought against the king himself.

Lokraj found the cubicle to be too small for him. He pressed himself into a corner so that he could open the door and step out.

“The Maoists have ruined the country. We need to fight,” he said to the shopkeeper, paying for the calls he had made.

“Is that it, dai?” the young man at the counter asked, as if he didn’t know anything. But the dismissal in his tone was apparent.

“Why? Can’t you see that? They’ve ruined the entire country,” Lokraj said.

“It goes like this, dai. Whoever has the stick owns the buffalo—no comment!” said the young fellow, his face displaying the arrogance of an upstart.

Lokraj didn’t agree. How could the young man be so indifferent to the plights of the people? “That is irresponsible as a citizen,” he said.

Those words unnerved the salesman; he shut his lips tight, counting money.

“You want to fight the rebels the army is fighting? With your bare hands?” he asked, handing Lokraj the change. “Okay, go and become a martyr. All the best!”

Lokraj stepped out, regretting how coldhearted the Kathmanduites had become. The country was burning, people were being killed or displaced, but the capital city continued to play its flute.

That afternoon he didn’t participate in the Ratnapark protest. Instead, he went straight to meet with Silwal at Bajeko Sekuwa, a small barbecue restaurant near the airport.

*

“I’m serious about it, Silwal-ji,” Lokraj said.

“Serious about what?” Silwal asked, munching mutton barbeque.

“About the fight. We must resist the rebels,” Lokraj said.

Silwal chewed for a while more and said, “Anti-Maoist protestors are being attacked everywhere. You know that, don’t you?”

“But it’s the capital city!”

“You think Kathmandu is clean?” Silwal said, putting down his beer glass. “They are everywhere. They may be right here in this restaurant.”

It had a numbing effect on Lokraj. For a moment he forgot why he’d come to Kathmandu in the first place. Then he realized that the situation had already gone out of his control. At what cost would the Maoists allow him to return home and do his business? He recalled Neta-ji, who’d asked him the last time they met, “Do you think the rebels will allow you to return to the village?” When Lokraj replied he’d done nothing wrong, Neta-ji had asked, “Then why had you run away from the village?” Lokraj had replied that Neta-ji already knew it, but the leader had said, “The rebels don’t want you in the village, comrade. They’ve done everything according to their plan.” “I’m doomed,” Lokraj had said. “No, not yet!” Neta-ji had declared, and said that they’d continue to fight.

Continue to fight! As if the country knew only fighting, nothing else. Everybody talked about fighting. The Maoists were fighting, the proclaimed fighters. The political parties were fighting. The king was fighting. And people were fighting either from this or that camp.

“Aren’t you afraid of incarceration, Silwal-ji?” Lokraj asked, wondering at the relaxed Silwal, the so-called leader of the displaced, who was supposed to be organizing the people like himself against the rebels, but he would only guess about rebels sitting in the same restaurant where he was drinking beer. Lokraj lowered his head and chewed mutton sekuwa and puffed rice, occasionally biting on pickled ginger to help his mouth water. Silwal for him embodied yet another mysterious face of the city. What was Lokraj actually doing by opening up his heart to this Silwal? Silwal so far had been just one more displaced person in the city, struggling to find a way out of Maoist threat in the village, like himself. But now he seemed to be much more than that. He looked comfortable, and easily accepted the Maoist presence around himself.

“Killing me will have bigger consequences. They know it,” Silwal said, still calm. “They don’t want to provoke the government and rights activists too much, just like the government doesn’t want to provoke them unnecessarily.”

Lokraj’s heart sank. The deaths of different people meant different things. Who’d care if a nondescript Lokraj died that very evening? In Silwal’s equation the people like Lokraj carried no value. That was the politics of the day—you’d become either a self-appointed leader who commands the fate of the mass at his will or a nondescript follower whose needs and aspirations are trampled by the leaders’ ambitions. There was such a huge disparity between being a leader and being a follower.

Silwal was proudly speaking from the position of a leader, no matter whether the displaced acknowledged him or not. And Lokraj? He had spent a few days protesting for Neta-ji, in Ratnapark, and now here was another leader to follow.

This was not who Lokraj had been.

His parents’ effort—by sending him to a college in Kathmandu after he’d passed the SLC exam—to make him a “big man” and not to let him fall behind Jagannath had failed. He had been forced to return to Nepalgunj when the Amrit Campus, where he’d been enrolled, closed as part of the state’s effort to contain the student protests against Julfiker Bhutto’s execution in Pakistan. He’d then joined a local college—wasting hard-earned money by sending him to Kathmandu didn’t look quite right at that time.

As the country prepared for the referendum on the country’s political future that the 1979 student protest had resulted in, his campus became more a political theater than an educational institution, like most other colleges in the country. Lokraj bunked classes, mobilized local boys, and distributed pamphlets in favor of multiparty democracy, despite his grandfather’s insistence that the King, not communists, knew what was good for the country and its people. After the king won the 1980 referendum, Lokraj found himself working for an underground party. He gave up his studies and continued to work for the party despite his father’s continual pleadings—for the sake of his grandfather—that he stopped the nonsense. Lokraj replied that he’d already glimpsed the rays of democracy, and he couldn’t turn back. His parents hoped that he’d become a family man after his marriage, but he continued to think that he was doing something important, something that no Jagannath could ever do. Lokraj maintained this political affiliation until King Birendra conceded his defeat in 1990, when the party activists swarmed into Bhadrakali’s house, forced the octogenarian out into the yard, smeared his face in soot mixed with mustard oil, and took him around the town on the back of a starving mule, a garland of worn-out shoes around his neck.

The old man didn’t survive beyond a month after that humiliation. Even his father, who’d lived the last three decades with a deep chasm between himself and his father and a never-ending want for fatherly warmth—on top of the disgrace he was living with—showed signs of resignation that would end his life soon. Lokraj’s family implied that he was responsible for all the disgrace in the family, and some neighbors blamed his second daughter, born the week his father died, for the death. His mother wouldn’t tell him a word, but the silence of a widowed mother couldn’t be more troublesome. On top of that, the same democracy brought nothing but corrupt leaders, lawlessness, and chaos. He was effectively silenced as soon as multiparty democracy was restored in the country.

All those years wasted in the name of democracy, and he’d been left with nothing but the land that his father had preserved for him, while Jagannath had continued his studies and “progressed.” Hence, one day, he’d decided to settle for a mill, something regarded as progressive by the standard of those days. At age thirty-three, he had two daughters—one five and the other three years of age—and his widowed mother to care for. He was now a family guy stuck in his small world. When the Maoists launched the armed rebellion in 1996, Lokraj was busy making sure that his mill husked rice properly.

With the mill closed now and all the hopes of getting any assistance to stay safe back home and do his business dwindling, he decided that he’d now fight his own war. He’d not just follow Silwal, but become his co-traveler. He’d rather lead.

If Silwal could, why couldn’t Lokraj?

 

2.

The small park in Baneshwor was full of people making the best of the winter sun and killing time. Young men had spread newspapers, Union Jacks, and American Flags on the scalded ground and sat on them. Some reached out their hands and plucked whatever grass remained nearby, as if they were weeding the park. Some ground with their thumb and index fingers the leaves that they plucked from the small pine plants. Some broke peanut pods and threw the shells around themselves. On the pavement along the park, a couple of barefooted children kicked a stuffed sock—their soccer ball—and shouted obscenities.

Lokraj waded through the men and women, placed a wooden chair, which a teenage boy carried for him, in the middle of the park, hopped onto it, and clapped his hands as an invitation to listen to him.

A few pairs of hands clapped after his, like spectators of a magician’s street show.

Then Lokraj began his speech: “Respected mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters!”

He paused, looked around, and corrected himself, “Respected brothers and sisters!” Then continued, “The country has been crippled. People have been killed; people have been forced to flee their homes, but the government is sleeping with mustard oil in its ears.”

A few members of the audience giggled.

Then he saw a young woman beside a trashcan poke another girl and grimace, like she was making fun of yet another so-called leader on the street talking big to fool the poor. Lokraj’s spirit failed for a moment when he realized that it was the same woman who’d expressed her frustration at the teashop: “Who’ll listen to a fucking displaced?” But at the same time he felt a strange sensation and an urge to do something for himself, for the woman, and for the others like him, if he really could. Was she challenging him?

He continued. He said that the rebels had to stop their attack on the common people, the government had to provide security to the displaced, and so on. Most passersby slowed down as they approached, pricked their ears for a while, then resumed their walks. But some of them pressed onto the walls, curiously eyeing the speaker. He spoke of the people’s suffering. He criticized the government for its failure to provide security to its people, not to mention other needs like drinking water and acetaminophen tablets. He disparaged the Maoists for making people’s lives hell.

When Lokraj finished his speech, a small crowd surrounded him in appreciation. He shook hands with strangers, patted unknown shoulders, asked them if they were in good health, as if he’d known them for years and he cared about their condition, and as if it really mattered that he asked. A young man offered to carry the chair for him. A middle-aged man wearing a cross-khukri on his black cap held his hand, as if they were known to each other for ages, and proposed Lokraj to have a glass of tea with him.

A couple of similar performances. A new leader was born, like many others in the country.

*

The next time they met, Silwal greeted Lokraj with a protest plan for a full month—demonstrations, letter of memorandum to the prime minister, sit-ins outside the prime minister’s residence in Baluwatar, complaint letters to major political parties. And if the government didn’t heed them yet, a Kathmandu valley closure—a strike in the capital. Lokraj was appointed as the second man to Silwal and made responsible for the coordination of the protest plans. When their protest plan was carried by the press the following morning, Lokraj’s cousin brother called him and said, “I hope you’re not angry anymore. Why do you need to stay in a hotel while I have the whole house here?” (And in fact, Lokraj returned to Jagannath’s.) After the displaced showed their presence at a few places, especially after the sit-in outside the prime minister’s residence, Neta-ji told him they now needed to form a strong alliance and participate in each other’s protests. “After all, we have the same ends,” he asserted. “Defy any kind of dictatorship, and restore democracy.”

Lokraj was not ready to listen to his wife’s pleas to return home even when the Maoists threatened to vacate his house if he continued to evade them and rally against the Maoists “as a puppet of the reactionary forces.” He told her that he, instead, planned to bring the whole family to Kathmandu for a few months. He would arrange for their move as soon as he found a suitable apartment. It was not just his property that had been captured; the whole country was suffering. Once the Maoists were defeated—it wouldn’t take long to eliminate them if the political parties and the king were committed—the land would be there where it was now and the house wouldn’t go anywhere, either, he insisted. Although his wife begged that he think sensibly and return home before it was too late, he silenced her by asserting he knew better.

Jagannath, however, didn’t seem to think so. One evening, in a restaurant, he said that he had a small piece of advice for his cousin brother.

“What advice? I’m open to any,” said Lokraj.

Jagannath said Lokraj needed to slow down a little. “I’ve been told that you’ve become too aggressive, and certain people are not happy,” he added.

Lokraj defended himself. The displaced were fighting for their rights. The Maoists had to listen to them, and the government had to provide them security and protect their lives and properties. “Certain people? Who the hell are those certain people?” he asked.

Jagannath said Lokraj knew it well.

“You once blamed me that I supported the Maoists. Now you’re asking me not to protest against them?” Lokraj demanded.

Jagannath looked thoughtful but not worried. He seemed to be saying, I know I know!

“But the issue is a little complicated.” He spoke like a real bureaucrat. “Hasn’t Neta-ji told you about the ongoing negotiation between Maoists and the other parties?”

“But you support the king, don’t you?” Lokraj asked.

“That’s not the issue,” said Jagannath, annoyed.

Despite the agitating parties’ disagreement with the Maoists on many issues, there were efforts to aggregate their strengths to fight the monarchy. After King Birendra’s murder in 2001, regardless of his brother’s crowning as the new monarch, the Maoists had declared that the country had already become a republic. Although the rest of the political parties didn’t aim to eliminate the monarchy, they were getting increasingly fed up with the new king, especially after July 2002, when he’d deposed the elected prime minister, assumed executive power of the country, and cancelled parliamentary elections scheduled for November the same year. The political parties were negotiating an alliance with any force that might help them confine the king within his ceremonial role as the head of state. Although their own local leaders and activists were being killed by the Maoists, the top leaders were courting the rebels, which was intriguing to many, and which explained the complexity of the ongoing conflict. It was hard to tell who was fighting against whom. Lokraj had to learn how he could possibly manage it.

“I mean, you’d better be less aggressive against the Maoists,” Jagannath said. “You don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow.” Then he sympathized with Lokraj’s troubles.

“Are you my cousin?” Lokraj asked spontaneously. “Or what?”

Lokraj suspected Jagannath’s lack of sensitivity. Did he care that the rebels had captured his cousin’s property and threatened to displace the family altogether? Did he care about that? Lokraj was not ready to listen to Jagannath’s explanation. He asked him at least not to interfere in his work, if he was unable to help him out. Jagannath begged him at least to try to understand what he meant, but Lokraj said it was enough. He knew what he was doing.

But how could he be so foolish? His wife pressed him the following morning. Wasn’t it outright stupid to take to the streets against the rebels while the whole family still lived in the village? When would he understand that and return home? Now the Maoists had given him a week’s time, and if he failed to show up, they would force the family—his wife with two young daughters and his aging mother—to the streets. Or, they threatened, the family would have to pay an even higher price.

For a moment he thought about dismissing her, too—she might be speaking Jagannath’s words—but no! He was truly running out of time. He decided he must have a final talk with Neta-ji.

*

With a resolution that he’d force the leader to act or tell him clearly that he was unable to do anything, Lokraj entered the leader’s residence. Then he became skeptical of his own sanity. How do you know that your senses are still working properly? And when do you know that you’ve lost your mind? Was what he saw in Neta-ji’s residence his fancy? A young man who’d fled with a young woman’s necklace in front of his eyes in the broad daylight two days ago was dusting off Neta-ji’s Prado in the garage.

That day he was returning from Ratnapark after a protest. When he got into a bus, he saw a young man who occupied a whole seat supposed to accommodate three by stretching his leg. Lokraj eyed the seat, hoping the young man would remove his leg and let him sit, and the young man glared at him like an angry bull. He then moved to another seat in the back. By the time the bus stopped at the Baneshwor stop, it carried passengers twice its capacity. Those who wanted to get off pushed their ways through the standing passengers, swearing and grumbling—Don’t you have your eyes? Stepping on my foot! My bag, my bag it is. Watch out, you motherfucker! Then a woman cried that her gold chain had been snatched from her neck. A moment’s silence, and then a burst—There he goes, the thug; grab him! Punch, punch at him! Don’t, don’t let him escape! Amidst a bustle at the door, a young man scrambled to free himself, and once he snapped off the bus, he ran a few meters and turned back to ensure no one followed him. Lokraj saw the same young man who’d glared at him before, now a knife in his hand, warning the passengers not to give him chase. The looter took a combative position for a few seconds, and once he was safe enough to escape, he dropped the knife and fled.

The passengers complained about the lack of law and order in the city and tried to console the woman. One suggested that she report the incident to the police. And many others denounced the police for their worthlessness and said that the city was no longer a place to live. Lokraj had then gotten off the bus with a sense of guilt over his inability to do anything, not even spare a few words, to comfort the woman he thought he knew but couldn’t quite recall.

And now, the same young man stood in front of him, live.

No doubt, he had lately been spending a lot of time thinking—thinking a little too much. He had once mistaken the route to Pashupatinath Temple for the route to Singhadurbar; he had been speaking in his sleep—Jagannath’s son had made fun of it just two days before; he had been reminding himself at times, No, no, she can’t be my daughter. I’m in Kathmandu, how can I see her here? But how could he be dreaming about this young man? Was it possible he was so disturbed that he couldn’t see anyone but the scowling young man everywhere? Was he mistaking one face for another?

No, that’s not true, he thought as he gaped at the young man who threw a scornful glimpse at him and continued to run a piece of cloth over the side of the car.

Neta-ji’s inside,” the young man announced, wiping the windshield. He sounded confident and neglectful as though he were a different person. By not paying attention to Lokraj, he seemed to be asserting that he didn’t know the visitor—No, I’m not the guy you think. Why don’t you mind your own business?

Neta-ji was on the phone, telling the person on the other end that he’d do it very soon, as soon as the king gave in to the political parties. He’d then hold a good position—might become a minister, no joke—and it wouldn’t take him long to meet the aspirations of his constituents. A half dozen expectant faces followed the leader as he moved from one corner of the living room to another. Neta-ji grinned at Lokraj and signaled him to sit on a shapeless couch.

Where would he start the talk? Tell the leader that the Maoists were threatening to expel his family from his house? Plead with him to request and even bribe somebody at the Ministry of Home Affairs so that his property and family would be protected? Would that really work? How much influence would the leader have, in fact?

Or should he board a night bus that very evening and surrender to the rebels? Would anybody really be able to do anything for him and his family?

Or what of that bastard, the thug? What the hell was he doing there?

Or the poor woman who had been looted? Oh, here he recalled—the woman dressed differently, in a sari and full make-up, was in fact the same woman. “Who’ll listen to the fucking displaced?” Hadn’t she looked at him with pleading eyes, as if she knew him? Shame and guilt overcame him as he recalled how he had talked about the suffering of the people in the park just a few days back, in front of the same woman. She must have laughed at his cowardice and his insensitivity toward a poor woman. Why couldn’t he spare at least a few words of consolation?

Neta-ji bid goodbye to the rest of the visitors, promising to take up their issues seriously—they were the bloodline of his politics, he said, and added that he hoped to see them at Ratnapark in a while.

It discouraged Lokraj. Did the leader do anything other than make promises and stage protests?

“Lokraj-ji, it’s very wise of you to be part of these protests,” Neta-ji said. “It’ll pay off soon. I’m happy.”

Oh, really? I wish it were true, thought Lokraj.

“But I think you need a bodyguard now,” the leader went on.

“A bodyguard for me?” Lokraj sounded utterly vulnerable.

“I mean it’s good to have somebody who joins you as you go around,” Neta-ji said. “There are boys who just want to escort leaders. No need to pay.”

Neta-ji looked out the window. “See, I already had two. The other day that boy came to me—actually, one of my assistants introduced him to me—and said he’d be glad to be my bodyguard, or assistant, whatever you wish to call it,” he explained. “It makes sense to have these boys. In fact, you can’t do politics without them. Frankly, you can’t.”

Neta-ji also explained why he would rarely be arrested in the protests. He said he might not need to explain it—there were always those boys protecting him, helping him get out of any mess.

Lokraj ended up saying he had nothing to say. “Just thought I’d stop by and say hello,” he added.

Neta-ji didn’t forget to hope to see Lokraj at Ratnapark in a while.

When Lokraj broached the idea of a bodyguard with Jagannath that evening, his cousin said it was not a bad idea. The times had changed. Party leaders trusted those boys more than they did the police.

Lokraj resisted. His conscience would not allow him to be protected by street thugs. “Where is the state? Where the hell is the state?” he asked. And he said he was losing his mind.

*

Despite his waning faith in himself and the local protests he’d been part of, and the increasing risk, Lokraj led a team to make effigies of the rebel leaders, Prachanda and Baburam, to be burnt during the anti-Maoist protest on February 13, the ninth anniversary of the launch of the “People’s War.” While the Maoists elsewhere prepared to celebrate the completion of yet another “glorious” year of revolution and devised newer techniques to fight the Royal Nepal Army, Lokraj and company made fun of Prachanda’s wicked eyes and Baburam’s crooked nose as they worked on their effigies, though they hardly knew how the rebels looked—they were still underground. It gave Lokraj a strange sense of authority over the rebels as the anti-Maoist activists carried the effigies—some of them spitting at the rebels, others punching them spontaneously, and most of them showering curses on them—during their protest on the thirteenth. When the protesters threw petrol on the effigies and set them on fire, Lokraj had the loudest voice in the crowd: “Down with the Rebels!”

The slogans stopped when Silwal clapped and readied to give a speech. He said the protest was a good blow to the rebels, who would face quite a loss if they failed to listen to the Maoist victims. Encouraging his fellow activists, Silwal said that he would fight Maoist atrocities till his death. There was no way he’d back down from his mission despite the rebels’ demand to close his Kathmandu office or be prepared to face death.

With a renewed hope, Lokraj thought that the next time his wife called him he’d assure her to bring the whole family to Kathmandu as soon as he found a reasonable place to live. The anti-Maoist protests were gaining ground; the government seemed to be intensifying its operations on Maoist strongholds.

But two days later, on the evening of February 15, he called his wife, instead, and announced, “I’m returning home tomorrow morning; I will face the Maoists whatsoever.”

That afternoon two Maoist cadres had shot Silwal dead in front of his office, forcing Lokraj to believe that his wife had been right all along. There was nothing he could do other than compromise with the rebels to save himself and his family. The government had been so ineffective and unresponsive that it could not defend its people even in the capital city.

He said he’d negotiate with the rebels and surrender whatever they might want. He had his family, and they wouldn’t die of hunger. As if to convince himself, he said to his wife quite a few times, “We have our beautiful family. I’ve done nothing wrong. Why should I worry?”

But Lokraj worried the whole night. By daybreak, he was fully aware of the trap he was in. He was no longer the Lokraj who was said to have left the village to arrange for money to pay the Maoists.

3.

As if longing for the days when he’d just come to Kathmandu, as if wanting to start it all over again so that he could take a new route and get out of the trap he was in, Lokraj went to Gulmeli Teashop early in the morning and ordered a glass of lemon tea. But unlike those early days, he avoided talking with the curious party activists who’d readily engage themselves in any issue—from corruption in the country to the twin-towers attack in America. He sat on a bench at the entrance and thought No, the state can’t abandon its people. Then he felt helpless; he had been abandoned. There was no place he could go, there was no one he could talk to. He had exhausted his energy, and he was in a worse position than he’d started. He wished he could bury his head into somebody’s lap and cry like a baby, letting his heart come out.

He cupped the glass in his hands, too careful not to let it fall as well as to keep his hands warm, and threw his forlorn eyes at a woman in front of a temple two blocks from the teashop. The young woman, a baby slung on her chest, was sweeping the street. Lokraj watched her intently, preparing himself to move if the dust came his way.

The broom ruffled the dust, paper waste, and plastic bags that lined the pavement where there still lay brick mortars from the previous day’s protest—after hearing about Silwal’s shooting, Lokraj was hurrying to his cousin’s when the protest erupted in Baneshwor. As the pedestrians passed by the sweeper, she paused and glanced at their faces, although none of them would care about her; they only hopped past her to avoid the dust. Once, the woman smirked at a teenager who looked terribly offended by the dust. Lokraj’s eyes followed the boy, who continued to cover his face with both his hands long after he’d moved through the dust cloud.

“What’s the time, dai?” the woman stood in front of Lokraj, asking.

Lokraj returned to himself, and only now did he realize that he’d been observing the young woman all along. As she stood in front of him, he could only hear, “Who’ll listen to a fucking displaced?” There she was again, as if she were an embodiment of his displaced self that would always roam around himself, like a ghost, they say, around the body after one’s untimely death.

Almost apologetic in his tone, he told her the time—it was eight.

“Already eight? So, she cries,” the woman said and stood her broom against the wall of the teashop. She loosened her sling that held the baby and sat on the steps next to the bench where Lokraj sat, still observing the woman. It was the first time he’d seen her with a baby.

The woman, in her late twenties, had a creepy smile. As she adjusted the baby in her lap and ordered a glass of warm milk from the teashop, she looked more curious than affectionate toward the months-old baby. She hit her palate with her tongue and cajoled the baby into smiling. Then she jerked her upper body as if to adjust her blouse, displaying the size of her breasts. Lokraj quickly removed his eyes from her—he’d been wondering all along why she was not breastfeeding the baby—thinking that he must have looked lewd. To justify his position, he murmured something without meaning.

“This is not my baby,” the woman said.

Then Lokraj noticed her watch as she fished a cell phone from her waist. Oh, even a cell phone! Then he saw she wore jeans inside the sarong. He finished the remaining lemon tea in a gulp. The woman was mysterious.

“Where’re you from, dai?” she asked, reading on her cell phone screen.

Lokraj thought for a moment if he really had to reply. But there was something alluring, something warm in the woman. Something that he needed desperately. He said he was from Nepalgunj and thought about telling her he was visiting Kathmandu for a few days. Then he remembered she already knew who he was.

The woman started feeding the baby.

“Whose baby is that?” Lokraj asked, this time sounding like a guardian.

“My sister’s. She’s away for a few days,” the woman replied. “I’m also working for my sister as a neighborhood sweeper, an hour a day.”

Lokraj’s appearance changed from that of a guardian to that of a puzzled onlooker.

“Don’t you drink milk tea?” asked the woman out of the blue, staring at the empty teacup that had a few lemon seeds with the dregs.

It was an odd question, given the pun the word “milk” carried in the local language.

“Yes, I do,” Lokraj said. And as if reading the pun, he tried to strike a positive note by repeating, “Yes, I do.”

One thing led to another. Within the next ten minutes, Lokraj was sitting on a bed in the mysterious woman’s single-room apartment behind the nearby temple. His heartbeat raced, and a new excitement relieved the stress he’d endured the last few weeks.

“There’s no milk for milk tea,” the woman giggled, after putting the baby in her bed.

“I know where it is,” spoke Lokraj, a strange man to himself. Then he stripped off the woman’s blouse. Just minutes later, both of them promptly dressed, they stared at each other as strangers. Each looked like they were asking the other, What the hell are you doing here?

“Give me some money,” the woman said.

Lokraj said he could not believe her, as if she’d proposed him sex out of love.

“Give me money,” she repeated.

Surely, Lokraj thought, he’d been cheated. He took out a five-hundred-rupee bill and tucked it in her blouse.

“Who do you think I am? Your rundi?” the woman asked.

Rundi, a whore—Lokraj never thought he’d ever touch a whore, at least a woman who so openly attributed herself to such a disgusting word, especially after he’d had that encounter with the girl who claimed to be a rebel’s sister. Better get rid of her as soon as possible. He fished for another five hundred bill.

“You promised me five thousand,” claimed the woman.

Lokraj’s head reeled. Five thousand! For a whore that he didn’t look for himself. Five thousand. That much money could buy everything the woman had in her room: the cheap bed on which they both sat, a disfigured table in a corner, a kerosene stove, a few utensils, a fourteen-inch, surely black-and-white television on the floor in another corner, a few clothes hanging from a nail on the door. Why five? Two thousand rupees would buy everything. How could she demand so much? Oh, yes. The cell phone. How did she get it?

“If you refuse to give, I will shout,” said the woman.

At this point, Lokraj’s eyes watered. He took out his wallet and surrendered it to the woman, who counted all the money, kept two thousand rupees for herself and tossed the purse with a few hundred-rupee bills in it onto his lap.

“Keep it! You may need to eat,” she said.

As he exited the front door, the stench from a nearby toilet made him feel like throwing up. A middle-aged woman washing clothes in an aluminum basin—indifferent to the public display of her bulky breasts and thighs—gave him a suspicious look. It was no secret that he’d visited a whore; there was no need to show any deference to him, such an ass. The woman looked confident, even threatening. Would he even think about visiting a whore again? Impossible, he thought. Why had he fled to Kathmandu, and what was he doing? An urge to return home safe almost made him collapse once he was out in the open.

But that evening, the same day, he found himself sitting on the same bed with the same woman, fondling her breasts. In front of them lay two glasses filled with gin, mixed with hot water and lemon cuts. The woman was calm and apologetic, and Lokraj seemed to be playing a guardian, albeit an exploitative one.

That morning, after recovering from a near collapse, he had wandered the roads in Baneshwor for an hour, not knowing what had happened—it had been like he could not stop himself from drifting in the air. Then he’d headed to Babarmahal. After crossing the bridge at Bijulibazzar, he turned right and walked all the way to Singhadurbar, the prime minister’s office. He stared for a long time at the building that housed the prime minister’s office, and then he turned to Dillibazaar and finally reached old Baneshwor and then Gaushala around eleven o’ clock. He had no intention of worshipping at the Pashupatinath Temple, though. He crossed the Bagamati River and climbed the steps, turned left, and sat on a bench overlooking the temple and the cremation stalls across the river. By that evening he’d counted seven cremations, some more performative than the others, but at the end all the dead had faced the same fate. They all had been turned into ashes and thrown into the murky water that would now take them down, down to the unknown caves of the earth. Life at the end was nothing.

After sundown, Lokraj returned to his cousin’s. As soon as he entered the house, Jagannath’s wife asked, “Do you care that the killers have forced your daughter to join them?” She informed him about his wife’s call after he’d left home that morning and said, “Tikey Badi swarmed into the house with a squad of goons and yanked her out. Don’t you even bother to call home when they’ve ravaged your house?” She accused him of failing altogether, as a husband as a father, and as a son, and said she was ashamed of him as a man.

Lokraj left the house like a newly castrated bull, without a word.

He didn’t have the courage to call home. He returned to the same teashop as that morning and sat on the same bench, his head hung like in a trance. Around him were discontented party activitists, who equally disparaged King Gyanendra, the Maoists, and all other political parties for the ills of the country. Lokraj had a feeling that they all complained for nothing; they had no idea what real suffering was. Without realizing that he was speaking, he murmured in contempt: “Tikey Badi! Sala Tikey Badi!”

When the same woman appeared at the teashop, Lokraj glared at her as if to challenge her that he was ready to face anything. He was not going to be a coward anymore. The woman smiled at him, like someone she intimately knew. It was unbelievably comforting to Lokraj. Within the next few minutes, they were in her room, with the two glasses in front of them.

“Why do you look so scared every few minutes?” the woman asked.

“Scared? No, I was only thinking about crimes and all in the city,” Lokraj said, attempting to sound normal.

The woman laughed it off.

“What’s there to think about?” she asked.

“I mean, you don’t know when a bullet will pierce through your head.”

“Fuck your childish talk!” she said as she removed his hand from her chest. “You pretend to be a leader, but you talk like a coward.”

Lokraj asked her to forgive him; he wanted to leave. Then he murmured that he didn’t know what to do about his daughter and that his head was about to burst.

“I’m sure your veins contain no blood. Start rambling after a single shot?” the woman said. “I knew you were a coward when I saw your face the day the gunda snatched my chain. You were damn scared.”

“I’m sorry you lost the chain.”

“No, it’s okay. It was fake.”

Lokraj gawked at her.

“Do you expect me to wear real gold in this city of looters?” said the woman. “But I expected you to do something. You talk big, no?”

Lokraj stared at the woman’s chest and said he’d had enough blood. “I’ve never before sat with a woman drinking, though,” he said.

“This fucking city will teach you all kinds of things, even to fuck your mother,” said the woman.

“You talk like a dangerous woman,” Lokraj said.

“Dangerous? Yes, I am dangerous,” said the woman. “What do you expect from a widow with no one to care for her? Huh? What can you expect from a helpless widow other than being dangerous?”

Lokraj almost jumped out of the bed.

“Wait, I won’t kill a coward. I want nothing from you. When I saw you, I only felt pity for you. That’s all. I doubt that you can survive in this city.”

Lokraj rose. “I need to go. Sorry. I need to go.”

“Not so easily.” The woman tugged him onto the bed.

“Why? I don’t want anything from you. I didn’t come here myself. It was not my fault,” Lokraj said. “Please let me go, my daughter is sick.”

“Who is not sick in this country? Everybody is sick!” said the woman, pushing him into a corner. “Who said it was your fault? I want nothing from you, either. I won’t rob you.”

“Just let me go! If you want nothing, why all this?”

The woman thought for a moment, shook her head, and said, “I don’t know. But you wanted to come, no? Why did you want to come with me? Just to fuck? Then fuck me and get lost!”

“No, I want nothing.”

“Yes, you are a coward, I tell you again.”

Never before had anyone called him a coward so comfortably, except his mother, who used to goad him to overcome his fear at night when he was still a child, afraid to go to the toilet across the backyard. But there was so much comfort and such a sense of safety—maybe too much safety—in that derision. He examined the woman’s face as he reflected, and said, “You look like my mother.”

“What? Nonsense! You see your mother in my face this moment and fuck me the next. That’s the problem with you cowards. Motherfuckers!”

Lokraj cringed.

“You spend a whole day with a lonely widow, you see this abject condition, and yet you don’t ask a word about me—where I’m from, why I’m so deranged—oh! dangerous, right?—what happened with my world. You’re afraid to ask. Yes? You’re afraid even to ask, you coward!”

Lokraj went dumb momentarily. Why hadn’t he asked her anything? Then he thought maybe it was none of his business.

What was his business then? Why was he there? Lokraj wanted to leave again.

“The butchers kidnapped my husband, threatened to kill me if I reported to the police,” the woman said, and filled the empty glasses. “I still did, and they dumped his beheaded body in the village well the following week. Then they wanted me to join their army if I wanted to live. What could I do? I ran to Kathmandu a year ago, pleading with everybody for justice. But—can you see that?—everybody here is too busy with their own businesses. Can you see that? Who has the time to listen to your sorrows? Nobody. Do you hear that? Nobody.”

“This thing is a miracle,” she said, lifting her glass of gin after a pause. “I don’t know how I’d survive if I didn’t know it.”

“How did you start drinking?” Lokraj spoke at last, finding no risk in asking this.

“How did I start? I started working in a cabin restaurant where my sister worked, and drank. Isn’t that easy?”

Then the woman narrated how a customer had forced her to gulp nasty-tasting beer—her second day on the job—how she’d started enjoying intoxication, and how she’d found a new life in the chaos of the city. She also revealed that the sister with whom she stayed in the single-room apartment and worked alongside at the restaurant had been arrested in a midnight police raid three days before.

“It could be me, but they got her instead, along with two other girls,” she said. “Luckily I was at the counter after gratifying a bull.”

With one foot on the floor and his body slightly bent toward her, Lokraj looked as though he were fighting his urge to flee as much as listening to her.

“The restaurant has been closed since then,” the woman went on. “Those sons of bitches come and fuck you today and arrest you tomorrow. Treacherous!”

“When will they free your sister?” Lokraj asked, as if out of concern for the baby, who’d started crying in her bed.

“Here you ask about her, you whore-fucker! Need yet another woman?” she asked as she drank more. “Looks like she won’t ever be free. They’ve charged her as a Maoist supporter. Maybe she was—she was fucking a rebel who sometimes slinked into the restaurant. Even this bastard belongs to that bull.”

“Stop this nonsense,” Lokraj yelled, and jumped off the bed.

“Okay, then, what the hell do you want? To fuck?” the woman asked, blocking his way with arms akimbo and her chest almost bare.

“For God’s sake, let me go,” he shouted, “you whore!” Then they ripped off each other’s clothes. The child continued to cry in the corner.

*

When Lokraj woke up the following morning, he found himself alone with the baby in the room. Instinctively, he wanted to flee, but he had no courage to step out. He fancied that the whole world had seen his fall; there was no way he could save himself now. He could no longer show his face to the world. The world knew how rotten he was. There was no place for him anywhere. When he remembered his kidnapped daughter, he buried his face in the bed until he could convince himself that he was still a responsible father and a responsible husband.

He looked at the baby; she was asleep. Where was the woman? Had she gone to fetch milk for the baby? Had she gone to sweep the street for her sister? Had she abandoned the baby to him? Oh, he couldn’t be fooled. He couldn’t be fooled anymore. He had to get out of the room right then. Before the baby awoke. Before the beguiling woman reappeared.

He pulled on his trousers and straightened his shirt. He put on his jacket that had been lying on the floor, wrapped his muffler around his neck, and opened the door.

As if he’d opened the door for somebody else, a stranger entered the room, bracing her shoulder against his, as he struggled to slink off. The young woman didn’t look surprised, but her words were harsh: “Widow-fucker.”

Lokraj tripped over the doorstep and hopped over a basin—the woman who had been washing clothes yesterday was busy in her work also today as if she always washed clothes in front of the room as an excuse to observe who laid down the lonely widow. She shouted at him, “Are you blind, you dirty bull?” As she spoke, her legs were set apart and her hands were stretched out as if she were ready to hunt for Lokraj. She was so negligent of her bare thighs and poorly covered bulky breasts that Lokraj had a fleeting urge to ask her to cover them up.

Once he was in the open, out on the road, he slowed down. But he’d lost the courage to look in anyone’s eyes. What would he say if he encountered the widow? Every female figure threatened to castrate him, and this fear thrust him into the fire of guilt and shame. Oh, what a quagmire he’d fallen into! He wanted to get rid of the whole business as soon as possible. But the farther he went the more vividly he recalled: widow-fucker, dirty bull. Was he such a dirty man? No, they were wrong—he tried to console himself. He thought about the displaced widow, her sister, and the illegitimate child born of a guerilla. Were they all dirty? The woman washing clothes, all the time washing clothes, the display of her private parts, or rather, her negligence—why was she so careless? Was she also a displaced? Was she also dirty? Did the house shelter only the displaced and the dirty?

He had no answers, and he saw only the displaced in all the faces on the street. So many people—what were they doing there? The streets were full of people every day. Those hungry people from remote districts. What were they doing in Kathmandu? Who’d rescue him from his displacement in this city full of displaced souls?

His pace increased, and after a while he started trotting.

Unaware of what he was led by, Lokraj went past the abandoned trolleybus station in Minbhawan, turned left at Shantinagar, and headed to Gaushala and the Pashupatinath Temple. Gentlemen on morning walks, with sticks in their hands as a sign of authority, smiled at him as they passed. Young boys and girls glanced at him and continued at their own pace. Shopkeepers’ curious eyes followed him suspiciously as long as he was within their sight. A few dogs barked at him. At one point, he dropped his muffler. Somebody wanted to point it out to him, but he only quickened his strides.

“Thief!” a boy, burning trash in an empty lot to keep himself warm, shouted.

A couple of boys ran after Lokraj, who now dashed like crazy. But not long after, a boy grabbed him by the shoulder, at which Lokraj turned back, stared at the boys and burst into laughter, as if he were mocking them: “Thief, huh? Ha, thief! Thief?”

The boys were vexed.

“Thief? Ha, no thief! Displaced. Yeah, displaced!” Lokraj kept laughing, pointing at the boys.

It didn’t take the boys long to dismiss him. They must have thought he was just yet another harmless lunatic in the city.

Lokraj’s speed slowed after the boys returned. But his walk was erratic, as if he were not sure where to put his steps, an inch further or right there where he’d almost put them. By the time he reached Gaushala, he seemed to have found a new rhythm in the erratic movement. He briefly paused at the crossroads, thinking which way to go, and headed to the Pashupatinath Temple in the same fitful manner. A few meters toward the temple, he suddenly stopped, one foot on the other for lack of coordination between his mind and the body. On the other side of the road he’d seen Jagannath and Neta-ji returning from the temple, talking. Lokraj’s mouth opened automatically, but no words would come out. He continued to stare at the duo until they came close, right across the road from him, expecting them to stop and talk to him.

But they didn’t stop. They greeted him without surprise, slowing down just enough to acknowledge his presence.

“I thought you’d already returned to Nepalgunj!” Jagannath said, and they resumed their normal walk, talking as they’d been doing.

Lokraj was not sure whether to be happy for not being caught after the night with the woman or sad for being treated as so insignificant. His eyes followed them all the way to the intersection, past Maharaja Sweets, past Gauri Stationary, past Mitra Communications, and stuck to a pole with tangled wires as the duo disappeared around the corner.

Lokraj thought that he once believed he was a displaced. And he laughed out loud.

Khem

Khem K Aryal is the author of Epic Teashop (Vajra Books, 2009) and Kathmandu Saga And Other Poems (NWEN, 2004). His fiction has appeared in Poydras Review, Qwerty Magazine, Of Nepalese Clay, The Kathmandu Post, Madhupark etc. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.

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THE MATSYAPURANA

Arjun Chaudhuri

© Divya Adusumilli

© Divya Adusumilli

OF NALINIBALA DEBI

This is a story that began taking place on a September afternoon last year, through a random conversation making its way across the plain back of a half hour.

It is also a story that is mainly about, and one could say so without much doubt, another particular afternoon in a different age, a different time almost entirely distanced from the time in which we are telling this story. An age when there was very little to be wondered about, generally speaking, and a time when lost homes were commemorated through replication; of rituals, of familial cultures and many other things, but we will come to that part soon enough.

And this is also a story that has very few characters of import other than a goddess and her extended family. The only other character in this tale, the one who connects very well to the aforementioned goddess by way of playing the role of a manifold mother is that of a woman named Nalinibala Debi, my great grandmother. She was, I could say, a legendary character in her own time. Her fame as a loquacious and jolly woman, besides her wonderfully simple but profound spirituality has now been lost to most of the family at large. Except for a few of us among all the numerous family units across the world who, in their own small ways, try to remember and keep in touch with our diversely placed pasts.

Tales about Nalinibala’s penchant for unrestricted friendliness with anyone and everyone were family legend at a point of time. She would want to talk to almost everyone who came to the house, and this would include the milkman, the fish seller, the Manipuri woman who would come to sell muri every weekend and even the Vaishnava beggar pausing from his kirtan singing at the front door of the house during the afternoon. I once heard my father tell the following anecdote about his grandmother. It so happened that one day in the late afternoon, after the whole household had been fed and the daily mechanism of endless household work had mitigated somewhat, Nalinibala decided to take a walk outside. Palm leaf fan in hand, she set out, on her way pausing here and there to talk to a known face or another. Evening fell and she did not return. By the time it was nine, everyone was worried and rightly so. For Silchar in those days was a sleepy hamlet of sorts. The whole settlement went to sleep before it was barely six in the evening. My grandfather and his brothers rushed out in all directions to look for her. Fearing the worst, my youngest great uncle lodged a report with the sadar thhana, the local police station. Wandering till quite far off, till almost the outskirts of the town, they heard of an old woman who had lost her way back home but was not very worried about it. Someone showed the party the way to where that woman was, and when the searching men reached there, they found Nalinibala sitting there, palm leaf fan in hand, sipping at a cup of tea and cackling along with the women ranged around her.

“I was only making friends with them, you see. And I was sure someone would come looking for me. I could not find my way in the dark, and that place was so unfamiliar”, she had said, Baba told us.

When one of Nalinibala’s daughters asked her later after she had been brought home that night about how she had landed up there, so far from home in the first place, the old lady had replied, as Baba reported, very innocently,

“How does one know where one will land up one day, my dear? I do not know how I landed up in this huge family, so far from where my home once was. Nor do I know where I will go from here. But today, well, I was just trying to make friends.”

My grandmother had attested to this statement made by her mother-in-law when Baba had been telling the story.

“I was there when it happened, you know,” Thhamma had said, nodding her sage, white head with the usual ponderousness that always exuded.

This is, of course, a very true story, though quite unrelated to the one we are telling here at the moment. I have it on good authority since Baba was not one who would make up stories just to be able to tell them, let alone one about his grandmother. And considering how sparing he was with his conversations with us, this one rare narration would have to be true indeed. What follows next is also something which I heard from him as a child, and I hold it all to be true as well. All of it, however, is part of a not so great but quite long story. But this entire story that we are about to tell here is very, very true.

OF RUDRA BHATTACHARYYA

When I first met Rudra-da on a social networking site last year, on that September afternoon I mentioned at the beginning of this story, it was on one of these groups about old time comics and graphic novels. He had posted on that group wall a very familiar looking photograph of a set of hardback anthologies of Hergé’s immortal sleuth-adventurer Tintin. The books were propped up against a yellow wall and placed on a burnished shelf in Rudra-da’s photograph. And I was flummoxed for a moment by an uncanny similarity of his books, and how he had placed them in that photograph, with the location of the same books in my possession and which reposed on my library shelves.

After that I had connected with him, knowing that we shared a common passion for comics (I had trolled through many of his earlier posts about Indrajal Comics, Anandamela, Chandamama and also adverts about Campco Chocolate, Gold Spot-Thums up-Limca and NP Bubble Gum). We spoke about random things in our first online conversation; about our likes, dislikes, hobbies and that sort of detail, besides arguing, at points of time about Tintin and Leo Tolstoy. It seemed at that very first meeting that both of us also had some very different viewpoints about the same things that we loved and were passionate about.

Slowly, as our rapport moved into a more comfortable zone, we began to share details about our families and parents, where both of us were from originally, and where our families came from in East Bengal. This is a thing among Bengalis of a certain cast. Whenever two Bangal Bengalis meet, one of the first things they will invariably ask each other would be the place of origin of each of their families – as in “where in East Bengal?” followed by questions like “Which district? Which village?” and so on, and so forth. Rudra-da and I exchanged details about these points from the past quite easily when we discovered that his father had originally been born in Badarpur, a town not very far from Silchar, my hometown.

Quite naturally, by way of mutual revelations, I came to know that Rudra-da’s family had originally belonged to Brahmanbaria, the same place in East Bengal where my ancestors had migrated from, and which is now a district in what is presently east-central Bangladesh, in the Chittagong division. In times when Bengal was the name of that whole land, the place was known as the district of Tipperah, and it had been, as far as my knowledge of pre-independence territories in this part of the subcontinent goes, under the rule of the Maharaja of the Tipperah kingdom until, of course, it was annexed. And that was where this story began to unravel, the winding of the spool of this thread of destiny having happened for several decades before the two of us, Rudra and I, became friends on that September afternoon.

I insisted that I would address him as ‘dada’ since he was, technically speaking, older than me by at least four long years, even though, spiritually speaking, we were of the same age, but that is a different matter, entirely. He was embarrassed then by my forthright manner, I suspect now. But that sort of thing has never deterred me from fashioning bridges out of nothing, between people, between me and other people, between me and other things. And so, Rudra-da and I continued telling each other of how our families were descended from singularly un-Bengali stock, his from sampradayika Brahmins from Mithila, mine from Kashmiri merchant-migrants who became tax collectors in the kingdom of Mithila and from there fled to Bengal during the mid-fifteenth century.

Slowly and slowly a lot of minute details began to emerge, until one day Rudra-da told me the story of how one of his ancestors had been a well known translator who had worked on a number of well known texts relating to funeral observances and to the autumnal festival of the goddess Durga. That ancestor, named Ishanchandra Bhattacharyya, Rudra-da told me, was renowned even now in pundit circles for his glossaries on at least a number of the Shakta upapurana texts that had been prevalent in Bengal during the last upsurge of the Shakta cults in that region, and also for that man’s being an associate of the well known compiler of the Brhattantrasara, Krishnananda Agamvagish. That bit of information, almost casually delivered in Rudra’s carefree manner, lit off a spark of recognition that led me to delve deep into whatever resources I had at hand. It seemed that I had found some sort of narrative about my family’s hoary past, and that apart from the usual things I had heard and been told by my great uncles and great aunts. Ever the inquisitive seeker, I had to find out what exactly it had been; this connection that I had discovered my family had once had with Rudra’s.

“I will find out more about this, Rudra-da,” I had told him during one conversation, the one we had before he left for a month long project at London.

“How will you find anything out? Even my father knows very little about that sort of thing. They left that land long ago, so much time….” he had replied.

“I have my ways, you know. I will surely find out what I want to know,” I had boasted then, in spite of having no idea whatsoever about how exactly I would achieve that.

“I just know this one thing. My ancestral village was called Pattawn. That’s all my father told me,” Rudra-da had continued, “do you think you can trace that out?”

“I may well just try, now. Let me see what happens,” I had replied.

OF ISHANCHANDRA BHATTACHARYYA’S MATSYAPURANA

One evening the week after that conversation with Rudra, as I was browsing through my small collection of old manuscripts (most of them were photocopied from copies of the original texts, or from the original texts themselves), something led me to the Durgapuja manual of rituals used during the annual festivities in our family. The book I had was a copy of another copy of the original text, in this case. Which had been a very old one, with very early nineteenth century typeface, its pages almost cracked with age, and those cracks showing themselves sharply against the stark white of the photocopied pages I held in my hands. I had, a couple of years ago, copied it from another copy itself. I had not, of course, seen the original book myself, and had no idea at all about where it was now.

As I turned those spiral bound pages, something, a small bit of text it was, in a corner of one of the prefatory pages caught my eye. Curious, I started reading that part of the note and came across something nearly very startling. The text I had in my possession had been compiled, as the pages from the half title to the colophon stated, by one Chandidas Bhattacharyya of Bikrampur, the village of his residence being Hashara, the printing and publication having been completed in 1423 Bengali era at the Kripananda Press in Calcutta. That was a lot of time, I realised, for the book to have remained in circulation. I was pleased with myself at that moment for having made the copy while I still had the chance.

I continued reading, for a couple of more pages in which the compiler had spoken of the finer differences of the manual in hand from other manuals about the Durgapuja that were prevalent in many parts of East Bengal and in some part of West Bengal as well. Apparently, it was this manual, Chandidas claimed, that was originally referred to by Vidyapati in his seminal work on the autumnal worship of the goddess Durga, the treatise named the Durgabhaktitarangini. Something seemed very familiar about the resources that Chandidas Bhattacharyya had stated in his preface. I started reading once again from the very first line, though, instead of going straight to that part of the preface that had acquired my attention in the first place. The preface began thus –

“This book,” he wrote “has been brought to behold the light of the day by the divine grace of the all-merciful Mother of the Universe, the Supreme Goddess Durga, and it is at Her blessed feet that I surrender all my faults and all the appreciation that this volume might acquire from the learned readers.”

After the usual sort of benedictions and extended utterances, the pundit had written some more about the original texts that he had used while compiling his manual. The manual, he wrote, was “Matsyapuranokta” (literally, “as said by the Matsyapurana”) and was to be followed by all those who had been residents at one time of the region around Brahmanbaria, some parts of Srihatta (Sylhet) and Tripura (Or Tipperah). The source text that he had used was the Matsyapuranokta Durgotsavavidhi compiled by the pundit Ishanchandra Bhattacharyya of Bejoynagar, in the district of Brahmanbaria. At the end of the preface, he had concluded his statement with these words:

“I deem all the erroneous portions in the following pages to be the outcome of my own shortsightedness and lack of wisdom. All the greatness that this book will hereafter acquire will be due to the departed Sri Ishanchandra Bhattacharyya’s vast learning and expertise. I salute him and his wisdom, the Matsyapuranokta Durgotsavavidhi that he has compiled and at the end, I salute the great Goddess for bringing me this blessing of learning. Chandidas Bhattacharyya. 1422 Saka era. Ashvin. Mahalaya.”

I was very excited, of course, at this apparent discovery. It was indeed a very well fitting falling into place that this entire matter was turning out to be, I felt. A random connection on a social networking site, a series of coincidences that followed after that, a set of old, nearly century old linkages, and all of it attested by simply one small bit of writing in an old, old text. All of it somehow seemed too fictional to me at that point. I could not bring myself to accept the succinctness of the situation. A slight doubt about all of this being able to fall into pieces at some other discovery, possibly of some non-linkage that would dissemble all the building up anticipation, or disassemble all the linkages that we, Rudra and I, had managed to build between ourselves.

I debated to myself about the pros and cons of letting this discovery out, of telling Rudra about what I had found. What if this Ishanchandra Bhattacharya was not the one Rudra had told me about? I had been trying to establish a connection between his ancestors and mine through the Durgotsava at Brahmanbaria from more than two centuries ago. But all I had managed to find was this tenuous similarity of locales our families had been resident in at one far point of time in the distant past. What if there was no connection really at all? What if all that I had surmised about was a vague fallacy that some part of my past-obsessed brain had managed to concoct? What if Rudra thought I was a creep? That sort of prestige fail would not do. No, sir. I decided to keep quiet for the time being and let things be as they were.

4.

AND PHOOLTHHAMA

That week passed, and soon it was time for the dark Pitripaksha fortnight to begin. It was the norm in the family to conduct the libation ceremony for the ancestors (which is what almost all Hindus do during this fortnight of ancestor worship) for all fifteen days, beginning with the first day of the moon till the new moon night on Mahalaya, that day of the month of Ashwin when all Bengalis rise early when it is still dark, to listen to a nearly seventy year old oratorio about the goddess Durga’s terrific battle with the buffalo demon called Mahisha, and to drink tepid tea with ‘biskut’ and to walk to the river, if there is a river nearby where they live, and then to walk back. Though this is not all that this special day is. For almost all Bengalis across the world, except for those who have lapsed or nearly lapsed, this morning signifies the beginning of a major religious-turned-cultural festival with all its classist and racist trappings. For exactly six days after Mahalaya starts the four day long Durgapuja ceremonies as it is. Almost all hearts are filled with the joy that comes from this sort of joyous furore. Almost all minds are fixed on the great leap of beauty all around and of freedom and of projected happiness.

A day before Mahalaya, my mother announced at the breakfast table that a few of our relatives from Kolkata and Delhi would be coming over to Silchar for the Durgapuja. One surviving great-aunt, known generally as Phoolthhama by all of us in the family, had insisted on being part of this annual family festival for one last time in her life. “I am old, and I will die soon. I want to see this puja for one last time, this great puja which my mother and my grandmother before her carried on so painstakingly, in spite of so many odds,” Phoolthhama had said to my mother that morning when she had called. My mother was of course very happy at this, and so was I, like my sister and the other family members, because Phoolthhama had always been a very tough nut to crack but also a very jovial, jolly woman who made everyone laugh with her ready wit and her penchant for gossip. I recalled those times she had come to Silchar and when I was a child or a young boy, and I found it difficult to believe that even she, probably the last remaining connection our family had with its past, would soon be no more. She had turned ninety early that year, and had been confined to a wheelchair for most of her time, except for small strolls inside the house. Arrangements for her stay would have to be made very soon since the whole troupe would be arriving, Phoolthhama in tow, in another two days.

Anyway, the puja started duly, with all our relatives and friends having arrived in time for the Kalparambha-puja, the one that takes place on the morning of the Bodhan ceremony, the former being a ritual peculiar to our family, at least given the whole East Bengal context[i]. The whole set of days passed with the usual joy, fanfare, eating, laughter and shouting, kids running everywhere, men and women chatting in separate groups, the men in the outhouse, the women in the mandap or in the family rooms inside the house, my young cousins looking at the young men and women visiting the house as invitees in the evenings, the usual, the same scene all over the place. On Dashami, after the immersion had been completed, I was seated at my armchair in the parlour when Ramu, Phoolthhama’s retainer for the last twenty years, suddenly entered the room, pushing the old lady’s wheelchair before him. I was a bit surprised at this early emergence of Phoolthhama from her afternoon siesta. And she looked spick and span with her coif in place, her face powdered and fresh, her sari in place with not a wrinkle anywhere across the length of it.

“What happened,” I asked, “didn’t you sleep, Phoolthhama?”

“I did, I did. But I wanted to get up early today because I wanted to talk to you,” she shot back at me, “you haven’t done that in such a long time. You have become a big man now. No time for your old thhama, eh? You don’t even visit me when you go to Kolkata these days.”

The usual complaint I got from all of my relatives in that city. I sighed and stood up to go over to her. The maid entered with a couple of cups for me and Phoolthhama. It was teatime, nearly, I realised, or maybe Phoolthhama was having her tea early. I glanced at the clock on the wall behind me and saw that was only three thirty in the evening. But in Bengal and in Silchar as well, that sort of time is dupur, the afternoon, and not bikel, the evening. Evening is after four, or five, or six, till seven. Once it is eight, it is raat, and no longer evening.

“Why are you having tea so early, it is still noon, isn’t it?” I asked Phoolthhama. She did not seem to hear what I had said. Her eyes were fixed on something far away. Following her gaze, I saw her looking at the coconut tree near the gateway guarding the courtyard.

“Do you see that tree, Chetan? It was planted by my mother. Do you know her name?” Phoolthhama asked me.

“Yes, I do. I did the tarpana[ii] ceremony for her as well. No one else does it in the family, so I have to keep track of all the dead people’s names….” I replied.

“Yes, yes. I know. They are all big men now. Big, big men with their big, big paunches. Big, big women with their big, big heads and what not. Look at me, I am ninety, and I can still move about easily. Look! These cows can barely move with all the fat clinging onto them. Why will they do the tarpana ceremony anyway? All they want to do is to eat and be happy,” Phoolthhama’s voice rose steadily, without a quiver.

“Calm down, thhama,” I said, trying to keep her from working up a temper. I had noticed this time around that the usually ebullient Phoolthhama had turned surly and irritable. “What is the matter,” I asked her, “Is there something wrong? Please tell me.”

“Nothing wrong, baba. Nothing wrong at all. I am very happy about whatever I see. All of it is going very well. Just like my elder brother would have wanted. So many known faces gone…” she sighed, and sipped at her tea.

Something prodded the back of my mind just then, and I was reminded of my wee bit of adventure in genealogy the previous month. It suddenly occurred to me that Phoolthhama would know all about the matter. If anyone could tell me anything about that old decades long past, or as I suspected, that centuries long history, then it would have to be none other than her. Since she was the last one of her generation to remain alive. But it would not do well to ask her straightaway. Knowing about Rudra and the rest of it would only serve well to confuse her. So I decided to adopt a more casual manner of enquiry.

“So tell me, thhama. How did the puja start in our family? There always is a story in or around family puja-s. You must know all about the ones in our family, right? From your mother?” I asked Phoolthhama.

“Yes, yes. I do. How the puja used to be held at the old Ambikapatty house once. In those rooms where Bhulu and Nita live now. In that longhouse was the mandap,” Phoolthhama replied, “you know, my mother used to save money from her household expenses throughout the year. And she used to store it in a bamboo pole right next to her Lakshmi-water pot[iii]. Times were difficult then, since my grandfather had fled from Satgaon.”

“Fled from Satgaon? What do you mean?” I asked, mildly surprised. This was not something I had heard my grandmother, or my father tell us ever. I sensed a story coming up, for Phoolthhama was indeed, as we had always known, an expert when it came to telling stories about her own family.

“You don’t know?” she looked at me with a sparkle in her rheumy eyes, and then with a smile, she patted my knee as I sat next to her wheelchair. She continued, “Oh, well, then! I guess I will have to tell you the whole thing now. Call for some more tea, will you, and tell Ramu to put my mobile on charge.”

5.

OF NALINIBALA’S MATSYAPURANA

The late sun struggled slowly into its end of the day stupor. Far away, above the tops of the trees in the jail compound, one could see the distant hills grow darker first and then fainter in the descending light. In the verandah were we were seated, Phoolthhama and I, the shadows had started to lengthen. A steady drone of dhak and loudspeakers could be heard from the constant procession of Durga images on the road not far from the house. Downstairs, the household had slowly started to awaken after its post-Dashami tilt. I could hear the men piling away the tables which had been set out in the yard for the post-visarjan feast. The faint remnant odour of all that mathhar dail and shutki pura along with the scaly rich fumes of ilish shiddho lurked all about. I waited to see how Phoolthhama would start talking about that story she had begun half an hour back. She was yet to tell me more, of course. All that I had managed to learn over the last few minutes was that times were not very good when she was a kid, it being World War II and her father’s not so good job at the court besides his inclination for running losses in whatever side business he managed to get started.

“So, the puja here that you see, my boy. There is a certain story behind it,” Phoolthhama slowly began once again.

“Yes, you said that. What was that story, then?” I asked her.

“Nothing much. You see, my grandfather, your great-great grandfather, Chandramoni Choudhury, was a bit of a revolutionary in his own right.” Phoolthhama said.

“But wasn’t that quite long ago? I mean, he would have lived nearly during the Sepoy Mutiny, no? A revolutionary? At that age?” I retorted.

“Yes, hmmm, maybe. I am not sure about dates. But this much I know that he had fled to Silchar after having been hounded by the British officials back in Tripura. He had lodged a number of civil suits against the local British resident, and thus had lost whatever share he had acquired in the family monies. Which was not a lot, though,” Phoolthhama looked at me while saying this.

“But Tripura? You said, Satgaon, isn’t it?” I asked her intentionally, just in order to see if she would get the details right.

“Yes, Satgaon was the name of this village our family used to live in. The district was also called Tripura. In Chittagong. The diwani of that village had been handed to our ancestors by the Mughals long back. The name, I recall, was Bujurg Khan. The man who was our overlord. There used to be a banyan at the spot where the transaction was said to have been effected. It was called Khaner Gaas, and there was a ghost in it, they said,” Phoolthhama continued, “I visited that place when I was a young girl. Only ten years old I was then. But I remember everything so vividly.”

Here, Phoolthhama paused and looked toward the rapidly darkening outside. “What about the puja, then? How did that start?” I asked her again.

“It is said that one of our ancestors once was visited in the dream by the goddess herself. She ordered him to wait for a certain Ishan-sadhu who would visit him next day. That sadhu, she said, would tell him details about how he must conduct her annual puja during the Sarat season. That was how we know the puja at Satgaon started,” Phoolthhama paused here, “but that is all hearsay. No one knows for certain what happened. But something happened later that I know for sure had occurred here in Silchar. Involving the puja.”

“Ishan-sadhu? Was that the man spoken of in the dream?” I asked Phoolthhama.

“Yes. That is what we have been told. Ishan-sadhu. But a similar incident happened when our part of the family shifted here to Silchar. My grandfather died after my father was born. The two other brothers of my father left Silchar to settle in upper Assam. Then my father got married, and we were all born, your grandfather, us, our other siblings. But this incident that I will tell you of now happened long before we were born. Just after my mother had been married to my father.” Phoolthhama said.

“What happened?” I pressed on.

“My mother was a deeply spiritual woman. We have heard that she had been initiated in the Tantrika mysteries even before she had been married. When she came to Silchar as a young bride from Dhaka, she heard stories about the family assets in East Bengal, about the family Durgapuja, and she wanted to organise one in her own house here in Silchar. But my father would not allow it,” she continued, fanning herself with her right hand, “and then, one afternoon a month before the puja that year, she had a dream while sitting in front of the house.”

I waited for her to go on. The story I had sensed was at last beginning to come forth. The evening had receded by then. All the yard’s lights had come on, and the noise from the road had nearly dwindled, except for the dull throb of the dhak. But that would continue until early next morning, I surmised. And I waited for Phoolthhama to continue.

“My mother dreamt of a group of men in white clothes who had come to the gate of the house bearing an image of the goddess on their shoulders. She asked them why they were bringing the image to her house. The men told her that it was on the sadhu’s orders. So she did not desist. The moment she allowed the men to step inside the house, the dream broke, and she found herself seated on the ground right in front of the gate,” Phoolthhama finished.

“She was seated on the verandah, you said, but,” I asked her.

“Yes, but when she awoke she found herself in front of the gate. When my father came home, she told him all about the dream. He scoffed at her, of course. But she was adamant that she would organise the puja anyhow. That was in or around 1910, I think,” Phoolthhama said, “that year itself, just a week before the puja, my father brought home a Brahmin priest who had been looking for our family, asking the local people about us for nearly a couple of days. His name was something…..I don’t recall, but my parents used to call him Boro Bhattacharjee. He was a Tantrika, but a householder at the same time. He told my father about a dream he had a couple of weeks ago where he was instructed by the goddess to visit my mother and to conduct the puja in our house according to the Matsyapurana vidhi. He even showed my father the book he had with him. An ancestor of his had written it, it seems. Now, after this happened, my father could no longer refuse the puja to be held. In the face of something this miraculous, how could he have, after all? And somehow, amidst straitened circumstances, that first year, the puja was held in the Ambikapatty house itself. That was how the puja began, at least here in Silchar.”

“And what was the name of the village this priest was from, thhama?” I asked her.

“It was the village of Pattawn, in Bejoynagar. As far as I remember, it was just next to our Satgaon,” she replied and made to shift her position. “I cannot sit here anymore. My knees are aching. I will tell you more about this later, after dinner, about how on Navami night, during the arati, our mother would lose all outer consciousness. It would be a very charged moment then. Even the goddess’ image would visibly throb with spirit. Why, I myself recall seeing the khadga in her hand shiver one year! But now I need to move, baba. Go call Ramu.”

But Ramu had been hovering somewhere nearby, and had heard his mistress call for him. As he made to help her go back to her room, I sat there silently, trying to process all this overwhelming flood of the past that had started to rebuild itself around me.

Next day was Ekadashi, the day when the dhaki and his people leave the house after a ritual last beating of the dhak just at noon. I stood on the balcony waiting for the beat to start. Sujit, one of the household help, came bounding up to where I stood and told me that the dhaki group was ready to leave. As I made to go downstairs, my cellphone starting ringing. It was Rudra-da calling. I answered the call.

“You won’t believe it, Chetan. I have discovered something entirely unexpected. That connection we were talking about before Pujo, you remember? It seems that there might be a story to it after all,” Rudra-da started speaking excitedly even before I could say anything.

In the courtyard, the dhak had already started beating its departure. Durgapuja was over for the year.

 

[i] The “East Bengal” context here needs to be explained a bit. The Durgapuja in East Bengali spaces usually begins with the Bilvashashtthipuja which takes place on the evening of Shashthhi, the sixth day of that fortnight of the goddess, the Devipaksha. In West Bengal, the puja usually commences on the morning of that day, with the Kalparambha-puja, officially called the Shashthhyadi Kalparambha. However, in spite of these generic rules, some old families and institutions in both East Bengali and West Bengali spaces begin their ceremonies on different stipulated days, like the Krishna Navami, the Sukla Pratipad, et cetera. These puja ceremonies go on, as usual, like the rest of the lot, till Vijaya Dashami. The tradition in my family, in spite of the East Bengali association is to begin the puja with the Shashthhyadi Kalparambha, much against the norm in East Bengali culture.

[ii] Literally, “the satiating ceremony” where the manes are propitiated by offerings of water and sesame seeds with the accompaniment of appropriate mantras and gestures. This ritual can be done at any time of the year, but the one spoken of here is specifically done on all fifteen days of the Pitripaksha culminating in Mahalaya.

[iii] The goddess of fortune, Lakshmi, is invoked within a ceremonially installed water pot, ornate and reddened with vermillion and topped by a coconut. Women in Bengal worship this emblem on every Thursday, and refurbish the entire set on the Kojagori full moon day which follows the Durgapuja festival.

 

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Filed under Fiction, Tin Trunk

BIG LITTLE MAN

Saikat Majumdar

An excerpt from a work in progress

Saikat-image

Vengeful life had sizzled through the black silken forest of his beard as Rajesh Palit had led me to his gossip-chamber that flowed smoothly into the streets in front, pleading with people to drop in for a cup of chai, share a heartache, and wrap their soul around the warm, throbbing colors of The Party. I was to lie around there for a while, blend in with the musty old calendars and groaning ceiling fans and the occasional stray dog curled up asleep under the chairs, the carom board propped up outside on the pavement. Lie around and be a moth on the wall, the chai boy who sauntered in and out, humming, soak in the sound bites flying around there like squawking crows.

The three women came in well before I had mastered the art of making myself invisible. I had probably stared, because of no reason but for the way they came in, self-conscious of the act of entering, unlike most citizens of that chamber who slithered in and out as they chatted, never quite noticing that they were moving back and forth between a street and a house. But for that, they could have been troubled women from nice homes in the neighborhood, come to snitch about drunkenness or firecrackers too loud round the corner. But, no, not quite…something about them suggested that their lives were strung together too close, in the kind of perky rhythm beyond the reach of mere friendly neighbors. Were they tall members of a co-op market that had run into a snag?

For they were tall, two of them, tall and regal, and a third who fooled you, at first glance, as their teenage daughter. Renoo, who caught my glance before the rest perhaps because she was closer to my height, with eyes that touched mine though I’d done my best to look away as soon as my glance fell across her. But Renoo, as I would learn again and again, could make whole speeches in the fragment of a glance, and in the fragment thrown at me that afternoon, I saw that she was older than she had looked at the moment of walking in along with her taller companions. Intelligence crept out of her face softly, hiding the moment it saw you looking, a knotted intelligence that belonged to no teenager. She had to be in her late-twenties at the very least.

Even so, you had to stir a bit to hear her speak before the others, to be the voice of that co-op group.

A strange co-op group it must have been, getting grief from violence that could be spoken of only in codes. Codes that seemed to belong to the sage Rajesh Palit as well as they were owned by the suddenly-flustered Renoo, both bizarre adolescents lost in a jagged flow of slang. But I hung on, not daring to blink, in fear of losing their unintelligible words, in fear of becoming a real human being who drew attention to himself. “They enter our rooms as clients,” Renoo spoke in a voice laced with calm and seasoned anger. “And beat up our girls. Cigarettes, belts, the works.” They come in groups so large and so violent that they blow away our paltry muscle-boys like straws in a gale.

It was a co-op where you walked in to buy sex. A co-op, too, that needed smooth, sensible running, that sent its key players to have a reasonable conversation with political leaders to get goons off its back. Renoo grew deeper in years as she lay out the unreasonableness of its all, and making my way through the code-thickened language, I saw a mind persuasive in its logic, sharp and clear in its goals. The wives and other women of their key clientele were playing a nasty trick this time to get their men off the hookers who looked after them in the evenings. They had rallied themselves into a cranky ring cast around the rival political party, seeking their help to break up the honest circle of business where perky women picked up hardworking men at the end of a tiring day to give them the free run of a woman’s body. Well, there were some things they wouldn’t let a man do, but never mind…what would those bitches at home offer after the homes were littered with kids? Hardly a tender word, and you could forget about any fun beyond.

But why would the bitches stand the pain of their men’s pleasure? Rough with anger, Renoo’s face revealed a woman of the world that I didn’t know existed, not with the kind of crafty beauty that layered her face. Now I feel stupid about the gooseflesh that caressed my skin at her aura – a living whore sitting and talking in the very same room, her fragrance touching my senses, her no-nonsense intelligence reddening the tips of my ears. My memory paled, weakened right there, of a row of dolled up, beastly women sighted in a row along a street where I lost myself, it felt, a hundred years ago. Was that how I’d wandered into the streets fringing a brothel, a cocky child light years ago? It did not seem as if Renoo could belong there. Her sharp, crisp features enshrined a strange beauty, of a powerful woman nestled in the body of a shy teenager, delicate fingers that threatened you with fatal strength even as they cut arcs of protest through the air. Hidden under a plain silk sari, her body swelled with stories to tell, and my heart jumped to my mouth in terror as I glimpsed the smooth, light-brown skin of a flat midriff between her blouse and sari, a stretch of a skin over which she had neglected to draw her anchal.

The rival party, too, had jumped to the chance. Angry women of soot-stained homes made up an untapped treasure-trove of votes that usually never reached the polling booths. When they did once in a while, they merely shadowed the voting habits of their men, which followed the Will of The Party like tail-wagging dogs. Losers saala! Here was their chance to win over the women who wanted their men to come home with the money made in the day and not blow it at the bedside of some woman who could curl and bend her slimy body like a snake. Sway the will of the homes too, bring TV commercial happiness into wailing wicker homes. So why not beat up a few whores to get your way? Send goons to shake up the houses and dry up their roadside business, shame the men with their pants around their ankles, penises drooping faster than they stood up. Make it the house of shame it was meant to be, a house of frantic shrieks.

A fly on the wall of that gossip-chamber, I saw the birth of a beautiful thing that evening. A future. Between the two of them, Rajesh Palit and Renoo opened up a way of thinking that I didn’t know existed in this world, glimpses of political math that I’d never sensed these last few days in the room, around the carom board in front, over para boys come to raise hell over the use of property and middle-aged men planning Puja committees. The bearded politician and the sharp-browed hooker pushed the limits of what you thought were possible, beyond the mere fighting of goons by goons, of twisting parties with parties, muscle with muscle. Pretending to dust furniture and photo frames, I realized the obviousness of the need that had hid itself so well in the air blessed by stale cigarette smoke and Renoo’s sharp, maddening fragrance. The need of a strong collective will of hookers. A common shrieking voice. No, no shrieks, a cold, steely voice of demand. A union of their own.

Renoo had brought her sisters-in-trade to the party that could do more than lend some muscle to get the goons off their back. This was the party that could help shape their anger into a fierce firebomb, balled fists and a cold, calculating set of claims. The Party.

“And why not?” Renoo had creased her brows. “We run a good house. We deliver what we promise. We raise our children with care, better than some of those bitches with wedded husbands…”

“But of course.” Listening to Rajesh Palit’s voice, you could believe that he was dealing with a stubborn knot of railway porters or a wronged group of jute-laborers come to seek redress. “Children…” He hummed, his voice trailing away in the silken forest of his beard.

“Why don’t you come and sit here?” Looking at me, he flouted his own rule with such careless abandon that my flesh grew red and warm and I frantically looked for a place to hide. I was not to talk, and they were to pretend I don’t exist. To soak in the weather, I had to be a fly on the wall. For days and days. How could the man betray me in the middle of a maddening mist of fragrance?

Pushing leaden legs, I edged ahead, stood near the coffee table flanked by the four of them. Perilously close now, Renoo looked up, gave me a smile of such genuine affection that the world turned, in a flash, to an airier, sunnier place. “Come and sit, little man,” she said, the dark blue anger from a moment ago gone like a nightmare that had never been.

“Some of you have children his age, right?” Rajesh Palit asked in a voice that wandered, a little aimless.

“My daughter would be a couple of years older than him,” one of the tall women said. “She goes to school too.”

“Yes, many of us do,” Renoo picked up the unkempt thread of the conversation. “I have a son a few years younger than him. It’s hard to believe that our kids live with us and watch us work.” Sadness weighed down her smile. “Life! What are you going to do?”

“Here’s what you are going to do.” Rajesh Palit leaned ahead, the old glint of vengeance shining through the forest of his beard, through his half-visible mouth, the tiny, slit-like eyes. “Talk to the world. Tell them your stories. Claim your rights.” He grabbed my hand. “Have him around. He is a boy with special gifts.”

He looked at me with a helpless smile. A smile that was shielded from the three women, if not in body, but in its soul.

He dared me to do it.

An evening a few weeks later gave elegant shape to the future imagined by Renoo and Rajesh Palit. An idea that they claimed had a few precedents, in a few other parts of the nation. Justice for Sex workers. Said one orange banner, the same color and texture as that announcing local volley ball tournaments for teenagers. The National Sex Workers’ Union. Said the cool white banner pinned across the wall behind the raised platform. That couldn’t be right. What was national, the union or the sex workers? And what was national about a hookers and pimps from the sleepy houses across the railways station getting their anger knotted together? Why do people let their ideas run away with them?

There was music, and songs, and poems. Paul Robeson and all that. The gambit was opened by a fattish woman with weird hair in jeans and khadi kurta. She was studying for a doctorate in London and was a professional hellraiser for the cause of prostitutes. It was a cause, she told us, that had a vibrant life of its own, in many corners of the world, where hookers worked with licenses just like doctors and chartered accountants. She spoke in a singsong and from time to time appeared to miss a chalk and a blackboard. Sadly, the pale banner of the National Sex Workers’ Union was all she had behind her. They were not just some pillow, she said, men clamped their legs around to masturbate and could throw away when soiled. Her acute analysis of masturbation – repeated several times in her speech – thickened the knot of people before the stage and send strong murmurs through them. These were, she sang, human beings, women just like those who helped them at banks and stores, those who cooked their meals and washed their dishes. Agile women who cleaned their pipes to flush out desires that might have turned them into rapists and murderers. By drawing out the violence, taking it on themselves, these women were like charmers of venomous snakes, sharp, skilled charmers. Help them stand up for their rights. She flung a khadi-wrapped arm in the air, palm wrapped into a ball.

Oh, and pillows did not spread diseases. Human beings did. Without a sane system and a modicum of peace, they would all be wiped off by STD. Not standard trunk dialing. Sexually transmitted diseases.

Shooting little arrows of terror into the loins of every wandering man, she stepped down.

Next was the hookers’ chorus, a song by a famous dead poet about mountain-climbing. Hiking across endless deserts and swimming through bottomless oceans. All to be done in the dead beat of night.

And then Renoo walked up to the stage and spoke much in the same manner she had spoken in Rajesh Palit’s adda-chamber. Maybe pumping up the volume a little bit. But I could tell. It was the same clear, simple, cutting spray of words, the straight attack at the jugular, the same private manner addressed to what was now a sizeable crowd. And what a motley crowd it was. College boys tickled by the nature of the meet, housewives back from errands scandalized and frozen on spot, railway porters unable to un-glue their eyes off the protestors. Not that Renoo cared. She had a story to tell, a story of many horrors, and you had no way from running away from it. The madam was right, she said. Could you get away by bashing up the shopgirl who showed you clothes? Would you have the balls to stub out your cigarettes on your housemaid’s cheeks? On her bare breasts? Would you? She paused, looking urgent and composed at the same time. Was it that hard to pull off, for someone who could look sharply pretty and dead gloomy at the same time? Would you? Then tell me, why would you do to the girl who was just there to do business with your body?

As I walked up to the stage, I repeated my mantra of disbelief. That I did not believe a word of what Renoo said. That I didn’t have a thing to do with them, with their sorry lives on which goons stubbed out cheap cigarettes. Even a fragment of belief would kill me, for how could I hold up against the limpid clarity of Renoo’s emotions?

Shivering up the stairs, I passed her, on her way back. Her mouth melted into the smile that gave me deep comfort. “My little man.” Lightly, she pulled my cheeks as she passed. “Go tell them.”

I had to play it like a game. A game at which one was very, very good. Honesty would get me nowhere.

Play the people like a stringed instrument. Rajesh Palit had told me. And show the whores what we can do. Oooh-la-la. Ooooooh-la-laaaaa!

Lovingly, I touched the microphone, moistened it with my slow breath. I’m a student, I told them, at Corporation School Number 16, over by the bus terminus. At least I knew where it was, the rundown jailhouse for the bustee kids. Neither did anyone laugh for calling it a school, not even the housewives from the cooperative flats frozen on their tracks at the sight of the singing hookers. Most of us, I told them, bring nice lunches from home. Sabji & paratha. Bread and omelets. Rice and egg-curry. Noodles. In tiffin-boxes that shone like mirrors. Superman stickers across their tops. With hand-kerchiefs folded into triangles on which I wipe your hands after washing. Colorful water-bottles with water and sometimes, one more, with warm Bournvita, chocolate-flavored. Quickly, I checked myself. Bournvita, superman-stickers, triangulated kerchiefs –what next, lawns the texture of moleskin? When was someone going to throw a cloud of spit at me across the podium? Carefully now, I continued: Lunch hour brings new shocks and surprises, every day. Batter-fried eggs scattered over chowmein? A stinky blob of cottage cheese? What trick will your neighbor pull today after the geography lesson? There were vacant-eyed, spittle-mouthed idiots who commanded respect due to the shininess of their tiffin-boxes, the deep-fried fragrance of their food.

The shininess of the boxes and the fragrance of the food, we knew, in the hidden shadows of our hearts, were shaped by the solicitude of our mothers at home with steaming ladles and bristled scrubs.

Groveling in the dust of this food chain, I told them, were a few ragged kids who brought neither shiny tiffin-boxes nor aromatic fare. On a good day, they got street-food wrapped in greasy paper, grease darkening the cover of their notebooks. Savory stuff but sharpened by street-salt. On worse days, a few rupee notes to thrust at the street vendors outside the school for some spiced junk in a knitted bowl of dried leaves. Good money, some of them brought, rich enough to buy pista ice-cream for a whole row of boys. But you couldn’t catch them dead with a tiffin-box or a home-boiled egg. Sprouting guilt in my voice, I lowered my eyes, looking at the crowd in front, and not quite. We got them to treat us as often as we made fun of them, the tiffin-less brats who didn’t even bring a messy blob of chhaana from home. It was a drag sitting next to them as their mothers didn’t care to pack well-oiled shocks and surprises in their bags.

Deepening the shame in my voice, I told the stunned crowd that strange was the day when our teacher, a smart young woman who loved us all, told us that the tiffin-less mothers didn’t hate their boys, and nor did the boys deserve to be hated. Did she really think we were idiots? No, she didn’t, and these boys with street-food wrapped in grease-stained paper just happened to have mothers who had jobs outside home. Just like fathers. In offices, typing letters. In shops, crunching numbers. Sometimes, in other people’s homes, watching over growing kids. Bringing money home for food and rent.

It was hard for them to find time to scrub tiffin boxes so shiny that you could see your face in them. To even think about it.

Finally grabbing the neck of the mike, I told the crowd that the stuff didn’t really make sense to us. We cut down on the mean jokes cracked along the spines of the ragged boys who didn’t have mom-made lunches to show, but the idea of moms who didn’t have time to think about it was a wispy snatch of fog that just messed with our heads.

I realized that I wasn’t talking to a crowd, but to each individual in it. Each of them were alone in a room with me, each and every one of them. I was bearing them down with the force of my painstakingly shammed impulse. Just you and me. The unshaven pimp standing in front like a demented young man. The cobbler who had dropped his work and was staring so hard at me that I found it hard to look back. The scandalized housewives who wanted to drag me down from the sick stage but couldn’t help drink every word I said. Fiercely, I told them of the day when we cracked a nasty joke across the back of another boy, an idiot from another class whom we saw lunching on sliced bread bought at the store next to the school. Something nasty and stupid, something about bread from that shop being laced with rat poison. The boy who’d said it swore that his mother had said so, that not even a rat would let her baby feed on that bread. As we broke into stomach-splitting laughter, our teacher appeared from nowhere and smiled a little at us. We hoped that she found the joke funny too.

Smiling, she told us that the idiot boy’s mother loved him no less than the other mother loved hers. The other mother who had given her son a warm tiffin-box full of home-made sweets and the myth of the rat-poison. But then, you see, idiot-boy’s mother couldn’t stay at home making lunch for her son as she was here teaching you all.

Wishful of melting into the deepest cracks on the ground, we realized it. That the boy we had whipped with our malicious laughter was the son of our very own teacher. The smart young woman who loved us all and had taught our fingers and eyes and minds a thousand things to do. A thousand and a million. Running around us like a slaving mother to seventy kids when she could be home frying tasty parathas for one.

Passionately, I looked at the cobbler who was looking at more intently than he had looked at any customer’s feet. Ever. Through the microphone, my child voice had attacked him, strangely tinny and shameful. Searing through his body. Freezing everybody with a glance meant for them, and them only, I said that once and for all, in Corporation School Number 16, once and for all, a roomful of boys understood the meaning of a woman who had a working life outside of her home and family. Who couldn’t send her son to school with a well-scrubbed tiffin box and well-fried luchis.

And then, I told the cobbler, while looking at the scandalized housewife – no one but her – we got a blow we didn’t deserve.

A strangely browbeaten and inspired bunch of kids we were, never again to mock a tiffin-box-bereft boy, one who had to share his mother with the world. For the price of food, and rent, and books. A mother who was a kind of a father too. Thrust out in this new world, we deserved better than the horror that was to come down on us, soon.

It happened after less than six months of sobriety and tolerance. A boy in our class came back to school after missing classes for more than a month. A happy boy we all loved, most of all, our teacher, because he was agile with his fingers and eyes and mind, picking up with thoughtless ease all she had to teach us. He came back to school a broken boy with the strange, confusing news that his mother had been beaten so badly at work that he had to stay back home to take care of her.

A cup of boiling-hot tea had been thrown at her face, leaving her skin scarred for life.

Her head had been smashed so hard against the wall that her hair had become sticky with blood.

And, I told the crowd, my fingers loosening around the mike, we didn’t even know the boy’s mother worked to make a living.

As she lay unconscious, they had poked glowing cigarettes at her, burning holes through her sari and her skin.

How would we know? I asked a college boy who had stopped at the rally for fun. We fought with one another to trade food with him at lunch hour. It was hard to believe that home-fried eggplants could taste that good. Or that it was possible to make parathas so magical that they tasted fresh-cooked after three hours inside a tiffin box. Oh, and what a beautiful tiffin-box it was. Old, but old like a house in which families had lived and loved for many, many years. How did a mother like that find time to work at a job and pay for her son’s books and tuition?

Who would want to kill her?

Who would? Slowly, I moved a little away from the mike, a stricken soul about to take his leave. Go away unnoticed. You can ask her, I said softly. Silence had thickened in a dark clump around the rally, faintly bitten off by the whistle of trains taking off from the railway station nearby. She is sitting right there. I turned at an angle from my silent brood of listeners, pointing to the dark tribe of hookers seated to the left of the stage. The beaten up whore was there too, dressed in the finery of bandages and a plaster-coated arm.

She had no child that I knew of. Sweetly barren, the best kind of her line of work.

Teasing them, threatening to walk away from the microphone, my thirteen year old body had woven a spell out of which it wasn’t sure it could swim out on its own. For another thirty-three minutes.

The hookers’ choir had been spared of the effort of the last protest song. God was generous with small mercies.

That evening saw the birth of the birth of a new labor union. The first of its kind in the area. A newborn, solid block of votes for The Party.

The newborn wouldn’t learn to crawl for another couple of months, but the birth-pangs were unmistakable that evening. The flurry of songs and sweets and laughter marked a drunken trail all the way back to the burrowed houses across the railways station, where Bollywood songs were already ricocheting off the walls. Steep mountains, endless deserts, and bottomless oceans had been crossed. Finally.

Renoo picked me up at one end of the narrow corridor ripped apart by the blaring music. Her strength surprised me, and the wakened muscles on her arms, like wiry snakes. “My little man.” Breathlessly, she had stuffed a furry sweet into my mouth. “You are blessed, my sweet, sweet boy.” Her voice was hoarse, as if from a cold, and it took me a few seconds to realize – and a few more to acknowledge – that she’d been crying. “Today, I’ll feed you to your heart’s content.” Pushing open the door to her room, she had drowned me in a sea of goodies made by the ladies of the house and in the fragrance of her strong, sinewy arms. Laddoos, gulab jamuns, a platter of sweets made with cashews and pistachios, the warm breath of her moist lips. The slipperiness of her simple silk sari.

Small, sharp and curvaceous, she surprised me with her beauty that refused to show cracks even at that distance. Of a few inches. Somehow, I’d expected her looks to thin and wither, age a little, when brought up that close. No such luck. Close, very close, her delicate features seemed etched by an artist of greater talent than I had thought at a distance, in the adda-chamber, on the stage.

Her heartbeat of happiness eluded me as she crushed me to her chest. Choking on cream-soaked cashews, my lips mashed themselves against her high, angular collarbone. Like a baby-bird thirsting for water, my tongue slipped out and licked the hollow of her neck, morphed into a panting dog as it sucked its way down to the soft crevice on her chest. “My little man.” She laughed, pulling herself back to unbutton her blouse, mocking the violence with which I fell on her bared shoulders and upper arms, smoother than I’d imagined human skin could be, the violence against which she struggled to wriggle her arms around to unclasp her bra. A blessed devotee, I scooped her firm and fragrant left breast into my palms, licked and bit its puckered aureole.

Painfully, I tore myself from her body to admire it, the large, proud breasts over the arched stomach, the deep belly-button, the sari worn low on the waist. She shone with deep laughter and her brown nipples glistened with my bubbly saliva. I know not how long I had sucked them.

Roughly, she had squeezed my bursting penis in her palm. “My big little man.” She had whispered.

Helplessly, I’d bucked and come in a hot spurt against the taut flesh of her inner thigh. Spent all of a sudden, I’d marveled at my love for her, a love more like a devotion.

A giant, sucking need to be nourished and blessed.

Saikat MajumdarSaikat Majumdar is the author of a novel, Silverfish (2007), and a book of criticism, Prose of the World (2013). His new novel, The Firebird, set in the world of Calcutta theatre, will be published in 2015. He teaches English at Stanford University.

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